First is choosing a project or projects that match the pavilion. Rare successes this year included Aernout Mik, who rebuilt the Dutch Pavilion, turning it into a de facto training camp for the processing of illegal immigrants; David Altmejd, who filled the awkward Canadian pavilion with a natural-history-museum-style display of figurines that parodied national wilderness myths; and Minika Sosnowska, whose fractured steel frame cowering within the space accorded Poland seemed a poignant metaphor of institutional failure. Among the more interesting multiple representations were Spain (for showcasing the smart satirists Los Torreznos) and Russia (featuring an amazing apocalyptic animation by ASE+F).

Callum Morton, Valhalla, 2007.

Callum Morton, Valhalla, 2007. Steel, polystyrene, epoxy resin, silicon, marble, glass, wood, acrylic paint, lights, sound, motor; 465 x 1475 x 850 cm. Palazzo Zenobio, Venice Biennale 2007. Courtesy of the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney and Snna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.

Second problem: How representative are one or two artists? Many countries opted to show one artist in the Giardini and others elsewhere in the city. A good decision for Australia, as it made available both Susan Norrie’s powerful set of videos HAVOC (2007), showing the social impacts on an Indonesian village of a devastating flood of hot mud, and Callum Morton’s three-quarter scale rendering of the ruined remains of his architect father’s modernist dream home. Architecture in the aftermath, absolutely. And for Britain, the am-I-gauche, please swallow my trivia unaesthetic of Tracey Emin evaporated when set against the emotional precision of the videos of Willie Doherty and Gerald Byrnes. If we add to their recent output that of James Coleman (his Retake with Evidence, a feature-length film tracking Harvey Keitel in full Orestia mode, is arguably the master work at Documenta 12), we are blessed with a concentration of cultural achievement that matches that of the great Irish playwrights and poets of the early twentieth century. Not all external sites are so successful (although Thomas Demand at the Fondazione Cini comes close), yet the big plus for visitors is the experience of getting into at least parts of sixty of Venice’s enchanted palaces–and doing so without the commercialism that tainted some earlier Aperto offerings.

Retake with Evidence, 2007.

Retake with Evidence, 2007. © James Coleman. Performed by Harvey Keitel. Projected film. Courtesy: James Coleman; Marian Goodman Gallery; Simon Lee Gallery; Galerie Micheline Szwajcer.

If the 52nd Venice Biennale was curated like a rough outline of two chapters in a textbook on contemporary art, including sidebars and footnotes, squeezed into a museum-like sequencing of galleries, Documenta 12 felt like an essay for a specialist art journal in which two art historians ruminate together about what they see as an unjustly neglected current in art since the 1960s, how it might make us rethink the standard story of late Modernism, and how it might have touched other, more recent developments. The current is the first stirrings of feminism among artists, particularly women artists, as expressed on both domestic and public scales, through alternative performance of gendered roles and through rethinking the symbolic values of ordinary materials. Not your usual mega-exhibition fare, nor the typical apparently invisible yet actually authoritative curatorial style. A bold step, then, into a lower key. How does it play out, conceptually, and on the ground, in the actual spaces?

Edited by Georg Schoellhammer, Documenta Magazine No. 1, 2007, Modernity? poses the first of the exhibition’s guiding questions: Is modernity our antiquity? A riveting query, it was first raised in a way that is still relevant to us by Charles Baudelaire in his famous 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” and has been asked, in different ways, by the greatest thinkers about how art relates to modern life, notably Walter Benjamin, Marshall Berman and T.J.Clark. Writing inside the eye of the transition, Baudelaire was enthralled by the very idea that art, responding to the demands of modern life, commits itself to the unknowns of “the transitory, the ephemeral, the contingent,” so that it can become, one day, what the classical tradition had always claimed to be, and now, suddenly, no longer could be–that is, “eternal and immutable.” Imagine not the absorption of the new into tradition, but a distinctively modern eternality, forged in the crucible of the contemporary! Wandering those same, but in the 1930s so different, Parisian streets and arcades, Benjamin saw that rampant industrial and consumerist capitalism, the eruptions of which so excited Baudelaire, was, along with seductive phantasmagoria, steadily creating its own material ruins. Against this grain, and with the Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs battles for downtown Manhattan and the Bronx during the 1960s foremost in his mind, Berman, in All That Is Solid, insisted on the positive productivity of Modernism. At the turn of the last century, in his Farewell to an Idea, T.J. Clark profiled the decline into stagnation of the modernist ideal that the arts and social transformation could advance together to the benefit, in principle at least, of all.

Further Reading