BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 07 JUN 17
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Issue 188

Keeping Score

What are the implications of documenta 14’s focus on the aural?

BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 07 JUN 17

Yuri Herrera’s novella Signs Preceding the End of the World (2009) is an epic in miniature. Set in an unnamed netherworld, immediately understood to be the US-Mexico borderlands, it concerns migration, nativism and, well, the end of the world. When Lisa Dillman embarked on translating the book from Spanish into English, she faced the challenge of finding an adequate language for what Herrera calls the ‘intermediary tongue’ of his characters, a hybrid argot at once ‘malleable, erasable, permeable’. So, Dillman immersed herself in Aztec mythology, Cormac McCarthy and Lewis Carroll. What she somehow succeeded in rendering cannot be geographically defined. At points Homeric, at others demotic, Signs Preceding the End of the World moves all over the map, as well as back and forth in time.

Travelling to Athens in April, for the first half of documenta 14, I had these myths and borders in mind. Adam Szymczyk, its artistic director, called the exhibition ‘a divided self’, its geographical and ideological heart split between Kassel and the southern edge of Europe. Like Herrera’s book, documenta 14 proposes inverting the self-conception of a continent from north to south, seeking to effect – per the title of the Greek art journal it temporarily took over in the lead-up to the exhibition – South as a State of Mind. In contrast to the object-focused enquiries of the 13th edition, documenta 14 wanted to move to Athens to learn about displacement, debt and, in different senses, continents on the edge. What was learned there, I’m not yet sure. 

On the flight over, I listened to Paradiso (2017), the bruising and magisterial debut album from Chino Amobi. The Virginia-based producer is the founder of the record label NON Worldwide, which refers to itself as ‘a collective of African artists, and of the diaspora, using sound as their primary medium’. Amobi describes the project, which specializes in anxiety-flecked electronic
music, as one of ‘sonic reterritorialization’. Paradiso is proffered as an apocalyptic dispatch from the ‘post-American wasteland’. The first of the album’s 20 tales of fallen empires and broken people is intoned by Elysia Crampton, another Virginia native: ‘O! Death has reared himself a throne / In a strange city, Paradiso / Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best / Have gone to their eternal rest.’ The lines are twisted versions of Edgar Allan Poe’s end-times poem ‘The City in the Sea’ (1845), which was initially published as ‘The Doomed City’. Either could be serviceable alternative titles for documenta 14.

One of the first works I saw in Athens was by the Mexican composer and artist Guillermo Galindo, from his series ‘Border Cantos’ (2013–ongoing): visual scores adorning beacon flags, the kind used by humanitarian aid groups along the Rio Grande. Throughout the four main venues of documenta 14, there is a charged and changing sense of the score as a notational device, one that can orchestrate and direct as well as establish communities and congregations, however fleeting. One essay in an early issue of South as a State of Mind talks about the score as a device that ‘trans-acts’ between language and the body. Elsewhere, the exhibition reverberates with sounds, music, broadcasts and songs. Many of these find graphic form: scores that resemble maps to imagined territories. If a talismanic presence for the exhibition’s preceding edition was Alighiero e Boetti, with his woven worldliness and adventures in Afghanistan, then this time it is Jani Christou, a mystically minded Greek composer, who died in 1970 at the age of 44.

One of the Athenian institutions occupied by documenta 14 is a 1960s conservatoire, while its all-singing press conference was staged in a mammoth concert hall. I wondered at this move from gallery spaces to sites of official musical culture: it seemed symptomatic of a show that makes substantial claims about what large-scale exhibitions can do in the 21st century while looking to the sonic avant-gardes of the last century for answers. ‘Learning from Athens’ leans heavily, too heavily I think, on these histories – episodes that are, in any case, far from forgotten. I love the visual scores of Cornelius Cardew, but why now? A gap starts to emerge between archival elegance – all this impeccable taste – and Szymczyk’s desire ‘to act in real time and in the real world’. Stridency meets refined quietude.

An essay by Quinn Latimer (a frieze contributing editor) in the accompanying Documenta Reader talks about ‘a silent world of signs versus the living world of sounds’, suggesting that the exhibition’s preoccupation with the aural is a question about who has a voice today. But on the basis of what I saw (and heard) in Athens, this territory feels too narrowly defined. Perhaps, though, some of these songs will find their echo or response in Kassel.

Main image: Cover page of Jakob Ullmann’s score, voice, books and FIRE II/4, 1996–98, exhibited at documenta 14, Athens, 2017. Courtesy: the artist

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.