THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Evan Carter
Art enthusiasts flock to Kassel, Germany every four years to take the temperature of contemporary art and be among the first to witness “the new,” art ideas that could well become the flash points for future exhibitions and theoretical debate. The curators invest a lot of time and energy into seeking out the chosen artists.
documenta was founded in 1955 by artist Arnold Bode who began the exhibition in an effort to reconnect Germany to a broader scope of modern European art, much of which had been suppressed under Nazi control. Over time, more contemporary art from around the world began to be included.
In more recent iterations of the Quadrennial, curatorial considerations have dealt with particular themes and provided representation to artists who present relevant examples regardless of their art world status. This year, the exhibition was held in both Kassel and Athens, Greece.
One of the first things I heard about documenta 14 was that it is impossible to see all the work during the 163-day duration of the exhibition. When numerous locations, simultaneous film and video screenings, and infrequent performances stack the schedule, viewers either have to plan carefully or roll the dice on what kind of experience they take away. My report seems a fitting representation of how art exists in the world today: dispersed, varied, and ephemeral are just a few of the words that come to mind.
I began my visit in Kassel, Germany, the longstanding host city of documenta 14. (For the first time, the exhibition is being split between Kassel and Athens). We made our way to the center of Kassel’s Friedrichsplatz. This historic site features some of Kassel’s pre-eminent cultural institutions that surround an expansive grass covered plaza, a venue that once served to display German military prowess under the Third Reich.
This history makes it all the more appropriate that one of the few works of great spectacle displayed here, Marta Minujin’s The Parthenon of Books, is part architecture, part sculpture in that it replicates Athens’ Temple of the Acropolis.
Marta Minujin The Parthenon of Books, Friedrichsplatz. ©Roman Maerz.
Marta Minujin The Parthenon of Books, Friedrichsplatz.
© Roman Maerz.
It is constructed mostly in metal scaffolding, plastic wrap, concrete, and copies of books that have at one time or another, and in one place or another, been banned. The books are encased in plastic wrapped around a steel armature to form pillars, creating a translucent structure dotted with the book cover images. Though a small box is near the piece for the public to donate books that will be incorporated later in the piece, it seems clear that the artist acquired the books in bulk from a wholesaler to get the piece started. The dozens of copies of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight strongly suggested this and were easy to notice from their distinctive cover image.
This monumental work alludes to the second location of documenta 14 in Athens but the piece, from the 1983 documenta in Buenos Aires, predates this particular exhibition. It marks the central point in the Kassel portion of documenta 14 and presents a clue or two about the nature of the larger curatorial endeavor.
Though Minujin’s ‘Parthenon’ displays a reliance on the need for grandiose monumentality to mark the occasion and affect public space, much of what is to be seen in the rest of Kassel and Athens shies away from spectacle. Instead, the selected venues are densely packed with numerous works of sculpture and image. When space permits a large installation, it can be found but, for the most part, documenta 14 is a deep dive into a seemingly endless array of objects.
The multifaceted formal and conceptual landscape of 21st century art is given equal footing throughout. You can look at a series of abstract paintings and turn a corner to find documentation of political strife in a developing nation. However, each location still plays an important role and each venue is assigned a vague kind of identity. The least vague of which is that of the Fridericianum, one of the original and larger of the Kassel venues. With Minujin’s Parthenon of Books right outside, this venue continues to the narrative of migration and displacement by displaying the loaned collection from the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) in Athens. The collection displays works by over 80 artists from Greece and around the world working from the 1960’s up to now. The galleries are populated by a lot of sculpture. A running theme throughout the work is the navigation of socio-economic and geopolitical boundaries.
Walking into the main entrance of the Fridericianum and passing through the colorful projection by Nikos Alexiou a circular room is filled with rectangular, circular, and triangular boxes covered in camouflage patterns. I encountered this piece as a random stacking but photo documentation shows them arranged in the shape of a military tank.
Andreas Angelidakis Polemos Fridericianum. ©Nils Klinger.
Since the public is allowed to interact with the boxes, people were building fort structures and knocking them over. I participated and took a nap on the structure and got poked by some of the other museum-goers who probably thought I was part of the art.
Kendell Geers’ Acropolis Redux also presents an homogeneous array of objects but in this case razor wire, one of the clearest indicators of boundary re-enforcement. To see the rolls of wire stacked on metal shelves as though lying in wait to be used strongly implies a readiness and comfort for the idea of aggressive border enforcement. The title reference to the iconic Athenian structure specifies the current conflict of an influx of immigrants into Greece’s already economically volatile country.
The conversation around the value of images in political discourse continues throughout the Fridericianum with works like The Precarious Archive by Stefanos Tsivopoulos and No Olvidado by Andrea Bowers. Though the seriousness of the politics feel fleeting in the excessively-filled rooms of the Fridericianum, it is in the underground cellar where Ben Russell’s immersive film installation is staged. In Good Luck, the viewer is transported to laborious mining operations in Serbia and Suriname, through the eyes of the camera lens.
Drawing parallels between the turmoil of two groups worlds apart, this film presents a contemporary moment as a subject but goes further in presenting the reality of the political situation to the viewer. Instead of resting in the comfort of the white cube to contemplate the implications of manufactured goods, the viewers of Good Luck sit in a dark cellar and watch the intense labor of production unfold in these two groups’ desperate struggle for survival. The immersion is enhanced by the loud and bass-heavy soundtrack of the miners and their equipment which rumbles the space with deep bass. Between extended shots, viewers are confronted with close-ups of the faces of some of the laborers, reminding us of their humanity and forcing us to reflect upon our own.
Russell’s film does what much of the work in the displaced EMST collection at the Fridericanum (and much of documenta 14 in general) wants to do. It sheds light on a world system that is fraught and lost to the oppressive forces of globalization and capitalism while treating it with urgency and challenging our notion of the service art provides to humanity. It’s a highly critical work and discovering it alongside many ineffectual efforts to teach the same lesson was a revelation. It was not the only work where I had this experience but these experiences were undoubtedly rare.
Additional venues I visited were the Neue Galerie where the historic meet with the contemporary through the inclusion of works by a number of artists no longer living and works from half a century ago. Modernism that you often find in national museum galleries is occasionally interrupted by identity politics in the Neue Galerie.
Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens have performance work featured, as well as an archive of Sprinkle’s decades of performance and modeling work around feminism and sexual liberation. Lorenza Böttner’s work is particularly empowering for marginalized groups in the trans- and disabled community, not only in how her work reflects her personal journey but also in how her work is not limited to personal identity politics but extends to explorations of movement and dance as well as images of police violence.
A work by Pope L. subverts the formal tradition of the white cube in the Neue Galerie with Whispering Campaign, an audio installation in both cities as well as a performance in Kassel. In the case of the Neue Galerie, the audio emanates from the closed doors of utility closets in the halls between galleries, literally giving voice to the mundane.
History and identity engage one another in an esoteric way with David Schutter’s series of drawings SK L 402-429, 432-439 in which the artist emulates responding to the act of looking at drawings with the act of making drawings. Schutter produces 36 drawings on paper in response to drawings by Max Lieberman culled from the controversial collection of work from the estate of Nazi art dealer, Cornelius Gurlitt. Germany’s fascist history has become a point of deep nationwide self-reflection for the country. The curating that goes on in the Neue Galerie presents a nation that considers art to be part of a process of self reflection that does not attempt to erase or deny history but examine it in relation to the larger shaping forces of identity in the 21st century.
Reflection and identity does not end with German history but with current German socio-economic politics. documenta’s exhibition venues have travelled further north in the city than any of the previous expositions. I visited one of these spaces located in a suburb populated by immigrants with a large Turkish community who, according to one curator, is unaware of what documenta is.
A former post-office building in the grid-like brutalist style is once again filled with work. The main room on the ground level is an abrasive salad of video projections and sounds with an attention-sapping sculpture by Daniel García Andújar of a triumphant nude figure with a penis and female breasts atop a wooden structure enclosing figurative sculptures in a classical style.
Daniel Garcia Andujar The Disasters of War—Trojan Horse,
Neue Neue Galerie. ©Mathias Voelzke.
Also in the main room, in fact right upon entering, a performer assumes various positions as though break dancing in super-slow motion. The performer wears brightly colored and patterned clothing that echoes 1980s fashion. They sit on the floor near the edge of a partition which made the performance feel awkward and crammed into the gallery as though the curators felt obligated to include live performance.
My first impression was soon debunked as I realized this particular performer was part of a group of performers composing one of the most compelling works I interacted with during my visit. Maria Hassabi’s STAGING is baroque in its use of an ominous piano score, brightly colored costumes, and the intense facial expressions of the performers who often make prolonged eye contact with audience members.
I found this emotive overload refreshing after being caught in an endless cycle of mostly affectless work typical of any massive contemporary art event. Keeping in harmony with the narrative of migration, the performers traverse the large rooms and sterile stairwells of the Neue Galerie leading viewers along to the next staging. I found myself in a stairwell watching one performer stare at a wall and ever so slowly turn to stare us all down. With our gaze fixed, another performer emerged from a floor above us and slowly walked down to trade places with the other performer who stealthily disappeared.
Following their path, the audience comes to a large room with an expanse of neon magenta carpeting where two more dancers slowly shift poses on the floor. Another performer stands in the doorway watching them as though just another viewer but, as I approached, they joined, forming a trio of dancers. I became mesmerized by their motions and sat at a distance and watched. Much to my pleasure, people walking into the space saw this scene and approached me, just staring, as though I was planted as part of the work. I’d like to think that I was so.
The piece deals with the mobility and migration of bodies in space that distills politics from humanity. Perhaps it was also the distinct absence of political didacticism that I found refreshing. Instead of visual information presented though the lens of global media or academic objectivity, STAGING gives us some theater, something we can actually experience.
Perhaps it is this theatricality that made the Ben Russell film so appealing as well. The scope and scale of both these works is grand, allowing it to easily transcend the presumptive plethora of found object sculpture and all-too-often overtly political video work. Hassabi’s piece takes risks in its decided inclusion of the artist’s ‘hand and eye’ while still engaging with the narrative of bodies contained by borders and space that is currently unfolding in our cultural historic moment.
This piece, and the Russell film seem to do what documenta 14 wants to do, which is to present contemporary art that apprehends cultural material to make work that is sensually immersive enough to capture an audience and make them stop, look, and think. The excessive amount of work in the Kassel venues enables viewers to be far too passive not only toward the work but to the content.
I applaud the depth of global exploration the curators embarked upon to include as many voices and modes of production as possible. It is, however, worth questioning their solution to the near-impossible task of developing an exhibition that is somehow representative of the global world of contemporary art. I found success in the role of the venue on how the curating functions but can’t help wondering how more editing could serve their purposes better.
Evan Carter is an artist and writer based in Chicago. He received his MFA from the University of Chicago in 2017.