The Fear of Failure

On Politics and Non-Politics in the 7th Berlin Biennale and dOCUMENTA (13)

 

“There is no longer anyone today who would be deceived by the accumulation of facts as to how much of historical representation and construction is fulfilled by naïve projections  and identification. Thus we must be aware of our own historical situation.”

Carl Schmitt[1]

If there is one thing Artur Zmijewski’s controversial 7th Berlin Biennale Forget Fear, curated in collaboration with Joanna Warsza and collective Voina, has in common with dOCUMENTA (13), curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s sprawling Kassel extravaganza, it is the legacy of the Great Exhibition. Not the 1851 Great Exhibition, but Harald Szeeman’s 1972 edition, that seminal Documenta 5 – “the mother of all overblown art extravaganzas”[2]– and the first Documenta to welcome a new curator since its inception in 1955 by Arnold Bode.[3] Subtitled ‘100 Days of Inquiry into Reality – Today’s Imagery’, Documenta 5 was one of the first of its kind: a show that broke ranks with established historical and disciplinary hierarchies, giving space for the contemporary to present itself under thematic groupings that opened up new ways to show art. The exhibition also gave a platform to Joseph Beuys’s iconic Bureau for Direct Democracy, a space designed to facilitate new discussions, new politics and new relationships between audience and object: an exploration that continues in Berlin and Kassel today.

Occupy Biennale. Image courtesy of ACCA art blog.

Arriving in Berlin days before BB7 closed and weeks after dOCUMENTA (13) opened, a spectrum of opinion had formed between the two exhibitions, reflected in critic Steven Henry Madoff’s proclamation that dOCUMENTA (13) ‘May Be the Most Important Exhibition of the 21st Century’ (to date), while accusing the Berlin Biennale of “shooting [political] blanks”.[4] The Art Newspaper concurred, branding Forget Fear “a disaster”[5] based on a curatorial that took its cue from the Occupy and the Los Indignados movements, holding BB7 up as proof that art is incapable of extending or facilitating the development of political movements. Rather, art had capitalized on politics instead, reducing Occupy to a fetish object uncomfortably reinforced in the camp’s placement at the rear basement of the KW Institute of Contemporary Art. Viewers entered through a long corridor that led to a podium that acted as a viewing platform upon which visitors could gaze upon the Occupiers like curious creatures in a political petting zoo: a common description in the press.

In response, the Occupiers introduced a horizontal form of management within the KW in mid-June, halfway into the Biennale’s run, with the curators symbolically stepping down as a result.[6] A banner was draped over the KW’s façade, covering Zmijewski’s previous statement on Forget Fear, with one line left untouched except for a slight intervention with the word ‘don’t’ that read: “DON’T PLAY WITH THE DICTATOR.” According to the press release of Occupy Museums, the action intended to “loosen assumptions of cultural, institutional, and economic hierarchy” to uphold the Biennale’s original intentions to “present art that actually works, makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed.”[7] But was it too late? Had the Occupy camp already become too embedded within the context of the art establishment to escape the fetishization of the movement as an object judged by a passive, perhaps even alienated, audience?

And is there a difference between how Occupy at Berlin was treated in comparison to the movement’s reception in the wider public sphere? Consider London Mayor Boris Johnson’s criticism of Occupy as having lost support of the public by failing to come up with solutions to the problems of capitalism, insisting on their eviction from St. Paul’s for “the economic interest of the city.” Johnson exposes a quintessential rut in a world divided one over ninety-nine. If politicians allegedly sympathize with Occupy (as Johnson apparently does) but fail to provide solutions or compromises to what such movements are symptomatic of, then how can we criticize pedestrian attempts to navigate the complex terrain of creating new political forms against a market-driven political system that fails to respond to the needs of the multitude? And how different is Johnson’s response to Occupy in relation to the silent majority – the alleged “99” –who watch, sympathize yet ultimately fail to act or respond to the movement?

Antanas Mockus, Blood Ties, 2012.
Image courtesy of
Berlin Biennale 7

Forget Fear gleefully exposed such questions, accusing neither art nor Occupy of failing politics, but people instead, implicating the audience as Kantian/Arendtian ‘world-spectators’ who see, know and say much about the world, yet do little by way of acting in it,[8] a conclusion politician, pedagogue, and ex-mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus also came to. Known for employing tactics of performative intervention as politicized ‘sub-art’ that promotes citizen culture for the sake of political praxis, Mockus paired himself with Teresa Margolles’s PM 2010 (2012), referencing victims of Central America’s narco-trafficking wars through a year’s worth of tabloid magazine covers printed in Ciudad, Juarez, one of Mexico’s most dangerous border towns (especially, it seems, for women). The covers depict grotesque corpses, many of them women, laid out next to crude images including Hollywood actresses in various states of undress, presented along an entire wall in the KW’s 2nd floor space with a stack of posters featuring these magazine covers left for viewers to take.

Mockus’s corresponding installation, Blood Ties (2012) works with PM 2010 by questioning the notion of action against a specific context that spans the local-global divide. The installation comprises of a Mexican flag tied to two books – J.L. Austin’s seminal How to Do Things with Words (on the performative utterance as a productive act), and La Ciudad de las Muertas: la Tragedia de Ciudad Juárez, written by Marc Fernandez and Jean-Claude Rampal. Hung from the ceiling and attached to a machine that lowers the objects some fourteen centimeters daily, apparently over a tub of acid, an attendant sits at a desk nearby with a pile of certificates that pledge whoever signs one will refrain from taking drugs for the duration of BB7. In signing the declaration, one could press a button that would raise the flag by three millimeters.[9] Viewers could also donate blood at a nearby hospital in return for pushing the button fifty times.

Blood Ties is a work about complicity: how consuming cocaine in Europe and the United States is linked to the deaths of those connected directly or indirectly to the drugs trade. By boycotting drugs, we enter into a social action for which the results are barely visible – here measured at millimeters against real lives and losses. As Warsza notes, since it is impossible to see the results of one’s individual action in the work, it perpetuates non-action. Looking at Blood Ties two days before BB7 closed, the flag and books are soaked and damaged: days earlier, Mockus declared the project a failure. In some ways, it was doomed from the start, just like the Biennale, maybe just like Occupy. Was this the point? As Zmijewski notes, Blood Ties is one of the only works in the exhibition that clearly states, without ambiguity, the wish that art should work but doesn’t and won’t [10] – that is, without active engagement on the audience’s part.

Here, the problem of direct democracy, or popular political action, is one of visibility and marginalization, best expressed in the documentation of the New World Summit organized by artist Jonas Staal, a conference between representatives from organizations placed on official terrorist lists in Europe and the United States. Organizations included The Holy Land Foundation, which provided medical aid to children in Palestine until post 9/11, when its founder was jailed for sixty-five years, accused of aiding terrorist organizations without having committed a single violent act (and after having previously consulted lawyers to ensure such a misunderstanding would not happen under US Law). Represented by lawyer Nancy Hollander, this injustice remains underpublicized, only given a platform here because the context of art allowed the summit to happen in the first place.

And still, how many people actually sat to watch this video is another question altogether, raising the issue of how effective presenting the documentation of such actions in an art exhibition, a format more suited to object-based production, really is, especially when noting that one of the main criticisms against Forget Fear was the lack of art on show. In this respect, dOCUMENTA (13) acts as a foil to Forget Fear’s anti-object approach, predicated on nothing more than the nature of the object and its infinite manifestations: eccentric, precarious, and fragile, ancient and contemporary, innocent or incomplete, destroyed, damaged or indestructible; stolen, hidden, disguised, even exiled, traumatized or transitional.[11] Here, the multiplicitous nature of the object reinforces the importance of the subject – the viewer – left to make sense of an exhibition so vast Roberta Smith concluded: “Its incomprehensible, viewer-defying vastness perpetuates an old model, the curator as all-seeing-god, on a disheartening scale.”[12]

This is where Berlin and Kassel meet: at the idea of the curator-god/dictator who perpetuates an old model that might very well have its roots in Szeeman’s 20th century legacy. Smith’s response is revealing on another level of frustration heightened by not being able to empirically grasp ‘what it all means’ – that need to know, the need for answers. Is this the same frustration Forget Fear induced in that politics is just as incomprehensible as a sprawling exhibition curated in such a way that makes it impossible to see everything? Perhaps this is what Christov-Bakargiev was getting at when making no attempt at dictating how one should go about viewing dOCUMENTA (13). In the end, the spectator is left to curate his or her own experience, thus privileging the  spectator as the producer of meaning and content, as is also the case in Berlin.

Ryan Gander, I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull). Image sothebys.com

Both exhibitions give a certain amount of (symbolic?) power to the spectator: a daunting realization that is subtly mediated in dOCUMENTA (13)’s main space, the Fridericianum, opening with Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull) (2012): a light wind that blows throughout the ground floor and leads, to the left of the entrance hall, into a large, empty white space where a lone vitrine contains a letter to Christov-Bakargiev from Kai Althoff explaining his decision not to participate in dOCUMENTA (13) (though one of his paintings is in fact featured in the Rotunda). It is a fraught confession that reveals an artist overwhelmed and almost paralyzed by the scale and scope of the curator’s thinking, materialized in the vastness of an exhibition that spans over twenty venues in Kassel with some one hundred and sixty artists and satellite exhibitions in the Kabul, Bamiyan, Cairo and Banff. “And so I now ask you to let me go”, Althoff writes, “but I am fully aware I let you down.”

Nearby in a small room, a song is barely audible from Althoff’s confession. It is the soft voice of Tammy Wynette singing ‘I’ll just keep on…‘til I get it right’: two lines of the 1972 song Til I Get it Right looped into a strangely comforting lullaby by Ceal Floyer. In this 2005 sound piece, we are reminded of that eternal cycle of trial and error, of getting knocked down and picking oneself up, of failing, despairing, yet continuing nonetheless. It is a tender reminder that we are not perfect; that we must strive to be better; that we are, after all, human, and in this world together, for better or for worse: something we often forget at a great and collective cost. Such amnesia is narrated in works that spread out over the building, best encapsulated in Kader Attia’s jarring installation, The Repair from Occident to Non-Occidental Cultures (2012), depicting a visual timeline of imperialism and postwar reconstruction.

African objects encountered during travels between Algiers, Kinshasa and Brazzaville in the Congo repaired using remnants of colonialism  – bullet casings, buttons, fabrics – are presented against large, wooden busts of faces mutilated by war. The objects are presented on crude, metal shelving – with books and magazines referencing ‘Le Grande Guerre’, the battle between the ‘great’ empires of the 19th Century. The texts recall cultural fixations Europe held for ‘The Other’ at that time: books about classical Greek sculpture such as in ‘Olympische Kunst’, modern and primitive art, medical journals, notes on form and function, a dossier by Lenin, notes on psychology, magazine features on the Occident. Completing this macabre archive is an image slideshow of European soldiers from World War I before and after plastic surgery to amend horrific facial disfigurement.

An assemblage that confronts notions of cultural hegemony and inter-cultural exchange/appropriation as historical legacy, the themes in Attia’s installation are echoed in the Rotunda of the Fridericianum, ‘the brain’ of dOCUMENTA (13)  – a room viewable from the outside through a glass façade upon which Lawrence Weiner’s words spell out THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF (2012). The room recalls Berlin, though rather than a zoo, this closed-off space acts as a live vitrine in which objects (and their viewers) are enclosed, viewable from the outside by spectators waiting in a queue, who in entering, become part of the spectacle: both object and subject simultaneously.

There is a distinct, modern sensibility in here. Georgio Morandi’s paintings and studio objects take centre stage –an artist known to have stuck steadfastly to his artistic practice, rooted indefinitely in his locality – Italy – and wholly complicit, albeit passively, in the political stirrings of the early to mid-20th Century (Morandi was said to have dappled in fascist politics). References to neoclassicism, so favoured by the “realist-nationalist style of Germany and Italy in the 30s and 40s”[13] mingle with references to the 2nd World War. Most sensationally perhaps are photographs of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub. Here we are taken from Attia’s reference to 19th century imperialism and build up to the Great War, to WWII: a legacy Kassel knows all too well. In fact, throughout dOCUMENTA (13) war is everywhere, from Palestine, Cambodia, Vietnam, to Afghanistan and Egypt, as referenced in a video taken by Ahmed Basiony during the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising, shortly before he was killed.

In response to such violence, dOCUMENTA (13) calls upon the art object to speak of and for a complex world too intricate to define in any singular fashion, a contrast to Berlin’s rejection of the passive object as having been co-opted by neoliberal market forces. This schizophrenic nature of the object is eerily depicted in the Rotunda through two exhibits from the National Museum of Beirut bearing the scars of the Lebanese Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990. The first is a melding of two bronze figures, one human, the other zoomorphic, and the second, an abstract composition of bronze, ivory, glass and terracotta fragments. Against Morandi’s modernist canvases, a temporal shift transforms these ancient objects into postmodern assemblages imbued with meta-meanings: at once local, global, specific and general, particular and universal, such is the nature of the object as it passes through time and context.

But there is an issue with mute objects: how can they tell their story without their storytellers and their audience? This is explored at Kassel’s central train station, where Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Alter Bahnhof Video Walk audiovisual tour directs viewers first to a wagon containing stones wrapped with stories recounted on paper with corresponding images of many of Kassel’s Jews who were transported to the concentration camps from this station’s 13th platform. This heavy history is also felt in Berlin, where the poignancy of a Pole curating a biennale in Germany is reinforced by the number of Poles actually included in the show, including Łukasz Surowiec, who moved several hundred young birch seedlings from the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to BB7 in the Berlin-Birkenau project. Poland, after all, was the country that ignited WWII, a defining point in the 20th century in which we learned just how cruel humanity can be.

The Alter Bahnhof Video Walk is a tough reminder. Forced to peer into the past, the luxury to remain disengaged is gently revoked as history is coaxed out into a present that is rife with the unresolved and unspoken stories of a past that all to often feels like an abyss; a past that forces us to confront collective failures. Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to move forward. After all, nothing is as horrifying as an unknown future built on blood-soaked histories.

Such fears are confronted at Kassel in the pairing of Theaster Gates’s 12 Ballads for Huguenot House (2012) and Tino Sehgal’s This Variation (2012). In the case of Gates, a house has been turned into a working occupation where maintenance jobs are divided and responsibilities such as cooking are shared. In contrast to the Berlin Occupy, the occupants are indifferent to the viewer’s gaze: people sleep in their rooms. In the kitchen, lunch is being prepared. And little acknowledgement is given to the stream of visitors wandering through a building that confronts the line between active and aesthetic collectivity.

Next to this building is a darkened space where Sehgal has choreographed a group of performers to recite various songs acapella as viewers feel their way in the dark. Occupants from Gate’s occupation participate in this performance: someone who had been cooking earlier is now dancing along to ‘Good Vibrations’. A group of school children enter the piece tentatively – the darkness is frightening, the sounds strange. And yet, when the dancing begins, four young girls hold hands and boldly move deeper into the blackened space, a metaphorical unknown. They dance, quickly surrounded by performers who encourage their interaction, absorbing them into the piece. The moment recalls comments that dOCUMENTA (13) is innocent as much as Berlin is naïve. Perhaps we should be less cynical of such states of being if they are to facilitate the pleasurable stirrings of that elusive integration between art and life so many artists, curators, writers, theorists, and philosophers seek out.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glIK9N0EQ1k

Here, Gates and Sehgal perform as artists what Zmijewski/Christov-Bakargiev did as curators by creating the context through which an audience might enter into a position of criticality without realizing it, one that reflects on Hannah Arendt’s observation that “the art of critical thinking always has political implications.” In the case of Kassel, it is the act of searching, seeking and feeling one’s way; the taking of time to see, comprehend, and contemplate works of art as social entities so as to recover a sense of collectivity in a fragmented, expansive global present that can and will never be read as a cohesive whole. In Berlin, it is more the case of a social entity, or the notion of one, presented as art in order to seek out its subjects and instigate a movement. Both cannot be faulted on their intentions, nor can we fault the viewer who might remain apprehensive of either approach. But if we are to acknowledge the failure of art, we must acknowledge the viewer’s failure, too.

As such, if by ‘shooting blanks’ or going overboard Forget Fear and dOCUMENTA (13) insist on revisiting oft-debated notions of collectivity and action in an art world that is fast losing its social footing, so be it. It is a matter of persistently raising questions that invoke Arendt’s observation of Socrates, a thinker whose philosophy was shaped by the questions he formed. Arendt notes:

“What he actually did was to make public, in discourse, the thinking process – that dialogue that soundlessly goes on within me, between me and myself; he performed in the marketplace the way the flute-player performed at a banquet. It is sheer performance, sheer activity.”[14]

In performing critical thinking, we present the potential of enacting it, lest we forget that this is one of art’s many functions. In 2012, Berlin and Kassel decided to remind us of that, imploring the spectator to participate in art and to move beyond critiques that stop discourses from expanding beyond the confines of art market bubbles, media hype and binary judgments, and instead to feel what art is and what it means to us – to you and me — personally. They prompt a move towards individual action within a collective framework that is messy and often incomprehensible: a framework that might never cohere and yet defines us nonetheless. It is a case of art inviting its spectators to claim a position in a world that is fast falling out of public hands and to become part of the production not only of objects, but of the discourses that surround them, fearlessly. Perhaps only then might we rescue, revive, even reclaim creativity as a human right capable of rewriting a future built on the lessons of the past rather than a repetition of history’s mistakes. Art for the benefit of the many, and not the few.

Top image: Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), 2011. Courtesy of Marcin Kalinski/Berlin Biennale 7


[1] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 80-81.

[2]Roberta Smith, “Documenta 5: Art in Review,” The New York Times, published September 7, 2007: www.nytimes.com/2007/09/07/arts/design/07gall.html?pagewanted=all [accessed: July 10, 2012]

[3] Bernhard Schulz, “Documenta goes Global,” The Art Newspaper, June 2012, pp. 1-2

[4] Steven Henry Madoff, “Armed, But Not Dangerous: The Berlin Biennale’s ‘Forget Fear’ Exhibition is Fearfully Forgettable,” published June 29, 2012, and “Why Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta May Be the Most Important Exhibition of the 21st Century,” published July 5, 2012, both Artinfo.com.

[5] Julia Michalska, “Berlin Biennale branded a disaster,” The Art Newspaper, published May 3, 2012: www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Berlin-Biennale-branded-a-disaster/26447 [accessed July 10, 2012].

[6] Whitney Kimbal, “Berlin Biennale May Adopt OWS’s Horizontal Power Structure,” Artfagcity.com, published June 18, 2012: www.artfagcity.com/2012/06/18/the-berlin-biennale-adopts-owss-horizontal-power-structure/ [accessed July 10, 2012].

[7] Ibid.

[8] “But does this easy phrase of idealists, “citizen of the world” make sense? To be a citizen means among other things to have responsibilities, obligations and rights, all of which make sense only if they are territorially limited. Kant’s world citizen was actually a Weltbetrachter, a world-spectator. Kant knew quite well that a world government would be the worst tyranny imaginable.” Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 44.

[9] As explained by Warsza in “7th Berlin Biennale: Guided Tour Part 7,” viewable on youtube.com.

[10] As explained by Zmijewski in 7”th Berlin Biennale: Guided Tour Part 7,” viewable on youtube.com.

[11] dOCUMENTA (13), The Guidebook, (Ostifildern: Hatje Cantz, 2012), 24.

[12] Roberta Smith, “Art Show as Unruly Organism,” The New York Times, published June 14, 2012: www.nytimes.com/2012/06/15/arts/design/documenta-13-in-kassel-germany.html?pagewanted=all [accessed July 10, 2012].

[13] Ibid. 26.

[14] Arendt, 37.

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