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jerry saltz

Saltz: A Glimpse of Art’s Future at Documenta

Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden (2010–12), at Documenta 13.

Three quarters of the art at Documenta 13, the gigantic 200-exhibitor show that just opened in the small German city of Kassel, is innocuous or worse. Derivative installations, found objects, text pieces, videos, sculptural fragments, empty rooms, performances, and sound works — it’s the kind of late-late conceptual/relational aesthetics hegemony endemic to these massive events. I won’t run down the list, but one immoral work (if such a thing can be said to exist) will suffice to give you the sense of it: In A Public Misery Message: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, created by a group called the Critical Art Ensemble, viewers ride in a helicopter to heights corresponding to their net worth. The work is supposedly about wealth accumulation, and is an anti-market gesture. Surely it cost more to stage for a day than many museums and galleries can spend or generate in a year, or than most artists earn in a lifetime.

But let’s forget the bad 75 percent and look at the rest of what’s here, because, once you get beyond the claptrap, Documenta 13 comes tantalizingly close to realizing one of its enticing goals: rethinking how we define art altogether, opening it up exponentially. Indeed, here and there, in glimpses, we get what I call Post Art. And it hums with promise.

Documenta’s American-born artistic director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, doesn’t even use the word “artist,” preferring “participant” instead. She says, “I am not sure that the field of art will continue to exist in the 21st century” — not meaning art itself, mind you, but our tidy roping-off of the field. To Joseph Beuys’s famous dictum “Everyone is an artist,” Christov-Bakargiev adds, “So is any thing.” The best parts of Documenta 13 bring us into close contact with this illusive entity of Post Art—things that aren’t artworks so much as they are about the drive to make things that, like art, embed imagination in material and grasp that creativity is a cosmic force. It’s an idea I love. (As I’ve written before, everything that’s made, if you look at it in certain ways, already is or can be art.) Things that couldn’t be fitted into old categories embody powerfully creative forms, capable of carrying meaning and making change. Post Art doesn’t see art as medicine, relief, or religion; Post Art doesn’t even see art as separate from living. A chemist or a general may be making Post Art every day at the office. One of the exhibitors at Documenta is the civil engineer Konrad Zuse, creator in the thirties of an early electromagnetic computer. His abstract paintings look like Feininger knockoffs, but they’re as much of an invention as Zuse’s “mechanical brain” was.

In some cases, Post Art takes the form of artifacts that achieve a greater density and intensity of meaning than that word usually implies. At Documenta, there’s a chunk of a London building bombed in the Blitz that the British, in retaliation, dropped on Germany: It’s laced not only with history but also with revenge, pain, fury, incredulity, paradox. An insane-looking one-man-band instrument made by painter Llyn Foulkes is a Disneyish contraption that hits you with the sheer need for something to exist that otherwise doesn’t. I was shaken to the core by the formal and emotional pathos in Jérôme Bel’s “dance” involving people with Down syndrome who simply stood onstage, danced for two minutes, then spoke about their perceptions of us watching them. A fourth wall shattered here into a fifth dimension. Tino Sehgal outdoes himself in a darkened ballroom with chanting, singing, dancing, noisemaking performers, who let you lose the contours of your body and lead you into ecstatic dancing (internal or literal; it’s up to you). And Song Dong’s mini-mountain in the park is just a grassy knoll of garbage, garnished with neon Chinese characters. Yet it made the landscape speak to me, essentially spelling out my own personal motto (a loose paraphrase of Satchel Paige’s): “You win some. You lose some. Some get rained out. But you got to suit up for every one.”

If anything here will put you in a mind to give up on definitions, though, it’s Pierre Huyghe’s craterlike ruins patrolled by two dogs at the far end of the park. The lone object in the piece is a large classical recumbent nude, cast in concrete, with a huge functioning beehive on her face. This is a place of no-narrative, an incubation chamber of new orders. It is an almost metaphysical embodiment suggesting that even with its tremendous flaws, Documenta allows us all to feel a stake in this thing called art, and sense that Post Art is on the immediate horizon, approaching fast.    

Documenta 13. Kassel, Germany. Through September 16.

Photo: Courtesy of the Artist Commissioned and Produced by Documenta