Standing Still and Walking in Kassel
No way was I anticipating coming to the conclusion that dOCUMENTA (13) is a triumph. I arrived a cynic and left a skeptic, and a joyful one at that. Reading curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s essay upon my return, it seems my transformation was anticipated: “Skepticism is an optimistic position that doubts the validity of induction as a means to arrive at knowledge.” This statement transported me back to my arrival in New York, working for the late Budd Hopkins, who, as a New York School artist and (in the mid-1980s) an emerging investigator of reports of alien abduction phenomena, often told me that a true skeptic finds it impossible to deny the possibility of anything. Over and over, this exhibition kept me in a refusal-free place of not knowing, deeply annoying at first and then, over time, deeply moving. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m strangely emotional—what happened?
There is another connection to be made before I take on the scale of this massive exhibition, one that makes a virtue out of the impossibility of seeing everything. I learned some time ago that Christov-Bakargiev wrote a thesis on Frank O’Hara and his relationship to the New York School painters. And while I may be an easy mark here, I would argue that this entire Documenta evokes his spirit: “What goes up must/come down, what dooms must do, standing still and walking in New York.” (From the poem “Ode on Causality,” 1958.) O’Hara’s fragment is massive in the completeness of its incompleteness and the specialness of its everydayness, not unlike this exhibition, in which standing still and walking has rarely been so exhausting and exhilarating, so directed yet willing to leave us to our own devices all at once.
Delirious from a sleepless flight to Frankfurt and the onward train to Kassel, I arrived at the Fridericianum, the 18th-century museum and traditional core of Documenta. I already knew about Ryan Gander’s surprisingly effective breeze, “I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize (The Invisible Pull)” (unless otherwise indicated, all works mentioned are from 2012), that occupies the near emptiness of the ground floor of the museum, a potential double gimmick that instead kept me in my body, providing an anchor for the remainder of this “introduction,” if not the entire exhibition. As well, Ceal Floyer’s audio installation, “Til I get it right” (2005), reminded me to listen carefully to the voice in my head. Three Julio González sculptures (shown previously in (2). Documenta, in 1959), and video, and other documentation of Khaled Hourani’s project that brought a Picasso painting to Palestine in 2011, all suggested that maybe it was possible that this Documenta would not undercut the agility of the seemingly—but never completely—autonomous art object, a modernist breath of still-fresh air caught short in the end by a vitrine displaying Kai Althoff’s long and rather tortured letter to Christov-Bakargiev explaining why he was unable to fulfill his commitment to participate.
Much has already been made of “The Brain,” the collection of small-scale artworks and artifacts brought together in the rotunda behind a wall of glass marked by one of two versions of Lawrence Weiner’s “THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF.” In the second catalogue, “The Logbook,” Christov-Bakargiev exposes the core of this section and the entire exhibition, telling an interviewer “I like the way that matter matters.” Dense yet graspable, and often aesthetically and conceptually mind-blowing, “The Brain” stayed with me through the entirety of the show, and remains even now. Highlights: six exceptional Morandi paintings and several of the objects he painted to make paintings; Mohammad Yusuf Asefi’s impressionist landscape painting “Dare Shamail” (2011), innocuous until you’re informed of his having painted over more than 80 figurative paintings in the National Gallery of Kabul in doubly protective watercolor; strange fusions of museum artifacts damaged during the Lebanese Civil War; and, ultimately, several jaw-dropping examples of the so-called Bactrian Princesses, small figurative sculptures made between 2500–1500 B.C. in what is now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Northern Afghanistan. I left “The Brain” thinking I had already received more visual stimulation than that of all the Documentas I have experienced prior combined.
However, in the remainder of the Fridericianum, an uneasy feeling started to creep in, despite revelatory presentations of the mid-1930s anti-fascist tapestry weavings of Hannah Ryggen, Charlotte Salomon’s painfully overwhelming mega-work “Life? or Theater? A Play with Music” (1941 – 1942), the contemporary aboriginal paintings of Doreen Reid Nakamarra and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Goshka Macuga’s of-the-moment magical history tapestry “Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not,” and—critically, for the entire Documenta that, we shouldn’t forget, extends beyond Kassel to exhibitions, seminars, and retreats in Kabul, Alexandria/Cairo, and Banff—the late arrival of Alighiero Boetti’s “Mappa” (1971 – 1972), produced in Afghanistan and first anticipated for Documenta 5 in 1972. (So tapestries have still got it!) Nonetheless, my realization of this disquiet provoked my irritation as painting began to emerge as either missing in action (I greatly admire Ida Applebroog’s work, but I missed her canvases in her willfully grating installation “I See By Your Fingernails That You Are My Brother: Journals,” 1969 – 2011) or, presented as what one of my friends calls “painting as apology,” that, even when interesting to contemplate—for example in the pairing of two Salvador Dali paintings with the fascinating genetic experiments of scientist Alexander Tarakhovsky—it doesn’t weather the constraint, and leaves the impression that only painting can’t escape exhaustion. To be clear, I’m thrilled by the inclusion of the scientists, not to mention the choreographers, fiction writers, poets, etc.—for the most part, they rightly amplify this Documenta. And when it comes to painting today I know I’m hypersensitive to what I see as a dereliction of duty on the part of almost all curators of international biennials of the past 25 or so years, a perspective that comes from my daily awareness of the growing sophistication on the part of younger artists as they owe less and less to dominant 20th-century modernism and are willing to look at the diverse bigger picture of painting. Nowhere in this Documenta did I think that Christov-Bakargiev gets this, and while not a fatal flaw, I’d suggest it comes across as a moment of assumption that may require another look (and I don’t mean in Chelsea). It was left then to the feisty Llyn Foulkes to provide his typically potent push back, starting with his one-man-band performance on “The Machine” (1979 – 2012), presented post-opening via video, and brought home by his two constructed paintings, in particular “The Last Frontier” (1997 – 2005), that once again (for me) asserted his essential place in Los Angeles (art) history and reinforced that painting remains one place where getting older can make the work even more engaged.
I continued on to the Ottoneum, Kassel’s Natural History Museum since 1885, and the documenta-Halle, purpose-built for Jan Hoet’s rollicking Documenta (9) in 1992. Most of the projects in the Ottoneum successfully articulated their makers’ engagements with the questions of what constitutes natural growth, in particular Claire Pentecost’s “Soil-erg,” that proposes a new system of value (currency) guaranteed by living soil, and Mark Dion’s new hexagonal display for The Schildbach Xylotheque, a “library” of books made from 441 local tree and shrub species. One of the best things about Dion’s work is that its aesthetic and structural allegiance remained with the museum, its history and audience, more so than the exhibition. Yet then, in the documenta-Halle, I found my dissatisfaction renewed, as this space supposedly contains (as “The Guidebook” directs), “A number of artworks thinking through what painting is today.” Despite a wall of four substantial Julie Mehretu canvases and a killer selection of works by Thomas Bayrle (he always brings it), including the gigantic photomontage “Airplane” (1982 – 83), and a selection of mesmerizing reconfigured car engines set in repetitive motion and said to be “praying,” the Halle didn’t deliver. Almost everything else undercut its goal: from Gustav Metzger’s respectable yet well-rehearsed positions of destruction, to Etel Adnan’s intimate canvases (beautiful, but with Morandi a few doors down…), to, ineptly in unequal comparison, Yan Lei’s “Limited Art Project,” an overblown and underwhelming rehearsal of the received ideas of painting, output on too many canvases to then be delivered, one by one, to the local car factory for a monochrome re-paint job and then returned.
Fortunately, day two meant another change of venue, and this Documenta started its comeback. At the Hauptbahnhof and its surroundings, the integration of creative work into the day-to-day of a former city center of industry and transport was almost too much to take, provoking my first concerns about time management. I couldn’t help but spend a substantial amount of it in Clemens von Wedemeyer’s three-channel video installation “Muster (Rushes),” in which three moments in the tragic history of a former Benedictine monastery in Breitenau, near Kassel, collide in the double meaning of daily “rushes” in film work. In my notes I wrote that at that point the Hauptbahnhof had the most concentrated selection of visually compelling work, extending the promise of “The Brain” into the cinematic and performative realms, with convincing video installations by William Kentridge (who, like Bayrle, never disappoints), Willie Doherty, Javier Téllez, and, new to me, Bani Abidi’s “Death at a 30 Degree Angle,” that condenses fiction, power, aesthetics, and form about the making of a self-aggrandizing political statue into a perfect 10 minutes. The richness of this work contributed to my experiences of other types of work presented here, from the literal solidity of Lara Favaretto’s “Momentary Monument IV (Kassel),” a two-part exterior/interior arrangement of rusted metal reclaimed from landfills (it’s strong even if art historically over-determined), to the solid otherworldliness of Susan Philipsz’s sound installation “Study for Strings,” that had me emotionally committed even before I made it all the way out to the end of the underused platform beyond which its speakers were positioned. I resisted the specifics of its situation relative to Kassel’s manufacturing history because it is a work worth openly receiving. Time back on my mind, I left the Hauptbahnhof, and made my first stop away from the main sites, to the Gloria Kino, where I could have spent hours watching Tricia Donnelly’s continuous screening of fluid, painterly, abstract gestures that would remain the only moment where the promise of the documenta-Halle was fulfilled.
Returning to Friedrichsplatz, I made my way to the installations near the Rathaus. Theaster Gates’s “12 Ballads for the Huguenot House”—a recovery of a building by way of loaded materials brought from Chicago—remains, even now, a center of inspired activity for the entire exhibition. And, given that it’s next to Tino Sehgal’s work (on this day my visit was brief, and, as it is, I’m saving his work for last), I’m tempted to call this part of documenta “The Heart.” Juxtaposed with the other version of Lawrence Weiner’s work on the exterior of the building, solid displays of the reliable extended painting project of Francis Alÿs (several signature small paintings using video color charts), and the unexpected painting intervention of Paul Chan (600 bargain book covers used as supports for simple grisaille paintings of mountains), this part of the city was profoundly satisfying.
Mindful of the challenge of the massive Karlsaue Park on the following day, I continued on the near side of the River Fulda to the disconcerting (and a little retro) concrete figurative sculptures of Adrián Villar Rojas scattered in the Weinberg Terrassen garden (“Return the World”), ending my day underground in a labyrinth of a bunker that guarded haunting installations by Allora & Calzadilla and Aman Mojadidi, that evoked the oldest musical instrument found to date (carved from the wing bone of a vulture), and German and Afghan fairy tales, respectively. (Kassel was the home of the Brothers Grimm, and the museum devoted to them has been taken over by Nedko Solakov’s raucous multi-part installation, “Knights (and other Dreams).”)
Starting day three with a quick look in the Orangerie that houses Kassel’s Cabinet of Astronomy and Physics, the presentation of Konrad Zuse’s mid-1930s work on a “mechanical brain” blew my mind, while Mika Taanila’s three-channel video, “The Most Electrified Town in Finland” (2004 – 12), about the first nuclear plant to be built in the west after Chernobyl, grabbed my attention for its entirety.
If “The Brain” is in fact such of this documenta, and the heart is as I described above (or, better yet, maybe the heart of this show is everywhere), then the projects in Karlsaue Park constitute a dedicated nervous system. Moving from work to work, many in smart, purpose-built small buildings, this day confirmed the achievement of this documenta as a paradigm shift beyond such limited notions as relational aesthetics. The diversity of the projects is overwhelming and some even gave me goosebumps: for example, Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller’s monumental sound piece “Forest (for a thousand years),” and, especially, Omer Fast’s heart-breaking yet still cheeky film “Continuity,” in which parents enact a fictional return of their soldier son by hiring a series of male escorts.
Also in the park, Anri Sala’s giant and functional “Clocked Perspective” proved that it is a deserving symbol of this documenta, and it merits a permanent place, alongside other sculptural works like Sam Durant’s harrowing “Scaffold,” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul with Chaisiri Jiwarangsan’s curious oversized figure, “The Importance of Telepathy.” I particularly enjoyed the wit of Shinro Ohtake’s “MON CHERI: A Self-Portrait as a Scrapped Shed,” and Christian Philipp Müller’s “Swiss Chard Ferry (The Russians aren’t going to make it across the Fulda anymore)”—despite their provisional construction, they also deserve to stick around.
Tacita Dean’s “Fatigues” started my last day, a poetic series of large chalk on blackboard drawings of mountains and floods that were installed on the walls of Kassel’s ex-Finance building, the result of a “blind” film commissioned by Dean in Kabul that failed. Increasing exhilaration came next by way of a series of artists of the Arab diaspora, beginning with Walid Raad’s engrossing installation “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World” (2007-ongoing), and Akram Zaatari’s “The End of Time,” a beautiful, silent 16mm film based on the complexities of desire between two men, completed by an incredibly affecting presentation in the ex-Elisabeth Hospital of a diverse group of artists, many of whom also participated in a project called “The Afghan Seminars” in Kabul and Bamiyan: for example Masood Kamandy, whose digital photographs were a revelation to me, along with Lida Abdul’s two-channel video installation “What We Have Overlooked” (2011). I won’t soon forget the sense of connection I felt in this space, and I feel fortunate that my particular path through this documenta ended with these artists.
Well, almost. After a quick revisit to the Fridericianum to confirm my earlier responses, and with a few hours before my train would depart, I returned to the room that contains Tino Sehgal’s work “This Variation,” staying as long as possible. By now many have experienced it, even more have read about it, and, for me it remains the work that represents the entire body—brain, heart, nervous system, etc.—of this stunningly positive documenta. Unlike my earlier visit, I stayed more than long enough not only for my eyes to completely adjust to the darkness, but also to take in as much as I could of its ecstatic spirit, a way of being in the world that came down, in this instance, to a single moment in a deliberate yet quick flicker of light when I happened to make eye contact with a participant who was momentarily resting yet still completely in the action. This documenta, in the end, is more about being in it, really in it, than maybe any other exhibition I’ve ever experienced.