By Martin Thacker
June 25, 2007
Documenta 12 opened last week to largely negative reviews. This the latest version of the one-hundred-day exhibition held every five years in Kassel has been widely panned: Adrian Searle titled his recent Guardian review “100 days of ineptitude” and most of the initial reviews seem more or less critical of the choices made by the curating duo Ruth Noack and Roger Buergel.
The curators consciously steered away from the “warehouse aesthetic” of other large temporary exhibitions and tried to challenge the hegemony of the white cube. In practice, this materializes in a number of oddly coloured rooms and salon style hangings that generally don’t flatter the works. The works themselves combining in a bewildering array of objects and images from around the world, in most cases from lesser-known artists as Noack and Buergel made a point of avoiding contemporary art-stars. In theory, the exhibitions proceeds from three leitmotifs: “Is modernism our antiquity,” “What is bare life,” and “Education: what is to be done?” Bare life being a term used by Giorgioi Agamben to conceive of an individual outside of law, pre-civil society or something like that and the “education” component being the one that provides conceptual space to accommodate the bulk of identity politics and pedantic social critique that invariably overwhelms a large ostensibly political exhibition like this.
However, I kind of like the idea of modernism being our antiquity, and wish this had been the dominant leitmotif. This would tempt one to think that we are currently experiencing a moment of renaissance with the increased attention being paid to abstraction and all sorts of art that seems to mimic ideas and forms introduced early in the century by the various European avante-gardes. It would also imply a severe compression of history wherein the Italian renaissance looked back several thousand years, contemporary artists are looking back less than a century to rework early modernism. The early modern period may be as culturally foreign to us as the ancient greeks must have seemed to fifteenth century Italians, despite the fact that some of these moderns are still alive. In this formulation I guess the 60’s and 70’s would be the dark ages and the first glimmer of renaissance would begin with neo-expressionism. I don’t know, it would have been interesting to explore a rebirth of modernism and what that implies, if there is such a thing. Apart from the inclusion of Atsuko Tanaka’s light bulb dress and John McCracken being given a lot of exhibition space – his brightly coloured, glossy, post minimal objects are attractive and his early tantric painting from the 60’s are alright too – an examination of the contemporary relationship to modernism remains undeveloped and dissipates with the bulk of unrelated works.
The most intriguing piece in the entire exhibition was James Colemans “Retake With Evidence” that features a seriously haggard looking Harvey Keitel shuffling onstage in what looks like a tracksuit and sneakers and asking “Why art you here? What is the meaning of this gathering? Why stand you thus: all pomp in sadness?” It is a forty minute monologue delivered in Shakspearean idiom as he wanders around a contrived looking stage set of ancient ruins. It’s a perfect casting of Keitel because he carries with him a latency of being typecast in Hollywood as a thug by Scorcese, Tarantino and others. The effect is really jarring since, on the one hand one can’t help thinking of the confident toughness Mr. White from Reservoir Dogs, and yet everything about the stripped down aesthetic of the video conspires to destroy artifice and replaces it with the pathos and immediacy of the real. This leaves room for the text which is utterly bleak as Keitel bemoans “The famine ceases but the sickly plague emerges from the graves, contagious death… Thus is the land that god’s bequeathed… What act of speech, what sacrifices, must be taken to free the land?” It seems totally appropriate for the context of this Documenta which drowns in so much unremarkable social critique.
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Martin Thacker is a writer in Berlin.