Dealing with volatile topics and running educational activities worldwide, dOCUMENTA (13) participates in a variety of social, economic and scientific contexts, thus claiming to be politically influential. Is it? And if so, why?
The combination ‘political art' has long been considered an oxymoron by the proponents of artistic autonomy who invoke Ad Reinhardt's thesis that "art is art and everything else is everything else". However if one realizes that there are collective causes and that seemingly individual decisions have consequences, this oxymoron is turned into a tautology: produced and received within social contexts, all art can be considered equally political. But since there's always something more equal than equal, what makes dOCUMENTA (13) particularly political?
First there's a laudable tendency to raise the average age both of participants and exhibits. In this way the presence of two artists born 1925, along with another one just one year younger defies the art world's hierarchy of age, due to which artists born before 1970 have to be pretty successful in order to engender demand.
Besides the participants' age that of the exhibits is increased as well. Since the late nineties modernism has become a reference point for artists and scholars. dOCUMENTA (13) continues this revision of the avant-gardes by emphasizing rival candidates to modernism's well known protagonists. Hence Hannah Ryggen's tapestries that visualize the global policy of the 1930s by means of imagery available in Europe at that time. Emily Carr and Margaret Preston on the other hand merge modernist principles with those of the Canadian First Nations and the Australian aborigines.
Along with the timeframe the geographic range is also widened. The integration of events outside of Europe and the US may be taken for granted at biennials. Yet given the fact that purchases by museums and collections are still determined by national interests, focussing on art beyond traditional centres still bespeaks of a certain frontier spirit.
Apart from extending the prevalent notion of art through time and space, it's also broadened in terms of its interdisciplinary approach. The cause of these cross-border interactions is the idea that widespread collaboration enhances the socio-political range of art.
Exhibits created without any artistic intention function as aesthetic decoys, luring attention towards the non-aesthetic object. Detained in a Nazi labour camp following a dissident comment, fruit growing clergyman Korbinian Aigner continued cultivating apples and created four new breeds, named KZ 1 to 4. Thus what's exhibited isn't so much his painting as rather the story of the prisoner, who, expecting doomsday, plants an apple-tree. Complying with Luther's saying ‘If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today', the incarcerated priest embodies the active implementation of philosopher Ernst Bloch's ‘Principle of Hope'.
The presence of Mark Lombardi's delicate structures isn't due to their graphic attraction either, since the decorative outside just visualizes what must not become visible. Lombardi's aim being the exploration of classified ties among political and economical decision makers, the visually intriguing diagrams feature as mere by-products of his investigations. Again what is on show here is the principle of aesthetically effective, yet not aesthetically conceived content.
Unlike Aigner and Lombardi, whose forms merely serve to convey meanings, Goshka Macuga's view of a group of people posing in front of Kabul's Darulaman palace emphasizes form and content equally. Interspersed with surreal elements, the image irritates in two ways. First the apparent photograph is a photo-montage, printed on fabric instead of paper. Secondly the seemingly documentary picture turns out to be entirely staged. Her combination of textual and formal complexity makes Macuga an heir of Hanna Ryggen who likewise by iconographic idiosyncrasies and technical sophistication draws attention to her mission. In this way both artists apply aesthetic means in order to illustrate political subjects in a multi-layered fashion. Such aesthetic rendering of non-aesthetic content must not be confused with aestheticisation. For rather than making content easy to grasp by pleasant forms, abstract phenomena become sensually perceptible and hence significant.
Down to Earth
Sopheap Pich emphasizes art's ties to its place of origin. After having worked as an artist in the US for twenty years, he returned to South-Korea with a keen sense of the country's particularities, which occasioned him to craft the grid - the epitome of western minimal art - with domestic resources like bamboo, earth and beeswax.
Compared to Pichs ‘grounding' of the ‘picture', Doreen Reid Nakamarra turns into the opposite direction by transferring her paintings, which, in keeping with Aborigine tradition were made directly on the floor, onto canvas, so as to make them accessible to the art market. This transformation of earth into money corresponds with a range of works that deal with the relationship of abstract and concrete values, with the economic valuation and devaluation of the elements - earth, water, air and manpower - leading the way.
So what exactly is political at dOCUMENTA (13)? The show's interdisciplinary orientation suggests that one reason for the failure of political programmes lies in the outplacement of individual segments from the political sphere. Instead of making economic, scientific or cultural issues subject of political concern in time, controversial areas are ousted from the scene.
Likewise art reduces its social impact by excluding ‘everything else', thereby self-limiting itself. By highlighting artistic aspects in the non-art realm, dOCUMENTA (13) demonstrates the impossibility to separate art from what Reinhardt termed ‘everything else'. Today's quest for synergy effects notwithstanding, the transgression of separations between departments is still of pioneering importance.
The application of artistic means in favour of ‘everything else's' ends hints at the difference between functionalisation and instrumentalisation. While the former stands for the implementation of specific methods to the benefit of superior purposes, the latter connotes the adjustment of those methods on behalf of extraneous aims. The show clearly leans towards functionalisation, meaning the dedication of artistic strategies to social, ecological and economic goals.
With regards to further exemplary features, the plea for equality of age brackets and of art histories of different times and spaces makes certain conventions of the art world look anachronistic.
Also the integration of various ways of perception can serve as a model since solutions of economical and ecological issues require an extension of the human perspective. These principles - interdisciplinarity, application of artistic practises to non-artistic purposes and the abrogation of the human-centred worldview - not just open up a realm of possibility but stage it in intriguing manners. In this way art does its best to be of use to ‘everything else'.