Art and Politics

Notes on dOCUMENTA (13): Afghanistan and Conclusions

In my last post, I explored the idea of artistic research as I reflected on my visit to this year’s documenta exhibition. Today I will follow up by reviewing a case in point, “The Afghan Seminars” of dOCUMENTA (13), and then add some concluding reflections.

dOCUMENTA (13) actively stimulated the development of new artistic encounters by commissioning new projects, organizing various proceedings and publications. The organizers invited various artists and scholars for a series of events before and after the opening, for example, in Kabul, Cairo and Banff. “The Afghan Seminars: A Position of Documenta (13)” is particularly interesting because it included artists such as Michael Rakowitz, Giuseppe Penone, Mario Garcia Torres, Francis Alys, and Adrian Villar Rojas, most of whom were commissioned to produce a new work related to their experience in the war-torn country. In addition, the exhibition in Goethe Institute, Kabul presented 27 artists from 13 countries as part of the dOCUMENTA (13).

Although artists had no prior personal knowledge about the context of Afghanistan, they came up with interesting plans. For instance, in his film, “Reel/Unreel” (click link to watch), Francis Alys follows children who are playing a game with a steel circle, as well as an actual film reel given to them by the artist himself. Children continuously navigate by rolling the reels, following different paths in Kabul streets. The camera constantly shows the rotating reels in a close shot, depicting an intimate engagement with the urban context, providing a unique perspective, and a ground-up view of the city. The film operates in many layers. As we follow the kids and the reels, the film reel unfolds and refolds back, both literally and metaphorically, depicting life in Kabul. The project relates to the Kabul’s recent troubled past where films were burned down by the Taliban. However, the children’s playfulness offers the possibility for a joyful future.

Michael Rakowitz’s “What Dust Will Rise?” (2012) (click link for image), a conceptually complex project deals with the books that were destroyed during the aerial bombing in Kassel in 1941. Rakowitz’s installation mimics an archaeological museum to present carved stone books. In order to produce the books, Rakowitz worked in Afghanistan to educate Afghani stone carvers to reenact the old tradition of stone carving (a trade that was abolished after the Taliban), and to produce copies of the books with the stones that were taken from the quarries of Buddhas of Bamiyan, which was destroyed by the Taliban with an international showdown in 2001. The projects seemingly connect two troubled pasts together, generating an uneasy bridge. The complexity of the conceptual approach, the stretching of the contexts, histories, labor practices and materials, mixing with a form of philanthropy, creates discomfort.

In contrast to Rakowitz’s intricate project, Kader Attia’s related project, “Repair of the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures” (2012), presents a streamlined approach to tackle with historical relationships. In a similarly museological installation, Attia juxtaposes many 19th and 20th century artifacts, images and sculpture. Similar to Rakowitz, Attia asks African sculptors to carve disfigured World War I veterans in African busts. These sculptures are presented alongside 19th century anthropological survey photos of Africans and 19th century medical images of disfigured people. Attia offers an emotionally loaded portrait of colonialist ideology in its totality, as it flawlessly discloses the very logic of medical, criminal and anthropological assumptions and categories and how the modernist norm established itself in a very violent manner, an ideology of total domination of the other’s body through normalization processes.

One of the achievements of dOCUMENTA (13) is that the organizers gave artists dedicated spaces and the freedom to tackle their own spatial, formal and conceptual matters independent from overall exhibition. This gave a relative autonomy to artists and transformed curators into diligent facilitators of individual projects. In contrast to recently organized biennials/triennials, which take political events as a starting point, dOCUMENTA (13) manages to present political projects in a very direct and undisturbed manner. dOCUMENTA (13)’s spatial nonconformity and spaciousness allowed visitors to fully investigate the given projects without being visually overloaded. In that regard, walking from one venue to another became an expedition. Projects are weaved within the environment and urban context, allowing spontaneous encounters and surprises, generating an intelligent liveliness within the show.

Thus, I believe, dOCUMENTA (13) is one of the most important contemporary art exhibitions in our decade. The diversity of practices that successfully scrutinize social, political, economic and historical events proves that social scientists and the broader public need to give proper attention to artistic research as a genuine way of producing critical knowledge.