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Documenta's over, but it just keeps getting better - click opera
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Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 08:59 am
Documenta's over, but it just keeps getting better

I'm an idiot. I missed the most important -- and possibly the most influential -- art show of 2007 because I believed poisonous rumours circulating about its awfulness. Documenta 12, four months after its closure, is acting like a classic sleeper, a grower, an earworm. Like a song that resonates more and more beautifully in retrospect, Ruth Noack and Roger M. Buergel's oblique, idiosyncratic art survey in Kassel turns out to have been the most significant exhibition in a year crammed with big, bold, flashy international ones. It's done it by being quite the opposite of flashy: quiet, marginal, revisionist, shy, off-kilter, evasive, perverse, self-indulgent, didactic. The extent to which D12 divided opinion is a measure of its importance. Some immediately hated this show, others, later, were quietly intrigued. Personally, I'm fascinated by things this divisive. They're often bellweathers, barometers, watersheds, auguries, agar jars.



Luckily, Documenta has been documented. We can still glimpse it in videos, websites, catalogues, slideshows, photo archives, reviews. In fact, let's do that right now. You might want to keep your finger poised over the pause button during this compressed five minute visit:



Here's a big archive of photos of D12. And here's Tokyo curator Roger McDonald's take, in the form of a slideshow with commentary.

"There were actually a lot of small-scale works in tiny cases and glass frames. Maybe this again encouraged me to experience the show as something quite homely, like the curators' wunderkammer -- cabinet of curiosities," says McDonald. "It's kept me thinking and wondering longer than Venice. Maybe this lingering sensation is what many critics found so irritating -- in an age when exhibitions must be packaged and consumed quickly, the curators of Documenta 12 didn't seem to want to follow the rules."

And irritated some of the critics were. The British broadsheet ones, particularly. The Daily Telegraph's Richard Dorment (he's written a book about Whistler, you know) called D12 "the single worst art exhibition I have ever seen anywhere, ever... a show organised by two pseuds and intended for graduate students and people who don't really like visual art at all".

Adrian Searle in The Guardian didn't like it much better. "Documenta 12 is a disaster," he said, deriding the curators' perverse streak of autocratic, pedagogic intent, their "quizzical attitude to painting", the strangely subdued atmosphere, the absence in person of Harvey Keitel (who featured in one of the videos), the guards "who inform you not to get too close, not to breathe on the glass, not to lean against the walls, not to carry a bag, not to point, sneer, laugh or break wind".

British art magazine Studio International fingered one possible reason the UK press were so down on the show: "It seems that Roger M Buergel and Ruth Noack were on a voyage of several years (or so it was) to find a lost magic kingdom of modernity. This, in their view, involves not a quest into the future but a rummaging in the detritus of history. They wholesomely (one cannot say wholeheartedly) impose that the curatorial model of today is now a covert neo-liberal model compromised by globalist capitalism, for which instead they seek to consolidate antiquated Marxist tendencies before they vanish forever."

Aha, "antiquated Marxist tendencies". Buergel is, after all, the man who, in 2000, staged an exhibition subtitled "Art in conflict with the international hyper-bourgeoisie and the national petty bourgeoisie". To combine this Marxist terminology with aristocratic gourmet tastes was unforgivable: at the press conference launching D12 Buergel unveiled two tidbits from the show: a Bach cantata accompanied by a deaf choir and a chef who made algae brittle and chocolate with wasabi.

The curators quizzed for Frieze's end of year rundown had had a few months to mull the summer's blockbuster shows. By now the earworm was spinning its magic; many of them decided they liked the show:

"D12 was provocative in good and bad ways... it was enlightening to see the repositioning of so many key figures, especially women artists from the 1960s and 70s."
Connie Butler

"D12 was a wildly subjective curatorial indulgence, which is what made it so interesting... I can't help feeling that the curators' disregard for exhibition-making might come to be seen as an influential watershed of some kind."
Matthew Higgs

"D12 was my most rewarding exhibition experience this year, by some distance... it was a project that felt urgent and relevant."
Mark Sladen

"The discussions surrounding Documenta, combined with the ambition of the curators to pursue such an idiosyncratic agenda, were by far the most interesting social production witnessed."
Polly Staple

Some kind of consensus emerging there -- the "worst show of the year" may just have been the best.

But isn't that always the way? It's the things that stretch and challenge and intrigue us, the things capable of changing our minds, changing our ways of seeing, that end up being the most valuable to us.



Just looking at the slideshows, videos and photos, I can see that one of the things D12 was trying to do was re-make the art history of the last fifty years, tilting the canon towards quietly beautiful, purely colourful, extra-anglospheric, politically radical artists. Didactic displays documented the Grupo de Artistas de Vanguardia, or the dot paintings of Danish colourist Poul Gernes, or quiet and subtle Belgian Lili Dujourie, or Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, who made this wonderful drawing:



Then there was Japanese artist Aoki Ryoko, whose work I saw once in a museum in Hiroshima:



Or David Aradeon's Movement of Forms, Antecedents of Afro-Brazilian Spaces, a table laid out with restrained costume drawings. Or Gerwald Rockenschaub's gorgeous flat colours and blocky shapes. Or Swedish video artist Johanna Billing's film (put together during a residency at Edinburgh's Collective Gallery) of boating on the Firth of Forth. Or the late Jo Spence's documentation of her terminal cancer:



Even the graphic design (by Martha Stutteregger indoors and Vier5 out) was oblique and mysterious, with something rational but also Rudolf Steiner-ish about it. This was, as Artnet put it, "a Documenta of peripheral spaces sparingly accented by discreet artworks" -- and signed with polystyrene blocks featuring a font based on Buergel's own handwriting.

Somehow the wrongness-becoming-a-new-rightness, old-taboo-becoming-new-template, marginal-becoming-canonical element here reminds me of Mike Meiré's work -- and how gobsmacked it's left designers, especially those on the other side of the pond.

But don't be too quick to sneer -- the object of your derision may just turn out to be an earworm, or even the future of the medium. "If you're familiar with art and design," wrote Michael Bierut in Design Observer, "you know the perils of condemning the shock of the new. After all, no one wants to risk being one of the bourgoisie sneering at the unveiling of Les Demoiselles D'Avignon or booing at the debut of Le Sacre du Printemps."

41CommentReplyShare


(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 09:32 am (UTC)
roger

Hi Nick. Nice posting. I was also wondering this recently, with all those end of year "Best Of' magazine issues etc. Here in Japan, it is a rather different story though - D12 was very briefly reviewed and mentioned in BT magazine and that seems to be about it. There is this ongoing question about Japanese writers and reviewers who go to international shows and write in Japanese, being a limited set of names who largely end up having to write for mass circulation culture magazines etc. to cover their travel and so on. Nuances seem to be swallowed up in the quest for reporting spectacle and/or travel writing. I also felt this after D11, when again it was largely ignored here. Language is obviously a major issue...catalogues, captions, guides all in European languages. But, as you pointed out, with an artist like Aoki Ryoko there too, it was at least recognised in many publications and blogs. After D11, we (AIT, the non profit I am in) organised a public forum to discuss the show and also made a talk with one of the curators, Sarat Maharaj in Tokyo. For D12, we did help Ruth Noack a bit during her research visit and also gather journalists for a mini press briefing. I suppose the bottom line is a perceived distance - geographically, historically, linguistically, intellectually - from Documenta, here in Japan amongst many art fans and others...and indeed why not....we have plenty of similar mega shows in Asia, with their unique local discourses. As we often hear at international gatherings, are we moving out of the shadow of the All Giving Occidental Art Sun, and its meaning-giving rays? But, I still like to get a tiny sun-tan once in a while. best, roger.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 11:33 am (UTC)
Re: roger

It was a little sad to see Midori Matsui, asked by Frieze about the standout Japanese biennial of 2007, saying:

"Although there were no biennials in Japan in 2007, the Japanese art scene was characterized by a restoration of public interest in contemporary art..."

So when is the next major Japanese show? There's another Yokohama coming up, isn't there? If Matsui is right, it should be a good one, no?


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Re: roger - (Anonymous) Expand





imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 11:41 am (UTC)

I can see you're not a Daily Telegraph reader, then!

It's funny, the same critic loved the 2002 Documenta. Then again, the list of artist names in that make it sound incredibly safe and old guard compared to the 2007 edition. On Kawara, Leon Golub, William Kentridge and Jeff Wall supplying "one of the most beautiful and touching works of art I've seen in years, a masterpiece".


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

brokenjunior
brokenjunior
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 10:39 am (UTC)
graphic design

regarding the graphic design, I think we have to distinguish here:
the print design, like the catalogue and most posters, are indeed the work of Swiss typographer Martha Stutteregger.
Although the guiding system was done by vier5 the German designers Marco Fiedler and Achim Reichert, based in Paris.
Apart from their works for the Documenta or the Museum für angewandte Kunst Frankfurt they also have a fashion label and are publishing the Fairy Tale magazin.

So overall it seems like we had a nice talk between Apollo and Dionysus going on there at Documenta.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 11:35 am (UTC)
Re: graphic design

Aha, yes, thanks, I was wondering whether someone else hadn't been involved in the outdoor signs. They look so different from the catalogue!


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 11:11 am (UTC)

hehe, it's come to this.

definitely the most interesting show i've seen last year (or the year before that or before before that)
a bit sad that in order to get to asomething meaningful the curators had to by and large resort to actual art from times when art was still considered meaningful but what's 20 - 30 yaers anyway in the long run.

that is modernity our antiquity? thesis had me thinking for most of the 2nd half of 2007. so poignant on so many levels.

the mags are great not last in the way they include so much stuff that wasn't in the show making the message all the more relevant.

(i really wanted to insist more you should go and see it at the time but i didn't have much to back up my case then)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 11:43 am (UTC)

a bit sad that in order to get to asomething meaningful the curators had to by and large resort to actual art from times when art was still considered meaningful but what's 20 - 30 yaers anyway in the long run.

Does this make D12 the Retro Necro Documenta, then?


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 12:35 pm (UTC)
BA--KA

".. The most important art show of 2007.. "

The idea that art has been relegated to the year of it's introduction/release/recognition is fucking ridiculous.

Is EVERYTHING now a consumable, dated, packaged? If so, I've got a jock strap, worn extensively and only in 2007, super-special due to the unseasonably HOT summer of 2007, and flash-frozen during peak ripeness.. Any takers?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 01:04 pm (UTC)
Re: BA--KA

Now, there's a difference between "the most important art show of 2007" and "the most important contemporary art".

But the fact is that we do live in our times, and even our view of the past is a perspective conditioned by how "now" feels. Documenta 12 was very aware of that, and in fact foregrounded its own revisionism, bringing back a whole host of sublimated, forgotten, marginal artists from the last 50 years as part of its curatorial effort. This "new now" contained a "new then".


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 01:22 pm (UTC)

Very peripherally related:

Why TV is ignoring contemporary art. I'd say the real reason is that one set of elite bourgeois (TV producers) absolutely will not cover the activities of an even more elite, experimental and advanced one (art curators). It's a small difference too far. Even if everyone in Britain goes to Tate Modern and talks about nothing else, there still won't be TV programmes about contemporary art, for this reason.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 01:33 pm (UTC)

Television is mass entertainment. Mass entertainment affirms and flatters. Art disturbs and questions. To put art on TV would cease to make it art.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 15th, 2008 11:08 pm (UTC)
More a click than a comment

Great post and links, I like your use of terms such as 'old-taboo-becoming-new-template' and 'new-then' to describe art phenomenae of the recent past that slipped through the repeated wide-mesh-sievings of end-of-century retrospectives.
Thomas S.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 16th, 2008 02:59 am (UTC)
Metronome

This is only tangentially related, but for anyone who's interested, here is an interview (http://www.tokyoartbeat.com/tablog/entries.en/2007/08/projecting-the-future-of-art-and-education.html) with Clémentine Deliss, who through her publication Metronome (an official participant of documenta 12 magazines), explored the "Education: What is to be done?" aspect of D12 in the Tokyo context.


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Wed, Jan. 16th, 2008 05:07 am (UTC)

Your new icon amuses me.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 16th, 2008 05:26 am (UTC)

Thanks. It's supposed to look like I don't know how to use Photoshop. That's to cover up the fact that I really don't know how to use Photoshop. Clever, eh?


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turkishb
turkishb
L'dent-de-lion
Wed, Jan. 16th, 2008 06:17 am (UTC)

maybe the worst becomes the best because it signifies the degree of otherness in the work? and the otherness is ultimately the door in art to the self... right?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 16th, 2008 08:03 am (UTC)

Well, that's true, I think. Venice might have had more instant impact (because even its novelties were familiar), but Documenta had more delay and ostranenie and otherness. Like a weird Rorschacht blot, it could take the shape of the dreams and nightmares of everyone who saw it.


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