As dOCUMENTA (13) closes, Sam Phillips asseses this monumental exhibition of international contemporary art and picks out some highlights from the 100-day event
Every five years for 100 consecutive days, the small city of Kassel near Frankfurt is taken over by Europe’s most important contemporary art exhibition: dOCUMENTA.
Last Sunday 17 September was the final day and, as the dust settles, it’s time to review the highlights of what was – for everyone I spoke to – one of the best art shows of its type in recent times.
Fridericianum, Photo: Nils Klinger. The exhibition is a major international festival, staged in a very wide variety of art and non-art spaces, from museums and galleries, to department stores, dilapidated buildings and the city’s park and train station. Initiated in 1955 to revive the country’s visual art scene after the war and the Third Reich’s denigration of modern art, the exhibition has become a pilgrimage point for both international art lovers and a culturally aware German public.
The fact that it occurs only every five years sets it apart from the many biennial or triennial exhibitions, allowing a generous amount time for the curators and artists commissioned to plan and execute their work. This extra time, of course, can more often than not yield rich results. Inclusion in dOCUMENTA is an honour for any artist, and the exhibition has remained largely untainted by the growth of the art market, with a curatorial emphasis on selecting artists for critical rather than commercial reasons. This year’s artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev explained she wanted the thirteenth edition of dOCUMENTA to be ‘in connection with, yet not subordinated to, theory’, and although one could find many shared concerns and ideas between different works on view, there was no attempt by the curators to construct a grand narrative to encompass the 200 artists’ works.
Artists’ sensitivity to history was a defining feature of the exhibition. The theme was established in the Rotunda in the city’s Fridericianum museum, a semi-circular room which Christov-Bakargiev christened ‘the Brain’ of dOCUMENTA (13) for its curatorial importance: inside ancient artifacts, such as Central Asian female figurines from the second and third millennia BC, rubbed shoulders with objects from more recent history, including items from Hitler’s bathroom (photographed by Lee Miller), vases that Italian painter Giorgio Morandi used as subjects for still lives and a device invented in 1930s by German computer pioneer Konrad Zuse.
Michael Rakowitz, 'What Dust Will Rise?', 2012. Courtesy Michael Rakowitz; Dena Foundation for Contemporary Art, Paris; Lombard Freid Projects, New York Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Dena Foundation for Contemporary Art, Paris and Lombard Freid Projects, New York. Photo: Roman März.
Chicago-based Michael Rakowitz conceived a fascinating project for dOCUMENTA (13) that uncovered and brought together significant historical and cultural events and objects. What Dust Will Rise (2012) focused on the important regional library that was destroyed by firebombing in 1941, during the time it was housed in the Fridericianum. Rakowitz collaborated on the project with stone carvers from the area of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, famous for the monumental Buddha statues carved into cliffs that were dynamited in 2001 by the Taliban. They recreated in stone a large number of the lost books from the German library. This created a beautiful symmetry: the carvers whose masterwork at Bamiyan had been destroyed could apply their expertise to bring to life another lost repository of culture.
Emily Jacir,, 'ex libris', 2010-12. Installation with photographs taken by cell phone, Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Alexander and Bonin, New York; Alberto Peola Arte Contemporanea, Turin, Special thanks to Yusef Nasri Suleiman Jacir and Munir Fakher Eldin Photo: Roman März. As well as beautiful objects in themselves, each stone book had its own tale to tell: Rakowitz hand-wrote explanations of what each historical volume had as its subject, whether religious, philosophical, legal, literary or artistic in bent. Around the stone replicas, in glass cabinets, the artist displayed a wide range of pathos-laden geological material, including rubble from the Blitz (dropped from British planes back onto German towns), a meteorite fragment, a Sumerian cuneiform tablet and an actual book from the 1941 fire that had charred so badly it looks itself like a rock. Each object in the room, however small, unfolded its own complex and poignant story, making Rakowitz’s project dense with meaning.
Another historic library was explored by Bethlehem-born Emily Jacir: the Jewish National Library in West Jerusalem, in particular its section known as ‘Abandoned Property’. This includes approximately 30,000 books that belonged to Palestinian homes and institutions before 1948. Visiting the library’s reading rooms, Jacir photographed with her mobile phone pages from a large number of these works, and the images were displayed across the walls of one of the spaces in the Fridericianum
Berlin-based Clemens von Wedemeyer focused on local history for one of the standout works at the Hauptbahnhof, where trains continued to run from platforms while visitors enjoyed the art installed in adjacent buildings. The former Benedictine monastery of Breitenau, near Kassel, was the artist’s subject. It was first converted into a prison, then a concentration camp during the war, before becoming a girl’s reformatory and then a mental hospital. Von Wedemeyer’s three-channel film installation, Munster (Rushes) (2012) presented three different 30-minute screenplays about the dark role the building had played over time. It was an immersive hour-and-a-half experience, reminding viewers of how architecture can both reveal and shroud histories.
Clemens von Wedemeyer, 'Muster (Rushes)', 2012. Courtesy Clemens von Wedemeyer Commissioned and co-produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with ZDF 3sat and Kadist Art Foundation, Paris; Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg; Nordmedia, Hanover; Hessische Filmforderung HR, Frankfurt/ Main; Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, Paris Photo: Henrik Stromberg.
Several works on view in the city’s Neue Galerie also aimed to reinvigorate the past, including Alexandrian artist Wael Shawky’s films that dramatised the Crusades through the meticulous use of marionettes; Italian-born Rosella Biscotti’s casts of the architectural features of the Roman courtroom that saw controversial trials of left-wing activists during the 1970 and ’80s; and Zagreb-based Sanja Ivekovic’s homage – in text and cuddly toys – to individuals who resisted injustice in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries.
dOCUMENTA (13) excelled in bringing to light older artists, some passed away, who are often ignored in major survey or group exhibitions. Many of these – making a change – were female, from the Lebanese writer and painter Etel Adnan, still at the top of her game with her sumptuous abstracted landscapes, to an artist like Margaret Preston, an Australian modernist who incorporated Aboriginal imagery into her figurative canvases. The Surrealist bronze works by Brazilian artist Maria Martins were a real discovery for me, as were the political tapestry pieces by Scandinavian Hannah Ryggen.
Charlotte Salomon, 'Leben? Oder Theater? Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theater? A Play with Music)', 1941–42. A selection, Gouches, each je 32,5 x 25 cm or 25 x 32,5 cm, Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. © Charlotte Salomon Foundation. Charlotte Salomon®. Photo: Roman März.
A selection of the hundreds of eccentric, expressionist gouaches painted by German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon had at times an unbearable poignancy, partly because of the knowledge that the visionary young artist was to be murdered in Auschwitz a year after their completion, five month’s pregnant.
Installations in and out of town
American artist Theaster Gates produced the ‘must see’ off-site project of the exhibition in Kassel’s nineteenth-century Huguenot House, a large home of a wealthy merchant damaged in the war and left in disrepair for the last three decades. In 2009 Gates acquired a dilapidated property in the South Side of his native Chicago, working with builders, craftsmen, artists and designers to turn it into a community-run cultural centre complete with library, record collection and kitchen.
Theaster Gates, '12 Ballads for the Huguenot House', 2012. Deconstructed timbers and other construction materials from 6901 South Dorchester, Chicago, video, sound, 9.14 x 18.29 x 36.56 m, Rebuild Foundation Construction Team, John Preus (Lead), Courtesy Theaster Gates; Kavi Gupta, Chicago; White Cube, London, Commissioned by dOCUMENTA (13) in collaboration with MCA, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, with the support Phillip Keir and Sarah Benjamin, London; Kavi Gupta, Chicago. Photo: Nils Klinger.
Gates’ team created furniture, fittings and architectural elements from some of the detritus of both buildings – such as floorboards, struts and lath and plaster walls – and installed these in Huguenot House, enabling it to function as an artists’ space during dOCUMENTA (13). It was moving to see material that was considered worthless from one abandoned house repurposed in order to bring to life another. Both buildings gained dignity from the project.
Anna Maria Maiolino, 'HERE & THERE', 2012. Installations: clay installation: 2000 kg of modeling clay; installation with vegetation; multimedia installation, Courtesy Anna Maria Maiolino, Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Galeria Millan, São Paulo; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan. Photo: Nils Klinger.
A development this dOCUMENTA was the extensive use the city’s Karlsaue Park; around 50 of the artists either made site-specific works in this bucolic environment or presented pieces in the many pavilions specially scattered across the park. The standard of work, strangely, seemed to drop off a bit in the park. But two stand-out works were an audio piece by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, and an ambitious mixed-media installation in a former gardener’s cottage by Brazil-based Ana Maria Maiolino.
Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, 'for a thousand years', 2012. Speakers, wires, amplifiers, computers, c. 25 min., loop Courtesy Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; Luhring Augustine, New York; Galerie Koyanagi, Tokyo, Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of The Banff Centre, Alberta, through contributions by Laura Rapp and Jay Smith, Toronto; the Canada Council for the Arts; Galerie Koyanagi, Tokyo; with further support by Sennheiser (Canada) Inc. Photo: Rosa Maria Rühling.
In Cardiff and Miller’s audio work, the speakers were invisible, hidden in the trees, but no one could miss their sound when they boomed out across the park, broadcasting first a magical piece of classical music – seemingly a segment of a string-based symphony – followed by the sounds of old fighter planes firing their guns. In a cottage, Maiolino had arranged conglomerations of small abstract clay shapes across the furniture and in corners. Phallic grey forms lay in their hundreds on the bed; tiny brown things spread across window sills. These uncanny arrangements were supplemented by evocative poems, which were recited by the artist in an audio piece in the building’s basement, in addition to an installation of tree branches inside the top of the house, which came complete with the sound of bird song.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine