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Juan Davila (Chile): The Lamentation: A Votive Painting, (Detail) 1991
Photo: Peter Kupfer 



By Peter Kupfer

KASSEL, GERMANY, 11 AUGUST 2007— Near the entrance to the main pavilion of documenta, an installation titled Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? features a pair of wire-mesh cubicles containing monitors and closed-circuit TV cameras, with cushions on the floor for "participants" to sit on. During a recent visit, several people were curled up on the cushions dozing and another was busily tapping on the keyboard of his laptop—all apparently oblivious to the artistic experience in which they were partaking. The installation might be an apt metaphor for documenta itself, the sprawling exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in the central German city of Kassel. For all its lofty sounding leitmotifs and multimedia Sturm und Drang , the show often left me feeling weary and dispirited.

Ricardo Basbaum (Brazil) : Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?,  2007

In fairness, there are some compelling, even enchanting, works on display, and the exhibition, despite its immense scale (works by more than 150 artists are displayed in five separate venues), is smartly organized. But this viewer found a good deal of the work self-indulgent, vapid and sometimes downright silly. If this is the best the contemporary art world has to offer, I, for one, am fearful for the future of civilization.

Even before I arrived at documenta , I was apprehensive about what I might find based on the organizers’ description of the show’s leitmotifs. The themes were boiled down to three questions: Is modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? What is to be done? Elaborating on the latter, the curators stated: "Today, education seems to offer one viable alternative to the devil (didacticism, academia) and the deep blue sea (commodity fetishism)." Perhaps I’m a little dense, but I haven’t the foggiest notion what these questions mean or how they shaped the exhibition.

Documenta 12: Kunsthalle Fridericianum
Photo: Peter Kupfer

The "art mediator" who guided me though documenta emphasized that the organizers were "not trying to impart authorized knowledge" but were instead encouraging viewers "to find their own way." "We want people to trust their own eyes, their own opinions," she explained. But if that was their intent, why are so many pieces accompanied by intellectually turgid explanations of what the work is meant to communicate? 

One example of the self-indulgence I encountered was a video installation by the Taiwanese filmmaker Tseng Yu-Chin, titled Who’s Listening No. 5, which shows a mother playing with her four-old son on a sofa. According to the documenta catalog, the video "lays bear the most fundamental human sentiments," but after more than 20 minutes of watching the mother tickling and kissing her child, what the exhibit laid bear to me was the absurdity of some contemporary art. On the other hand, another video by the same artist that focuses on the faces of schoolchildren as yogurt is squirted on them is a delightful disquisition on the range of human expressions such a simple act can evoke.

Another exhibit I found somewhat baffling, if not disturbing, was German artist Peter Friedl’s The Zoo Story, which features a stuffed giraffe named Brownie who was killed during an Israeli attack on a West Bank town (Brownie was a resident of the West Bank’s only zoo). The stuffed animal, which stands over 10 feet tall, makes a powerful statement about the indiscriminate and cruel nature of war—but is it art or taxidermy? Frankly, I’m not sure.

Peter Friedl (Germany): The Zoo Story, 2007

Sakarin Krue-On’s Terraced Rice Field is another work that falls under the category of "But Is It Art?" As the name suggests, the project consists of several rows of rice plants scratched into a hillside in front of Schloss Wilhemlshohe, a stately 18th century palace that now houses a museum. The installation, the catalog informs us, is intended to point out the similarities between an ancient form of agriculture and a repository of art. Both function, we are told, "as places of nutrition and storage with the task of generating and preserving physical and intellectual sustenance." For some reason this analogy escaped me entirely.

Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic’s Poppy Field is a more successful experiment in agriculture as art: A sea of red poppies planted in front of the elegant Museum Fridericianum, accompanied by a recording of revolutionary songs sung by Afghan women. The installation underscores a point the Bush administration would just as soon forget: Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban , poppy agriculture in that ravaged land is booming as never before.

An untitled work by Brazilian sculptor Iole de Freitas offers a welcome respite from the conceptual art that dominates documenta . Composed of a lyrical assemblage of swirling plastic panels affixed to swooping stainless steel tubes, the installation fills a large corner gallery at Museum Fridericianum and spills outside onto the façade of the building. Entering the room, with its twisting forms and reflective panels, one feels transported into a different dimension—an exhilarating experience.

Iole de Freitas: (Brazil) Utitled installation, 2007

American choreographer Trisha Brown’s Floor of the Forest – an incongruous construction of trousers, skirts and other articles of clothing woven into a lattice of thick ropes suspended from a metal frame -- is a striking piece of stagecraft. During my visit, several dancers appeared and slowly climbed into the wafting garments as the music of The Grateful Dead rippled through the room. I have no idea what Ms. Brown was trying to communicate, but the performance was visually stunning. Saadane Afif’s Black Chords Play Music, an array of electric guitars and amplifiers, was also compelling in an eerie way. The guitars emitted plaintive computer-generated chords that sounded at once modern and primitive. 

Photography is clearly one of documenta’s strong suits. Nigerian photographer George Osodi’s series Oil Rich Niger Delta paints a searing portrait of the harmful effects of the Nigerian oil boom, which has made millions for the government and multinational oil companies but has devastated the environment and ravaged the lives of local residents. Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli’s series on displaced Palestinians living in Jordanian refugee camps combines desolate images of unfinished houses dotted with satellite dishes, deserted plains and concrete rubble with aging snapshots of Palestinian families . The juxtaposition of the refugees’ harsh reality with the frayed and fading mementos of their past lives creates a moving testament to the effects of the decades-long morass in the Middle East. 

South African photographer Guy Tillim’s series on the Congo also packs a potent political punch. One image in particular has stayed with me: It shows a campaign billboard for President Joseph Kabila that has been set afire by supporters of an opposition candidate. Kabila’s head is literally engulfed in flames, an apt metaphor for the volatile politics in that troubled African nation. Also notable is the work of Dutch photographer Lidwien Van de Ven, whose luminous large-scale digital images of Paris street scenes are quietly arresting. 

Guy Tillim (South Africa): Congo Democratic series, 2006

 In terms of sheer quantity, the most prominent artist at documenta is Chilean-born painter Juan Davila, who has a dozen pieces in the show, including several brutally graphic and provocative paintings. The Lamentation: A Votive Painting, a vast canvas inhabited by grotesque Baconesque figures —a man holding a vase of wilted metallic flowers, his penis protruding through his underwear like a spiny shrimp, and a doglike creature being mounted by a Centaur—offers a complex, haunting examination of sexual and political identity. 

Juan Davila (Chile): The Lamentation: A Votive Painting, 1991

One work literally frames the entire documenta experience—a large latticed metal picture frame suspended above a hillside overlooking the main fairgrounds. The piece was created by Hans-Rucker-Co, an Austrian group, for documenta 6 in 1997 ( the current show is the 12th iteration ). Viewers are invited to approach the frame on a metal catwalk cantilevered over the hillside that provides a striking view of the exhibition site and the verdant countryside beyond.


Perhaps the most intriguing project at documenta was Chinese artist’s Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale, in which 1001 Chinese were invited to visit Kassel for several weeks. Although I never encountered any of the Chinese visitors, from all reports the cultural experiment was a great success. The guests were apparently received with great enthusiasm by their German hosts, who took crash courses in Chinese language, added Chinese characters to signposts, and even transformed a Döner restaurant into a Karaoke bar.

Although documenta is billed as a contemporary art show, there were many older works on display, including a Persian painting dating to the 14th century. When I asked my "art mediator" about this she explained that the curators hoped to provide a fresh perspective on artists who may not have been appreciated in their own time. Fair enough, but how does that account for the inclusion of works by Edouard Manet and Paul Klee , artists well known in their own times as well as in ours?

Perhaps it’s appropriate that documenta takes place in Kassel, a city where Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm lived for many years and compiled their beloved collections of fairy tales. One can’t help but think the Grimm brothers would be delighted with this wide-ranging, free-wheeling, and sometimes frightening survey of contemporary art.

Documenta 12
Until 23 September 2007
Kunsthalle Fridericianum and other galleries
Friedrichsplatz 18
34117 Kassel
Tel: (49) 49 561 70 72 70

Peter Kupfer is a former editor on the National / Foreign desk at The San Francisco Chronicle. His freelance articles on the arts, travel and technology have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Asian Art News and other publications. He last wrote on the Burning Man festival for

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