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Documenta 13

by Emily Nathan
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One might wonder why on earth Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the curator of Documenta (13) in Kassel, Germany, June 9-Sept. 16, 2012, would choose to hold two years of art lectures and workshops in the war-torn country of Afghanistan. The Afghan Seminars, as they are called, took place between 2010 and 2012 in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Afghanistan, the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University and a host of other cultural institutions -- and considering the current conditions of the country’s social and political landscape, such a decision might seem naive, or even dangerous.

But Bakargiev, seated at a table of artists and curators involved with the project in Kassel’s Standehaus on June 7, was confident in her decision. In answer to the question, “Why Afghanistan?” she drew a parallel between Documenta’s original founding in 1955 amidst the rubble of World War II, and Afghanistan’s current state of reconstruction, such as it is. By inserting contemporary art from the west into the mix, she said, she wanted to create a bridge between Kabul’s vibrant international past and her own present -- “to act as if the situation were not what it is, as if the barriers, the conflict, the occupation in Kabul did not exist. . . continuing the daily life required by and inevitable while living in a militarized zone.”

While this act of “radical imagination” is well-intentioned, it is nonetheless problematic, and the issues it brings up about art’s instrumentalization in places of violence and injustice were the subject for the panel, which featured the likes of Chus Martinez, Giuseppe Penone, Mario Garcia Torres, Francis Alys, Adrian Villar Rojas and a handful of young Afghan artists who participated in the seminars. In a gesture of cultural exchange, the work they created during the workshops is on view in Kassel’s various exhibition venues for Documenta, and will also be part of a final presentation in Kabul that opens this month.

Unfortunately, Martinez launched the three-hour event in Kassel with a disclaimer of sorts, a declaration that each participant would share his or her “personal experiences” of the Afghan program, and would not, presumably, address the complex political, moral and ethical questions it involves. Most speakers followed suit, describing how grateful they were for the resources Documenta had provided and what they had learned. But one Afghan student spoke directly. “In the past few years,” he said, “Afghanistan has been entirely shaped by an infrastructure of ‘development.’ Documenta had no such pre-conceived program in mind for us; it made no claims for success or reconstruction. I found that liberating.”

Michael Rakowitz, an artist who led a stone-carving seminar in Bamiyan near the site of the stone Buddhas destroyed in 2001, was equally frank. “To ask how art might be enlisted in the service of rebuilding the culture of a devastated land and people,” he said, is “an incredibly problematic gesture, and that is what makes it good and important.” He sourced his decision to participate in the program to the realization that not participating would be a submission to his own sense of guilt, “which is related to political correctness,” which he sees as a sort of reverse-racism.

Next up, Mario Garcia Torres explained his disillusioning discovery that his initial impetus for travelling to Afghanistan, his desire to understand the history of Arte Povera artist Alighiero Boetti’s One Hotel, which he operated in Kabul in 1971-73, was futile. “It was a combination of excitement and disappointment,” Torres said, “when I realized that the site of this immensely powerful project is now just a regular house. I had to resign myself to the idea that it has a whole new context, new story, new life, even though its past is there, hovering like a ghost.”

Indeed, the idea of context is one of the more salient issues in Bakargiev’s exchange program, since the works were made in Afghanistan during a particular period but have been displaced to Kassel for exhibition. How can their significance be translated? Another Afghan artist involved with the “Archive Practicum” project, which was undertaken during the seminars in the national archive of Afghan film, took the mic.

“It’s hard, if not impossible,” he said, “to stay out of the mess of politics and war when involved in the cultural realm; one is translated onto and into the other. But what I discovered through these seminars,” the artist said -- lapsing into the kind of vague academic jargon that is all too popular on the international art circuit -- “is that it’s not about finding the ‘appropriate’ translation for an idea or a context, but rather problematizing the translation process and making space for its contradictions and limitations.”

With her Documenta, Bakargiev seems to be positioning artists as suffering something akin to the trials of Job, acknowledging the contradictions of making art in the face of war, and choosing to pursue symbols of creativity when surrounded by destruction. “For me,” she concluded, “the image of Morandi sitting in his studio painting vases, one after the other, with Fascism all around him -- that is what art can do.”

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email