Artist Mark Lewis, in a brilliant essay in Modernity?, charts this historiography, showing that its answer to the question is yes. Modernity has become, for us, something like antiquity was for the first modernists. Unlike their situation, however, there is little to look forward to. Indeed, utopian thinking of nearly all kinds seems to be evaporating. Nevertheless, Modernity, however flawed, is all that we have, all that we may ever have. It is our contemporaneity. Artists, including Lewis (and others such as Tacita Dean, Susan Hillier, Mark Dion, the Wilson sisters and Liam Gillick, just to name some British artists), are drawn to meditation on this melancholy situation. Modernity, and how its pastness is stultifying the present, is the most pressing concern of art that would be contemporary. To me, this view of our present, however internally subtle it may be (and it is), is at best a partial truth, and at worst negatively one-dimensional.

In such a context, ambitious, independent art historians are naturally drawn to the moment when this change of heart began to occur: the 1950s and 1960s. And to places where its occurrence is less chronicled than at Black Mountain College and the downtown galleries in Manhattan–Japan, Brazil, and the “Eastern Bloc” countries, as they were then known. As well, they begin to see that the grand narrative of Modernism’s progress through various Parisian-based avant-gardes, with occasional peripheral offshoots (Moscow, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin), followed by the migration to New York, is a narrow, exclusionary narrative. It ignores the creation of “alternative modernities” at art centers all over the world. This postcolonial, revisionist revival– currently led by prescient art historians such as Kobena Mercer (who favors “cosmopolitan modernisms”)–is gradually outflanking the Adornoesque negativity just mentioned. It is being applied not only to what were previously regarded as cultural peripheries, but also to previously ignored artists working at the well-known centers. It is the guiding spirit of Documenta 12.

How, then, to pursue this (to me entirely) laudable objective in the spaces available at Kassel? What kind of experience does its pursuit afford the visitor?

Hanging in the stairwell of the Fridericianum, as a kind of tutelary image, is a copy of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, the modest watercolor of 1920 that Walter Benjamin inspiringly misread as representing the Angel of History looking backwards, in horror, at the detritus and destruction that Modernity was depositing before it. But the big questions about Modernity are not tackled in a big way. No large statements, no grandeur of scale. Nothing by the museum–and market-endorsed contemporary art stars–with the exception of a tiny 1977 Gerhard Richter painting based on his photograph of his young daughter, her angled head staring out as if awaiting execution.

In this arcane fashion, abruptly, in a side room, appears the exhibition’s second theme. The idea of “bare life” has been acutely articulated by Giorgio Agamben as the irreducible otherness of each of us, to ourselves, to those closest to us, and to our social systems (especially when manifest in those places, such as refugee and interment camps, that governments are more and more seeking to place beyond not only the law but justice). This gesture is typical of how the curators stage their ruminations: as hints and allusions, hypotheses that are then qualified, leaving suggestions in their wake. Nevertheless, a pattern of thought gradually emerges, one that is played out, in different registers, at each of the five main venues: the Museum Fridericianum, the Neue Galerie, the documenta-Halle, the Schloss Wilhelmshoehe and a temporary structure, die Aue-Pavilion, in the meadow (aue) adjacent to the Orangerie.

During the 1960s and 1970s, “The personal is political” was a key slogan for second-wave feminism in the West. The curators know that this idea had other resonances in Eastern and Central Europe under the Soviet system, and South America during the time of the dictators. And that, sufficiently nuanced, it has much to offer the present, especially to artists seeking to give form to the challenges of what it is to live in the accelerating complexities of the contemporary. This is at the core of their enterprise, the gamble for which they have transformed what have become the protocols of the mega-exhibition.

Further Reading