Last month I attended the professional preview of documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany. The venerated, uber-important exhibition happens only once every five years in an otherwise unremarkable town. This year the artistic director Adam Szymczyk decided to split the exhibition between Kassel and Athens. There have been a lot of reviews published already, and I agree with the consensus that’s emerging: documenta 14 is not so great. I saw documenta 13, and this year’s installment helped me appreciate just how good that one was. Two reviews I recommend are Ben Davis in artnet who says it’s “a strikingly alienating show,” and Jeni Fulton’s exasperated take in Sleek.
documenta 14 is awkward and frustrating, but as Davis points out, some of that might be intentional. The planning period of the show straddled a pretty difficult period of world history. Szymczyk certainly meant to draw energy from the ongoing financial and political turmoil of the European Union, plopping part of the prestigious German exhibition in bail-out weary Greece. But more recent developments like the surge in ethnic nationalism that propelled Brexit and the election of Donald Trump is mostly unaccounted for, except in a very general sense.
I did see one installation that seemed to reflect the precise sense of confusion, disbelief, and anxiety that defines the current moment. Irena Haiduk presented a series of works collectively titled “SER (Seductive Exacting Realism),” which consisted of a room with a fashion runway, large stone tablets engraved with text, a counter where the artist was selling women’s shoes and dresses under the brand name Yugoexport, performances throughout the city where young women walked in a line wearing those shoes and dresses while balancing books on their heads, and a completely dark room where visitors listen to audio of actors reading a transcript of a conversation between Haiduk and an activist named Srdja Popovic. To buy a pair of shoes, guests were required to disclose their income in order to pay on a sliding price scale, and sign a gilded contract ensuring that the shoes would only be worn while “performing work.” The wall text was opaque and cryptic, a portion declaring, “Here, voices sing the pre-history of the blind, non-aligned, oral corporation: Yugoexport. She is incorporated in the United States, where corporations are people…” It goes on, but it doesn’t get any clearer.
In the darkened room dark room the voices speak about using the tools of branding and fashion in service of overthrowing oppressive governments. They talk about protest as a form of public image-making, a kind of radical PR. All the while, by keeping us in the dark Haiduk prevents us from doing our own branding through social media. Attendants actually yell at you if they see you turn on your phone in the pitch black room. It’s the only artwork in the exhibition that can’t be captured on Instagram (although the whole show is not particularly photogenic). We’re forced to just listen, we’re not allowed to document the experience and convert it into our own self-branding, which seems to be the default activity while viewing exhibitions now. As bold and controlling as Haiduk is of our experience, she’s also remarkably candid about her own failures, and the failure of socially engaged art in general. She acknowledges the way her work can be exploited by some of the same power structures it seeks to undermine. Listening to the voices we realize that she’s at once completely convinced of her methods, and willing to question them to their very core. The work managed to blend a self-righteous, brand-oriented confidence with a sense of introspection and self-critique that I didn’t think was possible.
At one point the voices are talking about successful past cases where the power of marketing was leveraged to foment protests against oppressive regimes, and they make a startling point. I’m paraphrasing here, but one voice says, “What’s worse than the dictatorship? The waiting that comes after. Not knowing what will replace it. Art is a waiting room.”
Art is a waiting room. What Haiduk seems to be aware of–which I think is a massive blindspot in nearly all socially engaged art projects and biennial curator-speak–is just how much art can fail even while it’s ostensibly meeting its own goals. It can play all the right notes, so to speak, and still be nothing more than white noise. Maybe art doesn’t have the revolutionary power we hope it does. Maybe art can’t heal us, and instead it’s just the thing we look at in the waiting room before receiving our diagnosis.
When Donald Trump was elected, in the grief and shock of the following day, I had a thought. It has softened and complicated a bit since then, but I still can’t get it out of my mind completely. I thought, “If we can elect a dictator, it must mean that all American socially engaged and activist art has failed completely. What clearer test could there be?”
The timing of this documenta was very tricky. If Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had happened at the beginning of the five year planning period, rather than at the end, I suspect the exhibition would be quite different. Even when it seems to capture the current anxiety of the political moment, it’s not clear if it’s reacting quickly, or striking a bit of luck. Haiduk’s project was ahead of the curve.
These exhibitions (documenta and other global biennials and triennials) have for decades sought to reflect and process a world in crisis. Globalism, the de-centering of the West, the backlash against colonialism, critiques of neoliberalism, declarations of the imminent demise of late-late-capitalism, and on and on. It’s a little hard to continue taking seriously the Chicken Little curators and theorists when they’ve been warning of an imminent implosion of the world order for decades. After a while this type of dark prognosticating begins to seem like a special curatorial language and little more, like a mating call used exclusively by this rare and sophisticated species. It sounds like a way of signaling the correct mix of positions, paranoias, and utopian visions. The dense and foreboding descriptions of crisis don’t seem to relate much to reality, where quality of life, by many measures, has been on a slow upward climb.
But suddenly things seem different. Undoubtedly this is because of my perspective as an American. As of last November, a path toward fascism by the nation with history’s most powerful military suddenly seems very possible. So perhaps the biennials’ predictions of imminent collapse were not so far off. With this frame of mind, it would seem that documenta 14 is poised to be most relevant and poignant of all the global exhibitions that have shared this gloomy rhetorical strategy. But it’s not. Rather than benefitting from a scenario where its catastrophic language became more relevant while the exhibition was forming, documenta 14’s rhetoric feels like a hollow continuation of performative curator-speak. The recent shift in the potential direction of the world, away from post-war Western unity and toward autocratic dictators ruling by fear and conspiracy, reveals the rigidity of art exhibitions that seek to reflect and process a volatile world. Now that the world really has changed for the worse, the art remains mostly the same. So we wait.