Most European blockbuster shows happen every year: Milan Design Week, Art Basel… and the alternating art/architecture line-up makes Venice Biennale also an annual event. But documenta in Kassel is only once in five years. It sounded like a more precious experience that I couldn’t miss. So I went.
I walked in the Fridericianum – the heart of documenta since its inception in 1955 – with high expectations. Oddly, the ground floor was almost empty except a few small Julio González sculptures from the early documenta shows. In a smaller and also empty side room I saw dust and hair swirling in the corner. What was going on here? I pulled out my guidebook and read: “A light breeze is blowing through the Fridericianum’s entire ground floor… It’s not a strong wind, not immediately recognizable as artificial, but physical enough to create a moment of wonder in the viewer…” British artist Ryan Gander “takes care to avoid any ‘style’ or ‘signature’ as an artist, drawing instead from a deep pool of ideas that are manifested in a multitude of formal means and media… Gander’s rhizomatic system of perception allows for various entry points but resists conclusive interpretation. He deconstructs terms and definitions in both a linguistic and a formal sense, while at the same time frustrating our desire for full accessibility, comprehensibility, or performativity.” Oh yes, I did feel the gust of wind.
|Ryan Gander, I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull), 2012|
Upstairs, two dead flies were displayed in a glass vitrine. Sorry, I had to turn to my guidebook again. These two tsetse flies “are a fertile female and her sterile consort.” Thai artist Pratchaya Phinthong wanted to show “Africa’s epidemic disease, and how Europe and the rest of the world try to control the deadly tsetse fly in Africa.” “He studied this subject on an extensive research trip to Africa, mainly to Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Zambia… Together with local people he invests in simple, inexpensive traps with which tsetse populations can be monitored and effectively controlled…”
|Pratchaya Phinthong, Sleeping Sickness, 2012|
“Is this art?” I couldn’t help wondering. Joseph Beuys once said, “Everyone is an artist.” With dOCUMENTA (13), artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev declared, “Everything can be art.” Over the years, there has been more and more emphasis on the intangible dimension of art: conceptual, ephemeral, and even invisible. d(13) intensified and solidified this tendency and marked a milestone in the historic shift. It articulated the particular conditions of our time with four themes: on stage / under siege / in a state of hope / on retreat, expanding the format of art beyond the traditional physicality.
The rotunda of the Fridericianum – metaphorically named “The Brain” – showed where Christov-Bakargiev’s lines of curatorial thought came from. The semicircular space was packed with artworks and objects brought together to illustrate a concept. You see Man Ray’s “indestructible” metronomes, Judith Barry’s polyhedron model sketches, Giuseppe Penone’s pair of real and replica river stones, Tamás St. Turba’s Czechoslovak brick-radio suggesting the relationship between media and activism, and even objects that Lee Miller took from Hitler’s bathroom. They are objects beyond the object, something I may call “objects with long texts.” They rely heavily on narratives and you had to read to really understand the memories, “troubled histories,” and “shifting connotations” embedded in them.
|Man Ray, Object to be Destroyed / Object of Destruction / Indestructible Object, 1932-71|
|Tamás St. Turba, Czechoslovak Radio, 1968|
|Giuseppe Penone, Essere fiume 6, 1998|
Outside of the Fridericianum, the theme got a bit looser in the satellite venues. But you still found traces of the same thoughts. In Ottoneum, Kassel’s natural history museum, I saw piles of rammed ingot forms laid out in a room. “Soil-erg,” as it was called, was actually “a form of currency that anyone can make by composting,” created by American artist Claire Pentecost as “a sustainable alternative to the petro-dollar.” The idea was further demonstrated with a vertical farm in the garden. In the industrial spaces behind Hauptbahnhof, Christodoulos Panayiotou brought in utility poles from Cyprus. They were “recently removed from Odos Anexartisias (Independence Street), the central commercial street of Limassol, as part of the general gentrification and ‘urban development’ plans for the city.” He removed the cables, laid down the stripped wooden poles horizontally on the floor. “Displaced, dysfunctional and disaffected, these objects summarize a series of charged layers. They indicate, among other strata, the end of chapter in the illumination of the modern city, and the specific use of wooden poles for the communication of information.”
|Claire Pentecost, Soil-erg, 2012|
|Christodoulos Panayiotou, Independent Street, 2012|
The intangible side of art is often quite political. It’s even more intense in documenta because of its weighty history. When the first documenta was organized by Arnold Bode in 1955, it was meant to eradicate “the cultural darkness of Nazism” and simultaneously establish Germany as a participant in the modern art world. The art show was set up in a city heavily destroyed by bombs during WWII, and war and conflicts has been a constant theme here since the beginning. This time, Kader Attia juxtaposed sculptures of European soldiers who were injured and deformed during WWI and African objects that had been repaired with visible mends. Creating a strong sensual and physical experience, the installation asked “the fundamental questions about the different ethical and aesthetical concepts of ‘repair,’ the Western illusion of perfection and post-traumatic healing.” Inspired by a press photo in 1933 in which a Nazi officer trapped a donkey in a barbed wire fence – a symbolic “concentration camp for stubborn citizens” in Kassel, Croatian artist Sanja Iveković created an installation in the Neue Galerie with stuffed toy donkeys tagged with names of icons who defied injustice and oppression in the 20th and 21st centuries, including Martin Luther King, Walter Benjamin, Che Guevara, Bobby Sands, Jan Palach, Rosa Luxemburg, and Ahmed Basiony. This almost Damien Hirst-like vitrine/shelves piece tackled a serious topic with an ingenious touch of humor.
|Kader Attia, The Repair, 2012|
|Sanja Iveković, The Disobedients (The Revolutionaries), 2012|
This year, documenta expanded to other locations including Kabul in Afghanistan, a country the West is currently at war with, and Alexandria-Cairo in Egypt, which had been centers of recent revolutions and conflicts. The interest in Kabul, at least for Christov-Bakargiev, came from the One Hotel inhabited by Alighiero Boetti from 1971 to 1977, when he made his series of embroidered tapestries of the world map in collaboration with Afghan and Pakistani women. The first Mappa was meant to be in documenta 5 in 1972, but it was delivered late. 40 years later at dOCUMENTA (13), Mappa (1971) was finally brought to the Fridericianum, alongside exhibits by Mexican artist Mario Garcia Torres on his search for the physical location of the One Hotel in Kabul. On the second floor of the Rotunda, Goshka Macuga’s large tapestry was hung on the curved wall. This one portraying a banquet in Kabul made a pair with the other one with an image of an award ceremony in Kassel, currently hung on a similar curved wall at the parallel d(13) venue in Kabul. A higher concentration of Afghan art was in the former Elisabeth Hospital. One of the most impressive was Zalmaï’s photo documentary on how war-related objects had become part of people’s everyday life in Afghanistan.
|Alighiero Boetti, Mappa, 1971|
|Goshka Macuga, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that is not, #1, 2012|
|Zalmaï, Ghost War: Playing with Empires|
Of course, there were also some more “traditional” artworks at dOCUMENTA (13) that I didn’t need my guidebook to appreciate. It was fun to watch Llyn Foulkes fulfilling his childhood dream of a one-man band by playing on a set of homemade instruments with old-fashioned car horns. Maria Martins’s powerful anthropomorphic bronze sculptures and Hassan Khan’s glass knot created high contrast in the Neue Galerie. There was also Geoffrey Farmer’s installation of a five-decade timeline (1935-1985) using pictures cut from Life magazine. In the documenta-Halle, Thomas Bayrle’s installation reunited works from several periods of his career, including an airplane collage made up of thousands of small photos, an enormous wall piece made of cardboard, and the kinetic car engine sculptures. Indian artist Nalini Malani created her “video/shadow play” with dramatic projections and shadows cast by images of mythical figures and creatures reverse-painted on five transparent cylinders that revolved like Buddhist prayer wheels.
|Llyn Foulkes, The Machine, instrument made in 1979|
|Maria Martins, O impossivel, 1945 (front)|
|Hassan Khan, The Knot, 2012|
|Geoffrey Farmer, Leaves of Grass, 2012|
|Thomas Bayrle, Carmageddon|
|Nalini Malani, In Search of Vanished Blood, 2012|
Simple but powerful works by artists from less dominant cultures were quite refreshing in the narrative-heavy context of d(13). But maybe the inclusion of them was already a statement. Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich presented several wall-relief assemblages consisting of a three-dimensional box frame in bamboo, stretched cloth, soils around Cambodia and layers of local beeswax. It was quite touching to see his almost spiritual communication with materials. Similarly moving were paintings by Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri and Doreen Reid Nakamarra, two Aboriginal artists from Papunya Tula Artists company in Australia. They took inspirations from traditional body and sand paintings associated with ceremony in the Western Desert. The results were dazzling fields of patterning that expressed their cultural heritage like Abstract Expressionist paintings.
|Sopheap Pich, Seven Parts Relief, 2012|
|Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Untitled, 2012|
|Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Untitled|