Allowing Loose Ends To Linger: dOCUMENTA(13)
June 9 to September 16, 2012
On June 6, the three-day preview of dOCUMENTA (13) officially began with an afternoon press conference with artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and an evening reception at Kassel’s city hall. The world’s largest contemporary art marathon, the event will run for 100 days total, through September 16. In contrast to its humble post-war beginnings, recent editions have transformed Documenta, which takes place every five years, into a multi-million-dollar affair that is expected to exceed a million visitors this year.
dOCUMENTA (13) has a wider grasp on the city than any of its predecessors. In addition to the usual installations in such local museums as the Fridericianum, Ottoneum, Orangerie, Documenta-Halle and Neue Galerie, artworks are also shown in scattered pavilions in the Karlsaue (the old royal city park), the old train station, a hospital and various commercial buildings. dOCUMENTA (13) also embraces off-off sites in Kabul. In Kassel, over twenty venues showcase more than 160 artists, many of whom specifically created works for the occasion. To view this grand art discourse also means to explore Kassel and its rich historic make-up.
Kassel is indeed a place proud of its cultural heritage. The Fridericianum is the first public museum on the continent, established in 1779, and the Brothers Grimm lived and collected most of their fairy tales here in the early 19th Century. But Kassel has also been the site of utter destruction. A center of Nazi Germany’s war production, the city was a prime target for Allied bombing attacks and in 1943 ninety percent of its 1000-year-old center was erased. The establishment of Documenta in 1955 by artist and educator Arnold Bode marked an attempt to re-introduce culture.
This history all makes Kassel a particularly suitable venue for presenting art that looks at both the past and the future. In fact, various editions of Documenta have focused on cycles of creation, destruction and renewal. dOCUMENTA (13) is no different in this respect. It is the dominant theme introduced by Christov-Bakargiev, former chief curator at P.S. 1 in New York and director at Castello di Rivoli in Turin.
Rather than providing a curatorial statement, Christov-Bakargiev offered a storytelling “Letter to a Friend.” Part-travel diary, part-press release, her letter ponders the general importance of questions over answers. Her exhibition is also a multi-faceted, at times fragmented, and yet astonishingly cohesive meditation on how human tragedies can inspire individual mythologies that can then offer a wide discussion forum. It is a curatorial outlook that pays homage to the beloved Documenta director of the past, Harald Szeemann, who spoke of “individual mythologies” as a motif for his Documenta 5 in 1972. To Christov-Bakargiev as to Szeeman before her, it is important to allow for loose ends to linger.
The essence of this concept is well illustrated at dOCUMENTA (13) by the work of German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-43), examples of which are installed on the upper floor of the Fridericianum. While hiding from the Nazis and before being murdered in Auschwitz at age twenty-six and five months pregnant, Salomon created her epic “Life? or Theater?”, a body of work comprised of 769 gouaches. Layered with text and with musical and cinematic references, her drawings manifest as a personalized code. They meld political history with the artist’s personal memory and intimate thoughts. Though they express a sole individual’s tragic life, they have become a universally applicable song of suffering.
Christov-Bakargiev does not shy away from including many works that traditionally would have been dismissed as craft, such as ceramics and tapestries. The rotunda of the Fridericianum, which she has described as the “brain” of the exhibition and which for many visitors is the first space to visit, offers an eclectic and well-integrated mix. A group of still life paintings by Giorgio Morandi and sculptures by Giuseppe Penone, for example, are contextualized with objects damaged during the Lebanese Civil War and ceramics by Juana Marta Rodas and her daughter Julia Isidrez, two ceramicists who live in a small village located in the countryside of Paraguay. One floor up, tapestries by Swedish artist Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970) radically comment on the political climate and social conflicts of her time. Her works from the 1930s, which tell of the rise of fascism in Europe, are part historic document and part general warning of society’s apathy.
Ryggen’s work finds an interesting counterpart in a large tapestry by contemporary Polish artist Goshka Macuga. Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not 1” is based on a digital collage in which groups of people find themselves snowed-in amidst the ruins of a grand building. A strong sense of alienation colors the overall mood. None of the people are looking at each other or at the two obvious disturbances: the destroyed building and a threatening, larger-than-life snake. Woven and rendered in black, white, and shades of gray, Macuga’s collaged scene seems to stand particularly still. Disassociation has become timeless and is therebyeven more oppressing.
Macuga’s tapestry sits well with Geoffrey Farmer’s monumental sculpture “Leaves of Grass”, which consists of thousands of cutout photographs from Life Magazine, images that span Life’s five decades (1935-1985), providing snapshots of what defined many Americans’ view of the world during that time. Displayed like finger puppets on thin wooden sticks and arranged in close proximity like a lush, overflowing bouquet, these political and pop-cultural images take on a sense of playfulness that liberates them from their traditional context and translates as a re-organization/re-thinking of history.
Two of the least predictable installations can be found in the Orangerie, Kassel’s Museum for Astronomy and Science. A main room features the technical engineer Konrad Zuse, who in 1936 constructed a “mechanical brain” in his parents’ apartment. His discoveries led to the invention of the computer, but he also created fine but hardly original paintings that evoke the architectural abstractions of Lyonel Feininger, an artist he admired. Simultaneously displayed, Zuse’s watercolors, paintings and machines pose the question that it might in fact be the imagination that is art rather than particular objects. Zuse’s true creativity unfolded when rethinking arithmetical concepts and in regards to his machines which is what really makes him an artist.
Nearby, an exhibition of sound machines, notebooks, records, and video clips of performances by Erkki Kurenniemi ponders this conundrum further. The Finnish mathematician, nuclear physicist and expert in digital technology was also a pioneer of electronic music. The installation centers on his Electronic Music Studio, which he had established in the Department of Musicology at Helsinki University in 1961-62. It served as an experimental laboratory of sorts, in which electronic sounds formulated a new language. Neither Zuse nor Kurenniemi would have viewed themselves as artists in the traditional sense. However, they both were innovators who opened paths on which many have traveled since. If the ability to open doors and point towards undiscovered territory is at art’s core how can we draw the line in Zuse’s and Kurenniemi’s case?
Much of dOCUMENTA (13) navigates in similar vein between past and present innovations, attempts at re-invention, and above all questioning our possibly antiquated understanding of art and artists.
One treasure is to be found at the core of Mark Dion’s project at the Ottoneum, Kassel’s Natural History Museum. Dion has build an elegant structure that houses the Schildbach Xylotheque, a wood library that is part of the museum’s permanent collection. It was crafted by Carl Schildbach between 1771 and 1779 and consists of 530 books made from and describing 441 local trees. These books, which are actually boxes, are made from the trees they specify. Their spines are shaped through pieces of bark while inside each box are three-dimensional representations of the tree’s life cycle composed of dried plant parts and wax replicas. Again, Schildbach would not have viewed his work as art but science. However, Dion’s structure has turned the library into the wunderkabinett that it is
Christov-Bakargiev has stated that dOCUMENTA (13) is not about destruction but healing. It is an exhibition that implies that art can be the medicine that can change us by altering our perception of the world. Because of its sheer size and international reach, dOCUMENTA (13) might be misunderstood as an assessment of current tendencies, styles and aesthetics. The works assembled certainly reflect many of the international political and social conflicts that have shaped recent consciousness, but this is only one aspect. In many ways, dOCUMENTA (13) is a love letter to the artistic mind, the inspired soul and the undefeated spirit.