Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

A strange evening hue hangs about, deepening the already intense green that could only be in a park in some mid-western part of Europe. An electronica beat pumps through the otherwise static air.

A storm is brewing above the clouds emanating from a machine that bursts puffs of sweet smelling smoke in the same direction as the music. Underscoring both, a lumpy carpet of ice cubes lines the muddy grass, dotted with empty champagne bottles and artsy scavengers hoping to discover the last unopened one. These figures, in their standard-black-plus-ironic-footwear, scratch around in the ice, somewhat sheepishly at first, only to become more determined in their attempted excavation. A neoclassical sculpture partially blocks my view of this unusual dance-cum-booklaunch, which could so easily be read/misread as a performance. Anything goes at dOCUMENTA right? Anything and more – if one were to take seriously this year’s curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (acronym: CCB). dOCUMENTA was described to me by a friend as a curator’s exhibition, and indeed the Italy-based, American CCB became a prominent feature of the event itself, with a penchant for both the stagey and the esoteric (not to mention her questionable obsession with dogs). Her meandering curatorial approach is “summarised” in CCB’s 15-page monster of a Press Release, which begins with a stream of consciousness riffing on the constant tension between a positive empiricist view of art as fact in the world, and art’s intent negation of classification and knowledge systems. In a sense that tension became the only really traceable thread (if one could call it a thread) throughout the exhibition’s sprawling venues, chronologies and subjects. The excessive champagne, pages of press release, time and branding involved are all consistent with the scale of dOCUMENTA 13 which presents no less than 180 creative projects. I say “creative projects” as the exhibition includes many “non-art” contributors including astrophysicists, engineers, writers, philosophers and more. Not only is this policy of more-is-more consistent with the aim of this edition, but its ambitious internationalism is also in keeping with the original motivations for dOCUMENTA when it began in 1955. Scratching around, as it were, in the icy political conditions left by the Second World War, dOCUMENTA was an attempt to excavate the hope of trans-national dialogue with Germany once more, through the medium of contemporary art. Having taken place every 5 years since then, there have been a number of curatorial endeavours to expand that hope in a larger sea of ice to include links with the southern hemisphere and former colonies (one thinks particularly of Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor). All this in mind, I found myself searching, not only through the ice cubes on that summery evening, but through the fragments of a number of complex and engaging artworks on display, for the empty bottles of our time: the now in this place, Europe’s current economic powerhouse – an interesting historic inversion – and, according to one contributor Franco Berardi, the immanent apocalypse of Western Culture as we know it. That sense of denouement was so eloquently, almost seductively, rendered by William Kentridge, whom I discovered has quite a longstanding relationship with CCB. The first to publish an extended monograph of Kentridge’s work back in 1998 (following his collaboration with the Handspring Puppet company at documenta X) CCB’s interest seems to lie in Kentridge’s criss-crossing of art historical as well as creative disciplinary borders. This time, the artist’s collaboration with South African composer Philip Miller, The Refusal of Time (2012), was staged in a building adjoining Kassel’s main train station. The post-industrial decay seeping into the space could not have been more poetic in relation to a piece which sets out to investigate the loss and discontinuities which came with the modernising standardisation of clocks. The work exists as both an installation as well as a live performance, which was to be part of dOCUMENTA’s exhaustive ongoing programme. I only managed to witness the former, so I will speak to that experience. The multiple projections within the installation comprise tightly timed threads of footage: of Kentridge himself entering the frame; faux antiquated black and white reels where Dada Masilo engages a cast of other actors; as well as new versions of the artist’s hallmark animated sequences imbued as always with the visual language of the Russian avant-garde. Over and above this, megaphone-like structures in the ceiling blared an ongoing voice-over narration, interrupted by occasional bursts of Miller’s original clunking and ticking score. One last feature of what seems to be a ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, is an impressive structure of moving wooden arms – pumping air like the pneumatic clocks introduced in Paris in the 1800s. The work’s ominous tick-tocking could not have been more appropriate in the context of a time-conscious dOCUMENTA crowd who had many more works to see and places to go. And rather than provide an unfaithful glossing of “the rest” of the show – mentioning in passing the positive reception of other Southern African artists on the show, Zanele Muholi and Kudzanai Chiurai; or the problematic diplomatic negotiations sparked by the Argentinian meteorite project of Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolás Goldberg – I’ll conclude with one more specific impression. A house, the Huguenot House (built in 1826), on Friedrichstrasse has been occupied by black American artist, Theaster Gates and his Chicago compatriots. The significance of the word ‘occupy’ on a site like this is not lost on the artist. In fact, it only gains further nuance: meaning also work, time, and the presence of something alien.1 All these elements of occupation were embraced, warmly embraced, in the events, dinners, soulful jam sessions, garden cocktails and labour intensive renovation – comprising Gates’s 12 Ballads for the Hugenot House (2012). Gates actually lived in Cape Town for a time, pursuing Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town and revelling in the political dynamism of South Africa in the mid-’90s. I walk around the once-dilapidated Hugenot House – damaged during the Second World War – and wonder if the makeshift living museum it has become is not inspired by a conception of time apart from the quick-paced, supposedly global Contemporary Art Clock. A time redeemed by its own “stageyness”; a time occupied by its immanent curtailment, played out to an electronic beat or the lull of an old gospel tune.1Thanks to Hito Steyerl for her recent article which investigates this concept beginning with the recent activities on Wall Street.

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