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AT FIRST SIGHT

MING LIN | DATE 7/8/2011

Documenta Notebooks: Ian Wallace, The First Documenta, 1955

Ian Wallace is well versed in the power of the image. Often recognized as the father of the Vancouver School of conceptual photography, which includes renowned artists such as Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham, he has pioneered a style that employs and critiques the tropes of mass media, often by way of reference to pop culture and contemporary events. These artists seek to apply the tools of conceptual art to photography in hopes of instigating social change. Jeff Wall's photos, for example, recall cinematic tableaux but are host to less romantic themes such as changing demographics in cities and suburban dystopias. Wallace’s works, which often meld painting and photography, contemplate the dual identity of the artist as both the passive observer and, conversely, authoritative documentarian of society.
Befitting his interest in the social impact of visual culture, Wallace's contribution to 100 Notes is a thorough history of the Documenta Festival itself, as well as a lesson on the socio-historical narratives that underpin aesthetics. The festival, which debuted in 1955 in Kassel, Germany, can be seen as an attempt to redress the wounds of the country’s recent past. Arnold Bode and Werner Haftman, chief curators of the festival, sought to reinsert German artists onto the international stage by delineating the history of modern art from a distinctly German perspective. While socialist realism had been the dominant art form during the Nazi regime, the festival, in an effort to break completely with this dark period, chose to omit this body of work completely. Modernism in Germany took the form of abstraction. Theodor Adorno contended that art could only speak of social truth if it was “autonomously created.” Whereas realism implied conformity and domineering ideologies, Wallace shows how abstraction--free from the figure and the constraints imposed upon it--offered flight into the inner spirit. Redemption would require the “negation of the object.” By disassociating the image from politics, art could claim its autonomy.

The Nazi regime, Wallace argues, had taught the viewer to regard art in ideological terms. In a re-emerging capitalist society, abstraction ultimately found itself absorbed into consumer culture. Its “relaxed, tumbling, exciting colors” were incorporated into product designs, propelling the average German household into the modern era. Wallace notes this as a necessary step in the process of “redemption, reconciliation, and reintegration.” The Documenta festival, as its name suggests, served to document these events.

An interesting development in Germany's attempts to come to peace with its past has been the ascent of the anti-monument. Inconspicuous in size and shape, these silent structures speak volumes about the Nazi era but offer little by way of absolution. There is no opportunity for the viewer to project and forget, instead a constant dialogue is maintained. Wallace is keenly aware of the hand art has in reshaping the social landscape. In Germany, the Documenta festival has and continues to be, in Haftman's own words: “not only a convenient pretense for aesthetic discussion and information, but equally a means of becoming acquainted with inner proceedings and their solution.” Like the anti-monument, Documenta seeks not to conclude these stories, but to continue and make use of their messages.
Documenta Notebooks: Ian Wallace, The First Documenta, 1955
Documenta Notebooks: Ian Wallace, The First Documenta, 1955
Documenta Notebooks: Ian Wallace, The First Documenta, 1955
Documenta Notebooks: Ian Wallace, The First Documenta, 1955
Documenta Notebooks: Ian Wallace, The First Documenta, 1955
Documenta Notebooks: Ian Wallace, The First Documenta, 1955
Documenta Notebooks: Ian Wallace, The First Documenta, 1955
Documenta Notebooks: Ian Wallace, The First Documenta, 1955

Ian Wallace: The First Documenta, 1955

Ian Wallace: The First Documenta, 1955

HATJE CANTZ
Pbk, 7 x 9.75 in. / 40 pgs / 1 color.



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