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.