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ART REVIEW

No form, no function

Despite gems in Germany's Documenta exhibit, visitors may have trouble developing a relationship with the works.

June 27, 2007|Christopher Miles | Special to The Times

KASSEL, Germany — EXITING one room tinted with searing red light and crackling with radio static, you enter another that's all but blackened. Eyes adjusting, you make out a specter, like a ghost ship emerging from the fog -- a full-scale model of one of the supposed mobile biological weapons labs used as partial justification for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

This is "Phantom Truck," by the Spanish-born, Chicago-based Inigo Manglano-Ovale, a work that is not only timely but strangely resonant here in a city that Allied bombers targeted during World War II for its locomotive, aircraft and vehicle factories. The installation is among the pieces that stand out in the 12th incarnation of Documenta, a survey of international art held twice a decade in Kassel. But the high points are few in the massive but disappointing exhibition, which will run through Sept. 23 in five venues.

According to artistic director Roger M. Buergel and curator Ruth Noack, "The big exhibition has no form," and they have used this assertion as justification for what they say is a curatorial exercise in formlessness that frees art from "preordained categories" and creates a "plateau where art communicates itself and on its own terms." But the tendency to categorize is what plagues this show.

Buergel and Noack express a vague desire to question what is contemporary and what is the present in an effort to escape "all-encompassing immediacy." Ostensibly, the goal is to prompt viewers to think for themselves about the relationships between artworks, life and the world. Rethinking on the part of the viewer, however, is soon overwhelmed by revision decreed by the organizers, not with words but with deeds.

Of the more than 500 works in Documenta 12, nearly a third were not produced in the last quarter of a century, and many more weren't made within the last decade, yet all but a handful were made during the lifetimes of the organizers, both born in the early 1960s. So apparently we need to get our heads out of the moment -- but not beyond when Buergel and Noack first drew breath. Moreover, this time period began just as the training of artists moved significantly into a university context, as art began its shift from what is generally regarded as a Modernist epoch to a Postmodern one and as, for a time, traditional art forms were being eclipsed by photo-based, conceptual, installation and performance practices.

Documenta 12 places its emphasis almost entirely on those practices, which dominated the late '60s and '70s. A few artists represented by works from the '40s and '50s prefigure that period, and also included are a number of artists who came and went in the '60s and '70s but whom the organizers insist on pulling into the present. Many more artists in the exhibition emerged during that period and are still producing, but they are oddly represented by works from now and then, as if the early work legitimizes the more recent. And many of the show's younger artists appear at best inspired by and more often derivative of the work of that time.

Meanwhile, the organizers didn't mind including here and there pieces of Persian, Indian, Japanese and Chinese art spanning the 14th to 19th centuries, and they had provocative fun hanging such works as painter Kerry James Marshall's haunting portraits of young black men among the Old Master portraits and genre pictures at Kassel's Schloss Wihelmshohe. Yet they apparently found it unnecessary to suggest a relationship between any of the works in Documenta 12 and any art produced between 1900 and 1945 -- this despite the fact that much of the work in the exhibition has precedents in American and European art of the early 20th century.

By the same logic, to get in touch with our roots, we should talk a little with more older siblings and maybe our parents, and perhaps look into our ancient ethnic heritage, but needn't bother finding out Grandma's name. Buergel and Noack seem to feel the art world hasn't much changed since Documenta 5 and didn't much matter before that.

If you can ignore all this baggage, there are nonetheless wondrous moments in Documenta 12. Any day when you can see the hard-edged target paintings of Poul Gernes or the tough, slightly op abstractions and sexualized object studies of Lee Lozano is a good day.

Some of the recent works are also fascinating, including Mary Kelly's undulating, space-commanding ode to an ethnic Albanian boy lost on a Kosovo battlefield, Martha Rosler's photos shot at historically and socially charged locations around Kassel and John McCracken's ultra-slick geometric solids, which fuse otherworldliness with an insistent presence. But the curators could have stressed their faith in these artists' relevance more effectively by sticking to works of the moment rather than shackling those works to early pieces better saved for retrospectives.

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