dOCUMENTA is considered one of the most important recurring exhibitions in the world. A curated exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, it is a dream come true for anyone who likes conceptual art. While hype for dOCUMENTA (13) began years in advance, reviews of past dOCUMENTAs have been wildly mixed, heightening my excitement and leaving me completely unsure of what to expect. This year’s expansive 100 day exhibition not only reaches into parks, forests, plazas, bunkers, galleries, museums, train stations, parking lots, coffee houses, cinemas, and fountains, but also includes concurrent programming in three locations: Kabul, Afghanistan; Alexandria, Egypt; and Banff, Canada. 193 artists participate in Kassel alone this year (with about 300 total participating for dOCUMENTA, including the other locations.) Selections ranging from the dead and famous, like Man Ray, to the young and popular, like London’s Ryan Gander, make the artist list resemble a pantheon of worldwide artists.
As a New Yorker, I was looking forward to seeing the work of the elected curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who previously initiated and co-curated the first Greater New York exhibition at PS1 in 2000 when she was senior curator. For this year’s dOCUMENTA (13), Christov-Bakargiev has outlined four main conditions in which artists and thinkers (as the show is also laden with “non-art”) operate today:
1) Under siege. I am encircled by the others, besieged by the others.
2) On retreat. I am withdrawn. I choose to leave the others. I sleep.
3) In a state of hope or optimism. I dream. I am the dreaming subject of anticipation.
4) On stage. I am playing a role. I am a subject in the act of re-performing.
And this is as close as you’ll come to a dOCUMENTA theme.
In preparation for the visit, my German friend, Georgia, came with me and rented us both bikes in Kassel. Without them, we would have hardly come close to seeing a quarter of the Kassel installations. However, while I expected to be exhausted after three full days of dOCUMENTA, I felt surprisingly invigorated. The travel between installations all across the town, a very physical experience of dOCUMENTA’s ongoing dialogue of time and space, helped clear the mind and re-energize the senses.
Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull), 2012, Fridericianum. A gentle breeze pulling the spectator through the gallery space, dimensions variable. Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; gb agency, Paris; Johnen Galerie, Berlin; Lisson Gallery, London; TARO NASU, Tokyo. Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Groupe Galeries Lafayette, Paris. Photo by Nils Klinger.
To avoid the pouring, frigid rain on the first day, we started with the Fridericianum, Kassel’s main museum and typically the main venue of dOCUMENTA. We entered into Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize (The Invisible Pull), a gentle breeze running continuously, with no obvious start or end point, throughout the ground floor, allowing the viewer to steer their own course. I imagined this would be a subtle and intimate experience (the spectator in Nils Klinger’s photograph featured in this article appears serene), in which visitors in-the-know could watch newcomers’ hair flutter as they pass from room to room, but for us it felt like a wind tunnel whirling ice down our necks.
Protected from the breeze, but still on the ground floor, was the glassed-in “brain” room filled with small objects, artwork, and artifacts acting as a cornerstone for the many angles from which dOCUMENTA could be perceived. Although there were dozens of large and stunning installations throughout Kassel, some of the tiny gestures from this room, described below, proved the most memorable.
Tamás St. Turba’s Czechoslovak Radio, 1968, 1969-2012. Photo by Katherine Cohn.
Tamás St.Turba’s brick “radios” are nothing but bricks with markings where the antennas were attached to resemble real radios. In 1968 Czechoslovakia, thousands of these “radios” were made in creative protest of the Russian military decree barring the public from listening to radio broadcasts. Thousands were confiscated despite their complete uselessness as communication devices. In the exhibition, St. Turba asserted that these objects represent “the mutation of socialist realism into neo-socialist realism: a non-art art for and by all” and reproduced as an unlimited multiple.
A feat of haunting curatorial assemblage in another section included a selection of various editions of Man Ray’s Object to be Destroyed/Object of Destruction/Indestructible Object, each consisting of a ready-made metronome affixed with an image of his lover Lee Miller’s dreamy eye. These editions were made after the lost/destroyed original of 1923. Sitting static, frozen in time, these eyes stare from the upper shelves of a traditional display case, above an assortment of Hitler’s personal belongings, including his monogrammed bath towel. Facing these heavily charged objects on a wall only a few feet away, was a series of portraits of Lee Miller herself (taken by photographer David E. Scherman) bathing in Hitler’s bathtub the day of his suicide, “washing herself of his crimes,” and featuring the same monogrammed bath towel. This riveting study on the healing power of art physically draws the viewer, as in Gander’s work, into the paradox of being simultaneously the subject of a gaze and the gazer.
Kader Attia’s The Repair from Occident to Extra- Occidental Cultures, 2012, “The Repair”: genuine artifacts from Africa; “Repair as cultural anthropophagy and resistance”: video films, vitrines, artifacts from Africa and Europe, medical and military elements from World War I; “Relecture”: life-size sculptures in wood and marble, plinths; dimensions variable. Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support and courtesy of Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Le Moulin; Galerie Christian Nagel Berlin/Cologne/Antwerp; Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna. Further support by Fondation nationale des arts graphiques et plastiques, France; Aarc— Algerian Ministry of Culture. Photo by Katherine Cohn.
Elsewhere, Kader Attia’s installation, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012, composed a grand-scale visual essay on ethical and aesthetic concepts of “repair.” We entered into a low-lit room with a small slideshow to the right and a long wooden display case behind, both presenting Attia’s concept of “cultural re-appropriation” including necklaces, frames, and letter openers made from empty bullet cases—mostly domestic objects re-using artifacts of colonization and war. The room opened into a spotlighted series of stacked metal shelves showcasing contemporary African sculptures of European soldiers who received plastic surgery for war wounds in World War I, and, in ironic contrast, contemporary African sculptures of Africans with scarifications and what appear to be animal-mauled faces. At the end of the room, past the metal shelves, was another slideshow, uniting all the images of scarification, artifact repair, plastic surgery, and decorative objects re-purposed to question the Western illusion of perfection and post-traumatic healing.
Detail of Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled, 2011-2012, alive entities and inanimate things, made and not made, dimensions and duration variable. Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Colección CIAC AC, Mexico; Fondation Louis Vuitton pour la création, Paris; Ishikawa Collection, Okayama, Japan. By courtesy of Pierre Huyghe; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York – Paris; Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photo by Nils Klinger.
On the other less wet days, we biked throughout the town catching the more dispersed works. One quite striking work, about 15 minutes from the Fridericianum, was Pierre Huyghe’s unscripted, non-chronological installation at the compost pile of Karlsaue Park. The pile was situated in a clearing in the forest through a path of puddles. Near our entrance (spectators could enter from several sides) stood piles of building materials with no clear function. I noticed Georgia rubbing the leaves of the plants growing between the stacks and smelling her fingers: marijuana. In the middle of the clearing was a large mass of mud, the compost pile, covered in an array of colorful plants which, according to Huyghe’s diagram in the catalogue, ranged in human use from sexual to digestive to psychotropic. Bringing this all together was a classical statue of a reclining woman, and from her raised left arm spiraled out a beehive that completely enclosed her face. The bees swarmed pollinating the plants, intimidating the visitors, pouring and storing honey atop the woman’s face. The female figure with head obscured (body without mind?) situated amidst a web of simulated and natural systems in a conceptual garden echoes the quote by Vinciane Despret that Christov-Bakargiev used in her curatorial essay:
And as long as this world appears as a world “we don’t care for,” it also becomes an impoverished world, a world of minds without bodies, of bodies without minds, bodies without hearts, expectations, interests, a world of enthusiastic automata observing strange and mute creatures; in other words, a poorly articulated (and poorly articulating) world.
In my opinion, there should be no question about this year’s dOCUMENTA (13). It is spectacular even in the rain, and I encourage all my friends to try and make it before time runs out.
dOCUMENTA (13) will be on view until 16 September 2012.
Top photo: View of the Orangerie in Karlsaue Park, during dOCUMENTA (13). The row of potted cypresses is Maria Loboda’s moving forest, The Work is Dedicated to an Emperor, 2012. Farther back is Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden, 2010-2012, comprised of flora growing on a six-meter high mound of biological garbage, forming a superficial bonsai mountain with neon signs reading “doing” and “nothing.” Photo by Georgia Böckel.