August 25, 2007

Modern Art is Dead

Recently, I traveled with friends from my German class to Kassel to see the famous Documenta 12, Germany’s biggest art exhibit, which runs this summer from June until September and occurs only every five years. Documenta is second only to the Venice Biennale in terms of raw acreage of modern art, although the Biennale is much more exclusive, the Germans take great pride in the fact that such an important artistic event occurs on home soil. The Germans fancy themselves great connoisseurs of all the modern arts.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors, mostly German, descend on this tiny Hessian city to soak up some Kultur. Even those with no real interest in modern art get caught up in the excitement, spurred on by a month-long media blitz that saturates all the newspapers and television news programs. They go just because they want “to be a part of something so big,” one German told me. My German teacher said that if we make only one trip during our entire stay in Germany, we should “auf jeden Falle” (by all means) go to Documenta. So with that advice in mind, and wanting to be good little German students, my friends and I boarded a slow-moving regional train at 7:00 am on Saturday and went to Kassel to see some Art.

I like to think that I know a thing or two about Art. I mean, I majored in Studio Art, and I took a lot of classes in Art History. I know why “good Art” is ten thousand times better than anything I’ve ever produced. I’ve participated in a lot of group exhibitions and installations. I’ve been to a lot of great museums. I’ve even worked in museums and art galleries, although one of the galleries would better be called “a retail art establishment.” So, I’m not a complete Philistine, right? But I swear to God, there was hardly a single entry in this enormous exhibit, supposedly involving only the world’s best contemporary artists, that I liked or that I would even deign to call Art.

Now, without getting into some pointless philosophical conversation over “What is Art?” for the purposes of the post, I’m going to define Art as: something representative, something beautiful, something that causes deep emotion, or something that could not be created by anyone else. Yet by these simple, virtually all-encompassing criteria, very little at Documenta 12 passed the test.

Let’s take for example, one of the most talked-about entries this year, Peter Friedl’s “The Zoo Story, 2007.” It is nothing more than a large stuffed giraffe, named Brownie, who was housed in a West Bank zoo and died there during an Israeli raid last year. But to know even that much, you would have to have read the whole backstory, otherwise this particular giraffe has no meaning to the casual viewer beyond any other taxidermied animal. And so can you really call it representative? As for beauty, it’s not particularly beautiful, as it was stuffed by an amateur and has seen more wear and tear in the past year than the stuffed animals in the Harvard Zoological Museum have seen in a century. And it wasn’t even the hand of Mr. Friedl that first elevated it to the level of Art. Brownie was first exhibited as one among many animals that had died "as a result of the Israeli attacks" in a small makeshift museum attached to the Palestinian zoo, which is where Mr. Friedl first encountered it. So what is the point of a work of art that doesn’t transfer meaning, that isn’t beautiful to look at, and that isn’t even original? The only criterion it meets is that of producing a strong emotion, that is, my extreme irritation at its utter banality!

[Speaking of banality, it should tell you something about how dull most of the work was, that I noticed several visitors examining large , square off-white patches on the white plaster walls as if they were part of the exhibit. I saw so many people doing this, in fact, that I thought I must be the crazy one. But no, I asked a security guard, who told me that the off-white patches were all that remained of several pieces that had been removed from the exhibit for undisclosed reasons.]

My guess is that the point of installations such as “Zoo Story, 2007,” was merely to be political – “politics” being one of the three official Leitmotifs of this year’s exhibit. Friedl’s piece is just another example of Europe’s general anti-Israeli/pro-Palestinian sentiment. Other European political prejudices were on full display there as well, including a piece condemning genetically modified crops ("The Victor's Garden" and several condemning the war in Iraq. One of the latter consisted of nothing more than a series of news articles about the war and plastered on a white wall.

But that’s not art, that’s political theater, and not particularly good political theater at that. Overall, the production quality was pretty low. By that, I mean that freshman art students at Wellesley have demonstrated better technique with chicken wire and papier maché that what I saw on display in Kassel. And I’m not the only one who thought so. In general, the event’s reception in the English-speaking press was overwhelmingly negative.

The Guardian
’s Adrian Searle wrote:
"The content of the current Documenta, and the ways in which the art is displayed and framed by argument, gives pause for serious concern. Documenta 12 is a disaster."

Richard Dorment, of the Daily Telegraph, wrote:
"The artistic directors this year are the freelance curator Roger Buergel and his art historian wife Ruth Noack, and between them they have managed to stage the single worst art exhibition I have ever seen anywhere, ever. Though Documenta 12 has more than 500 works, so much of what is on view is second-rate, chosen for who knows what reason and displayed so eccentrically that [...] it is easy to overlook the few really good things in it. [...] This is a show organised by two pseuds and intended for graduate students and people who don't really like visual art at all."

But as Dorment mentioned, there were “a few really good things” at Kassel, and since I count myself among the number who “really likes visual art,” I’ll devote the rest of this post to giving them some much-deserved attention instead of dwelling on all that is wrong in the contemporary art world.

Although I prefer 2-D art, all of my favorite Kassel pieces were three-dimensional, many of them belonging to that group that so dangerously teeters on the brink of the facile: the “video installation.” And oddly enough, most the artists, or at least the inspiration for the works themselves, were from the Third World.

Lidwien van de Ven’s piece, titled "Damascus, Ommayad Mosque", consists of about 12 minutes of video of a two-year-old girl, who is rolling around on the carpeted floor of a mosque. It’s a view that few Westerners ever get to see, at least not Christians like myself. What was so amazing about it to me was how un-selfconsciously she played by herself, a happy little rolly-polly figure dressed in a bright pink jacket, while the darkly draped adults scuttled about like beetles on some serious and mysterious errand. Also interesting was that the scene was filmed entirely from ground level – eye-level with the child that is. And in the exhibit hall, several of the viewers also sat down on the carpeted floor in front of the television, to watch the footage from start to finish.

Another captivating, though disturbing, video installation was "Who's Listening?" by the Chinese artist Tseng Yu-Chin. In this video Chinese school children take turns squirting each other with big glops of white yogurt. The children are all smiles and seem to be enjoying this rare opportunity to play with their food, but to an adult’s eye, it looks like some pedophiliac bukaké. Most of the adults watching the segment with me were shocked and shuffled around awkwardly for a few minutes before making discreet exits. You didn’t have to read the artist’s statement to know that Tseng was “making a visual plea for the innocence of childhood emotional experience, even if social conventions lead us towards other interpretations.”

But my favorite exhibits contained some element of cultural and political critique with an object that was finely crafted, sensuously tactile, and plainly beautiful. The Nigerian artist Romuald Hazoumé had a number of exhibits made from plastic gasoline cans. From this detritus, he made a series of brightly painted masks, decorated with hair and eyes, mouths and noses. They looked like an interim step between traditional carved African masks and Picasso’s brilliantly colored abstract paintings of those masks. And these were no arts and crafts projects from a child’s “Gifted and Talented” Class. They are really creative – and clever, oil being Nigeria’s greatest wealth and it’s greatest woe.

Hazoumé used these same bottles in another piece, titled "Dream" in which he cut them in half and wove them into the shape of a traditional African fishing boat. Behind the boat is a life-size photograph of an idyllic African beach, like something you would find in a copy of National Geographic or in a brochure for a beach holiday. But they you realize where else you’ve seen boats like this – on the evening news, carrying dozens of African refugees to a new life in Europe, one supposedly better than the postcard perfect one they left behind in Africa. But remember the boat is made of bisected gas cans – with the caps removed – and so these boats, like their real-life counterparts, aren’t seaworthy. Hundreds of African refugees die every year in boats just like these, as they try to cross the uneasy waters of the Mediterranean. And as a final flourish, Hazoumé has tied large glass bottles to the side of his boats – bottles that normally act as bouys. But these bottles are filled with little paper scrolls, the the identity papers of real-life Africans, complete with photos and stamps and all tied up with a rough twine bow. Messages in a bottle.

I suppose critics might call such work kitschy, but I found it beautiful, original, technically brilliant, and quite moving. It’s one of the only works at Documenta to which I would give the title “Art,” and it’s one the only reasons I hold out hope that Modern Art isn’t entirely dead. It just doesn’t come from Europe anymore.

"Making Art": My friends Jinsoo and Chiyo take part in the exhibit “Fairytale” by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Weiwei imported 1,001 chairs from the (Ming) dynasty to Kassel, and spread them about the exhibit grounds. He also imported 1,001 Chinese people, but to do what exactly, no one seemed to know. By the time we arrived, in August, the 1,001 Chinese had already gone home – we think, but who’s really counting? But the chairs were still there, and thankfully, one was allowed to use them. I’m not sure if it constitutes “Art,” but after walking around Kassel for four hours, it definitely became my favorite exhibit.

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