Bienalisation of political arts (Otto Karl Kamal)

Bienalisation of political arts: Organ Kritischer Kunst

organ of critical art
August/September 2012


Text: Otto Karl Kamal

Zuckerbrot und Peitsche – Militär und Kultur, eine Erfolgsgeschichte aus Kassel

Carrot and Stick – Military and Culture, a history of success outcome of Kassel

If we talk about Kassel and documenta, we must also remember that the place itself is a really important location for the German arms industry: since several decades it has been re-established in this historical place. The tactical proximity between war and culture is in no way new situation of geopolitical strategies. By means of the example of Kassel, we realise how cultural politics (on both global and regional level) crystalize as a part of hegemonic power structures, sometimes more visual, sometimes more sublime, but constant nevertheless. The most important armament players in the Kassel region (business volume of several billions of Euros):

Rheinmetall Defense, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Eurocopter1

Pablo Hermann, Afghaniswahn, 2011, Tusche und Acryl auf Papier, 20x30cm,

The leitmotif of Christov-Bakargiev about the reflection of the past is going beyond. “Kassel is the city which was destroyed and rebuilt”, says the boss of documenta. “And in the middle of the wreckage (ruins) the documenta was initiated. This aspect brought me to follow one question/idea: when I look at the present situation, I have a problem to comprehend with the simultaneousness of collapse and recovery. For Afghanistan, both counts: the state of things after and during the war. And that is very curious. The war ended in 2004, everybody came back and the war seems to be over. At the same time, everyone said the war is still going on there. The difference between now and 1945/46 is that crisis and no-crisis can now exist side by side. […]” (

What Christov-Bakargiev is instigating here is namely that the war was over already in 2004 – while all the facts speak about proportionately more casualties in the time after 2004 than in the duration of 3 years prior to the “end of the conflict”.

Here I am “only” referring to the military casualties. The number of civil victims must be multiplied by thousands (just in the sole year of 2010 there were over 10.000 civilian deaths) (2)! The Allied troops from 2001 till 2004 reported exactly 200 deaths, and between 2005 and 2012 (…), there were 2944 (3). Bearing such numbers in mind, it is either sarcastic or aggressively naïve to speak about this aforementioned “no-crisis”, or “end of the war”. And the person, who is digging the history of last centuries’ Afghanistan, will find no difficulty to nail down the colonial causalities and effects from these approaches that triggers bigger or smaller armed conflicts. Considering this, the “no-crisis” idea of Christov-Bakargiev is extremely problematic to digest (4).

[…] if you show that in the after-war history of Kassel there are explicit connections to the actual examples of worldwide war destruction. In Kassel these themes, also without documenta, are present all the time, but without any wider public perception. Already the destruction of the city during the II world war was closely related to the presence of arms industry in there. The following history of success in rebuilding brought not only the much-discussed architecture of the 1950s to the inner city, but also a quick set-up of German arms industry hub Kassel anew: from Germany to Chile, from Kosovo to Afghanistan – Kassel arms production is in use.

Jeramy Turner, “founding fathers”, 2007, oil on canvas , 2x2m

  • Zusammenbruch und Wiederaufbau“ / Collapse and Recovery

The only recognizable leitmotif of the present documenta under the curating and the conceptualizing by Christov-Bakargiev developed a big attraction to the public. This could be a cause of her careless approach to handle the traded conceptual guidelines for dOCUMENTA and to break with them (those which have the red guidelines for the show). The “no-concept concept” has a certain attraction to the public. Sometimes it appears clumsy or even naïve, like for example “colonial-manieristic” global expansion of serious white culture by the settlement of documenta in Kabul (…)

This supposedly serves to heal historical, social and cultural wounds to both oppressors and the oppressed. This naïve approach towards political complexes sometimes is scary or shows certain superficiality or directed exclusion of disagreeable truths. The recovery is preached (with the same words that were used 10 years before, when the terror of war began: democracy and freedom), but a “no-crisis” status (or, by deduction, “no status of war”) and its consequences are evoked without a radical analysis of causes and the backgrounds (e.g. economies).

The big art fair which had been installed by the western allies (and the new democracy-educated German allies) in the arms production city of Kassel could be used for the convalescence of the German public and consequently it was logical to show “degenerate Art” as rehabilitation. These socio-pedagogical pretensions are actual until today. Even if there has been a fight about the power of interpretation of medial symbols by the monopolization of art education, which for example is forced by documenta team that is nothing more than mere paternalism of the possibilities of artistic interpretation. This linear, mono-directionality of perception in arts, rather than being broken, is fortified. The thinking and interpretation patterns are pre-conceived and almost absolute. The observer’s perception is heteronomous; also the lecture of thematized conflicts and problems is pre-given: all go through the same procedure (Afghanistan). The Afghani artists were taught the learning process [to understand and put to practice: occidental, serious culture, art structure], and made to adopt the politics of European bourgeois art understanding and the methodic media-strategic application. But fundamental questioning of the power structures is blended out.

In this specific case, the social wounds caused by failed imperial war have to be cured by culture at present. And the best tactics for this are to bring “the patients” into the state of sedation, in order to leave the painful truth behind. The bad, inevitable (intrinsic, natural – therefore unavoidable) and unpopular war must be forgotten as soon as possible – that is the motto. This also could be a balm on the soul of the German military (Bundeswehr) a case of “military diplomacy”. And now, when we are intensely forgetting, we should forget within the same act which was the real interests that led to the occupation in the first place: the economic interests for the “safety” of the resources and free trade routes with the gas pipeline (5) in the foreground. In the whole documenta there is no such artistic position which makes this analytical work and looks behind the scenery of the actual geo-strategic warfare with angle-point Afghanistan. Marc Lombardi, featured in 2012 documenta, unfortunately never had a chance to do this.

Can we resent this ignorant attitude of Christov-Bakargiev? The fear of the truth has to be really big. Even to think loudly in this direction cost the highest mandate in the republic in 2010, because the president dared to name the issue very clearly. It remains hardly known, that Federal Republican presidial tragedy started also in Afghanistan.

Bundespräsident Köhler, 2010

Hair cracks of a liberal systems: bb7 – documenta (13)

  • Nationalism in international Cultureshow

[…] the pivot of the national-popular concept remains, through all the notes, the ideal relationship between intellectuals and nation-people, a relationship that has been lacking historically and still waits to be created. this relationship, is then developed in a positive sense by being linked to Jacobinism, hegemony, the organic bond between knowledge and feeling, the historical bloc, the recognition of the need to pass through a national stage, and the reflection on historical models (Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, the Greek tragedians, Abba, Gioberti). At the same time it is developed in a negative sense, as the diagnostic key to a lack or absence, in the many polemical notes against ‘i nipotini di padre Bresciani’, Catholic intellectuals, the fascist writers of the 1920s ruralist-nationalist movement called Strapaese, and in the acerbic observations on a popular taste which has remained stuck at the stage of French serial literature of a century before.”

.(Quote: “performing national identity – Anglo-Italian cultural transactions” (s.188) Edited by Manfred Pfister und Ralf Hertel, Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam 2008, ISBN: 978-90-420-2314-7)

This quote refers to the building of national identity in the 1920s fascist Italy, where the present documenta star Morandi was actively involved. Whether consciously or not Christov-Bakargiev’s historic misrepresentation is on a highest aesthetical level. Like practiced by Zmijewski in Berlin Biennale 7 (BB7), identity formation would ever be determined by national and ethnic parameters. Documenta is much more subtle, not the brute agitprop language combined with the rigorously failed attempt to apply over-identification (see more on Querfront strategies at the Berlin Biennale) (6). The aesthetic sensitivity of Christov-Bakargiev (we can hardly put it next to fearless masculinist Zmijewski) is relatively well balanced and she is avoiding the spectacular pop factory of Zmjiewski’s visualization tricks. She spied such fundamental differences – the reference to nationalism is well developed in various artistic positions of both art fairs. The focus on the national currents, like Christov-Bakargiev is doing in reference to her European Homeland Italy, mainly considering Arte Povera, and thereby declaration that Morandi is a spiritual father of the “movement” – this focus leaves us the aftertaste of nationalist regionalist cultural boost of Mussolini’s fascists (Morandi was a member of Novecento (7) & Strapaese (8), also associated with and professionally active in publicity organs of both “il selvaggio”(9), “il italiano”).

[…] [Morandi – d. Red.] He participated in the right-wing, ruralist Strapaese movement of the late nineteen-twenties. His attitude toward Mussolini, whose regime gave him teaching jobs, was more positive than not, although he was briefly imprisoned in 1943 for associating with anti-Fascists. (If ever an artist merited political amnesty, on the ground of unworldliness, it would be Morandi.) Fame came to him after the war: he won first prize for an Italian painter at the 1948 Venice Biennale, and became so revered in Italy that filmmakers, notably Federico Fellini, in “La Dolce Vita,” used his work as a ready symbol of lofty sensibility. Morandi had a last adventurous phase of nearly abstract drawings and watercolors that condense into swift marks a lifetime of looking. […]”

If Christov-Bakargiev is blending this out – and she can do this only consciously, because she is one of the most authoritative voices about the mentioned art current of Arte Povera and the precursors – then we are questioning how serious are the requirements of documenta (-tion) of art and its pedagogical approaches. The orientation of nationalism subconsciously takes a more important role that we are enforced upon us. National orientation as well as the ground structure (development aid-export-model-documenta), also there are in the artistic works, “helping” to build identities.

Going hand in hand with the eurocentristic thought of serious culture (we also could name it competitive culture) which is also available as the export-goods/ware we can see an image of historical references to colonialism and presently to western imperialism that in some artworks is criticized but in the whole concept they lose any potential substance, because the applied schemes of system of war and art are not very distant one from each other. The lecture could be as follows: the superior Europeans & Americans, helped out by an economic dependence, built a dictate in so called crisis regions. This is a paternalism of political (military) and also cultural field. The other ones collaborate with resources (from oil over to the human capital all the way to Coltan) and get the equivalent pseudo-democracy and the western notion of freedom and security. And what is still much more important, the national (ethnic) identity of invaded peoples would be guaranteed. The system of carrot and stick proves to be a trans-disciplinary success model of military and culture.

Till Ansgar Baumhauer, Kriegsteppich, 2010/11, 165×85 cm

  • Elitism in Art

These references to nationalist traditions and their artistic bruises, which were described in the chapter above, should be re-interpreted from the class perspective. On the other hand, to deal with nationalism on the level concerning the whole society (persisting in documenta) is the extension of the same traditional thinking structure on a professional level. Furthermore, the statements of the BB7 main curator Zmijewski openly claims that only a small privileged elite is in allowed to create arts and this capacity is “naturally” only possible through guided academic appropriation – and it should remain so. Christov-Bakargiev shares the opinion. Elitist thinking schemes are the base of such a point of view. This aesthetic elitism is a counterpart to real essence of artistic activism, and so a counter position to actual currents of political art. Nevertheless, the mentioned leaders of the art fairs claim to represent such currents. The pluralist idea of, for example, Free International University, worked on by Beuys and others in dOCUMENTA 7 (1982) is, during dOCUMENTA 13 and Berlin Biennale 7, not more than a singular drop on the hot stone of art history.

  • Curatorship and Naiveness

Another further similarity between the curators of aforementioned art fairs is the naivety while dealing with the complex socio-political contexts. As Zmijewski fails in the fields of National Socialism and Shoah with exception of stupid provocative attitudes in the work with these issues, he has nothing to say. Christov-Bakargiev’s abysmally naïve position towards hegemonic politics in Afghanistan which were cemented with bombs and deaths is rough and negligent, historic reprocessing of fascist art-hero Morandi. There is one last question: is the committees of German Federal Cultural Foundation (Bundeskulturstiftung), who choose the actors, are they not able to research the people they install?

Critical Points in the questioning of the curatorial concept:

  • Heroization of controversial figures

Otto Kamal, “I didn´t see anything … except bottles”, digital graphic, 2012

Like mentioned above, apotheosis of some questionable persons as the cult of cultural heroes is initiated. The main figure for Christov-Bakargiev is Morandi, who has a brown past, impossible to remove.

[…]Morandi participated in the Novecento exhibitions of 1926 and 1929, but his work had greater affinity with the Strapaese movement, which was inspired by provincial cultural traditions. […]

Such cementation of what we can denominate as an artistic myth exposes Bakargiev’s position as reactionary. Her explanation to prepare the way for critical and political art doesn’t really fit with the retro-renaissance positioning (the artists as a genius creator). Considering the fact that the new, so-called avant-garde movements in art are heading in the direction of communitarian production, Christov-Bakargiev appears conservative and deeply outmoded. Political art serves only as a sensationalist driving force of hegemonic culture, which is in the position to hybridize “the other” cultures. The critical alternatives to Christov-Bakargiev’s own culture are synchronized and fit into the sphere of influence of the hegemon. The Situationists were right in their analysis of art as the mild part of the carrot and stick organization of society.

  • Kader Attia’s Scars and Mask Cabinet (Kader Attia “The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidential Cultures” 2012)

Firstly, I want to say that this critique is not an aesthetic analysis. Kader Attia’s work is to be considered as artistically and technically on the good level, therefore I even wonder myself how such a lecture could be done. The problem in this work is not the strange constellation of different contexts, rather the lecture as exotic comparison between two fundamentally different cases of human existence. On the one hand, we have plastic surgery of the victims of the WWI, and on the other hand the scarification (scar-tattoos) of African tribes. Both things are placed on the same level: first the mutilation caused by imperial war machinery, and second the cultural, aesthetically motivated (“natural” – because it is a part of ritual) corporal intervention without any deeper questioning of the ethically descendent of these acts. So, what we can call the “natural” scarification (in its own context, for its own sake) has none of the negative connotation, and is not comparable to the deformation caused by the most inhuman act – warfare. Therefore, the thing which is normal and aesthetically important for autochthonous peoples of Africa is for occidentals the horrible disfigurement. Vice versa, the mutilation of war participants means the same thing like natural creative deformation of the human body. Here we also see the parallel between the natural recurrings and corrosion of material (the ritual tribe scars are a prolongation of nature of the human identity), and the war of hegemonic power politics. Is the organic, natural corrosion comparable to the destruction forced by human valence? Here happens an aesthetic abolition of critics of destruction of imperial politics (WWI) by naturalization of war by equalizing human and natural catastrophes. The inevitable, “destiny determined” is museum-ized as a bad memory which could be revoked consciously. By the horrifying images of individuals they create simultaneous empathy with the victims of the First World War – the situation that brings the focus to “universal” human misery through war, but the reasons of such disastrous activity are in no way questioned and traded as yet another naturally occurring catastrophe and declared as regrettable but inevitable bad.

  • White War Wounds vs. Black Ritual Transformation

The fact is that there is a discourse of European position that makes evaluation, respectively a judgment of aesthetic manifestations of African tribes which is done through a bizarre comparison that has strong colonial features. By Eurocentric aesthetic the cultural healing is initiated. Kader Attia is speaking of hybridization of cultures, which helps “sub-developed” cultures but also the European Cultures. But it’s hard to believe, because for Europe, “hybridization” means the old privilege of interpretation. Considering European colonial history, it’s hard to believe that such hybridization is not valuable more than a new attempt to get the privilege of interpretation, in this case in the field of aesthetics, and this is a manifestation of an arrogant Eurocentric position. A hidden cultural racism in this artistic work and the equivalent theoretic discourse is not to negate.

The Afghanistan Orbital: Negation of war and imperialistic Appropriation of resources

In the series of imperialist thinking, which manifest itself on several levels, the idea of Christov-Bakargiev to heal the Afghan society by exported European serious culture fits the picture very well. What politics doesn’t get on with structural, economic and even military violence, culture will fix. The Afghan people should get driven out of “darkness” after 30 years of war by pre-given aesthetic practices and methods. The message is: we are the cultural messiahs from the west.


In the end we can see that such a big show of western culture only reflects the culture that created it. Culture is an aesthetic representation of that what ethics and values represent in society. Singular critical artists positions which make an continuous analysis of the capitalist system were neutralized and the political art is abused by political purposes they are officially led. The “recovery” of the land is part of the responsibility and justifies this post-military intervention of maintenance of own hegemonic economic and cultural interests. The art as the carrot, the weapons are the stick, both are being produced in Documentastadt Kassel.

1 , , , ,


3 Afghanistan; Stand: 17.08.2012; http://www.


5 ,




9 ,

Lektüre / Recherche:!94461/!95027/!98344/–61782132.html


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s