But now, the flowers had changed the aspect of the Friedrichsplatz into a bright, bobbing field of color, mostly vivid red, with a few purple-white flowers mixed in. Poppies—the flower of sleep, of dreams, of death, and forgetting. Planted by artist Sanja Ivekovic, the field of flowers embraces an enormous range of references, from The Wizard of Oz to contemporary Afghanistan—a point made resoundingly clear twice a day, when loudspeakers on the square play revolutionary songs by RAWA, the Radical Afghan Women’s Association, as a bittersweet reminder of all that has gone wrong, and all there is left to do in the world.
Documenta 12 has been subject to some of the most scathing criticism I’ve ever seen for a major art exhibition (aside from a few editions of the Whitney Biennial). A reviewer for UK paper the Guardian even called it the worst art exhibition ever. Arriving five weeks after the press opening, I had steeled myself for a trainwreck of a show only to find—inspiration.
The list of artists in the exhibition quite pointedly omits the usual suspects of the international art circuit. In fact, the curators purposely refused to release the list until the month before the opening—probably because the received wisdom of the art world would not know what to do with it. (I recently ran into this myself when I invited an established New York critic to our own local Kingston Sculpture Biennial. In reply, he sent me an e-mail ticking off the names of five or six internationally prominent sculptors who live in the area, musing that “it would be great if some of them were in it,” and asking for a list of the artists. After I responded that there is certainly no shortage of talent up here, and that he should come to see the really excellent work in the show—regardless of the name-brand status of the artists—I received no response at all.)
Instead, the curators at Documenta 12 have opened a space for negotiation—of aesthetics, of politics, and of the many ways in which these are continuously intertwined in our global era. The feeling that history follows a neat path, that the universalizing vision of the European Enlightenment should be the lodestar, the ultimate measure of everything that takes place in the world, was only ever an illusion. This exhibition does not so much abandon the noble aims of liberté, egalité, and fraternité, as much as open the field to engage the inevitable blind spots of that Eurocentric philosophy as well.
Feminism, racism, globalization, economics, politics—these are the themes running throughout this Documenta 12, ideas taken seriously and up front, and integrated both directly into the artwork and curatorially by the context(s) provided for the work in a way that I’ve not really seen before. The false universality often assumed by the art world in its tidy, sanitized (and ideologically loaded) “white cube” spaces is here exploded, inverted, carnivalized. Gallery walls are painted coral, dark slate grey, or lime green, refusing to play the customary cool, detached aesthetic game. Form and content are no longer so easily separated, making neither fit for simplistic readings. It’s a brave, new world we’ve created for ourselves, the curators seem to be telling us, and it’s time we wake up to the new realities—and the very real political/social/cultural engagements that they demand of us, in the spirit of constant negotiation. How else could it be?
To counterbalance this blue-chip ghetto, Storr has installed in the enormous cavern of the Arsenale (the former shipbuilding center of the Venetian navy) a seemingly endless march of the more “socially engaged” art, including most of the artists-of-color. From Latin America to Africa to Asia, here is where you’ll encounter the funkier world-beat work that would otherwise disturb the grand masters of the Giardini. By quite literally separating pure aesthetic form (the Giardini show) from the more pointedly content-oriented work (in the Arsenale), Storr only perpetuates the artificial divisions and the illusions of the “old world order” that was so resoundingly deconstructed in Documenta 12. If we continue to cling to this sort of thinking, refusing to allow the new global historical realities to disturb the privileged precincts of “high art,” contemporary art will only grow more and more obtuse, removed, and irrelevant than it already is.