[-empyre-] Reactions 2 Documenta - " The worst art show ever"
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- Subject: [-empyre-] Reactions 2 Documenta - " The worst art show ever"
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- Date: Sat, 21 Jul 2007 19:27:06 +1000
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_The worst art show ever_
"Richard Dorment searches desperately for signs of artistic talent at
the 12th 'Documenta' show in Kassel, Germany
I came back exhausted and depressed from Documenta, the sprawling
exhibition of international modern art that takes place every five
years in Kassel, Germany. The artistic directors this year are the
freelance curator Roger Buergel and his art historian wife Ruth Noack,
and between them they have managed to stage the single worst art
exhibition I have ever seen anywhere, ever.
Though Documenta 12 has more than 500 works, so much of what is on
view is second-rate, chosen for who knows what reason and displayed so
eccentrically that, just as in the Royal Academy's summer exhibition,
it is easy to overlook the few really good things in it.
The only thing a critic can do is to try to distinguish between what
was done deliberately, and what is simply bad taste. To create their
exhibition, Buergel and Noack began by choosing themes so vague as to
be meaningless, ranging from "Is the modern our antiquity?" to "What
is our mere life?" This enabled them to include any work of art by any
artist, living or dead, from any era in history right back to the 16th
Their next step was to ensure that the show had no form or structure
whatsoever, claiming in the introduction to the catalogue - wrongly
and with absolutely no justification - that large shows of this kind
are inherently formless. Minimalist and figurative work is exhibited
side-by-side with conceptual art, installation, film and video with no
thematic relationship between the mediums that I could discern. The
fact that there are many more artists from Eastern Europe, the Middle
East and Far East than from Western Europe or America might have been
interesting, if only the work in the show had been better than it is.
But entirely absent from almost every work on view is a sense of
emotional depth, ambiguity, or psychological or moral complexity. To
take two examples almost at random, Ahalam Shibli shows colour photos
of the homes of dispossessed Palestinians in the Naqueb; George
Osodi's photos document the struggles of the poor people who live in
oil-rich coastal Nigeria. That's fine, but because the only possible
response to these images is to feel pity or anger, as the artist
intended, these are works of reportage or photojournalism, not high
art. They have only one layer of meaning.
Halil Altindere shows a film about a Kurdish tribe called the
Dengbejs, who, unusually, chronicle their history not by reciting epic
stories of rebellion, massacre and family tragedy, but by singing
them. The film is well made and the subject may be of interest to some
people, but it is informative, not poetic or allusive, and so belongs
not in an art exhibition but on the Discovery Channel.
The trouble with Johanna Billing's film about a group of musicians
learning to sail on the Firth of Forth is not just that it is
exceptionally dull - but that it doesn't transcend its status as a
documentary to become memorable as a work of art.
And that brings me to the question of taste. I couldn't believe my
eyes when I saw how many works there are on show by the Chilean-born
Australian painter Juan Davila, an artist whose high-camp imagery is
best characterised as pornographic folk art. His heavy-handed satire
is what you'd expect in the work of a political cartoonist, only
Davila is a crude draughtsman, uses a paintbrush as though it were a
sledgehammer, and isn't remotely funny. Until this show, I didn't
think it possible that his work could receive attention outside
And then there is the inimitable Mary Kelly, whose Primpara, Bathing
series consists of a series of black-and-white photographs taken
between 1974 and 1996 showing the artist cutting her toenails. Now,
for any of you who are too young to remember, this feminist conceptual
artist achieved some notoriety 20 or so years ago by exhibiting her
baby's soiled nappies at the ICA. Her art was so jaw-dropping in its
banality that I've never actually met anyone who had anything positive
to say about it.
Until now. Of all the female artists in Britain - from Gillian Wearing
and Rachel Whiteread and the Wilson Twins - the one whose almost
forgotten work the Documenta curators chose to resurrect was Kelly.
And she's as terrible today as she was back then, showing an
installation of texts and photographs surrounding an illuminated glass
house in which she expresses her feelings about a women's liberation
demonstration that took place in 1970. The quality this elaborate
installation shares with almost every other work of art in the
exhibition is the complete absence of nuance or subtlety.
Of course, there are good things in Documenta. But I began to feel
that they got in under the radar, by accident, not because the artist
had talent, wit or originality but because he or she came from the
right part of the world or had the correct political opinions.
Nigerian artist Romauld Hazoumé showed a wall with African masks made
of plastic petrol cans, oil cans and tea kettles, decorated with
bristling hairdos made of toilet brushes and straw. Here was real wit,
and a connection made between modern industrialised Nigeria and its
ancient tribal culture.
One of the stars of the show was the American Kerry James Marshall,
who shows fresh, funny and sophisticated paintings and works in
pen-and-ink based on the urban African-American culture he comes from.
Also nice to find were the British artist John McCraken's minimalist
sculptures. And I'd like to see more of the watercolours and
sculptures of Bangalore-based Sheela Gowda.
I know where Gowda and all the other artists in the show come from
because the information is buried deep inside the catalogue, not
because the viewer can find it on the labels. The organisers believe
that the artist's nationality should not come between the art work and
the viewer's response to it. But nationality is often vital to the
context in which we view a work of art.
Refusing to give us the artists' nationalities is just arrogant,
particularly as it denies the viewer information that was available to
This is a show organised by two pseuds and intended for graduate
students and people who don't really like visual art at all."
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