Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Documenta 13: Between Things and Places

Kassel isn't like Kassel outside of Documenta, jokes Jasper Kettner as we briskly stride alongside him down the main thoroughfare that cuts through this German hamlet. It's the height of summer and the pavements are colonised by tables. People are sitting in front of cold beers in long glasses. It is hard to tell who are locals and who are on an art pilgrimage.

No one (read: art world aficionados) knows what Kassel is like when this gargantuan art show isn't on, because there is no reason to visit the town other than the Ikea store, is Kettner's riposte when I make further enquiries about Kassel. As one of the assistant curators working under Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director, Kettner has spent quite a lot of time in Kassel before Documenta13 started in early July.

Kassel isn't simply an arbitrary receptacle for Documenta, which takes place every five years. Documenta's history is intimately tied to this "banal" German town. Curiously, everyone seems to be at pains to point out the town's banality. "This is an average, boring German street," observed Ariane Pauls when we stepped out of the hotel.

She is a Berlin-based artist who has been enlisted by the Goethe Institut to serve as our guide. It's the utilitarian postwar-architecture and the uniform shop-fronts flanking the street that has prompted her comment. To a first-time visitor, these facades hold a certain charm.

They locate Kassel in a time and place. These edifices are reminders of a history that has been erased. Little of the original Kassel remained after it was destroyed during World War II. As the locus of weapon manufacturing at that time, Kassel was an obvious target.

Documenta was part of a cultural scheme after the war, though it began life as a modest adjunct to a flower show. Back then it was a distraction from a perverse reality and was presumably engineered to reinstall a sense of ordinariness to a town rebuilding itself from the inside out. Christov-Bakargiev has taken an interest in this history. It links up with her fascination for what she terms "the ghostly other". By this she means the presence of an absent condition, reality or location. The "ghostly other" belying the everyday appearance of present-day Kassel is the events that preceded its destruction, the city which no longer exists.

For Christov-Bakargiev this spectral form of Kassel is contained in a 12th century Benedictine monastery in Breitenau, located near the town. The building encapsulates a cross-section of German history and its culture of "repression and correction", she asserts. During the Nazi era, it served as a re-education camp before becoming a concentration camp. After the war it housed a girl's reformatory. Today, it ironically functions as a WWII memorial site and a psychiatric hospital.

Before all the artists participating in this large show began their commissioned works, they visited Kassel and were shown some key sites, such as the former monastery in Breitenau. Many works at the exhibition therefore relate back to this location, this "ghostly" Kassel.

German artist Clemens von Wedemeyer's Muster (Rushes) directly engages with this destination. It's an extraordinary filmic work housed in a disused warehouse adjacent to the Hauptbanhof, one of the many venues of this sprawling exhibition, where weapon production once took place. Three narrative films play on three screens, which are joined to form a triangle - this fact isn't incidental. Each story relates to a different time frame and the films overlap in places. A chart outside the exhibition space shows how Von Wedemeyer identified points in each narrative where the characters would exist in the same place, though at different times, so if time collapsed they could perceivably encounter each other. This encounter is indicated via a triangle that connects different temporal states.

Theaster Gates's project at Hugenottenhaus (Huguenot House) also evokes the phenomenon that Breitenau encapsulates, in that it too speaks of layers of history. Built in the 1800's for the Huguenots, it was partially destroyed during the WWII bombings and was variously occupied until the Seventies before being abandoned. The Chicago-based artist, who is described as a caretaker, activist and community instigator with a background in urban planning, has peeled back these layers, making them visible to visitors.

It's like an archaeological dig with the various strata of walls exposed. Gates seems to have turned regeneration, architectural and historical recovery into an art form; this is not a commonplace renovation that involves steering a building towards an ideal form dictated by current fashion. There are no obvious signs of gentrification; it is being fixed with reclaimed material, which introduces other histories into the mix. The house is a sort of living work of art in the sense that while it is still a functional place, it is also part installation.

In one room, two sets of staircases lead nowhere. Some of the rooms in this triple-storey building bear the traces of a musical performance that have taken place, others present screens displaying performances. One room is dedicated to carpentry work. Rooms with empty beds and personal objects show that the workers, the artists, who are presumably one and the same, live with the work as they create it. Gates's work isn't about recuperating the past, or even making sense of it, rather it is appears to be about reaching towards living in a state of permanent discovery or rediscovery; the building's journey seems endless and is not meant to lead towards any defined goal, aesthetically or ideologically.

Thematising Documenta might work against its grain: an exhibition of this size would be an overly simplistic exercise if it were centred on a single motif - however, the notion of "collapse and recovery" echoes throughout Christov-Bakargiev's grand "creation".

As Wedemeyer's film implies, movement between these states can be simultaneous. German history, the state of urban, social and moral renewal that seems to define its culture today, may evoke this theme, but in the catalogue Christov-Bakargiev universalises it, implying the financial collapse that has occurred in Europe and elsewhere, and the crisis of the planet, make it relevant on a number of levels. An exhibition of this scale can embrace all the multifarious streams that this theme suggests.

Though Christov-Bakargiev takes a broad overview of the "state of the world" in a sense with this exhibition, which is perhaps far too an ambitious objective, she doesn't aim to resolve its problems. Rather, it seems, she is interested in exploring this "state of permanent crisis", which she sees as defining our era, forcing the world into this "collapse and recovery" continuum.

Through art projects run in Afghanistan that run alongside, and are part of Documenta, she intended to discover the role art plays in facilitating or assisting "recovery": the ways in which artists can
re-imagine a society beyond its collapsed state. By connecting Afghanistan, Kabul, to Documenta - a German-based event - she unites a location caught in recovery to one in a state of collapse, though there are overlaps too, recalling Wedemeyer's art work.

Posters advertising the Kabul leg of Documenta are all over Kassel, creating the impression that it is an integral part of the exhibition, that visitors would, should visit it. In reality, it has limited public access, so it is an empty gesture to some degree. In this sense, Kabul also functions as another of Kassel's ghostly doubles.

The concept of "recovery" feeds into all sorts of art-centred sub-narratives too, such as the recuperation of overlooked female modernists, which Christov-Bakargiev aims to reposition at the centre - that is, if you accept that Documenta is the centre of the art universe.

This brand of recuperation isn't an alien concept for Africans. For some time our historians, artists and curators have been trying to reinsert African art into the seemingly monolithic story of modernism. It is an issue close to the heart of all non-Western artists - think of Rasheed Araeen's The Other Story which showed at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1989.

Christov-Bakargiev's approach is non-confrontational and, I guess, well familiar with the inherent weaknesses in the "recovery" of a position - such as the way it unwittingly affirms a marginalised status - her quiet reinsertion is laced with a degree of humour, irony even. In the centre of a room in the Neue Galerie, where works by the Canadian artist Emily Carr from the late 1920s are on display, is a makeshift room where Stuart Ringholt's Anger Workshops are held. It is a participatory performance art piece, where visitors are encouraged to release stress and anger before embracing each other - a tongue-in-cheek nod to stereotypical ideas of women as emotional beings and the cycle of recovery.

The work of female modernists are subtly inserted throughout the exhibition. Based on Christov-Bakargiev's rough mind-map for Documenta in the catalogue, these modernist female artists also represent a time before catastrophe, so their work serves another function at the exhibition; not just the moment of artistic recuperation but an ideal state that helps us in the present to re-imagine the future. Moving forwards, requires backtracking.

It doesn't take long to figure out that nothing is accidental in Christov-Bakargiev's curating; every piece is working in juxtaposition with another, or the space, the setting. In fact, the main value of the Documenta experience is rooted in this interplay, the sense of different times and places collapsing upon each other and the friction between them, the dislocation. Kabul is not linked to Kassel. Kassel's history cannot be contained in a building. Christov-Bakargiev's curation seems to pull you between poles of possibility and impossibility.

In a way, the art is incidental to how it is activated by the works around it. This is true of all curating but is enhanced at Documenta, particularly in an area of the exhibition dubbed "the brain", which presents a collection of documents and collectables from historical collections. Unusually in this exhibition of contemporary art, 10 percent of the art is historical. It is in the brain that the main ideas of the exhibition are distilled via nuanced curating.

Ancient artifacts, like a figurine of a Bactrian princess originating from early second millennia BC in Central Asia, is shown alongside a landscape painting from the early Noughties by Mohammad Yusaf Asefi. They are geographically linked; the figurine hails from what is today part of northern Afghanistan, and Asefi's seemingly mundane landscape painting was made in that country too.

But there are more interesting connections; Asefi's painting masks another more precious historical painting: he painted the landscape to conceal it so that it wouldn't be destroyed during the war in that country. The painting feeds into this theme of "recovery", cultural recovery, and this compulsion to hold on to valuable cultural items from the past. Asefi's art is the art of recovery, like Gates' renovation of Hugenottenhaus.

A collection of works relating to Lee Miller, a photo-journalist, presents another discrete dialogue. Articles Miller took from Hitler's apartment are displayed near images she took of the place, self-portraits and portraits of her and a work by Man Ray dubbed Object to be Destroyed/Object of Destruction/Indestructible Object, which is a metronome with a cut-out of a photograph of Miller's eye. The latter enjoys a curious history related to its title; the eye was replaced a number of times and eventually the work itself was destroyed in the late Fifties before being remade again. Certainly, if it had not been remade it would have made little difference for its existence (as an art object) had already been solidified.

Miller is the collector turned collected. This grouping of objects evokes the interplay between that which cannot be owned, what ownership means and those objects that live in the mind's eye. There are always multiple connections between works. Part of the fun is unlocking the links, generating your own connections. This is in line with that very fashionable idea that audiences complete the meaning of work, that any view of art is valid.

For this reason we are breaking the rules by doing a tour of Documenta 13 with Kettner. No expert guided tours are offered at Documenta 13 - instead they have engaged the services of Kassel residents from various professions to conduct tours. They are called "companions" rather than guides - guide is also "fuhrer" in German, so it is a loaded term.

A dentist is among the group of so-called companions. They are not completely left to their own devices; there is a short training course that prepares them for the job. The idea behind this unconventional initiative is to help make the art, Documenta, seem like an accessible affair that isn't simply geared for art specialists. The idea of being guided through Documenta by a dentist sounds almost as painful as root-canal.

This lack of pretention is slightly contrived. Certainly, it is in conflict with the catalogue, which is dubbed the Book of Books. This tome weighs almost 3kg and brings to mind a Borgesian notion of the pursuit of knowledge as an endless search of labyrinthine proportions.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that in Jorge Louis Borges's short story Book of Sand there is a reference to a Book of Books. Borges's imaginings of a book of all books that contained all knowledge isn't quite what Christov-Bakargiev aimed at producing - rather this unconventional catalogue contains "notes" by contributors who are loosely in conversation with each other, or excerpts from the writings of famous theorists. It reads like a who's-who of the world of theorising with writings from Salah Hassan, Judith Butler, Griselda Pollock and Boris Groys.

This textual product could be read as an artwork; perhaps it is the only piece of Documenta that everyone can own and, given its length - it is the first of three volumes - can prolong the experience of Documenta. However, you can't help feeling that there is something kind of self-indulgent, if not self-aggrandising, about this Book of Books. The title in itself is presumptuous. It also suggests the ideas informing this Documenta are so dense that it would require a disciplined study, placing it outside the realm or reach of everyone.

On the other hand, this makes the catalogue such a desirable object. In Borges's short story, he trades his entire pension to acquire this book of all books. In a way the Book of Books is the "ghostly other" of Documenta, which is viewed by some as the exhibition of exhibitions.

Spread across venues around Kassel it is not something you can take in in a day. Berliners advised a minimum three-day visit. Yet, in three days, we still didn't see everything. Because looking at art can be demanding, of both the eye and the mind, there also comes a point when you stop seeing what it is in front of you - you have to take frequent breaks and be strategic about what you want to see. Lists of must-sees are passed from curators to artists, art critics, everyone sharing their top-tens. Conversation with other Documenta visitors inevitably centres on these must-sees.

As with a large art event of this nature, often the most spectacular visual spectacles become the main attractions. People queued up to catch a glimpse of Geoffrey Farmer's Leaves of Grasses, a long table presenting cut-outs of figures and objects from Life magazine over a period of 50 years, which are fixed to sticks so that they appear like puppets. In this way, Farmer animates these flat images, creating a 3D collage which maps 50 years of "Life", or mediated versions of life through this seminal American magazine. It's so extensive - there are thousands of puppets - it's a work that denies being fully "seen" by anyone though, ironically, it is the most seen and photographed work at Documenta.

William Kentridge's Refusal of Time was a spectacle of different kind. In a darkened room in an abandoned warehouse behind the Hauptbanhof, a light shone down on a large mechanical device fashioned from wood that was driving an unseen entity; perhaps the films that began to flash across three large screens presenting the visual markers of Kentridge's art - the dark silhouettes of a procession. Maybe this quaint engine was propelling something larger, a revolution, work, time itself?

Kentridge wasn't the only South African or African showing work; Kudzinai Chiurai and Zanele Muholi's art were also woven into the dense fabric of Documenta. Muholi's tight portraits of black lesbians from her Faces and Phases series simply asserted the existence of this SA sub-culture, which is under threat.

In the context of this event it felt like a simplistic expression of marginalisation - an embodiment of African otherness. A room tucked alongside the railway lines at the Hauptbanhof (main station) was dedicated to Chuirai's art, but it lacked the punch and energy of his showing in the disused gallery in Newtown last year. Perhaps over-familiarity with all these artists' work dimmed our enthusiasm. None possessed the edginess associated with Documenta.

German artists perceived to be too mainstream - they have already been canonised, institutionalised - would never be commissioned for Documenta, such as the likes of Gerhard Richter, opines Pauls, our artist-guide. Kentridge quite easily falls into this category but, it seems, his African identity has secured his offbeat status.

Ironically, it is the experiential works with little visual trace - the ghost works if you will - that leave the strongest impression. Exploiting new technology, the Canadian duo, Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller, guide me through a walk through the Hauptbanhof that has been recorded on a media player.

Cardiff's voice tells me where to look, where to walk while I view recorded footage of their walk. There is an uncanny sense of dislocation as you compare the actual experience to the recorded one. It's as if time has collapsed and the past and present are running parallel. At times you forget which reality you are inhabiting - the one on the screen or the live one you are rooted in. This is taking spatial mapping to a new level. You are the observer and the participant. As you wander through the station watching recorded scenes in places where nothing now exists, you can see people participating in the same work ahead of you, caught in a different time zone.

The station has changed since Cardiff and Miller made their recording. You notice every detail of the space. They play with time, guiding you along the platforms of the station, until you reach one where Jews boarded a train to a concentration camp, bringing Kassel's dark twin into view.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian's work is a trail too. I hear the work before I see it. Animal sounds punctuate the air as I descend an elaborate terraced World War II memorial that is embedded in a slope leading into Karlsaue park, a rambling Baroque park that forms another venue for art.

Haghighian means to disrupt the memorial. Her makeshift trail, made of earth, grass and trees, runs parallel to the memorial and is conceived to not only counter how war memorials perpetuate and glorify war, but "break the logic" that informs it, observes Kettner. Recordings of locals imitating animals sounds are embedded in grassy mounds which a dirt path snakes around. The slope on which the memorial and Haghighian's paths are located was formed by debris and rubble from the war. In this way the memorial is built on the aftermath, the destruction which the war has wrought.

It's an irony which hasn't escaped Haghighian's notice, though she too chooses to conceal this history, covering it with plants and greenery. An historical photograph in the guidebook, taken in 1955, shows men with spades heaping the crumbled remains of Kassel into mounds.

This is the "ghostly other" which the supposedly banal Kassel conceals and which Christov-Bakargiev aims to unearth. Some of the Germans we encounter, like Jochen Stockman, the Berlin-based editor of Lettres International, an art journal, feels this territory has already been covered. Pauls echoes these sentiments, implying that German culture and history isn't solely tied to the events surrounding WWII.

Christov-Bakargiev unearths ghosts all over town; a disused ballroom and an old cinema become venues for art. She has colonised every forgotten nook and cranny of Kassel. Well, at least for 100 days. And then Kassel will return to itself, maybe slightly altered, though its banal facade will appear unchanged. - published in The Sunday Independent August 26.

Corrigall's visit to Documenta in Kassel was under the auspices of the Goethe Institut's
Visitors Programme

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