“Beautiful confusion” about Retro Futuristic European Colonialism of documenta (13) – Chus Martinez XIII
Organ Kritischer Kunst (OKK, Berlin) Team has researched the new waves of the Art Establishment in the “probably most creative city in the world (at least in the continental part of Europe)” as manifested by the Berlin Biennale 7 (BB7; 27.04-01.07). OKK hosted the event entitled “2012 IS THE SEASON FOR TREASON” parallel to the BB7 (27.04-13.05) in order to expose the outcomes of their research into the biennale, but also to provide the space for discussion of the crypto-fascist ideology and tactics in the broader social context. On Friday 20th July, OKK presentation “Biennialization of political art” will draw on their “2012 IS THE SEASON FOR TREASON” and specify its relationship to the dOCUMENTA (13), which is currently occupying the city of Kassel.
from POT press release about the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Hessen event “Biennialization of Political Art”
1) “Borderless” documenta
According to dOCUMENTA (13) curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the Italians are coming back to this largest German contemporary art festival in 2012, after somewhat little presence of this nationality in the recent shows. Apparently they are coming back with a full blast in the style of 1930s! Sadly, both Berlin Biennale 7 and dOCUMENTA (13) rely on the nationalist and ethnic conceptions of identity. Simultaneously, Italian presence in documenta is the very element which allows this anti-concept concept re-conquest Afghanistan (2012 documenta takes place in Kassel, Germany; Cairo, Egypt; Banff, Canada and Kabul, Afghanistan). Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is an Italian and American writer, art historian and curator, sporting philosophy suitable for German domestic and foreign cultural policies. According to Emily Nathan from artnet.com:
One might wonder why on earth Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the curator of Documenta (13) in Kassel, Germany, June 9-Sept. 16, 2012, would choose to hold two years of art lectures and workshops in the war-torn country of Afghanistan. The Afghan Seminars, as they are called, took place between 2010 and 2012 in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Afghanistan, the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University and a host of other cultural institutions — and considering the current conditions of the country’s social and political landscape, such a decision might seem naive, or even dangerous.1
Ironically, the very personality who was used in order to let documenta expand through German borders is probably the most globally famous contemporary art curator with a background in Africa. Nigeria-born Okwui Enwezor was the star of dOCUMENTA (11) in 2002. Enwezor is a son of a businessman, a probable reason for his class-determined understanding of post-colonial international relations which had made way for “non-occidental” cultures forming the core of the whole show.2 While this might sound positive or in some way progressive, “the ultimate cosmopolitan” seems to have internalized the concept of art with its typical colonialist bias. Formulaic “phenomenon” of similar basis is described in Roger Taylor’s 1978 book “Art, an Enemy of the People”, where author speaks about the historical founding of Jazz:
I have now said something about the social context in which a certain social project was lived out. A set of simplifying contrasts help to clarify my meaning. Being white, an encapsulated in New Orleans social experience, was bringing blackness into whiteness, and thereby obtaining some release from being white, but at the same time not being black and remaining white. The project was contradictory, it was to be white, but not be white and to be black, but not be black (all of this from the standpoint of those who were white), it was to bring blackness into whiteness as a whiteness but at the same time that which entered as a whiteness had to be a blackness.3
So, why is documenta in Afghanistan? Back to Christov-Bakargiev, the curator attempts to relate her own present privileged living conditions with the bright days of 1970s in Kabul, when her “native” Alighiero Boetti owned a hotel together with his Afghani business partner Gholam Dastaghir. It seems that the whole “empathy” of documenta starts and ends with the business interests in an occupied country, which infamously hosted numerous European and American junkie communities in the 1960s and 70s. Christov-Bakargiev creates no contradiction when, in the name of Afghani artists, she boasts of a necessity to “radically imagine” that occupation does not exist! It is the international bourgeois who live in a Derrida-like “post-structural”, “borderless” post-colonial space: it goes without saying that such art events justify the imprisonment and torture of innumerable people who struggle to practically live-out this globalism both Christov-Bakargiev and Enwezor claim to exist for everyone. For the curators, just like for Jacques Derrida, truth only exists in text. Somewhat symmetrical to this is racial profiling exercised by the German state, where “crime statistics” provide justification for daily harassment of the non-white residents. Again, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: “In the 1990s, I liked to work with the concepts of ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ because then they were new and helped to structure the discussion. Today, I don’t use these terms any more—they became too fashionable and got a false tone.”4
Alighiero Boetti, the “Poor Art” star of the most recent documenta, was “fascinated with the other cultures”, he spent a long time living in Afghanistan. An outcome of this is present in Friedricianum, one of the main dOCUMENTA (13) venues in Kassel city, in the form of yet-another Boetti’s carpet-maps entitled “Mappa”. The artist employed numerous female weavers of Kabul in order to produce “his” world political maps over the years of 1971 to 1994. Alighiero Boetti’s “use of an element of chance” is widely spoken about. Interestingly, this “chance” is a calculated one: while it is difficult to track down the reason for employer failing to provide his employees with correct materials (for example blue string for the colouring of the oceans in Italian’s maps), yellow or pink parts of the world waters are treated as an explainable phenomenon: supposedly, Kabul locals have never seen water in their lives, neither do they have any idea of mapping: “Boetti loved this intrusion of chance into the design and from then on left it to the makers to choose which colour to use for the seas,” Tate said in its guide to the Boetti show, which ran from February 28 till May 27 2012 in Tate Modern.
Overall, is it not such “other culture” based treatment of Kabul weavers that makes “Boetti’s” work “outstanding”? The following quote allows us to leave this Bakargiev championed hopeless yet lucky bourgeois loser aside:
“(…) final self portrait, and his [Boetti’s] first work using cast bronze, is an image of the artist holding a hose that sprays water onto his head. Because the head is heated, the water boils on contact creating a cloud of steam and portraying Boetti as a thinker with so many ideas that he needs to cool himself down.”5
2) The personal & the political
At this point I would like to mention something of a little importance to most of the dOCUMENTA (13) visitors. My friend Habibi left Afghanistan, a country where he was born, and Kabul, the city where his relatives still reside, a good few years ago. Having travelled through Turkey and the Balkans, Habibi met a network of activists and simply empathetic people who made his long way to Berlin easier. They also provided Habibi with practical support ever since, even to the extent of his Afghani friends expressing suspicion. To my surprise, in the recent months Habibi himself took an active part in the actions of networks who provide voluntary practical support for refugees in Germany.
Unfortunately, Habibi’s involvement with anti-racist activities is what got him back to the refugee camp, one of those prisons Habibi was sent to the prievious time my friend had been policed. Yet again, Habibi has been put behind bars for a very “personal” reason, which is his skin color: the police demanded for my friend’s identification papers in the train station of Thuringian city (150 km away from Kassel; Kassel is in the land of Hesse – former West Germany, Hesse is bordering the territory of Thuringia, former GDR). It is not spoken openly enough about the fact that German state still uses the historically infamous method of racial profiling in their hunt for “illegal” immigrants. On March 27, 2012, the administrative court of Koblenz, in Western Germany, dismissed a complaint by a black German man who was asked to show his papers while travelling by train. The judges ruled that skin color was reasonable grounds on which to carry out ID checks – this ruling made way for further police aggression on urban and regional transportation in Germany.6 Simultaneously, it has been about 7 years since Oury Jalloh, a political refugee from Sierra Leone, died in a fire in a police cell in Dessau – another case not yet resolved by the justice apparatus of Germany.
On the other hand, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and dOCUMENTA (13) relate uneasily to the 20th century feminist slogan that “Personal is Political”. While it doesn’t make much sense to add up the numbers of personally or politically motivated works in the whole of 2012 documenta, it is worth mentioning the fact that Kabul students who took part in German art program in relationship with the same art fair were advised to draw on their personal experiences, and not to go into the sphere of politics, most of whom reportedly accepted a full package of Eurocentric subject/object division:
Unfortunately, [Chus] Martinez [the “agent” of dOCUMENTA (13)] launched the three-hour event in Kassel with a disclaimer of sorts, a declaration that each participant would share his or her “personal experiences” of the Afghan program, and would not, presumably, address the complex political, moral and ethical questions it involves. Most speakers followed suit, describing how grateful they were for the resources Documenta had provided and what they had learned.7
Somewhat of the clearest statement as to the justification of documenta’s recent expansionism into Afghanistan is spelled out in the article entitled “dOCUMENTA (13)” published in the “Afghan Scene”8:
Especially in times of war, or in post-conflict conditions, art can be a form of healing. Arte Povera artist Alighiero Boetti from Turin, Italy, visited Kabul in early 1971, and decided to open a hotel called One Hotel on Shar-e-Naw near Chicken Street, together with an Afghan called Gholam Dastahir. He spent half the year there, commissioning his embroidered Mappe from 1971 to 1977. The initial impulse for organizing a part of dOCUMENTA in Afghanistan came from imagining not the scenario of war, but rather a form of continuity between the vibrant and international life of the 1970s in Kabul, during the time Boetti spent there, and our own times, rejecting the state of exception that is determined by the war, and choosing to act hosmē—that is, as if the situation were not what it is, as if the checkpoints, cement walls, and barriers, the conflict, occupation, and militarization in Kabul, did not exist—through acts of radical imagination, all the while continuing the daily life required by and inevitable while living in a militarized zone.
This quoted article already in its form blatantly demystifies its “unquestionably” empathetic or egalitarian stance. Furthermore, while the authors of the feature are supposedly both “Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Golare Kiazand”, the last few paragraphs expose something of a different nature:
- (…) and I also felt that the international art world and artists could learn and profit from this cultural exchange [dOCUMENTA program in Afghanistan] (…)
- My experience was that there [in Afghanistan] is an interest in contemporary art and culture (…)
- I hope that the alliances and connections created between artists in Afghanistan and artists in other parts of the world through dOCUMENTA have a positive impact in the long term.
Here I would like to pose a question: is that a form of magic on Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s behalf? (quoted statements have clearly come from her camp; nevertheless, the curator uses subject ”I”, but the authorship is attributed to two persons)
3) The “retreat”
Marketing of dOCUMENTA (13) relies on a reserved colour scheme, dominated by the bright yellow and accompanied by pastel tones of blue and green – the decision somewhat reflecting Giorgio Morandi’s output. Morandi style fits dOCUMENTA brand perfectly: while Venice Biennial is denounced for its never-ending parties and Art Basel constitutes a “commercial” art fair, documenta is shrouded in a smoke of seriousness and modesty. Ever since its foundation, this art fair was meant to “heal” a broken society of post-war Germany. Started out as an annexe to the bourgeois horticultural show in the city of Kassel in 1955, the art festival was meant to show art formerly deemed “degenerate” by the Nazi party. Nevertheless, the fact that documenta was initiated at the same year as the German military was officially recreated and accepted into NATO (1955; with Kassel as one of the most important arms industry hubs in Germany), is rather striking.9
Most of the show is produced with the same colour scheme like its marketing. Having spent a good part of the day in documenta, this could be also said about its contents. Humour entirely absent, eroticism was positioned in a suspiciously close proximity to both: Italian fascist star of the show Giorgio Morandi and the portrait of Adolf Hitler, therefore rendering one of the very few erotic impulses of the art fair – images featuring the Vogue correspondent Lee Miller herself – entirely unattractive. Furthermore, Anna Teixeira Pinto, in her review for Art Agenda points to the lack of seriously analytical contributions to documenta10, those which would have been capable of consciously deconstructing language and the “rationalism” which led to the creation of nuclear warfare, the problem continuously scrutinized in the works of Gustav Metzger. Instead, the nature and man inflicted disasters are put side by side by the Bakargiev curatorial “everything goes as long as it fits German cultural policy” concept, where on the one hand war is justified by the supposedly universal human death instinct, and on the other art is granted “uebermench” qualities by its un-historical appearance in the form of “energy”11, which on its own behalf leads towards the “ecology of spirit” in the form of German Nazi founded Volkswagen “motto’s”12.
Poor curatorial decisions fit well with the glorification of “Poor Art”. Alighiero Boetti has been historicized into the poor Italian art circle, but another hero of 2012 documenta, Giorgio Morandi, is also another artist related to the Arte Povera (in 2009 his paintings decorated the US White House, while Alighiero Boetti was featured in the world’s largest art museums in 2012: MOMA NYC and London Tate Modern, Giorgio Morandi’s legacy was exhibited in MOMA in 2001, in New York Metropolitan Museum in 2008, and others). Reviews of 2005 Yale University Press published Janet Abramowicz’s “Giorgio Morandi: the Art of Silence”13 state the artist’s relationship with Arte Povera movement:
“An epic account covering five decades of Morandi’s life that breaks new ground. . . . Abramowicz should receive the highest praise for daring to do what other art historians have repeatedly denied: she unabashedly links Morandi as both artist and person to his predecessors, contemporaries, and descendants, arguing that ‘it was in [Morandi’s] room that the real arte povera began.'”—Jennie Hirsh, CAA Reviews
While it seems that this very book inspired the inclusion of Morandi into the concept of dOCUMENTA (13) and its “subsequent” justification for the show’s presence in Kabul through Morandi’s association with Arte Povera, it is striking that Carolyn Christoph-Bakargiev states the following:
With her Documenta, Bakargiev seems to be positioning artists as suffering something akin to the trials of Job, acknowledging the contradictions of making art in the face of war, and choosing to pursue symbols of creativity when surrounded by destruction. “For me,” she concluded, “the image of Morandi sitting in his studio painting vases, one after the other, with Fascism all around him — that is what art can do14
Christov-Bakargiev, herself “one of the world’s leading authorities on post-war Italian art and culture” associates Morandi with Povera but nevertheless whitewashes his fascist past. To my understanding, it is exactly this Abramowicz’s 2005 book that did both: named Morandi a precursor of the “poor” art movement but remained open about his political positions. Therefore, selected to curate a “world class” art circus dOCUMENTA (13), Christoh-Bakargiev should have either done “her” research herself, or been willing to confront Morandi’s participation in the fascist project of Italy. Provided Janet Abramowicz is a long-time assistant of Giorgio Morandi and his close friend, it is hard not to treat the book seriously. Another review from Yale University Press Website:
Abramowicz shows how Morandi worked in close proximity to mainstream contemporary European art and tells the story of his relationship to the Fascist politics and patrons of his time, illustrating how his connections to this period were muted after the fall of the regime in post–World War II Italy in an effort to establish the artist as apolitical. Morandi was the only Italian modernist to emerge from Fascism unscathed. (Yale University Press promotional information)
And the last one:
[Janet Abramowicz] “Bravely exposes the artist as a speak-no-evil Fascist tagalong.”—Peter Plagens, Art in America
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has written an extensive book on Arte Povera, which is itself first and foremost a critic-coined umbrella term to describe and market a certain style shared by an “Italian” group of artists in the 60s and 70s. We have to forgive Bakargiev for her “blind in the right eye” approach to Povera and its forerunner Morandi in her 1999 book on the subject, but is it not the career perspectives that holds Carolyn back from re-evaluation of her research? As Janet Abramowicz shows, Morandi related himself to the Italian fascist elite for precisely the same careerist reasons…
Providing the references to both the mentioned book and German nationalist expansionist policies seems to be the best way to answer innumerable establishment reviewers of the dOCUMENTA (13) who fully submitted themselves to Bakargiev’s “beautiful confusion”, Frieze magazine’s assistant editor Christy Lange among them, who stated the following:
In this darkened space [Fridericianum’s Rotunda] crammed with spot-lit vitrines, I had trouble making the connections between Giorgio Morandi’s paintings, displayed along with actual objects from his studio, and the neighbouring vitrines containing ‘Bactrian Princesses’ – a series of small sculptures of seated women created in the late 3rd and early 2nd century BC in what is now modern day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. While these art works and artefacts are no doubt fascinating, there is no apparent justification for their inclusion together, other than their need to be housed in vitrines, and the fact they probably couldn’t have been procured for any contemporary art exhibition other than this one.15
4) The moral safety valve
Thuringia, a German land where my friend was arrested on 08.07.2012, has been frequently featured in the news recently, mainly due to its security services’ intimate involvement with the “National Socialist Underground” (NSU) and subsequent “loss” of evidence about the serial killing executed by these neo-nazi fanatics and the security services in collaboration over the years. Therefore it is my suggestion that Habibi’s situation is related to both: the state protection of NSU and simultaneously to the “no-concept” ideology of dOCUMENTA (13) curated by Carolyn Chistoph-Bakargiev.
To conclude, I would like to repeat myself in saying that Heideggerian dwelling in order to restore “authentic” social and psychological “peace” must be severely attacked by the deconstruction of the monumentally serious (or “alternatively modern”) culture, which is not antagonistic towards fascist versions of capitalism as presented at dOCUMENTA (13), but instead tightly, but obscurely woven together: art is a historical construct which has a historical and very material function – that of social glue.
Instead of absorbing everything into universally “acceptable” sphere of “participatory” contemporary art, I propose the critical distancing from such art fairs and autonomizing of negative in art, in order to counter the possibility and vanguardism of such chauvinistic (like Berlin Biennale 7) or subliminally speculative (like dOCUMENTA 13) propaganda weapons. These simply provide a moral safety valve for the continuing North-Western psycho-colonial expansionism (i.e. whitewash) in general and gentrification (in case of Berlin) or arms trade (in case of Kassel) in particular. Knowing these processes documenta’s motto of “collapse and recovery” makes much more “sense”…
Chus Martinez XIII