Art and the Orient

    What Are the Lessons of documenta 12?
    Reflections from the Viewpoint of a Postmodern Artist

    Zaki Al-Maburen 'The Cubic House' Copyright: Tim Otto Roth
    Zaki Al-Maburen "The Cubic House"
    Copyright: Tim Otto Roth
    "You arrive in the heart of Germany, just to read the word "art" under your own shadow." Du kommst zum Herzen Deutschlands, nur um das Wort Kunst unter deinem eigenen Schatten zu lesen." These German letters shine - with a knowing wink - at the visitor, who may well have made a long journey to come here, when he places himself in the cone of light of a stripped-down installation in the Neue Galerie, one of five exhibition locations. Even though this work by the Chilean artist Gonzalo Díaz is one of the few humorous and self-ironic contributions to the 100-Day Museum, this spectacle that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, presents itself nonetheless in a mostly light-hearted vein.

    The exhibition program displayed in five main locations by the director, Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, the exhibition's curator and Buergel's wife in one, is exceedingly complex. The two exhibition organizers present a reduced selection of 117 artistic positions from around the world with less than 500 works that are by no means limited to contemporary artists as far as historical depth is concerned, and that subtly seeks to direct the visitor's gaze away from the established and rising stars of the international art scene. The show presents a wide spectrum of media, extending from a spatially integrated sculpture by Iole de Freitas to dance performances by Trisha Brown and Harun Farocki's computer-based work that explores and interprets the 2006 Soccer World Championship Final in various modes of rendition. This show, the world's largest exhibition of contemporary art, was elucidated with a few descriptive catch-words whose adequacy will be analysed in what follows.

    Conflict Number One

    The conflict in the Near East, "Conflict Number One" in Roger M. Buergel's view, turns up a number of times in the exhibition. Thus, the Palestinian artist Ahlam Shibli documents the fate of the Beduins living in the Israeli Negev Desert, after having been "transferred," i.e. forced, from their lands, in her subtle photo cycle, "Goter." The Austrian artist Peter Friedl makes his commentary on the conflict with a stuffed giraffe that died in 2002 in the Palestinian zoo of Qalqilyah of a panic attack it suffered when skirmishes erupted during the invasion of the Israeli Army. In his wall tapestry compositions of 2006, Abdoulaye Konaté combines the Israeli flag with the checked Palestinian headcloth and surrounds them with hundreds of so-called "gris-gris," stitched leather amulets for protection and good luck from Mali.

    The Migration of Form

    To be sure, the necessary background information for understanding the works is not accessible through the mere displaying of the works themselves. Quite the contrary, the 400-page catalog is indispensable. The catalog's explanatory texts clarify the meaning of the term, "migration of form," - elevated by Buergel has to the level of a programmatic statement - with respect to parts of the exhibition up to a point. Thus, the oldest work shown in Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, a Persian miniature painting dating from the 14th - 16th centuries, reveals Chinese styles of representation - an indication of cultural exchange during that period. But it is by no means clear how a "migration of form" is supposed to have taken place between the Persian forest landcape with a river flowing through it and the representations in its vicinity, such as a Hokusai wood-cut from 1835 consisting of a completely abstract, vertical pattern of stripes. However ambitious the curator team's contraposition of works from different epochs and contexts may be, many of the intended connections between the mostly heterogenic works are neither formally nor conceptually evident. This holds for the exhibits in Schloss Wilhelmshöhe that are integrated into the existing collection of classical works, but also for presentations in the documenta hall, in which an approx. 200 year-old Persian carpet with a slightly abstract garden motif cannot be intelligibly placed even in a complementary relationship with Friedel's giraffe or with a current sculpture installation by Cosima von Bonin.

    A Major Exhibition With No Form

    By no means can one agree with Roger M. Buergel when he coyly maintains that "this major exhibition has no form." The exhibition spaces in the Fridericianum, in the documenta hall, the Neue Galerie and Schloss Wilhelmshöhe do indeed have a form, that of the impressive design of the exhibit rooms. These present themselves either as bright and colorful, or dark and cave-like, sometimes with or without a garish carpet, and thus depart from the classical presentation in the White Cube. But an implicit question imposes itself on one in connection with this presentation and its subtle correspondences as to whether the curator is in fact acting as a facilitator here, or is celebrating his own entrée as an artist, or rather as an art-space designer. The fifth exhibition location, the temporary pavilion in the idyllic Auepark, demonstrates a complete failure of design intuition combined with a lapse into formal contingency. Instead of responding to the migration of form evident in the park itself - after all, the grove is an indecisive hybrid between a French park and an English garden - an ugly hall construction has been planted in front of the baroque Orangerie, as if its purpose was to block the feudal palace's absolutistic view over the expanse of the park for the 100 days. Originally conceived as halls flooded with light, the transparent sides had to be covered on the side facing the sun, and huge air conditioning units - no trace of green sustainability-awareness here - were needed to rescue the complex from heat collapse. How paradoxical: To make the critical artistic confrontation with the excesses of modernity at least barely endurable as far as indoor climate is concerned, the documenta makes its "contribution" to global warming with a senseless waste of energy - and that with the support of the Swedish auto maker, Saab.

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    Tim Otto Roth, was born in 1974. He is a media artist and lives in the Black Forest and in Cologne. He has carried out numerous projects in the Arab world in cooperation with the Goethe-Institute.

    © Goethe-Institute Fikrun wa Fann 2007
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