Most people travel to dOCUMENTA as part of a more extensive trip that includes other destinations within Europe. In 2007 I had the opportunity to attend dOCUMENTA (12) during a year when the stars aligned to create a grand art tour for the well motivated that also included the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, and Sculpture Project Munster. Traveling with a group of friends, we stayed in the city center for three days leisurely touring the exhibition, our time in Kassel sandwiched between Amsterdam and Venice, and the tendency was to treat the event as part of one big party. Like any large art fair, dOCUMENTA (13), even though it is seen as more serious then other biennals, is very similar to a theme park. It’s a giant ride that has different venues offering a cohesive yet diverse set of experiences. Unlike Venice the event does not have to compete with the city itself. For me, more importantly, the city is a major component of the exhibition, and this year more so then the 2007 incarnation.
This time around I was traveling with my fifteen year old son, and we scheduled our visit to dOCUMENTA (13) at the end of a two week trip that began in Poland, with stays in Warsaw, Krakow, and at an idyllic country house in the foothills of the Tatras Mountains. We then moved on to Germany spending time in Berlin, Dresden, and Leipzig, before finishing our journey in Kassel. We had seen enough major sites, and had gone through a variety of emotionally intense moments, visiting a number of major art and history museums, and we were more then ready to experience the event in the low key atmosphere that is Kassel. The weight of history present in the cities we visited laid a strong foundation for the work we would encounter at dOCUMENTA.
I was particularly interested in seeing the show fresh, I didn’t want to read about the works, the criticisms, or the curatorial choices, and so I did very little research prior to arriving. I did know that curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev had put together an exhibition that directly engaged with the entire city, as well as venues in Banff, Kabul, and Kairo. I was interested in a more authentic experience (if that were even possible), so even though we were visiting in August we came in blind as if it was June 16th, when the first day the exhibition opened and the official list of artists was revealed. We would navigate the show in a manner that would be something akin to an expedition. There would be plenty of time to revisit what we saw. dOCUMENTA is all about conveying information, their pop up bookshop and range of publications attest to this, and I knew there would be ample resources at the fair that we could turn to for further research. We went in with no expectations, ignored the criticisms that comes with each show, and instead let things reveal themselves as we moved from venue to venue.
For dOCUMENTA (13) we chose to stay outside of the city in a hotel up river run by a German speaking staff. We do not speak German. Arriving at the Hauptbahnhof, now the secondary train station in the city and a major venue for dOCUMENTA , my son and I took the tram that brought us closest to our accommodations, which still left us a with a 3km hike along the river with all of our gear. Our first encounter with anything related to the exhibition upon leaving the train station was a couple who passed us along the bike path, riding the official bicycles used for event, the type of bikes that are popping up in many major cities; sturdy, convenient, and ugly enough not to be stolen. As they passed we noticed that the bike ridden by the man had a joke dick drawn in marker on the rear green plastic basket, an effective spatial intervention. The majority of people attending this event come from a place of privilege in the global scheme, and we were keenly aware of that. There was no pretending that we weren’t cultural tourists.
Our goal was to take advantage of the extensive network of bike paths found throughout Germany and use only bicycles to make our pilgrimage to the event. We rented two from our hotel and set out early the next morning along the path that followed the river, and quickly transitioned from woods, to agrarian, to urban landscape. The ride into the city was a leisurely 13km. It was a sun filled and in many ways a perfect day, in sharp contrast to much of the reportage you find when reading articles that describe the weather and city of previous dOCUMENTA’s using adjectives like grey, ashen, and industrial. While the city is unremarkable, it is hardly ugly, and while I know Germany can be grey at times I’ve never experienced anything but sun on my visits to Kassel.
Arriving at the Friedrichsplatz we were greeted with the site of the familiar white metal containers that house the tickets windows, bookshop, souvenirs, and the food service set up for the event. The tone was set while we stood in line at the ticket window where Ana Prvacki’s amusing video piece played for the waiting attendees, reminding us all to consider our behavior as we negotiated the venues. The actors in the videos participated in various scenes presenting a variety of social situations meant to educate us on manners and proper behavior in a public venue. As we passed the Sinn Leffer’s Department store on our way to the Fridericianum we encountered Seth Price’s compact outdoor installation, the first of many interventions we would experience during the day as the overarching goal of the exhibition was to have the participating artists integrate their work into the city and respond to it’s history.
We planned to tour the main halls on foot, and fan out to other venues later in the day via bicycle. The Fridericianum is the traditional starting starting point of the exhibition, and we hoped it would reveal the intent of the curator. We were not disappointed. In sharp contrast to the 2007 exhibition, the ground floor was for the most part empty. At first this was puzzling. What was more puzzling was the persistent breeze that accompanied us as we walked through the foyer and the two halls. Three small sculptures by Julio Gonzáles were in the right hall, the same sculptures shown at Documenta II in 1959, and placed in the same arrangement as they had been some fifty-three years prior. In the left hall there was a letter from artist Kai Althoff, and a sound piece by Ceal Foyer. Althoff had chosen to withdraw from the event, and his name had been removed from the program. The letter, addressed to Christov-Bakargiev, asks for forgiveness for his actions and outlined his objections for participation. Foyer’s sound piece ‘Til I Get It Right, 2005, located in a small room in the rear of the hall, looped a line sung by Tammy Wynette from the song by the same name, creating a hypnotic effect that had me revisiting the room twice before leaving the hall.
Connecting these pieces was Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull), 2012, which turned out to be the persistent breeze that we had initially tried to identify as we moved through the space, asserting itself the more we passed through the foyer in search of it’s source. The ephemeral nature of this work, the sound piece by Floyer, coupled with the letter indicating the absence of Althoff, and the distant historic past represented by Gonzáles’ sculpture, began to reveal Christov-Bakargiev’s strategy. As the natural starting point for the exhibition, the absence of objects on ground floor of the Fridericianum, and the emphasis on the elusive elements that were present, reinforced the underlying idea that this exhibition would hinge on time, space, history, memory, and participation. Multiple senses were engaged by the carefully considered work, and Gander’s breeze, which rather then being read as a potentially annoying conceptual trope, was a refreshing element that helped clear away preconceived notions, opening up space for the spectator, cleansing their palette as they entered what was to come.
If the ground floor left the impression that this would be an exhibition void of objects the array of artifacts in the Rotunda, traditionally considered the Brain of dOCUMENTA, dispelled that notion. The Rotunda was teeming with objects, and it was the key to the entire exhibition. The artifacts could be viewed with a hermetic detachment through the glass that separated the gallery from the hallway, or up close for those choosing to wait in line as the space was limited to 25 visitors at any one time. Ranging from antiquity to the present, and consisting of art and non-art objects they reflected the range of issues and concerns that drove this edition of dOCUMENTA: history and politics, culture and media, science and sustainability, and the tragic and disturbing. The close proximity of these diverse objects created networks, demanded reflection, and posed sobering questions that would continue to resurface throughout the day: fused artifacts from the National Museum of Beirut melted together from shell fire during their civil war; a sculpture of a fascist neoclassical figure, and bathroom articles from Adolf Hitler’s apartment in Munich, with a corresponding photograph of photojournalist Lee Miller, taken by David E. Scherman, posing in the apartment’s bathtub on April 30, 1945, the same day Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide; a landscape by Mohammed Yusuf Asefi, who worked in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s to paint over images with watercolor in the National Gallery of Kabul, hiding figures of animals and humans to save them from destruction; Tamás St. Turba’s Czechoslovak Radio, 1968, one brick of thousands that were made in protest to a Soviet military decree banning the public from listening to radio broadcasts. Everything within the “Brain” referenced the broader event. Specific items related to the artists: the original vases used by Georgio Morandi for his still life paintings in the 40’s and 50’s; a palette knife from Lebanese artist Etel Adnan, used to make many of the paintings that we would view later in dOCUMENTA-Halle; letters and documents from Italian artist Francesco Matarrese, including one from 1978 announcing his withdrawal from art making (one of the documents, also his piece made expressly for dOCUMENTA (13), The Challenge, is a one page written statement), a miniature book by Judith Barry that is essentially a compass, a map providing access and pointing out paths of entry and departure to viewers moving through the core of the exhibition.
We would carry the experience on the ground floor and in the Rotunda throughout the day as we the navigated the rest of the exhibition spaces. The lack of objects upon entering the Friedricanium gave way to a host of work as we moved through the remainder of the buildings dedicated to the event, the Neue Gallerie and Documenta-Halle, and then fanning out into the city to the peripheral sites and Karlsrue Park, engaging a myriad of spaces and places dedicated to dOCUEMENTA.
With each venue, each artist, and each curatorial decision, one was constantly reminded of the past, present, and the future. There were major themes of science; politics (especially politics), place, and history. There was a distinct emphasis on the human condition, and social and cultural interaction, including specific pieces that dealt with well being such as Ana Prvacki’s video mentioned previously, and Stuart Ringholt’s Anger Workshops, scheduled at set times running the span of the 100 day event, where the participants took part in group therapy sessions, outwardly expressing anger and love through words and gestures, all to the beat of extremely loud house music. Ringholt’s was one of several opportunities available for the well-organized traveler, the type of visitor who loves to schedule, to actively participate in the event. Art critic Lori Waxman set up an office in a small structure on the path from the Friedrichsplatz to the Neue Galerie, and offered evaluations of actual work or reproductions for artists on a first come first serve basis for three days a week. Waxman was engaged in a critique as we passed, but our exhibition viewing strategy meant we would not be participating in the exercise. Candid written assessments of each artist’s work was provided at the end of each session, and all of the texts became part of the exhibition. The evaluations and texts were meant to offer an egalitarian opportunity for artists who might not have access to venues, markets, or institutions, where their work can get noticed, to be reviewed. The open call gave the feeling of the initial auditions found in the current popular talent shows that pervade network programming, and one could question the motivation of some of the participants. Placed at an event like dOCUMENTA it certainly limited the participation to the local or the privileged. One wonders what would have happened if Waxman had set up shop at one of the periphery locations like Kabul.
As we entered documenta-Halle, we were blissfully unaware, as I was later to read in the guidebook, that the space was dedicated to “a number of artworks thinking through what painting is today”. In thinking about the event as a whole, this would have been a constrictive way to engage the objects found there, trivializing the experience, undermining the curatorial intent, and separating the Halle for the rest of the exhibition. It was an unnecessary explanation, and it reminded me of a recent visit to the contemporary wing of the MFA in Boston where wall text made pithy, and in many ways, inaccurate commentary on the work being shown, all in the name of public accessibility. Here is where the event rubbed as close to what we expect from most biennales, large work that would dazzle the viewer, reaffirming the status of the large autonomous object of the kind you find in large institutions and blue chip galleries. To be sure the four large vertical canvases by Julie Mehrutu, made especially for dOCUMENTA (13), were a presence, using fragments of imagery and constructing spaces that referenced locations of recent political and social actions such as Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park, Mehrutu’s paintings addressed many of the issues present within the greater exhibition, and Thomas Bryles work, which took up the entire space in the basement of the Halle (basement is not a proper word to describe this immense space), was a true spectacle. His Airplane, 1982-83, a large photo montage some 8 x 13 meters, was set against seven simultaneously running car engines that sat on the floor of the room creating a repetitive rhythm and turned the entire space into a homage to Modernity.
Christov-Bakargiev balanced the scale of the larger works in the Halle by providing viewers with poignant moments for more intimate experiences. The drawings by Gustav Metzger from 1945-1960, made prior to his auto-destructive period (Metzger had a drawing in the Rotunda that had been damaged by humidity while stored in a suitcase for some fifty years) were set up specifically for individual interaction. The fragile drawings in the Halle were presented in cases that ran the length of the first room, and into one of the smaller galleries. All of them were under glass and the viewing participant had to fold back the neutral beige cloth that covered each work in order to view the individual drawings. The experience of looking at Metzger’s work outweighed any direct aesthetic experience, and it was in many ways more rewarding to observe participants in the space engaging with the work and offering reactions that ranged from disinterest to possessiveness. (One woman insisted on uncovering all the works at one time in the smaller gallery, moving the cloth as she wished even if another viewer was already engaging with a particular piece. Perhaps she purchased her ticket online and missed the videos on proper behavior at the ticket kiosk).
The work that left the greatest impression in the Halle, and served as a transition to the venues beyond, was the collaborative project by Korean artists MOON Kyungwon and JEON Joonho titled News From Nowhere, 2012. Tucked in the galleries beyond the Halle’s café on the Basement level (here the term is appropriate) MOON and JEON presented a possible vision for the future, the popular post-apocalyptic future to be more specific. The Halle housed two of the three components of the project: a film, and an installation. The third component was a publication that my son purchased later in the day at the bookshop. We were drawn to the disturbing but attractive designs for new lifestyle products, devices for surviving the apocalypse. The beautifully and convincingly crafted objects made of materials that included titanium, brushed aluminum, and industrial ceramics, were parts of a Hydrolemic System, a survival kit offering an array of external and internal prosthetic devices that would allow the post-apocalyptic survivor to exist in their new environment by recycling water present in the body. All packed neatly in to a shock proof case, the devices: Nasal Cavity Inserts (for moisture retention), Arterial-Jugular Heat Exchanger (a necklace and neck inserts that are grafted into the artery to inhibit perspiration, and also act as a power generator), the Urine Concentrator (which speaks for itself), and the very disturbing Renel Fecular Dehydrator (I’ll be happy share the details of this device with anyone interested), presented an all too plausible solution for future sustainability for the privileged few.
This thread of scientific content carried us out of the Halle as we moved to venues that had other uses outside of their role as exhibition space for this edition of dOCUMENTA. Christov-Bakargiev’s seamless integration of art into existing structures was most palpable in Kassel’s Natural History Museum, the Ottoneum, and the Orangerie which houses Kassel’s Cabinet of Astronomy and Physics. The work chosen for the Ottoneum was centered on natural growth and the projects related directly to natural history, ranging from issues involving seeds (their storage, diversity, and accessibility), sustainability, and the creation of the earth. While the seven rooms on the first floor were dedicated to work specifically for dOCUMENTA, it was the second floor where the curator’s intentions really came into focus. Almost invisible on a floor filled with specimens from all over the world, including a cabinet that housed a tableaux of a unicorn in a wintry landscape (the horn mounted on the taxidermy horse was a narwhal’s tusk), and a giant sturgeon floating over shelves and cabinets filled will skulls, tusks, shells, and other natural curiosities, Mark Dion’s hexagonal display met the curator’s dictum for artist’s to work with structures in the city. Dion built the display, embellishing the exterior on five of the sides with marquetry, images of individual trees representing the five continents, specifically to house The Schildbach Xylotheque, a library of books fabricated from 441 local tree and shrub species, containing physical and written information about each plant. Dion added six new books to the library, five of which present wood from the five continents missing from the original collection. If Dion’s work was difficult to find in the Ottoneum, the work in the Orangerie was at times invisible, and was often superceded by the objects that made up the permanent collection. Both venues incorporated work that dealt with specific elements of science into their existing exhibitions which made for an interesting play of space, and it had us viewing the permanent exhibitions and objects as much as the site specific projects. This was also true for the Neue Galerie, where their permanent collection was on display alongside works procured for dOCUMENTA.
It was at the Neue Galerie where we encountered what for me was the best piece in the show, or at least the one we spent the most time with. Having paced ourselves in the morning, making sure to stop for refreshments, never lingering too long at any one venue, we were still feeling fresh and eager for what was to come. We had returned to our bicycles and visited several peripheral sites before arriving at the Neue Galerie. Locking our bikes in front of the Brothers Grimm Museum, we entered the Neue Galerie and viewed the permanent collection before moving on to the rooms dedicated to the event. It was here, in the basement (again), that we stumbled upon Wael Shawky’s epic Cabaret Crusade: the Path to Cairo, 2012 part of an ongoing series of animated films begun in 2010 using 200-year-old puppets on strings. Based on Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf’s The Crusade Told Through Arab Eyes, it’s a retelling of the history of the crusades, and the Path to Cairo tells the story of the time period between the First and Second Crusades (1099 -1149), outlining the political shifts and the power struggles amidst major cities and factions. A description of this film can hardly do it justice. It’s a musical performed with old puppets that move through sparse backgrounds, their strings clearly visible. It shouldn’t work, but it does. We sat there for almost an hour watching puppet after puppet being murdered, as another puppet assumes control, only to be betrayed and murdered by another. While the story was remote in time and place, and visuals archaic by today’s animation standards, it was spot on, and it carried with it so much of what we had seen, and directly connects to the present. It was my favorite piece of the show, the futility and the fallacy prompting me to recall my visit to dOCUMENTA (12) in 2007. It was there at the end of my second day, in a venue hidden out near the train station, that I saw the film Them, by Artur Żmijewski, my favorite piece from that event. It is a recording of a social experiment. Żmijewski invited four divergent groups to collectively make a painting. Representing different ideologies ranging from Nationalist All-Polish Youth, older women with strong connections to the Catholic Church, young Polish Jews, and young leftist activists, the film devolves as each faction layers their work on top of another, eradicating the previous effort. The concerns played out in that film are echoed in Shawsky’s work. In the end, the canvas being painted in Them is set fire and completely burned by one of the participants.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent riding to outlying venues, and we finished our journey in Karlsrue Park. The park was host to over fifty individual sites, all built, fabricated, or installed by the artists, ranging from fully finished structures housing work, to site specific sculptures. We systematically rode through it and attempted to find all of the sites listed, and while we made a sincere attempt, it was not to be. The event organizers strategically placed two refreshment stands and a restaurant within the Karlsrue, and it was here in the park where we were seduced by the promise of true leisure. We bypassed the rows of lounge chairs lining the lake in the center of the park, still intent on seeing more. Some sites offered more rewards then others, but none of it was disappointing. How could it be? We were in Kassel. It was an ideal day. We stopped at the Green House, bought two Bionades at one of the Solidarity Economy Organic Food Kiosks, there were no coke products here, and sat at a picnic table reflecting on the day and plotting our return to our hotel.
Gregory Eltringham (b. Hartford, Connecticut, resides in Savannah, Georgia) is currently Professor of Painting at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He travels extensively during the year, conducting research for his studio and teaching practice, and tours in support of his sound-based collaborative projects The Tenderloin Trio and The Tramp Stamps.