December 26, 2007

Dissecting Documenta 12: Hito Steyerl and the bad curators.

Filed under: Curating,Documenta12,Political,Society — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 6:55 pm

Hito Steyerl, stills from Lovely Andrea 2007 DVD 30:15minCombing through my photo-documentation Documenta 12 I stumbled upon the work of Hito Steyerl. I did not know anything about her when I encountered her work at Documenta 12, but researching for this post I now think Steyerl is one of the few gems in that extremely flawed exhibition. But when I saw the work she exhibited at Documenta 12 it did not make a big impression, and I did not spend too much time with it. This is not especially surprising, however, due to the fact that her video projection was exhibited in an atrium. In retrospect, it is almost mind-numbing to think how a curator (in this case Roger M. Buergel) could throw away one of the small number of potentially interesting works in his show by positioning it so badly.

Hito Steyerl, stills from Lovely Andrea 2007 DVD 30:15minSteyerl belongs to the rather large category of artists included in Documenta 12 whose name is not well known in the fine art context. I was unaware of Steyerl until I Googled her name for this post. I find it significant that a few minutes research on the Internet could lead me to the intuition that here is a very significant artist; whereas coming into contact with a piece by her in Documenta 12 I had only a transitory inkling that her work might be interesting.

Hito Steyerl, Lovely Andrea, 2007. Installation view courtesy

Projecting Steyerl’s film on the atrium of the Museum Fridericianum threw this valuable work away. And the curators Buergel and Noack could not afford to do this because there were too few jewels in the hotchpotch of a show that they concocted. One thinks back to Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002 which was as good as Documenta 12 was bad, which is to say it was extremely good. Conservative critics criticised Enwezor’s exhibition for being “video heavy” obviously not realising that video art is one of the most sophisticated forms of expression in fine art at the turn of the millennium.

Watch a detail from Steyerl’s Documenta 12 exhibit (VIDEO CLIP) The washed out character of the sample indicates its mode of exhibition in a fully-lit environment. The storyboards of stills shown above have been corrected. I wish I had taken more footage because my video clip is the only one available on YouTube: despite the fact that reportedly 750,000 people visited Documenta 12! Again, this appears to be an effect of the poor positioning of Steyerl’s work.

But what is significant to the discussion of the way in which Steyerl’s work was abandoned at Documenta 12 is to consider how video art was treated by Enwezor in Documenta 11. Each video projection was given the dark room that it deserves. The viewer was provided, accordingly, with a zone of contemplation in which he or she could afford the work the attention that it merited.

In direct contrast Documenta 12 took an open-plan approach to video art throwing it into the general confusion that was the primary thrust of Buergel and Noack’s curatorial “vision”.

Projecting a video on an atrium-stairwell basically tells the viewer that the material on view is akin to wallpaper, and that you can take it or leave it. And many people, myself included, left it: providing it with considerably less attention than it deserved. And the situation was not helped by the fact that by the time one got to the top of the staircase of the Museum Fridericianum one’s morale had been substantially dampened by walking through room after room of miscellany, and coming to the painful realisation that this Documenta was a mess.

I applaud Buergel and Noack for including Steyerl but I condemn them for not giving her the prominence she deserved.

The story behind Steyerl’s video exhibited at Documenta 12 Lovely Andrea is reported by Régine Debatty (We Make Money Not Art) who explains:

In 1987, film director Hito Steyerl was 19 and agreed once to be a model for a bondage photo shooting in Tokyo. Lovely Andrea (dubbed “A La Recherche du Cul Perdu”) narrates the search for that photography in the Tokyo bondage scene. Helped by self-suspension performer and guide Asagi Ageha, Steyerl and her team find the image in a sex archive and set out to meet the photographer. Along the way, people interviewed talk about freedom, shame (that “libido of the brain”) and tell stories such as the habit at the time of tricking young girls to bondage photo studios under the pretense of offering them some other kind of job. Once there the girl was so frightened that she worked for free, the promise that the men would let her go was enough of a reward. The plot is intertwined with images of performances by Asagi Ageha. While watching images of the performance, i never thought of sex, perversion or pain, just elegance, lightness and sheer beauty. (WMMNA)

Asagi Ageha’s field is pornography, in particular bondage (Ageha) and one wonders whether Steyerl’s video was sidelined for this reason. But the answer has to be in the negative because apparently, at one point during the exhibition, the Documenta 12 website used the connection with Ageha to rack up hits. This particular news item was reported in Summer 2007 by The Kurtenscharfer Plot ( but, unfortunately, that previously very valuable source of artworld news has recently become “members only”.

An interview with Hito Steyerl is available on YouTube

A consideration of Steyerl’s inclusion in Documenta 12 points to another feature of the curation of that exhibition which concerns the inclusion of documentary film such as that of Steyerl and Amar Kanwar. The usual question can be posed as to whether this mode of expression can be considered “art”. The simple answer to that question in the wake of the Readymade is “yes”; basically anything can be considered art if it is consistently exhibited in an art gallery/museum context. But one would also expect a prior disposition from within the artist and within the work towards inclusion in such contexts.

In the case of Steyerl and Kanwar one can see that we are not dealing with “straight” documentary film; although the notion of “straight” documentary film depends on certain generalisations. All documentary film consciously or unconsciously deploys aesthetic devices. The degree of “artness” of a documentary film will depend, accordingly, on how much emphasis the filmmaker places on the aesthetic aspects of the film. In the case of Steyerl and Kanwar it is evident that they both place a good deal of emphasis on the aesthetic dimension to the point that their works can indeed be considered “art”.

Another consideration comes to the fore which concerns the contribution of documentary film to the genre of political art. It seems reasonable to suggest that aestheticised documentary film would epitomise political art. Which is to say one would expect that video art with a documentary inclination would be one of the most powerful modes of political art.

The inclusion of this powerful hybrid genre—straddling the field of documentary film and video art— in Documenta 12 has to be applauded on the basis that it is one of the more interesting developments in art at the turn of the millennium.

It is a great shame, therefore, that the impact of work such as Steyerl and Kanwar’s was prejudiced by being badly hung. Both pieces were dropped into a chaotic bazaar-like environment in which it was impossible to give these works the attention they deserved. Similar hybrid, documentary-art, videos by Mauricio Dias and Walter Riedweg fared better, because they were provided with a focused architectural location that encouraged protracted attention.

And if one is looking around for other videos in Documenta 12 that had a documentary orientation then one could add Imogen Stidworthy’s outstanding video/sound installation I Hate, 2007. Like Dias and Riedweg, Stidworthy’s piece had a prime location; as well as being an extraordinarily immersive construction within itself. Her non-political, but socially oriented, video installation with its strong documentary aspect was exceptionally outstanding even within the chaos of Documenta 12. One has to ask oneself, therefore, why Kanwar and Steyerl’s work was not.

It’s a curatorial no-brainer, really, provide high-content works with more focused space for contemplation; especially when they might have something important to say. Buergel and Noack’s exhibition was supposedly concerned with ideas but in practice it was not, because any ideas being expressed were drowned out by the overall confusion and chaos of the selection and hanging.

Lack of organisation in this case was not due to simple incompetence, it was worse than that; it was due to a deliberately formulated philosophy. Buergel and Noack transmuted chaos and confusion into a ” vanguard” curatorial strategy. One can only hope that nobody else will follow the lead.


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