Dispatch dOCUMENTA (13)

By: Monroe Denton

Documenta Halle. Photo: Nils Klinger.There are more than 150 biennials or periodic international art exhibitions in the world today. The granddaddy is the Venice Biennale, opened in 1895 to encourage tourism when the railroad made escape from the lagoon city too easy, simultaneously encouraging the newly developing market for contemporary art. As with most of its successors, Venice is something of a national competition, with different countries maintaining pavilions or renting spaces to show the visual art of its citizenry.

After World War II, Arnold Bode, an art historian whose writings had been banned by the Nazis, returned to his hometown, Kassel, and persuaded the German government to organize the first iteration of dOCUMENTA. It differed from the biennials in being centrally financed and curated by one master curator. After a decade, the interval between iterations was normalized at every five years. The length of the exhibition was fixed at 100 days, and for that period, twice a decade, Kassel has become the home of the greatest art show in the world. This year, over 750,000 people have attended the Hessian provincial seat for the exhibition, which requires two to four days of steady viewing.

dOCUMENTA is the grandest international exhibition. This year’s director, American-born Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, did away with a theme so artists could expand and breathe more freely, as could visitors, when not trying to second-guess a visual argument. She concentrated exhibitions in a geographically sensible space. Recent editions had become so far flung that four days or more were required to navigate the installations, the last in a show of art world snobbery that even included the infamously expensive and experimental restaurant El Bulli as part of its program. Within her schema, Christov-Bakargiev did include programs in Kabul, Cairo, and Alexandria, as well as a week in Banff, but this exhibition was marked by generosity. Occupy protesters were allowed to remain encamped in front of the Fridericianum, the Hessian palace and traditional center of dOCUMENTA focus, balanced by a mock tent village on the other half of the square. Neither registered much protest in the summer heat. A fascinating addition to the program was the de/tour—walks through the exhibitions led by local residents—a lawyer, a judge, a farmer, a student. These were not free, but they participated in the economy of the gift more than the alienating academic discourses that can become the fate of these shows.

Carol Bove, Floras Garden, 2012, petrified wood, steel, bronze, brass, concrete, dimensions variable. Photo: Nils Klinger.The distance from the earlier high rollers’ aspirations of five years ago could be symbolized in New Yorker Robin Kahn’s collaboration with homeless women from Western Sahara to install a tent at the edges of the Baroque garden of the royal palace, to serve couscous or tea free to viewers. Kahn’s tent was an exceptional outpost in what may be the default impression of this dOCUMENTA (13)—a gathering of small, fairy-tale like huts, two dozen in all, scattered within the Baroque stringencies of the park. These fit Kassel nicely, a town associated primarily with the Brothers Grimm.

Elsewhere, Theaster Gates created a setting within the decaying Huguenot House, where a team of students under the direction of the artist lived and created works from scraps of a destroyed Chicago building, wedded to German detritus. It’s all a bit of shabby chic that would probably terrify the African-American singer whose rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is one of the “Twelve Ballads for the Huguenot House.”

The most popular attractions both in the park and in the railroad station that is the second space for the fair, and the site of many larger installations, were both created by the same team: Canadian sound artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. At the Hauptbahnhof (railroad station) participants carried handheld video monitors through a twenty-minute narrative. They guided an exploration of the building, from its serving as a deportation point for Hessian Jews during the Second World War through a romantic pas de deux with one interpolated view. Here visitors could discover the site of the couple’s installation in the garden’s woods—a haunting three-part evocation of a dream, war, and the intimacy of love. Fifty people at a time listened to the story, breathless, in ambient stereoscope sound.

Christov-Bakargiev’s guiding concept was a marriage of time and space. Entering the main hall of the neoclassical Fridericianum, the striking absence of art in what experienced dOCUMENTA viewers may have recalled as visually crowded spaces, there was the constant breeze directed by the artist Ryan Gander. In the large white gallery to the left were three small sculptures by Julio Gonzalez, who had been featured at dOCUMENTA 2, Art After 1945 (the 1942 date of Gonzalez’s death betrays a poetic approach to facts). An adjacent archival photograph showed that these were indeed the three works from fifty years ago. The plexiglas vitrine attested to the dominance of tourism and the spiraling art market. In the left-hand gallery, a single horizontal vitrine held six pages of a handwritten letter by Kai Althoff withdrawing from dOCUMENTA, citing the pressures of his career militating against the type of reentry into his native Germany. The gesture reinforced the significance of the exhibition and suggested (perhaps disingenuously) a curatorial transparency.

Tacita Dean, Fatigues, 2012, chalk on blackboard, six panels. Photo: Nils Klinger. Althoff’s other appearance was a painting in the centerpiece (up to one hour queue for admission) literally and figuratively, The Brain. This evoked both a cabinet of curiosities and Aby Warburg’s pairings for art historical scrutiny. There were a half dozen or so Giorgio Morandis and a selection of the artist’s studio props behind a dozen or so striking Bactrian Princesses—elegant, small seated female figures from the region around and including Afghanistan, made of two or more stones. The works truly deserved the description, “timeless.” Nearby was a grouping of American-born Man Ray’s Indestructible Object through its numerous editions, conjuring witnesses to the death of the author, and questions of authenticity, as a whole. A photograph of his then-mistress/ muse Lee Miller also was featured. Nearby were Miller’s own photographs of her bath in Hitler’s conquered bunker, looking alluringly beyond an Arno Breker classicizing torso. This web of contradictory signals traps many questions of the lessons of history, and emphasizes how they multiply our experience of the present. At the same time, the signals invite future interpretations aimed at the hearts of these uneasy exhibitions.

The journey continued: MANIFESTA

Half a day away by train from dOCUMENTA (13), the grandest international exhibition, is Manifesta. Developing the centrally curated model, with some twists, Manifesta began in 1996, organized in Rotterdam by a largely Dutch group of critics, as a biennial of European art, an outgrowth of European unification. It differed from the start from dOCUMENTA in its nomadic character; Manifesta exhibitions tend to be staged in imperiled spaces rather than dedicated art institutions. Its curators have tended to be critics or theorists more than curators, although such distinctions have faded over the years. Its devotion to politics resulted in the cancellation of the 2006 edition, which had been scheduled for Nicosia, Cyprus. This year, it was in Genk, in Limburg, Belgium, staged in a deserted coal mine. Genk hosted an excellent Manifesta. Holding all exhibitions in one area helped.

The discourse seemed less like a competition for venues, as in other editions; this was more a discussion. It is the “Occupy” Manifesta from the old guys manning the cafeteria to the abandoned coal mine—themselves most likely redundant and working here either to spell their visits to one of the “clubs” across the way or to pay the rent—to the electricity in the repurposed building which was conducted through copper (the most recyclable material) bought at auction from a decommissioned nuclear plant by Rosella Biscotti (who made Carl Andre-esque floor sculptures with the lead from the same contaminated site); upstairs, Claire Fontaine recreated the neon sign from the House of Energetic Culture in Pripyat, a city close to Chernobyl.

The “European biennial” showed expansive if not expansionist sensibilities. The curatorial team was headed by a Mexican, with the proudly per-conquest name Cuauhtemoc Medina, a Greek working out of Brussels; ex-Deste Foundation [Athens] Katerina Gregos and the redoubtable English historian of all things surrealist (and Latin American), Dawn Ades. The inclusion of Ades in the curatorial team indicated this would be the direction at Genk.

There was also a fair amount of ephemera, as one has come to expect: at the entrance was a haunting work of installation design. Inside a white vitrine, surrounded by lights like a sacred relic, was a very small torn photograph dating from 1952. It was a photograph of Spyros Roumeliotis and Polyxeni Papoutsi. When Roumeliotis had departed to become what would be the equivalent of a “guest worker” in the mines, the couple had divided this, their only image of themselves or the other. He took her image; she retained his in Greece; when they were reunited, she sewed the two halves together, creating the icon here displayed. Powerful, haunting, mythological and personal, it summed the directions of the exhibition.

Historical material included a very limited reproduction of Duchamp’s 1938 Surrealist Exhibition, although the photographs seem to contradict the reconstruction (e.g. here, the light brazier had simulated glowing coals under dusty top lighted coal sacks; whereas in the documentary evidence, the braziers are brightly lighted with electric sources, it would seem, and the bottoms of the gags are almost white). One wished they had turned to Jill Sturtevant, the octogenarian artist who has appropriated the Duchamp material in the past. Elsewhere, the hard-to-get David Hammons had a show-stopper installation (1989, on loan from a Vienna museum). There were nine grand piano lids placed on end with mounds of coal and a model railway train running through. Here was color as blackness itself—as material, as form, as fuel, as symbol.


Monroe Denton is a writer and critic based in New York City.

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