Is Modernity Our Antiquity? is the subtitle of one of the three leitmotifs that precede do cumenta 12, the five yearly event opening in June this year. Director Roger M Buergel primes the exhibition audience in this, the first of three magazines to be released in the run-up to the much-heralded show, although, at over 200 pages, this magazine looks and feels like a book. It consists of a collection of essays from over 70 worldwide publications, digital and in print, brought together to give a multicultural perspective on modernity, Life and Education establishing a rhetorical debate, pitched to stimulate discussion before and during the exhibition.
It is difficult to avoid post-structuralist word games when faced with ‘modernity’, as it has such a varied definition. It’s something Georg Schöllhammer cites with caution in the magazine’s editorial but, realistically, ‘Is Modernity Our Antiquity?’ is a question that has no definitive answer. If modernity refers to a period that is somehow, socially or otherwise, detached from its history, can it be antiquated when it only exists in the present? Separating the concept of modernity from its tangible artefacts may be the best way to understand how it is relevant now, in a increasingly globalised world—emphasised to varying degrees in each article.
Does Buergel pose ‘Modernity?’ in relation to Modernism, the most easily identifiable period of post-war modernity—exceptionally relevant to a town like Kassel, where documenta is held, as it was virtually levelled to the ground during WWII—and art’s inability to shake off the modernist white cube. This is an easier question to answer, as many of the articles refer to Modernism, providing examples that may encite future change. The articles scope in this respect is quite broad, with some, such as Helena Mattsson and Sven-Olvo Wallenstein’s, ‘acceptera! Swedish Modernism at the Crossroads’, focusing on the socio-political aspects that effected periods of modernity. Others profile artists such as Rasheed Araeen, for whom Modernity has played a great role. To this extent the magazine is successful in collecting geographically branded writers’ perspectives, but this does question the simplification of these complex topics. Boasting worldwide entries translated only into English and German ultimately questions who this publication is for.
With this in mind, these perspectives of modernity become narrower and their importance in relation to the ever increasing international nature of the art world, to less effect. It may have been easier to ask, post-conceptual art, whether it it possible to see modernity as being more than a concept. But if so, who is asked and who will benefit?
Buergel certainly succeeds in provoking debate. In the end, ‘Modernity?’ is a good question.
Steven Cairns is assistant editor of MAP