Monday, February 4, 2013

dOCUMENTA (13). Yup, I went there.

This past summer I went to Germany on a trip to see many art sites and one of the focal destinations was dOCUMENTA (13), which is an exhibition of contemporary art set in Kassel Germany and occurs every five years (with some minor hiccups regarding years along the way) and lasts 100 days.  The first documenta was in 1955 and was founded by the curator Arnold Bode and since then, it has had a slew of notable curators.  One curator, who is beloved for captaining this boat of a show, was Harold Szeemann and it is the tales and the aura of his documenta V in which I clung too like a cherished art tale.  So with enthusiasm and with curiosity I went to Kassel with sneakers on and an appetite to be blown away. 

This unfortunately did not happen.  Not only did it not happen, it did the reverse.  It made the whole idea of the exhibition’s largess disheartening and at times infuriating.  Now, it was not all bad.  Nothing this large and dense can be lacking of a few great moments, but the overall was a dire telling of the state of what documenta has become and what it now represents. 

This year’s curator was Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and one of the show’s themes/thesis/ was to be, “dedicated to artistic research and forms of imagination that explore commitment, matter, things, embodiment, and active living in connection with, yet not subordinated to, theory.” And are set in, “terrains where politics are inseparable from a sensual, energetic, and worldly alliance between current research in various scientific and artistic fields and other knowledges, both ancient and contemporary… driven by a holistic and non-logocentric vision that is skeptical of the persisting belief in economic growth, a vision that is shared with, and recognizes, the shapes and practices of knowing of all the animate and inanimate makers of the world, including people.”  These two adjacent sentences is a taste of the cerebral word flexing that makes my mind go to white noise but one can’t judge a show by the cover letter, the work and the experience of this work is what counts.  

There were some 200 artists included, some whose names ring bells, many others not known to me at all.  These artists are sprinkled and packed into buildings, parks, huts, theatres, caves, railroad stations, woods, and any other crevice that can be made more ‘alive’ with something in it/done to it.  The immensity of the layout is astonishing.  It does really stretch across this faded industrial city and although there is the tourist mecca-ing to this art center, one can tell the city is like a polite host, doing its duty but not that energetically. The layout and all the paraphernalia to help one comprehend and map out dOCUMENTA (13) can be found on its website, go for perusal if you are curious, I’m done remarking on the epics scale, at least in cartographic terms. 

The ‘brain’ of the show is at the Fridericianum which is grand and a great way to start.  There are installations, and displays of various artists and some within were truly great like, Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull), 2012, in which there is an atrium with nothing but the building’s architecture and there are subtle gusts of cool wind that sweep through it.  Very nice indeed.  Also there was a discovery of the work of Korbinian Aigner’s, Apples, 1912-60s which were drawings of apples he made through hybriding species of other apples.  He was sent to a concentration camp and these drawings and his tale were fascinating.  

There was also an installation in the Fridericianum that was referred to as the “brain” of the show in which there was an assortment of objects and artists linked wonderfully together.  This was very well done and it held up like the serious stuff of natural history museums or archeological findings of culture.  Standouts in this were Judith Hopf whose white mask forms were wonderful and also Lee Miller’s documentary war photographs of WWII and her personal relationships and being a muse.  There was a lot in the Fridericianum and it did work quite well, but there was already at the end of viewing it, a sense of weight.  There was a forced density, a too directed way of seeing and thinking and framing that had me a bit nervous about the rest of it, but leaving it, I was still excited of what was to come.  

Next day, (documenta can not be done in a day, or even two). Was set off with vigor to see the lay of the land and to see what else was in store.  This is when things turn ugly.  In the movie theatre there was a Trisha Donnely’s, Untitled, 2012-ongoing, film piece that was pretty and quite and nice in a way but a whole theatre? Just this?  It was forced poetics that didn’t warrant the context.  Then on the side streets there were smaller buildings, some dilapidated and used for that purpose which had projects by single artists.  One that I was looking forward to experiencing was the Tino Seghal’s This Variation, 2012, which everyone was raving about.  You enter a derelict building’s small passage that opens to a not well-tended dirt, fire pit area and then to the left there is a very dark room and you can hear sounds coming from within.  You enter and your eyes have to adjust mightily and there are other people there and there are performers singing, moving, dancing, and talking.  It was interesting at first, the way that disembodied voices and shuffles make you feel more then displaced.  But then you settle in and what the performers were saying and how they were talking was inflected with the worst sort of political dialogue and obviousness.

There were many more things seen nearby but the two of note was Paul Chan’s, Volumes, 2012 installation in a small shop that had paintings of book covers then squares of color blocking out where a title or an image would be.  This installation was quite nice.  Also nearby in a small building were paintings by Francis Alÿs, Untitled, 2012, which were nice works in themselves but somehow seemed too safe, too perfected in their disjunction of installation and subject matter. 

Then off to the bomb shelter which was a hoof of a way down the hill and there was Allora & Calzadilla’s, Raptor’s Rapture, 2012 piece in which you have to first don a hard hat and then you go inside the bomb shelter, a.k.a. a cave in the side of a cliff, and there you watch a video of the first instrument known to man, (a replica of course) made from a bird’s bone.  The woman who was attempting to play it was a master musician so her inability to play anything pleasing to human ears was even more evidence of the vastness of our primordial and current selves.  This was very nice to watch but a cave? A bomb shelter? Hard hats?  Too much I say.  Walking back into the center of town you do get to see a bit more of Kassel and it has lovely foliage and grass and the flowers were at their height. 

There are other larger buildings that act as hubs and one was the Neue National Gallery, which had probably one of the best pieces in the entire show.  It was by Geoffrey Farmer, Leaves of Grass, 2012, which was a sculpture, collage, timeline sourced from Life magazine.  They were cut outs of images from 1935 to 1985 in chronological order on a very long skinny table and the images were on various sized thin wooden sticks and the effect was wonderful and walking down made you grasp all the density of humanity in a filmic/non filmic way.  Really superb.  There were other works that caught the eye but most were so heavy handed in their histrionics that it seemed like a blur.

In some of the other buildings notable works included Kadar Attia’s, The Repair of Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012 installation of archived images of African tribes and books and the history of these and the iconography of these tribes, this was very good political art.  Also the inclusion and introduction (to me) of Llyn Foulkes was worth a lot, even though he felt out of place in the general vibe of the show.  He being masterfully crude and goofy while others were most decidedly self-aware.  The last of the works that stuck to me was Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Alter Bahnhof Video Walk, 2012, a piece at the rail station that had the viewer/participant take an iphone with video pre-uploaded and headphones and then walk around the station, that was recently videoed, and tour the space and navigate one’s self in the physicality of the space and the tales and history of the station.  It had a nasal NPR drone in some ways but it really was stunning and very well done.  This is actually the piece that I think is the most successful of the whole exhibition as it includes this self inflicted necessity of politics and history, especially of Kassel, but it does it in a way that seems invigorated by the site specificity of it. 

Oh yeah, there was a park, a giant freaking park that had a lot of great artists in it but they were in these huts and these huts were like visiting Disneyland for the culturally inured.  Why this is a formula for anything, I have no idea.  The park had a few good moments of course, but the most joy I had in it was taking pictures of all the art watchers passed out from exhaustion on the lawn and getting an ice cream and sitting on the fancy documenta emblazoned lawn chair and pretending I was a character in a novel. 

As I have remarked quickly in the above, the exhibition as a whole was indebted to a focus of the political and also a disbursement of form but their was an incessant heavy-handedness to specific politics that felt like forced tautology.  Nazis, WWII, books, globalism, texts, words, and more books, were constantly being pummeled as reference and focus into one’s eyes and brain.  This felt not like a straightforward acknowledgement of this near past but a vulgar fetishism in a way.  It was trying to purge and to tell things so forcefully honest and revealed about the politics and histories of a place that it became the legitimizing core for the work, even if the work was not compelling, visually interesting or conducive to additional thoughts upon the matter.  This to me is the grievous failure of dOCUMENTA (13).  Many works and most of the exhibition felt like assignments on a theme, a theme that was left too vague to ever be proven or disproved.  It felt like the works were like filing cards, shuffled and stacked and sometimes crumpled to make a house of cards that when complete is impressive to see standing but is really built on no foundation. 

Is this what has become of documenta?  Yes, but it is shouldn’t have been such a surprise because times are different, we are not living in the 1950s, 60s or 70s anymore.  The need for coalescence of artists, ideas, and all else no longer has the necessity and the revelation it once had.  As a historical event, it is wonderful and I never wish it to not happen but it should embrace the world, as it exists versus forcing restoration of its past glory.  I do not fault the curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev solely for this, five years is a long time, it is even longer in today’s pace and connectedness and the vagueness and the openness is a requisite to the function of compiling such a show but there has to be, there had to be, a better way of going about it. No?  The frustration I have with dOCUMENTA (13) is that I wanted it to be a success.  Yes, there are always bad parts in anything, nothing this monstrous can ever be perfect, but there was barely any spirit, life, representation or reference to the real world, out there, or about the role art can really have in the world.

In the end, I am glad that I went to Kassle Germany, that I went to dOCUMENTA (13).  Now I can know what they are speaking of when I read the glories of this show in the past and can also imagine the settings of the incarnations of its future.  Shows like this are relics.  They are relics but we hold on to them and want them to continue because we all want to have tradition and accumulative history and markers of greatness.  Hopefully next time, or the time after that, those in the positions of power; the investors, gainers, curators and organizers will stop fixating on it being just the next ‘documenta’ and that in itself being enough.  Hopefully someday, someone, the institutions, the art world at large will let it be a documenta that reflects art and the world as it is and how can be.