It is hard to do justice to this summer’s triumvirate of European mega-exhibitions—Documenta 13, Manifesta 9, and the 7th Berlin Biennale—within the confines of a single article. It is hard to cover the multiplicity of venues—from museums and galleries to train stations, defunct mining complexes, park pavilions, movie theaters, department stores, and hotel ballrooms—by foot, let alone by pen. It’s harder to convincingly illuminate a tenth of the hundreds of works collectively on display without losing even the most dedicated reader. But the hardest is to analyze the themes at play without resorting to generalizations. What follows here, then, is a sprint through some of the artistic and curatorial highlights and low points, in search of commonalities, contradictions, and the ultimate conclusions to be drawn from three very different iterations of more or less the same idea: wresting art from the thrall of the market and restoring it to a conscientious existence.
It’s perhaps useful to preface these observations with a reminder about the forces of capitalism at play in the organization and staging of these exhibition events. All three are recognized art magnets. Documenta, the grande dame, is expected to attract audiences upwards of seven hundred fifty thousand this year at the same time it will net somewhere in the region of one hundred million euros for Kassel’s denizens. Established in 1955 as an enlightened endeavor to return art to the ruins of the heavily bombed city, the quinquennial has been heavily subsidized by the city government since the late ’70s—giving the curatorial team an extremely healthy budget with which to work—and is increasingly beloved by its inhabitants. Documenta occupies the eighteenth-century building of the Fridericianum Museum, as well as numerous other locations, and its artistic directors are free to designate additional sites. This year’s edition occupies the most square footage and number of venues to date. Traces of previous iterations live on in the form of commissioned works—such as Joseph Beuys’s ongoing 7,000 Oaks project— that gradually ameliorate the brutality of Kassel’s grim postwar architecture and enmesh the exhibition ever further in the fabric of the city.
Manifesta, by contrast, is an itinerant biennial, created in 1996 with the aim of bringing Western and Eastern Europe into closer cultural dialogue. Over the past twenty years or so, it has lost sight of this intention, morphing instead into a hot ticket for European cities hoping to benefit from art tourism. Contenders pay significant amounts of money for the honor of hosting the event. A perhaps lesser-known fact is that successful commissioners are entitled to determine the theme of the biennial, so it was no surprise that for this edition, Genk, a jewel in Belgium’s coal-mining province of Limburg, required from the curators an exhibition highlighting coal.
The youngest of the three events, the Berlin Biennale premiered in 1998, one of many exhibitions initiated in the late ’90s whose host cities rather cynically intended to cash-in on that decade’s proliferation of biennials. The nexus of the show is always presented at the headquarters of Kunst-Werke Berlin Institute for Contemporary Art (KW), a gracious nineteenth-century building in the city’s historic, and once predominantly Jewish, Scheunenviertel area. A fascination with Berlin as a site has expanded the changing roster of additional venues over the years, helping the Biennale spread through the city. This year, sadly, the exhibition remained rather concentrated, and what spread instead were reports of a less-than-satisfactory organizational phase. While significant amounts of the generous budget were spent on research travel, there is very little artwork to show for it and no catalogue beyond a newspaper. A further shortfall is expected, resulting from the decision not to charge admission to the exhibition. (That decision tallies with the stated aims of this edition of the biennale. How could they justify charging entry fees for a show that is on many levels an anti-capitalist manifesto?) All these exhibitions, therefore, arise out of fairly privileged conditions, are supported by sympathetic local governments and biennial offices, and for the most part need to concern themselves only with conceptual matters.
To my mind, the most flawed exhibition in concept and execution was Forget Fear, the 7th Berlin Biennale, which tried to perform the dual feat of presenting artworks that engage the realm of politics or real life while also exhibiting political actions. Rather than convincing through urgency, the curatorial efforts of the Polish artist Artur Żmijewski and his collaborators bored through earnestness. They delivered a restaging of protest and conflict in a controlled environment—a performance of politics rather than the politics themselves. Forget Fear kicked off with members of Occupy and the Indignados who were, rather ironically, invited to inhabit the ground floor of Kunst-Werke (KW). Here they languished, whiling away time in banal activities: sleeping, chatting, making placards, and so on. Passive objects of passive viewing, they were defused of their power, presented as ethnographic specimens of neither artists nor protesters but rather some amiable tribe of the well intentioned and politically aware.
An anti-spectacular aesthetic extended from the KW’s upper floors to the Kunstakademie and beyond, where unconvincing artistic projects were installed in a desultory fashion. Their failures to convince a visitor derive from many reasons. Some were overly literal, such as Miroslaw Patecki’s life-size Styrofoam model of the head of Cristo Redentor, the Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro, while others were fatuously self-indulgent, including Joanna Rajkowska’s grueling film of pregnancy and birth, Born in Berlin (2012), and others still were sterile exercises, such as Antanas Mockus’s Blood Ties (2012), which sought to persuade visitors that they could actually do something to help the victims of drug-trafficking in Central America by donating blood. Among the artistic attempts at social activism that seemed doomed to failure, the Institute for Human Activities’s (HA) Gentrification Program in the Congo verged on the irresponsible. Included were photographs of ramshackle huts and shelters that appeared rather suspect. While a viewer wanted these images to be ironic commentaries on the kinds of gentrification that are peddled in Third World countries, they seemed instead to be the best examples HA could muster in illustrating the “real impact” of art, as the group describes it in its manifesto.
It became even harder to entertain the proposition that contemporary art has a visible social impact after viewing, on the KW’s third floor, the documentary footage of current worldwide struggles and protests. Presented simultaneously, footage of the crowds on Tahrir Square vied for attention with a civilian run-in with militia in Ramallah and demonstrations outside the headquarters of the national TV network in the Czech Republic. While the art on display was seemingly marooned in its own concerns, the actions and emotions evinced in these real-life situations traversed nationalities, arresting viewers and forcefully bringing political realities into the sterile confines of the exhibition. Perhaps the boundary between art and activism is less blurred than many press releases and curatorial statements would have it—which perhaps is okay.
In a similar way, Manifesta 9, by attempting to blur the boundaries of art and industry, unfortunately instead raises the question of what art or curators really have to offer as socio-political critique. The exhibition, titled The Deep of the Modern, is staged in the once glorious and still imposing pithead of the Waterschei mining complex. Leaving the building empty may have been the most effective monument to a near-extinct local industry. As it is, Manifesta 9’s curators—Cuauhtemoc Medina, Katerina Gregos, and Dawn Ades—use the site to purvey a reverse mining metaphor. Drilling up through heritage on the first floor and art history on the second, they reveal contemporary art as the precious ore brought to light by their endeavors on the third.
In what has been wrongly heralded as an innovative curatorial move, the first floor explores socio-historical aspects of mining. Here the miners are presented as folk of morals and culture through the inclusion of random objects such as prayer mats and samplers, excellent potato and coal carvings of miners’ heads by the Spanish miner Manuel Durán, drawings by British miners from the Ashington Group (active 1934–84), and, most peculiarly, a detailed dive into the career of Rocco Granata, a Belgian miner turned singer, songwriter, and accordionist. The reality of the miners’ trade is conveyed by contemporary documentation in the form of, for example, newsreel footage of the ’60s and ’70s miner strikes in Belgium. Together with some truly unspeakable wild cards, such as the inclusion of fashion designs made from discarded miner uniforms, this selection ends up perplexing rather than educating viewers. For those who stray off the beaten track, the cordoned-off mining museum, which habitually resides on the building’s first floor, offered a far more authentic experience. Fashioned by miners, its displays of discarded tools, clothes, coal samples, pit wagons, and shafts are grimy, smelly, and soot-blackened. They cogently convey the complex, harsh, and dehumanizing realities of the industry.
The second floor is mainly the purview of the art historian Ades, who undertakes an investigation into the intersections between mining and art history and presents artworks in a variety of media. A somewhat over-scrupulous adherence to the theme renders the overall effect one of a
Google search for “coal + art.” Works by Richard Long, David Hammons, Marcel Broodthaers, Bernar Venet, and Marchel Duchamp compose, respectively: a rectangular accumulation of coal; a toy-train-set landscape complete with real coal heaps; three small heaps of coal; a very large biomorphic heap of coal; and a reconstruction of the coal-sack ceiling created for the 1937 International Surrealist Exhibition. The last also doubles here as the entry to a climate-controlled container lined with many older coal works, beginning with etchings from the nineteenth century that depict coal mines in the landscape, through paintings and drawings of the Industrial Revolution’s coal quarries, and continuing to the twentieth-century photographs by the Bechers of Ruhr Valley mines. There is even a misplaced section on the fossilization properties of coal and illustrated copies of Emile Zola’s seminal nineteenth-century French mining novel, Germinal.
The third floor expands the discussion of mining to show the industry’s place in global capitalism. These parameters facilitate the inclusion of any work that explores either consumption—such as Para-Production (2008), by Haifeng Ni, which is a giant, growing installation of sewing machines and textile shreds—or the failed promise of capitalism—such as Duncan Campbell’s Make it New John, (2009) about the DeLorean’s ill-fated excursion to the factories of Northern Ireland—or any number of other related and predictable themes. While some of the larger installation works look undeniably imposing in their early industrial surroundings, on this floor the building comes into its architectural own. Faced with vistas of verdant hills—the grassed-over slag heaps of the past—through the giant windows, a visitor may find it difficult to focus on making sense of the artworks.
In rigidly espousing its theme, the exhibition provides ample evidence of the pitfalls of literalness but remains strangely coy on the subject of the mining industry, which the curators present both as evil reality and positive artistic inspiration. Perusing some of the mining-art films on the second floor, I stumbled across a TV broadcast of the British poet Tony Harrison reading his controversial poem V to a studio audience. A 448-line epic, V was written by Harrison during the U.K. miner strike of 1984–85 after his visit to the vandalized graves of his parents in the northern industrial city of Leeds. V scandalized class-conscious Britain with its colloquialisms, obscenities, and unvarnished description of the social impact of the declining mining industry. The poem, its broadcast, and the attendant viewer outrage constitute a more subtle presentation of the relationship between art’s autonomy and its political implications, intimating by extension the possibility of a more nuanced exhibition about art’s potential relationship to the coal industry.
By contrast, Documenta 13 succeeds where the others don’t in reflecting art’s relationship to life, by dispensing with a restrictive overarching concept. Although monstrous in scale, the exhibition is human in approach. Much of the press has centered on the very human qualities of its artistic director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev; her partiality toward dogs, tree planting, feminism, and the environment is the subject of many laudatory articles. Less in evidence are her thirteen curatorial collaborators, or agents, who fanned out over the world in an extensive research operation. The results are reflected in the numbers: one hundred sixty artists and fifty-five countries are represented in about twenty-five local venues, plus four international “platforms”: Kabul, Alexandria, Cairo, and Banff.
Of the three mega-shows, it is also Documenta 13 that most fully contributes towards and reflects the life of its immediate context. While its vastness and complexity convey a deep engagement with a complicated, heterogeneous world, the show is grounded in Kassel’s urban reality. It takes advantage of the resources that the city offers, including the park, the defunct cinemas, the shopping thoroughfares, and its train station. Not only do artworks inhabit the city, but, also, many of the artists have relocated there for the duration of the exhibition and are physically present. The Chicago-based artist and community activist Theaster Gates, for example, has moved into the decrepit, historic Huguenothouse with members of his studio team and band. The group lives and works, cooks, builds—they are gradually shoring up the fabric of the house with wood imported from Chicago—and plays music, its activities on public display. In contrast to the occupiers of the Berlin Biennale, the troupe shares its usually private existence, gaining energy from its interactions with visitors in return—their band rehearsals, for example, feed off the presence of a live audience. There is also an ongoing program of events involving invited speakers and curators, such as the hypnotic séances staged by Raimundas Malašauskas and Marcos Lutyens in one of the purpose-built park pavilions. Of the commissions that remain this year, many offer direct services to the city’s inhabitants, such as Brian Jungen’s dog park. Informed by Situationist sociability, site-specific artistic and curatorial engagement is privileged here over superficial cultural nomadism, and a certain generosity is manifest in the ongoing commitment to the city.
Once the capital of Weimar Germany and a cultural center since the days of Frederick the Great, Kassel took an ignominious turn in the 1940s when it served as a Nazi deportation hub. Allied bombing almost destroyed the city in 1943. Although its focus is on the present, Documenta 13 takes account of this history for the first time, and many of the works engage its legacy accordingly. Janet Cardiff’s audio tour leads listeners through the Hauptbahnhof, or train station, from which thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps, and weaves allusions to their gruesome fate with musings on departure in general. Sanja Ivekovic’s installation The Disobedients (The Revolutionaries) (2012) puts a face on local Nazi cruelty by taking as its starting point a photograph of a uniformed Nazi officer standing near a donkey held in a barbed-wire pen as a warning to “stubborn citizens,” as the installation’s text describes. Michael Rakowitz’s What Dust Will Rise (2012) draws parallels between the destruction of the Fridericianum’s collection of old books with that of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. Germany’s Fascist history as a whole comes under scrutiny in several works, including Lee Miller and David Sherman’s misguided photographs of themselves bathing in Hitler’s Berchtesgaden bathtub, the Dauchau survivor Korbinian Aigner’s exhaustive watercolor encyclopedia of apple varieties, and Hannah Ryggen’s terse critiques of fascism, in carpet form. The exhibition vindicates the artist as social and political commentator and his or her commitment to engaging with life as compatible with a valid artistic practice.
Global dialogues reflecting a contemporary understanding of politics are not excluded. Unsurprisingly, northern Africa is particularly well represented, primarily with works made in the wake of the Arab Spring that obliquely reference its events, such as Wael Shawky’s Crusades Cabaret (2010), a filmic Egyptian puppet-theater interpretation of the brutalities of the crusades, or Hassan Khan’s Blind Ambition (2012), shot on a cell phone in Cairo. But some also address older, ongoing situations such as the Palestine/Israel conflict, poignantly encapsulated in Emily Jacir’s photographs of confiscated Arab manuscripts and books in Jerusalem libraries. In the southern hemisphere, tensions in Australia, not at first glance a hotbed of domestic unrest, are hinted at in the work of two Australian aboriginal artists, Doreen Reed Nakamarra and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltarri: these large format paintings, which employ a dizzying array of abstract patterning and motifs, enchant optically at the same time they represent ancestral history and ties to land. This is art with a proven political history, and as such it has apparently substantiated Aboriginal land claims in Australian courts. Over in the Neue Galerie, the Australian artist Stuart Ringholt hosts regular Anger Workshops, inviting interested parties to sign up for free thirty-minute “neuro-cardio” sessions that teach methods for expressing frustration in “kinder ways,” as the artist describes.
So what are the less successful aspects? They include the random artworks clumsily inserted into the Orangerie’s planetarium displays, the rather literal seeds-and-turf eco-art projects in the Museum of Natural History in the Ottoneum, or even the pavilions and sculptures in the city’s park, which for the most part delivered flat one-liners: Sam Durant’s non-interactive wooden climbing frame, Anri Sala’s perspective-challenging clock, and Rosemarie Trockel’s tea pavilion. Lastly, the contribution of the international platforms remains underdeveloped, but time and space preclude examining the ramifications of deploying artists and curators in the volatile context of Kabul, for example.
On balance, the show pleased more than disappointed. Contrary to the Berlin Biennale and Manifesta, Documenta 13 lives. It is not mired in futile political gestures, rhetoric, or an art historical vacuum but rather reflects our world through the eyes of artists, privileging their vision but showing it as humanist, intelligent, generous, and empathetic. Its eclecticism is rendered as a virtue rather than a flaw through a masterful weaving of many narratives. Christov-Bakargiev has referenced a dance when talking about the pace and trajectory of her exhibition, but its effect was rather of some vast, improvised choral work, for a dance implies a single partnership, and this show illuminates many. Having survived Documenta 12, I returned with some trepidation to Kassel. I was wary of another round of cloistered aestheticism, an overly concept-driven, dryly theoretical framework justifying a jumble of too much art. As it is, this Documenta constitutes a restorative encounter with art—and life.