BY Jennifer Allen in Reviews | 01 AUG 12
Featured in
Issue 6

I Will Survive

documenta 13 – Review

BY Jennifer Allen in Reviews | 01 AUG 12

Jeronimo Voss, Eternity Through the Stars, 2012 (Courtesy: the artist & d(13); Photograph: Anders Sune Berg)

Chicken wire. That’s what I remember most from the barrage of art works in Kassel. The airy metal netting – reminiscent of both animal and chemical compounds – shows up twice in Anna Maria Maiolino’s installation HERE & THERE (2012), which fills a former gardener’s house and spreads to a nearby thicket in Karlsaue Park. The wire covers the outer side of the cellar windows to prevent the panes from being overgrown by vegetation. Throughout the cellar, Maiolino’s voice echoes as a sound piece: a hushed yet relentless monologue about fathers and creativity. Up on the first floor, the wire reappears, but not to protect the gardener’s house from the garden; it is used inside as a web in the doorways to hold cypress branches, which block the view to the bedrooms beyond.

Kader Attia, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012 (Courtesy: the artist & d(13); Photograph: Roman März)

The doubling of the wire – as defensive cage and embracing web – suggests other pairs. Downstairs mirrors upstairs; invading natural growths evoke intimate domestic passages; the gardener’s green thumb toiling outdoors, his leisure spaces indoors for rest, sex, sleep, dreams – all evergreen. On the main floor, unbaked clay forms – extravagant pasta or perfect turds? – cover the surfaces of shelves, sofas, stuffed chairs. A black and white television shows two men rolling eggs back and forth across a table, trying not to break them. Black and white photographs – of naked bodies and more eggs – adorn the walls. No gardener, no chickens. Outside in the thicket, another sound piece rings out from the trees: someone blowing one of those clay bird-whistles … When I visited, a real bird was singing along, although his lovely refrain was nothing less than a territorial attack on his baked clay rival: another attempt to carve out a living space among the wild things.

This attention to detail – and a tremendous concentration – makes many works in this documenta memorable experiences. Mute objects exude an atmosphere which is not quite inviting, nor off-putting, but just there. At the gardener’s compound, Thea Djordjadze has set up abstract sculptural pieces – or maybe an obstacle course – in one greenhouse while in another Jimmie Durham shows two artefacts – an unshot bullet from World War II and a prehistoric stone tool – as a succinct take on The History of Europe (2011). While their displays are sparse, the artists’ gestures seem as palpable as the heat stifling the greenhouses on some days and the raindrops pecking at the glass roofs on others.

For me, it was remarkable how many contributions are devoid of exhibitionism from the artists and, by extension, voyeurism for the viewers. Often, I had the feeling that the artists would keep on working, whether I saw their works or not. You can pass them by or join in – although you must hand in your mobile phone (in exchange of a numbered chestnut) to wander through the maze of junk in Gareth Moore’s hobo hotel compound; you must have a dog to enter Brian Jungen’s Dog Run (2012); and you must have an appointment to be hypnotized by Marcos Lutyens in his hut in the park.

Unfortunately, the poorly designed map turns the exhibition into a treasure hunt and leaves many treasures hidden. I almost missed Cevdet Erek’s sound piece Room of Rhythms (2012), throbbing through an empty passageway off the C&A department store (and resounding like a multiple heart-beat in the body). And Jeronimo Voss’s film Eternity Through the Stars (2012), which is inspired by Louis Auguste Blanqui’s eponymous 1872 tract and is projected in the Orangerie’s Planetarium as a history of planetary and political revolutions: ‘Something new is always old; something old is always new’. Or Tarek Atoui’s electronic music workshops in a back room of the Orangerie. Or in a hard-to-find hut in the park, Ruth Robbins and Red Vaughan Tremmel’s Subjects of Desire: Relics of Resistance (2012), a museum of burlesque, complete with pasties – a succinct take on the history of America.

This documenta marked many firsts, including the most all-embracing definition of art (from sculptures to scientific experiments) and the most diverse list of participants, deceased and living. Many became participating artists against all odds, whether political, professional, historical or physical. Consider Amjad Ghannam, who presents a drawing he made of a Picasso painting while he was in the Glabou Central Prison in 2011 and the painting was shown at the Ramallah art academy; the philosopher Christoph Menke who lectures in the Fridericianum; the artist Charlotte Salomon (1917–1943) who was murdered in Auschwitz; or the mentally handi­capped members of the Theater HORA group who dance in Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theatre (2012). If you didn’t make the list, you could ask Lori Waxman to write a review of your work as part of her performance 60 wd/min art critic (2008–ongoing). ‘Outsider art’, cross-overs, Goethe and Schiller’s definition of dilettantism or even Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s notion of artistic research fail to capture this spectrum.

More fitting is the concept of art as necessity, a life calling, a means of survival. An anonymous stripper’s diary in Robbins and Tremmel’s museum lists her ‘1966 Goals in Achievement’, including ‘Do big stuff with art – get art show – put out art book.’ Repetitive, almost obsessive, gestures abound, often condensed into tightly wound and highly regulated forms, whether paintings (Doreen Reid Nakamarra), wall carpets (Hannah Ryggen), healing rituals (Pedro Reyes), scientific experiments (Anton Zeilinger), machines (Thomas Bayrle) or collections, like Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass (2012) with all the pictures cut out of all the issues of Life magazine, or like Kader Attia’s The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012) with pictures of repaired African artefacts and of the deformed faces of World War I soldiers. The pastor Korbinian Aigner (1885–1966) not only cultivated new apple strains as an inmate in Dachau but also painted hundreds of images of apples and pears before and after his internment. Vann Nath (1946–2011) survived the Khmer Rouge massacres only because he could paint; he was then forced to do endless portraits of Pol Pot, although the exhibition features his painting of a torture session Interrogation at the Kandal Pagoda (2008). On a lighter note, some artists – like Gareth Moore and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook – are living in their compounds in the park. What links these works together is not research, politics or even biopolitics but bio-aesthetics: a necessary fusion of life and art. The Brain – Christov-Bakargiev’s dense display in the Fridericianum rotunda – suggests that the rest of the show is the giant sprawling body: a curatorial take on the Corpus Christi,_ a corpus curationis_.

With art linked to the necessity and survival implied by a bio-aesthetics, documenta had to end up in a war zone. Interventions in Afghanistan – from pre-exhibition lectures and seminars in Kabul and Bamiyan to a public show at Kabul’s Queen’s Palace, the surrounding Bagh-e Babur gardens and the National Gallery – make this documenta the first to move from addressing politics and activism towards wartime humanitarian aid and its contradictions, like reliance on international agencies, security services and the military. This reliance is criticized in Half Truth (2012), a printed statement written by Goshka Macuga, who bemoans her experience in Kabul for the ‘never-ending security’, ‘threatening presence of the military’ and ‘segregation of international elites from ordinary citizens’. Pre-exhibition lectures and seminars were kept secret, allegedly for security reasons. But why were only two of 20 lectures open to the public at the Cairo leg of the show? And only six talks public from ten full days of lectures at Banff, where black flies pose the largest threat? While the state of exception in war abuses public law, the aesthetic state of exception produces an elitist club, which abuses public participation and funding. The sculptures of books in Michael Rakowitz’s What Dust Will Rise (2012) were flown from Bamiyan to Bolzano by the German army, according to the artist. While an Afghan sculptor formed the stone squares, Italians put the decorative elements on what turned out to be sculptures of Bibles rescued from the bombed-out Fridericianum in 1941.

Alas, there is no information in The Guidebook (2012) for the show about the crucial differences between Western European art (which has deep historical ties to Catholicism), Islamic aniconism (which gave rise to ornamental abstraction) and iconoclasm under the Taliban (which led to the destruction of figurative images), nor about the politics of making figurative art in Afghanistan today – a surprising lacuna for an exhibition about research. Some Afghan artists directly participating in the show must have been surprised to find their works segregated off in Kassel’s Ex-Elisabeth Hospital, whose façade sports a sculpture of the Catholic Saint Elizabeth, holding her Marburg Cathedral. Many works – like Lidia Abdul’s film What We Have Overlooked (2011) and Jeanno Gaussi’s project Family Stories (2011–12) – rise above the affront of ghettoization. A section documenting the pre-exhibition seminars features books with lecture transcripts, but the contributions of Afghan seminar participants are missing since only the foreign speakers’ talks have been partially transcribed. As one visitor noted, flipping through the mostly blank pages, ‘C’est obscène.’

Marcos Lutyens und Raimundas Malašauskas with Sissel Tolaas Hypnotic Show, 2012 (Courtesy: the artists & d(13); Photograph: Nils Klinger)

While obscenity was never intended, wilful ignorance was always part of the curatorial plan: in her notebook On the Destruction of Art (2011), Christov-Bakargiev writes, ‘Art can suspend or increase conflict. If the context of the conflict is ignored [my emphasis], if one acts as if there were no conflict […], if the artistic act withdraws from conflict […] and engages with the traumatized art object from the point of view of gratitude, one can enter into a form of worldly alliance.’ But there is a conflict in Afghanistan, and the conflict that bombed Kassel is not the same conflict that destroyed Kabul, let alone the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the artefacts in the Beirut National Museum (also shown in The Brain) or the Cambodia landscape (Vandy Rattan’s photographs of ‘bomb ponds’ like Kompong Cham, 2009).

While I felt moved by the detail, intensity and concentration of specific works, I felt emotionally blackmailed by the curatorial call for gratitude and a worldly alliance, which also made me mistrust the diversity of the participants. Had Theater HORA been included as part of a politically correct curatorial agenda? Or because its members, like the melted Beirut museum artefacts, recalled another act of destruction, namely the Nazi genocide of the handicapped? While the artists pursue their subjects in a striking manner, the curator seems to treat them, their works and the often traumatic events they address as fully interchangeable. This interchangeability of people, art and conflicts is reflected in a few weaker contributions, such as Susan Hiller’s jukebox of 100 Songs for the 100 days of dOCUMENTA (13) (2011–12), which plays 100 protest songs while levelling out their historical differences and political contexts, from Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit (1939), about American lynchings, to Le chant des partisans (The partisan song, 1943), about French resistance to Nazi occupation. Or in Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller’s forest sound piece for a thousand years (2012), which seems to resound with so many years of conflict, from charging horses to flying bombers. As The Guidebook notes, ‘the listener feels the presence of the recorded people and machines as if actually witnessing these events.’ Most listeners did not, apart from some older Germans, who looked traumatized as ‘bombs’ exploded sonorously around them.

Marcos Lutyens und Raimundas Malašauskas with Sissel Tolaas Hypnotic Show, 2012 (Courtesy: the artists & d(13); Photograph: Nils Klinger)

Despite the curatorial interest in research, the presentation of so many conflicts together – their assumed interchangeability as so many traumas and so many moments of gratitude and alliance – seems to serve affect and entertainment, if not an Oprah Winfrey aesthetic of tears and joy at hardships overcome by art: a curatorial pathos purged of not only conflict but often politics and facts. I attended a screening of Rashid Masharawi’s film Picasso in Palestine (2011) about how Khaled Hourani worked to bring the Picasso painting from the Van Abbemuseum to the Ramallah art academy; the screening’s hosts greeted the former political prisoner Ghannam in the audience; when he stood up, everyone clapped, just like on Oprah. But why had he been jailed? How did he get out – and get to Kassel? Surely, his voyage is as significant as the painting’s. But his story was not told at the screening, in The Guidebook or on the label beside his drawing in the Fridericianum. Far from an oversight, this lacuna appears to be part of a systematic lack of certain information, which seems to be missing because the facts may get too close to conflict for the curator, although artists such as Macuga are not afraid to address them. It is unfortunate because a discussion of the conflicts between, for example, Western European figurative art, Islamic aniconism and Taliban iconoclasm could have been a highlight of the exhibition.

Tacita Dean, c/o Jolyon, 2012 (Courtesy: the artist & d(13); Photograph: Dorota Lukianska)

In Christov-Bakargiev’s corpus curationis, the works, the artists and even the viewers are all there to become the moving body parts of The Brain, which ignores conflicts to orchestrate both traumatic and curative experiences. The show is not just big; it appears to be organized as an attack on the senses: emotionally through disturbing images, like the blood stains on the floor in Vann’s Interrogation at the Kandal Pagoda, and physically through sensory overload. Since many events are scheduled at the same time, even in Kassel, no one can see the entire show. Who can be in two places at once? But the art works appear to be, thanks to the curatorial repetition of themes and images. Many works address Kabul, Breitenau, books … Yet others reappear as a traumatic déjà-vu, triggering emotional links. The torture chair in Vann’s painting looks like the lone enchained chair of Füsun Onur’s Untitled (1993–2012); Giorgio Morandi’s crusader puppet in The Brain recalls not only the puppets in Wael Shawky’s film Cabaret Crusades (2010–ongoing) but also Nedko Solakov’s installation Knights (and other dreams) (2012); even Maiolino’s clay-bird whistle finds an eerie double in Allora & Calzadilla’s film Rapture’s Rapture (2012): a woman playing a Stone Age flute – carved from a griffon’s wing bone – for a live griffon vulture. After so many shocks of recognition, I needed to be hypnotized by Marcos Lutyens.

Stephan Balkenhol, Man in the Tower, 2012 (Courtesy: the artist; Photograph: Wolfgang Noltenhans)

Of course, every brain has an unconscious, unavowed conflicts and repressed memories, which can be explored through free association. Consider another work in The Brain: Tacita Dean’s c/o Jolyon (2012) with a painted-over postcard showing the Ex-Elisabeth Hospital where the Afghan artists are exhibiting. While the hospital was built in 1297, the statue of Saint Elizabeth (1207–1231) – a patron of hospitals, among other charges – was added to the façade in 1435/40. The statue was the only work to survive a wave of Calvinist iconoclasm in Kassel in 1605 and also survived the 1941 bombing. It finally fell victim to ‘damaging environmental conditions’ and was replaced with a copy in 1989. The original – seen on Dean’s old postcard – now stands in the Kassel city museum. The Buddhas of Bamiyan (6th century) – another religious stone sculpture in a niche – were not so lucky and were blown up by the Taliban in 2001. These fates recall a recent verbal attack on another sculpture in a niche – Stefan Balkenhol’s Mann im Turm (Man in the tower, 2012), atop the St. Elisabeth church – a sculpture that Christov-Bakargiev criticized and wanted to have removed. And according to Gregor Schneider, his project for Kassel’s Charles’ Church – including a presentation of a statue of the Hindu goddess Dirgu dredged from the Ganges River – was cancelled by the Evangelical Church after an intervention by documenta. Why are some sculptures threatening and others healing? Some works saved and others hated, censored, turned into ruins? However iconoclastic, many Taliban made ornate photographic portraits of themselves for posterity, holding flowers and guns against fake Alpine backgrounds. Landgraf Moritz von Hessen-Kassel (1572–1632) – who set off the iconoclastic wave in Kassel in 1605 – not only built the Ottoneum (named after his deceased son Otto) but also built up an elaborate art collection in his castle in Eschwege. And somehow Christov-Bakargiev could not fit Balkenhol’s or Schneider’s work into her broad view of art. Why? These questions – and many others – appeared to be too conflictual to become part of the research.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.