June 10 – September 17, 2017
….the manicured lawns of Kassel, oddly unpeopled, trashless streets, taxis that arrive to pick you up at your hotel for your early train at 2:30 a.m.—not 2:31, 2, or 3—Prussian efficiency, Teutonic rigor, the burghers icily friendly, helpful….
But… Nazi. There’s the word. Say it. Germany can arch its back to accommodate, provide, educate, facilitate. The fact of over six million Roma, Jews, and queers—murdered for nationalism—it’s not gone.
Hans Haacke’s in hot water again. The place where he’s most comfortable. This most politically savvy of artists hung banners around the city: Wir (alle) sind das Volk. (2003/2017), “We are All the People,” a rallying cry for harmony. Except that it’s nails on the blackboard to locals (according to Documenta official Lucas Itacarambi), who pointed out that this is also a slogan shouted by Neo-Nazis, perhaps while they’re stomping brown people or kicking-in Algerian teeth.
So, is this some Haacke-flavored Situationist prank, in keeping with his longtime practice of critiquing institutions and social systems, in deadpan fashion? If the institution in question is the Republic of Germany and its political climate, he may have opened a can of fire ants. Or he may be taking aim at Documenta itself, where he worked as an exhibition guard for Documenta 2 in 1959. Irony is a powerful critical tool: its nuances can tilt on razor wire.
Polish artist Piotr Uklański stares straight into the face of the terror. His Real Nazis (2017) is a wall of photo portraits of dozens of the mid-century war criminals: many of a handsome, rakish mien, others with mad-dog faces, brutal, withering gazes from murderous eyes. In the accompanying catalogue, John C. Welchman draws a bead on the “homoerotic insignia fetishism” of the piece. Three or four pert Nazi women, along with a few characters who could be your kindly neighborhood greengrocer, remind us that though their acts were monstrous, they were human beings of flesh and blood.
“Hence organization is in all things only a necessary evil.” So said a rather skillful German watercolorist of the early 20th century, Adolf Hitler. “I wanted to become a painter,” he states in his autobiography Mein Kampf, “and no power in the world could make me a civil servant.”
A teardrop’s distance away is Joseph Beuys’s installation The Pack (1969), from Kassel’s Neue Galerie’s permanent collection; a train of sleds with felt blankets, a block of fat on each, all tethered to a vintage Volkswagen Microbus. Within eyeshot of Uklański’s Nazis, it takes on a new resonance, circumscribing the horrors of war and setting up a dynamic that resounds throughout the exhibitions: mythos, survival, and never-forget.
These themes echo within the half-dozen main venues spread around this small city. Artistic director Adam Szymczyk sought art that shoots at the elephants in the global room: the largest refugee crisis since World War II; the meltdown and subsequent bailouts of the Greek economy (Athens is partnered with Kassel for this Documenta, the first time it has reached beyond German borders); the imminence of the next holocaust: world hunger and starvation.
Szymczyk cannily engaged contemporary art curators keyed to up-to-the-nanomoment tendencies in art practice: transgender activist Paul B. Preciado, a former student of Jacques Derrida, and author of books including Pornotopia (2014) and Contra-Sexual Manifesto (2002), insures an LBGTQ presence. The Cameroon-born, Berlin-based curator (and biotech expert!) Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung has stated that while “non-Western art is still represented mainly as an exotic cliché,” there exists art around the world that challenges that.
This is seen in Emily Jacir’s Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948 (2001), a tent adorned with the names of ruined villages. As a temporary structure to house the displaced, it registers as a document of refugee camps. Walid Raad’s 15 color photographs of doctor’s office name-plates, No, Illness Is Neither Here Nor There (1993 – 2003) at this moment bring forth a dramatic immediacy with “fake news” from a “fake archive.” This is “mock science” as social critique, again pivoting with irony.
What separates Jacir’s work from the pack is that she’s trafficking in a more rooted kind of memorial to the slain, whereas Raad’s fabulated archive is on the scent of the constructedness of history. Raad went around Beirut and photographed doctor’s copperplate office “shingles;” from that he left niblets, clues, that may initiate a story—about the involvement, or the opting out, of citizens in the 1975 civil war in Lebanon. Whether this actually happened or not is a floating island—an open question.
One large hall housed works from the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, tagged “Learning From Athens.” We learned that modern Greece, from 1967 to ’74, was ruled by a neo-fascist military junta, no strangers to torture. Sculptor Kostis Velonis evoked this legacy with his poetic Life Without Democracy (2009), a large table-like object, funereal black, listing to one side: upset, imbalance, death.
American artists of Greek descent or birth turned up here: Lynda Benglis, Lucas Samaras, neon artist Stephen Antonakis—and who knew that much about Chryssa’s work from the 1950s, ’60s and ’90s, including her plaster Cycladic Books (1957/1962). There are also Greek contemporary artists whose names you might know, and seeing them here raises their profile. For instance, the kinetic artist Takis is represented with several works including Gong (1978), a Serra-esque curved steel arc with a hidden electromagnetically operated gong that lets out a periodic bowel-churning “Graaak!”
Outside on the plaza soars the work of great Argentine conceptualist Marta Minujin, Parthenon of Books (2017), an almost life-size copy of the Parthenon, with about 25,000 banned books—Catcher In The Rye, Twilight, 1984—imprisoned on huge pillars, in Glad Wrap. In this age of installation-as-spectacle, Minujin’s work certainly qualifies as iPhone camera-bait, but it also engenders dialogue. Visitors peering through the plastic-wrap at the book covers wondered aloud why on earth a Harry Potter book was ever banned.
Text-based, theory-driven ideas require reading, reading, reading. Miriam Cahn’s loopy, color-drenched paintings deliver welcome pleasure for the eyes and brain, and an antidote to idea-art-torpor. She’s like a Swiss Katherine Bradford, qua paint application, with her spectral figures looming in undetermined spaces.
If—as I’ve argued elsewhere in the Rail—nine tenths of current performance art is puerile pretension, today’s video art is nearly 10/10. Two startling exceptions here: Roee Rosen created a couldn’t-turn-away experience with The Dust Channel (2016): 23 minutes of hilarious social/domestic critique. The premise is this: what if a germaphobe family’s devotion to their home-cleaning appliances morphed into something disturbingly sexual? If Martha Rosler made MTV videos they might be like this. Eva Stefani showed a 25-minute Super 8 film, Acropolis (2002/2004)—distressed clips from soft-core skin-films woven into a kind of narrative. I left the screening room but kept lingering in the doorway to see what was going down next.
Unlike the Venice Biennale, which has become the Olympics of the art world, Documenta 14 vibes a Euro SXSW: Douglas Gordon and Wang Bing films, beer gardens, and a huge musical element—“art music”—with artists like Missy Magazine, Soundwalk Collective, Aki Onda, Nastio Mosquito, Caroline Bergvall.
Plenty of new art from North Americans: R. H. Quaytman with a salon of her delicate small mixed-media paintings; Stanley Whitney’s bright geo-paintings; Moyra Davey’s mail art series Skeletal Buddha (2017) where she folds up photographs, then mails them to the exhibition curators with their addresses, date of mailing, etc. This documentation-as-art is arrayed along about a 100-foot section of wall, making a stunning tableau.
Thought there’d be more new German art; where were the next Albert Oehlens, the new Kippenbergers and Baselitzes? As this is an international survey, showcasing young German artists is low on the curatorial punch-list here. But the suspicion arises that today is a fallow time in the scope of recent art by German-born artists. It seems Szymczyk wanted to highlight the notion that the geographies and ethnicities of art-making are, if not a dated concept, an ever-evolving one.
ContributorTimothy Francis Barry
TIMOTHY FRANCIS BARRY has written for the Boston Globe, New Musical Express, Aesthetica Magazine, artcritical and artsfuse.org. His first column was under the editorship of Byron Coley at Take-It Magazine. Summers he operates Tim's Used Books in Provincetown, Mass., which book critic David L. Ulin, called his "favorite bookstore in America." (Los Angeles Times, 8/29/13) He lives in New York.