Instead of giving you a panorama of Kassel to start this post, here's an old 'watch for pickpockets' poster from Kassel's disused former main train station. Wait, that's unfair. Here's a picture of Kassel looking its best:
By day, Kassel's not much to look at. There's a somewhat grand central square, the Friedrichplatz, lined by a giant 18th-century classical pile on one side (the Friedericianum, on the left in the photo above) and a row of shops on the other. Just south of that, there is a massive Baroque park, the Karlsaue, divided into a huge central field ringed by artificial meadows in the English style. Outside the city center, things quickly get very grim indeed: Kassel was flattened during World War II, and the monotonous 4- and 5-story housing oblongs thrown up in haste in the 1950s quickly numb the eye.
But wait, there's more! Every five years, Kassel is taken over by Documenta, one of the largest contemporary-art shows in the world. The working-class locals generally tolerate the quinquennial onslaught of bestubbled men in black turtlenecks and women in flowing raiment, since they spend lots of money and put Kassel on the map. The art is all over town, so to speak, with exhibitions in the Friedericanum (the main venue) the grounds of a disused central train station, a natural history museum, the classical Orangerie, a special modern hall called the Documenta-Halle, and all over the grounds of the sprawling Karlsaue. The atmosphere is of a sedate, bildungsbürgerlich outdoor festival. Inevitably, the Occupy folks have come to Kassel and set up a tent city just outside the main venue.
The international art scene, we are told, is now split between two camps. First, the major galleries, museums and auction houses, who extract profits from those at the top of the winner-take-all contemporary-art pyramid. Then there are curators of the international bienniales, who often critique the unholy commercialism of the mainstream market by inviting outsiders, non-artists, scientists, and activists to display at the major international exhibitions. The works they commission and display often have a social agenda and cannot easily be commodified.
Carolyn Christov-Bagarkiev, curator of this year's thirteenth Documenta (or dOCUMENTA (13), in the official spelling) stands proudly in the second camp — her welcoming remarks even promise a 'non-logocentric' exhibition, whatever that might be. This has its good and not-so-good sides. On the positive side, she has invited a spectacularly international cast of participants, with entries from all continents. Anyone coming to Kassel looking for room after room of 'big names' will go away disappointed. She has also invited several scientists to explain their work, including Anton Zeilinger, the Austrian physicist who has invented deceptively simple experiments to illuminate seeming paradoxes of quantum mechanics such as quantum teleportation.
The downsides of CCB's approach are also evident. It's always a bad sign when curators have to resort to fluff-words such as 'foreground', 'practice', 'intervention' or 'technique' to describe what the artist is doing, and there's a lot of charlatanry on display. Thai artist — I hesitate to use the word — Pratchaya Phinthong displays two dead tsetse flies in a glass box. Ryan Gardner has hogged the entire sprawling ground floor of the Friedericianum for an installation that features hidden fans which create a breeze. Yup, that's all there is to “I need some meaning I can memorise (The Invisible Pull)” — two giant, empty rooms with a mild breeze running through them. I couldn't be bothered to find out what this was supposed to teach us, although perhaps it's a commentary on Germans' paranoid terror of moving indoor air. American Susan Hiller features a jukebox playing songs she likes, which 'foregrounds' the exquisite taste and social awareness of her iPod shuffle list. Lara Favaretto has stacked a couple of giant piles of junk in the open area behind the former main train station, an embarassingly unoriginal foray. Goldberg and Faivovich, a hirsute pair of twentysomethings who look like (and may be) heirs of wealthy Argentine families, have filmed themselves crawling over the El Chaco meteorite. They originally wanted to transport this giant rock from Argentina to Kassel, but were very rightly stopped by the authorities and — the irony! — indigenous tribes from the area.
Just as uninspired, though perhaps more edifying, are the didactic exhibits by social activists. One room in the natural-history museum, the Ottoneum, is given over to Maria Tereza Alves' massive model volcano, part of a documentation of the struggle of a group of indigenous people to prevent the sale of their land to an international conglomerate. If this were a high-school science fair, this earnest diorama would certainly snap up first prize. Turning to the social studies fair, we have an outdoor exhibit by Robin Kahn on the oppression of certain Western Saharan tribes by Morocco. The display is pasted onto hastily-erected wooden boards in what is supposed to remind you of a refugee camp, and there is a tent in which you may nosh in solidarity on Western Saharan food, if you wish. The explanatory placards, consisting of simple collages, were bettered by many of the impromptu exhibits in the Occupy Kassel tent city in the Friedrichplatz. And then there was the nice Thai lady showing movies about the animal shelter she runs in Thailand, and soliciting contributions for 'DOGumenta' outside her outdoor '"'installation'"'. Then there were the hairy young things from the art collective AND AND AND, whose intervention consisted of the strategy of selling 'anti-capitalist' organic tea from a hastily-nailed-together wooden stand. Or maybe they were giving it away, so as to interrogate the logocentric matrix of late capita-blah blah blah. Anyone who sees revolutionary potential in organic tea obviously hasn't been to a corporate boardroom lately.
But enough of the silliness. They can't all be zingers, in the words of Primus, and there was much fascinating stuff on display. The Cypriot-German team of Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer took over three stories of a dilapidated former train command center to create a hypnotic installation composed of bare rooms with enigmatic pictures and symbols, books containing star measurements or simple diagrams, oddly evocative unsent letters, and framed, faded photographs clippings of everything from Neanderthal busts to Russian waterfalls. The top floor of the building, a creaky loft, has been subtly claimed for art by the placement of black spheres. The installation worked by suggestion and intimation, and left the visitor with an oddly abstract sense of melancholy:
Julie Mehretu displayed four massive canvases whose background consisted of a thick mass of overlapping CAD line drawings with different perspective points, overlaid by a complex system of handmade marks and color fields. Looking upon these canvases brought on vertigo, and the contrast between the clinical precision of the computerized drafting and the hand-drawn marks was eerie and evocative. Thomas Bayrle's dissected vehicle engines and stand-alone windshield wipers evoked the hypnotic potential latent in the calm repetition of machines. Also on display were some of his short films, one of which shows anonymous crowds of miniature human figures wandering on the reflective leaves of a rotating rubber plant:
His massive 'Airplane' from 1983, a drawing of a plane made of recursive drawings of ever-smaller planes, evoked the almost hermetic obsessiveness of Hanna Darboven.
A roomful of intricately abstract paintings and textiles by Aboriginal artists from Australia mesmerized everyone who entered it, including yours truly.
The crowning achievements of this Documenta were, in my view, two multimedia installations. One, housed in a room of the Documenta-Halle, is 'In Search of Vanished Blood' by Pakistani-Indian artist Nalini Malani:
She has suspended five large transparent plastic cylinders from the ceiling painted with silhouettes reminiscent of traditional shadow plays. As they rotate, film is projected both beside and through them, creating a coruscating, mind-breaking riot of silhouette, shape, and sound. Interweaved are images of women veiled, undressed, and in ritual costume. It's difficult to tell which juxtapositions are planned and which are randomly-generated, which makes them all the more fascinating. At one point, for instance, the image of a woman putting on a dress is shown repeatedly, accompanied by the sound of glass breaking. Of course, neither description nor videos can do it justice, you simply have to immerse yourself in the maelstrom.*
The second is called 'The Refusal of Time' and was masterminded by William Kentridge, the South African artist whose career shows a combination of superb draftsmanship, an unerring sense of symbolism, and a streak of unabashed showmanship.
'The Refusal of Time' is a 25-minute meditation on time and space, projected on six separate non-synchronized screens and accompanied by a soundtrack that is by turns boisterously African, raucously Dixieland, grindingly industrial, and spaciously contemplative. And not just by turns — sometimes completely different stuff gets stacked on top of itself, just as it does in life. Kentridge takes a broad palette of time-related symbolism — metronomes, space signals, mindless task-repetition, the life cycle of a family, the slow progress toward extinction — and subjects them to an spectacularly fertile and inventive series of cross-linked variations that is comical, frightening, and moving. Unlike almost every other installation, everyone who entered the Kentridge room stayed, mesmerized, until the end of the show, and there was often spontaneous applause. As someone once said of John Ashbery, Kentridge truly lives in a Versailles of the imagination.
Such are my thoughts on Documenta. I stopped by a few more museums during the trip, and will post about those in the coming days, as my schedule permits. And below, just for fun, some more images from Documenta (details in hover text):
* As is so often the case in this Documenta, the room in which Malini's work is displayed is a sealed, ventilation-free cube that was heated to something like 45 degrees by the six constantly-working projectors and visitors' body heat, making it impossible to stay more than 4-5 minutes inside the room. But of course you can hardly blame the Documenta management, since who could have predicted that a traditional German sealed indoor chamber with 6 projectors and dozens of people inside it might get unbelievably hot during the summer?