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Sigmar Polke's The Axis of Time, at the Venice Biennale.  

In the Arsenale, Storr adopts a gambit I call “Curator As Anchorman.” Here, a curator in effect says, “Whenever there’s a problem in the world, I’ll be there.” Thus, we get photos of border guards, cemeteries, soldiers, slums, prisons, and refugees. Some of this work is okay. Most of it is overliteral. Several artists transcend the newsroom approach, especially Yang Zhenzhong, who’s showing a ten-screen video in which strangers look into his camera and say, “I will die.” This formally derivative but effective piece demonstrates that all types of certainty, be they curatorial, political, philosophical, or religious, will be undone by life in the end.

Speaking of which, there’s Documenta XII, in Kassel, Germany. English critics have called it “the worst art show ever” and “a disaster,” and this five-building, 150-artist, 19 million–euro extravaganza is flawed, haughty, despotic, and ego-tripping. Yet it does pose a polemic, which is one thing these cattle calls are good for. It’s too bad, then, that the husband-and-wife organizers, Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, so relentlessly control their idea that the show turns arrogant and dogmatic.

Composed mainly of conceptual, political, and quasi-formal work, much of it unfamiliar art from the late sixties and seventies, Documenta XII is a manifesto of the good, the bad, the overlooked, and the annoyingly academic. As at the two previous Documentas, the curators propose that when history is viewed from a non-mainstream angle, “otherness” will become a relative term. I will say that the show made me look at work that I don’t like in new ways, and for that I liked it, albeit with serious misgivings. Venice and Documenta are opposites: Venice is a show peppered with interesting art that isn’t really a biennial; Documenta is a semi-interesting biennial-type show composed mainly of so-so work. Both are exercises in extreme organization.

Sculpture Projects Münster, by contrast, is an exercise in organized chaos, like a late Fellini film. This once-a-decade outdoor show is organized by Brigitte Franzen and the brilliant, legendary German curator Kasper König, who stir things up the old-fashioned way: They invite artists to Münster, give each a bicycle and a map, and instruct each to pick a site and make a proposal. Then he and his amazing staff allow things to unfold as they will.

The resultant 35-artist show is uneven, of course. Among many standouts, however, are Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s petting-zoo-like installation of scaled-down works of other Münster artists, Mike Kelley’s actual petting zoo, Hans-Peter Feldmann’s sprucing up of two public restrooms, Guy Ben-Ner’s reconstructed bicycle project, Susan Philipsz’s haunting recorded aria under a bridge, and Pawel Althamer’s winding path through parks and fields. On this path to nowhere, quiet moments vie with anxiety, delivering the kind of friction and frisson these giant shows have the power to produce and demonstrating why they’re far from obsolete. If curators can embrace alchemy and uncertainty, they can turn these super-slick megaevents into zones of aberration, maps of the present, theaters of doubt, and palimpsests of perception. They can still produce pleasure, tension, surprise, and revelation.

Venice Biennale
Through November 21.

Documenta XII
Through September 23.

Sculpture Projects Münster
Through September 30.

E-mail: jerry_saltz@newyorkmag.com.


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