Review: dOCUMENTA(13) curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

Kassel, Germany June 9- September 16

After attending documenta three times (1997 for Catherine David’s documentaX and in 2002 for Okwui Enwezor’s documenta11) the most obvious assessment is that each incarnation is the expression of its curator. Undeniably dOCUMENTA(13) has the imprint of its organizer, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, which can be defined as socio-politically comprehensive and relevant in scope. Because each documenta is a statement about the moment, while also being something of a timekeeper, each reflects the past, present and future as a continuum that shifts in time and space. Still, the sheer complexity and easy accessibility Christov-Bakargiev brings to bear on issues of political and social import surely makes it a standout among others. If Enwezor’s documenta11 was political and didactic, Christov-Bakargiev’s is ethically illuminating and edifying. dOCUMENTA(13) moves between worlds: nature and science; east and west; war and peace; cruelty and compassion; giving and receiving, and yet the spaces it occupies in Kassel are not fission with tension, but magic and a sense of depth without condescension. To continue the comparison, if David’s was too representative of the establishment and rewrote the history of art in the 20th century, Christov-Bakargiev’s brings together known and new models of contemporary art and includes many less renowned artists from all over the world, as well as the work of people from different disciplines. Moreover, this documenta palpably transcends the opening week as it spreads continuously over its 100 days with events and projects throughout the small hamlet of Kassel and beyond to other parts of this Hessen capital, as well as shifting its location from Kassel to Cairo to Kabul to Banff.

Roman Ondák, Observations, 1995/2011, 120 cuttings from a book, grouped in 72 frames Each cutting between 4,9 x 5,2 cm and 7,7 x 12,6 cm Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Without going into the difficulty, too much, of taking in an exhibit of this scale in its entirety I will say that it was, more than any previous I attended, sprawling and beyond all human capacity to take in, even a fraction of its contents without unlimited time and the ability to move through time. This is not a detraction, in fact it is one of the many things that makes dOCUMENTA(13) special. With its focus on not so much on the intransigence, but reliable fluctuations between oppositions like east and west, notions of history and the place of the artist in the exchange of goods and services objects and ideas, Christov-Bakargiev managed to bring into being an exhibit that made room for as many ways of working as can be imagined without producing any feeling of competing interests. In this way the show points to how undeniably linked we are in our differences. The focus and organization throughout give respectful space to each and every, with perhaps one exception on the right hand side of the second floor the Neue Gallerie, which felt more like an MFA exhibit than a site at the most exceptional of exhibits. However there are tremendous moments there with the likes of Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades; and Roman Ondak’s Observations.

Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo, 2012 Video, color, sound 58 min. Photo: Anders Sune Bergs

The most important location in Kassel is perhaps the first floor of Fridericianum, where the exhibition begins. Quickly dispensing with all expectations the entrance gives the viewer little or nothing to hang onto in terms of art or direction with Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise[sic] (The Invisible Pull), (2012), which is little more than a breeze wafting through these wide open spaces. In effect Gander’s piece clears the mind, allowing the exhibit to take hold. As you ascend the floors of this building, it gets fuller, so by the time you get to the top of the building, where Kader Attia’s The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, (2012) and Miriam Ghani’s A Brief History of Collapses are situated, the experience is extensive and overwhelming. Still, the core of this exhibition, called The Brain, is located at the back of the building’s first floor in the rotunda, like a hippocampus storing a collective sensibility, where Christov-Bakargiev has gathered numerous objects, like Georgio Morandi’s still life objects to Sam Durant’s pillow, and the 3000-year-old Batrician Princesses, revealing a poetic wellspring of the exhibit, pulsing with ideas. However, the weight of this exhibit is in the overall sense that the works represent something specific to the artist, the place and the exhibit. Most works are not solely semantic, but represent philosophies and sciences, crafts and forms, with each work set down, shown, revealed in its complexity and density, that in turn reflect Christov-Bakargiev’s reputation for being an artists curator, as well as her ideas about commitment to ideas and practices.

Various artists, The Brain, Photo: Roman März

The effect of these elements increases as the viewing accumulates. With the incorporation of science and other biological elements, the body is not divorced from thought, rather it is shown to be one in the same or at least party to each other. The pastoral tone of documenta helps put you in touch with both the undertones of the past as well as the possible and impossible. In an exhaustive yet excellent manner, as a viewer you are sent far afield to see and feel and think as you move through space, especially in the Karlsaue where Christov-Bakargiev made beautiful use of the landscape—reviving it as a place of contemplation and discovery. Importantly, it is in the Karlsaue, which is landscaped according to an alignment of the planets, that one begins to recognize the way bodies, both material and human, relate in space.

Tue Greenfort, The Worldly House, 2012, An Archive Inspired by Donna Haraway’s Writings on Multispecies’ Co-Evolution, Compiled and Presented by Tue Greenfort, Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) Photo: Nils Klinger

From the amazing Janet Cardiff and George Bures’s for a thousand years placed in the woods; to Massimo Bartolini’s simple but hypnotic Untitled (Wave); to Huyghe’s beautiful danger called Untilled; to Anna Marie Maiolino’s crazy and physical Being, Making, Thinking: Encounters in Art as Life; to The Worldly House… “News from Nowhere” with its fantastic setting and storehouse of ideas; to AND AND AND’s overall presence and permutations in the Karlsaue, all these and more bring together the topographical connections embedded or emplaced, as Christov-Bakargiev calls it, in the breadth of the exhibit.

Gunnar Richter, Dealing with the Era of National Socialism—A Regional Study of a Crime in the Final Phase of World War II. Methods of Researching, 1981/2012, Audio slide show, 100 slides, 35 min. Photo: Nils Klinger

One work that struck me as basic to the exhibit was Gunnar Richter’s audio slide show Dealing with the Era of National Socialism (1981),which shows how easily the horrors of war can be elided, and the necessary diligence it takes to reveal them, through systematic research, evidence about how the twelfth century Breitenau Monastery in Guxhausen was transformed over the centuries from a place of worship for Benedictine monks into a concentration camp during World War II and how all traces of its existence were scrubbed from both the public record and the local memory. Moreover, works such as Richter’s in the exhibit as a totality are not discrete. A specific link can be seen between Richter’s work and the three-channel film installation Muster (Rushes) (2012) by Clemens von Wedemeyer, housed in the Hauptbahnhof, where in fact Jews and degenerates were carted off to Breitenau. But that is not the main connection here. The films show three narrative perspectives of what Breitenau was and is: just after the German’s surrendered and the Allied forces arrived on the scene; its days as a reformatory for school girls in the 1970s; and today, as a group of disaffected youth are given a tour of its atrocities. While the intersections between these two works are obvious, there are just as many who are connected on similar terms that are not so clear. Clemens von Wedemeyer, Muster (Rushes), 2012, 3-channel synchronized HD film installation, color, sound, 3 screens: 280 x 500 cm, 3 x 27 min., Photo: Henrik StrombergBut, more than any other works these showed Christov-Bakargiev‘s investment in critically investigating the institution’s history and meaning without abandoning it as something useless and only contemptuous. Through works like Richter’s and von Wedemeyer’s documenta as an institution is shown to be larger than the exhibit, adding to the idea that investigation is useful, knowledge is power and that history and the future are linked.

The Book of Books, the supporting text of dOCUMENTA(13), is introduced by Christov-Bakargiev with a story about a proposed project to move a meteor from Argentina to Kassel. The point of this anecdote is to illustrate that things as well as people have perspectives and places. This idea is essential to dOCUMENTA(13), as is the fact that each work in the exhibit is site-specific to one degree or another. My sense, moving about, was of being a flâneur, seeing my reflection and refraction in everything I observed and likewise being defined by that which I considered. This was the first time I attended when I wasn’t in a group or on duty, so it was to be an art vacation, which was at times nicely reaffirmed by the small houses scattered throughout the park, like resort town by a lake. But a vacation it was not. However enriching an experience like documenta is, it is in a sense a trauma to consider so much at such an intense pace. I begin to think it is that strain, the sense of being pulled apart by ideas and images, balanced by wonder, that in the end is the point of this incarnation of documenta. But really when all is said and done if there is a way to summarize documenta it escapes me. I do know that as it was each time I’ve gone it’s given me a lot to think about and consider, not only about the work I saw, but about my own taste and proclivities; likes and dislikes, standards and sensibilities. The most impressive aspect of the show is the amount of transparency the curator provided into her thoughts and planning for the exhibit. Actually seeing her schematics was inspiring in and of itself, showing that something like this, so grand and comprehensive, is no less mysterious or magical because we get to see into the process.

Julia Marsh