Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Seeing Red


Once more the circus of Documenta descends on Kassel, for 3 months a huge collection of the work of artists from around the world has been on view. The feeling of the exhibition spaces around the centre of the town is somewhere between an art fair and a biennial, a broad spectrum of visitors are viewing a huge collection of art which would not normally be seen together in such a way. This curated feast of art provides many problems and allied with the obvious curatorial aims of the directors this mass of work suffers and strains under the weight, it is relentless in more ways than one.

The curatorial aim seems to be a concern with showing socially engaged art, the focus is away from the usual commercial fodder in art fair land, this is an admirable attempt to highlight a different aspect of international art practice but many of the artists are guilty of a polemical zeal that borders on aggressive. Perhaps in isolation the feminist concerns of Mary Kelly, the legacies of the civil rights movement echoed in the work of Kerry James Marshall, the multiple works which reflect on democracy or the concerns with dialogue between west and east or those divided by race, religion or ideology are valid and vibrant but collected together across the 6 Documenta sites they create a mass collective shout that induces equal measures of guilt, fear, anger, helplessness and ultimately apathy. To view all these works is to feel battered into submission, any sympathies to the arguments presented are worn thinner and thinner until you turn away and disengage from any of the issues. This is disappointing given the quality of many of the pieces but they are swamped in a huge sea of art by a relentless swell of social and political engagement, those works that contain an engaging and quiet dignity are shouted down by louder, flashier or more bullying pieces.

Amongst this mass however sits some real quality, away from the main sites Artur Zmijewski’s lone video installation in the darkened basement of the Kulturezentrum Schlachtof shows the value of tolerance and dialogue and understanding when faced by ideological entrenchment. Ibon Aranberri’s installations comprising collections of photographs, documents and other materials relating to ecological concerns within particular geographical sites bring our thoughts from issues of global inaction to local engagement. In the Museum Fridericanum Harun Farocki’s multi screen installation which focuses on individual elements of televised and computer generated information used or created during the broadcast of the 2006 World cup final take a seemingly simple and insignificant event and isolate points which can now be seen in a wider, more significant context. A game of football becomes a series of measurements of individual, local, social and global activities and we can see points at which these elements crossover. In the Aue-Pavilion Zoe Leonard’s photos show a simple and familiar view of the streets, shop-fronts bear the styles and dressing of locality, at one and the same time we can see the uniqueness and identity of place with the generic signifiers of a globalised world, even in scenes of poverty and deprivation we see an outward looking, aspirational, global culture in creation.

The image that lingers longest in this temporary city of art is in its central square, bordered by the built environment of Documenta’s galleries, cafes and shops is the Friedrichsplatz, during this huge exhibition it is the site for Sanja Ivekovic’s poppy field installation. A field of these flowers has been planted in Friedrichsplatz and creates a gentle but significant reflection on history both recent and less recent, this little red flower signifies many things to many people, many thoughts occur to one when viewing this scene, the mind wanders around settling on many places around the world and at many points in history.
It is this gentle scene loaded with reflections of history and political significance that can teach the director, curator and artists invited to participate in this Documenta something important. With all its subtlety and engaging strength it is the red of these poppies and not of blood and flesh and the sound of the wind in the plants not the harsh sounds that emanate from a television or video screen that will last longest in my memory from my short time in Kassel this summer.

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