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Review: Documenta 14

3 Sep

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by Rhea H. Boyden

I am sitting on my queen-sized bed in my beautiful room at the Best Western Hotel in the centre of Kassel, Germany. My travelling companion is sitting on her bed and we are both leafing through various books and magazines that review the huge array of work that is on display by the more than 160 artists who make up this year’s Documenta which is being held in both Kassel and Athens. The book I am currently perusing is ‘A Documenta Day Book’. It dedicates each day of the exhibit (which runs from April 8th to September 19th) to one of the 160 artists. I am curious, first and foremost, to see which artist is responsible for creating the 16 metre high obelisk that we had just spotted around the corner from our hotel in the centre of Königsplatz. The obelisk is inscribed on its four sides, in four different languages: German, English, Turkish and Arabic with a quote from The Book of Matthew: ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’ The obelisk is the work of Nigerian-American artist and writer Olu Oguibe and the day that is dedicated to him in the Documenta day book is July 11th. I am overcome with emotion. July 11th is the day my mother died and here I am, less than 3 weeks later in the beginning of August at Documenta. I am here to try and find some solace and comfort in art. I am here with a good friend, the same friend who I attended Documenta 13 with 5 years ago. I somehow doubt that this Documenta, which has already received scathing reviews, will provide me with much comfort, but I will strive, nonetheless to find hope and joy where I can in the two days we have allowed to immerse ourselves in this exhibit, which is a tiny slice of time given the immensity of it.

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‘I was a stranger and you took me in’ by Olu Oguibe 

Documenta was founded in 1955 by the German architect, painter and curator Arnold Bode and takes place every 5 years. Its original intention was to showcase artwork in the aftermath of the second world war that had been banned by the Nazis. It has since become the most important contemporary political art show in the world and is a highly anticipated event drawing thousands. The home of Documenta is the industrial and provincial town of Kassel in the German state of Hesse which is a couple hours’ train ride north of Frankfurt. The city centre was destroyed by allied bombing raids in 1943 and was rebuilt quickly in the 1950’s and its architecture is grey, functional and austere. The surroundings of Kassel are beautiful, however, featuring the lush Karlsaue Park which runs along the River Fulda as well as the Baroque Orangerie that was built between 1703 and 1711.

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The Orangerie in Kassel where many Documenta pieces are exhibited

This year, however, the exhibit is contentiously and confusingly being located in both Kassel and Athens, Greece with most of the commissioned artists exhibiting their work in both cities over the course of the show. It is curated by polish-born art director Adam Szymczyk who has already been criticised by politicians and teased by art reviewers for his strange and unorthodox curatorial ideas. Art Net News writer Ben Davis writes the following in his review entitled ‘Straining for Wisdom, Documenta 14 implodes under the weight of European Guilt’:

‘It’s hard to put into words how perplexing the experience of Documenta in Kassel is’, writes Davis, ‘People who like their art to be entertaining are going to hate it, because it is a strikingly alienating show. This is deliberate. At the Kassel press launch Szymczyk was asked if he thought that art needs to ‘look good.’ His answer: ‘If you think of aesthetics as more akin to cosmetics, as a pretty thing, I suppose this can be useful sometimes, but we are more interested in the texture and the structure.’ Davis then writes: ‘A simple ‘NO’ would have sufficed.’ When I read this I laughed out loud, which felt great and gratifying because I have shed more tears of sorrow than I have laughed in the past weeks. I agree with Davis and I found Documenta perplexing and confusing and I found myself floundering for meaning as I meandered my way through a handful of the main exhibition spaces.

Back to the obelisk at Königsplatz: this statement ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’ is a politically loaded one and refers to the many refugees that Germany has taken in over the past few years. It is a statement and policy that Angela Merkel will also find hotly contested in upcoming elections. This obelisk, its statement and the artist who created it is one of the leading discussion points of Documenta and on a personal level I think of my mother who shares the death date of the artist’s allotted date in the book. I think of her life and how she also arrived in Germany in the autumn of 1990, a single mother with my three younger sisters in tow and was also taken in by new friends and strangers alike, I think of her Bohemian life in nineties East Berlin, and of how, after she was settled in Germany herself, she then opened her door generously to all walks of life and took them in. She was big hearted, passionate, engaged fully in the arts, founding an English language magazine in Berlin and taking the time to support her artist and musician friends in the exciting and uncertain early post Berlin Wall days.

When I attended Documenta 13 five years ago I was in a very bubbly, happy and enthusiastic mood. I had a lot of fun and was really inspired to write by what I saw, including the incredible installation by South African artist William Kentridge entitled ‘The Refusal of Time.’ It was a mesmerising exhibit that had me spellbound. I wandered through Documenta eagerly soaking up everything: the tough political themes that were then being discussed such as Occupy Wall Street as well as lighter artistic themes. This has made me think of myself as a reviewer and of how my own state of mind fully and completely affects how I am able to engage with art and how I am subsequently able to write about it. I am, at present grieving my mother’s recent death so I am finding it difficult to take on board all the really tough political, social and economic issues that Documenta grapples with.

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Documenta Halle in Kassel

Documenta 14 opened on April 8th in Athens one day after Greece and E.U. Finance ministers signed an agreement on new austerity measures. Bringing Documenta to Athens has been criticised by many Greeks as being a form of ‘crisis tourism’ and graffiti in the city has abounded with slogans such as ‘Crapumenta’ being spray painted on walls. The head curator’s decision to place Documenta in Athens was to form a North/South solidarity to bring the show away from the heart of industrial power in Europe to the place where the two themes of economic crisis and refugee crisis are felt the strongest. The title of the Kassel leg of this show is ‘Learning from Athens’ but what has been learned from Athens in Kassel? I had a long conversation with an Asian-American art historian who also attended the exhibit in Kassel and he says it has failed. Why? I asked him. ‘Because we are still in the midst of this economic and refugee crisis and there is no perspective yet. Germany is economically strong and can absorb refugees. Greece has reached saturation and exhaustion point. It is two completely different scenarios. We need perspective.’

I feel in my own life I have reached saturation and exhaustion point with my own grief and the confrontation, confusion and turmoil that has followed my mother’s death. I was looking for some escapism and comfort at Documenta. I was looking for colour, beauty, music, poetry, erotica and I found little of it there. The only real sensual comfort I found was in the hot bubble bath of my Best Western Hotel room and the delicious sun ripened tomatoes and fresh strawberries that I dined on in local restaurants. I know fully that I am privileged to be able to enjoy these delights. There are currently 65 million people wandering the world looking for a safe place to land. Syrian filmmaker Charif Kiwan stressed at a Documenta press conference: ‘With news of a chemical strike in Syria followed by Trump’s retaliatory airstrikes why should there be any place for beauty at Documenta with such indignity being imposed on victims?’ He has a point. And despite Documenta’s head curator claiming that enjoying Documenta should begin with a process of unlearning, it is poorly curated (despite its 37.5 million Euro budget) and extremely inaccessible to the under educated and poor with its emphasis on confusing and very challenging artworks, as well as glass vitrine upon glass vitrine of papers, letters and legal documents for you to peruse if you have the time and inclination. I had little interest in stopping to read long excerpts that were displayed under glass of the trial between one Jousset Ante Sara and the Norwegian ministry of food and agriculture. And even if I had been interested in standing there and really taking it all in I would have been in the way of the throngs of people who wanted to walk past me.

And I only went to Kassel which cost enough with the return flight from Dublin to Frankfurt, train to Kassel, two nights in a hotel, food, tickets and so forth. If you really wanted to enjoy all of Documenta you would also have to go to Athens. Doing all of this demands time, money, interest and education. So is this the whole point? For the few of us who are privileged enough to do all of this to be reminded by art that the world really is in a very bad state and that art is in a very confused state? A writer and artist friend of mine did go to Athens as well as Kassel and she said the Athens leg of the show was very inaccessible, spread out and very challenging to navigate.

And this is, of course, the main gripe that I and several other art reviewers have, that despite how bad the world is, one of art’s functions is to be a call to action and collaboration and if it leaves you feeling confused and lacking hope then where is the incentive to act in a positive manner to improve things?

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Daniel Knorr ‘Expiration Movement’

One particularly contentious art installation in Kassel was by Romanian artist Daniel Knorr entitled ‘Expiration Movement’. It features smoke emitting consistently from one of the towers of the Friedericianium which is one of the main Documenta museums on Friedrichsplatz. It has caused many calls to be made to the local fire department in Kassel which is costing taxpayers money. The installation itself is also costing a fortune to run. ‘What a waste,’ was my comment to my friend as I lacked any energy to look at any deeper symbolic or metaphorical meaning to it beyond the obvious that it could perhaps remind us in the West of what it might be like to live in a war zone and to wonder in confusion what bomb or explosion may have caused the fire. I was simply pointing out the wasted money and resources: firefighters, etc. ‘But perhaps that is the whole point,’ my friend offered, ‘That we are wasting resources and things are not really being done very efficiently in a time of flux and complicated bureaucracy for many.’ As we wandered through the Friedericanium there was also a loud bang behind us which made me and my friend jump. A bomb? A gun? No, it was just emitting from one of the artworks with no warning whatsoever. I am in too vulnerable a state emotionally to deal with this.

We moved onto the Documenta Halle at the other side of Friedrichsplatz which was built in 1992 to house the ever expanding Documenta. It was in here that I finally found a bit of solace and it was to be found in music. This suited me well as reviewing music has been my main focus the past year since I have been collaborating with PHEVER:TV-Radio in Dublin. Music as a tool to help humans escape suffering and to bring them together in harmony and collaboration was an idea that cheered me up after I once again became emotional after encountering an exhibit in the Documenta Halle that featured the music of Ali Farka Toure, a favourite musician of my mother’s.

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 Guillermo Galindo

In the main hall there was an exhibit by Mexican artist Guillermo Galindo which featured the remains of fibre glass and wooden boats which is clearly alluding to refugee boats. Attached to one of the boats were harpsichord and piano strings. Galindo is a composer who began working on a piece called ‘Border Cantos’ a collaborative project that took him along the the Mexican and U.S. border. He collected items discarded by refugees, migrants and border control agents and began constructing musical instruments out of them. He intended for these instruments to sound out into the world thus giving a voice and hope for the future to migrants.

Another exhibit in the Documenta Halle that finally lifted my spirits was a collection of paintings by Dutch visual artist, composer and painter Sedje Hemon who developed a method of putting her musical scores onto paintings. Various musical parameters such as pitch and timbre would be extracted based on the points along the lines and curves of the paintings. And while I lack the musical training and background to really understand how this works, I found it fascinating and hugely inspiring nonetheless. Hemon is a woman who knew suffering in her lifetime. She was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 for joining resistance groups. While interred in the concentration camp she played violin in the camp orchestra.

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Sedje Hemon – Flanquant en Bas

It has been nearly a month since I attended Documenta and it has been a month of emotional turmoil and unhappiness for me. I happily wrote a review of Documenta 13 five years ago but I didn’t think I was going to be able to write anything this time and my motivation levels have been down. I have been depressed, sad and not really captivated by what I saw and experienced there for the most part. So I have been listening to a lot of music and thinking too much, sleeping too much and not reading as much as I would have normally because I lack the energy and emotional stability at the moment. But here I am finally sitting down and writing and it feels good. I have a warm room, food, hot water, a comfortable bed, photos of my mother at my side. I have music and I have memories. And despite the bad and depressing reviews of Documenta that I have read, I want to remain hopeful and this is what I have learned from Documenta: that our stability is fragile. Emotional, economic and environmental stability is extremely fragile. I have also been reflecting on the fact that inspite of this fragility, I have many reasons to be grateful. I am not in the middle of a devastating flood in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Houston. I am in my warm and dry room. I am thinking a lot about the future and I, like many others am afraid. But hope, support and collaboration must come before fear. I know that my mother would want me to be fearless. She certainly led a life devoid of fear and was not afraid to take risks and travel the world. And as I continue to write and regain my energy to get back to my serious reading, I am keeping her spirit alive as I listen to her favourite music and through my tears reflect on the difficult and confusing lessons of Documenta which may take a long time to really sink in.

Featured image is one from the series Flanquant en Bas by Sedje Hemon.