This was cruelly exposed in McCracken’s case. Located, alone, in the center of the entrance foyer of the Fridericianum, his mirror-sided, gold hued column Swift (2007) is the first work seen by the majority of visitors. Yet it is positioned in a space itself covered in mirrors, and thus filled with spectators gawping at themselves multiplied. Yoyoi Kasuma without the models or the dots; James Lee Byars without the fetishism. Instantly, it becomes a space where art vanishes into a parody of “pure form” (the so-called transmigration of which is one of the curators’ less propitious fascinations) and the dazzle of distracted, narcissistic spectatorship. Worse still, McCracken’s brief and artistically clumsy flirtation with Tantric imagery in 1971 appears throughout the exhibition, often matched with Persian carpets that manage these patterns so much better but seem included only because of the Californian artist’s brief dalliance. When his better-known, and highly competent, “plank” sculptures turn up, they are themselves parodied or outshone (presumably unintentionally) by other artists. In the Aue-Pavilion, Rockenschaub turns one into a green inflatable, while at the Neue Galerie, a forlorn plank leans against one wall, while opposite is hung Andrea Geyer’s Spiral Lands (2007), a riveting sequence of photographs and texts relating to the idea of “justice as indigenism.” Finally, in the print room of the Wilhelmshoehe, a set of McCracken’s drawings for sculptures is shown. Unfortunately, they include admonitions to himself, such as “The important thing is the bigness of the statement.” Will McCracken’s reputation ever recover from this loving treatment?

A fourth theme, one shared with Venice, is the emergence of the postcolonial, and the vicissitudes of globalization. Central to the previous Documenta, these issues seem a disruption to the “alternative modernities” current at the core of this exhibition–mainly because, as we have seen, that kind of art historical revisionism is most deftly carried out by these curators when exemplified by artists from the European peripheries, the U.S., and, to a lesser but still significant extent, South America. Africa appears in the Aue-Pavilion soon after one enters, in the form of a wall by Bill Kouelany that cuts across most of the space. Made in 2006-2007 from cloth and papier-mache stitched in brick-like fashion, yet crumbling at either end and broken by silhouettes of headless soldiers, it is also punctuated by videos featuring the artist, who is from Brazzaville, Congo, raging against the effects of the civil war that recently consumed her country. It’s a porous barrier, then, as fragile as those who erected it. Behind it a delta of African material: Guy Tillim’s Congo Democratic, beautiful photographs of moments during the 2006 elections; Romauld Hazoume’s engaging water carrier sculptures (some constituting Picassoid masks, others a huge boat entitled Dreams–regrettably shown with a paradise beach backdrop and a line of poetry); and Dierk Schmidt’s installation The Division of the Earth (2006-07), a sequence of elegant abstract paintings that explore, with precision, the spatial logics in play at the 1884-85 Berlin conference at which the European powers decided who would share which spoils out of Africa.

Allan Sekula, Installation view, Documenta 12.

Allan Sekula, Installation view, Documenta 12. Courtesy the artist; Galerie Michel Rein, Paris; Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica. © Allan Sekula. Photo: Frank Schinski /Documenta Gmbh.

These kinds of questions play themselves out in, among others, Lu Hao’s scrolls of the modernization of Chang’an Street, a major thoroughfare cutting through Beijing; in Leon Ferrari’s maze prints; and in Simryn Gill’s plant and animal matter casts of the machine parts of a 1984 Tata truck that once plied the jungle trails of Malaysia. They appear at other venues, not least in Allan Sekula’s large photomurals, which take on the most prominent tourist sites in Kassel, including the Wilhelmshoehe Station, with an anti-G8 summit poster proclaiming “Alle mensch werden schwestern” (“All will become sisters”), and below the egregious monumental theatre to the Labors of Hercules in the gardens of the Schloss, where they remind viewers, with photographs of local workers, of two basic forms of labor: childcare and grave-digging. The last room at the Aue-Pavilion shows what is perhaps the outstanding treatment of this subject in art today, Zoe Leonard’s Analogue project. Since 1998, in a series of frontal, closely-framed, analogue photographs of storefronts and storage areas, largely devoid of people (except for her occasional reflection), Leonard has dispassionately tracked the decline of small businesses in her native Brooklyn and the rise of small businesses in Africa that recycle, as modern, the cast-off clothing of the West.

Further Reading