Saturday, 27 October 2012


Reviewing my mail the day we got back from Documenta 13 I found requests in my mail from various NGOs, as usual frantically asking for help with disasters in Africa and war regions in the world. It felt like I was still at Documenta. It seemed that every artist in this wide-ranging exhibition was either addressing a war or political disaster or had been the victim of one. A number of the works were by long dead people, often from the Holocaust, but always defined in the context of struggle against oppression. Even the Canadian landscape painter Emily Carr was defined in the context of struggle (I wondered why Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, her US and Mexican contemporaries were not also included).

 The exhibition was mobbed and between the crowds, the tiny label text that forced us to wait to see who had done the installations and why, and the lines waiting to go into restricted rooms (Leaves of Grass, Geoffrey Farmer's thousands of little shadow puppets cut out from Life magazine, was the biggest letdown, after a 40 minute wait), it was impossible to see even half of the works in two days there. But we didn't really care. I have a strong interest in and commitment to political art, but the focus on war crimes, death, deformation, environmental degradation and political oppression quickly felt like hectoring to me. And, as The Art Newspaper reviewer said, the exhibition totally lacked irony or humor. I began to look at the labels only long enough to identify what indignity the artist had suffered.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is far more present in this exhibition than any curator I recall in the past. A significant number of the works are commissioned for dOCUMENTA, which is to be expected, but there are also works co-created by the artist and the curator, objects inserted by the curator, and a conference room designed by the curator, all of them conscientiously credited to her. On the one hand, it's pretty amazing how much she accomplished in so many sites in Kassel and elsewhere; on the other, her omnipresence hinted at new possibilities for curatorial arrogance. With that in mind, it may not be surprising that the introduction to the exhibition is rambling and wanders pretty widely One puzzling sentence: "There are terrains where politics are inseparable from a sensual, energetic, and worldly alliance between current research in various scientific and artistic fields and other knowledges, both ancient and contemporary." That would seem to cover it all.

We did not see the entire exhibition and missed much in the park, although we wandered through part of it. I gather that many of the works in the park were quite subtle. One, co-created with Jimmie Durham, we did not see, but Tom and I both found its description in The Guidebook puzzling. It appears that artist Durham and curator Christov-Bakargiev each planted a supposedly rare apple tree. Hers was one of a line created by a prisoner at Dachau; Durham's choice was the "extremely rare" Arkansas Black he remembered from his childhood. The Arkansas Black actually is not that rare; our friends buy it in local grocery stores here in Kansas. And as apple farmers, find Arkansas Black fairly available, although we don't like the taste that much. Of course, planting apple trees increases Tom's questioning the exhibition's idea of art, while I've been just figuring that it is, as critics have said, more about creativity. But the creativity always relates to politics.

Curatorially, or design-wise, the exhibition had one enormous weakness. The objects are mostly impossible to comprehend without explanation and a great many of them have little or no aesthetic interest, so it's important to get some idea of the concept. In order to do so one must read labels that are printed in type no larger than what I'm using here and no more than three people can see them at one time. These small typeface labels flout accessibility requirements, but apparently accessibility to visually impaired visitors was of no interest to the exhibition planners. The labels were often in very low light as well, making them even more inaccessible.

Having read advance notices, I came to the Fredericianum expecting to see the ground floor empty. Having enjoyed Ryan Gander's work at Venice last summer, I was interested in seeing what he would do with the empty spaces and did wonder how he created the breeze in those empty rooms. I have no idea what Christov-Bakargiev had in mind keeping the rooms empty, but they are quite lovely spaces with nice windows. But even there there were objects. One of them was a five-page handwritten letter displayed flat in a floor case. With several people already reading this letter, installed by the curator with the permission of the writer, I gave up trying to see what it was about. Our friend told me the artist was apologizing profusely for not participating in the exhibition. After spending two days there, I can imagine excellent reasons to have bowed out. Another otherwise empty space included three sculptures by Julio Gonzalez (1876-1942) that were included in Documenta II in 1959. The description says "To return to Gonzalez in this context is a recapitulation of the work of sorrow....that documenta historically carried out in the realm of art and culture, following global destruction, during the reconstruction of Germany and Europe." The sculptures are small abstractions of the human figure made in the 1930s. I really don't get the connection, althought it's kind of cool to see something that was included in the second Documenta exhibition.

Some of the installations are very engaging. Kader Attia made an extremely complex installation of a slide show of survivors of disastrastrous facial damage in World War I juxtaposed with African masks; wood carvings by Africans depicting the men in the slides; books on African art, culture, colonialism, and World War I; and war remnants - shells, weapons, tools - some of them made into useful objects. The huge arrangement seems like a history or anthropology museum display. The slide show is horrific and the sculptures abstract the reality. I'm not sure if the African sculptures were intended to suggest the similarity of traditional African masks and the distorted faces or if , as the guidebook suggests, the system of repairing African sculptures relates to the repair of the faces, or he is making connection between World War I and Africa. The shell casings and objects made from war refuse also suggest, I suppose, an aspect of repair.

We came upon on large display as we were trying to find the Fredericianum exit after making a search for the installation by Emily Jacir, whose work I have found very engaging at Venice and other places. (Here her cell-phone photographs of pages from Palestinian books taken from Palestinian homes and kept in the Jewish National Library in West Jerusalam as abandoned property were puzzling, since the actual images are often of nearly blank pages.)

Leaving her installation, we went through the wrong door and happened upon a fascinating and disturbing installation by Michael Rakowitz, also dealing with destruction and books. Rakowitz spent time in Afghanistan, in Bamiyan, actually, with the purpose of reviving the practice of stone carving in the area where the Taliban had destroyed two enormous 6th-century Buddha images in 2001, despite international protests. Using stone from Bamiyan, he had his newly trained carvers make reproductions of books from the library of the Landgraves of Hesse-Kassel, that was destroyed by British bombers in 1941. (We were surprised that the bombing took place so relatively early in the war and understood the destruction of the library to have been an example of "collateral damage." The fact that Kassel was a huge center of Nazi arms manufacture was not mentioned in any labels we read.) Looking at the stone images of books we were engaged by some of the identifying labels, most memorably by the one for The Story of Ferdinand (1936), which we recalled as a charming children's story, but the label said the book was internationally controversial as a pacifist book and banned in Nazi Germany and fascist Spain. Bits of bombs, anecdotes about the British bombers dropping stones from Coventry on Kassel or the Taliban destroying the Buddhas because the West cared more about the sculptures than poor people, and remains of burned books amused or angered me. I found it particularly troubling that the artist, and the curator, equated destructon of a library as collateral damage in wartime with intentional and unprovoked government destruction of historic works of art because they represent a different religion.

Hugenot House bedroom
 A widely celebrated project of Documenta was Hugenot House, a decrepit building that the Chicago artist Theaster Gates proposed to renovate and install with artworks made from remnants of destitute buildings in Chicago. We visited it with great anticipation. The building was still in terrible condition, possibly worse condition than when Gates first occupied it, with torn layers of wallpaper, exposed electric cables, and non-functioning bathrooms. There was a modest functioning kitchen and several small dormitory-style rooms that were apparently in use, as well as several video installations in otherwise unfinished rooms. Our friends found the restoration project daunting and Tom did not see how building renovation, something that was once his family business, could be considered an art project. Having been very enthusiastic about this concept, I was really disappointed at the lack of visible success and the quality of the work altogether.

 Hugenot House

On our second day, we visited the documenta-Halle, where there were drawings by Gustav Metzger, a Holocaust survivor and artist famous for "auto-destructive art," made between 1945 and 1959 that have not been previously shown. They were strong objects, but each one was under a cloth that had to be lifted to see it and the process became tedious for so many drawings. The drawings seem very traditional compared to the work for which he is known.

An installation of enormous airplane images and working engines by Thomas Bayrle interested Tom, but not so much me.

I found the former Elisabeth Hospital installation of works by Afghan artists to be quite interesting, primarily just because it was a whole building devoted to one group of artists. Several years ago I was very taken by videos by Lida Abdul, who was also included in this space. I didn't "get" What We Have Overlooked, the video shown here, and don't make sense of the catalogue explanation.

Mark Dion, Oak
In the Ottoneum, the science museum, Mark Dion constructed a beautiful marquetry display cabinet for the Museum's "wood library," a collection of miniature dioramas shaped like books, depicting 441 species of wood, made by Carl Schildbach between 1771 and 1779. Dion added his own dioramas of species from continents not represented in the collection plus one of Oak, in homage to Josef Beuys's "iconic planting of 7000 oak trees in Kassel for documenta 7 and 8 from 1982 to 1987." (quoted from museum label). The wood of the object comes from one of Beuy's 7000 oak trees. The display cabinet is lovely and functional and the additional objects expand the range of  the educational potential of the collection.

Amar Kanwar

In an installation in the same building, The Sovereign Forest, Indian artist Amar Kanwar combined a video installation with the display of multiple samples of types of rice. I didn't really understand what it was about (and have trouble connecting the images I saw with his statements about mining's destruction of the ecology of the state of Orissa, even though I believe him), but the whole thing was poetic and beautifully presented.

Hundreds of artists were included and more than 800,000 people visitied dOCUMENTA (13). A huge amount of the work is fascinating, as I've already discovered through seeing some of the artists in other contexts. Two months later, however, I still remember the gathering of objects and installations as oppressive.

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