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Documenta! Manifesta! Monumenta!

Museum Fridericianum, site of dOCUMENTA (13), through September 16 in Kassel, Germany
 
Let these syllables slowly roll off of your tongue: the thirteenth Documenta, held in Kassel, Germany. If you give these words the solemn intonation that art world etiquette demands of them, images of lightening bolts and parting thunderheads should be conjured, because like the majority of its dozen predecessors, dOCUMENTA (13) is a big fucking deal. For better or for worse, it is the exhibition that portends a game-changing shift between the previous five years and the next half-decade, and like every other iteration of this quintannual mega-exhibition, it will be a lighting rod for prolonged controversy and analysis. Long after this past spring’s heinous and stillborn Whitney Biennial fades from memory, and long after whatever it is that Jeffrey Deitch thinks that he is up to gets tagged-and-bagged, dOCUMENTA (13) will be talked about by big-city sophisticates as a trenchant measure of its own moment. Like all of its predecessors, this Documenta is not an easy exhibition to like, but it nonetheless is impossible to disrespect. This means that, if you meet someone who has seen the show, don’t show yourself to be a bumpkin by asking that person whether or not he or she liked it, because any and every Documenta lives far beyond any simple statement of preference. The real question that should be asked is: what did you make of it? And more importantly, what can be made of it? This owes to the fact that, like every other Documenta, this thirteenth incarnation sets itself up as a very serious, indeed, seriously serious arrangement of artistic tealeaves (created by close to 200 participants), requiring deeply sophisticated divination from the most experienced of art viewers. Tweets from Snooki or Kanye West just don’t count.
 
Documenta founder Arnold Bode in 1955
Every iteration of Documenta celebrates its own unique curatorial dementia, and dOCUMENTA (13), organized by Turin-based curator Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev, follows suit in very complex, challenging and delightfully subtle ways. But before I get to them, I must placate the journalism gods with a few hard facts. Every five years, Documenta takes place during the summer In Kassel, Germany, lasting for 100 days. It was founded by artist/designer Arnold Bode in 1955 with a little help from the Rockefeller Foundation, and most probably, the CIA operating under the guise of the United States Information Agency. Bode organized the first four iterations of the event, and then in 1972, he turned its directorship over to Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, whose earlier exhibition at the Kunsthalle Berne titled When Attitudes Become Form (1969) registered major changes in the art world of its time. Szeeman’s Documenta V was the single most earth-shattering event to take place in the art world for well over a decade before or after, in part serving to launch the work of Joseph Beuys to an international audience at the precise moment when New York was just starting to seriously look at post-war European Art.
 
In 1997, French curator Catherine David became the first woman to direct a Documenta (that being Documenta X), opening it up to a wider mélange of artistic media that reached beyond the consideration of objects and into the possibility that connective networks between architecture and information systems could be presented as focal points of artistic interest. In 2002, the Nigerian-American curator Okwui Enwezor became the first non-European to garner the position, opening his Documenta 11 up to artists hailing from far-flung geographic locales as a way of belatedly stressing the undeniable emergence of a global transnational culture while also inaugurating multiple “platforms” of the event taking place in Vienna, New Delhi, St. Lucia and Lagos. These platforms were not so much exercises in exhibition-making as they were “discourse projects;” in other words, a wide-ranging series of essays, lectures and symposia memorialized in the massive multi-volume Documenta 11 catalog. It should be noted here that a program of ambitious publications combined with the staging of lectures and symposia has always been an important part of the Documenta project, meaning that, more than any other major contemporary art event, it gives a special pride of place to the discourse surrounding the art that it presents. It should also be noted that Enwezor organized the current iteration of the Paris Triennial at the Palais de Tokyo.
 
dOCUMENTA (13) Curator Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev
In 2007, Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack co-organized the massive Documenta 12 around the thematic questions of “Modernity as the New Antiquity” and “What is to be Done?” It was a complex and baffling mélange that was particularly difficult to parse-‘n-frame into any simple takeaway beyond noting the fact that its many oblique juxtapositions of diverse artistic practices seemed intended to function as a complex set of allegorical annotations of each other’s “meta-positionings of meaning.” In other words, it set itself up as a very hard act to follow, and for that reason, it put the very notion of Documenta into a kind of jeopardy by stretching the outer envelope of artistic and curatorial intelligibility to such an extreme orbit. To go any further into the realm of the meta-exhibition would be to cross the event horizon where figures of putative meaning would be completely indistinguishable from random and ambient noise. By some lights, Documenta 12 had already gone too far past that horizon, leading up to the charge that it was intelligible only to the upper intellectual registers of the European curatorial elite.
 
For dOCUMENTA (13), Christov-Barkagiev came up with an interesting strategy to answer the challenges posed by previous iterations of the event, and it was based on the interplay of two factors. One was the orchestration of several strategic artistic evacuations (or maskings) from the realm of presentational immediacy, while the other lied in a doubling back onto the very idea of Documenta itself via a set of subtle reframings of the event’s complex history, these oftentimes being grafted on to a more general reframing of traditional museological etiquettes or the historical legacies of Kassel itself. The former was represented one of the two spacious galleries on the ground floor of the Fridericianum—that being the most prominent of the ten major Documenta venues in Kassel. It was almost empty, except for a small glass case that displayed a May 24, 2011 letter written by Kai Altoff to Christov-Barkagiev, disingenuously apologizing for his inability to participate in the exhibition. The other large ground-floor gallery was only slightly more inhabited, containing four small sculptures by Julio Gonzalez positioned next to a photograph of Arnold Bode examining those very same works, reminding us that they were originally included in the 1959 Documenta II.
 
Ryan Gander, "I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize (The Invisible Pull)", 2012  
These could best be described as abstract drawings in three dimensional space, signifying an idealized state of freedom—setting the stage for Ryan Gander’s work, which was visible outside the gallery’s window, far across the Fredrichsplatz. It was a figure that was perched upon a golden orb atop the campanile of St. Elizabetha church. The figure was a remarkably similar cousin to a work by Jonathan Borofsky that was featured in a Documenta of yore, now a permanent fixture in front of Kassel’s main train station.  Needless to say, at this juncture viewers were already being set up to question if an art exhibition was even taking place, but the next room answered in the affirmative—that being the ground floor of the rotunda. This was the exhibition’s discordant “cabinet of curiosities,” and it was enigmatically organized around the topic of “the brain.” It was tightly packed with an assortment of smallish objects that oftentimes occupied one of several glass display boxes, ranging from works by Tacita Dean and Man Ray, to a set of photographic self-portraits by Lee Miller lounging in Adolph Hitler’s bathtub, and further on to a stunningly exquisite sextet of still-life paintings by Giorgio Morandi.
 
 
 
There were also a small but stunning collection of nine 4,000-year-old Bactrian princess figurines mixed with small contemporary works by Judith Barry and Lawrence Weiner, among over a dozen other contributions. There was also a collection of strange objects that were simply labeled, “damaged during the Lebanese Civil War.” In short, what we have seen here is an abrupt jump from two large rooms with almost nothing in them to a much smaller room packed to its proverbial brim with intimately scaled objects of exceedingly diverse forms and origins.
Lee Miller, "In Hitler’s Bath" — Munich 1945
 
 
We also see that the six Morandi paintings were cast as the unassuming keynotes for the entire exhibition in all of its far-flung grandiosity, themselves being masterpieces of the perfect equilibration of evanescent simplicity and quiet grandeur, not to mention lustrous presence and poetic absence — “connected with, but not yet subordinated to theory,” to pull a quote from Christov-Barkagiev’s curatorial statement. Indeed, one can go so far as to suggest that the entire curation of dOCUMENTA (13) was in very many ways informed by the Italian doctrine of Pitura Metafisica, which was Giorgio de Chirico’s poetic and introspective inversion of the quasi-fascistic slap-and-punch of pre-World War I Italian Futurism. In other words, we can say that, despite the vast size of dOCUMENTA (13), much contained within it was an invitation for the kind of slow and deliberate viewing that insistently refused any effort of outrunning its audience’s ability to process too much information too quickly, which is a temptation to which many other large scale exhibitions succumb because of their now overly-routine emphasis on new technology.
 
One of the more awkward aspects of dOCUMENTA (13) was its embrace of the work of some politically-oriented artists, which oftentimes tended to look either effete or naively irrelevant in relation to a small encampment of Occupy Documenta zealots that had set up in their tents and pointed signage in the Fredrichsplatz. I am glad that none of the Documenta organizers tried to have the demonstrators removed, because they were in plain view from the bank of windows of the ground floor of the Fridericianum, in effect making their anarchistic hootenanny a de-facto part of the exhibition. One of their signs simply spelled out the works (in English?) “the emergency will replace the contemporary,” and the urgency of this particular message exerted a negative effect on some of the political work that was nominally included in the exhibition, such as the collection of copies of 144 letters sent to world leaders by Amy Balkin asking them to give the earth’s atmosphere “world heritage” status.
 
Amy Balkin, “Public Smog: Earth’s Atmosphere as UNESCO World Heritage Preserve”, 2012 
Presumably, if the putative recipients of the letters agreed to the request, greenhouse gases would be a thing of the past, and although they should, they won’t because they can’t. So we are left with yet another political gesture that uses the theater of pretend politics for artistic career development, the proof lying in its “official” inclusion in that lightning rod of massive corporate subvention called Documenta. Keeping in mind that Documenta has a long tradition of highlighting political artworks reaching back to the productions of Beuys and Hans Haacke, we might begin to think that the attempt to sustain that tradition might be a worthy curatorial concern. And yet, the fact is that the exigent nature of recent circumstances means that we also need to register that the rhetoric that we call politics has dramatically changed forms during the past decade, with torches, pitchforks and social media sloganeering being the order of our new day of prompting the Falstaffian impulses of mob rule in the direction of social justice. This means that much of the quasi-conceptual art that strives for political effect under the banner of “social practice art” is starting to look like a mannered exercise in academic rectitude scented with the bad faith of loyal opposition. 
 
Mark Lombardi, "Global Networks"
But not all of it looks that way, as might be witnessed in the stunning selection of the late Mark Lombardi’s pristine conspiracy flow-chart drawings, which parsed the octopussian contradictions of power and complicity with an eerie sophistication that has not been matched since Haacke’s work of the 1970s. What Lombardi’s work reminds us of is the fact that real politics always lies elsewhere from any given topic of debate, a scary thought that requires a sophisticated analysis that many so-called “social practice” artists cannot live up to. At the same time, when compared to the various manifestations of the Occupy movement, they also tend to fail the urgency- and-efficacy test, simply because of the innate harmlessness of all things that call themselves art in this age of art’s “post-critical” subjugation to capital. To his credit, Lombardi deeply imagined what that analysis would look like and his version of it is particularly interesting because of the way that it deviates from now standard language-based conceptualism in the direction of a complex pictorialism of information systems.
 
By contrast, an example honorable politics gone badly misguided was ensconced at the far end of the main train station in Kassel, that being the Kulturbahnhof which functioned as a site for several presentations. That forlorn outer corner of dOCUMENTA (13) was the temporary home of AND AND AND, a flexible live-work collective that has staged events around the globe pointing to the more sinister aspects of the 2008 financial collapse. For dOCUMENTA (13), they opened up a kind of informal “school of living,” and the “lesson” that was being given (in German) on the day of my visit had to do with Kassel being the site for the manufacture of military tanks for the German army, as it was during the Second World War. Pity they didn’t point out that, since the war, said tanks have almost never been exported outside of the country (update: a news report from 2010 announced this might be changing), nor did they note that the Bode family continues to own Kassel-based Krauss Maffei Wegman, reportedly the third largest tank manufacturer in the world (that’s right: the Bode family of Arnold Bode fame; put that in your pipe of avant-garde pseudo-politics and smoke it!). We did learn that tanks and the wars that they fight are bad for vegetarians.
 
Julie Mehretu, “Mogammma: Parts 1-4”, 2012, ink and acrylic on canvas, 180 x 144”
 
There was more painting to be found in dOCUMENTA (13) than in any of its recent predecessors, and it dominated the large pavilion called Documenta Hall. Hung within were four large works by Julie Mehretu, each about 18 feet tall and 12 feet wide executed on tightly stretched canvas. Each was a complex mélange overlaying differing registers of schematic information that coalesce into configurations of multi-nodal networks. Looking like complex diachronic maps based on satellite photographs, the works conveyed the chilling association of appearing to be bomb damage assessment charts or diagrams for the proposed containment of bioterror events; or perhaps less chillingly, meteorological analyses pointing to the complex manifestations of climate change. The former association was driven home by the nearby placement of a large collage painting by Thomas Bayrle. It was made of several hundred pages and passages of text, some scribbled and some printed, and it formed a near life-sized silhouette of a jet plane that was tilted in such a way to seem on the verge of crashing on to the place where viewers stand.
 
Etel Adnan, “Untitled”, 1959–2010, 1 of 38 untitled paintings, oil on canvas, 
In general, color was not to be found in any abundance at dOCUMENTA (13), but one delightful exception was the small gallery devoted to the work of Etel Adnan. These were small, landscape-oriented works on canvas that looked as if they were started by Arthur Dove and then “finished”(?) by a color-drunk Michael Krebber in a delightfully lighthearted and irreverent manner. At the far end of Documenta Hall was a breathtaking installation by Nalini Malani that employed coordinated slide projectors bathing a rotating quintet of transparent cylinders with a barrage of images. Malani painted crisp, graphic images on the cylinder, and the counterpoints between silhouetted and projected image was mesmerizing.
 
The real head-scratcher in Documenta Hall was the large selection of works by Gustav Metzger, about 60 in all, and like Adnan’s paintings, each quite small. It was divided into two parts, one being a conventional on-the-wall exhibition and another being a larger group set on tilted tables. The majority of the latter group were covered by heavy blankets that viewers could lift for the sake of seeing the paintings, making one think that special care was being taken to protect the work from the effects of light. But that was not the case, because they needed no such protection. Rather, what we saw was a subtle curatorial point being made about the complicated position of painting in relation to being “connected with, but not yet subordinated to theory.” In the context of Documenta, Metzger’s work seemed to take on an added significance of being the sole representative of “painting-as-painting-and-nothing-else,” making the act of removing their coverings an invitation for the return of the exhibition’s repressed counter-narrative (i.e. painting). In other words, they are about as radically unremarkable as any artwork can be without being outrightly dismissable, and in the context of the many other works that strive for “sophisticated” noteworthiness at Documenta, that also counts as a kind of unique remarkability. But in other contexts, a different assessment might be called into the foreground.
 
Nalini Malani, “In Search of Vanished Blood”, 2012, 6-channel video-shadow play, 5 rotating reverse-painted mylar cylinders, 4 spotlights, sound, each cylinder 72” diameter x 42”, 11 min. loop
 
In a rotunda space two floors of the above “the brain” collection at the Fridericianum, we saw a panoramic digital tapestry by Goshka Macuga showing several dozen figures gathered together around a ruin that looked like it was the Fridericianum after it was been bombed in 1943 (only the old 18th century façade remains: the rest of the museum was rebuilt in 1955). In fact, it has a close architectural cousin: the Bagh-e-Babor, a palace in Kabul. The tapestry was output as a photomontage done in a luminous grayscale, and many of its figures were recognizable because of the roles that they play in contemporary events, all vaguely reminiscent of those in Neo Rauch’s paintings. Also at the Fridericianum were two really stunning paintings by Lyn Foulkes, each set deep in separate darkened rooms so that their dramatic illumination could be controlled with precision. One of these depicted isolated characters inhabiting a nightmare world where the entire landscape consisted of carefully painted piles of garbage. In addition, there was also a performance platform upon which set The Machine, Foulkes’ bandstand of homemade musical instruments on which he gave regular one-man-band performances throughput dOCUMENTA (13).
           
Goshka Macuga, “Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not 1”, 2012, tapestry
Documenta has always included several outdoor installations as part of its offerings, but at dOCUMENTA (13), the stops were pulled out, with close to 50 outdoor installations ensconced on or near the grounds of the vast Karlsaue parkland. It is worth remembering that Kassel was the home of the Brothers Grimm, and to obliquely commemorate that fact of local history, many of the outdoor works seemed to be stage-sets for large-scale fairy tales. For example, Giuseppe Penone has a work where a large boulder is cradled high in a tree, as if it was hoisted there by some wizard’s spell. In Sam Durant’s enigmatic installation, we see what appears to be a piece of jerry-built playground equipment that invites viewers to climb upon it, whereupon they discover that the object is modeled on an old style hanging gallows. And in Song Dong’s outdoor installation, we see three beguiling mounds of foliage set up like an old-style earthwork; this one sportsblocks of Asian calligraphy nestled in its weeds. We read that refuse is stored under the mounds, making them monuments to recycling as well as small beer in relation to Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ much more ambitious “maintenance art” projects.
 
There were many other outdoor works, and even with a map, some of them were hard to find. This led me to wonder if this interaton of Documenta represents the moment where it seeks to openly challenge the once-a-decade Muenster Sculpture Project’s preeminence in the area of exhibiting outdoor public art. Certainly, there is room to do so, as Muenster organizers seem to have run out of curatorial gas as can be judged by the 2007 iteration of their event. It was tarnished by the ill-advised curatorial conceit that sought make an exhibition out of reprising and memorializing its own history, and it backfired rather badly. I bring this up because dOCUMENTA (13) also had much of that kind of self-memorialization baked into its own cake, albeit to far less disastrous effect. One of the reasons that it worked better at Documenta is that the event does, in fact, have a much more illustrious and interesting history, and another part is that the self-memorializing aspects of the event were more intelligently conceived and better executed amid a much more complex array of complementary presentations. Still, this new emphasis on “public” art at Documenta does raise another problem, namely, that for all of the elegance and canny smartness of its curation, the show is just too damned big, and the major problem that comes along with such size is that it is overburdened by too much work that would easily be deemed forgettable if it were not buoyed by the Documenta imprimatur. The fact that dOCUMENTA (13) has taken up the challenge of establishing global outpost-venues originally posed by the 2002 iteration of the event (this time in the fraught locations of Banff, Cairo and Kabul) only amplifies the equation of run-away gigantism with the immanent specter of a kind of dinosaurian extinction.    
 
Llyn Foulkes, “The Machine”, 1979–2012, self-made musical instrument, performance, object: 54 x 81 x 78”; “The Awakening”, 1994–2012, mixed-media painting 39 × 43 × 7”
 
Generally speaking, the curatorial craft has recourse to three components that, in order to succeed, always needs to operate in some kind of balance with each other, but can nonetheless be given special emphasis as specific occasions might warrant. The first and most obvious of these is simply selection, meaning that its projects need to present the best possible examples of what ever is conjured by its chosen topic. Traditionally, the topic of most exhibitions of contemporary art simply is a vaguely defined notion of “best work” based on some claim of experienced connoisseurship, giving us the now-common form of the “who’s hot and who is not” exhibition that highlights artistic achievement. The second component is text, meaning that in literary forms such as wall texts or extended catalog essays, information that is external to the selected examples comes into the foreground as a way of expanding and elaborating the context of how they might be best understood. This textual orientation is at the core of the so-called “argumentative” exhibition, which oftentimes subordinates its selected artistic examples to the role of illustrating rhetorical claims that reach far beyond the specific circumstances of the art’s creation.
 
Finally, there is the third component of the curator’s craft, which is juxtaposition. Traditionally, this aspect has paraded under the banner of the esthetics of gallery installation, executed in such a way to emphasize the maximal visual appreciation of the selected objects. But in recent times, we are seeing this aspect of curatorial work becoming its own basis for an imaginative practice that also moves parallel to the direction of the argumentative exhibition. But it also veers away from it by simultaneously reaching beyond and underneath the parameters of argumentative display in favor of using clever deployments of visual counter arguments and annotations.
 
Giuseppe Penone, “Idee di Pietra (Ideas of Stone)”, 2010, bronze and stone, 29.5’
In other words, they sometimes become an effete circus of hints and dog whistles that, on the rare occasions when they work, do manage to create a kind of ethereal philosophical music for those who are alive to subtle connotation in relation to the world in which they live. When they don’t work, the result usually a overblown mish-mash of psychological shopaholism; but I have to say here, that, all-in-all, dOCUMENTA (13) is the best example of a truly sophisticated juxtapositional curation that I have ever witnessed, not that it has that much competition on that score. In many ways, the delicately unpredictable poetry and the grim politics that emerges from Christov-Barkagiev’s dOCUMENTA (13) comes not so much from the works that it contains as it does from the canny staging and counter-staging of the visual and intellectual spaces between and around them. And in today’s topsy-turvey art world, that also counts, and in fact, it needs to count. This emergent approach to exhibition-making can be seen as an analog to the way that production design has become an increasingly central aspect of Hollywood movies to the point of partially displacing the more traditional elements of story and character.
 
The bad news is that it dilutes the roles played by the later-named elements, but the good news is that it opens up new vistas of interest and provides pathways to new possibilities.
 
On the other hand, we also need to recognize that a problematic symptom of overcompensation lives at the heart of such large exhibitions, suggesting that their self-importance of their importance-giving effect is some form of reaction-formation for a core feeling about the unimportance of contemporary art. Indeed, their vastness and sheer scope do function to de-emphasize or otherwise mask some of the not-very-interesting work contained by them, but we also do need to remember that not every actor in every movie needs to have the talent of a George Sanders. Again, in keeping with the motion picture production model that accords authorship to directors rather than the writers, actors or camera operators who toil at their supporting crafts, we see perhaps too much primacy being given to curatorial front-persons in relation to the objects that he or she chooses. All of this is a clear reflection of Szeeman’s curatorial legacy in relation to Documenta as well as the more general proliferation of large biennial exhibitions taking place around the globe, a model that sustains Documenta as its undisputed paradigm. But there are other models that also invite consideration. One of these is Manifesta, the self-proclaimed “European Biennial of Contemporary Art.”
 
Song Dong, “Doing Nothing Garden”, 2010-12 ,?daily-life rubbish and building rubbish with plants and neon signs
For the past 16 years, Manifesta has configured itself as a nomadic art event that takes place in a different European city every two years. The last time that I attended one was in 2002, when Manifesta 4 was ensconced in Frankfurt. It was close enough to Documenta XI to get a spillover audience, but it also suffered from living too closely in the shadow of the much larger and more controversial exhibition. The current iteration of Manifesta—Manifesta 9—takes place in Genk, Belgium, which is in the northeastern Flemish-speaking quadrant of that country (in the Limburg district); also fairly close to Kassel, but not too close.
 
The exhibition has a stunning subtitle: “The Deep of the Modern,” suggesting that it might have to do with the symbolist legacy of the late 19th century, or how psychoanalysis informs our contemporary understanding of images. In fact, the “deep” in question was an exceedingly literal one, that being coal mining understood as a metaphor for the initial historical translation of fossil fuel into industrial muscle, with all of the subsequent cultural disruptions appertaining thereto. Given that Genk is quite close to Maastricht, it is also tempting to think that the depths conjured by Manifesta 9 might have something to do with the massive holes of Eurodebt that were the unintended consequence of the 1992 Maastricht treaty that inaugurated the European Union and the Euro as a common currency which was insufficiently supported by any central banking entity. This analogy is not as far-fetched as it sounds, because the origins of the EU can be traced to an earlier organization called The European Coal and Steel Community. Most of the offices that are functions of the EU are headquartered in Brussels. 
 
Waterschei Building, site of Manifesta 9, Genk, Limburg, Belgium
 
Most of what Manifesta 9 has to offer can be seen in and around the giant Waterschei building (opened 1924, closed 1987), which once was a giant coking plant attached to the André Dumont Mine, one of the largest in the world. Its refurbishment into an exhibition space left many of the old fixtures in place, while emphasizing a foreboding interior full of dark passages and cavernous spaces for exhibitions. The exhibition was curated by Cuauthémoc Medina, Katerina Gregos and Dawn Ades, and contained works representing several interpenetrating themes that made smart mischief with the normal museological categories of art, design, social documentation and natural history. All of these interpenetrations were imaginatively configured around the idea of coal, not as any kind of illustrated history, but as a hidden catalyst for social and artistic developments that had far-reaching and highly complicated cultural consequences.
 
Charles Demuth (1883-1941), “Incense of a New Church”, 1921, oil on canvas, 26 x 20”
The main exhibition had three subsections, respectively titled the Poetics of Restructuring, The Age of Coal and 17 Tons. The later of these was an oblique homage to the famous song sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford titled 16 Tons (I would have chosen Lee Dorsey’s Workin’ in a Coal Mine), and it focused on the heritage of coal. It was full of bewildering juxtapositions that include a small exhibition of the work of the Ashington Group, a group of artists active in the UK during the late 1950s and early 1960s who did work social realist work around the culture of coal mining. It also featured a restaging of a 1938 Marcel Duchamp installation titled 1200 Bags of Coal, all hanging high from the ceiling.
 
Charles Demuth’s precisionist painting of tentacles inhabiting an early modern factory was a highlight of the historical section, while most of the contemporary work included in Manifesta 9 was grouped under the banner of the Poetics of Restructuring. Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of Chinese manufacturing operations were a natural inclusion, but given that he is based in Canada, he seems to be stretching the definition of “European” a bit too far. Marcel Broodthers little piles of coal with tiny national flags set upon them were charming, witty and very much to the point of the exhibition.
There were also presentations of the work of some forward thinking design companies that do things around minimal use of materials and energy, such as the small tableaux by Visible Solutions, growing out of new notion of conceptualizing efficiency bred by the likelihood of rising energy prices. But the real standout piece of the entire exhibition was Ni Haifeng’s stunning installation titled Para-Production (2008), a vast cascade of garment fragments that were sewn together, positioned next to a bank of sewing machines.
 
Ni Haifeng, “??Para-Production”, 2008, textile shreds, sewing machines, work in progress, variable dimensions
 
Like Documenta, much of what was to be found at Manifesta was located in outdoor settings, giving further support to my thesis that the Muenster Sculpture Project’s brand identity is being carved up by its competitors in big biennial land. Five years from now, we will know for sure. Some of it was quite interesting, but honestly, it paled next to the giant black pit that was a few hundred feet away from the Watershie building, that being the residue of earlier mining operations that now takes on the character of a ghastly unauthored earthwork that makes Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty look like a box of wilted petunias on sale in front of Walmart. But that much said, I can go on to say that the biggest takeaway from “the European Biennial” was the smartness and cunning of its capture of a very sophisticated “post-European” notion of what “Europe” now means.

On an annual basis, Paris plays host to yet another mega-exhibition of contemporary art called Monumenta, which is always a grandly scaled installation by one artist presented in the gargantuan Grand Palais, the world’s largest glass house originally built for the International Exposition of 1900. This year’s Monumenta artist is Daniel Buren, who is perhaps most well-known as being the first artist to use the entire central rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum as a space for the installation of one of his works.

 
Daniel Van Buren, “Excentrique”, 2012, Gran Palais, Paris
Some writers have also made claims that his work is somehow an example of institutional critique, but I just don’t see it, and never did. And even if I did, I would be unable to graft that concept on to his Monumenta presentation, which was kind of fun, but full of larger problems. To be honest, I never was able to get inside the building, which in itself is a stunning experience inside or out. But I did get a clear look at Buren’s Eccentriques from circumnavigating parts of the building’s exterior. These were translucent plasticine colored gels that seem configured like large a garden of tall mushrooms. Presumable, the viewer would walk under them through the large building during daylight hours, and trip the lights fantastic while they examined the features of the ornate building trough and above them. Truth be told, it looked kind of cool from my viewing perch outside of the building, but really, it was just Andy Warhol’s Plastic Inevitable writ large, and it was a particularly poor stone of “institutional critique” to inhabit such a prominent maison de verre.
–MARK VAN PROYEN
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen is an Associate Professor at the San Francisco Art Institute. He is a corresponding editor for Art in America, and his critical writings have appeared in many publications, including Art Criticism, Artweek and Art Issues. The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge a faculty development grant from SFAI, which supported the research for this essay.
 

dOCUMENTA (13) through September 16, 2012, Kassel, Germany
Manifesta 9 through September 30, 2012, Genk, Limborg, Belgium 
Monumenta 2012 closed June 12, 2012
 
Photo Credits in order of appearance:
 
Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev: Marco Ventimiglia
Ryan Gander: Nils Klinger
Amy Balkin: Roman März
Llyn Foulkes: Roman März
Giuseppe Penone: AFP PHOTO UWE ZUCCHI
Song Dong: Heimo Aga
Daniel Van Buren: Monumenta  
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One Response to “Documenta! Manifesta! Monumenta!”

  1. Mark and David and SFAI faculty grant program: Thanks very much for this piece. I read it all with interest; what stays with me is the sense of a field that comes up around the words “poetics of restructuring.” Images above look like hopeful contestants emerging from an old, broken-up coal field, as we search globally for some new footing that is so slow in coming. The curators have captured their moment, but there is little to long for in these posted images.

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