Public presentation 30.06.2007 Documenta Halle

Sureyyya Evren and Brian Holmes

(click for enlargement)

Two writers/critics met through the tenuous links of the Documenta Magazines project. Maybe they had more in common than either expected. But under the circumstances it was hard to express the enthusiasm. By accident, a speaker in the lecture series canceled out, and suddenly they had a chance to formulate their opinions. The idea was to share perceptions transformed into metaphors. Time was short, but satire and humor leapt to their conclusions. Which haven’t changed in retrospect.

Here they are:

“Temporary Imperial Museum”

I will use two metaphors as tools to think about this documenta 12. One of them is for the power relations in documenta, and the other one is for the resistance within; one is for restraint, the other is for escape, to run away.

There are two main flows of understanding that could be easily detected in the curatorial assemblage of d cumenta 12 (art forms continue to exist under the soil of daily life like a hidden treasure and art has a omnipresent truth that can be transferred through education). They may seem naïve but they are openly expressed as if they were reflections on something more complex.

The first idea embedded in this documenta goes like this: there are contexts, but also there are continuations of forms by far above contexts – and these continuations can be recognized by an expert eye. These continuations are more or less linear, or they could be retold through a linear process of history writing. There is some kind of truth in them that continues to breathe under the pressure of different contexts.

Persian Carpet circa 1800
© Some fucked-up neocolonial museum in Berlin

This conception of forms leads the way to an exhibition where miniature paintings, calligraphic works from the 16th century and old Iranian carpets come together with modern era and with then contemporary art works. Antique art from various cultures and also cultural objects like like the veil of a bride. Quite anthropological. But of course, no early bride accessories from the Western Europe. Pre-modern art, is once again borrowed from the ‘other’ cultures. Using a kind of modernist history line for collecting and exhibiting together, a very old habit actually1, makes this event very much like a Temporary Imperial Museum. So, Temporary Imperial Museum would be the first metaphor I will use here.

If documenta 12 is creating a Temporary Imperial Museum here, the question follows, for which colonizers? This is not for Germans probably, Germany never has been a colonizer like that. This is much probably for the castle of Europe. So, where lies the best entrance for this Temporary Imperial Museum, made for the castle of Europe?

I first thought that it is the Iranian carpet exhibited in the documenta halle. But then, I thought it had to be in the castle of Kassel. A secret tunnel from castle to art? Castle (Schloss Wilhelmshöhe) has great works which could be read this way with all the museum atmosphere and such… But no. I still think, castle has such an ‘over obviousness’ that makes it misleading… The preeminent entrance for the Temporary Imperial Museum lies still in the Iranian carpet. Where you see an eastern garden (gardens of heaven) from a bird’seye view, and to follow properly, you have to rise, you have to leave the ground…

“Documenta of Bondage”

The explicit erotics of a mother’s play with her baby boy, in Tseng Yu-Chin’s video Who’s Listening? No. 5, is not without language. Dressed in soft white cloth, the two of them tickle, kiss, poke, pet, caress and roll on the sheets, provoking and cajoling each other all the while, giving orders and excuses and ultimatums. To call it cute – as most of the public does – is really to miss something. The tingling, unbearable pleasure that will become the boy’s adult sexuality already circulates through the mother’s speech, in her delicious little lies and sensual strategies. It’s the rest of us grown-ups who are left at a loss for words in Documenta 12.

Teng Yu-Chin, Who’s Listening? 5, 2003-4
© Tseng Yu-Chin

Luis Jacob, his heart turned to ice, gestures silently in the snow, clasping pieces of clothing to his chest and flinging them into the air, with interpreters gesticulating comically in sign language at his feet. “3-channel video installation with free-standing wall, HD video projection, television monitors, area rug, reading area with 16-page brochure, teak-root chair, mirror-polish chrome table, handwoven basket,” as you learn on the title card. At last, a mega-show of materials and migrating forms, without all the traveling theory that has been left to the magazines. “For this year’s exhibition you don’t need a degree in sociology to understand art,” says curator Roger Buergel in an article in the International Herald Tribune. Come to Kassel for reconciliation with your feelings! Everywhere in the exhibition, memories of modernist abstraction are posed like consensual touchstones of a supposedly pure aesthetic experience. Even I’m caught up in adolescent regression, when I hear my teenage hippie-band, the Grateful Dead, wafting over from Trisha Brown’s choreography, Floor of the Forest, where lithe young girls slip arms or legs into colorful short-pants suspended on ropes, to hang upside-down above the patterned shadows.

One begins to understand what might be at stake with Imogen Stidworthy’s piece, I Hate – which is directly about the absence of speech, or aphasia. The photographer Edward Woodman, pictured here as victim of an accident, can no longer say the fateful words. He has no choice but trying and failing, while language, like the image, falls apart into its disjointed qualities. One recalls the traumatic stories of a book by R.D. Laing called Knots, on the impossible contradictions of human relations. “I hate” like “I love” has a terrifying meaning: Amar Kanwar’s video installation on the sexual violence of the Indo-Pakistani war spells it out clearly enough. But here in the swaddling cloths of what passes for comfortable Europe, are we really so traumatized by the wars to come that we should preemptively give up speaking? Is this why we have a Documenta without discourse?


Hito Steyerl, Lovely Andrea, 2007
©Hito Steyerl

Innumerable artists in the show don’t believe it. Mary Kelly’s felt poetry tells an amazingly lucid story of a child in the hands of men and nations. But Hito Steyerl goes further. In her video, Lovely Andrea, she has given interpretive voice to almost every complex emotion or interaction that arises in her “Recherche du cul perdu” or “Remembrance of ass past,” if you want to translate Proust that way. The search for a photo done for a bit of easy money and published twenty years ago in a forgotten Japanese porno magazine becomes a metaphor of innumerable personal and historical experiences, because it shows how they are all connected in nets of pain and pleasure that reverse constantly into each other when they are expressed so freely. The video has such humor, such subtlety, such honesty and reach that it seems to float on the winds of contemporary history, blowing up from Klee’s Angelus Novus in the staircase. That’s artistic speech for you.

What’s the word we will look back for, twenty years from today, as we try to remember what got lost in Kassel in 2007?

Documenta X, a decade ago, found its metaphor in a poetical map of postwar political history, reaching out with a Marxist analysis toward the coming cartography of globalization. The whole thing, with Art and Language included, was an enormous question about the future. Five years later, D11 offered a trenchant reply by leaving Europe entirely, in order to write the history of the present from platforms of production in the former colonies of European modernity. Artists from around the real globe sent back video reports to be shown in a “black box,” which was how the curator, Okwui Enwezor, described the exhibition. These were tremendously complex, risky and rewarding shows. Does Documenta 12 up the stakes again, or just avoid the question?

In the absence of layered, contradictory curatorial and critical discourses – which you won’t find in D12’s picture book – what happens is that some strong works spill over onto the others, producing unintended meanings. When I look down from Hito Steyerl’s piece to see the ropes of Trisha Brown’s choreography, then go searching for the tangled intricacy of Mira Schendel’s Droghuina sculpture, only to find the red threads of Sheela Gowda’s works, And… And tell him of my pain, then the answer to the missing metaphor becomes clear. Tongue-tied is not the only thing. This show will go down in history as the Documenta of Bondage.

What gets lost, or at least suspended in the present, is that tingling and unbearable thing called liberation.

“Class Suicide”

And for the second metaphor, we should go back to the idea of continuation of forms.

The knowledge of this continuation of forms is considered to be known by artists and curators and art experts, and unknown by the audience. Curators and experts with the expert-eye, and artists with their curious-eyes, control, dominate and renew this knowledge. Audience is either totally passive, or active in the already drawn path – actually audience picks of the stones left for her/him on the way with her/his mouth, and if he/she fails in this, and if she/he drops the art-stones from his/her mouth, then he/she needs education2.

The question is, how did, how did the leitmotive, “what is to be done,” this problematic which has a directly political past, which could embrace difference approaches to change the world, turn into ‘education’? Not into, for example, revolution, or change or something else that does not depend on the reinforcing of status-quo but instead depends on imagining something different.

It’s true that the logic which starts with “what is to be done” and ends with ‘education’ sounds very problematic. It even sounds weird but sure we can follow its trace if we keep our eyes on the logic that rebuilt a simplified history for forms.

As mentioned before, it is a common view that there is a lack of a strong theoretical and political perspective in this documenta. And because of the lack of a strong curatorial concept, or curatorial perspective behind the whole exhibition, many political works seemed less political then they could be. Queued in this history line of forms and regions and problems, many political works only had the power to play their specific role for showing a collection of world’s conflicts. A world map of sufferers.3 Some of these works would probably look much more powerful in another exhibition. Because of the context of this exhibition, works that deal with direct political issues are less political, but works that demolish artist’s position of the “one who knows and who teaches through art – and through exhibitions” are the most political works here. The works which are in total suspicion about forms and art and life. The works which are ignorant. Like the ignorant schoolmaster of Ranciere. Only able to teach what she doesn’t know. An artist is best when she does a “class suicide,” leaves and demolishes the position of ‘the’ artist as she gains the opportunity to express herself with art. So here my second metaphor comes, “class suicide,” a forgotten theory for revolution in Africa. It is no use to try to go deeper in that theory, but just to remember, it was about the petit bourgeois class making a revolution, gaining the power and then committing a class suicide. Here, I am looking for artists’ class-suicide, “artist-suicide”…

All the works that propose a form, behave like that the artist found a form, grasped a form, produced a form, imposing a form, etc. etc are all somehow in the trap of documenta 12. They are not free.4 Political works loose power because of the general character and become news decoration. All the works about human condition, find a place in the map.

What are the lines of escape? Where is the “exit”?

Harun Farocki, Deep Play, 2007
© Courtesy the artist / Greene Naftali Gallery, New York

One can be found in Harun Farocki’s work “Deep Play.” Where we have a football match, world cup final in 2006 between Italy and France, but the form of the match is completely relative, has numerous variations, none of them is suggested, nor there is any clue how to suggest any. Everything is relational. It is totally not like a bird’s eye view of a match. Many eyes are looking – and some are digital-eyes. The image is so clean but everything is so blurred. You never get sure about what’s going on on the pitch. Somehow like a “class suicide” of the artist, artist’s suicide as soon as he gains power as an artist…5

So, to put it frankly and metaphorically, we can say that Documenta 12 was a Temporary Imperial Museum to which you can enter through an ancient Iranian carpet following a bird’seye view, get trapped inside by forms and huge frames captured by a basic understanding of art and world, and run away through the suspicious plurality of the scenes from a world cup final, by Harun Farocki.


Latin America is still so far away, like the end of capitalism according to Frederic Jameson.6 But one of the most telling gestures of this exhibition is the placement of a small sculpture by John McCracken on a pedestal right next to the photograph of Graciela Carnevale’s “enclosure piece”: the one that shows a female spectator exiting from the broken window of a gallery. The entire history of the avant-garde – its experimentation, its class contradictions, its feeling of entrapment and urge to “break out,” its dangerous revolutionary inquiry into the effects of art on human material – is accompanied, shepherded, softened and quieted down by the calm, self-contained pink monolith, similar to all the others which, throughout the show, stand in for the nostalgic consensus of a missing modernism. This is the double discourse or maybe the forked tongue of the exhibition, which finds its language purely in associationism.

John McCracken (anyone know the title?)/ Graciela Carnevale, “Enclosure Piece”
© Hard to tell if it’s really relevant

If you don’t think it’s just devilishly clever, go up to the castle on the hill and see the exact same gesture once again. Behind Dias & Riedweg’s Dionysian video there is a little glass wall to cut some of the infernal din, and then a vitrine with McCracken drawings from 1966, preserved in a sacred atmosphere. Here, penciled in the artist’s own hand, we find a classic restatement of the good old Greenbergian doctrine. I quote: “My tendency is to reduce everything to single things; things which refer to nothing outside themselves, but which at the same time refer, or relate, to everything. I find I can’t examine my sculptures from a dualistic point of view, which sees everything in terms of opposites (life-death, right-wrong, natural-unnatural) because this produces what seem to be paradoxes. I have instead to begin by regarding them as objects that simply are what they are, and they are to me quite simple and clear, but also very complex and mysterious, and in some respects almost impossible to really talk about.” The self-inflating, parrot-like discourse of impossible speech, is really entertaining. And when you find Zofia Kulik’s regal photomontage, The Splendor of Myself, in a gallery of classical painting not far away, then you finally have a chance to burst out laughing.

Singleness is the solipsistic version of Christian love, the material stand-in for metaphysical reconciliation. But the Documenta of Bondage comes complete, or even replete, with its own exorcism. The first is Dias & Riedweg’s piece itself, which gives you an imaginary chance to set fire to the sculpturally white Graeco-Shakespearean oratory of James Coleman’s abysmally overblown soliloquy, and then to dance over the burning and yet still impervious body while making obscene gestures. Coleman’s actor is definitely a colonizer of the mind that I do not want to ingest, and the fabulous scene of the funk-dancers slicing their barbecued meat reminds you that the real satisfaction is elsewhere. But the exorcism gets even more extreme, when you go downstairs to find the work by Sonia Abián, from Argentina. It’s entitled The Concentration Camp of Love, and it bathes Raphael’s Nymph Galatea in the ash ponds of the Nazi solution.

“Is anybody out there? Can you hear me? Was an order given? Or was it just a mistake?” asks the first voice in the strange song that you hear when you put on the headphones. “Good my camp whore, you have learnt your lesson well. At the concentration camp just as in love, there is never any dignity. Welcome to the heaven of the Love camp, where I am the law,” answers the second voice. And then comes the chorus: “When he laughs, everybody claps. Nobody dares, it has always been like that.”

There are at least two artists in this show who must feel as out of place as me. One is Alejandra Riera, who photographs a mirrored bank window in the streets of Paris, with herself and her daughter in the image. As she writes: “This is ‘a totality’ that we could almost grasp as a particularly commonplace image of the space of our daily existence; it is true that a bank does not have a real window; its facade is organized in such a way that it appears as an image only, and this illusion or fiction, at the same time that it imposes its frame, absorbs and obliterates everything – it both rejects and defines its outside. The fact that Vera in her stroller and I in the act of taking the photograph are both inside and outside the frame – in other words, in a situation where there is no outside – is as normal as it is troubling… […] Surely we should in any case get out of all this, try to make a move from within the situation where this is taking place, a flight that does not imply an evasion.” “I have asked that the windows of the space be left open,” she continues. “I am not sure that this will be done.”

As for Andreas Siekmann, whose allegorical carousel is located outside in the stormy weather of the city, he quotes a text from Dante that can really make you wonder. It reads: “You know that there are affairs that are not in our power at all and that we can only contemplate, for example, the objects of mathematics, physics or metaphysics. However, there are other things that we cannot only contemplate but also effect. […] The objects described here relate to political things, and all that is political lies in our power to decide. It is therefore obvious that these objects and their descriptions do not aim predominantly at contemplation but at an activity… even if we often do not know how to commence with this activity – by what means, where and when, and with which companions.”

After Documenta 12, I don’t know where to begin with art again. It seems that the political hopes of the century’s turn are now over. But there’s no need to firebomb the Fridericianum. That would be another programed exorcism, like those portrayed in Them, by Artur Zmijewski. What happens there, in the video record of a fascinating, real-life experiment, is that each identity group ends up torching the others’ symbols. I don’t want to torch this cloying summer camp of reconciliation. Just leave the wreckage of the avant-garde behind. It’s a better solution.

Artur Zmijewski, Them, 2007
© Courtesy Artur Zmijewski; Foksal Gallery Foundation



World expo?
All of them are to see, to experience. What we are missing here — freaks? Dead bodies? Kanaks? (Oh, we have dead bodies already: see Brownie by Peter Friedl) World art / world conflicts / world magazines / world forms / and also –people of the world, Chinese Fairytale people especially. Are they thought as neo-Kanaks? Homage to Elias. Childish pre-modern entities living and believing in fairytales which are actually our modern culture’s products –written pieces, big exhibitions, modern cities, terrible living conditions for the outsiders etc. and think about the fear some kassel citizens had about them –will they stay, will they ever go back, will they be immigrants here? But there is no real danger, everything is under control, fairytale people are not immigrants but they are walking metaphors for immigrants. And think this together with Danica Dakic’s El Dorado,the real Kassel immigrants telling real life stories and struggles in Kassel’s German Museum of Wallpaper museum in front of the depiction of world in an ‘imperial’ fashion. Running and running and running inside the imagination of El Dorado…
From the preface of the documenta 12 catalogue: “Artists are
highly aware of both the history of the forms they are using as well
as of their future implications. The audience is generally not.”
A ‘pervert’ interpretation could be to think of Hito Steyerl’s
work Lovely Andrea as a suggestion to approach these world
sufferers. That there is some kind of erotic pleasure of submitting,
shame and even pain in these tragic events although there is no
roleplay but just naked truth, and we can stick our conceptions of
the world’s political and social problems to the world’s sexual
fantasies if we totally get hypnotised with the idea about the
continuation of forms.
As in The Restraint of Beasts (Flamingo, 1999) by Magnus
Mills, dead bodies are burried under a fence post.
Documenta magazines project was also promising many lines of escape
but it should be the subject of an other piece. For documenta
magazines project was a living organism living in another
organism… This ‘otherness’ is opening much more new space than
6 “It is now easier to imagine the death of the human species than the end of capitalism.” Frederic Jameson, quoted in W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction,” in Modernism/modernity 10.3 (2003), p. 492. Mitchell reiterated this quote and most of the argument of this text in his lecture at Documenta 12.


2 Responses to “Documetaphors”

  1. renau Says:

    congratulations, extremelly brilliant piece… which leaves the reader with a kind of a bitter smile in the face mmm…

    but should we better “just leave the wreckage of the avant-garde behind”? or is it worth keeping on struggling for recovering the avant-garde for what it was, at least partly, that is, not a play of forms or an “attempt to widen our comprehension of what art is”, as a very important historian (of the avant-garde) told me recently (to my perplexity), but as a struggle to chance both art and life and contribute to change both the social arena *and* our imagination? is it worth still struggling to recover the political (unconscious? of the) avant-garde? or should we assume that such incredible mystifying and suffocating machine like the documenta 12 that this text seems to describe are impossible to fight against? Do we really have to believe that just one speech-less curator can in one huge arrogant gesture demolish the careful and contradictory attempt that in the former 10 years dx and d11 made to radically (albeit contradictory) rethink the art institutional and historical (and colonial, and so on) machine from inside?

    do we have to give up and leave the wreakage of the avant-garde behind, or do we have to collect the pieces left on the floor, and try to re-start again, willingly, where the speechless view can’t reach?

    and now that this text has pointed at the exit out of this d12, where do we go? anybody has a map? home, where is home!?

  2. brianholmes Says:

    What a pleasure that someone uses this well-designed machinery for what it can do so well – record and distribute a public exchange! I’m glad to respond.

    Sureyyya and I delivered these texts at the Documenta Halle and put them up here for two reasons. First, to air our opinions in public without hesitation. Second, because we’d just met and started some quite funny conversations, and this was a way to pursue them. In fact, the idea of trading metaphors came, at his suggestion, from the other lecture I gave at D12, called “The World Metaphor.” So I’m gonna pursue that idea here, at your suggestion.

    What this exhibition wrecks are the hopes for the continuously increasing visual/intellectual articulation and public legitimacy of an art oriented to the double transformation of society and one’s own imagination. As the presence of such work became more and more frequent from the late nineties onward, not only on the museum circuit but first of all in political interventionism and in the alternatives of daily life, I thought you could speak of a post-avant-garde, or an avant-garde at large. Your comments reveal something to me: the kind of art that I love and want to contribute to appears simultaneously avant-garde and as wreckage when it is framed by an exhibition like this. In that last line of the text, I just meant we should leave this particular wreckage behind, i.e. D12 and its many flaws, its arrogance, its regressions, its fear of the present. However, that doesn’t mean leaving behind the projects that are temporarily brought to a halt here!

    Jakob Jakobsen pointed out that this is the first Documenta entirely conceived and planned in the period after September 11. Yup, and it really shows. In that respect, it resembles so much of social life since the neoconservatives have come to power on the backs of the neoliberals. This forces us to go underground again, to work on new and deeper and more effective ideas, which by the way is the entire project of Continental Drift. I found at D12 that I was really provoked to articulate what kind of exhibition I would stage, on what principles and lines of inquiry. Well, I am not a curator, but nonetheless I am going to try to answer that question, in a text which analyzes the failure of this show, looks back over the two previous Documentas and asks how the dialectic that they put in motion could be taken further in the present.

    Because of its size, its resources, its planning time and the expectation that it be deeply original, I think the Documenta is uniquely capable of being a world metaphor – that is, of assembling a vast collection of prisms which analyze the world from specific angles, and recast it in their own embodiment as forms, which in addition to their presence and compact intensity also “stand in” for something else, which elicit interpretations, intensive forms that are also metaphors. A show like that can be a gigantic invitation to feel, express, analyze and debate the changes of the world, at different temporalities, in different circuits, with all the vastnessness and incommensurability that characterizes being thrown into *this* world, into the quandry of the present. I’ll post the text when it’s finished.

    I agree with you, I do think that kind of work always has to be done. Life may be elsewhere than in institutions, but letting them rot is, hmm, somehow dangerous.

    best, BH

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