Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Documenta 12 asks, "Is modernity our antiquity?" MZL wonders, or is it our Hotel California?

In deliberating the first of three leitmotifs posed by the Documenta team, "Is modernity our antiquity?", I've left little doubt in recent posts my feeling that modernity has come to its rightful end, just as antiquity did well before it, but the broader and more relevant question remains, have we actually escaped modernity or has it become our inescapable Hotel California? (At least not hearing the Eagles sing it again is escapable. I've chosen here a version by the Gypsy Kings while you ponder the question for 5 minutes, 47 seconds.)

Antiquity may be the basis of much that we in the West do and believe in, but it is not a universal paradigm, to the extent that modernity is. Every culture not only experiences a varying degree of impact from Western antiquity, but posseses its own distinct antiquity to reference as well. On the other hand, dead or alive, modernity remains as ubiquitous and unrelenting a force as ever across all the world's cultural boundaries (discussed in my previous posts), however late it might have arrived to some.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

What is bare life? Was ist das bloße Leben?

Johann Dieter Wassmann, Nietzsche 306P, 1897. 370 x 280 x 100 mm.

In recent posts I've been examining the first of three leitmotifs posed by the Documenta 12 team, "Is modernity our antiquity?" If I may, I'd like to skip ahead to the second question for a moment, "What is bare life?" as further means of addressing the first.

In 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown, often attributed to his contraction of syphilis, resulting in his admission to various clinics before he was moved to Naumburg, where his mother looked after him until her death in 1897. At this point his sister Elisabeth shifted him to Weimar, where she continued his care, as well as promoting his legacy and allowing the occasional audience with guests until his death in 1900.

It was in Weimar that Johann Dieter Wassmann briefly visited Nietzsche, but finding only a shell of a man he returned home to produce this work, depicting simply and eloquently the empty collar of the man, an organ stop with the name 'Nietzsche' printed on it, and an opium-stained bone apothecary spoon; a life stripped bare. These objects are placed against a dappled blue wall, reflecting Nietzsche's penchant for blue-lensed spectacles.

Johann's ability to take the contemporary moment of his visit with Nietzsche and so confidently convert it into the iconography of modernism speaks legions about the raw vitality of the modern movement at the dawn of the 20th century. In no time, however, modernity fell victim to the second law of thermodynamics, with entropy holding sway, but it was not until the close of the century that we realised the paradigm had simply collapsed en route.

Today it is essentially modernity stripped bare that we address as artists and curators, an ongoing post-mortem of abject failure. So in this sense is modernity our antiquity? The answer is not so clear.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Is modernity our antiquity? A video reply.

In tackling the question, "Is modernity our antiquity?" posed by the Documenta 12 team, I thought it might do, while we're still in the early stages of our discussion, to offer the podium to the Monty Python gang for a short reply with their immortal sketch Art Gallery.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Is modernity our antiquity? A prologue.

In the first of a series, we invite writers to comment on the three leitmotifs posed by the Documenta 12 team. Here, Abigali von Bibra provides a short prologue to the question: Is modernity our antiquity? Abigail von Bibra teaches linguistics in Paris. She is writing a history of Prussian gender roles.

Every generation has its defining moments. The death of a leader. The collapse of commerce. The emergence of a nation from war. In due course, these events come to form a special kind of ground zero for the generations that follow. The chronicle of these and still lesser events falls together in what is at best a connect-the-dots manner, with one event crudely linked to the next. The picture that emerges is our skeletal image of history -- a working sketch held in general agreement upon which ‘definitive’ histories are then forged (yes, a double entendre). With these simple drawings in hand, the interpreters get down to business, over-painting their canvases in rich hues of red or yellow or white or black or whichever colour -- in whatever form and density -- the interpreter’s school of thought believes is relevant amid the cross-currents and undertows of the era. In this fashion, a portrait of history comes into being, with no two quite the same.

The Battle of Leipzig is one such defining moment, not just for Napoleon and Europe, but as well for three generations of Saxon cabinet-makers whose lives spanned the 19th century. The latter of the three -- Johann Dieter Wassmann – would come to pioneer early German modernism, but it is The Battle of Leipzig that most clearly informs his craft. These art works are boxed curiosities, falling somewhere between wunderkammern and Joseph Cornell, but what Johann’s boxes house are the anxieties of an era in which changes in science, medicine, industry and political philosophy have moved beyond the salons of noblemen and academics, engulfing the very real lives of the peasantry and guild classes.

Through this collection of boxes -- a collection which was once exhibited under the title ‘Bleeding Napoleon’ -- a portrait emerges in which we see a man not overly rapt with all that was taking place around him. Circumstance and good fortune made him witness to the worst and best the century had to offer, but the works themselves reflect a more focused concern. From the busy playfulness of his early pieces, to the spare elegance of his final efforts, these ‘worlds in a small room,’ as one critic has called them, are tinged with regret for what Johann perceived as the senseless separation of space (read here as Nature) from time, an apprehension that is no less endemic to our own age.

The Battle of Leipzig is an ominous moment on which to build a narrative, but it is a widely shared narrative, so much so that numerous writers and historians through the years have posited this catastrophic battle as the birth of modernity itself.

Book-ended by Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign the previous winter, and his defeat at Waterloo two years later, the battle is sometimes brushed past as a mere footnote on the road to Napoleon’s defeat. It was a bit more than that: this three-day engagement in 1813 was the greatest and bloodiest single battle of the 19th century. Never before in the history of mankind and never again until the First World War did half a million troops come face to face on the battlefield. The build-up began in the early weeks of October, the French and Allied armies assembling along a sixteen mile front east and southeast of the city. On the 16th of the month the first shots were fired; 72 hours later, Napoleon and his few remaining troops were fleeing for Paris. During this bat of an eye, 94,000 combatant casualties were incurred and 30,000 French troops were taken prisoner -- half on the battlefield, the remainder plucked from the hospitals of Leipzig. In addition, untold civilian casualties were inflicted by the vagaries of artillery used so close to an urban population.

If there had been any doubt previously, there was little doubt by 19 October 1813 that the modern era was fully upon us.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Q: Is modernity our antiquity? A: Like dah, Roger.

Pictured: recent restoration work at the Bauhaus, Dessau. Photo: Sophie Vogt.

In the first of their three leitmotifs, Documenta 12's co-directors Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack pose the question: Is modernity our antiquity? In a weighty TASCHEN mag just out titled Modernity? they ask magazine editors from around the world to pursue this question as it relates to their own cultural and historical circumstance.

To quote from the editorial to the first issue of the magazine: Which Modernity and whose Antiquity?, "The history of modernity can be told in many different ways. The authors featured in this issue therefore write about specific, local modernities, trace their dislocated or interrupted developments, explore counter- or parallel models of modernity in which undeveloped or unintended transitions and unexpected connections between spaces and practices come to light."

As an institution devoted to furthering our understanding of one of great pioneers of the early modernist movement -- Johann Dieter Wassmann -- we will be pursuing this question ourselves in coming weeks here on the MuseumZeitraum blog, while looking at the relevance of such questions in the context of our current post-colonial era.

Readers comments are willkomen!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Documenta 12... at your newstand now!

Last week I attended the launch at Vienna's Secession of Documenta 12's first magazine, Modernity?, not to be confused with Modern Maturity in case your news agent just looks at you clueless. If he doesn't already have it right up there next to Architectural Digest, you may need to explain to him that as the platform for this year's D12, artistic director Roger M. Buergel (pictured centre) and his partner Ruth Noack are using the medium of the magazine to prefigure three questions -- or leitmotifs as they describe them -- that the exhibition itself will address this summer in Kassel:

Is modernity our antiquity?
(Ist die Moderne unsere Antike?)
What is bare life?
(Was ist das bloße Leben?)
What is to be done?
(Was tun?)

If he's still not impressed, you might add that ninety-one editors from around the world were asked to respond to these questions, with this handsome tome published by TASCHEN the result. The latter two questions will be explored in the next two issues, Life! and Education, which he should be ordering for display in April and May, respectively.

MuseumZeitraum Leipzig will also be weighing into the debate in the coming months, so do stayed tuned for that cherished, if a little out-of-kilter perspective you've all come to know and love.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

This week in Wolfsburg

"For me, painting means the continuation of dreaming by other means," Neo Rauch tells Jan Thorn-Prikker of the Goethe-Institut in an online interview just out. While some might think the New Leipzig School's 15 minutes are up -- or oughtta be -- Thorn-Prikker does a nice job of bringing us up-to-date on the occasion of Neo's show at the Wolfsburg Art Museum (current until 11 March). Image: Neo Rauch, Regal 2000, courtesy Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg.