Well Fancy That is our ongoing series of excerpts from the writings of some our favourite critics, journalists and curators. We take a little slice of their latest musings and post them here – usually without comment – for your consideration. This past weekend offered a remarkable change of pace. Both the Sydney Morning Herald‘s John McDonald and The Australian‘s Sebastian Smee are in Europe taking part in a once-in-a-decade ‘ grand tour‘ of Europe’s summer art exhibitions – The Venice Biennale in Northern Italy, then on to Germany for the Basel Art Fair, Documenta in Kassel and the Münster skulptur projekte 07 in Münster.
Both Smee and McDonald have offered readers their thoughts on Venice and, perhaps predictably, neither liked what they saw. Both then promised further reviews as they travelled around the continent… But instead of another head-to-head, readers of the weekend newspapers were offered a special treat. McDonald reported from Kassel for the SMH, but The Oz instead chose to commission Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, the tireless boss of the Museum of Contemporary Art. One could not have hoped for a better contrast in writing, attitude and outlook.
On the left, the plucky Scott, and on the right, The Esteemed Critic…
McDonald: “In terms of sheer scale and variety, Documenta is no match for the Venice Biennale, where the creative director plays a crucial role but the bulk of the art is chosen by participating nations. In Kassel, following the example set by the event’s founder, Arnold Bode, Documenta is selected by an all-powerful artistic director working with a team of advisers and assistants. In 52 years, Documenta has come a long way from Bode’s earnest survey of avant-garde painting and sculpture of the Cold War era. This is my third Documenta since 1992 and each has seemed more pretentious and megalomaniacal than its predecessor.”
Macgregor: “The scale and scope of Documenta make it arguably the most significant platform for contemporary art in the world and the announcement of each curator is eagerly anticipated. For Documenta 12 this year, Roger Buergel and his partner Ruth Noack were something of a surprise choice: their previous curatorial practice was highly regarded but not as widely known as that of their predecessors. Rather than a clearly defined theme, they put forward three philosophical questions as organising principles. Is modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? What is to be done? This last question is in many ways the most significant. It is clear from the exhibition that the overriding objective is still educational: how to make an exhibition first and foremost for the people of Kassel, and how to create a context in which people can come to an understanding of contemporary art in all its complexity. This concern for the audience, especially those who don’t belong to the art world, is a hallmark of Buergel and Noack’s curatorial approach. A previous exhibition of theirs, ‘Things We Don’t Understand’, was an attempt on a smaller scale to look at the ways in which the viewer approaches art today.”
McDonald: “An advisory board of “40 local experts” was put together discuss Documenta in relation “local mindsets and topics”. A large number of junior curators were invited to Kassel to do internships, including Russell Storer from the MCA. Consultants and colleagues gave advice from many different parts of the world and almost 100 art magazines were asked to grapple with the three “leitmotifs”: “Is modernity our antiquity?”: “What is the bare life?” [a line of inquiry that apparently stretches from the concentration camp to the hippie communue] and “What is to be done? The club of participants boasts a final membership of more than 650. If everyone was part of the process, who would be left to complain?”
Macgregor: “One of the first things [done] was to establish an advisory group of local people who were not art professionals, who were involved in discussions about the show from the outset. A team of educators is leading groups and a series of “palm groves” has been installed: groups of chairs where visitors can take time out to sit and contemplate or hold group discussions. The visitors’ guide is lightweight and designed to be carried through the exhibition. There are no wall texts: the emphasis is on encouraging a direct response to each work. Whether this strategy succeeds in its goal of focusing visitors primarily on the art is an interesting question for visiting curators and museum directors, who are dealing in their own institutions with the demand for instant information in this age of immediate communication.”
McDonald: “The fun begins when one tries to make sense of the idea behind the show. “The big exhibition has no form,” Roger and Ruth tell us. “This trivial fact made us seek to combine precision with generosity.” A small thesis could be written about the way curators use the word “generosity” but it is still startling to find them proclaiming Documenta’s “inherent formlessness”. This does indeed act as a justification for anything at all: minimalist works by John McCracken, Charlotte Posenenske and Poul Gernes; feminist polemics by Mary Kelly and Jo Spence; stuffed toys by Cosima von Bonin, a stuffed giraffe by Paul Friedl; pictures of babies by Iwie Kulik and several other artists; photos of chewing gum by Alina Szapocznikow; Inuit drawings by Annie Pootoogook; ’70s performance videos by Eleanor Antin; an “electric dress” made by Tanaka Atsuko in 1956; and so on. Many of these works seem to have been around for 20 or 30 years but, since the show also includes Persian drawings from the 15th century, there is no point in worrying about what is or is not “contemporary”.
Macgregor: “The work of several key artists is shown in different sites and these keynote artists exemplify different strands within the show that weave, intersect and sometimes clash across the five buildings. There are striking contrasts, for example, between the complex figurative paintings of Chilean-born Australian Juan Davila that tackle a range of issues, questioning history and the construction of cultural, political and sexual identity, and the formal aestheticism of American minimalist John McCracken; between the delicacy of the exquisite drawings and photographs of Nasreen Mohamedi, who was born in Pakistan and died in India in 1990, and the striking use of pared-down industrial materials in the sculptures of Charlotte Posenske. A satisfying aspect of this Documenta is the inclusion of smaller works, drawings and collages in particular. In the Schloss Wilhelmshohe, with its magnificent historical collection of Rembrandts and Vandykes, some contemporary works are placed among the historical collections, others in a separate space The earliest works are far from contemporary: 14th to 16th-century drawings and paintings brought back to Germany from Persia, China and the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, historical pieces are interspersed throughout the venues, to make a point about forms migrating across geography and time.”
McDonald: “Some works are obviously more appealing than others but to identify highlights in this cauldron of goulash would be mere dilettantism. In such shows, one tends to seize on some work that is less mediocre than most and imagine it is a masterpiece.”
Macgregor: “The majestic drama of a James Coleman video with its 40-odd minute soliloquy by Harvey Keitel contrasts with a quiet yet gripping reflection by Amar Kanwar on the experiences of women and the aftermath of trauma and suffering. This last work highlights an important aspect of the exhibition: its humanity and lack of cynicism. It is a global exhibition that speaks powerfully about the local.”
McDonald: “The other artist who seems specially favoured this year is Juan Davila, who was placed at Roger’s right-hand side during a press conference the size of a rock concert. Davila’s crude, scatological paintings are distributed througout Documenta, where they can shock and titillate audiences who are new to his trademark brand provocation. Simryn Gill, by contrast, has a low-key installation of old truck parts reconstructed from tropical plant and animal matter. It is badly displayed in the AuePavillion (pronounced “Ow”) – a vast, sprawling greenhouse that added €3 million ($4.75 millior to the budget of €19 million).”
Macgregor: “The most contentious building is the one for the 21st century, a temporary structure modelled on greenhouse technology. This is far from the neutral white box expected of the modern art museum, but each work is given generous space, and the vistas created between works give visitors the space to pause, reflect and discuss. Simryn Gill’s Throwback is here, shifting the meaning of forms and materials by re-creating, in tropical and other natural materials, the parts of a Tata truck destined for the scrap heap in India. So is a comment by Dmitry Gutov on life in the urban landscape: he has constructed fences from discarded materials and incorporated snippets of literary texts.”
McDonald: “Forget about the bloated auction market; art is not about money or ownership […] it’s about self realisation and social action. They favour a brand of education that confuses rather than clarifies; an aesthetic that favours the intellect over the eye. ‘We all start out as idiots in the face of contemporary art,’ says Roger, Happy are the idiots who get to be idiots on a professional basis.”
Macgregor: “‘Art makes experiences of a special kind possible,’ Buergel has said. ‘One may talk about these experiences, but one can also demonstrate them visually; in other words, show them. Here the medium of the exhibition can become the basis of a new way of showing, a new way of seeing.’ This new way of seeing is not framed by market values or cultural identity, or by definitive didactic statements. Yet it returns to the original proposition of Documenta as an educative tool for a wide public. The response of the audience after the professional preview days will be the true test of Documenta 12’s success.”