[-empyre-] D12, Australiana in the Tower of Babel

Hello all,

[A quick foreword on the mag-station in the Halle ? I bypassed it (apologies to any offended contributors here;-), assuming that a fair proportion of that material would be in the reader and on the web (where they perhaps belong?), and since I had limited time for physical browsing. It may be tokenistic, sure. But I understand the organisers wanting there to be some physical manifestation of the project in the meat-space, however inadequate a library it was. Would it be better to have nothing at all?]

What follows are some rough thoughts following my whirlwind visit to Kassel, not to be mistaken for a review ? haven't had time to look much at the catalogue or mag reader yet ? so really, first impressions. This first instalment addresses overall curatorial matters, getting side-tracked by Australian matters a bit, so please ignore that if you?re not interested!;-)

I?ll start with Ai Wei Wei?s chairs (since they?ve been raised here) which said more to me when empty, like the crime-scene outlines of an absent corpse ? which one might optimistically read as a requiem for the so-called ?relational? turn in contemporary art, or at least for the rhetorical and pseudo-philosophical posturing it has facilitated. But to my mind, if there?s an Ai Wei Wei work that encapsulates what?s going on at Documenta it?s the gorgeous heap of timber out on the grass (Template, 2007, some images here http://blog.myspace.com/artreview (scroll down a bit)), an assemblage of salvaged antique doors and windows (so many portals, channels for enlightenment, passage, encounter) which blew down in a storm. If every artwork is a portal of some sort, then this might be what happens when you get too many portals together in one place with not enough space, not enough voids, corridors for anything to lead anywhere. (If you?ll permit me the metaphor?) Interesting that a heap of openings amounts to an implosion rather than an explosion; it didn?t disintegrate, but rather performed a kind of structured collapse, a semi-graceful kneeling down.

What remains is still a density of form. And this still impressive torsional mound ? a mountain of openings blocked ? could almost be a metaphor for the curatorial impasse, the ?tongue-tied? silence mentioned already on this channel, the lack of supporting words in the framing of the works, which was also the main first impression I took away from D12.

As Merkel?s conservative coalition was proposing new linguistic barriers to immigration, I mused over the ?crash courses in Mandarin? cited in a recent D12 press release amongst local preparations for Wei Wei?s ?migration?. As a curious aside, the day I saw this work, the artist happened to be there documenting it. Hunched over his camera he was harangued by a middle-aged German lady who seemed intent on interrogating him in her native tongue. It wasn?t clear to me whether she knew he was the artist responsible for the work, nor whether Wei Wei understands German. But in any case, he was patiently, resolutely, politely quiet in the face her sustained questioning. Spotting me (I?m less Chinese than the artist) she asked, in English, whether I spoke English (?Yes??) and promptly relaunched her inquisition, in German (??but not German, sorry?) only to be frustrated again. Hands were thrown up, eyes rolled, she was genuinely pissed off as she pottered away across the Aue. How wonderfully charged with words she was! But how bereft of an outlet. The monolith sighed with us quietly.

I thought D12 was a curatorial failure, but as one would hope from any such prodigious agglomeration of contemporary (and not so contemporary) work, I found a lot to sink my teeth into. In summary (and I?ll expand on some of these later), it was great to see some thoughtful ethnographic work (especially from africa and the americas); a lot of south american conceptualism that's quite well presented; and some Central/Eastern European actionist stuff; all genres I too rarely encounter, not being on the global Biennale caravan. There were also a few gems that simply shone brightly in the clamour and the gloom. (One would be Lili Dujourie?s wall drawings in iron-wire ? each totally abstract but assuming all the presence and energy of a good portrait or bust ? beautifully presented on a floating interior wall, their shadows appearing to leave the wall and enter into the physical mess of the things.) Is it reasonable to expect more than this from two days of traipsing?

Overall, there are some really strange veins of discontinuity running through all the spaces, between the globalish stuff (a freshly felt responsibility in kassel, I imagine, since D11) and stuff Documenta is expected to do well ? conceptual stuff and visually pared-back stuff. [Technicolour, united colours of the multi-culti-artworld versus the greyscale minimal-Germanic thing.] Perhaps the curators were trying to make some sort of statement about how this clash strains, or outmodes (outmodifies?) the very premise of Documenta. (Cf. Robert Storr?s comments about Venice?s own looming quandary.) Unfortunately, the clash is literalised spatially: a lot of high-abstract works are just strewn about the place like gauche furniture. The illegibility that results has, i think, been read as a curatorial gambit gone horribly wrong, or a lack thereof, when perhaps it's more that the curatorial brief itself is unravelling. Anyway, ultimately I agree with the consensus that it fails, whatever it was trying to do.

I do applaud the decision to dip into past decades, even if some of the wilder wild-cards (the long Persian Rug in the Halle; the Manet in the Neue) add more to the clutter than to anything else. But I was often pleased to find a work from the 70s testing the contemporary exchanges, then something the same artist made this year (or the reverse). Also notable was the depth of works by certain individual artists ? again, some decidedly non-contemporary ? but I must say i find it hard to discern the rationales for these choices. Some worked (Bela Kolarova); others didn?t (Poul Gernes).

I?m still trying to get my head around the apparently pointed decision to include in many rooms what I?d call stylistic or formal Sore Thumbs (a ?real? Australian might say: ?things that stick out like dogs? balls?), amongst which The Guardian?s Adrian Searle found Juan Davila?s (twelve!) paintings conspicuous, as well as ?deliberately cloying?. (I may as well get this out of the way, since we?re on the subject of Australia, and conspicuous testicles:) Even the strongest of Davila?s contributions (The Arse-End of the World, 1994) had me cringing. It?s a homo-bestial phantasy of the fauna-cation [retaliatory pun for the title and the ?Cooee Camp Tea? logo] of explorers Bourke and Wills, framed with clippings from a duly forgotten Antipodean slanging match between former Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating, on a red gingham fringe, like a giant grubby picnic rug ? grubby being the operative word here ? Bourke parting his cheeks and being felched by a kangaroo through what looks like a prophylactic monocle. (Weird, huh?) What on earth could be gained from this parochial political allegory, this crass détournement of Australiana? This question, to which European viewers may have been happily oblivious, distracted me from the greater question, ?What on earth is this vulgar monstrosity doing here??, to which, sadly, they would not. At least partly responsible ? as has been pointed out here ? was the Australian Government?s arts funding body, the Australia Council, whose logo is defaced in Davila?s Schreber?s Semblance (1993) with the embarrassingly obvious slogan ?art is trade?. How lame. Anyway in Australia, this comparison has become so kosher, fourteen years on, Ozco might not even register any irony.

Davila?s imagery often grafts Latin American political history (particularly from the artist?s native Chile) onto the cultural landscape of his adopted Australia, in sometimes vaguely clever juxtapositions of these histories, people and the psychological tropes that entangle them. It fits into the wider picture here ? the picture of D12, with its bias towards the conceptual, jarring awkwardly against more expressive and narrative content. Newspaper critics seem to have been flummoxed by this attempted dialogue, between drier, cerebral forms and the various florid symbolisms afoot in the post-colonial imaginary. It?s a shame Buergel has muddied things with the now-laboured feistiness of this earlier post-colonialism, because much of the developing world stuff succeeds in moving beyond this conventional politics.

I?ve never really understood why his irreverent post-colonialism is so appealing to curators, and Buergel?s efforts have done nothing to enlighten me. For this context, Davila?s paintings are too blunt, too carnal, and too many. Littered around casually, yet still somehow not at home, they seem to be randomly dropped in, like bright stocking-filler, along with the odd ethnographic objects scattered through this often haphazard hang. What?d be the result if Davila?s contributions were removed? A better Documenta, slightly more coherent, with more room in the attention economy for works that deserve it, more space for dialogue between works that managed it. (The same could be said, on an individual level, for Churchill Madikida, whose room devoted to AIDS tragedy looks like a failed Gesamtkunstwerk, with sculpture, installation, lambda prints and two video works. One video (Virus, 2005) would?ve carried the idea better.)

There are others in this ?stocking-filler? category, mostly abstract work drawn from far-flung collections. Most annoying by far are the perspex sculptures and vomitous psychadelic paintings of John McCracken. The former might be exemplary of a kind of stilted conversation between Pop and Minimalism, and might thus be interesting in, say, an historical show about either or both, or about the legacy of this dialogue in contemporary practice. But here, in the global bazaar of Documenta, they look more like over-priced mod-furniture borrowed from some trendy Latin-American design café. Also generously scattered is Gerwald Rockenshaub, who manages a mini-retrospective by stealth. And similarly irritating is the abstraction of Poul Gernes from the 60s and 70s. Perhaps there?s some sub-plot here that I?m too ignorant to discern clearly, in the mutterings of 2D art half-responding to, half-ignoring the unruly unravelling of form being effected by the documentary and process-oriented stuff all around it.

[On which point, there was criticism also about the lack of geographical info. There used to be a related debate in Australia, on the question of whether to present (contemporary) aboriginal art as a cultural artefact (encased in ethnological support info), or whether to stick to one?s aestheticist guns and let it stand on its own merits in the white cube. At Paris?s shiny new Musee du Quai Branly they have mangled this problem even further. This place is not an art gallery; stuff is framed with information about its origins; but their Aboriginal paintings ? whose living context (effaced here for the sake of efficient ethno-historical profiling) is not ?primitive society? but the world of contemporary art ? are cramped and poorly lit, tossed in amongst the colonial bric-a-brac. Kathleen Petyarre?s work is particularly challenging here because, while grounded in ancient tradition, they?re at once contemporary objects, and very modernist objects. They certainly dialogue with other things in the Musee?s collection. The problem is that, formally, they?re so modern/ist (we?re talking big, flat, abstract, synthetic polymers, Belgian linen, the works) as to also demand, or at least imply, a kind of phenomenological latitude which the institution could provide, but which?d upset the whole equilibrating logic of (soft) cultural colonialism the place embodies. I?m still not sure where I stand on this overall problem; but I?m sure the Musee?s thrift-store solution does nothing to illuminate it.]

Which brings us back to Documenta and the problem of its own silence, its own denial of metadata. In this context, I?m sympathetic to the attempt to escape the World-Art-Supermarket framework exemplified by Venice and most biennales. But I can?t help thinking this distinction is made more for its own sake ? i.e. the curators? and the D brand?s sake ? rather than for the sake of the works themselves. I don?t doubt that the goal of juxtaposing work without national pigeon-holes is worthy. But it?s a token nod that ends up more like an Indian head-wobble ? it?s endearing in its ambivalence, but it frustrates understanding ? especially when the geographical reach is so wide. Geography and geo-politics remain crucial frames for international curatorship. I don?t see good reasons for trying to deny it or downplay it. It?d be different if, say, the overall curatorial rubric had some geographical angle (however syncretic); or if it was explicitly anti-geospatial (critique of borders; or ruminations on this or that internationalism). But no show of this size is going to achieve this sort of cohesion, so why not accept that geography has a lot to do with how work is produced and exchanged (especially here in Kassel!), and should therefore have something to do with how it?s read or received as well? (At least tell us something about the situation in which it arose ? this needn?t refer to a nation-state.)

ok that?s all for now ? more soon.

-- Dr David Teh Independent Curator/Writer/Teacher Bangkok, Thailand m. +66 (0)84 673 7178 e. david.teh@arts.usyd.edu.au w. bangkokok.typepad.com/platform | www.halfdozen.org

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