ALFREDO JAAR, 1+1+1, 1987, photographic installation that was commissioned for Documenta 8, Kassel. Copyright Alfredo Jaar. Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

SIAH ARMAJANI, Elements #2, 1986, painted wood and stained glass, 320 × 193 × 76.2 cm, which exhibited at Documenta 8, Kassel, 1987. Courtesy the artist.

Progress, Piety and Mess

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic
“History’s a mess,” the late art historian Robert Rosenblum used to say, his lulling monotone masking the encyclopedic expanse of his knowledge, “Never so neat as it seems in the books.” How much more messy this marvelously catholic mind, steeped in history’s minutiae, would think things are now, when “global” has displaced “the West” as the reigning disorder, and “the Rest” are rewriting histories aplenty. 

Perhaps it was just this messiness, acknowledged as modernism’s unselvaged ends, that inspired Roger Buergel’s deployment of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) in the Museum Fridericianum’s central staircase at the last Documenta in 2007. It wasn’t Klee’s original angel—invested with whatever auratic presence such an original has—but a photograph of it. Just as well for those in the know, who couldn’t help but see the image as a palimpsest for Walter Benjamin’s memorable interpretation of it as the “Angel of History” in his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940). So there, at the beginning of what many regard as the world’s most intellectually significant contemporary art exhibition, a reproduction served as a stand-in for an original that was there only to represent an epic image of historical progress—no less from the philosopher best known for his parsing the affect of originals and reproductions. It was a poignant allegory for the potential fate of individual artists and artworks in such mega-exhibitions. For my part, I could not help but imagine Klee’s diminutive angel clapping its wings in delighted self-recognition when Ai Weiwei’s Template (2007), that beautiful folly of 1,001 stacked Ming and Qing dynasty doors, was ravaged by a storm in Documenta 12’s opening week and became even more resonant as a real-world rubble heap. Historical progress, indeed, that a controversial Chinese artist should become the show’s de facto star.

For those whose intellectual formation took place in the 1990s and after, the art world seems to be a much larger, newly diverse space, particularly after Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002, which definitively tuned in to the Technicolor global present from the oppressive, black-and-white monotony of the provincial Western past—or so the movie-trailer version of Documenta history (and with it all contemporary art history) goes. There’s no question that Documenta 11, building on the impetus and intellectual rigor of Catherine David’s 1997 edition, was a watershed in shifting the power balance and standard viewing apparatus away from the so-called center. But in the rubble of exhibitions past, one finds messy, colorful details worth revisiting.

Take Jan Hoet’s Documenta 9 of 1992, for example. Guy Brett, in his review for Third Text 20 (Autumn 1992), an insightful, comparative period piece before the global biennial boom got underway, wrote: “Probably for the first time, Documenta this year has included the work of a number of artists whose origins are outside the First World. This change was welcomed by, among others, David Hammons, who said that this fact alone made the 1992 Documenta a ‘huge success.’” Hammons probably was not thinking of the dozen or so artists of Japanese or Korean origin; nor Indian-born Anish Kapoor and Bhupen Khakhar, both first celebrated in the United Kingdom. He also probably didn’t have in mind South African-born Marlene Dumas (based in the Netherlands for more than a decade), nor Ilya Kabakov (by then living in the United States). I imagine he was thinking of his compatriot Jimmie Durham (then living in Mexico), the Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, Nigerian-born sculptor Mo Edoga and a range of artists now internationally well-known from across Latin America: Guillermo Kuitca (Argentina), Eugenio Dittborn (Chile), Ricardo Brey (Cuba) and Waltercio Caldas and Cildo Meireles (Brazil), among others. While some might have regarded Hoet’s directorial effort as one more elaboration of a Western-centric paradigm, I tend to agree with Hammons: we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Dig a bit deeper into past Documentas and one finds a fascinating variety of practitioners. Beyond artists of East Asian origin that some of us would expect to find in an international survey exhibition—such as Kumi Sugai and Isamu Noguchi (Documentas 2 and 3), David Medalla (5), Yoko Ono (5 and 8), Lee Ufan (6), On Kawara (6, 7 and 11) and Nam June Paik (6 and 8)—I am more intrigued by the many names totally unknown to me among more than 40 artists of East Asian origin included in Documentas 2 to 8 (from 1959 to 1987). Unsurprisingly, many had emigrated to Western centers by the time of their participation, but many remained in their respective countries of origin. I’m also interested in careers such as that of Indian-born, UK-based painter Avinash Chandra, included in Documenta 3 in 1964; the presence of Iranian cinema at Documenta 6 in 1977 (Dariush Mehrjui and Sohrab Shahid Saless); and the three-time participation of Iranian-born American sculptor Siah Armajani (5, 7, 8). During the same 30-year period, more than 30 Latin American artists appeared in Documenta—before it had ever dawned on the contemporary art world to embrace the diversity of global cultural production. Or perhaps it had, but without much fanfare.

What interests me most, however, is that Rudi Fuchs’ Documenta  7 (1982), castigated by Benjamin Buchloh in the pages of October 22 (Autumn 1982) as a “Dictionary of Received Ideas,” was so narrowly conservative as to make the prior Documentas seem internationally eclectic. Whatever definition for “inclusive” Documenta had established by 1982, that page was missing from Fuchs’ reference text.

Bracketing Fuchs’ contribution, one finds the directorial efforts of the lesser-known curator and historian Manfred Schneckenburger in 1977 and 1987; the latter, a more hastily organized exhibition after Edy de Wilde and Harald Szeemann stepped away from the project already a few years into its planning. No wonder, following Szeemann’s landmark 1972 edition, that the institution (its curatorial strategies, not the particular artworks in the exhibition) came to seem a lugubrious, even reactionary bastion of conservatism in the 1980s, with 1982 its nadir. Given the broader sociopolitical regressions of the 1980s, whatever diversity lay in earlier editions seems to have been forgotten amid the contentions and contingencies of the present. No wonder, too, that Chilean-born artist Alfredo Jaar’s photographic installation 1+1+1, comprising three low-hung light boxes showing dramatically cropped, upside-down images of impoverished children, commissioned for Documenta 8 in 1987, seemed the voice crying in the wilderness, a harbinger of the burgeoning postcolonial reforms that would receive their fullest institutional crystallization 15 years later, in Documenta 11. History’s a mess, but sifting through it gives you some grounded perspective.

By now we have a new set of received ideas, dispensed in benign doses like this commentary from Jens Hoffmann in his 2008 essay “Archaeologies of the Present: On Curating”: “Until the discourses of post-colonial theory and identity politics arrived in the curatorial offices of museums, it was unusual to see work made by artists from outside Western Europe or North America. While a few significant museum exhibitions marked a change in this situation . . . it was the major biennials and other large-scale international group exhibitions, such as the 1997 and 2002 editions of Documenta, that most effectively began to offer an overview of art from around the world on a significant scale.” Nice, neat and close enough for a classroom presentation.

But I’m not convinced it was so unusual to see diversity as habitually claimed—though such work was probably not seen as it would be today, particularly as self-identifying work of cultural difference. How did Sugai, Kawara, Lee, Noguchi, Paik and others whose names are less remembered by history, see themselves, and how did others see them, when they were in Documenta? Shall we simply (dis)regard these scores of artists from various places around the globe as the (minority) exceptions that prove the (majority) rule in the time of the old dispensation?

In the most trenchant commentary on large-scale global exhibitions I’ve encountered, Pascal Gielen rightly suggests in The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude:  Global Art, Memory and Post-Fordism (2009): “The profusion of biennales . . . cannot be explained without the enthusiasm with which politicians, managers and other sponsors have embraced them. And it is precisely this heterogeneous interest that makes the biennale suspect.” He goes on to explain how “the internationally operating curator—and indeed every globally operating artistic actor—thus enjoys the pleasures afforded by today’s widespread neoliberal market economy.” Gielen voices a widely shared concern that points some way forward: “The biennale, or to put it a better way, the excessive boom in biennales, offers little room anymore for historicity; even less does it generate the necessary time for thorough research, and furthermore it often ignores the locality.” In my view, the deep-rootedness of history as embedded in the specificity of place, people, objects, their displacements and returns serves as a modest but powerful bulwark against the shallowness of historical inquiry seen in spectacular “global” surveys.

For all its international authority, Documenta operates in a contemporary art world of such great variety and complexity that it can no longer be the definitive exhibition it once was, or at least hoped to be. For viewer-participants who have worked for and witnessed the very real transformations of the last 30 years (or more), it is now all but disingenuous (though not without its enticing professional advantages) to think of “global contemporary art” as a thing reifiable in such spectacular exhibition formats. I am all for infinite inclusion and expansion, but art is not a representational democracy, and Documenta—much less other exhibitions with smaller budgets and shorter lead times for development—can no longer claim mastery of the totality of history’s messy rubble. The storm of progress has already blown us past that neat moment. I expect less of Documenta, or rather more—more singularity, more focus, more depth, more meaning, more getting dirty in the mess.