Traveling to Kassel, Germany on the heels of my trip to Basel, I had no idea what to expect. I have heard about Documenta for years and have always wanted to go, but having only two days to see enough art that takes most people a week to view, I was unsure how to proceed. The good news is that, for anyone who knows me, I am not easily overwhelmed or deterred and so along with my friend Debbie, we made our plan of attack. And, I saw almost every single thing on view as well as some things that weren’t a part of Documenta.
In case you are not familiar with what Documenta is, every five years, the city of Kassel is transformed into a museum of contemporary art for 100 days. Since it was established in 1955, Documenta has come to be regarded as one of the most important and famous exhibitions of contemporary art in the world. More than 150 artists from 55 countries and participants from all over the world have come together to present their artwork at Documenta this year. Up until mid-September, different venues in the city are presenting sculptures, paintings, installations and performances, as well as photography and films.
We began at the Hugenottenhaus where Chicago artist and urban interventionist, Theaster Gates hit it out of the park. The home was built in 1826 but was badly damaged during the war and has been empty since the 1970s.
With undercurrents of communal living and cultural exchange in all of his work, Theaster repurposed materials from both Chicago and Kassel to rebuild the structure and young people now actually live in the space.
Next door, I very much looked forward to stepping into a new Tino Sehgal experience. The work called This Variation did not disappoint. Not quite performance, this interactive artwork cannot be documented in any way just like all other Sehgal works. As one enters a darkened room, many young people are singing a cappella. They move around the room and engage the visitors, leading them into the space and encouraging their participation. Songs by the Beach Boys and Madonna are sung in an innovative and energetic way that inspires the viewer to jump right in.
Paul Chan’s installation of paintings on book covers was very beautiful.
Francis Alÿs’ paintings in a former bakery were intimate. He also pinned a list to a bulletin board that says: “1943 I think about…” and then he proceeds to list artists and what they were doing. One example is “I think about Morandi painting on top of a hill surrounded by facism.”
And though I was unfamiliar with the work of Gerard Byrne, I thoroughly enjoyed his multi-channel video in which a room full of men pontificate on sex in a very intellectualized manner.
Jerome Bel’s video was not one that people had told me to go see. But stumbling into the Kaskade-Kino, I was almost moved to tears watching 2 Dances, in which two people with Down Syndrome dance with abandon and then proceed to tell the camera how their disability makes them feel. It is gut wrenching.
And another work I stumbled upon was Room of Rhythms by Cevdet Erek. Speakers and sub woofers fill an unfinished space in a mall.
Tacita Dean’s gorgeous blackboard drawings highlight imagery of Kabul, Kassel’s sister city for dOCUMENTA this year. Mountains are skillfully rendered on walls and fill the space. And her found postcards were on view at the Fridericianum in which she painted them with gouache to note alterations since their destruction during the war.
Though you had to don hard hats and enter bunkers to view Allora and Calzadilla’s video, I was uninspired by it.
The Hauptbahnhof, which is now used only for local trains, was chock full of amazing works. I started with Janet Cardiff’s Alter Banhof Video Walk, a staged scenario in which, “participants watch events on the small screen but experience them deeply because they are situated in the exact location where the footage was shot.” For example, at the beginning of the video while sitting on a bench, she tells you to look up at a window and later, you stand in that window looking down at others experiencing the same thing at the beginning of their walk. She asks questions and makes comments during the walk like, “How do people deal with memories they don’t want? It’s hard for me to be in the present sometimes” and “No matter how much we love somebody, no matter how hard we cling to hold on to them, we will always be separate from them” and “I wish that we could cross our separate worlds somehow and see what someone else sees.”
One has to walk way out to the end of the platform to hear the work by Susan Philipsz. The strength of the sound depends on which way the wind blows and whether or not other trains are arriving. The stringed instrument work is based on Study for Strings from 1943 and plays on seven speakers. The history of the area makes the work even more powerful and of course, Philipsz was very aware of the fact that in the early 1940s, trains here sent Jews to concentration camps. In fact, the composer of Study for Strings, Pavel Haas wrote the work at Terezin in the summer of 1943. He died in Auschwitz in 1944.
Haris and Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer’s installation in a former office building photographs and objects are grouped and tucked away in corners and highlighted in plinths. I was unable to photograph anything on the three floors because works had been stolen and I had to leave my bag outside.
In the North Wing of train station videos by Clemens von Wedemeyer and an installation room by William Kentridge were the highlights. Von Wedemeyer’s work consists of three videos all providing different perspectives from 3 generations on the same place. That place is Breitenau Monastery in Guxhagen, just outside of Kassel. Breitenau was a forced labor camp and concentration camp for a couple of years in the 1930s. The footage of 1945 represents a work education camp during liberation; 1970 shows the filming of a movie about the history of the monastery; and 1990 shows a school excursion.
Judith Hopf created an installation of glasses stacked with green paper and leaves to look like bamboo shoots in the actual church and I went out to see it. The installation was okay but the building and its history were fascinating.
The Refusal of Time is a 24 minute video experience by William Kentridge in a brick walled room with wooden chairs nailed to the floor. Megaphones act as speakers hung from the ceiling while silhouettes in black and white march along the wall in a procession. A gorgeous work.
As one leaves the Kentridge work to head out to the deck for a drink, you can enjoy Haegue Yang’s motorized gray Venetian blinds, Muster (Rushes) that move up and down.
In the South Wing I enjoyed Kudzanai Chiurai’s video The Creation as well as his charcoal drawings. The works vibrate with energy and emotion.
Seth Price’s paintings and large fabric envelopes were cool.
The Fridericianum is the heart of dOCUMENTA’s exhibition space and should be given ample time to get through. I loved the Ceal Foyer music work as well as Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull) which consisted of a gentle breeze that pulled the spectator through the gallery space–he is so clever! On the first floor Emily Jacir’s ex libris commemorates the 30,000 books looted by Israeli authorities in 1948. Jacir photographed fragments of these with her cell phone and also translated some of the inscriptions from the books in German and English and exhibited them on billboards throughout Kassel.
Sopheap Pich’s lattice works made of bamboo and wax fill the room with the smell of beeswax and are really visually pleasing. The rotunda is filled with works including stunning Morandi still lifes as well as photos of his studio and actual bottles used as his subjects.
The best work by far in the Ottoneum is the breathtaking 42 minute video The Scene of the Crime by Indian Artist Amar Kanwar. The visual imagery is absolutely wonderful–cows drinking water, blades of grass juxtaposed with real war footage of men with guns. Slow paced and meditative, poetic text is used sporadically such as “She sees him in everything.”
The spacious Documenta-Halle is filled with 4 large Julie Mehetu works which are always enjoyable.
But I was more partial to Etel Adnan’s room of small, colorful abstract paintings which for her are the equivalent of poetic expression. Born in Beirut, she spent time in Paris but ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the 1950s, Mount Tamalpais became her inspiration and subject. She wrote, “I painted nothing else but this for years, until I couldn’t think of anything else. To observe its constant changes became my major preoccupation.”
Yan Lei’s installation, Limited Art Project, is made up of 360 paintings (one for every day of the Chinese calendar) that respond to images found while surfing the internet. They are hung salon style and some are found in storage racks forcing viewers to slow down in their experience of the work. But ironically, showing that these images are fleeting, he picks a work a day to color over with car paint.
There is also an installation with Nalini Malani’s familiar imagery painted on plastic rotating cylinders that are projected on the walls with Middle Eastern music playing.
In the Neue Galerie I loved Andrea Büttner’s wood prints and the LIFE magazine cutouts by Farmer were awesome to see from outside the building.
Overall, I was disappointed in the works in the Karlsaue. My friend had the brilliant idea to hire a pedicab to take us around because attempting to see all of the works, spread out over a vast park, would have ended in failure. Instead, we got to relax and have someone else do all the work while we barked directions from the back. I thought Joan Jonas’s installation including videos and objects in a small house was one of the more interesting pieces on view.
Carol Bove’s large sculptures including a piece of petrified wood worked perfectly in the garden next to the beautiful Orangerie.
I also liked the installation in a greenhouse by Thea Djordjadze and the large wooden sculpture with staircases that don’t actually reach the ground by Sam Durant.
Though the Orangerie is a beautiful building, it was the one place at dOCUMENTA that I thought was poorly labelled. It was very hard to find the works amongst the existing works in the museum.
And worth a visit is Walid Raad’s immense installation, Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World at the Untere Karlsstrasse. In fact, you can sign up for a walkthrough of the show.
And not officially part of dOCUMENTA but still cool is the Balkenhol installation at St. Elizabeth’s in Kassel.