Documenting DOCUMENTA: A haudenschildGarage Project with Matthew Schum

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In the Middle of the Middle / The Brain is a Rock

The rotunda in the Fridericianum serves as the nucleus or “brain” of Documenta 13, according to the curator. The metonymic drift begins here with late third- and early second-century B.C. figurines of the Bactrian Princess from Central Asia. These seated goddesses give a face and a shape to the central nervous system Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev had in mind. It is not so much a brain as an overarching notion that art is a telephoto lens through which history and the beliefs we implant in things jump between shapes. An object of primeval importance slowly but surely changes shape until it becomes the immaterial fetish of conceptual art.

Lawrence Weiner’s text-on-glass The Middle of the Middle of the Middle of points to an uncertain core of principles and perceptions that are as much a figment of reality as they were during the Bactrian Princess’ time. Our humanity has always been expressed by our fascination with objects, the installation suggests, or more specifically our ability to construct objects out of beliefs. Today, as cultures of consumers, we still embed knowledge into our objects, no matter how dumb. Superstitions have not gone away; they have been replaced by new mediums masking old religions and revealing emergent beliefs that require new placeholders. This was the timeline the rotunda-brain suggested for contemporary art as a conceptual repository for the modern and premodern worlds that came before it.

In this expanded sense, the rotunda is nonetheless an amazingly tight exhibition given that it spans 4,000 years of art history in a modest room.

The Bactrian Princesses in their vitrine

Lawrence Weiner ‘The Middle of The Middle of The Middle of’ before Giuseppe Penone’s ‘Essere fiume 6’

Wall texts reveal material details that allow for tangential connections. Such as when the soft green chlorite, limestone and lapis lazuli of the Bactrian Princesses share mineral predisposition with Sam Durant’s Marxist meditation, Calcium Carbonate (ideas spring from deeds and not the other way around). Taken from a seminal Italian socialist named Carlo Pisacane, the quote (etched on the sack of calcium carbonate) suggests the material world manipulates the artist, not the other way around.

Two nearby white stones, identical in appearance, by Giuseppe Penone contemplate the same determinism found in Durant’s sculpture and yet go a step further. If the medium gives the artist his ideas, then the creative act can be reduced to replicating a stone from a riverbed. In Essere fiume 6, the real and the fake are indistinguishable halves paying witness to each other. The artist’s age-old inability to reflect reality (or nature) has become another reified industrial product reproduced by the conceptual artist.

Sam Durant ‘Calcium Carbonate (ideas spring from deeds and not the other way around)’

Sam Durant ‘Calcium Carbonate (ideas spring from deeds and not the other way around)’

Material regressions live in both Tamás St.Turba’s Czechoslovak Radio 1968 and Judith Hopf’s crude masks. The former (from 1969) considers how messages can be made in an authoritarian environment. In such a space, a brick transmits the same amount of information as state controlled media (none). Yet in the hand of an activist, the brick may actually send a message depending on who wields it. Hopf’s masks duplicate the fascination with primitivism found in modern art, such as the paintings of Picasso and the works of various Surrealists, that we find revisited in the rotunda. Using packaging material from cell phones, these are a détournement von Breitenau according to the artist, referring to her other d13 work regarding a monastery that was later to become a concentration work and education camp. The ugliness of contemporary capitalism is made from containers that hold technology’s atomizing personal digital assistants. Hopf contrasts this cellular, “personal” existence to the privation of monks and sufferers of internment.

Hopf’s masks give “the brain” another face resembling a stone totem staring back at the viewer devoid of invitation or mimetic expression. In this work, the artist casts history as shadow faces made from trash  convening in a present moment that cannot have meaning until it is dislodged from the different forms of determinism that each object here relates about its own time.