Documenting DOCUMENTA: A haudenschildGarage Project with Matthew Schum

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Breath of Modernism: Entering the Fridericianum

Few writings could capture the immediate sensation of entering the Fridericianum better than Richard Shiff’s “Breath of Modernism (Metonymic Drift)” ( published in In Visible Touch: Modernism and Masculinity, ed. Terry Smith, University of Chicago Press, 1998 ).

The “breath” in Shiff’s essay is a vacuous wind that follows modern art’s loss of autonomy. Once lost, art’s symbolic power becomes metonymic (or an indefinite series of replacements). The loss of aura unleashes meaning which drifts between images and artworks with an unconscious force. This rapid movement takes on the agency of humans due to our investment in symbolic systems, including artworks. A painting stands in for social experience and the microcosm of an exhibition momentarily re-stages history as activated images. Instead of the autonomous materiality that also gave art fixity, everything today is reproducible and therefore conceptually adrift.

“You breathe the object, Shiff writes, “the mountains you are viewing, you breathe this object like air, in and out. You assimilate bodily to the medium that allows vision to operate ( because the atmosphere is translucent ), but this medium also conveys something of the object’s physicality. The object’s physicality dissipates.” These are not mountains on the edge of a city or dotting a coastline, they are figments of representation assimilated by the artist and, eventually, the viewer. They conform to the record of perfection that informs memory, interpretation and allow art to form the communities that share its images of things, whatever they are.

In other words, Shiff frames the work of art as an act of psychological investment in visual art happening in the face of an immoderately visual world. A work of art is primarily a bodily act of consumption, not merely one artist’s product. In this sense, globally minded exhibitions ensure material objects and immaterial artworks substitute a sole perspective in an ever-expanding symbolic world in which contemporary art is only one agent or metonymic marketplace.

Entering the Fridericianum

A breeze filled the entryway

Nothing could have summed up Shiff’s theory of agency drifting between the experience of art and the worldly experience it records better than Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize ( The Invisible Pull ), which created a draft that blew between the entryway, three opening rooms, and the antechamber leading to the central exhibit in the rotunda. The engineered air trap felt noticeably artificial as it filled the exhibition space with Kassel’s damp continental air.

As the breeze passed through the crowd, floating in their hair and filling their open blazers, the outdoor climate that was transfused into the museum seemed to be a metaphor for the comings and goings of international avant-gardes that have over the years been exhibited in the Fridericianum. Gander’s piece also filled the Kunsthalle with the cold breeze of history. It carried with it an unconscious desire still palpable in this advanced EU nation to replace the dread of the past by restoring culture in the present.