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  • Christian Hain

To Document~a Crisis, or Many. Documenta 14: Your Favourite Quinquennial

(Cassel.) Nobody ever visits Cassel outside of Documenta. Thus, to say, a trip to the German hinterland before the grand opening were “special”, would not be entirely correct. It’s more like seeing Cassel how it really is. You may form an idea of this on preview days, when Documenta is still a work in progress. I don’t say this to brag about my being invited - every begging blogger will -, but trying to explain my erratic wanderings through the city, in parts at least.

It was the second preview day, when I spent seven hours in Cassel, give and take. You should not ask for an exhaustive report from all venues, there are too many for one day, too many for a week even (Cassel economy counts on you). Held every five years, Documenta is here to document-a-rt. If the first edition in 1955 was “Document-a)”, we witness “Document-n)” today. More prosaic, it’s called Documenta 14. Contrary to other big events of the art world, invitees did not get a badge. This might sound vain, and it probably is, but: I missed my badge. Not only does it make for a perfect souvenir, no, a badge immediately imparts you with a feeling of superiority, it’s something to shove into people’s faces: “Let me pass - peasant!” (even on invitees-only-preview-days.) And this was not a question of separating humble bloggers from the truly important persons, at least I believe it was not: I witnessed a Greek-German(?) family conversing about critics they know in person being approached by an official in shock - How could that kid possibly enter with her dangerous backpack? “We came with the boss”, was the answer apt to silence the fiercest museum attendant. No badge either.

Maybe, and I certainly don’t want to waste many more lines on this - there’s so much more interesting stuff to tell about Documenta 14 -, but maybe, the decision not to give away press/VIP identifiers, was a statement. A statement in accordance with the curatorial concept, a statement on “equality”. Maybe, it was a question of budget, of austerity.

I got warned beforehand, Documenta 14 were “totally pc”, with art on immigration and bankruptcy, i.e. Greece, where a spin off has opened in March already, to prolong the hundred-days-format for the first time in history. Head curator Adam Szymczyk’s concept paper listed three key points: - To make a statement on poor Greece. - To make a statement on poor migrants. - To include his artist girlfriend in the show. That last point was much discussed prior to the opening, I actually did not memorize her name, and don’t have a clue, whether I’ve seen her work, or not. Anyway, when you hear, there’s a “political art exhibition”, a “political artist (m/f)”, a “political artwork”, you instantly know the politics that will be propagated. The art world is definitely not open to discourse, to a balanced presentation of diverging views in order to allow, and even encourage, debate. It rather seems that all curators, and artists, have learned by heart the same ideologies, follow the same leaders and the same media, and personally, I’m used to block it out, to focus on more original aspects, as long as there are any.

Arriving at Wilhelmshöhe station to take a connecting train for Cassel Central, I saw no signposts, no posters, nothing to promote the event. The same at central station, contrary to last time, there was no art around, not on first sight at least. Or should those rainbow coloured umbrellas hanging over these tables... no, it was a coffee shop. Not a labyrinth, nor a Daniel Buren (you could sell it for one, though). By now it was half past eleven, and I felt in the mood for a bratwurst. Unfortunately, there was none of those either. Choices were limited to a kebab or American burgers. Outside again, and still hungry, I discovered the first Documenta 14 logo in Cassel, on a freight container. Relieved, they’d accept my invitation mail on the dumbphone (Windows 10...) – everybody else had printed it out, according to instructions in that very mail -, I learned, once inside that container, there would be no way back. I let the information sink in. Then, overhearing somebody praise art in a cinema on top of the burger franchise, I opted to go there first, still musing about the physical singularity in that container.

BALi Cinema

Jonas Mekas, who is still alive and even visited Cassel in person, shows photos he took in post-WWII Cassel as a refugee from the East, a mere seven years before Documenta 1. There’s also a film screening: Accelerated images of a catholic priest guiding people through a library, cut, and “Vienna is burning”, an old market needs to make place for gentrification, sometime after the war (there’s subtitles now). Art about escaping – migrating! - from Europe, and the struggles of those who chose to stay at home, rebuilding. Apparently, more works were still being installed, a woman directing construction workers on the balcony outside looked suspiciously “artist”.

Back at the container, the riddle got solved: Inside hides the entrance to an abandoned subway station. The huge “readymade installation” features graffiti and, probably authentic, ad posters from twelve years ago, side-by-side with freshly installed art on the rails. It’s dark in here, and the stairs dangerous, yet dear fellow preview visitors: If you suddenly freeze, that’s even more dangerous.

Stained glass windows meet drilling noise, a video features a black actor I know from somewhere (not Morgan Freeman!) as a teacher in the middle of a classroom revolt. Discarded school furniture before the screen reminds of Kemang Wa Lehulere at Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle, but it’s not his doing. A small TV on the floor shows an artist character singing badly, and the preview-exclusive performance of a band of electricians was captivating. Documenta knows its visitors, though: All bins are open on the bottom, whatever you put in, will fall through to your feet.

Leaving by the same exit, trains took years ago, we read a sign: “XAIPETE!” Letters look Greek. Last exit Xaipete? That’s not “Xanthippe”, and “per pedes”, by foot, though accurate in the context, and remotely homophone, is Latin. “Xai-Pet-e”, it almost sounds Chinese, does it not? A nod to the future, un-Greek, but richer? Much later research revealed the true meaning: “Welcome!” It sounds more optimist than the rest of the show, or, on the contrary, given the design and positioning at a train station, should there be a cynical nod to “Arbeit macht frei”? Some say, work won’t help the Greeks anymore, and there have been lots of Nazi comparisons in Greek press and politics lately.

Now turn left, or right? First following another visitor who soon chose a side road back up the hill, I continued straight on, and found myself in downtown Cassel. “Down” like in “run-down”. A police station, Kebab stalls, bar-casinos, an employment office, garbage bags and discarded furniture in front of windowless houses, it almost felt like Berlin. Not interested in buying drugs, I searched for a way out. Note: Documenta’s website is very pretty, very modern, but exactly this might prove a problem when you’re stranded in Cassel with a bad network connection, and want to know the address of the press centre that you did not note at home (because you came utterly unprepared, without even a paper map). I will spare you the details of my struggles back to the central station, and to get served in the understaffed burger franchise (to no avail), before getting lost again. To cut it short: A road sign led the way to Friedrichsplatz, and the other American burger franchise saved the day. Walking down Kurfürstenstrasse, with the occasional view over the seven - no, that was someplace else, no idea how many Cassel is built upon - hills, Cassel is quite nice, beautiful even. “Cassel Hills”, by the way, is the name of a service station on one of Germany’s most frequented motorways, known by incomparably more people than the city itself.

Approaching Friedrichsplatz, the epicentre of all Documentas, I kept wondering about Greece, and what the show would be like. Would it be possible to pay the catalogue with a non refundable loan? Should I visit a welfare office, and demand pension payments for my long deceased great-grandparents? Had artists secured their place with a monetary gift for officials? Would they serve free ouzo after the visit? Am I really such an ar—hole, and how many stereotypes could I come up with more?

How many of them are actually true?

No doubt, Documenta 14’s cashiers will meet a lot of jokers insisting on that loan. A brief visit to the press centre later, I entered Friedericanum, an exhibition space NOT named for German super collector Frieder B.


For the duration of Documenta 14, Friedericanum hosts the EMST, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens (no, no clue about that acronym). You better know this before your tour, and be prepared for an abundance of Greek artists. For some reason, this showcase of the museum’s collection is baptized Antidoron, which sounds like a not-sleeping pill, but: “The antidoron (Greek: Ἀντίδωρον, Antídōron) is ordinary leavened bread which is blessed but not consecrated and distributed in Eastern Orthodox Churches and less often in Eastern Catholic Churches that use the Byzantine Rite” (says Wikipedia). EMST owns not a bad collection, though some works are all Greek to me (sorry again, couldn’t resist the pun).

In the context of Documenta 14, artists’ identity routinely overshadows their work. Not only at Friedericanum, many are shown in Cassel because they are Greek, not because their art would be Documenta-worthy. It certainly did not help to choose a museum with mostly unknown names in its collection. If you want to be mean, you could call it nationalist (not “racist” - that’s something else, no matter what the media keep telling you). The invitation of EMST is meant for a gesture of support, with the intention to show merits and relevance of today’s Greece, a country suffering under the evil “they”, the powers of capitalism that are always embodied in others, never yourself. However, as soon as you dig deeper, things might become less clear, and ambiguity sets in. The historical obsession with Greece is a conservative one, it flourished most in the dark ages of the 18th and 19th Century, when slavery and racism ruled the world, when no person with xx-chromosome ever enjoyed an instant of happiness in life. When people were deluded enough to seek education for education‘s good (or, and this is truly abject: for national fame) and not in order to sell advertisings for consumer goods. When there were different countries with different cultures, the world a patchwork, and a book banned in one could and would still be published in another (the good old times when Germany was a loose network of independent micro-states). When competition created meaning, and diversity. Sorry for the digression, and the sarcasm. But the old Greek were definitely “not ok” in today’s standards - don’t even think of handicap friendly temple entrances! Greek civilization laid the foundations for old Europe as it existed until some point of the Twentieth Century, but this is a tradition our times have broken with in all respects. Given the art world’s uniform worldview, there’s some sort of paradox, methinks. But back to the show, there will be time for more politics later on.

Stathis Logothetis (logos≈reason with a metaphorical flavour, that’s why all those “-gies” from “philo-“ to “psycho-“) plays at Gina Pane, with security pins on naked bodies, in paintings not performance. A large installation of his further illustrates that barb wire can be beautiful, if you happen to be on the outside (or not, in real life). In an improvised lecture room, an installation asks: “What is democracy”? It includes Russian citizens on screen, complaining about representative democracy. Visitors’ anti-capitalist attitudes won’t work particularly well in this context. Switzerland is t h e most democratic country in the world, yet who would not call it one of the most capitalist also? Democracy is – or at least during a historic stage was – the form of government demanded by Capitalism (->Max Weber). Wall Street shuns the election of a disruptor, of codes and conventions, more than anybody else. The autopoietic system thrives most without personality, where quantity rules quality, and calculability counts. Just don’t ever ask why.

Anybody remember the American pavilion with Allora/Calzadilla’s tank in Venice 2011? Andreas Angelidates did something similar for Cassel this year: A tank sculpture from foam and vinyl. Presumably with a pacifist message. Documenta 14 continues with a magnetic wrecking ball (no pop star squatting on top) hammering an innocent steel plate, a mirror installation, and kaleidoscopic photos of a crazy old man. Sometimes it’s purely aesthetic (from Greek aisthētikos, from aisthēta ‘perceptible things’, from aisthesthai ‘perceive’) - Pavlos “(Dionysopoulos)”: Bolduc (1980), “ribbon in acrylic boxes, three parts” (not film rolls?); or maybe there a political meaning even in there. I’d buy it for the looks. And the great Pedro Cabrita Reiss (btw, also a magnificent human being) with Black Monochromes in steel and plastic, 2003.

Nice: Photos of a photographer in a staircase, put on the wall in ascending order, a work by Danny Matthys who is Belgian not Greek, but a Flemish museum permanently loaned it to EMST. Awful: an epilepsy triggering room with a “video” that is nothing but a staccato of light. Mediocre, but calming: A Greek op artist “inspired” by James Turrell and his light chambers putting neon-lit boards in a cubicle. The one Greek artist we all know, Iannis Kounellis, makes an appearance with an installation of coal and steel, and Hans Haacke’s photos of a historic Documenta decorate a staircase.

Not to forget the installations! George Hadjimichalis, Crossroad, The Crossroad Where Oedipus Killed Laius. A Description and History of the Journey from Thebes to Corinth, Delphi, and the Return to Thebes. Even the dating is precise: 1990-95/97. There is nothing left for me but adding the technical information, as given: “Iron table, pigment, and synthetic resin on nine steel plates, 64 gelatine silver prints, and video, colour, silent, 7:14 min (loop)”. Now you should be able to recreate the work in your mind. The photos are nice, monochrome, landscapes. That’s classic Greekism for humanist geeks, alright. But never trust your educated reflexes too far: Cotton threads spanning over a bed with an EEG by its side, from a weaving loom to a wooden canopy with a ladder, do NOT refer to the Fates, those ladies weaving your fate, or dreams, which might just be the same. No, Janine Antoni’s Slumber is about REM readings of her dreams. It dates from 1993, when REM, the band, was really famous too. The artist is not even Greek, but American. Ah context, you’re a b--! On my visit this was one of many works still wanting a label. There have been reports about Documenta staff being kind of lazy, not having finished this task even now, three weeks into the show. The attendant could help me out with the work's title, but refuted the classic interpretation. She also told me, a label had been there, but was broken already.

One more installation demands a honourable mention: A Greek Zen garden, or sandpit, by George Lappas, with marbles on strings dividing the room like tennis nets. Called Abacus, it’s about Greek math when it still worked. What kind of calculating machine would you need to count all those grains; or all those debts?

Köken Ergun’s film documentation of a military festival/parade/perhaps only swearing-in of new recruits to the Turkish army, appears open to interpretation. It all happens in a crowded sports stadium (did you read it, too? - Erdogan recently banned the term “arena” for sports venues). Greek patriots might see a menace, an age-old conflict. But wait, did not the Turkish military secure a pro Western, peaceful, Turkey all the years since Atatürk? And their latest putsch failing was not necessarily a good thing for the Western world; if it was a true putsch after all?

For the best-hidden work, you need to climb a back staircase into a small chamber towering on top of Friedericanum’s four levels. Up here, broken tiles in the colours of national flags cover the floor. The windows offer a view over Cassel and beyond, on a world without borders, as all nations lie crushed to your feet - maybe even literally, or literally-symbolical; but I at least did not dare entering the room, and step upon the glass. Probably to project equalized unity (united equality). - Or is it? Might well be the opposite: To illustrate Europe’s falling apart. Rather not to honour the visitor’s own dreams of world domination.

Documenta Halle

Time for the next venue, Documenta Hall, or "Halle". Less Greek, but not necessarily more famous artists. Who, and be honest now, would not giggle when first hearing of Beau Dick? He was an Indian - as in Canadian Indian, or American native, or: earlier-arrived-on-the-continent-than-the-European-settlers - artist who died earlier this year, and afaik not married to a woman named Belle P—. His totems look like you would expect them to look, it’s tribal art. Once more, the politics hide in the artist’s identity. Close to the D. we find a documentation of the African band Ali, Farka, Touré (sounds almost like “Didi, Vava, Pélé”!), in vinyl records, posters, stage(?) clothes, and more. One album cover says, “Ali Touré: ‘Farka’”. Turns out, AFT was just one man, and Mali’s greatest pop star. Nobody knows, why exactly he’s here. Except for his colour of skin.

Alvin Lucier’s Sound on Paper (1985) features framed sheets that allegedly emanate sound. Unfortunately you are not allowed to verify the claim - bending towards the work, an attendant will scold you. “That’s the rules”. Oh yeah, Germany. Mira Cahn’s paintings are recognizable to a point, where you think, “that’s somebody else”, meaning her style even overshadows her name. I like her. And a performance: An elderly redhead traverses the room, gliding her fingers over a celluloid string, or tape, that spans from one corner to the other. At first I took her for a visitor and wanted to do alike, then I noticed the attendant watching closely. Bad paintings, a boat not drawn and quartered, but hung and cut in half – “refugees”, possibly -, a white, angelic, dress overlooking the scene from under the ceiling, and plants photosynthesizing the time away.


More great works are waiting on the outside. Hiwa K’s artist apartments for example, sleeping tubes all “uniquely” furnished. Important for the future (don’t these exist in Tokyo already?). The central work of Documenta 14, however, is the Parthenon of Books. A work originally created for – or rather: against - the Argentinean junta in 1983 by Martha Minujín. Now installed on the show’s, and the city’s, heart on Friedrichsplatz, it’s an immense installation (sculpture?) in form and size of the Athenian Parthenon. There are no walls, and the columns are hollow, to be filled with books. Some are already there, and you may furnish the rest yourself. Sole obligation - you put it into a box, and they might indeed check -, that the book is, or was, banned somewhere. Not “will”. This is interesting, given the state of the world. The show’s overall politics are lefty-er than Alexis Zypras lapping levorotatory yogurt from Arianna Huffington’s left toe, but freedom of expression is not menaced by the “right” these days, as we are rapidly approaching new book autodafés. - Should not every book written before 1970 burn for being misogynist, homophobe, racist, colonialist, or whatever does not fit the rulers of the right (i.e. left, or maybe we should abandon these distinctions once and for all) thought? It’s done already in a slightly more elegant, yet less honest final solution, with “alterations”, linguistic cleansings, the censorship of expressions no longer deemed acceptable by the unelected leaders of public opinion. All the while, the mass media, art forms used to “educate” the masses, present alternative facts of history. In movies, the world never disagreed with today’s values (still waiting for a black actor successfully suing a Hollywood studio for not being cast in a Nazi role). “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.”

And why? It’s the economy, stoopid! Because homogeneity sells better. One race, one nation, one gender -> one target group. With one set of beliefs, values, and calculable interests. One society to rule them all. Great marketing, actually, to sell homogeneity under the name of diversity (that’s what PR mostly does: inventing cool names for old facts). I call it postcultural capitalism.

Venue 3 – Neue (not: Neue Neue!) Galerie

New Gallery’s entrance area focuses on poverty and working class sufferings. 1970s artists photographed with posters of their role models from Marx to Mao; back then, at least, it was still a revolutionary, novel, attitude. Paintings of the same, then whores and golden balls. Angela (Ashley Hans) Scheirl and works of a German outsider artist, a transvestite known by the stage name of Lorenza. But also Pope-L (“Booge-R” in German) with a sound installation on many walls. It would be fun to push the fire alarm next to some, and the sound more recognizable. You should visit the basement with Russian storytelling, or to be precise: a minute account in film and documents of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi’s Journey to Russia (1989-2017), on a quest to find the last surviving Russian avant-garde artists from the 1920’s and ‘30s.

New Gallery further hosts the most historic works of Documenta 14. There’s painters like Courbet, Yves Laloy, and Max Liebermann, there’s a room on 19th Century historian/archaeologist JoJo Winckelmann, there’s Ernst Barlach, and Joseph Beuys. Even medieval art. And a magnificent Buddhist sculpture of the 2nd or 3rd Century next to K.G. Subramanyan’s series Anatomy Lessons from 2008: Paintings, and a temple frieze-like terracotta relief (also looks like a sliding puzzle). The initial idea to present the whole Gurlitt collection at Neue Galerie could not be realized. Maybe it’s for the better, and Maria Eichhorn’s Rose Veilland Institute, a documentation of Nazi art confiscation, a better take on the topic.

A recurrent topic is the view on others, Greek or non-Greek. A fine example: Late 19th Century sculptures in a passageway that represent different nations (stereotypically!) and their respective artistic skills: Netherlands grabs a palette, England a stolen Egyptian stele and a book on archaeology, France has a rope slung around her neck – the revolution was still a not so distant memory. And dolls that are no longer pc. Why again is it Documenta worthy that 1920s Europe knew Negro, Jew, and Chinese dolls? On the other hand, ambiguity. This is diverse, is it not? Imagine you do not let your child play with black, gay, paralysed, green-haired, and whatever, dolls – you’re basically a Nazi, and need to apologize in public.

Bellevue and out

Stepping outside, an artist couple just entered with a Czechoslovakian Wolfdog. They were asked to leave, and the poor guy got squeezed in the rotating doors. The Bellevue mansion vis-à-vis has war, a Russian language film opera with an ode to Dyson vacuums (yes, indeed), childish but knowledgeable Merians from a Colombian native (Abel Rodriguez), monochrome photographed haystacks (Lala Meredith-Vula) - less crazy, and interesting, than those painted by van Gogh, and a great Olaf Holzapfel solo show. I concluded my visit at Bellevue’s garden bar, or almost. Prices were too artistic, also I was intent on finding some ouzo at last, which they did not serve. A performance passed on the road, or only a group of women in black balancing books on their heads. That Wolfdog was back again, and his male human busy on the phone, the rather unapproachable female not around, so we had a nice chat and cuddle before I left for Kurfürstenstrasse. There, almost at the train station an Italian restaurant offered pizza, beer, and live music. But no ouzo, either.

What’s left to say about Documenta 14? A lot, I guess; this text could continue for many pages. Celebrity spotting was fun, this president director of a Parisian museum, that director of a Berlin space. This Documenta does not seek to document the state of the art, but of the world, from a certain perspective. Documenta 14 focuses primarily, but not only on the world leader in crisis, a country with too few money and too many migrants. The invitation of a museum, per definitionem an archive of things past, is a novelty. In this, of course, it also marks a return to the roots - the very first Documenta in 1955 focused on modern art that, for obvious reasons, was hitherto unknown in Germany.

The ideal visitor of Documenta 14 is a – no, I better be silent. Forget the stereotypes. But, "SHe" will nod at every, or every second, work under their horn-rimmed glasses, and take a mental note, “male domination“, “post-, neo-, proto-colonialism”, “gender plurality”. And maybe in the end, even a smile will escape "their" tight lips. It’s always satisfying to find your pre-existing convictions confirmed. Then visit a genderalist restroom, before cycling to the train station (on the pavement, obviously).

Still, for large parts Documenta 14 feels a show like any other, maybe it’s all so 20th Century. Maybe they know, maybe the exhibition concept has reached an impasse.


Documenta 14, 10 June-17 September, Cassel

and 8 April-16 July, Athens

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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