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And so we stroll through the exhibition, which the art historian and critic Bazon Brock termed a "third-class hodgepodge" – pursued by a "Migration of Forms." Prior to the exhibition, there was a lot of fuss concerning this key theme of Buergel’s – an idea that in practice turns out to be curatorial hot air. His attempt to construct formal relationships between works in order to increase our understanding has led to a void in content. In the Fridericianum, for instance, the catchword "string" is supposed to conceptually link a 100-meter-long red cord by the Indian artist Sheela Gowda with Tanaka Atsuko’s Electric Dress made from electrical cables and a bondage video by Hito Steyerl. Nowhere in the exhibition do works strung together in this way join to create a coherent thesis. Certainly not in the mix between old and new art. Instead, the well-known rule applies: as soon as works are only hanging together because they resemble one another formally, the event becomes tremendously dull and leads the public by the nose.

Iñigo Manglano Ovalle
Phantom Truck, 2007
© Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle;
Photo: Katrin Schilling / documenta GmbH

Which is why viewing individual works is what’s most worthwhile at the documenta. If only the exhibition makers had supplied the necessary information to understand them. Then one would know that Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s truck installation Phantom Truck plays upon a non-existing vehicle in which, according to U.S. intelligence, Saddam Hussein allegedly produced his biological weapons. The Americans justified their war on Iraq with images of this "phantom truck" – a fact the visitor either has to know or read in the catalogue to the tune of €34.99.

Sheila Gowda
Exposition view
© Sheila Gowda;
Photo Roman März / documenta GmbH

Lacking information in the exhibition, the viewer is left with two possibilities: you can randomly stroll past the works, making them seem like ornaments that more or less appeal to you aesthetically – or you can set out on a search for meaning. And then, all too quickly, you feel like you’re in a class that you never intended to take: cryptic, indecipherable, and with two exhibition makers as class geniuses parading their advantage as zealously as they jealously hoard it.

Hito Steyerl
Lovely Andrea, 2007
© Hito Steyerl

The documenta exercises social criticism this time around, too. There’s a tradition for this in Kassel. However, the political content of the works this year remains strangely superficial in many places, even shallow. Instead of investigating the causes of things, the artists content themselves with depicting the symptoms. For example Brownie: Peter Friedl’s stuffed giraffe quickly worked its way up to become the documenta mascot. Actually, at first sight the poor animal looks as though it were in the process of shedding its fur – a tad shabby.

Atsuko Tanaka
© Ryoji Ito; Takamatsu City Museum of Art,
Photo: Shigefumi Kato
s/w photography of Atsuko Tanaka 1956/2007
Courtesy: Ashiya City Museum of Art & History, Ashiya
© Ryoji Ito

Whoever asks the initiated for information about the work’s meaning learns that the animal lived in a zoo in the West Bank and died during an Israeli military raid. Of panic. To Buergel’s mind, Brownie is a "concentrate" that stands for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, although the exhibition makers remain silent on what insight the giraffe might provide as a symbol for the dead-end situation in the Middle East. But the catchword "Palestine" certainly attracts carefully calculated media attention to Brownie, the artist, and the curator.

The interplay between artists and the media also functions splendidly in the case of some non-European artists. At the documenta opening, numerous TV teams zoomed in on Romuald Hazoumé from Benin. The artist built a boat calling attention to African refugees who have perished while trying to reach Europe’s shores. Unfortunately, Hazoumé used gasoline canisters for his sculpture, everyday objects in Benin guaranteed to exude an "authentic" African aura. To top it off, the artist also placed his boat in front of a wallpaper mural of an African beach, giving the documenta team a chance to revel in presenting genuine ethno-kitsch – as in a few other cases, where woven rugs or Arabic calligraphy are supposed to satisfy a European hankering for the visual "other."

Romuald Hazoumé
© Romuald Hazoumé / VG-Bild-Kunst
Photo: Jens Ziehe
Courtesy the artist

More picturesque than political, ethnographic instead of illuminating. At this year’s documenta, what you miss is a clear stance – whether to art or to life. The curatorial married couple already announced that they wanted to unsettle their public so that it might learn to "endure tension and complexity." You can share this view, but it becomes clear that "unsettling" doesn’t suffice as the sole point in the program. Particularly when it comes to documenta, where art lovers hope for impulses that point to the future. Luckily, you can recover from the disaster in a special place: throughout the entire duration of the documenta, the Deutsche Bank Art Lounge in the Café of the Luther Church Tower offers visitors refuge far from all the blather about meaning.

Peter Friedl
Exposition view
© Peter Friedl;
Photo: Egbert Trogemann / documenta GmbH
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2007

Buergel and Noack have drummed up a backwards, sleepy, and, in terms of taste, embarrassingly private documenta exhibition that strives in vain to lay claim to a relevance for the contemporary art establishment. A fairly frustrating result. But Buergel has given us this, too, to ponder upon: "Frustration is an indispensable component of the educational process."

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