Sunday, September 30, 2012

d(13): Huts and a tree

dOCUMENTA (13) was massive. It took over the entire city, including various museums, theater, public plazas, park, and the train station, with artworks by 200 artists from 50 countries. The main outdoor venue was Karlsaue Park, a 1.5km² Baroque garden that accommodated more than 40 pieces of the show. To my surprise, many of these works were photographs and videos housed in little prefabricated wooden huts scattered around the park. It didn’t make sense in an open-air context where the sky’s the limit for public art like large sculptures and site-specific installations. Plus, videos and films are the format that requires concentration and patience. Very few people would actually watch them in their entirety, especially at a massive exhibition like documenta.
Joan Jonas’s hut for her video installation

Some artists did take the concept of the freestanding hut and turned it into installations and even institutions. Japanese artist Shinro Ohtake attached objects and scraps onto a hut and made it a means of self-expression. Gabriel Lester created a curved tunnel to explore the moments of change and discovery. Mexican Pedro Reyes continued the Sanatorium he started for the Guggenheim’s Stillspotting NYC program. It was a utopian “temporary clinic” where visitors could sign up for free therapies for contemporary urban malaises: stress, loneliness, anxiety, etc. There were 8 sessions in the d(13) version of Sanatorium: the Museum of Hypothetical Lifetimes, Goodoo (the positive iteration of voodoo), Vaccine against Violence, Compatibility Test for Couples, Ex-Voto (to express gratitude), Philosophical Casino, Cityleaks, and Mudras (hand gesture expressions). Sam Durant’s subject was more intense. What looked like a playground pavilion or a viewing platform in the park was actually a reconstruction of multiple historically significant gallows, ranging from the Lincoln conspirators gallows to Saddam Hussein’s scaffold. They were stacked one on top of another and entangled within each other, forming a caustic anti-monument to the continuing history of death penalty.
Shinro Ohtake, MON CHERI: A Self-Portrait as a Scrapped Shed, 2012
Gabriel Lester, Transition 2012, 2012
Pedro Reyes, Sanatorium, 2011-ongoing
Sam Durant, Scaffold, 2012

There were other more site-specific works that took the park context seriously. Located at the far end of the Hirschgraben, one of the two radial canals, a distorted clock was installed by Anri Sala to emphasize the Karlsaue Park’s central-point-of-view layout. On the other canal the Küchengraben, Swiss artist Christian Philipp Muller built a bridge with standard units of pontoons rented from the THW (the German Technical-Relief Organization), typically used to cross waters in post-disaster situations. On these long narrow barges, he placed potted soil beds of various colorful Swiss chard, turning the floating pontoons into a small farm.
Anri Sala, Clocked Perspective, 2012
Christian Philipp Muller, Swiss Chard Ferry (The Russians
aren’t going to make it across the Fulda anymore)
, 2012

In the middle of Friedrichsplatz next to Karlsaue Park, Kristina Buch planted ideal food plants for indigenous butterfly species on a raised platform. Butterflies populated the flower island through the 100-day duration of d(13), and produced new butterflies, whose empty chrysalises were then collected by the artist and displayed in a glass vitrine at the entrance of the documenta-Halle. On the Karlswiese in front of the Orangerie, Chinese artist Song Dong created a 6m-high mound of lush tall grass and colorful flowers. The mound itself was nothing more then accumulated waste – layers and layers of rubble and biological garbage. Neon signs of Chinese characters on top said “Do for the sake of doing. Done for nothing. Do it even it’s for nothing.” Next to the mound, Massimo Bartolini embedded a rectangular pool into the grass. The water inside swayed rhythmically back and forth. There was obviously a mechanical system behind, but it still looked quite mysterious.
Kristina Buch, The Lover, 2012
Kristina Buch, The Lover, empty chrysalises
Song Dong, Doing Nothing Garden, 2010-12
Massimo Bartolini, Untitled (Wave), 1997-2012

The highlight of Karlsaue was probably Giuseppe Penone’s tree on an open lawn. Barren branches were magically holding aloft a heavy boulder. This seemingly impossible situation drew a big crowd around it. Take a closer look, the tree was actually a hyper-realistic sculpture made from bronze. Installed back in 2010, it was the very first artwork of d(13). It had a sister piece in Kabul, where Penone permanently intervened the growth of a tree by cutting a marble piece into its trunk. The natural and artificial parts would integrate as a holistic entity.
Giuseppe Penone, Idee di pietra (Ideas of Stone), 2003/2008/2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

d(13): Fly with the wind

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