Yet the exhibitions on the ground also responded to the fact that, in the past few years, as the world situation has markedly worsened and increasing numbers of artists to return to the fray. In 2006, the 9th Bienal de Habana surveyed the explosive conurbation occurring around cities throughout the world (this was also a sub-theme at the Gwangju Biennale), Charles Merewether’s Biennale of Sydney focused on “Zones of Contact” across and between global cultures, as did (although in a more defined, yet still huge region) the 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, while Okwui Enwezor’s Bienal de Sevilla highlighted “The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in Global Society.” The exhibition as argument is back.
The curators in Venice, Kassel and Muenster know this. Their exhibitions, at their best, are responses to the question about locality and world-picturing that I brought with me–or, at least, to their own versions of this question. In 2006, Storr hosted an international forum on the future of biennales, the proceedings of which are yet to appear. His catalog introduction begins with the phrase “Epiphanies happen but do not last.” A warning–in the spirit of Willem de Kooning’s famous remark “Content is a glimpse”–that art’s rewards take time, require labor, and will be ephemeral at best, but are still worth it. And that this configuration of art’s current offering is itself stilled in time, in the tensility of the present. Then, like a mid-nineteenth century critic strolling around a Salon (in this case, juried and hung by himself), he takes the reader on a tour of the exhibition, explaining his major choices, justifying their positioning within the visitor’s itinerary, and highlighting the revelations that he hopes they will release. At Kassel, the catalog contains no such essay; rather, in the now familiar Taschen style, it consists of one-page entries on each work opposite an image of it, set out in chronological order (which is not how the works are hung in the exhibition venues). Accompanying it is a Bilderbuch, filled with photographs that document, allusively, the spaces at these venues as the exhibition was being hung. To find Buergel’s definitive guide to experiencing Documenta 12 you need to read his essay in the first of the magazines, Modernity? It is a detailed and subtle, positively revisionist reading of the display aesthetics of the first Documenta exhibition of 1955. Indirection and inference are the hallmarks of Documenta 12.
I will leave Muenster to one side for the moment, as it is a much smaller scale operation. Of the two mega- exhibitions, the main pavilions at Venice cleaved most closely to the expected model of setting out an array of the world’s contemporary art, and to offering insightful pathways into it. The facade of the Mussolini moderne Italian Pavilion featured, in giant lettraset, the words “MATTER SO SHAKEN TO ITS CORE TO LEAD TO A CHANGE IN INHERENT FORM,” and “THE EXTENT OF BRINGING ABOUT A CHANGE IN THE DESTINY OF THE MATERIAL,” pasted there by Lawrence Weiner. Despite the curator’s hopes that this array would unambiguously declare that the entire exhibition was inflected by a precise ambiguity, these statements, at once obvious and obtuse, did not bring about the desired affect. Nor was it achieved in the anteroom, which was filled with a May Pole of the macabre by Nancy Spero, or in the approach halls.
No one, however, could miss the message of the central space, dominated by seven paintings by Sigmar Polke, his Axial Age series of 2005-07. The arrangement of the huge works–most 15 feet across, one a triptych– immediately evoked the Rothko Chapel in Houston. So did the violets saturating each silken field, and their extreme sensitivity to changes in natural light. At Houston, the spiritual quest invited by the paintings is not specific to an organized religion or an historical culture. Polke, however, could not avoid inserting images of die wunderjahre, of Friedrichian questing unto Byzantium. Rothko came close, but did not succumb, to the alchemical conceit at work in these Polkes: paint’s poisons holding out the possibility of transformation into gold.
This occurred, with predictable crassness, when luxury-goods magnate Francois Pinault–celebrating his win over the Guggenheim franchise in the recent battle to govern, at a donation of $30 million, the first dedicated contemporary art museum in Venice–bought the series for “many millions.” A relevant sidebar is that his show at the Palazzo Grassi is the disappointment of the season: works by interesting and rarely-seen artists such as David Hammons are shown in depth, but are swamped by the agenda-setting overkill of middling, yet over-exposed artists such as Anselm Reyle and Urs Fischer, and the all-pervasive sense of being in a high-end boutique. Not a good look for the Punta della Dogana.