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Bad Weather and Other Catastrophes
Why documenta 12 isn’t really a success

Dried-out rice fields, collapsed towers, art with a mothball flair: The Documenta 12 is highly controversial. The curator couple Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack have woven together artworks with no discernable theme. Yet the open structure of the show in Kassel enables each visitor to form his or her own opinion. A very personal view by Tim Ackermann.

Sakarin Krue-On
Terraced Rice Field Art Project, Kassel, 2007
Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, Kassel
© Photo / montage Sakarin Krue-On

"Documenta brings the world’s problems right into our living room." This is the sentence German president Horst Köhler pronounced in Kassel at the opening of the most important art exhibition of the world. He had no idea just how right he would prove to be.

Ai Weiwei
documenta 12 Ausstellungsansicht
© Courtesy the artist; Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne;
Photo: Frank Schinski / documenta GmbH

Ai Weiwei
Exposition view
© Photo: Adrian Christopher Koss

The well-known "world’s problems" – extreme climate and unbridled natural forces – caused a number of accidents at the mega-show in Kassel: the terraced rice fields that the artist Sakarin Krue-On planted in front of the Wilhelmshöhe Palace dried out shortly after the opening and threatened to erode away completely with the next heavy rain. Sanja Ivekovic’ poppy field on the Friedrichsplatz also refused to bloom at first due to the water shortage. Since then, documenta head Roger M. Buergel was able to greet the first poppy plant personally despite a change in weather. On the other hand, the exhibition pavilion especially erected on the Auewiesen is frequently flooded. The climax in this series of catastrophes came in the guise of a summer storm that tipped over Ai Weiwei’s twelve-meter-high tower fashioned together from old Chinese doors. Buergel hastened to term the new form "stimulating." The artist wants to leave the work in ruins and doubled the price. But why? That’s what Berlin critic Thomas Wulffen asked as well, and proved on his blog with the help of two photographs that the collapsed wooden pile actually resembles Caspar David Friedrich’s world-famous painting Sea of Ice. The "migration of forms" here, a leitmotif of the documenta, finds its final satiric chord.

© Photo Frank Schinski / documenta GmbH

The antics surrounding the climate debate and the tower collapse in Kassel lend themselves well to the media, of course. What everyone seems to have forgotten is that visually, documenta 12 as an overall concept is frighteningly weak. Even if you don’t want to go as far as the critic of the English Daily Telegraph and call it the "worst art show ever," the exhibition is pretty close nonetheless.

It’s supposed to be about "beauty" this time. Forget all the theory, Buergel demanded, and bring on the "lust in seeing." But now, what the exhibition visitor sees most of all is that "beauty" is a matter of taste that can be disputed splendidly. Besides, the show is largely lacking in content, while the selection of works seems random at best, especially in the newly erected Aue Pavilion.

James Coleman
Retake with Evidence, 2007
Performed by Harvey Keitel. Projected Film.
Courtesy: James Coleman; Marian Goodman Gallery;
Simon Lee Gallery; Galerie Micheline Szwajcer.
© James Coleman

But we shouldn’t be unfair: as with every documenta, there are wonderful works to be discovered this time too, of course. Like the film by the Irish artist James Coleman, in which a rock-n’-roll Harvey Keitel rants marvelously on the meaning of existence. Or the textile painting by Lu Hao, which documents every building on Chang’an Street in Peking. On the one hand, Lu quotes Ed Ruscha’s famous photo series Every Building on The Sunset Strip, and on the other shows that the greatest urban changes in the Chinese capital were triggered by land acquisitions on the part of international multi-concerns.

Lu Hao
recording 2006 chang' an street, 2005
Sammlung Sigg
© Lu Hao
Courtesy Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne

In contrast with this detailed and distanced list, other works stand out with tumultuous emotions: Lee Lozano’s sexually charged paintings, for instance, or a delicate work by Gerhard Richter, who painted his daughter Betty. For the last two examples cited, however, the curatorial reach had to be carried back to the ’60s and ’70s. And that’s not the end of the journey in time, not by a long shot: the show travels all the way back through 17th-century Indian gouaches to Persian miniatures from the 14th century. You can almost smell the odor of mothballs; you long for relevant contemporary positions. Especially since documenta demonstrates in several ways that "old" doesn’t necessarily have to be "good," as in John McCracken’s nasty mandala paintings from the ’70s.

Lee Lozano
Ohne Titel, ca. 1962
© The Estate of Lee Lozano and Hauser & Wirth Zürich London;
Photo: Barbora Gerny

John McCracken
Dog Star II, 1972
Courtesy of Elkon Gallery, Inc., New York
© John Mc Cracken,
Photo: Egbert Trogemann / documenta GmbH
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2007

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