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by Walter Robinson
Documenta 12, June 16-Sept. 23, 2007, is one of the strangest art exhibitions you're likely to see. Containing over 150 artists, sprawling through five different buildings in Kassel, Germany, the show has nary a white cube in sight. One section is arranged in a labyrinthine, open-form layout in the new Aue-Pavilion, a custom-made 10,000-square-meter shed with clear corrugated plastic walls hung with silvery polyester curtains and a hard asphalt floor (painted dark red and resembling cork).

A second part is installed in the Neue Galerie, the clean modernist spaces of which are specially painted dark olive (on the first floor) or bright salmon (on the second), with the works set in dark galleries and illuminated by spotlights. This show is lit like a vampire movie -- shadowy and melodramatic. We're dealing here with high curatorial art!

Indeed, the official portrait of the two curators of the show, Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, poses the married couple like a pair of Olympians, seen from below and silhouetted by the sun, both looking rather less glamorous than they should under the circumstances. Or perhaps this campy pose represents their sense of humor? It is hard to tell. At the press conference, Buergel was asked several times to comment on his curatorial point of view. He declined, saying, in so many words, "I don't know; figure it out for yourselves."

So, how did they do? Well, one thing seems to be clear. When a contemporary art curator starts talking about "educating the audience" [see Artnet News, June 13, 2007], it's time to reach for your gun (figuratively speaking, of course). Nary a hot button goes unpushed in the artworks on view in Documenta 12. Muslim-Hindu strife, Palestinians dispossessed, the trials of immigration, reparations for Native Americans, mounting AIDS deaths, male chauvinism, Yugoslavian genocides, Nazi-era atrocities and post-war German devastation. It gets grim.

But move into a third Documenta site, the Museum Fridericianum, the columned, yellow-and-white neoclassical confection in front of a grassy parade ground, and things begin to look up. Its light-filled spaces are harder to confound with curatorial hijinks. Go up the stairs, and you find dancers performing Trisha Brown's Accumulation (1971) and Floor of the Forest (1970) -- a work in which performers climb into and hang from colorful pieces of clothing attached to a heavy, horizontal rope scaffolding arranged something like a trampoline -- a bit of Dionysian life, however systemic the original esthetic.

Next door is a lyrical if old-fashioned construction of swooping stainless steel rods and translucent plastic sheets by the Rio de Janeiro artist Iole de Freitas, which actually extends from a corner gallery out onto the façade of the building. After all the gloom, it looks positively enchanting.

Across the road from the Museum Fridericianum is the documenta-Halle, a long, tall space with one soaring wall painted bright blue. The gallery is filled with oversized works like a giant's toy chest, including a 36-foot-long Garden Carpet from Iran (ca. 1800), oversized stuffed animals by Cosima von Bonin and a taxidermied giraffe "from the Qalqiliyah Zoo" by the Berlin-based conceptual artist Peter Friedl.

Hidden in a dark, smaller gallery off the main space is a sleek sculpture by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, made of smooth aluminum painted gray and depicting a truck trailer loaded with tanks and equipment. This Phantom Truck (2007) represents the imaginary mobile bio-weapons lab that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell conjured up in 2003 to help launch the Iraq War.

The final venue lies several kilometers away, at the end of the number 1 tramline in a park on top of a hill, the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, a four-story Old Master picture gallery where contemporary works have been integrated into the existing installation. An assortment of delicate small items are presented in cases, to precious effect.

Better is a large self-portrait as Elizabeth R by the Polish artist Zofia Kulik, who combines black-and-white photocollages Gilbert & George-style in grids of frames. Titled The Splendor of Myself (II) (1997), the work sits bravely in a gallery of Rembrandts.

At one point Buergel said that the time had ended for installing exhibitions in old industrial spaces (of which Kassel has many). His own show belies the claim, however, as a sixth venue, the Kulturzentrum Schlachthof (the Slaughterhouse Art Center), a prewar brick building in a Muslim neighborhood just north of the museumplatz that contains only two works -- both films -- provides one of Documenta's more agreeable viewing experiences.

In a basement space, below classrooms where theater groups rehearse and immigrants study the German language, is installed Them, a 15-minute film by the Polish artist Artur Zmijewski. Beginning as a workshop in which four small groups of people (Catholics, nationalists, Jews and young socialists) paint banner-sized emblems of "their" Poland, and then make additions or changes to each others' banners to reflect their own points of view, the game soon deteriorates into chaos and wreckage. It's a reality show with a political point.

In the end, Buergel and Noack's curatorial approach has several notable components. In addition to taking extreme measures to avoid the white cube, they've also largely avoided familiar names. The show features "new" artists from Eastern Europe, India, Asia and the Middle East, and several "rediscoveries," such as the German Minimalist Charlotte Posenenske (1938-85).

Before she stopped making art in 1968 and turned to sociology, Posenenske crafted duct-like constructions of galvanized steel or cardboard that are both industrial and organic, and large hollow cubes of fiberboard, the faces of which are hinged like doors, allowing viewer participation.

Buergel and Noack have also taken a mix-and-match approach to their installation, juxtaposing unlike works in order to create "new connections." In this regard, abstract works by artists like Poul Gernes, John McCracken and Gerwald Rockenshaub are installed almost like decorative "bumpers," colorful accents that serve as punctuation between drabber, sociological works.

More importantly, however, the curators, blessed with a surfeit of space, have placed works by some individual artists in several different places in the exhibition, so that viewers come upon the same artist in varying contexts. The effect is cumulative, and salutary, granting these artists and their works a multidimensional aspect.

Some of the artists who get this treatment, in addition to the three abstractionists mentioned above, are the late Gutai Group performance artist Tanaka Atsuko, the caustic Argentinian figurative painter Juan Davila, the 1960s cult painter Lee Lozano, the great Chicago figurative painter Kerry James Marshall, Charlotte Posenenske, Martha Rosler and Cosima von Bonin.

The U.S. artists, by the way, look very good in the show. It's easy to muster pride for Kerry James Marshall, whose muscular and sometimes mystical paintings of black Americans are unfamiliar to the local audience. "What does it mean," asked one German acquaintance of the title to a 1993 "Lost Boys" portrait hung in the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, "this '8 Ball'?" Along with Robert Colescott (who is not in the exhibition), Marshall is keeping the painterly spark in modernist figuration.

John McCracken's luminous geometric sculptures also look great, especially under Documenta's theatrical lighting. They have a sense of focus and beauty that seems almost otherworldly. Martha Rosler provides something of a surprise, too, with a slide show of photographs of luxurious gardens and parks in Kassel, tucked away in a corner of the Aue-Pavilion and perhaps easy to miss. Considering her political interests, it's not surprising that she throws in a few images of Kassel's postwar devastation to remind us of the ugly history that underlies all this cultivated lushness.

Rosler also provides one of the few erotic notes in the show, which is notably prudish (as is the Venice Biennale). These contemporary curators, when they ask "What is bare life?" -- one of the three leitmotifs of the exhibition -- the answer isn't "libidinous!" Rosler's Hothouse, or Harem (1972), a color photomontage of a landscape of Playboy playmates that is also featured in "WACK!" in Los Angeles, remains an archetypal image of heterosexual male fantasy.

Certainly one star of Documenta 12 is Ai Weiwei, the down-to-earth Beijing artist who seems almost omnipresent in the show. Most famously, he is bringing 1,000 ordinary Chinese citizens on a free trip to Documenta 12 (in groups of 250 at a time), housing them up in a two-story camp-style barracks of his own design [see Artnet News, May 8, 2007]. Dubbed Fairytale (2007), in reference to Kassel's distinction as the home of the Brothers Grimm, the work also includes 1,0001 weathered Qing dynasty chairs, which are spotted throughout the exhibition as seating for visitors.

This project, which sparked a minor media frenzy when Ai had a press conference in the barracks courtyard -- "It's like a scandal," he quipped -- cost €3.1 million and is sponsored by the artist's longtime Lucerne dealer, Galerie Urs Meile, with two Swiss foundations, the Leister Foundation and Erlenmeyer Stiftung. Spotted at the early-morning tour was New York dealer Mary Boone, who said she plans a show of Ai Weiwei's work in her Chelsea gallery next March.

Another major Ai Weiwei contribution is Template, a 40-foot-tall arch-like structure with an eight-pointed base. Sited on the lawn next to the Aue-Pavilion, the arch is formed from Ming and Qing Dynasty doors and windows that the artist salvaged from destroyed houses in northern China, where entire old towns have been demolished. "It really is a mixed, troubled question context," the artist said, "and a protest for its own identity."

With such a large show, the idea of enumerating all the works that have special appeal is daunting, but here's a start. The 45-year-old, Singapore-born Sydney artist Simryn Gill's Throwback (2007), installed in the Aue-Pavilion, quixotically renders the drive shaft, gears and motor ports of a 20-year-old truck driven in India using river clay, soils from termite mounds, seashells, dried grasses, fruit skins and coconut bark.

Also in the Aue-Pavilion, the South African photographer Guy Tillim's Congo Democratic provides a straightforward if ominous chronicle of the Central African country's first parliamentary elections in 40 years (which installed Joseph Kabila as president).

On the wall in the documenta-Halle, Abdoulaye Konaté, an artist who was born in 1953 and lives in Bamako in Mali, installed Gris-gris for Israel and Palestine, a four-part weaving incorporating the Israel flag and the Palestinian kaffiyeh that seems to express a lyrical hope for dialogue. Also lyrical, and literary, are the large calligraphic watercolors installed in a gallery in the Museum Fridericianum by the Mumbai artist Atul Dodiya (b. 1959), works that reproduce the texts of contemporary poems written in Gujarati, the artist's mother tongue.

English translations of the poems are included in accompanying wall labels, a rare instance of actual educational assistance provided in the galleries (presumably, visitors can direct any questions they might have to the many student guards, or refer to the €20 catalogue). Curiously, English is the lingua franca of Documenta 12, serving as the language for subtitles on videos and wall works. A 40-minute-long dramatic soliloquy by Harvey Keitel in a film by James Coleman, for instance, should have German subtitles if Documenta truly intends to speak to a local audience.

When all is said and done, how did Buergel and Noack do with their Documenta? Their relative inexperience was much remarked upon when they were selected for the job several years ago. Have they managed to rise to the occasion? Are they, as we say in baseball, the heroes or the goats?

The curators certainly took a lot of risks, and the absence of many of the art world's trendiest artists gets no complaint from me. On the downside, many of the selections seemed altogether random, and though I'll always be a fan of John Cage, I'm not sure chance actually works that well when it comes to constructing an exhibition. And I would have preferred the show to more actively celebrate Eros and the life force. But, overall, let's look on the bright side, like Pollyanna -- I give it a net positive.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.