By Ulrike Knöfel
After World War II ended, it took the Germans 10 years to rediscover modern art. The land of poets, thinkers and painters -- its appreciation for art distorted by the Nazi dictatorship -- gradually remembered the power of the Avant Garde, particularly abstraction.
It was an experiment that began in the ruins of war. In 1955, an exhibition called Documenta opened in Kassel, a city largely destroyed in the war. This vision of a temporary museum eventually became a world-renowned institution. Since 1972, the year of the fifth Documenta, the event has taken place once every five years. When it does, Kassel suddenly turns into a center of power and influence in the art world.
Happenings and concept art, mystic rejuvenation by Joseph Beuys, paintings from East Germany and video art in endless loop mode -- these were all things that were considered provocative and progressive, and the Documenta was the place to see them. Audiences became educated, surprised and hardened, and they kept growing. By 2002 the Documenta was attracting 650,000 visitors.
Buergel, 44, a former independent producer of art exhibitions, was largely unknown before taking the position in Kassel. Now, shortly before the show is set to begin, he seems a bit bleary-eyed, but nevertheless pugnacious.
He has much to contend with, from the usual skeptics to the many competing shows of the summer. The Venice Biennale, that glamorously staged meeting of the art nations, is the other outstanding art highlight of the year. Isa Genzken is representing Germany this year in Venice.
There has been much -- unexpected -- talk about beauty and sensuality leading up to the new Documenta, but this certainly doesn't mean that Buergel will make it easy for his visitors.
From Asphalt to the Sublime
In addition to the traditional museum venues, a group of pavilions made of converted greenhouses has been set up in Kassel's Karlsaue Park to house the ever-growing show. What is most noticeable inside the pavilions is the asphalt that's been spread on the floor, a profane asphalt road to art. Is this beginning to sound less attractive? That appears to be precisely the point. In return, interior renovations at the Museum Fridericianum, one of the show's venues, have transformed the building into a sublime venue for art.
This Documenta will undoubtedly deliver a series of sharply alternating impressions -- an obstreperous reinterpretation of the modern age. In the course of his very own globalization, Buergel is expanding the radius of the art world, both spatially and chronologically, redefining the concept of the contemporary. As far as Buergel is concerned, the ancient can be just as current as the new. Things can be relevant that so far have been of no interest whatsoever to art historians or gallery owners.
What this means, first of all, is that there will be a lot to see: 14th-century Persian miniatures; Chinese temples, which will include 1,001 Chinese chairs and 1,001 Chinese flown in to sit in them; minimalist sculptures from California; a container filled with art from Russia; rice fields and a giraffe; a pop parliament made of electric guitars.
Part of the new diversity is to allow all artistic media to come to the fore. The last Documenta was seen as too video-heavy. This time film is only one medium of many, although the video by Irish artist James Coleman is one of the most expensive works at this Documenta. To balance the videos, there will be dark paintings of faces, like those of Monika Baer -- very large and very poetic.
Many of the world's conflict regions are also represented. One is Congolese painter and writer Bill Kouélany, whose work will be exhibited in the pavilion. Her piece is a replica of a ruined wall to which she has pasted newspaper articles describing the world's poverty and suffering (including, amusingly enough, articles about Documenta). The wall itself is a symbol of division. Indeed, divided countries and divided places are among the show's many sub-themes. Another is called urbanization.
An Art World View of Social Injustice
Buergel, like his immediate predecessors, deliberately attempts to tune the show to the frequency of global and social criticism. This explains the photos from the Niger delta, where major corporations are exploiting Nigeria's oil reserves, and it explains a bed of (still tiny) plants by Viennese artist Ines Doujak, which is meant to highlight the problem of bio-piracy. German artist Andreas Siekmann has assembled a carousel of the "Excluded."
There's also a boat built by artist Romuald Hazoumé of Benin, which would be ill-suited for anyone seeking to flee from hellish conditions in Africa. The shape seems traditional, but the boat is not made of wood but of oil canisters, and it is full of holes, and would certainly not be seaworthy.
The idea that good art depends on context, especially heavy context, is only one of the conclusions drawn by the show. Nevertheless, the new art canon from Kassel does rely heavily on the magic of an irresistible aesthetic. Whether one finds it pleasing or irritating is another question. The paintings of Dierk Schmidt, for example, are semi-abstract commentaries on the Congo conference, easily remembered despite their pale orange tone. This time the Documenta, which emphasized art styles (especially abstract) in its first years and later content (especially political), but rarely both at the same time, will not allow one to exist without the other.
'A Migration of Form'
As ambitious as an art director of the Documenta ought to be, Buergel also hopes to rewrite the history of aesthetics. He is interested in a "migration of form," which he sees as a relationship among aesthetic preferences that traverses the boundaries of time and nationality. His theory is that not just people, but "also forms migrate from one cultural zone to another."
This should not be confused with the fascination with the exotic to which the Expressionists once succumbed when they discovered and were inspired by African art in museums of ethnology. Instead, Buergel's theory revolves around a silent, involuntary migration, but also around random correspondence.
Does this fraternization even exist in the aesthetic world? How related are the masks from Benin, which were once oil canisters, and a wall hanging by German artist Cosima von Bonin, a patchwork of fine textiles? They hang next to each other in Kassel, only a few steps away from a transparent wall installation by Austrian artist Gerwald Rockenschaub. It takes imagination to follow Buergel and his ruminations about aggregation.
Photos of hairstyles from Nigeria and Asian calligraphy reveal the same penchant for majestically curved lines and a sense of ornamentation, a sense that is only all too evident in European art history.
A Playful Presentation of Art
Sometimes the show mercilessly crosses the line. And why not? Everything should be viewed afresh and reevaluated. And while Buergel is at it, he adds new forms of presentation to the mix. His Kassel team has essentially made a game of the way it presents the works on display. As a cryptic reference to the globalization of the market, it has designed the show as a sort of art convention, including booths made of movable room dividers. Space was also reserved for a "White Cube." Art operations in museums and galleries worldwide have given in to the trend to provide a purist space. But Buergel demonstrates, in the Museum Fridericianum, that old-fashioned also works. The walls are painted with the sorts of bright colors popular in the 19th century. This elegant anachronism makes many a work appear as a classic.
This applies to the enormous garlands by Iole de Freitas, which wind through one room and continue along the outside of the building. It also applies to the documents of an earlier Argentine art collective, which are draped against a delicate green backdrop. The members of the group known as Tucumán Arde were opposed to the dictatorship that ruled Argentina in the 1960s, and some even abandoned art to join the guerilla movement. Does this fit with Buergel's elegant neoclassicism? It is, at the very least, an interesting attempt at rendering a piece of art apt for a museum.
Name-dropping, the beloved ritual of every art show, is likely to be difficult at a Documenta, which, though not ashamed to brag about its ability to attract celebrities, will otherwise be a stage of discoveries. Chinese artist Zheng Guogo is one of them. He uses a deep-fried toy tank as a critique of mass production of ultra-cheap goods.
And who knows the Chilean artist Lotty Rosenfeld or remembers deceased British photographer Jo Spence and her unadorned images of the present, including nudes that are hardly likely to suit the tastes of most people?
Drowning in Ambition
Each Documenta has its own strengths and weaknesses. This year's show is ambitious, probably too much so. Everything and everyone has been taken into account, and all quotas have been filled. Buergel's people have selected a star chef, although some have voiced concerns that he may not show up. A hospitality program has been set up for the VIPs, a "Salon des Refusés" for Germany's masses of long-term unemployed and a download for the MP3 generation.
One thing is already clear: At this Documenta everything is possible, as long as it fascinates or amuses the current god of fate in the art world, Buergel (as well as his wife and fellow curator Ruth Noack). And yet it would be difficult to make a Documenta more exciting and unruly and, therefore, more stimulating. The show's organizers are not demanding an exaggerated awe of art, and they are allowing humor to come into play. At the same time, intellectual overexertion is intentional.
One of the key questions Buergel addressed in preparing for the show is: "What should we do?" He is referring to the problem of education.
Anyone who would rather ridicule an intellectual challenge instead of addressing it head-on is losing the evolutionary competition, Buergel warns. "It's that easy."
His meaning is clear: No one should joke about his challenging show, this exercise in concentration and fantasy. The self-deprecating Buergel, the great docent, has allowed his artists to build him a "classroom."
Every director without fail, since the first Documenta in 1955, does his best to stir up excitement. Buergel will certainly succeed in 2007 with his show -- a total work of art, globalization summit and world-class art instruction alike.
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