Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Documenta 13: Between Things and Places

Kassel isn't like Kassel outside of Documenta, jokes Jasper Kettner as we briskly stride alongside him down the main thoroughfare that cuts through this German hamlet. It's the height of summer and the pavements are colonised by tables. People are sitting in front of cold beers in long glasses. It is hard to tell who are locals and who are on an art pilgrimage.

No one (read: art world aficionados) knows what Kassel is like when this gargantuan art show isn't on, because there is no reason to visit the town other than the Ikea store, is Kettner's riposte when I make further enquiries about Kassel. As one of the assistant curators working under Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director, Kettner has spent quite a lot of time in Kassel before Documenta13 started in early July.

Kassel isn't simply an arbitrary receptacle for Documenta, which takes place every five years. Documenta's history is intimately tied to this "banal" German town. Curiously, everyone seems to be at pains to point out the town's banality. "This is an average, boring German street," observed Ariane Pauls when we stepped out of the hotel.

She is a Berlin-based artist who has been enlisted by the Goethe Institut to serve as our guide. It's the utilitarian postwar-architecture and the uniform shop-fronts flanking the street that has prompted her comment. To a first-time visitor, these facades hold a certain charm.

They locate Kassel in a time and place. These edifices are reminders of a history that has been erased. Little of the original Kassel remained after it was destroyed during World War II. As the locus of weapon manufacturing at that time, Kassel was an obvious target.

Documenta was part of a cultural scheme after the war, though it began life as a modest adjunct to a flower show. Back then it was a distraction from a perverse reality and was presumably engineered to reinstall a sense of ordinariness to a town rebuilding itself from the inside out. Christov-Bakargiev has taken an interest in this history. It links up with her fascination for what she terms "the ghostly other". By this she means the presence of an absent condition, reality or location. The "ghostly other" belying the everyday appearance of present-day Kassel is the events that preceded its destruction, the city which no longer exists.

For Christov-Bakargiev this spectral form of Kassel is contained in a 12th century Benedictine monastery in Breitenau, located near the town. The building encapsulates a cross-section of German history and its culture of "repression and correction", she asserts. During the Nazi era, it served as a re-education camp before becoming a concentration camp. After the war it housed a girl's reformatory. Today, it ironically functions as a WWII memorial site and a psychiatric hospital.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mastering the female body

Like the heavy curlicue gold frame surrounding Renoir's Jeune Fille au Ruban Bleu (Young Girl with Blue Ribbon) (1888), the thick white line painted on the floor in front of the painting reminds you that the work is precious. An alarm will go off if your toe inches over the boundary and a nearby guard will appear. There aren't usually security guards in the exhibition areas of the Standard Bank Gallery in Joburg, but then it's not every week that works by Renoir, Manet, Degas or Braque go up. 
These are the supposed "masters" referred to in the title: 20th Century Masters: The Human Figure.
"Master" has become somewhat of a redundant term in art theory, now that the authorship of art has been challenged and the values cementing status have become so slippery. So, it's somewhat of a relief to discover that Sylvie Ramond, the curator, who serves as the chief curator and director of the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon, did not come up with the wording of the title. It was the SA contingent at the gallery that imposed the "Masters" in the title, Ramond explained when we chatted.

This is a curious discovery, particularly because the word "master" is likely to annoy Afrocentric art afficionados here who have grown tired of Western artists being placed at the centre of art narratives, as the term implies. This exhibition isn't really for art specialists - though you may find them quietly revelling in a Frederic Leger or a Francis Bacon - it is for ordinary people who turned out in droves for the Picasso and Africa exhibit that showed at the gallery in 2006. Hailed as the most well-attended art exhibit in the country, it proved that European "masters" have pulling power that far supersedes local or African work. Hence the gallery's preference for this outmoded term. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Award Nomination

Coincidentally, the week after I decided to post my feature "The Silent War" (published in The Sunday Independent on August 28, 2010) on this blog to coincide with the Michaelis exhibition, it was nominated for a Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Award (previously known as The Mondi Award) for feature writing. There is no connection; it is unlikely the judges of this award perused Incorrigible Corrigall before making their final selection.

Obviously, it is always good news to be nominated for an award but what makes this nomination so significant is that usually only hard news stories are acknowledged by this awarding body and in this category. Like most journalism awards in this country there is no category for arts writing. For this reason art reviews or reviewers are rarely acknowledged.  Of course, with this feature I used arts products as a point of entry into a wider discussion centered on social and political issues. The award ceremony takes place in Joburg on August 28. Fingers crossed.