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Documenta & dis-placedness


05 July 2012

Documenta & dis-placedness

Feminisms and dOCUMENTA (13)

ddOCUMENTA (13) recurs to feminism, as well as other displaced and de-universalising discourses, to articulate a proposal that aims to be both political and critical. And even though in some senses it manages to do so, it is worth bearing in mind the place where certain artistic and discursive practices are presented, legitimised and run the risk of being absorbed by the maelstrom of the “trend”, thereby losing their subversive potential to end up falling in line with apolitical correctness.

Ceal Floyer bites her nails on stage. In front of her, hundreds of accredited people wait for the press conference of the Kassel dOCUMENTA (13) to begin. The irritating little noise completely fills the hall of the Congress Theatre. It was the first of a whole series of performances that would take place in the multiple locations that characterise the present edition of Documenta. The immediacy of Floyer, the importance of the gesture, the accent on the everyday, the presence of a body, the body of the artist, on stage…Elements specific to the act, to this performativity that suddenly so much is being said about, sometimes without knowing the variety of its implications.

What is interesting in dOCUMENTA (13) is the notion of the “displaced”. Above all, the capacity to make what throbs in the discourses of the organisation appear reflected in the forms and spaces in which the different proposals are “displaced”. A clear political aspiration, proposing that the limits of art once again be shattered. Spaces such as the “Orangerie” or the “Ottoneum” show different art works alongside their usual scientific collections (astronomy, biology…). Interdisciplinarity becomes a formal and discursive reality, and, as Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev indicates, the dividing line between what is art and what isn’t loses importance. Maybe because it is taken for granted that in Documenta everything is legitimated as such.

Interdisciplinarity is also one of the guiding threads of the magnificent labour of the publications department. A huge range of small notebooks (“100 Notes – 100 Thoughts”), many of which have been written by thinkers and authors of international reputation. Judith Butler writes an essay about the concept of love in Hegel (“To Sense What Is Living in the Other: Hegel’s Early Love”), a little jewel with the potential to become indispensable within the author’s already extensive production. The presence of other feminist thinkers stands out, such as Donna Haraway, who formed part of the committee of expert advisers and has also contributed with her texts, the art historian Griselda Pollock, Irina Aristarkhova, a prominent figure in so-called cyber-feminism, the philosopher Karen Barad, Silvia Federici and Vandana Shiva, whose research has brought together feminism, ecology and postcolonial theories, as well as her known work as an anti-globalisation activist. Shiva presents an interesting text, titled “The Corporate Control of Life”. A few more names complete the relevant list of feminist voices present in dOCUMENTA (13).

In the inaugural press conference, Christov-Bakargiev defined herself as a feminist. Documenta legitimises feminism, or feminism, with its political and critical weight, contributes to the legitimisation of Documenta and its dis-placedness statement depends on how one looks at it. By any means it can only be positive that from certain positions of power, and the director undeniably occupies one, there is an institutional use and re-vindication of the term “feminism”, a word that is normally belittled or substituted institutionally for a variety of other euphemisms, to greater or lesser fortune.

A whole declaration of intent that runs the risk of depoliticising itself if it ends up becoming a politically correct tendency within the context of an art event that, they say, has its finger on the pulse of what is happening and what will happen in the years to come in contemporary art. We are conscious that it usually brings with it the institutionalisation/phagocytation of certain discourses. That said, problems aside, it seems clear that this dislocated and displaced Documenta couldn’t dispense with these feminisms, the precursors and promoters of this renunciation of universality that characterises a large part of contemporary thought.

The incursion of feminisms within the arts, takes place, above all, from the seventies onwards, in the United States. The fronts opened were multiple, and their implication in the questioning of traditional art history and contemporary art production would lead to changes that would affect the following decades. This renunciation of universality also happens within contemporary artistic practices and discourses. To talk of feminist art today is to refer to a specific moment in history (the seventies, specifically in the USA), where pieces were produced that used a series of artistic codes in operation at that time, while simultaneously a feminist critique of art arose and became established. Later, feminism, as a language, an ideology, a working methodology and as a way of being in the world continued and continues to operate in the ambit of the arts, though logically not always in the same form or with the same resources as the ones used in the past.

dOCUMENTA (13)makes some of these modus operandi its own. The presence of women in the list of participants is undoubtedly higher than in previous editions. What stands out is also an initiative to rescue forgotten women artists, the construction of a sort of genealogy that starts with the presence, in the Fridericianum, of the Bactrian Princesses, female figurines that date from the second-third centuries BC, from the area which is now Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries. A curious wink at ancient art that recuperates the theses of Marija Gimbutas, an archaeologist related to feminism, that explore the existence of a common iconography surrounding the figure of the Goddess during Prehistory and part of Antiquity. The attire of the princesses, loaded with “scallop”, “meander” and “zigzag” patterns, points to the peculiarities of this iconography as discussed by Gimbutas in “The Language of the Goddess”.

There are also in the Fridericianum, the tapestries of the Swedish-Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen, who died in 1970, or the illustrations by Charlotte Solomon, extracted from her work “Leben? oder Theater?” (1941-42). Griselda Pollock writes a text about Salomon, a German-Jewish artist, murdered in Auschwitz when she was only 26. Pollock’s analysis steps aside from the recurring recreation of her tragic biography, to carry out an exhaustive analysis of her work and to resituate it within art history and a specific time. An interchange of variables, in which the paintings and texts of Solomon intermingle with questions of race and gender in the context of Europe during the Second World War. Pollock places the accent on the question of naming: in making a name of something that always can be named.

In the Neue Galerie, there are also various canvases exhibited of the Canadian painter, close to post-impressionism, Emily Carr. However, as well as these exhibitions of posthumous creations, in dOCUMENTA (13) several artists participate who throughout their careers and undoubtedly from different positions, have worked from feminist perspectives, such as Anna Maria Maiolino, Susan Hiller, Judith Barry, Ida Appleborg, Sanja Ivekovic and Tejal Shah, to mention only a few.

(The term “dis-placedness”, that appears in the title of this article was introduced by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in her essay “The dance was very frenetic, lively, rattling, clanging, rolling, contorted, and lasted for a long time”)

Maite Garbayo is a writer and researcher. Art history, feminist crticial theory and pyschoanalysis are a few of the tools of her trade. She combines her research and writing with periods of teaching. Currently, she is working on her doctoral thesis and is the editor of the magazine {Pipa}.

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