The Venice Biennale and Documenta 12 provide a thoughtful take on the shock of the news.
The Venice Biennale
Through November 21
haunted mind. There are taped-over locks on doors, skulls on pedestals, colorful luggage and wheelchairs, nooses, and mannequins in spacesuits wrapped in plastic. Called Oil (2007), the installation makes obvious connections—oil as wealth, progress, war, and global disintegration. But the work itself is far more complicated.The idea of inside/outside recurs throughout. There are many structures—from Tobias Putrih’s wood theater on San Servolo to a folded-up Jean Prouvé house in the Portuguese pavilion, where í‚ngela Ferreira presents the Modernist icon along with photographs of places in Angola where his prefabricated houses were to be installed in the 1930s, but, confounded by colonialism, never were.With 76 national pavilions, 34 collateral events, and gallery and impromptu shows, the biennale is exhausting. But here’s the way to deal with the visual and intellectual overload: throw darts. Jacob Dahlgren’s cathartic installation in the Nordic pavilion invites everyone to toss at a wall of targets. Vent, have fun, make art.Documenta 12
Through September 23In many ways, this Documenta gets better in retrospect. It grows on you and lingers.There is much to criticize in the show: it’s disorganized, but that is part of the plan; it’s too earnest, but it would be hard not to be today; and there isn’t much great art in it, but that, too, is intentional, and there is a lot that is interesting and good. In fact, the many rough edges provide an antidote to the excessive clarity and glitter of Venice.For better and worse, Documenta 12 demonstrates, and often makes a good case for, the study of visual culture, an area of criticism that subordinates individual genius and the hierarchies of quality to exemplary culture-illustrating work. This exhibition of the art of more than 150 artists in every medium, from the 12th century through the present, spread out over five main venues—documenta-Halle; the new Aue-Pavillon, a mammoth temporary shed with corrugated plastic walls; the stately, neoclassical Museum Fridericianum; the 19th-century Neue Galerie; and the Schloss Wilhelmshíhe, at the top of the mountain—presents an array of works in nonchronological arrangement that do and don’t resonate with one another.At the fabulous Baroque Schloss, the permanent collection is so rich in Rubenses, Van Dycks, Titians, and Rembrandts—including Rembrandt’s famous Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh (1633)—that when Documenta’s curators intersperse contemporary works to make analogies, the new art often struggles for attention against the depth of the past.But sometimes it works. While the Schloss offers a picturesque vision of a bygone world, down below it’s war, torture, disease, and trauma. So bringing Kerry James Marshall’s 1993 “Lost Boys” paintings, which memorialize gang members killed in action, up the mountain to hang beside works like Karel van Mander III’s 1640 painting Polonos Stabbing his Rival Tracinos to Death provides context in both directions.In this show, organized by the husband-and-wife team of Roger M. Buergel, as artistic director, and Ruth Noack, as curator, reality tends to trump imagination. There is some irony, some playfulness, and some satire, but not much real humor. An exception, perhaps, is a series of witty, ecologically correct recycled-plastic-jug portrait busts by Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumé. These actually allude to Yoruba masks and to their appropriation by European modernists. And there’s serious fun in the uncomfortable videos of German artist Hito Steyerl, who deals with sex and shame in his Lovely Andrea (2007), about the Japanese tradition of rope bondage, which became eroticized in the 19th century. Polish artist Artur Zmijewski, in his film Them (2007), showing off-site at the Kulturzentrum Schlachthof, provides a wry take on the irresolvable nature of prejudice and conflict. He asked groups of Catholics, nationalists, Jews, and socialists to paint banners symbolizing “their” Poland, and then to change one another’s banners to reflect their own points of view. The exercise ends in vitriol and pandemonium.Overall, though, context is key. Time is of the essence, and there are many pasts here. This is Documenta 12’s strength. Nothing is ever new—just different. So, many small, anxious-looking black-and-white abstract drawings by Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi in one room are accompanied by a large, quiet Agnes Martin work and a handwoven Turkish rug. The comparisons are not particularly enlightening, but the examples are stunning.Strangest of all are the constant recurrences of works by John McCracken and Juan Davila. They represent two poles in 20th-century (and so far in 21st-century) art making. McCracken’s candy-colored high-minimalist sculptures and Davila’s scurrilous, graffitiesque paintings, uncouth and provocative, appear in numerous improbable locations throughout the exhibition sites.Other artists also turn up repeatedly, punctuating different scenarios. Charlotte Posenenske, for example, is represented by everything from tape drawings to large boxes, all suggesting the artwork’s dependence on its environment. These curiosities may be the only real curatorial handle here, albeit an often inscrutable one that forces viewers to pause regularly and reflect on the relations between the artworks themselves—and between art and life.In this show where all issues are accounted for, artistic polish often works in tandem with political ends, although it doesn’t necessarily elevate the subject beyond the obvious, as in Ií±igo Manglano-Ovalle’s minimalist sculpture Phantom Truck (2007), whose contours change in varying lights. Its reference is to Colin Powell’s illusory weapons-making vehicles in Iraq.Besides new and forgotten artists, there are some known artists who are earning renewed attention for older works, which look wonderful here. Among them is Trisha Brown. Her subtle intertwinings of reality and art turn up in performances, drawings, and videos. In one performance, Floor of the Forest (1970), dancers weave in and out of a suspended rope net, pulled taut like a trampoline. As if struggling to survive, they slither through the loops, taking their bright-colored garments on and off and creating a moving painterly surface and an abstract shadow design below.Lee Lozano’s works from the ’60s—mostly minimalist madness—have also been brought back into play, exemplified by her 1962 drawing of a pair of trousers with a large, erect wrench sticking out of the fly.Many works, old and new, in and of themselves merge content from different artistic, historical, and cultural milieus. At the Schloss, Dias & Riedweg’s layered film presents contemporary life, anthropology, and pop culture in the context of galleries full of medieval texts, objects from antiquity, and European paintings, while at the Museum Fridericianum there is Zheng Guogu’s all-in-one history piece, the sculpture Waterfall (2006). A wax-covered plinth, it evokes traditional Chinese landscape painting, with its rising mountains and plateaus, as well as contemporary minimalist sculpture. But it really represents a subversive act: Zheng and colleagues (the Yang Jiang Group) invited the public to make hundreds of calligraphic texts, which the artists gathered together, dipped in wax to create a solid mass, and presented as a “waterfall.” The act not only bridges the centuries but contains many stories in one visual object.Charmingly symbolizing the dichotomies of past and present, high and low, are two signs. An old one up at the Schloss says, “My home is your castle (may I invite you?).” Another, in the town below, grouses, “Only 90 more days of art prison.”