THE FEEL-GOOD DOCUMENTA: dOCUMENTA (13)
It could have been Zuccotti Park in downtown New York City, October 2011, despite the backdrop of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, a brilliantly white neoclassical building and its accompanying platz—green and pristine. Waiting in line to enter the Fridericianum, the heart of the Documenta exhibition, it was hard to ignore the tents nestled together on a corner of the manicured lawn. A makeshift community had been erected, equipped with a kitchen, a stage, and, at the locus of this camp, a communal table used for arts and crafts, eating and drinking. Scrawled in paint across the taut nylon of the tents were messages like “THE CONTEMPORARY IS ALWAYS TOO LATE, NEVER IN TIME.” These Occupy protestors set up camp outside the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, in the small city of Kassel, Germany, far from Occupy’s origin, to seemingly mark their disapproval of Documenta, one of the largest exhibitions of modern and contemporary art in the world. Occurring every five years, this international exhibition aims to take the pulse of contemporary art—but a greater goal is to present the state of the contemporary world at large, an objective this year’s Documenta impressively accomplishes.
The exhibition’s creative director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, a seasoned American-born curator and art critic currently based in Italy and New York, issued an official response to Occupy’s crashing of the exhibition, stating, “I welcome the movement in Friedrichsplatz, which has grown over the last weeks…It enacts the possibility of re-inventing the use of public space and appears to me to be in the spirit of the moment and in the spirit of Joseph Beuys who marked documenta and its history significantly, embodying another idea of collective decision making and political responsibility through direct democracy.” Christov-Bakargiev’s official sanctioning of Occupy’s presence indicates her profound recognition of how various places and times are interconnected, and, in fact, how this complex web is emblematic of our current condition. The connection between the historical precedent set by artist Joseph Beuys’s social and pedagogic endeavors and the contemporary moment is strong. In many ways, the living and breathing, expanding and contracting nature of Occupy’s presence at Documenta echoes Beuys’s famous statement written in 1973:
“Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art [to] provide evidence that art is now the only
evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the
deathline: to dismantle in order to build ‘A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART’… EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who—from his state
of freedom—the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand—learns to determine the other positions of the TOTAL ART WORK OF
THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER.”1
Although the Occupy movement doesn’t claim to be art, its presence at the exhibition brings its political discourse into a new realm. At many points in the exhibition these art/life boundaries are appropriately probed. Christov-Bakargiev’s and Beuys’s statements are rife with the pertinence of the social within the realm of art and are infused with the possibility for change, sentiments that reverberate throughout the exhibition despite pieces that highlight some of the most problematic subjects of the last century: World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, terrorism, the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, and global warming, to name a few. These conceptual currents are at times overly precious yet almost always sweep you away.
The ground floor galleries of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, the hub of the twenty-nine Documenta exhibition sites, are largely empty. In fact, in its entirety this Documenta is decidedly sparse, trading the typical barrage of clutter for streamlined poignancy. A robust breeze marks the entrance to the exhibition—a nearly imperceptible artwork by Ryan Gander—catching visitors in its gusts, creating a kind of guiding force through the space. Echoing through the halls is the exquisitely simple loop of Ceal Floyer’s tranquil voice singing, “Keep on till I keep on till I get it right.” Nearby, visitors crowd around the only vitrine in this empty hall, which contains a handwritten letter to Christov-Bakargiev from Kai Althoff, in which Althoff thoughtfully explains and apologizes for his inability to participate in this Documenta; for him, the pressure of this gigantic and significant exhibition was too great. Including this sweet rejection, this bare and honest admission, speaks to Christov-Bakargiev’s self-reflexive curatorial sensitivity. These humble, multisensory works create a resounding reminder of being alive—breathing, trying, failing, breathing, trying again. Although the messages in these rooms are heavy, Christov-Bakargiev’s touch somehow remains light.
All paths lead to the Fridericianum’s rotunda, a space Christov-Bakargiev titled “The Brain.” Waiting in line to enter “The Brain”—to preserve the intimacy and import of this space, occupancy is limited to a few visitors at a time—the faint sound of waves crashing, lightning cracking and thunder rumbling is heard overhead. These sounds seem to emulate energy flows, mimicking the synaptic pulses and transfer of information from the brain to the rest of the body and vise versa. All the different streams of thought throughout this exhibition begin and end in this brain. “The Brain” includes a vast range of objects, some ancient artworks and some new. The limestone, chlorite and steatite Bactrian Princess, a miniature figurine from a civilization of the late third and early second millennia BCE in Central Asia, might signify fragility, the seeming simplicity of the ancient, and the human penchant for creation. Several binaries are established in this space: new and old, natural and artificial, imitation and real. The delicate, zoomed-out and seemingly simple yet infinitely complex still life paintings by early twentieth-century Italian painter Giorgio Morandi are juxtaposed with the actual, tangible objects he painted. A hefty river stone sits next to its simulated twin—an exact copy of the stone made in Carrara marble by the artist Giuseppe Penone—punctuating the floor of the gallery. Sam Durant’s trompe-l’oeil sculpture of a bag of marble powder, carved from Carrara marble, appears as if it was just plopped on the floor. A wall of photographs by photojournalist and loose Surrealist associate Lee Miller depicts her posing in Hitler’s Munich apartment bathtub amongst an odd assortment of his personal artifacts, including a cologne bottle and a porcelain figurine of a nude woman. With these photographs in particular, their heavily staged and composed nature sits directly atop the gravity of their social, cultural, and political context, all ready to be exposed.
Throughout the rest of the Friedricianium, works like Mario Garcia Torres’s video-essay Have you Ever Seen the Snow? attempt to unearth hidden narratives and kindred histories. Garcia Torres’s piece is based around the One Hotel, located in Kabul, Afghanistan, and owned and operated by the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti from 1971 to 1977. The story of Boetti’s time in Kabul and the One Hotel stopped short in the late 1970s, however, leaving only a trail of pieces after the Soviet occupation of Kabul, the Taliban, and the subsequent US invasion. Looking closely at found photographs, deciphering every detail, Garcia Torres pieces together the story of the One Hotel, which serves as a metaphor for the difficult puzzle that is our collective past and present. As Garcia Torres narrates his video, stories are but fragments of other stories, changing over time, again and again.
Particularly interesting are the works that breach the permeable art/life divide. The Huguenot House, a dilapidated former apartment building and hotel, built in 1826 along the residential Friedrichstrasse in Kassel, is now home to young artists from around the world. The Chicago-based artist and activist Theaster Gates assumed responsibility for this crumbling house, which was heavily damaged in World War II, and invited able hands and minds to help rebuild it and to “make it sing.” The result is unexpected—a thoughtful fun house-cum-living-sculpture, constantly undergoing change. Indeed, people live there, now sharing in the responsibility for this house. Recycled building materials are ingeniously repurposed and often the distinction between artwork and wall, private space and communal, completely dissolve. Messages and to-do lists for the inhabitants, who eat breakfast and drink coffee unfazed as visitors walk through, are scribbled on doorframes, walls, and miscellany. “Cut hole for glass. Bathroom no vitrine. Don’t clean the bathroom. Leave dust and falling wallpaper.” Videos of individuals singing their hearts out are projected on torn and yellowed wallpaper, inside metal cabinets, and on televisions. The house is alive.
Other manmade sounds emanate from behind the Huguenot House. Just to the left of the building’s wet and muddy back courtyard is a black tunnel. The tunnel empties into a pitch-black room, in which one immediately collides with other momentarily blind visitors. Almost everyone has their hands outstretched feeling the air, attempting to substitute touch for sight—except for the performers who magically, and at first, invisibly, buzz and glide around their uncomfortable audience. It eventually becomes clear, through being writhed and breathed on, that there are over twenty young, forthright, fluid singer-dancers seamlessly moving through this dark space. They beat box a cappella versions of pop songs like Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” and even a censored version of the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song).” This energizing work is finely choreographed by artist Tino Sehgal, who has gained acclaim for his practice of breaking the proscenium between performer and viewer, even performance and art, art and life. The experience is smart, entertaining, and at times incredibly amusing.
The highlight of the exhibition is perhaps the Karlsaue Park, an enormous geometrically ordered Baroque pleasure garden. There, artworks hang from the trees, are stuck underground, submerged in water, or preserved in neat and small pavilions. Walking through the park, equipped with a map and an exhibition guidebook, the experience is much like a scavenger hunt. Stumbling upon artworks is often serendipitous. There are sounds of airplanes circling above, yet a glance upwards reveals a perfectly clear sky with no planes in sight. Following these disorienting sounds—the whirl of planes overhead, bombs dropping, gunfire, and choir singing—leads to a cathedral-like clearing in the woods—a sound experience created by artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller titled Forest (for a thousand years). Entering the forest, walking closer and closer to the source of these sounds, the atmosphere becomes cooler, darker, and more somber. Groups of people, with their eyes closed, heads bowed, sit in silence on small stumps. Like being guided through a dream, the sounds flow from mundane to chilling, creating a visceral history of this landscape. For roughly twenty minutes the life of this forest is experienced collectively. As the last bombs drop, a dirge is sung, and people walk back out, through the forest, and into the bright warmth of this sun-bathed park.
Where most large international contemporary exhibition surveys and art fairs leave one feeling somewhat helpless with the state of art and bombarded with the drives of the market, this year’s Documenta stimulates and energizes thoughts concerning the human condition. Individual works and the exhibition as a whole offered a general probing awareness, reflecting on the collective nature of our past and present. These works seem to transcend their “art-ness,” echoing in various magnitudes Beuys’s view on the potentiality of art’s social, evolutionary and revolutionary power. The exhibition sticks to the real, the social, the communal, and that felt good.
by Meredith Mowder
1. Caroline Tisdall, Art into Society, Society into Art, (London: ICA, 1974), 48.