In many parts of the exhibition, extraordinary instances of personal witnessing, many of them known only to historians of their region, may be found. I did not know of Lotty Rosenfeld’s painting, in 1979, of a disruptive sequence of white lines on the roads of a closely guarded area of Santiago, Chile, then occupied by the military regime. Nor the work of Polish pair Zofia Kulik and Przemyslaw Kweik who, in 1972, formed the duo Kweikulik in order to pursue actions based around semiotic exploration within everyday life–and, for two years, included their newborn son in many of them. This parallels in some ways the enterprise of Mary Kelly’s famous Post-Partum Document (1973-79), a systematic yet Lacanian documentation of her son’s language acquisition, which, although not included here, is one of the exhibition’s presiding geniuses. Indeed, artist after artist is shown making works within the frameworks of domestic settings. Shifts in the mother-child relationship as patriarchy crumbles before feminism is a major subtext, as is the revaluation by women of their status as artists. Jo Spence shows her transformation from being a subject of photography to an active photographer –devoted, sadly, to recording her struggles against breast cancer. Kelly includes a new work, Love Songs (2005), chronicling the history of subjectivity within feminist discourse.

Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, Remodelling Photo History, 1982.

Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, Remodelling Photo History, 1982. Black & white photographs on red plastic panels. © Jo Spence and Terry Dennett.

The impact of this personal/political convergence on artists’ materials and working procedures–a “migration of form” that the curators correctly see as spreading, rhizome-like, between peripheries–is another, closely related theme. It is illustrated in detail by Luis Jacob’s string of collages Album III (2004), but has deeper roots. During the 1960s, Brazilian artist Mira Schendel clustered wool and twines into surrogate body- shapes and drew delicate concrete poems. Venezuelan artist Gego created her Reticularea, matrixes of hooked wires. While the latter are absent from Kassel, small works by Schendel are shown, as are many by lesser know artists working with found materials. The South American flowering of this aesthetic culminates in a major retro-Concretist sculptural installation by Iole de Freitas that literally grows from inside the first floor of the Fridericianum to flourish on its exterior. For all its differences in inheritance, materiality and gendered address, her recent work matches that of Richard Serra. The still center of Documenta 12’s main themes may be found in the print room of the museum at the Schloss Wilhelmshoehe. A Qing Dynasty lacquer-work panel of domestic objects, an anonymous Indian miniature from 1813 of a woman spinning, a minimalist woodblock of 1835 by Hokusai are shown near, among other delicacies, an exquisite lettraset notebook by Schendel and a delicate drawing from the 1980s by Nasreen Mohamedi, the Indian artist whose work was a standout at the 5th Asia-Pacific Triennale in Brisbane last year and continues to be so here. (Geeta Kapur’s chapter in her 2000 book, When Was Modernism, was a revelation.) The room of Mohamedi’s work at the Neue Galerie, juxtaposed to a large painting by Agnes Martin, is a space to be savored, not least for the glimpse that we are given, through the display of pages of her diary, of the compacted, obsessive yet serene vision that drove her work.

Iole De Frietas, Untitled, 2007.

Iole De Frietas, Untitled, 2007. © Iole De Freitas. Courtesy Laura Marsiaj Arte Contemporanea, Rio de Janeiro; Gabinete de Arte Raquel Arnaud, São Paulo. Photo: Margherita Spilutini.

Less successful was the device of choosing a half- dozen artists with strong regional reputations–John McCracken, Charlotte Posenenske, Gerald Rockenschaub, Juan Davila and Kerry James Marshall–and using their works as “hinges” (turning points that, due to their internal complexities, could swing the flow of meaning both ways–in Posenenske’s case, quite literally). Although I enjoyed the experience of hearing a docent explain, to a German-speaking group, every detail of the iconography of one of Davila’s multi-layered, Australian- Chilean anti-allegories, few of the chosen artists have the depth to carry such a load.

Further Reading