Report from Documenta 12: some details

Post by Andrea Kirsh

[This is part 2 of a two-parter. Part one is here.]

Romuald Hazoume Self-Portrait 1995 made of plastic container
Romuald Hazoume Self-Portrait 1995 made of plastic container. All photographs in this post by Andrea Kirsh.


Documenta XII’s curators were extremely catholic in their taste: abstract as well as figurative painting, sculpture and photography; video, textiles and installations; sixteenth-century Persian calligraphy and a post-card of a Manet painting (yes, a post card, of his 1867 view of the Universal Exposition in Paris, hung in a vitrine and labeled like any other work in the exhibition). In addition to a particularly international roster of artists, they included a Senegalese fashion designer, a Brazilian urban planner, a Congolese play-write and a Catalan chef. Perhaps it is no surprise that the approach reappearing throughout, in one medium after another, was collage. Juxtaposition based on formal issues rather than history, including the neglected and obscure beside the recognized and valued, was the method of the curators and many of the artists of Documenta 12.

group discussion at Aue-Pavillon
visitors in a group discussion, sitting in circles of Ai Weiwei’s chairs at Aue-Pavilion

When Documenta XII Curator Roger Buergel spoke in Philadelphia last year (see Libby’s post), he described various projects of education and interpretation that led up to the exhibition. While it sounded like admirable rhetoric, the results were clearly visible. I have never seen ordinary visitors spending so much time with individual works and talking about the art with others. Some of these discussions grew out of the earlier education projects: students and community members had been trained to lead conversations about the exhibition. These were intended by the administration to have “more to do with enthusiasm than expertise.” Exhibition spaces were everywhere populated with Quing dynasty Chinese chairs, 1001 of them. They were part of the project of Ai Weiwei, a Peking artist who lived in the U.S. for more than a decade. Lining the periphery of various spaces, the chairs were welcome resting spots; in the large temporary pavilion set up for the exhibition, many chairs were arranged in circles which were used by the organized groups. The exhibition became a sort of ongoing, populist seminar; I was really very impressed.


resting in Aue-Pavilion
visitor resting in one of Ai Weiwei’s 1001 Quing-Dynasty chairs at Aue-Pavilion
photo by Andrea Kirsh

Another aspect of the exhibition were the almost one hundred international art, literary and intellectual magazines that had been invited to participate; their articles have been anthologized and their Documenta participation is also available on-line (see below). Copies of each were spread out for viewing, and being able to leaf through them, indeed just to learn that they exist, was a major education; these publications never make it to either bookstores or libraries in any one place. I looked at “Vector” published in Lasi, Romania, in Romanian and English; “SentAp!” from Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia, in English; “Remont Art Magazine” from Belgrade, Serbia, in Serbian and English; “Shahrzed” published in English by a political design collective in Zurich; “Urban China” from Shanghai in Chinese and English; “Akbar al-Adab” from Al Qahira, Egypt in Arabic; (the entire list is online, and also includes urls for many that have web versions). One real surprise was the prevalence of English, which I know has been the lingua franca in the sciences for decades; even the journal, “Metronome,” founded by a French scholar, is published in English, French, German and Japanese, and the issue I looked at was English and Japanese only. The exception were publications out of Latin America; I saw magazines from Buenos Aires, Caracas, Mexico City, Sao Paolo and Santiago de Chile and all were entirely in Spanish. That certainly says something about their expected readership.

Mira Schendel Droguina 1966
Mira Schendel 2 pieces, each titled “Droguinha” ca. 1966, twisted and braided sheets of rice paper


It’s impossible to summarize the more than 500 artworks on view, so I’ve picked six that caught my attention, four of them by artists I’d never heard of. I had known of the Brazilian artist, Mira Schendel, and one of her wonderful knotted hanging pieces, “Droguinha” (1966, made of twisted and braided sheets of rice paper), was on view; it anticipated both the formlessness of later American sculpture and scatter installations as well as the handwork of later feminist art. But her drawings were a surprise, particularly the small notebook pages with spare compositions created from letters and partial arcs of circles. Not more than 4 inches in their largest dimension, they were extraordinary designs which expanded well beyond the tiny sheets and spoke of a huge vision and talent.

Bela Kolarova "Swatch of Radiograms of Circle (42 variants)" 1963 fotogram:silver bromide photograph, luminograph
Bela Kolarova “Swatch of Radiograms of Circle (42 variants)” 1963 fotogram:silver bromide photograph, luminograph

Bela Kolarova’s
work of the early 1960s was a revelation; not surprising since her only exhibition beyond her native Czech Republic was in Helsinki. I was particularly taken with her photographs. She took pictures of imagery which she constructed, primarily out of home-y things (and those traditionally associated with femininity) such as long hanks of hair, or swatches of fabric, although she also photographed a rather magical grid of photograms of circles (the technique, as described by the label copy, is actually a bit of a mystery to me, but I believe the images of concentric circles were results of an analytic technique used by chemists). The fact that her subjects were products of the artist’s making implies a sense of time and handwork behind the photographs, which adds to the interest. She has truly figured out how to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

Zofia Kulik Self-portrait at Schloss Wilhelmshohe
Kulik’s multi-part photograph is hung between Rembrandts in one of the galleries of the museum, which has a major collection of 17th century Dutch paintings; a friendly guard suggested that the major reason to hang the contemporary works there was to get the Documenta visitors to the museum. I must say, I agree.–Andrea

Kwiekulik was the name assumed by the Polish artists Zofia Kulik and Przemyslaw Kwiek when they worked collaboratively from 1971-1987. When their son was born in 1972, they worked with him during his first two years, producing a series of photographs “Activities with Dobromierz.” Forty-eight of these black and white photos were arranged in a grid on the wall, surrounded by a rather Baroque frame made of crumpled, brown wrapping paper. The child seemed blissfully unaware of anything unusual as they captured him sitting in a cardboard box surrounded by patterns of fruit (or carrots, or cutlery) laid out in circular patterns on the surrounding floor; or standing on an overturned bucket so he became a sculpture, with the bucket the base. He was their straight man, much as Man Ray was for Wegman, with the added factor that this sort of play, under the bare light-bulbs of a dreary socialist apartment, was part of the child’s everyday life and, hence, the work was a commentary on the necessity for individual imagination in the face of an oppressive system. Besides, I love humor in serious places.

Straight-forward reportorial photography does not usually interest me greatly, but I was stunned by the work of the Nigerian, George Osodi ; he made the most lush and dramatic use of color I’ve ever seen. He exhibited a series of digital photographs on a large screen, more-or-less a slide show (will someone please tell me the term for a slide-less, digital show?) and I was not the only one who sat on the floor and watched for a very long time. The achingly-beautiful and painful pictures of “Oil Rich Niger Delta” (2006) depict the poverty and squalor of that area of Nigeria, despite the wealth of oil it produces. It was punctuated with the repeated image of oil fires in the background, and Osodi exploited their peculiar hue for its visual and narrative significance. His indogenous position relative to the subject eliminates the question of exploitation that such photographic projects raise.

Romuald Hazoume 'Dream' overall view
Romuald Hazoume “Dream” 2007 boat made from plastic cannisters, glass bottles, corks and cords in front of photo-mural, with lettering on the floor (not visible)

Romuald Hazoume of Benin produced wonderful versions of traditional masks out of the discarded plastic canisters that are the most widespread utensils in Benin (the handles became noses) but his large installation, “Dream” (2007) was something more, grandly-poetic and wrenching at the same time. In front of a photographic mural depicting a tropical coast is a 45 foot long boat, constructed of the same plastic containers (these were black, and used to transport fuel). The boat’s name, “Dream,” is painted on the side, and it will hold many passengers. And on the floor is an inscription: “Damned if they leave and damned if they stay: better, at least, to have gone, and be damned in the boat of their dreams.” It speaks of the ingenuity of the poor as well as their slim chance of escaping their condition.

The Indian documentary filmmaker, Amar Kanwar, also combined imagery of great beauty with a political critique of violence and exploitation (a Kanwar film was shown last year at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, and at the last Documenta). “The Lightning Testimonies” (2007) was a multi-channel video installation. Viewers were surrounded by overlapping visual and verbal narratives of sexual violence in the service of ethnic hostilities, The narrators came from Nagaland, the Punjab, Kashmir, Gujarat, Bangladesh, and were often the women themselves. There was a dreadful sameness to their histories; these are crimes that will not go away. But the women survive, or their families do, and they must go on. The film raised questions of their memories, their actions against the aggressors, of the possibilities of healing, and the necessity of intervention.

–Andrea Kirsh is an art historian based in Philadelphia. You can read her recent Philadelphia Introductions articles at inLiquid.