We know our time is up

Once every five years, an ordinary provincial town a few miles from the former east German border becomes the undisputed capital of contemporary art. Kassel is difficult to get to, horrid to stay in – hotels range from unfriendly to incompetent – and packed with military-style queues, mulish guards, and gallery attendants whose aim seems to be to separate the public from the art it has travelled hours to see. But hell, these are minor, absurdist obstacles. Opening today, Documenta 2007 is the most enlightening, thrilling art show in the world because it is genuinely of the world, rather than a Euro-American take on global culture.

Asian and African innovative energy versus waning western forms is the standard, inevitable theme of every current international exhibition. We know our time is up; we look nervously to art for what that means. This year’s Venice biennale – light-hearted rival to Documenta’s earnestness – has high-profile African and Chinese pavilions, but still references are mostly western.

Documenta is different. On European soil, in sites steeped in history – the 18th-century Fridericianum Museum, where Hito Steyerl’s Japanese bondage video plays under the grand domed roof; the Orangerie’s rose and elderflower gardens and meadows, now hosting a Frieze-like crystal palace;
the castle’s Bergpark, overrun by Sakharin Krue-On’s “Terraced Rice Field Art Project” – it exhibits work beyond our modern or postmodern framework, by serious, inventive, impassioned artists who neither want nor need western traditions.

Star of the Orangerie’s Aue Pavilion is Romuald Hazoumé’s “Dream”, a large, long boat constructed from 421 painted canisters, each representing a passenger who has paid a lot to board but may die on the voyage anyway. Canisters, used to transport smuggled fuel, are widespread in Benin – utensils of survival and ritual. Here they line up, some scrawled in sunburst orange with the word “Dream”, before an
enormous photograph of paradisiacal golden sands, sea, crowds of eager
children – those, as the inscription reads, “damned if they leave and damned if they stay: better, at least, to have gone, and be doomed in the boat of their dreams”.

Hazoumé is rooted in a 4,000-year-old African culture. His sculpted heads, “Dogone” with plaits, “Citoyenne” with watering can neck, spider-haired “Agassa” and punk-rock “Moon”,
peer down like comedians, yet these menacing beauties are weapons. A century ago, African masks led Picasso
to new forms in European art but
“this story is not over yet,” says Hazoumé. “Is modernity our antiquity?” is Documenta director Roger Buergel’s overarching question. An artist such as Hazoumé answers by smashing ideas of both modernism and antiquity into fragments, then reassembling the pieces in new, surprisingly aesthetic ways.

Documenta’s aesthetic quality is consistently arresting. Installations are sparse, spare; each work breathes its own space as individual statement. J.D. Okhai Ojeikere shows stunningly formal photographs of Nigerian hair sculpture, collected over 30 years. Saadane Afif’s sumptuous/austere “Black Chords Play Lyrics”, 13 black computer-programmed guitars shrouded in dark curtains, tolls the seconds like a warning bell. Kerry James Marshall’s shimmering painterly illusions, layered across several sites, build up a black narrative of depth and radiance. Kassel’s most heartbreakingly gorgeous work is Lu Hao’s 500-metre ink-on-silk urban landscape “recording 2006 Chang’an Street”, which in fine brush-strokes and ethereally delicate colours depicts skyscraper-by-skyscraper, flyover-by-flyover, crane-by-crane, changes on Chang’an Avenue, which bisects Beijing between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Zheng Guogu’s lyric, crystalline “Waterfall” reinvents ancient calligraphy and a common Chinese motif: it was created by dipping calligraphic texts into wax, then reassembling them into sculpture.

Both artists touch greatness by brilliantly transforming Chinese tradition rather than co-opting western media. Master of such metamorphosis is Ai Weiwei, whose illuminated “Temple Construction”, fabricated from old Chinese doors and windows, looms over the Aue meadow like a broken monument. It is echoed in 1,001 Chinese wooden chairs – representing 1,001 Chinese citizens Ai invited to Kassel – dotted across the exhibition, and emblematic of Documenta’s inclusive, democratic, functional approach.

The antiquity that director Buergel is querying here is specific: it is the politicised minimalism of the 1970s – the decade when he and his wife, co-
curator Ruth Noack, were teenagers. This Documenta has the distinctive flavour of forty-somethings recreating iconic moments from that decade – Trisha Brown’s rope-and-metal-tube installation performance “Floor of the Forest”, where dancers slide in and out of clothes and nets, for example – as well as excavating its more obscure figures, especially women, who have resonance now: Lee Lozano’s angry, raunchy drawings; Maria Bartuszova’s pared-down ceramic ovoids; Mira Schendel’s tortuously riveted transparent acrylic strips.

Beyond, ur-antiquity here means Russian abstraction, minimalism’s ancestor. Iole de Freitas’s structure of stainless steel pipes and translucent polycarbonate panels curving like a giant bird across the Fridericianum’s Bel Etage references constructivism. Mladen Stilinovic’s “The Exploitation of the Dead”, a white shed tightly hung with copies of suprematist and social-realist paintings, collages and photos of political gatherings, spread around an image of Malevich on his death bed, at once parodies minimalism’s white cube and pays homage to the Russian pioneer.

Germany has always been a unique east-west meeting ground, and sensitivity to Russian art is palpable here. But Documenta’s politics goes further. Launched in 1955 with Picasso, Matisse et al as a symbol of cultural revival in war-ruined Germany, it began as the nation’s conscience, then developed
over the years into the conscience of Euro-America. I suspect it can embrace today’s non-western art and throw off European shackles of vision because,
of all established nations, Germany alone experienced modernism in
meltdown under national socialism: culture failed to prevent Hitler, Nazism proved an irreparable break with Germany’s heritage.

Though playful, Kassel’s two most potent European works do not let one forget. Lukas Duwenhogger’s sculpture “The Celestial Teapot”, a large decorative pot with camp, gesturing arms for handle and spout atop an architectural folly, is a proposed memorial for Nazism’s homosexual victims, while Dmitri Gutov’s exquisite tall panels handwritten in rusty looped metal – pages from Beethoven and Marx, hieroglyphs from Chinese poetry and Japanese calligraphy – link to form a prison wall called “Fence”.

History is here, but history has also set Documenta free to become a window on the non-western world, which it does triumphantly.

Documenta 12, Kassel, until September 23, www.documenta12.de

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