DOCUMENTA KASSEL 16/06-23/09 2007

         





The Migration of Form

Dedicated to Arend Oetker

There are many crises at the documenta. How lovely. There are crises connected with the exhibition's financing — of the 19,000,000 euros in its budget, only 2,000,000 actually go to the exhibition. And there are crises caused by the nature of the site, Kassel, whose venues are much too small. But would we be willing to do without Kassel and the innumerable privileges that result from having a city that joins wholeheartedly in the enterprise? By no means. And would we be willing to forgo the independence ensured by government support? Never. The question is how we relate to the crises. Do we regard them as unseemly situations that are better swept under the rug? Or are they not already part of the very substance of the exhibition, a token and a pledge of aesthetic experience? But let us set aside the institutional and entertaining aspects for a moment and turn instead to a crisis that undoubtedly makes up the heart of the exhibition: the crisis of form.

Just like its predecessors, documenta 12 exhibits works from a wide variety of geographic areas. The majority of its visitors know little or nothing about the conditions of their production. The price of ignoring those conditions is ethnocentric mystification. Art from Africa has to look “African”, art from the Arab world “Arabic”. But what is “African”, and what is “Arabic”? At the same time, however, the exhibition is above all precisely that, an exhibition, and not a means of packaging knowledge that informs us about local contexts in a more or less academic manner. For if we take that path, we reduce art to illustration. What then are we to do? Is there a happy medium, a middle course? Perhaps. documenta 12 has a suggestion to make: the migration of form. But documenta 12 is also an experiment. We would like to find out if this middle course is actually a practicable path.

Let us follow this path along a cord laid out by the Indian sculptor Sheela Gowda, And Tell Him of My Pain. The artist has taken 89 needles and threaded each one with a piece of thread that is roughly a hundred meters long. These threads are then wound together, stuck together with gum arabic and stained with bright red curcumin. The cord occupies space in both drawing-like and sculptural ways — the massive clump of needles at its head counteracts any impression of mere lyricism. Among the local contexts that are present in this work are the ritual use of curcumin, as well as traditional women's handiwork, and also the typical linearity of Indian painting. And a childbirth experience, too — And Tell Him of My Pain, the title of the work, betrays an autobiographical motif. Gowda's work also demonstrates a consciousness of the formal language of modernity. One might think of Eve Hesse's forays into the realm of “eccentric abstraction”, in which Hesse develops anthropomorphic jumbles of string that make us forget that chaos and order are opposites. If we keep our focus on the form, however, the work also unfolds historico-political contexts.

The colonisation of the Indian subcontinent by the British is one such context It is also a seminal chapter in the history of political economy, which retains its freshness even in the era of the World Trade Organization. In the early 17th century, India was the leading producer and exporter of textile goods. Then the East India Company appeared on the scene in England to conclude commercial transactions with India. The English textile industry rebelled and attempted to protect itself with brutal punitive tariffs. At this time, the East India Company was evolving into a military task force. The conflict was decided not only by military might, but also by the invention of the spinning jenny (1764). India became a textile importer. This is the short version of a long and exceedingly complex history, which is more present in India than in Europe, and for good reason. This history is part of what viewers see who look at the work in Bangalore. It is local context. It is also apparent, however, how the concept of the local shifts and stretches when we travel back along the axis of time. We plunge into, indeed we almost become entangled in a complex network of political formal relations, which points to the fact that globalisation is a very old phenomenon.

Now let us proceed from material history to the history of imaginary correspondences. Let us consider a painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, painted in Dante's Italy, in the middle of the 14th century. This painting, a fresco at the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, depicts an allegory of good and bad government. At the centre of the allegory stands a depiction of the social body, the civitas. However, it is not quite correct to speak of “depiction”, because the fresco ultimately stages something, something that spills over the actual edge of the painting into the council chamber of the Palazzo Pubblico: the projection of a social body as a community of equals. Everyone is pulling on the same rope. This rope is a cord that — mediated by the figure of Concordia — is passed along to the citizens by Justitia. In Lorenzetti's work, the head of the needle is blunted in the sense of a modern democracy. If we place Lorenzetti's cord in relation to Gowda's free-floating and more freely interpretable cord, we discover formal correspondences on the basis of which a new plane of meaning can arise, a new context. Or, more precisely, a space of possibility in search of actors.

We encounter such actors in a photograph from 2004 by Lidwien van de Ven. Unlike Lorenzetti's painting, this image presents us not with a projected community, but with a real one — however, it is a community that does not have the cord. This monumental photograph shows a group of young people standing around, looking lost and forlorn, on the steps of the Dam, Amsterdam's former city hall. The group is not inside the building. Unlike the group in Lorenzetti's Siena, it is not part of the official representation. However, it is also not outside, but lingers on the threshold. At this same moment, out beyond the edge of the image, a demonstration by the Arab League against the Iraq War is taking place. The group of young Moroccans had wanted to burn a US flag as part of the demonstration, but they were prevented from doing so by the organisers and excluded from the event.

We stand before an image whose subject shows the precariousness of the “in-between”. There is nowhere one actually belongs. At the same time, however, in a very subtle way, this subject also shows the observer her own position, for in standing at the exhibition in front of an image, she too is standing as if at a threshold. She can decide whether or not she sees herself in relation to this group. If she possesses the requisite psychological resources, the photograph accomplishes something comparable to Lorenzetti's cord: it projects a community of equals. This moment of aesthetic mobilisation is absolutely critical for an exhibition, for what is at issue is precisely not “good will”. What is at issue is not an impotent appeal for universal human solidarity, but an appeal for the communication of forms as a means of self-knowledge.

What is at issue is the mediated and at the same time mediating character of human subjectivity. What is at issue is the insight that the process commonly known as integration — with all the political connotations the term takes on in Fortress Europe — is a reciprocal one. Integration means to a great extent self-transformation. That may be a trivial insight, but its consequences are anything but trivial.

documenta 12 is confronted to a great extent with Western middle classes whose standard of living is declining precipitously in the current wave of globalisation “in the new spirit of capitalism”. Everyone realises that we have more or less lost control of our national economies. This is most obvious in the areas of health and education. documenta 12 is confronted with Western middle classes who are tending to become more reactive and more reactionary... or precisely more activist and more curious. What is possible in this situation has a lot to do, in my view, with one's basic attitude toward crises. It has to do with whether and how one faces an experience of crisis. Aesthetic experiences do not suggest a false sense of solid ground, but teach us to tolerate tensions and complexity. And they teach us to enjoy to the full the pleasure that arises when we realise that, against all expectations, this bottomless ground of aesthetic experience is actually fertile and productive.

I have used an example — the migration of a form — to try to show how the documenta resolves its most immanent crisis. We are well aware that we remove things from their contexts. We do not do justice to this transfer by seeking to deliver their authentic contexts along with them, but rather by using the exhibition to create a new, radically artificial context. This context is based on the correspondence of forms and themes. The decisive questions in this endeavour are: will the migration of form allow non-Western cultures to achieve the resonance and historicity denied to them by exhibitions that work with fixed identities? And: will it be possible to take the art of our inherited Euro-American cultural arena, which we experience as so excessively familiar, and make it seem utterly alien and idiosyncratic, even unidentifiable, but for that very reason all the fresher and more radiant?

                                          (Roger M. Buergel)

back