“The Mail & Guardian‘s Percy Zvomuya spoke to controversial photographer Zanele Muholi, ahead of the start of Germany’s prestigious contemporary art festival,
Geoffrey Farmer’s hallway long piece Leaves of Grass cut from five decades of Life Magazine on view now as part of Documenta 13
Julie Mehretu at the documenta-Halle
An artwork featuring live bees, created by French artist Pierre Huyghe.
Her “head writhes with bees, like thoughts buzzing,” writes Adrian Searle Photograph: Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images.
Theaster Gates Hugenot Kassel project
Thomas Bayrle installation
Shinro Otake Mon Cheri: A Self-Portrait as a Scrapped Sheld(2012)
Shinro Otake Mon Cheri: A Self-Portrait as a Scrapped Sheld(2012)
Anri Sala Clocked Perspective(2012)
Thea Djordjadze As sagas sa(2012)
Thea Djordjadze As sagas sa(2012)
Pierre Huyghe Untitled(2011-12)
Pierre Huyghe Untitled(2011-12)
Joan Jonas Reanimation (In a Meadow)(2010-12)
Joan Jonas Reanimation (In a Meadow)(2010-12)
Carol Bove Flora’s Garden (2012)
Lee Miller in Hitler’s bath, Munich, 1945.
Hannah Ryggen, Documenta 13.
Korbinian Aigner “Apples,” 1912–1960s.
Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012.
Joan Jonas, Reanimation (In a Meadow), 2010–12.
Thea Djordjadze, As sagas sa, 2012.
9Etel Adnan “Utitled,” 1959–2010.
Charlotte Salomon “Leben? Oder Theater? Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theater? A Play with Music),” 1941–42.
Manfred Kielnhofer’s Time Guards
A stunning painting (oil on canvas) by Rudolf Stingel as part of Art Unlimited at Art Basel in Switzerland on view until June 17 of this month.
- Today at 2:00 PM
Jerry Saltz: Eleven Things That Struck, Irked, or Awed Me at Documenta 13
Documenta is the biggest of the art world’s big regularly scheduled biennials, triennials, and international group exhibitions — the whale of them all, with more than 200 artists and scores of exhibition sites. Held every five years in the out-of-the-way German city of Kassel, it’s also seen as the most “serious.” Its curators are often super-brainy mandarin globe-trotting movers-and-shakers. (During the opening press conference last week, at a moment when a breath of relaxed lightness crept in, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev reprimanded the crowd saying, “No. This is serious, you know. This is Documenta.”) My review of the show will be in the print magazine next week. Till then, here’s a quick list of good, bad, and very bad things about Documenta 13. Read it, weep, retch, or wag your finger — at me or anyone you like.
1. Like many of her academic ilk, Documenta 13 curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev seems hostile to art’s old unruly cave creature, painting. Unless it’s painting by older, unknown, overlooked, or dead artists. Or painting by or about people from third-world countries. Before her show Christov-Bakargiev crowed that her Documenta would have “not much painting.” At least she’s upfront about it. But she also carried out a revenge scenario, sequestering most of the remaining painters in a single large building, the Documenta-Halle. Hanging like-unto-like all but negated painting’s power as one of the greatest tools ever invented by human beings to imagine and depict the world. As I walked through this dead zone, I thought, “This is where painting goes to die.”
2. Most big international shows find curators acting like modern-day conquistadors, colonizing as much space as possible. At Documenta, they’ve occupied ballrooms, bars, stores, hospitals, parking garages, train stations, movie theaters, museum wings, department store windows, bakeries, youth libraries, and mosques. Countless structures, huts, and houses have been constructed in Kassel’s beautiful Karlsruhe Park. The visitor’s experience turns into a combination truffle hunt, forced march, and wild goose chase. Without a map, you’re dependent on luck; if you don’t stumble on things, you’re up a creek. As if these empire dreams weren’t enough, parts of the show are located in Banff, Alexandria, and Kabul. I would imagine that more people saw Damien Hirst’s eleven-country dot-painting show than will see the whole of Documenta.
3. Artists and curators at these shows always say they’re against the sterility of the gallery. Yet as soon as numerous artists here were given the opportunity to construct their own buildings in the park, many mindlessly made what they say they hate: walk-in black boxes where they screened videos about war, peace, revolution, social suffering, science, politics, ecological disaster, or some idiotic observation they made riding a bus. Or they constructed little white-cube spaces to show their derivative sculptures, assemblage, and Relational Aesthetics pieces about how bad white cubes are. Nothing’s gonna change their worlds.
4. Then there’s the endlessly idiotic “anti-market” stance of many curators and artists involved with shows like this. Documenta 13 likely cost over $15 million. Artists are brought in; so are assistants, sometimes more than once. They make work that no individual person without a gigantic budget and enormous space could possibly afford, buy, or install. This is art only for the .01 percent. Yet this ultra-funded institutional crowd constantly crows that it is “outside the market” and that it is “anti-market.” Please. Selling to an insular, hyper-rich clique is as commercial as it gets.
5. Something really annoyed me in the lead-up to this Documenta that’s becoming commonplace at these giant shows. The official list of artists was not released until the day the show opened. The control-freak secrecy is an attempt to create a mystique; it’s an egregious disservice to the artists in the show, turning them into freaks under a sheet. It also means that those of us who don’t have our travel tabs paid for can’t make informed decisions about whether to show up at all. Curators should simply have the courage of their convictions, making it clear up front what kind of show they’re putting on. If people prejudge an event because of the list, well, that’s their problem.
6. Christov-Bakargiev claimed to have gone outside the market to select her participants. Yet more than a third of the artists represented by the Marian Goodman Gallery are in her show. Many of the others included here are the same artists who show up in all these international wing-dings. If you’re going to turn the page, then turn the page.
7. A big unnamed influence in this show is the film Apocalypse Now. I can’t tell you how many ruins, overgrown structures, blown-up craters, rural-villages, huts, return-to-nature scenarios, and shacks in the woods I saw at Documenta. It’s a Neo-Romanticism, not unlike the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century, with many of the same concerns and tics: the urge to escape society, the desire for a return to a simpler state, discomfort with the present, a preoccupation with the future, homesickness, the feeling that one is living in end or momentous times. All this is cool. I’m just saying we’ve seen this movie before.
8. A number of things at Documenta 13 that weren’t art took my breath away, in ways that turned into art. A label next to a small lovely nondescript landscape made in 2011 by Mohammad Yusuf Asefi made me love the bravery, caring, and creativity embedded in this work. It explained that in Kabul in the nineties and 2000s, Asefi carefully (and reversibly) painted over the figures in landscapes owned by the National Gallery of Kabul, saving about 80 paintings from destruction by the Taliban. I was stopped in my tracks. I loved how Mark Dion’s work merged seamlessly with life in the two additions he fashioned for Kassel’s landmark Wood Library. Here I sensed obsession, art, science, joy, and imagination fuse. I watched an elaborate lecture-diatribe-descent into psychosis by Walid Raad, as he wove together a real-life story of an art-world pension scheme, the unfathomable wealth of Abu Dhabi, and how new forms are constantly appearing if only we would notice them. Raad, before my eyes, transformed the form of the lecture into Borges by way of Kafka, Spalding Grey, Joseph Beuys, hallucinations, geometry, and fiendish imagination.
9. Someone told me that they’d heard artist Lawrence Weiner at the exposition saying “I’m still looking for something that changes my world.” I could have told Weiner that not ten feet from his own pretty good Documenta contribution, in the rotunda of the Fridericianum, nine stone figures made in Afghanistan around 4,500 years ago were the most powerful forms in the entire show. They blew me away with their loving attentive masterful detail, scale, feel for material, line, shape, density, body-language, nobility, and individuality. These figures altered my internal world forever and are now permanently installed in my inner-museum, reverberating with all the other objects there. But I didn’t tell Weiner, because I’m sort of afraid of his intelligence, and of the way he always has a coat draped over his shoulders like it’s a cape.
10. I saw an exorcism at Documenta 13. Lee Miller’s black-and-white picture of herself in Hitler’s Munich bathtub was taken in 1945, immediately after the war, and published in British Vogue. Miller’s dirty boots are up against the outside of the tub. You feel her coming into this space of phobia, psychosis, and banality; having no choice but to violate it, destroy it with life, merge with evil, wash it and herself away, letting a part of herself go down the drain with history.
11. After looking at a young woman sitting alone at a table for the longest time, I approached her and said, “Are you a piece of sculpture?” According to my checklist, outside the Orangerie, somewhere along this long graceful terrace of restaurants and cafés, there was a work by Ryan Gander. My checklist said, “An actor/actress sits in a cafe … working on a screenplay about … Hollywood.” I spent twenty minutes watching everyone. Which really must have been a sight: a haggard-looking older American man wearing his wife’s hat to protect his balding head from the sun and rain, carrying two shoulder bags filled with catalogs, pamphlets, books, notepads, extra jackets, two umbrellas, and sandwiches made at the hotel that morning, staring at the chic Documenta visitors. That’s when I spied that elegant woman sitting alone with a glass of wine, writing in a notebook. “There it is,” I thought. After I asked if she was a piece of sculpture she looked up at me surprised, and very quietly said, “Bitte Schritt entfernt.” I don’t speak German, but figured she was saying, “You are right.” I’d done it! I’m so good at this! I thought! I told everyone I met “I found the Ryan Gander!” Later my wife asked what she said and then told me, “The woman was asking you to please step away.” Art is long. So is embarrassment.
Friday, June 08, 2012
dOCUMENTA (13) DAY 1, KASSEL, GERMANY
|Theaster Gates, 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, 2012
dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany
|Theaster Gates, 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, 2012
dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany
Artist: Haegue Yang
Venue: Hauptbahnhof, Documenta 13, Kassel
dOCUMENTA (13): Highlights from Kassel
Spreading across the central German city of Kassel, dOCUMENTA (13) covers equally wide territory. Devoted to a host of concerns, the general tone of the project produces encounters with conflict, repetition, idealism and withdrawal. In bite-size form, the intention behind curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s program seems to be an inclusion of the marginal and a provision of testing grounds for the cohabitation of alternative knowledge systems. The project concedes to a lack of cohesion, preferring to emphasize the relationships developing between works rather than a completed world view. The effect is uneven at times, and unfortunately a number of projects seem redundant. But when the work is good, it is very, very good. A reductive list of highlights cannot encompass the sheer breadth of exceptional work to be seen. Nonetheless, these are six projects not to be missed.
|A view of Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer’s work at dOCUMENTA (13) / photo Scott Rogers|
The subtle and splendidly installed exhibition The End of Summer by Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer is as sharp as it is mysterious. Gently winding through a disused office building near the old central train station, the project offers a labyrinthine unfolding of rooms populated with historical artifacts, bookworks, texts, photographs, plinths, films and framed cuttings from books. There is a distinctly nostalgic sensibility in each of the items, evoking a past that is only approachable indirectly. It is as if we are looking through a not-so-distant time towards a more ancient and unknowable one. Both intermingle with our present to position us at a remove: a museum of a forgotten museum. The result is a minimal, conceptually dense, generous experience, one that becomes Borgesian with its rebus-like dimensions.
|Walid Raad’s installations large and small at dOCUMENTA (13) / photo Scott Rogers|
Raad is best known for his earlier works as the Atlas Group, a project devoted to the machinations of the Lebanese civil war. His more recent project here is Scratching on Things I Could Disavow, a selection of sculpture, image, video and performance works examining art in the Arab world. The exhibition itself is powerful and complex, moving between wry humour, speculation and a devoted attempt to address the position of Arab art today. Particularly important is the movement from marginalization to epicentre, positions analyzed through the economics of Arab artists, Arab states and world art markets. A centrepiece of the exhibition is the miniature gallery that Raad constructed to house some of his earlier Atlas Group artworks. These artworks have mysteriously shrunk, as the artist points out during an hour-long performative walk-through of the exhibition. These walk-throughs are as compelling and rhetorical as any performance/lecture I’ve seen. Raad is a consummate public speaker, drawing his audience in with disarming wit and ease. It isn’t until you’re already hooked that you realize the intricate net he has woven around you.
|A view of Hannah Rickards’ Birdsong installation at dOCUMENTA (13) / photo Scott Rogers|
Situated in Karlsaue Park, far away from the hubbub of the main attractions, there is a small hut built above the water in one of the park’s canals. This old wooden building contains The Worldly House, an archive related to Donna Haraway’s ideas of multi-species co-evolution. The archive is compiled by Tue Greenfort and covers a vast array of Haraway’s thoughts and influence on art and animal/human relations. Haraway scholars and neophytes alike could spend the entirety of dOCUMENTA (13) in just this little space. There is a plethora of books and documents to peruse as well as an online archive. A particular highlight is the work Birdsong by Hannah Rickards. The audio piece is installed in a separate antechamber in the building, where the floor is replaced by the water of the canal. Fish can be seen swimming below. A text projected on the wall informs us that the birdsongs we hear are actually recordings of the artist singing. Rickards changed the pitch of the original songs, learned to sing the songs at that pitch, and then changed the recording of her singing back to the pitch of the original songs. It’s a tricky work, but in this location the result is a blending of outside and inside and a peaceful co-becoming through voice.
|Etel Adnan’s paintings at dOCUMENTA (13) / photo Scott Rogers|
The documenta-Halle is a large, oddly shaped building near the centre of Kassel. The exhibitions inside are mostly disappointing, save for an exceptionally strong collection of works by the writer and artist Etel Adnan. Adnan’s paintings stand out across dOCUMENTA (13) for their calm palette and lightness of touch. Here, there is a sense of meditation, of a slow concerted reflection. The subject of the paintings is Mount Tamalpais, a mountain near San Francisco that the artist has painted repeatedly during her lifetime. The immediate reminder is of Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire, although here colour emerges as dominant, with the compositions taking on increasingly simplified and formal arrangements. A tapestry work of unusual beauty is also presented in the space. One could spend hours here, far from the madding crowds of more spectacle-driven projects.
|One of the objects in the Erkki Kurenniemi project at dOCUMENTA (13) / photo Scott Rogers|
The Orangerie venue is itself a sight to behold. The collection of this museum covers early optics, cybernetics and scientific instruments amongst other attractions. Tucked away in its vast collection is In 2048, a small project compiling works by Finnish artist, experimental musician, student of nuclear science and all-around polymath Erkki Kurenniemi. The exhibition design leaves much to be desired, but the overwhelming content is impressive, bringing attention to this significant pioneer of electronic technology. On a long wall of flat screens we watch various scenes recorded by the artist during his day-to-day activities over the last 40 years. Far from a self-involved autobiographical process, Kurenniemi sees this personal documenting as a “backup” of his life. In the future he hopes that when human and machine consciousnesses are united (in 2048) they will be able to reconstruct aspects of the 20th century through his archive. A smattering of interactive instruments are also available to play, alongside a robot shaped like a wonky, disembodied human head, two fascinating documentaries on Kurenniemi, and a large case displaying his notes, personal documents and smaller experiments with computers.
|A view of the park where Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled is installed at dOCUMENTA (13) / photo Scott Rogers|
The final work I saw at dOCUMENTA (13), but perhaps the most compelling, was Untitled by Pierre Huyghe. I am resistant to reveal too much here, as the work’s impact lies precisely in the surprises and discomforts it unearths. The project is a kind of camouflage: a disguise that only begins to uncloak itself upon thorough investigation. Even with the ruse revealed, there are moments that remain disquieting, opening the work into further unexpected territory. The discovery of a marijuana plant, a ghostly dog silently striding up beside you, a human being who is indifferent and confrontational all at once—there seems to be no certain point at which the work begins and ends. Huyghe’s project is like a chemical seeping into the system. Penetrating outwards, it uncannily takes hold of an entire world, making hallucinations real.
Art Show as Unruly Organism
Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany
Documenta 13 This sprawling exhibition in Kassel, Germany, includes “Doing Nothing Garden,” a composted landscape by the Chinese artist Song Dong. More Photos »
Published: June 14, 2012
KASSEL, Germany — The longtime curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has a lot on her mind, and she has managed to wedge a remarkable amount of it into Documenta 13.
Andreas Meichsner for The New York Times
One of the so-called Bactrian Princesses from Central Asia (2500-1500 B.C.).
As artistic director of the latest version of this always overbearing international exhibition of mostly contemporary art, which is staged every four or five years in this drab industrial city in central Germany, Ms. Christov-Bakargiev has assembled an immense, unruly organism of a show. It is alternately inspiring — almost visionary — and insufferable, innovative and predictable, meticulous and sentimentally precious. I would not have missed this seething, shape-shifting extravaganza for the world, and I’d rather not see its like again, at least not on this dwarfing, imperious, self-canceling scale.
By now, it is almost tradition for Documenta to present more art than is possible to track down, much less absorb. The current effort spreads the work of some 200 artists and artists’ collectives from some 50 countries all over Kassel, starting at the Fridericianum, the regal Neo-Classical museum that has been the show’s heart since its inception in 1955. Ardently feminist, global and multimedia in approach and including works by dead artists and selected bits of ancient art, it provides visitors with paintings, sculptures, drawings, videos and, most of all, quite a number of impressive installation and performance pieces. Works involving sound or music of some kind are often especially outstanding.
Many efforts push, sometimes to a sophomoric degree, against the boundaries separating art and life while straining the limits of the exhibition format. Also on display are scientific projects by a quantum physicist and a geneticist, and an anger-management workshop, courtesy of an Australian artist, that you can sign up for. It is not clear how many more times we need to be reminded that anything can be considered art, but there you are. The larger point seems to be that Ms. Christov-Bakargiev is more interested in creativity in general than in art in particular.
This year the impossibility of seeing everything has been made official: The show has a distant outpost, with works by roughly 30 of its artists, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The country where much of the West has been at war for a decade is a recurring leitmotif in Kassel, as are the two world wars, the Vietnam War and other 20th-century conflicts.
The emphasis on the trauma of war is consistent with Ms. Christov-Bakargiev’s view of Documenta as a show born of trauma, expressed in an essay in one of the show’s three catalogs. It grew, after all, out of the ruins of World War II — Kassel was heavily bombed by the Allies — and was an attempt to bring Germany up to speed with modern art, both banishing and repressing the cultural darkness of Nazism.
Ms. Christov-Bakargiev seems more determined than even some of her predecessors to counter any notion of this show as a mere art update; she wants to reveal how art reflects and interacts with the world. Her effort is haunted by the violence of history mitigated by the solace of art and its creative processes and by the solidarity and sometimes bravery of artists.
She signals her intention to make a different kind of Documenta in the ground-floor galleries at the Fridericianum, which usually feature some sort of opening-act visual spectacle. This time they have been left nearly empty, devoted to “I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull),” an installation piece by the British artist Ryan Gander. Nothing more than an overhead ventilation system that blows a stiff, cooling breeze through the galleries, the piece is a very nervy, even arrogant opener, but the refreshing air and elegant spaces are hard to resist.
Soon enough, though, emptiness is superseded — in the rotunda space that is portentously called “The Brain” — by a dense array of art, artifacts, photographs and ephemera that highlight some of the themes and artworks to come, and is among the show’s best moments. Dachau, Hitler’s bathtub, the 1968 Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia, the crowds of the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square are alluded to.
Against these, Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings are glimpsed, along with examples of the objects depicted in them. We see a lone puppet, one of scores used by the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky in his “Crusades Cabaret,” a brilliant two-video marionette-musical consideration of early contact between the Arab and European cultures. (It is on view in the Neue Galerie, a short walk from the Fridericianum.)
In the rotunda, as throughout the exhibition, attention to the fine print is de rigueur. If you are wondering, for example, about a pleasantly derivative van Gogh-ish landscape from 2011, the label will tell you that it was made by Mohammad Yusuf Asefi, an Afghan artist who saved some 80 paintings in the National Museum in Kabul that were threatened by the Taliban prohibition of art depicting animals or humans. (He painted over these motifs with water-soluble paint.)
There are also actual examples of work that evaded destruction. One of the show’s most magnificent inclusions is a group of eight small, rare composite figurines, the so-called Bactrian Princesses from the Central Asian region around northern Afghanistan (2500-1500 B.C.). Roughly contemporary with Cycladic and Egyptian art, they are distinguished by delicate limestone faces and bulky, polychrome stone bodies cloaked with incised patterns that conjure rivers, plant life and intricately woven silks. They attest to art’s implacable ability to survive on sheer visual power (though portability helps too).
From here, the exhibition unspools through the Fridericianum, revising and resurrecting as it goes. Directly upstairs you’ll find the relatively unknown figurative tapestries from the late 1930s by Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970), a self-taught Swedish weaver, that vigorously protest, with color and verve, the rise of Fascism. Nearby, two walls are covered with small, winsome postcard-size paintings of apples or pears, one or two at a time, made between 1912 and the ’60s by Korbinian Aigner (1885-1966), a Bavarian village priest and botanist who, the label informs us, was sent to Dachau for speaking out against the Nazis.
Elsewhere in the building, the pulsating abstractions of Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, an Aboriginal artist in Australia born in 1959, are riveting, as are the packed expressionist drawings of the Egyptian artist Anna Boghiguian and the obsessively worked postapocalyptic paintings of the American artist Llyn Foulkes, who also exhibits — and over the next week or so sometimes plays — “The Machine,” a homemade drum kit festooned with old automobile horns.
Also not to be missed is Kader Attia’s “Repair From Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures,” a daunting installation that reflects on art, colonialism and body scarification in Africa but draws its main force from a set of large carved-wood busts depicting the horrific face wounds suffered by European soldiers in World War I. Gripping yet also illustrational, the piece exemplifies several archivelike works here. It also reflects the continuing hegemony of late-late Conceptualism — now extravagantly materialized and labor-intensive — over the international exhibition circuit.
Beyond the polemical intensity of the Fridericianum, the show loses coherence and often subsides into dross. There are terrible low points, like “Limited Art Project,” by the Chinese artist Yan Lei, a bit of endgame cynicism involving 360 fuzzily dead-in-the-water Photo Realist canvases that will be gradually converted to monochromes: Each day a few are spray-painted at a car factory near Kassel. They fill a looming space in the Documenta Halle, where their dreariness is somewhat ameliorated by a nearby gallery devoted to the small, stubbornly radiant abstractions that the Lebanese-American poet and writer Etel Adnan has made since the late 1950s.
There are efforts that muster relatively stark presentations of facts, for which you are grateful, like the timeline explaining the plight of Western Saharan refugees in Algeria that the New York artist Robin Kahn has assembled with help from the heroic National Union of Women From Western Sahara, and is presenting along with a Bedouin-style tent in Karlsaue Park, which is dotted with installations and works displayed in small cottages.
Similarly, at the nearby Neue Galerie, the South African artist Zanele Muholi presents “Difficult Love,” a documentary video (made with Peter Goldsmid) that harrowingly illuminates the prejudice and frequent sexual violence endured by lesbians in her country. The life force evoked in these works becomes transcendent art in a dance-performance piece by the French choreographer Jérôme Bel, enacted by learning-disabled adults in a theater on the slightly seedy Königsplatz.
Several usual suspects do what they usually do in shows of this kind, only better. “Study for Strings,” a sound piece by the Scottish artist Susan Philipsz, unleashes a plaintive call-and-response of cellos at Kassel’s intercity railroad station, where William Kentridge, collaborating with Peter L. Galison, revives a style that had gone stale with “The Refusal of Time,” an engulfing fusion of video animation, sculpture and music.
Several less usual suspects, too, rise to the occasion. Also at the railroad station, the Indian artist Tejal Shah presents “Between the Waves,” a pair of mock-serious pseudo-mythological videos involving two women wearing unicorn horns and not much else. Among the show’s several Afghan artists, whose work is somewhat ghettoized in a former hospital behind the Fridericianum, a standout is Jeanno Gaussi, who was born in Kabul in 1973, left in 1978 and is based in Berlin; she presents an installation piece that centers on old family snapshots that she commissioned Ustad Sharif Amin, a Kabul artist, to render as vivid, folkish paintings.
On the manicured lawn at the mouth of the Karlsaue, “Doing Nothing Garden,” an undulant compost-heap hillock fuzzy with new weeds, by the Chinese artist Song Dong, erupts like a comic mirage. And the American artist Theaster Gates has converted a large old house near the Fridericianum into a resonant walk-in collage of recycled building materials punctuated with videos and occasional performances — the first of his efforts truly to justify the considerable buzz around his work.
Adjacent to Mr. Gates’s work, the British-born artist Tino Sehgal has orchestrated what is really the show’s beating heart, an immersive environmental-performance piece that places viewers in a nearly dark gallery among some 20 performers who sing, dance, clap, hum and talk, creating an electrifying aural-spatial experience of pure, unencumbered imagination in action.
Not unlike this piece, Documenta 13 is perhaps most effective as a disembodied state of mind. Ms. Christov-Bakargiev seems to have intended it to be the first of its kind in terms of its sheer porosity, the way it blends with the world. But its incomprehensible, viewer-defying vastness perpetuates an old model, the curator as all-seeing-god, on a disheartening scale. In this way, it seems as much a dying breed as a new start.
Documenta 13 is on view in Kassel, Germany, through Sept. 16; d13.documenta.de.
A version of this review appeared in print on June 15, 2012, on page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: Art Show as Unruly Organism.
- 6/16/12 at 2:00 PM
Saltz: A Glimpse of Art’s Future at Documenta
Three quarters of the art at Documenta 13, the gigantic 200-exhibitor show that just opened in the small German city of Kassel, is innocuous or worse. Derivative installations, found objects, text pieces, videos, sculptural fragments, empty rooms, performances, and sound works — it’s the kind of late-late conceptual/relational aesthetics hegemony endemic to these massive events. I won’t run down the list, but one immoral work (if such a thing can be said to exist) will suffice to give you the sense of it: In A Public Misery Message: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, created by a group called the Critical Art Ensemble, viewers ride in a helicopter to heights corresponding to their net worth. The work is supposedly about wealth accumulation, and is an anti-market gesture. Surely it cost more to stage for a day than many museums and galleries can spend or generate in a year, or than most artists earn in a lifetime.
But let’s forget the bad 75 percent and look at the rest of what’s here, because, once you get beyond the claptrap, Documenta 13 comes tantalizingly close to realizing one of its enticing goals: rethinking how we define art altogether, opening it up exponentially. Indeed, here and there, in glimpses, we get what I call Post Art. And it hums with promise.
Documenta’s American-born artistic director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, doesn’t even use the word “artist,” preferring “participant” instead. She says, “I am not sure that the field of art will continue to exist in the 21st century” — not meaning art itself, mind you, but our tidy roping-off of the field. To Joseph Beuys’s famous dictum “Everyone is an artist,” Christov-Bakargiev adds, “So is any thing.” The best parts of Documenta 13 bring us into close contact with this illusive entity of Post Art—things that aren’t artworks so much as they are about the drive to make things that, like art, embed imagination in material and grasp that creativity is a cosmic force. It’s an idea I love. (As I’ve written before, everything that’s made, if you look at it in certain ways, already is or can be art.) Things that couldn’t be fitted into old categories embody powerfully creative forms, capable of carrying meaning and making change. Post Art doesn’t see art as medicine, relief, or religion; Post Art doesn’t even see art as separate from living. A chemist or a general may be making Post Art every day at the office. One of the exhibitors at Documenta is the civil engineer Konrad Zuse, creator in the thirties of an early electromagnetic computer. His abstract paintings look like Feininger knockoffs, but they’re as much of an invention as Zuse’s “mechanical brain” was.
In some cases, Post Art takes the form of artifacts that achieve a greater density and intensity of meaning than that word usually implies. At Documenta, there’s a chunk of a London building bombed in the Blitz that the British, in retaliation, dropped on Germany: It’s laced not only with history but also with revenge, pain, fury, incredulity, paradox. An insane-looking one-man-band instrument made by painter Llyn Foulkes is a Disneyish contraption that hits you with the sheer need for something to exist that otherwise doesn’t. I was shaken to the core by the formal and emotional pathos in Jérôme Bel’s “dance” involving people with Down syndrome who simply stood onstage, danced for two minutes, then spoke about their perceptions of us watching them. A fourth wall shattered here into a fifth dimension. Tino Sehgal outdoes himself in a darkened ballroom with chanting, singing, dancing, noisemaking performers, who let you lose the contours of your body and lead you into ecstatic dancing (internal or literal; it’s up to you). And Song Dong’s mini-mountain in the park is just a grassy knoll of garbage, garnished with neon Chinese characters. Yet it made the landscape speak to me, essentially spelling out my own personal motto (a loose paraphrase of Satchel Paige’s): “You win some. You lose some. Some get rained out. But you got to suit up for every one.”
If anything here will put you in a mind to give up on definitions, though, it’s Pierre Huyghe’s craterlike ruins patrolled by two dogs at the far end of the park. The lone object in the piece is a large classical recumbent nude, cast in concrete, with a huge functioning beehive on her face. This is a place of no-narrative, an incubation chamber of new orders. It is an almost metaphysical embodiment suggesting that even with its tremendous flaws, Documenta allows us all to feel a stake in this thing called art, and sense that Post Art is on the immediate horizon, approaching fast.
Documenta 13. Kassel, Germany. Through September 16.
CHELSEA DIARY, No.31: DOCUMENTA 13, KASSEL, GERMANY, June 7th to June 12th, 2012, The Dystopian Documenta
by Michael Salcman
neurosurgeon, an art critic and a poet
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, artistic director of Documenta 13, is not shy about her political allegiances nor about her overriding concept for the 13th edition of the massive international art show that the smallish city of Kassel holds once every five years. According to Art Forum, she wants international art workers (“cognitive laborers”) of the world to unite in “resistance” to the borders that confine nations, “spaces of knowledge and experience”, in support of universal ideals and hopes, “healing and recovery.” As a consequence, this Documenta is the most thematically unified and visually boring collection of works devoted to the usual inarguable preoccupations of the left: an overly-generalized pacifism and opposition to war irrespective of any redeeming cause for conflict, the well-documented horrors of colonial oppression especially if carried out by Israel and the West, and the immanent danger posed by desecration of the planet. Thoroughly dystopian in outlook, Documenta offers little visual surcease, the usual kick of pleasure one gets from viewing beautifully made and inspiring objects. Unlike other major events on the world-wide art calendar, Documenta is truly avant-garde in spirit and has a full five-years to discover talent and commission projects. As a result one can almost always learn something useful, gain the acquaintance of the work of new artists, and gauge the evolution of new intellectual or artistic trends. In this regard, Documenta 13 is likely to become a very influential exhibition, almost as epochal as Harold Szeemann’s “When Attitudes Become Form” (1968). Enlightenment was not exactly the expectation my wife and I had when boarding our flight to Frankfurt last Tuesday and taking the ICE to Kassel for the professional preview on Thursday and Friday.
On our first day we were able to cover almost all of the major venues surrounding the Fridericianum. Entering the latter on the ground floor we encountered five large, almost completely empty rooms devoted to Ryan Gander’s creation of an artificial wind (a new wind?) blowing through without evidence of visible fans; this singular effect caused much confusion as to whether there was an actual draft present, especially as most of our stay in Kassel was under gray and breezy skies. In one of these wasted spaces three small sculptures by Julio González were exhibited in an elegant vitrine next to a photograph of their original, almost identical installation at Documenta 2; in the other largest room, the Director had the poor taste to place a vitrine containing letters addressed to her by the artist Kai Althoff. In the half-moon Rotunda behind, Christov-Bakargiev has jammed dozens of relatively small objects in one of the most claustrophobic and visually unsatisfactory conglomerations ever seen at a major art show. This physically torturous area was touted as “The Brain” of Documenta 13 but gave hardly any evidence of concern for the care of its eponymous organ. Even the relatively smaller crowds at the press opening threatened the surfaces of four, unprotected Giorgio Morandi paintings in order to peer into numerous glass cases containing fused detritus from the shelling of Beirut, a perfume bottle and other souvenirs taken from Eva Braun’s bathroom (where the photographer Lee Miller famously washed up the day of Hitler’s suicide) and a metronomic multiple by Miller’s lover Man Ray with a photograph of her eye affixed to the needle. Miller’s documentary photographs tightly placed on a wall were a highlight as were some of the original painted cans and bottles Morandi used to create his still lives. Lawrence Weiner was present to give an inaudible interview on the meaning of his art and Judith Barry stood on the official red (bath?) carpet and gave an incomprehensible explanation of her folded paper polyhedron, apparently the Rosetta Stone to The Brain. On the floor near Barry’s case was Sam Durant’s beautifully carved simulacrum of a sack of marble dust made from the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Survivors of violence included eight small carved figurines (c.2500 BCE) from Afghanistan, the Bactrian Princesses, among the most enthralling visual and anthropological experiences in the entire exhibition.
Upstairs on the first floor were several room-sized installations: stacked propaganda posters by Ida Applebroog with very angry words on them; a large woven map by Alighiero Boetti enshrined with a video devoted to a search for where he lived and his weavers worked in Afghanistan; anti-capitalist drawings by Mark Lombardi graphically illustrating interconnecting webs of influence and money; a physics demonstration about uncertainty and lasers from the laboratories of Anton Zellinger (not an artist); and a pair of 1930s paintings by Salvador Dalí ostensibly celebrating the brief period in which he was a socially conscious (i.e. anti-Franco) artist. In point of fact, Dalí was a proto-fascist who was ex-communicated by the Surrealists because, in part, he refused to denounce Hitler: an inconvenient story left out of the wall labels and the catalog. I would be remiss in not mentioning my first experience with Charlotte Salomon’s delicate paintings about Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust in which she perished; they seem to be more about words than images and many were arranged as a kind of theatrical script. The usual dominance of text, video and photography in most contemporary art surveys is joined in this Documenta by a special emphasis on ceramics, textiles and books. The most moving example of the latter, a synthesis of Mark Dion and Anselm Kieffer, were books designed by Michael Rakowitz made from marble fragments of the Bamiyan Buddhas. These works, referencing the Holocaust and the Taliban, were displayed on tables adjacent to cabinets containing source materials, burnt books from a Jewish library and further unusable fragments from the Buddhas. The presence of Emily Jacir in shows like Documenta is by now a curatorial cliché; she covers an entire room with photographs of end papers from Palestinian books “stolen” by Israel in 1948. I am still waiting for an exhibit devoted to the widespread expulsion of Jews from Arab lands throughout the 20th century. The most overpowering anti-Colonial installation was Kader Attia's immense collection of horrifying photographs and disfigured statues, documentary papers, books and World War I souvenirs detailing the horror of the first World War and the collision of cultures in Africa. The most astonishing tapestry was a woven photo-realist “painting” by Goshka Macuga, really a diorama, found on the curved wall of the second floor. Here too, Llyn Foulkes, an idiosyncratic art star of the 1970’s, makes his reappearance with spookily lit three-dimensional painted tableaus somewhat related to the San Francisco style of Jess.
Next door to the Fridericianum, in the much smaller Ottoneum, a miniature museum of natural history, was the ghetto in which environmentally-concerned artists were placed. The rooms were hot and humid with the exhibits frequently displayed in subdued lighting. We were rapidly exhausted and only partially relieved by the library of wood samples created by Mark Dion in the splendid isolation of the second floor. And after that is was on to the modern Documenta-Halle where the ground floor was devoted to a segregated display about “the future” of painting. This building contained a number of notable discoveries: brightly colored small paintings of imaginary landscapes by Etel Adnan, quickly reminding us of the power of pigment and the general absence of color at the other exhibition sites; new paintings by Julie Mehretu in her usual style; an outstanding installation of projected images and paintings on rotating mylar cylinders by Nalini Malani, an artist well known to us for her spectacular cultural investigations (yes, you can be both conceptually driven and visually enthralling); and the wan warehouse of famous paintings by many artists from different periods (Richter, Warhol, Vermeer etc.) copied by Yan Lei. The two major discoveries are rediscoveries of older artists, Gustav Metzger (b.1926) and Thomas Bayrle (b.1937). The very large room devoted to Bayrle’s motorized sculptures made from automobile parts and an enormous photo-collage of an airplane truly looked like the work of a much younger artist. The best sculptures re-arranged operating pistons and cylinders into formal geometries; the projected engine sounds were almost certainly due to recordings and not produced by the visually hypnotic movements of machine parts. Less successful were the wall-mounted sculptures made from windshield wipers and their motors. Metzger is a Holocaust survivor who has spent several recent decades in radical politics, participating in demonstrations and trying to mount installations in which automobiles would be destroyed and engine exhausts would be used to produce poisoned environments. But before all this, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, Metzger was a painter, chiefly on paper and often on large metal plates. Almost the entire output from this period was displayed in horizontal cases covered by thick velour sheets to protect the works on paper from sunlight. This arrangement promoted prolonged looking since each cover had to be lifted by hand and held while the painting was inspected. Metzger seems to have worked his way through the entire 20th century, beginning with abstracted figuration from Maillol and Picasso and ending with dynamic blocks and swaths of color a la de Kooning and Kline. It seems that the future of painting is its past.
We even made it to the Orangerie (it held nothing of real interest) at the head of the large neighboring park, the Karlsaue, but did not go out to visit the many works displayed in the landscape because we wanted to save our rapidly decaying supply of shoe leather for some of the off-site projects. We had been invited to a dinner that evening in honor of a Documenta artist and decided to explore several of the off-site projects on the way. We managed to see a multi-screen video by photographer Gerard Byrne in a large ballroom, the subject of which seemed to be a theater piece about outlandish or imaginary sexual practices; a room-filling display of Richter-like gray splotches on book covers by the video artist Paul Chan, each book opened with its pages facing the walls; and a wonderful series of small paintings resembling television color bars by Francis Alÿs in an ex-bakery. Our final two stops proved to be among the highlights of our trip and a wonderful education in so-called relational aesthetics, Tino Sehgal’s performance piece in another abandoned room in the Grand City Hotel and the renovation of the neighboring Hugenott House by Theaster Gates. Gates has been renovating dilapidated buildings in Chicago and the Hugenot House in Kassel is his first European project. He brought over an entire team of wood workers, equipment and supplies from Chicago, built a stage for musical performances by the Black Monks of Mississippi, installed some of his sculptures and renovated each of the bedrooms for members of his team. Whether the renovation will outlast the 100 days of Documenta remains to be seen by this artist’s unique combination of music, architecture, urbanism, sculpture and trans-cultural conversation is ambitious beyond belief. Entering the pitch-black cavern of Sehgal’s space proved similarly immersive. Unseen hands and bodies pushed us into the center of the action. After 15 minutes of Buddhist-like chanting, singing and clapping, we were squeezed out of the space as the twenty performers in “This Variation, 2012” intoned that we would have to discuss the experience again. That night at the dinner, well-known dealers, artists and museum curators agreed that the personal interactions involved in these two projects were highlights of Documenta 13 and perfect emotional substitutes for aesthetic experiences of the most significant order.
The next day, on Friday, we first went to the old train station (Hautbahnhof) where the art was displayed in four separate buildings; as Roberta Smith has pointed out, Documenta 13 is and feels enormous, not always to the advantage of the art or one's energy level. Here one could find (with some difficulty) the latest multi-screen projected video cum objects by William Kentridge, a meditation on the nature of time. As usual, the mix of animation, sculpture and live-action performance (especially by Kentridge himself) was visually enthralling but his work threatens to become increasingly hermetic and professorial. Also impressive was a large "factory" installation of clothing presses, sewing machines and fitting forms made of carved wood by Haegue Yang, a ghostly presence amplified by headless dummies wearing the finished garments. Our next stop was the Neue Gallerie where we checked out a number of other artists before walking all the way down a major highway and back up to the aditus of an underground bunker from the second world war in order to view a striking video by Allora & Calzadilla, the American representatives at the last Venice Biennale, playing in a sort of grotto. This work, a combination of anthropological research, performance, political siting and creaturely participation (ours as well as that of a vulture) seemed a perfect encapsulation of our Documenta experience. Documenta 13 lasts 100 days, it will close September 16th, and contains 200 artists spread out all over the city of Kassel, in museums, movie theaters, houses and hotel ballrooms, not to mention special events in Kabul Afghanistan, Cairo Egypt and in Canada. The catalog comes in three volumes, only one of which (the Guide) is essential. If you can possibly attend it, you should. After all, an event like this comes along only once every five years and this incarnation is unique.
June 22, 2012
Post-Card from Documenta 13: Walid Raad, Arabian Nights and the Pitfalls of Pilgrimages
Museum Fridericianum, 2012, Museum Fridericianum, 2012, Photo: Nils Klinger © dOCUMENTA (13)
Along with thousands of others, I made the pilgrimage to Kassel, Germany this year, to attend the opening festivities of Documenta 13. There were, of course, obvious reasons to go, first and foremost the chance to see Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s impressive show. Sprawling all over Kassel and beyond (to Kabul, for example), the show includes work by over 200 artists (living and dead) and collectives from 50 countries, and aims to reveal how art both reflects and interacts with the world. Open without being ideological, the show includes a number of pieces specifically about wars and current events. But these are accompanied by other types of expressions, for example works by Song Dong, Theaster Gates, Susan Hiller and Zanele Muholi, that focus on different aspects of the art/life continuum. Starting at the Fridericianum and moving outward to public spaces, parks and train stations, the exhibition’s opening days attracted thousands of colleagues and friends from all over the world (which was, of course, another reason to go).
But in fact it was really the invitation of my friend Walid Raad that persuaded me to make the trek to Germany. Like me, the Lebanese-born artist lives in New York, and we teach at adjacent universities. We get together when possible, and recently I started pestering him about doing an interview – specifically, a session where he and I discuss the work of artists (like him) who do extensive scholarly research in order to prepare for visual projects. To flesh out my understanding of his process, he was anxious for me to see his exhibition in Kassel, the culmination of five years of thought and refinement. Entitled “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World,” the show was accompanied by a series of live performances by the artist which were among the hot tickets in Kassel during opening week. The works on view became, in this context, springboards for, and embodiments of, Raad’s concepts and ruminations. This was a Duchampian act for the 21st century, but instead of a Large Glass and an accompanying book (Notes and Projects), we had a multimedia display (including photographs and video, drawings, texts, collages, sculptures and models as well as paintings and prints) accompanied by the explications of the moving body.
Walid Raad, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World”, installation view. Courtesy The Artist and gallery Sfeir-Semler Beirut Hamburg
Walid’s performances were so popular, and so crowded, that extra shows had to be scheduled, which made down time for an interview impossible. But his presentation – and it must be said that I’d seen a previous version, a slide lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts in March, so I’d had some time to think about the ideas – raised a lot of issues I’d like to discuss. Also, of course, since we are friends I’d heard about these projects over the years as they unfolded in his mind, and then transformed themselves into images. It is precisely this transformation that interests me about Raad, who has a tendency (he does have a Ph.D. in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester) to do enormous amounts of reading, looking and archival research in order to arrive at a spare or surprising visual symbol: a field of blue, a green dot, a painted splotch of red. That Ur- image, whatever it is, then gives rise to other images, schemas and words, often lots of them, like those delivered in Kassel. Installations and performances grow up around a visual nugget, in other words, reversing the usual order of concept-based work. Is this indeed conceptual art – or rather visual thinking? The difference seems important to me.
The other thing that interests me about Raad’s art is its slippery slope between fact and fiction, which of course has become his trademark since the days of the Atlas Group. (This trait goes beyond art making. When I come away from a lunch with him, I am never sure if anything he’s told me is literally true – though it must be said that I’m always thoroughly convinced while he’s spinning his yarns. Over the years I’ve learned to take this ambiguity in stride.) Raad rode into the art world on the wave of Archive Art; one of the most interesting of the artists included in this trendy group, he used his youthful experience of the wars in Lebanon to drive a wedge between concrete evidence and the manipulation and reception of data. But there was a moment when the exigencies of this version of conceptual art began to constrict his creative process, and he started working with ideas that were more far reaching, amorphous and profound. Instead of focusing on truth and falsehood, he began obsessing over Jalal Toufic’s theory of “surpassing disasters.” Described in the book Forthcoming, a “surpassing disaster” is one that literally affects tradition by making it “withdraw,” by rendering art works “unavailable to vision” and to the perception of sensitive artists. In other words, rather than deconstructing archival materials and intellectual strategies, Walid has decided to frame the history of Art in the Arab World by chronicling the inevitability of its material, aesthetic and conceptual withdrawal. Having grown up during a time of Civil War and terrorism, exiled by violence from his home and family at an early age, Raad’s own surpassing interest is in the affect of deep trauma: not only on “truth” but on the human spirit. How can an artist express what happens to people, to places, to societies, to civilizations when their experiences are so profoundly negative that normal paths to communication, empathy and sharing are blocked? The project in Kassel is about this state of affairs, and its consequences.
Walid Raad, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World”, installation view. Courtesy The Artist and gallery Sfeir-Semler Beirut Hamburg
Since we are discussing Walid Raad, of course, these consequences are never spelled out in a literal way. Topical political exegesis is not his style, though it is the focus of a number of projects on view in Kassel (like Rabih Mroué’s fascinating installation and performance, The Pixelated Revolution, about cell phone videos and violence in Syria). Instead, political and social truths are transformed into images in Raad’s work, and spun as tales told by cooks or dancers and perhaps embellished by psychics. This is, quite literally, mythmaking with historical pretensions and a theatrical flair. It is important to note that when discussing this project in 2009, Raad mentioned that its final form might in fact be a play, a “pièce de théâtre,” as the French would say. Seen in this way, the gallery becomes a world stage in the Shakespearean sense, a labyrinth of related projects that tell stories within stories, like the sprawling tales of the Arabian Nights.
The master storyteller William Kentridge also has a marvelous new piece (produced with Peter L. Galison) at Documenta 13. The Refusal of Time is a tour de force within the dilapidated spaces of the old train station. But Kentridge’s all engulfing style, his way of piling up films, animations, sculpture and music in a noisy aggregate, bears no resemblance to Raad’s minimal arrangement of interpenetrating theatrical “screens” like those that define the stage sets of Jean Genet. Upon entering the space, the spectator encounters a wall, a futuristic barrier of flashing lights that resembles nothing so much as a very high-end corporate presentation. Illustrated with what looks like a large-scale schematic drawing punctuated by video images, texts and visual documents, the tableau charts new art initiatives like the Artist Pension fund. Tracking the Dubai Branch’s complex relationship to the burgeoning infrastructures for the visual arts taking shape in the Arabian Gulf, the trail ends up at the doorstep of men trained in Israeli military intelligence. The “map,” with its constantly shifting (and hard to grasp) images and its data impossible to read, creates a claustrophobic vision of the symbiotic entanglement between politics, conflict and culture in the Arab World – and far beyond. It sets the stage for the other five projects on view, scenarios described in separate spaces, which Raad describes as “artworks and stories shaped by encounters on this ground with individuals, institutions, economies, concepts and forms.”
Walid Raad, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World”, installation view. Courtesy The Artist and gallery Sfeir-Semler Beirut Hamburg
These encounters take place as people living in this closed circuit attempt to participate in their new culture. But their access – to their peers, their predecessors, their institutions, their customary modes of expression — is always denied. The “surpassing disaster” of war in the Middle East has withdrawn their tradition from them, and the viewer moves from scene to scene to experience this state of affairs. Artists’ projects (like the Atlas Group exhibition on view) suddenly shrink to 1/100th of their original size. Colors are no longer available for aesthetic expression in the future, since they have taken refuge in corporate logos, and paintings lack reflections. The names of historical predecessors, earlier artists in Lebanon, don’t show up in archives but can only be retrieved, inaccurately, by telepathy. A spectator attempting to enter a new museum of modern art in an Arab city is unable to proceed: he “hits a wall,” so to speak. With his entry blocked, he declares the world flat and is removed to a psychiatric facility. All of these “scenarios,” of course, are visualized by sculptures, or paintings, or prints. The inaccessible entrances are made manifest by shifting mirages of architectural spaces, the shrunken photos are too small to read, the contrasts between splashes of spray paint and the flat hues of corporate prints become stark. The spectator “on the ground” begins to experience this world out of joint — which, surely, is Raad’s intention.
There’s another performance work in Kassel right now, a joyful piece by Tino Sehgal. The spectator enters a pitch-black room, filled with singing, dancing, clapping and people. In her review in The New York Times, Roberta Smith called Sehgal’s work the “beating heart” of Documenta 13, and I can see why. At the risk of spoiling any future viewer’s experience, I want to say that the intensity of the human contact that occurs when the lights go up is both surprising and overwhelming. It is just that human contact which is unavailable to the poor souls in Walid Raad’s airtight world. And since the circuits described in Scene 1 encompass the globe, this projected future must belong to all of us, everywhere, no matter how hard we try to “disavow” it. The pilgrimage to Kassel suddenly makes us players not only within Raad’s piece de theatre but also within the relentless wheel of culture, the flat world from which it grows.
(And, by the way, I haven’t given up on that interview. Stay tuned.)
© Shelley Rice 2012
This summer, Afghan and foreign artists will gather in Kabul and Bamyan to try and imagine and express a life beyond war and conflict in Afghanistan
Authors: Carolyn Christov-Bakargievand and Golare Kiazand
dOCUMENTA, a periodic, international art exhibition, will be held in Afghanistan beginning in late June. It will be made up of a cycle of lectures, seminars, and exhibitions in Kabul, and some activities in Bamyan. The seminars will be held by Afghan and foreign artists and intellectuals and will cover everything from art history, artistic research and art criticism to a seminar held for the purpose of creating an independent, Afghan-based periodic art review that will act in the coming years as a forum for debate around artistic questions.
Other seminars will focus on aesthetics and philosophy and some more practical workshops will be held to explore materials, sculpture, installation and film, video, photography and performance. The four-month process of seminars will culminate in an exhibition of contemporary art that will be held at the Queen’s Palace and the Bagh-e Babur gardens from June 21 to July 19, 2012, with a presentation also held at the National Gallery.
dOCUMENTA began in the mid-20th-century after the trauma of World War II. Its aim was to reestablish culture and the visual arts as a primary focus in society, and to reconnect Germany with the field of international contemporary art at that time. It emerged within a space where collapse and recovery are articulated. In contrast to other periodic international exhibitions, dOCUMENTA is characterized by a sense of the urgency of art in society; indeed, since its first edition in 1955, every five years dOCUMENTA has been an exhibition of contemporary art in Germany from around the world, as well as a moment to reflect on the relationship between art and society.
The exhibition, which is in part a result of seminars that were held in the months prior to it, does not focus only on the contemporary art scene in Afghanistan. As one of the four spatial and conceptual positions of dOCUMENTA (13) all around the world, it presents forms of worldly imagination that explore artistic contemporary practice at a precarious and at the same time engaging point, unfreezing stereotypes on how art in a specific place has been or is perceived.
The aim of the seminars and the exhibition is to present artistic practice through a participatory process of creation, confrontation, learning and sharing. This exhibition comprises works mainly produced in Afghanistan, engaging the audience in a dialogue full of correspondences – between past and future, memory and fantasy, collapse and recovery, destruction and reconstruction – as well mutual evocations of the history of two cities, Kabul and Kassel (Germany), where dOCUMENTA is usually located. Both cities have witnessed destruction through war and the need for physical reconstruction and mental retrieval.
We recognize no geopolitical boundaries between these artists who can be said to act within a set of possible conditions from which artists and thinkers find themselves in the present: “being on stage” / “being under siege” / “being in a state of hope” / “being on retreat.” These conditions of being in the world are not comprehensive, but form four main positions around which dOCUMENTA (13) is articulated—they acquire their significance through their mutual interrelation and resonance with one another.
These four conditions relate to the four locations in which dOCUMENTA (13) is physically and conceptually sited—Kassel, Kabul, Alexandria/Cairo, and Banff—while at the same time aiming at “unfreezing” the associations that are typically made with those places and conditions, which are constantly shifting. Each position is a condition, a state of mind, and relates to time in a specific way: while the retreat suspends time, being on stage produces a vivid and lively time of the here and now, the continuous present; while hope releases time through the sense of a promise, of time opening up and being unending, the sense of being under siege compresses time, to the degree that there is no space beyond the elements of life that are tightly bound around us.
The 13th dOCUMENTA focuses, amongst other things, on questions of collapse and recovery through the lens of contemporary art. Furthermore, from a thematic point of view, it takes a look at the relations between art and destruction. Art has a major role to play in social processes of reconstruction, and imagination is an important force in that process. The first dOCUMENTAin 1955 came after a terrible period of conflict, different and totally dissimilar to what has taken place in Afghanistan, but nonetheless in a moment of rebuilding a civil society, at the juncture of where art is felt to be of the utmost importance as an international common language and world of shared ideals and hopes.
Especially in times of war, or in post-conflict conditions, art can be a form of healing. Arte Povera artist AlighieroBoetti from Turin, Italy, visited Kabul in early 1971, and decided to open a hotel called One Hotel on Shar-e-Naw near Chicken Street, together with an Afghan called GholamDastahir. He spent half the year there, commissioning his embroidered Mappe from 1971 to 1977. The initial impulse for organizing a part of dOCUMENTA in Afghanistan came from imagining not the scenario of war, but rather a form of continuity between the vibrant and international life of the 1970s in Kabul, during the time Boetti spent there, and our own times, rejecting the state of exception that is determined by the war, and choosing to act hosmē—that is, as if the situation were not what it is, as if the checkpoints, cement walls, and barriers, the conflict, occupation, and militarization in Kabul, did not exist—through acts of radical imagination, all the while continuing the daily life required by and inevitable while living in a militarized zone.
The question of whether or not to engage in projects in Afghanistan was discussed at length in the development of the project. In a slippage and comparative study of different historical periods and places, some questions came to the forefront immediately: is the fact of organizing artistic projects in Afghanistan a form of denial of difficult events and times? Or is such engagement a form of alternative action keyed toward enacting and testing the potential of art to intervene effectively and decrease violence, injustice, and conflict in those places?
By acting as if there is no conflict—no incredible security systems, no occupation—you can actually interfere, interrupt, and change reality through acts of imagination. This is at the core of the decision to organize a series of seminars and an exhibition of art in Kabul and Bamyan as part of dOCUMENTA.
There is much to learn also from Afghan culture, both historical and contemporary, and I also felt that the international art world and artists could learn and profit from this cultural exchange. So the process is one of sharing experiences and knowledge and goes in both directions.
Myexperience was that there is an interest in contemporary art and culture—something particularly noticeable from the experience and engagement of the many young students who participated in the various seminars organized by dOCUMENTA, that addressed different aspects of cultural production, not only theory.
I hope that the alliances and connections created between artists in Afghanistan and artists in other parts of the world through dOCUMENTA have a positive impact in the long term. It is important to open up channels of exchange – not being in isolation is very important.
Though the art world convened in Kassel last week for the opening of dOCUMENTA (13), Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s exhibition reaches far beyond the town’s borders. With outposts in Kabul, Banff and Cairo, this year’s dOCUMENTA allows a selection of the nearly 300 artists to operate directly in the locations to which their work pertains. One of those artists is Berlin-based Jeanno Gaussi. Born in Kabul to parents of German and Afghan descent, Gaussi’s work refers back to her roots, critically examining her varied cultural background and the limitations it creates. In Kassel, this takes the form of a series of paintings of Afghan men and women at the former Elisabeth Hospital, while her installation in Kabul focuses more directly on the recent military interventions and the subsequent changing landscape of her home town. For the berlin art journal, Dorothea Schöne spoke to the artist about reconnecting with her roots, the challenges of being the diaspora, and being a stranger to oneself.
Dorothea Schöne: You were born in Kabul and lived there for the first years of your life before moving to Berlin, where you have been residing now for over 20 years. Do you perceive yourself at all within boundaries of nationality?
Jeanno Gaussi: This is a question I can’t really answer. I became aware of the fact that I am Afghan in steps and phases. There were moments when this didn’t matter at all, for example during the years I lived in Delhi/India. I have more memories from those times than from my time in Afghanistan.
It began more recently, partly because I started going back to Kabul. I started to reconnect with the fragmentary memories of my childhood, to link them with what and who I am now. Only since then have I asked myself what may be Afghan about me and whether it is more a matter of personality and character than of nationality that defines me. My personal living situation and the number of times I moved to different places plays a major role here. I have been influenced by at least three different cultures—the German, the Indian and the Afghan culture—and I can’t really take them apart and de-fragment them. I don’t even think that I would want to do that. Instead I analyse particular moments, situations and contexts that have influenced me and that may have caused certain reactions in me.
DS: How do you react, when your art is labelled as Afghan or even as migrant art?
JG: If somebody called my work Afghan, I would think that this person hadn’t looked closely enough or hadn’t fully thought through what I could have meant, because this is exactly what my work is not about. I try to re-contextualise and analyse certain fragments of cultural material. Thus, one cannot really call me a diaspora artist.
If you look at the work I did during residencies in Pakistan, Jordan, Palestine and the United States, or even here in Berlin, you quickly realise that I look into the situations and particularities of each place and context. In Jordan, for example, I was living in a small village with 100 inhabitants—all in their 80s it seemed—and I completely immersed myself into this place. The result was the project Home Sweet Home, which I did in collaboration with the Lebanese artist Youmna Chlala. In this piece we addressed various aspects of the topic "home," focusing less from a geographical point of view and more by what a home is defined by.
Generally speaking, I do see that there is a whole generation of artists who are living in the diaspora and who aim to overcome this narrow geographical definition and the boundaries of a national background. Most of them, including me, are multi-cultural, act globally and reject national categories as modes of defining and analysing their work.
DS: Partly due to your multi-cultural background, you have been invited to show at this year’s dOCUMENTA (13). For this you have been commissioned to make two artworks: one for the main venue in Kassel and the other for the additional venue in Kabul. Can you explain what these works are about?
JG: When I was five years old my mother thought it best that I live with my aunt in Germany because of the Russian-Afghan war. My parents and brother stayed in Kabul and were only able to join me three years later. When they got the opportunity to leave Afghanistan for good, they had the chance to collect a few belongings and 30 family images out of our many albums.
When we were reunited, I felt that I was a stranger to myself and to my family; I forgot my mother tongue and their reappearance confused me.
Today, I still feel there is a gap in my understanding of my family history.
The description of how my family talks about these images lacks clarity or continuity. Their resort to a nostalgic narrative does not help me figure out the puzzle of my early childhood years.
In 2008, during my first trip back to Kabul since 1978, I met a painter in who still manages to make a living by painting commissioned pieces, signs and billboards. In his shop, which is close to the neighbourhood where I was brought-up, we talked about his life during the war and how he managed to survive the trauma through painting. I decided to work with him and make him my mediator—a decoder or an investigator—through painting a selection of these 30 images. The slow process of painting brings more details and clues to the surface.
After he finished painting each photo, we conducted an interview. We concentrated on his observations, his native eye and his knowledge. I asked him to share with me his neutral point of view. Since he was not a family member, he was not as personally affected by the images as I was. By way of the interview, a link is thus created between my photographic and painted history.
DS: What are you showing in Kabul?
JG: The work I created for the space in Kabul is called “Peraan-e-Tombaan (pants and shirt)”. I had the idea for it whilst repeatedly visiting the country in the last four years. I realised then how military and police forces characterise the city more and more. Kabul is dominated by traces of security and war. Everywhere you face blocked streets and convoys of big, bulletproof cars. Streets are packed with high numbers of men wearing various types of uniform. Their uniforms carry many indefinable military insignias. I have no idea about their rank or function. After being at the old Bazaar, close to Kabul River, I bumped into several small shops where everyone can easily buy all these insignias—which I did.
Peraan-e-Tombaan is an installation of six to eight examples of traditional Afghan men's clothing—a combination of loose pants and knee-length, wide shirts. The shirt often has embroidery in various designs around the chest. The costumes are made from fabric, which is usually used for military and police uniforms. After the embroidery work was done I designed and added a pattern, which is a variation of the insignias.
A group of traditional Atan dancers wore these dresses and performed their dance, which I filmed. Atan began as a folk dance and is now considered the national dance of Afghanistan.
Due to the strong military and security presence in Kabul in recent decades, the townscape and living space has changed significantly. This affects society and the question of national identity as well as one's own perception of culture and tradition. Peraan-e-Tombaan is a piece that refers to the socio-political situation in Afghanistan.
[Images: Kunsthalle Fridericianum, photographed by Nils Klinger. "Family Stories," 2011–12, Jeanno Gaussi, Afghan painter commissioned by the artist: Ustad Sharif Amin; courtesy the artist, commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13), photographed by Matthias Grobe]
100 Notes – 100 Thoughts for dOCUMENTA (13)—
Hatje Cantz and dOCUMENTA (13) publish a collection of notebooks as a prelude to the exhibition, which opens in June. A book review by Anna Daneri
Article and photos by Jeni Fulton in Berlin; Tuesday, June 12, 2012
With dOCUMENTA (13), Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has created an exhibition which points to the paradox at the heart of contemporary art. As she puts in her opening statement: “the riddle of art is that we don’t know what it is, until it no longer is what it was,” resulting in an exhibition with no central concept. Bakargiev neither wants to contribute towards “cognitive capitalism” via a footnote-studded text, nor have artists illustrate a curatorial theme: instead, she admonishes us to relinquish our anthropocentric perspective and rejoice in a neo-Romantic attempt to unify nature und humanity into a glorious Whole.
Ryan Gander fills five out of nine otherwise bare rooms on the Fridericianum’s ground floor with a cool breeze, and in an adjoining room, Ceal Floyer’s sound installation intones “I just keep on trying/til I get it right” – there is no end goal, only endless permutations which edge us nearer to understanding (but understanding what?). The concept of no concept is carried further in physicist Anton Zeilinger experiments showing the wave/particle duality of photons in a classical two-slit experiment, metaphorically emphasising the decentred notion of art in operation. Bakargiev’s show can give the impression of being the world’s largest interdisciplinary symposium: performance art sits beside particle physics and canine sculpture gardens, all grouped around the concepts of theatre, being under siege, and anticipation and withdrawal.
This results in a show that feels surprisingly light and playful. The dreaded didactic panel, a German museum favourite used to evince metaphysical banalities and obvious descriptions is used sparingly, and only when the work requires it. In fact, the entire exhibition is sparse on information: the catalogue only holds brief descriptions of the pieces and artists involved, eschewing lengthy explanatory essays – these are part of the 100 days, 100 essays series of books. In the Fridericianum, Bakargiev has installed a “brain”, essentially a panoply of ideas which guided the exhibition, acting in place of a concept. These range from 3500 year-old “Bactrian Princesses”, over arte povera artist Guiseppe Penone’s river stone Essere fiume 6, to Man Ray’s eye metronomes, to photographs of Lee Miller in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub. She has included the Egyptian artist Ahmed Basiony’s mobile phone videos taken just before he was shot in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and semi-destroyed artefacts from the National Museum in Beirut.
When her idea of decentredness works as with Mario Garcia Torres exploration of Boettis One Hotel in Kabul (1972-1978), and the Gander, it is a strong illustration of the current feeling of contemporary art – that nothing is certain, that there are few or no limits, and that ultimately, the autonomy of art itself is in question. Where she fails, she fails spectacularly, as in the laboured juxtaposition of Salvador Dali’s disintegrating figures and the immunologist Alexander Tarakhovsky’s DNA test tubes and centrifuges. Tarakhovsky works in the field of epigenetics, studying the impact of external influences on genome expression. Presumably Dali’s distressed figures are intended as a warning against the pathogens of “complacency” and “dogma” – a collapse into specious nominalism.
While much of the work reflects on the deleterious impact of war on culture, with remnants of Bamyian Buddhas being shown alongside the remnants of books from a Kassel library bombed during World War II (Michael Rakowitz, What Dust Will Rise), the key achievement here is that it is strong enough to withstand falling into the miasma of pathos, and simplistic enough to give peace a chance messaging that so often besets this type of work. Francis Alys’ film Reel/Unreel (available on the documenta website) is, on first sight, a simple sequence of two boys playing chase with two 35 mm film cartridges through the streets of Kabul. Tap a little deeper, and it is a homage to the members of the Kabul film institute, who, by handing out film prints (and not the original negatives) to the Taliban saved the stock from destruction, and to art’s current focus on obsolete media.
In general, the exhibition veers wildly from a focus on its above core themes, and its avowed anti-conceptualism. While the latter tendency (possibly encapsulated by the “theatre” category) lulls the viewer into a sense of almost childlike wonder and delight, the former serves as counterpoint – for instance, when one comes face to face with Kader Attia’s photographs of WW1 facial injuries which he combines with broken African statues to astonishing effect.
The strongest positions are contained in the Fridericianum, and while Bakargiev has included a previously unmatched number of off-sites (including a bank vault, a bunker, a hotel, a parking garage and a derelict house) in addition to the Documenta stalwarts Hauptbahnhof, Documenta-Halle and the Karlsaue park, these are hit-and-miss in terms of their incorporation into the exhibition as whole. Signposting and orientation are occasionally inaccurate, and given the nature of some pieces (Jimmie Durham’s cabinet at the Ottoneum, for example), or Gander’s reader in the Orangerie café, in danger of vanishing into their surroundings altogether. The Documenta-halle includes traditional media: numerous drawings by Gustav Metzger, and large-scale Julie Mehretus alongside Thomas Bayerle’s man-machines. It all feels a bit epic and spectacularist.
Strong off-sites included Theaster Gates occupation and restitution of the historic Huguenot house, restored with material from Chicago. Gates had included videos and installations focusing on the 1960’s civil rights movement, and included performances by Mississippi musicians. His workers lived and cooked onsite, providing for a more interesting relational aesthetics experience. The sound art pieces were some of the strongest showings at the Documenta (13), ranging from Tino Sehgals performance (20 a cappella singers in a blacked-out hotel room, surrounding the viewers in a wall of vocals) to Susan Philipsz’ haunting cello and violin duo which drifted out across the industrial Hauptbahnhof site. A highlight was Cevdet Erek’s Room of Rhythms, a site-specific installation in an empty shop-floor in the C & A clothing store. 60 bpm bass and high-hats drifted through the space, echoing the passage of time (and the number of windows), and appropriated (and distorted) department store signs littered the room.
The vast range of media, artists, themes and references provide for an uneven, but ultimately strong showing. The concept of no concept allows the viewer sufficient space to view the works sans ideological glasses: while Bakargiev may want to emancipate strawberries, she draws the line at emancipating art from the museum/the white cube/and so on as previous Documentas have attempted to do. The inclusion of what basically amounts to the entire city of Kassel (and Kabul, and Cairo, and Banff) forms an elegant Gesamtkunstwerk for the viewer to wander through, an augmented city where nothing is as it seems, and where little guidance is provided as to what should be thought.
Jeni Fulton is a writer focussing in and on the international Berlin art scene. She is currently working on her PhD thesis in contemporary art theory. Having taken her MA in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, she now lives and works in Berlin.
© 2012 Deutsche Welle
DW tours dOCUMENTA (13)
The world’s biggest art exhibition in Kassel breaks all conventional formats. Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev invites radical thinking, giving her artists free rein to experiment.
The room is dark; you can’t see your hands in front of your face, only hissing and moaning sounds can be heard. Unsuspecting documenta visitors inside the room are confused. Slowly, a dozen dancers appear.
It is a spectacular, albeit strange, experience. German-British artist Tino Sehgal and his dance troupe provide one of the highlights of Kassel art show and at the same time represent a trend at this thirteenth edition of documenta, which explodes all conventional assumptions about art. Sehgal’s performance piece blends well into the concept of documenta, curated this year by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.
But is it art?
There is no concept, preached Christov-Bakargiev on numerous occasions in the run-up to the show. It sounds coquettish, but that can also be a concept: to allow anything and everything. The curator was fully aware that there would be perpetual talk of some concept or other at documenta. How could it be otherwise?
“What some of these participants do, and what they ‘exhibit’ at documenta may or may not be art. However, their acts, gestures, thoughts, and knowledges produce and are produced by circumstances that are readable by art, aspects that art can cope with and absorb,” explained Christov-Bakargiev to the press on Wednesday. “The borders between what is art and what is not art are becoming less and less important.”
That is also a concept: “Documenta is a state of mind.”
Down with convention
Christov-Bakargiev’s concept of art is most closely allied to “antagonism.” Her aversion to everything traditional, conventional, to the art exhibited at classic institutions, is so pronounced that everything else is secondary. This is evident in her writings and speeches.
The participating artists, however, are much less theoretical. At the beginning of documenta, it’s fair to say that Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev herself appears to be a central piece of the art spectacle. But not so much so that the show collapses under the weight of her theoretical constructs.
The artists, media theorist and programmer living in Cologne, David Link, fits this schema. He is a professor of experimental technology in the context of art in Leipzig. His first appearance at documenta is based on the theme of “man and machine.” Link also avoids current thinking on the issue: “Most people believe, when they think of a computer, that they came from the US some time in the 1970s.” But computers were being built in the immediate post-war period, above all in Britain.
Link has reconstructed one of these historic computers, the “Manchester Mark 1.” He was fascinated by the fact that the pioneering programmers first fed the computer software for generating love letters. “In a media-archaeological approach, Link constructs alternative histories of neglected and often forgotten technologies and creates scenarios which show the poetic and affective capacities of technology,” according to the curators.
New life in old rooms
The American Theaster Gates has produced one of the biggest and most unusual projects at documenta. A multi-storey house and hotel built in Kassel in 1826, the Hugenottenhaus, which was badly damaged during the war and remained empty since the 1970s, has been turned into a type of German-American culture commune by Gates. Young people from Chicago and Kassel have been living in the house for weeks now. The aim of the American artist and activist is to develop new models for communal living and cultural exchange. Or, as the documenta curators put it, “The customary course of gentrification should be counteracted.”
The Hugenottenhaus in Kassel is open to visitors. Every room – apart from the bedrooms – can be entered and viewed and visitors can exchange their views with the residents. It’s a piece of beloved utopia and an impressive walk-in sculpture.
These are just three of 160 works at documenta. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has opened new horizons at the international art exhibition with her concept that doesn’t want to be a concept. Perhaps that has less to do with her theoretical pleas than with the selection of artists and academics.
Author: Jochen Kürten / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen