Photography at Documenta

and the 52nd enice Biennale
by Miranda Lash

It's 2007 and the dominant theme for the two largest international art exhibitions this year is a plea for no theme at all.

In their catalog for Documenta 12, spouses Roger Buergel, artistic director, and Ruth Noack, curator, proclaim, "the big exhibi­tion has no form." Indeed, they readily admit that the "radical form­lessness" of Documenta is likely to "challenge" most people. Yet out of this formlessness, they hope, comes freedom. Omitting the artists' nationalities from the object labels, the viewer is liberated from preconceived expectations. Appropriately post-modern in their acknowledgement of "local histories" in art, Buergel and Noack's seemingly post-post-modern faith hinges on viewers reaching "a plateau where art communicates itself and on its own terms."

At the 52nd Venice Biennale, Think with the Senses-Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense, the curatorial statement of the artistic director, Robert Storr, strikes a similar chord. "This exhibition is not based on an all-encompassing ideological or theoretical proposal," he explains. Each work carries its own distinct message: it is, in Storr's words, "there to speak for itself." The correspondences his visitors draw between the works will drum up a diversity of thoughts and emotions that echo the very diversity from which the art comes.

How then, should a sore-footed gallery trotter approach works of photography at these two massive exhibitions? In singling out photography I should clarify that this medium was not segregated in the exhibitions from other mediums. One can argue, however, that purported "themelessness" of this year's Documenta and Venice Biennale influenced the choices of photography on display. Beginning with Storr, Buergel and Noack's premise that in order for the exhibitions to succeed, art must be communicative, the resulting selections of photography are overwhelmingly representational and documentary in nature. Most photographs are presented as testimonies of "what it looks like there" and the "there" presented is usually a politicized location.

Take for example Gabriele Basilico's photos of bullet riddled buildings in Beirut from 1991 or Elaine Tedesco's photos of sentry boxes or guaritas in Brazil from 2005 (both shown in the Biennale). In both cases a crystal clear image transports us to another place, a guarded place, and in the case of Basilico, a violated place: places that should arouse our concern. In Lidwien Van de Ven's full-room installation at Documenta, large-scale prints of Jerusalem and Qalqiliya were chosen for their resonance with ongoing conflicts between different religious groups in the Middle East. Meanwhile Guy Tillim's photographs, also at Documenta, depict the Democratic Republic of Congo in turmoil. Political billboards are shown burning while presidential candidates walk closely flanked by bodyguards.

Using photographs as indexical documents is an age-old practice, one that fosters a connection between the viewer to that which "must have been," as Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida. In her Biennale piece Material for a Film, Emily Jacir collects and makes photographs relating to her interest in the Palestinian writer Wael Zuaiter, who was killed by Israelis in Rome in 1972. Fascinated by Zuaiter's desire to translate A Thousand and One Nights from Arabic to Italian, Jacir retraces Zuaiter's life through old photographs (among other documents). To this she adds her own photographic records of the exact streets and buildings where he lived. The images act as links of evidence in her investigation of his life: "Where were the Mossad agents hiding?" she wondered while snapping the shutter. Back at Documenta, the historic actions of an entirely different group of intellectuals were commemorated through the photographs taken and collected by Graciela Carnevale. Having locked her visitors into an art gallery in 1968, Carnevale's image captures a woman in Rosario timidly emerging through the broken glass of a storefront window. An early member of the group of Argentinean artists who visited the Tucuman province in the 1960s to document the poverty caused by the closure of the sugar mills, Carnevale collected their photographs, newspaper clippings, and posters. These were used to recreate parts of the 1968 exhibition Tucuman Arde.Translated as "Tucuman is burning" the protest exhibition was the final stage of a project in which artists used film and photographs to document the deplorable conditions of the province.
My qualm is not with realist photographs that are used in the service of a political agenda. My concern, rather is that neither of these exhibitions of contemporary art put much effort into exploring how the medium of photography is also a contingent, malleable, and experimental medium of persuasion, manipulation, and selectivity. In our time it is easy to point to the treachery of the media in contorting and filtering information. The media might manipulate and overwhelm us with images, but these photographs, Bruegel, Noack, and Storr, imply, are honest truths, made all the more honest because they come from an artist. "The crisp legibility" of Jan Christian Braun's photographs of kitschy decorated tombstones, Storr writes, makes him guiltless of any "condescension." Braun is simply recording (in an aesthetic way) what it looks like there, in a New York cemetery.

There were, of course, multiple exceptions to my complaint. The Biennale's darling, Sophie Calle, featured both in Storr's Padiglione Italia and the French Pavilion, as usual had some tricks up her sleeve. Calle's piece on the death of her mother,Couldn't Capture Death, admittedly contained a video, but was nonetheless a stunning commentary on the function of photography. The screen featuring Calle's mother during the hours preceding her demise captures a motionless sleeping face, which appears at most moments to be a back-lit photograph. Occasional hands feeling her pulse are the only indication that the image is a recording over time. The tragic stillness of the image, taken at the junction between life and death, evokes Barthes' idea of the "little death" in photography - the death of a moment that will never come again. The actual death of Calle's mother signals the transition of a living being into an entity visible only through photographs.

The more playful, theatrical side of photography is explored in Calle's installation Take Care of Yourself. The title is borrowed from the last line in her ex-lover's break-up letter. In an attempt to make sense of her ex's cryptic missive, she asked over a hundred women, all of different professions, to interpret the letter in their own way. The blown-up letters appeared alongside photographs of the women reading the letter. "Captured" in their most native environments, the women assume a deliberate pose of deep reflection. The planned, performed moment depicted emphasizes the process of interpretation and empathy. The objective presentation of a spontaneous reality is rendered as questionable as an impartial reading of a love letter.

Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany was on view from June 10 through September 23, 2007. The 52nd Venice Biennale,
Think with the Senses-Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense runs from June 16 through November 21, 2007.

1. All quotes from Documenta 12 are cited from the following publication: Robert Buergel and Ruth Noack, Documenta Kassel 16/06 - 23/09 2007. Cologne: Taschen, 2007.
2. Text from free brochure Think with the Senses-Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense, Introduction by Robert Storr. Venice: Fondazione
La Biennale de Venezia, 2007.
3. Text from wall label for Emily Jacir, Material for a Film, 2005-ongoing.
4. Robert Storr, Think with the Senses - Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2007. Page 38.