The Meteorite’s Compassion

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s dOCUMENTA (13) combines object-oriented scientism with humanistic empathy.

Giuseppe Penone, Lawrence Weiner, Essere fiume 6, 1998, THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF, 2012. Photo: Roman März.

“What do the rubble and the stones at the foot of the empty cavities in the cliff where the Bamiyan Buddhas once stood, prior to their bombing in 2001, see and feel?”, asks Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Documenta 13’s curator, in her text “On the Destruction of Art – or Conflict and Art, or Trauma and the Art of Healing”. She continues: “How do they speak, and how is their speech related to ours? How does their violated materiality come to matter, and how does the example of their loss and damage help us to react to a sense of the precariousness of life […]?”

This quotation presents us with the exhibition’s central paradox: it insists on a non-anthropocentric perspective, where the thing in itself “speaks”, “sees” and “feels”, at the same time as it remains rooted in a classical humanist ethic and conceptual terrain, where the testimony of a traumatic catastrophe – in the quoted passage this refers to the Taliban’s destruction of the large Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan in 2001 – can give us an experience of “precariousness of life”.

Anton Zeilinger, Quantum Now. Photo: Krzysztof Zielinks.

The two poles are clearly represented in the exhibition in Kassel. On the one hand, there are a number of objects and projects that refer or belong to the objective realm of “hard science”: the quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger demonstrates photon experiments on the second floor of Fridericianum; unidentified obsolete scientific instruments in a special booth designed by Mariana Castillo Deball and Gabriel Lester are on display at the Orangerie; at Friedrichsplatz one would have been able inspect the heavy meteorite El Chaco, which landed in northern Argentina 4,000 years ago, but at the last minute the locals decided to oppose its relocation; etc. These are phenomena, one might note, that would be at home in an amusement park dedicated to scientific wonders and marvels.

On the other hand, there are a number of artworks and objects that were created in political, social, and psychological states of crisis: war, persecution, internment. There is an oil painting depicting an interrogation of the Cambodian artist Vann Nath, whose life was spared by the Khmer Rouge “precisely because he could paint”; there is the large image series Leben? oder Theater? (1941) by Charlotte Salomon, who when she found out that many women in her family committed suicide wanted “to save herself from this traumatic knowledge” by creating the eccentric gouache drawings; there are a few objects from the National Museum in Beirut that “were damaged during the Lebanese Civil War”, that is to say burned and melted beyond all recognition; there is a video by Ahmed Basiony, who was killed by the Egyptian police at Tahrir Square in January 2011; etc.

Charlotte Salomon, Leben? Oder Theater? Ein Singspiel, 1941–42. Photo: Roman März.

On the one pole, Documenta 13 is thus characterized by the currently prevalent and vaguely ecological rhetoric that we must question our anthropocentric worldview and instead start to understand objects as “agents” or “actors”. A rhetoric whose source is certainly the “speculative realism” advocated by philosophers like Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman, and behind whose critique of “correlationism” we recognize a good old positivist cult of science (during a conversation with Michael Taussig and Paul Chan at the Orangerie, Christov-Bakargiev explains that people and objects can speak to each other because “we are all the same at the subatomic level”). On the other pole in the exhibition, we are confronted with an intense pathologizing of the work of art, in which its value is thought to lie in its ability to exceed the representational or symbolic and constitute a direct impression of actual – or even, Real – conflicts, and should therefore be understood as having a witnessing or therapeutic function. How should one comprehend the relationship between these two poles?

The fact that the tension between them can only be dissolved with extremely problematic consequences becomes obvious if we read further in Christov-Bakargiev’s text about art and trauma. “Art can suspend or increase conflict”, she writes several lines below. “If the context of the conflict is ignored, […] if the artistic act withdraws from the conflict, […] and engages with the traumatized art object from the point of view of gratitude, one can enter into a form of worldly alliance. That is where the sphere of art […] becomes a location in which one can experiment with experience on the edge of the anthropocentric, where the rubble lies, and can build an imaginative society where the human is not at the center of our cosmology, but only one element within an accord of all the makers of the world, animate and inanimate, including traumatized people and objects.”

Faivovich & Goldberg, First encounter with El Chaco, June 1st, 2006, Video 12:10 min. Photo: Roman März.

A “worldly alliance”, a non-anthropocentric “cosmology”, a harmony between “the animate” and “the inanimate” that we gain access to via a therapeutic withdrawal and a “gratitude” before the “traumatizing art object”: in the background to Documenta 13’s speculative combination of humanistic empathy and “object-orientated” scientism looms a fantastic, even mystic, eco-metaphysical vision of a great “accord of all the makers of the world”. In other words: life is fragile, so let us all – people and things, animals and plants, “arche-fossiles” and photons – unite in a great, frenetic, lively and clanging dance.

This “holistic” vision, which in the name of a sensibility for the voice of the traumatized artwork and the rights of the inanimate object reduces all crises to one and the same, from the Holocaust to the Arab Spring and from global warming to a single person’s neuroses, is encountered most clearly in the part of the exhibition that is simple called “The Brain”, located in Fridericianum’s central rotunda, sealed with a semi-transparent glass. Here Christov-Bakargiev has collected a set of mainly small-scale objects – sculptures, paintings, photographs, documents, sketches, texts and artifacts – which, in her own words in the catalog’s elegantly titled key essay “The dance was very frenetic, lively, rattling, clanging, rolling, contorted, and lasted for a long time”, should set “ethics, desire, fear, love, hope, anger, outrage, and sadness against the conditions of hope, retreat, siege, and stage”.

David E. Scherman, Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub, Hitler’s apartment, München, 1945 © Lee Miller Archives, England 2006.

The curatorial choices and associations in the room are remarkable. On one wall are the photographs of Lee Miller, who was dispatched by Vogue in April 1945 to report on the advances of the Allied forces through Germany. The photographs depict various motifs: the concentration camp at Dachau at the moment of liberation; a statue in Frankfurt; Miller herself while she bathes in a bathtub in Hitler’s apartment in Munich. This last photograph, a wall text explains, shows how on a “symbolic and corporal level” Miller takes Hitler’s place and “creates a replacement: she is transformed partially to the perpetrator and washes away his crimes” (itself a startling assertion). In a glass case across from these photographs lie a number of neatly arranged artifacts: Hitler’s towel, Eva Braun’s perfume bottle, a thermometer, a small neo-classical female figurine in porcelain by the Nazi’s court designer Rudolf Kaesbach, and so on.

In the central space in Fridericianum, in the “Brain” that constitutes the symbolic center of this year’s Documenta, an exhibition that is itself a symbolic center for Germany’s cultural reconstruction and atonement since the post-war period, such a combination and juxtaposition of images and objects unavoidably becomes the midpoint – “the middle of the middle of the middle of”, as it’s called in Lawrence Weiner’s text work in the space – from which one reads all the other elements and extensions.

Various artists, The Brain, Photo: Roman März.

The circles widen and the branches multiply rapidly: Miller’s images link to paintings created as a “withdrawal” from fascism’s power relations (the Italian Giorgio Morandi’s austere still lifes and landscape paintings from the war) and to withdrawal and non-participation as conceptual and critical figures (Francesco Matarrese’s artistic decision to refuse to work as an artist in the ‘70s); to paintings created to save other paintings (the restorer Mohammad Yusuf Asefi’s disfigurations of a number of paintings in the National Gallery in Kabul, which saved them from the Taliban’s iconoclastic destruction) and to sculptures created to preserve the memory of other sculptures (Horst Hohelsel’s “anti-monument” to the destroyed Aschrott Fountain in Kassel); to small, fragile, ancient stone figures whose continued existence “depends on thousands of years of dedication and care” (the so called “Bactrian princesses” from Turkmenistan 2,500-1,500 BCE) and to the various “objects damaged during the Lebanese Civil War” (the twisted, fused objects from the National Museum of Beirut); to tragic testimonies from contemporary conflicts (Ahmed Basiony’s film from Tahrir Square in 2011) and to photographs that register traces of past wars (Vandy Rattana’s images of “bomb ponds” in Cambodia, craters created during the Vietnam War) – and so on.

It takes a vision of cosmic harmony to hold together a spatial montage of this kind. The problem is not primarily its heterogeneity, that it should be characterized by a wild variety that breaks every single interpretive framework (even if the curator team at different points also claims that the exhibition, as some sort of act of resistance, is “non-conceptual” and only “maybe” is an exhibition). There are actually clear family resemblances between the assembled elements, between the ways in which they were created in and responded to states of crisis and disaster, between how they give expression to attitudes of resistance and care before unbearable circumstances. The problem is, on the contrary, that there is no respect for, nor any attempt to conceptualize, the differences and distances between these artworks and objects, between the radically distinct political, historical, social and ontological contexts from which they originate, between the fundamentally different categories of things that are placed side by side: between a traumatized war refugee’s notes and a very old rock, between a Nazi relic and an ancient sculpture. Human beings, plants, and all the things in the world are to be pitied, Christov-Bakargiev seems to say, so let us unite in dance! No scientific, or even subatomic, redemption can save us from such a grand leveling.

Translation from the Swedish by Jeff Kinkle. All quotations come from the catalogues to Documenta 13.

Article in Swedish.