One Day in Kassel: a Personal Review of Documenta (13)

Kassel - It was a sunny day at the end of July when I arrived at train station "Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe". Slightly distracted by two American girls tasting the first currywurst of their lives, I followed a writing on the floor: "dOCUMENTA: tracks 9-10". Downstairs nobody cared about the "smoke free station" signs and lighting my Gauloise I found myself surrounded by badly dressed people who could not be else than artists. The first regional train arrived three minutes later, don't worry which one will take you to the exhibition, it is just one station to "Hauptbahnhof" and they all go there. Arriving at the main station another sign leads you directly to the ticket booth, buying the day pass I watched some seconds of Ana Privacki's "Greeting Committee" (2012), which is screened on the counter. If you are lucky and the guy in front of you pays in cent coins or searches for the credit card in his underwear, you might be able to follow the video long enough to tell what it is about.

 

Turning around I noticed a woman who was apparently filming a photo booth with her cell phone, "must be an artist", a pretty one. But then there were more and more of them, some also carrying headsets and soon I realised: this is an artwork. Or more precisely, those people are spectators of one. A glance on a display confirmed the idea with some Ballerina dancing through the very hall we were standing in. This is not a downloadable app, you need to borrow an iPod Touch at the offices of "Offener Kanal Kassel" (local open mic radio station) where you learn that Janet Cardiff/George Bures Miller's "Alter Bahnhof Video Walk" takes you 23-26 minutes (yes, Germans are exact). If you do not have the time - you would need to queue for another twenty minutes first - you might just get upstairs to the first floor for a video by Nanni Bellestri: "Tristanoil". Perhaps this is interesting if you understand Italian, which I don't. Psychedelic colours, images from some 70s TV series, Arabian songs, a burning oil platform, the stock market report from CNN, okay, maybe you do not need to understand the Italian comment to know what it is about.

 

The main thing to retain from the train station is that upon entering Kassel you immediately get immersed in dOCUMENTA (13). Leaving the station you take a look around and realize, it is actually pretty here, high up on a hill with the city spread out to your feet. And Kassel is a small town; even the pigeons look less crippled (has anybody ever wondered if Big-City-Pigeon-Leprosy could spread to humans one day?). The next task is how to get to Fridericianum, museum and traditionally the main venue for documenta shows.

 

Straight on a merchandising booth waits with T-Shirts, umbrellas, raincoats in a plastic globe, a puzzle of a William Kentridge work, the catalogue in three parts, of which the thickest is titled "The Book of the Books" - at least they don't lack self-esteem (and it assembles texts from art critics). On the other hand: the exhibitions' title completely reads "dOCUMENTA (13) - An Art Exhibition in Kassel". Rather modest and neutral, the typography tries to copy mid 20th century typewriters (only the capital letters make it look like taken from a MMORPG live chat with everybody yelling at everyone). And cotton bags! I hate them. Or more precisely: I hate people carrying them around to show they have visited a museum, an art fair or something similar once in their lifetime. True intellectuals (most often elementary school teachers or aquarelle painting ex-wives). The key rings are nice, different colours available, made of felt. Yes: felt - and after taking a city map for nothing but a smile - plus the advice to go by foot instead of taking the useless shuttle bus - I exit the shop and run into himself: Joseph Beuys.

 

Well conserved with his legendary hat and no hair beneath, being a Zombie seems even to be rejuvenating. But wait a moment, that's not a coyote, it is a dog on his side. Slightly disappointed I recognize the double. Further proceeding to downtown Kassel, I note these first impressions as two boys about twelve approach me to ask for a sheet of paper, which I tear from my notebook. Wondering if this might turn out to be a Tino Sehgal experience, I have just the time to guess no, probably they just needed filters for a spliff, when "bingo": they come back and beg me to buy tobacco from a store round the corner. I refused. Continuing my path I hated myself and wondered when exactly I have become such an a...h.. - an adult.

 

Cross a street you cannot avoid a hippie flea market named "arts and crafts market" with some dOCUMENTA (13) posters visibly hidden on the stands, just turn right and you will find a garage that is an official d13 venue. A sign tells "No Backpacks", but the guard gave me a twinkle and let me pass after deflorating my day pass. He also asked me to sign it, not as a piece of art, but if it got lost, the finder would return it to the lost-and-found. Yes, for sure.

 

The works from Rene Galvi and Ayreen Anastas here sadly have too much text. Nobody has time to read at dOCUMENTA (13), unless he stays for a week. There is a long wall text on wall texts, historic documents in vitrines, Polaroids, the martial history of the region Hessen. Then a video, this is actually nice: an Egyptian refugee sits in a European looking room with snow behind the window and watches live images from the spring riots. But as the whole town is waiting, so you hurry away after some minutes.

 

The art event is an important economic factor for Kassel, if you pay attention, you notice documenta offices in every second building. Though it is better to pay attention not to loose direction. Which I did, suddenly arriving on a main street, randomly turning right I observe two tourists who take photographs of street art (a pink weasel on the bottom of a wall), which leads me not to cross another road; and I discover two things: a hippie camp and a big sign for "German Bratwurst". This is it! The Fridericianum!

 

This is where it happens, the legendary centre of the artworld every five years!

But let's start with the bratwurst first, it is quite good, though personally I prefer the thinner northern German model, and it comes with a shock: they don’t offer coke. No Coca, no Pepsi, no Dr Pepper's, nada. The waitress explains that the organisation committee does not want it. Maybe dOCUMENTA (13)'s CEO Bernd Leifeld is diabetic?

 

And controls are strict: no chance for a backpack here, leave it at the cloak container. Waiting there I had the time to inspect the Hippie Camp on the lawns. Vegetarians, Anti-fur-activists, tree huggers, and white cotton triangles carrying terms of the dark side: "Globalisation", "Greed", etc. We learn: this area is "occupied". Some time ago I saw a T-Shirt: "Occupy Burning Man", great irony.

 

Inside the Fridericianum the visitor is welcomed by a large chill out area, blank walls and nothing else. This is called "I need some meaning I can memorize (The Invisible Pull) - A gentle breeze pulling the spectator through the gallery space" by Ryan Gander. Playing with your expectations and emptying your mind before the real show this is a nice idea, and there really is a terrible draught from the entrance. Thus we get sucked right into the exhibition. And to say there is nothing at all is not exactly correct: there is a vitrine with a handwritten (and undecryptable) letter from artist Kai Althoff to dOCUMENTA (13)'s creative director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.

 

A small side room presents a music clip from Ceal Floyer, proving she missed out on a promising career in R'n'B, though the lyrics are limited to one line: "I'll just keep on // 'Til I get it right" - a great motto for any artist or curator.

 

Then I saw the sign: "Queue for The Brain".

 

Many people waiting where the arrow points. "The Brain." A brand new one or second-hand? Clean washed? Or "arty"? I don't know if it was hypocrisy, but I passed beside the line and descended the stairs behind instead. D'oh! Only the toilets down there. And flyers for the local theatre (don't worry, they have real toilet paper, too).

 

Up again, I again refused the brain and hurried into a room with authentic aboriginal art from Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri and Doreen Reid Nakamarra. Other rooms are reserved for Fabio Mauri with paintings and carpets and for Charlotte Salmon's extraordinary work "Life? Or theatre? A Play with Music" (1941-1942) together with an anonymous installation. Salmon created a storyboard in gouaches on her family's story before getting killed in her French exile (probably by Nazis, though the explanation text is very unclear about this).

 

The curators follow a great concept by presenting never more than one or two artists in a room; avoiding a cacophony they create just dialogues. For example there is Salvador Dali (with works from Dutch Museum Breuningen de Beuningen, who insisted on "No Photo" signs - another museum not to visit) side-by-side with Alexander Tarakhovsky, who at first sight continues where Damien Hirst's medical lockers stopped, only that he is no artist at all, but a molecular biologist. Apparently the curators perceive genetics as surrealism (and it would be interesting to know, why the display of one apparatus says: "RUN PARANOID ON A").

 

Another space is reserved for an Austrian Physicist who installed laboratory materiel to enthuse us over quantum theory. Unfortunately the lectures will only start in a few days. dOCUMENTA (13) presents them together with apple paintings. The German priest and resistant Korbinian Aigner bred and painted these fruits during his imprisonment in Dachau. OK, apples mean sin, especially to a priest surrounded by terror, and dOCUMENTA (13) now feels the need to warn us of technics and progress. Do they refer to that Swiss CERN experiment that is said to inevitably summon a black hole in one of several billion parallel worlds (yeah: probabilities)? Maybe. Dürrenmatt: "The Physicists".

 

Let's better get down to earth again.

 

For many years Mario Garcia Torres searched for the remains of Kabul based "One Hotel", operated in the 1970s by Italian artist - and documenta 5 and 7 participant - Alighiero Boetti. Torres documents the search and thus implicitly the story of Afghanistan over the past four decades. The highlight is a video in which he meticulously compares photographs taken by different people in different times until he finally succeeds in identifying the building that today houses a retail store. He teaches us to pay attentions to details in a country where "people and buildings tend to vanish without a trace but may as unexpectedly reappear". A magnificent work! Sadly the show does not keep this level. Sometimes artists leave out important things, sometimes they add too much; Michael Rakowitz confronts us with the rests of old Kassel library that had been destroyed by allied bombs in World War II.

 

A reminder of Alexandria, a memorial, and the question why some works are judged worthy to restore and others are not, but still kept in drawers. Then the artist spoils it by mixing cultures without understanding. He tries to find similarities with stone Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, which is kind of well: difficult, as no Buddhist ever mourned about the destruction. Destruction is part of the "samsara", the circle of life, death and rebirth, an integral part of Buddhist theory - think of sand mandalas deliberately destroyed right after their creation. Only the western point of view screams "cultural crime".

 

Gladly, Kader Attia was there to cheer me up. The French artist revives Colonialism and the First World War with historic documents, books and objects. Next to sculptures and images from African tribes inserting plates into their lips, a slideshow presents the outcome of surgery on invalids. What are the differences between victims of shots and bombs and self-mutilation for cultural reasons? The ones ran willingly into their patriotic fate, the others were and are forced by social forces. The atmosphere is great, here you may spend some time!

 

And there are many more great works in Fridericianum, from Tacita Dean, Llyn Foulkes, Kristina Buch and many more. Finally I even entered "The Brain" to find a potpourri of artworks from different ages and styles, one room to present the potential, the integral idea of art, not a bad idea.

 

Now for some of the other venues. The "dOCUMENTA (13 Halle" presents paintings from Gustav Metzger to Julie Mehretu, and for the children happy colours by Etel Adnan. For the basement Thomas Bayrle chose a huge photo montage and several sculptures out of car parts, fascinating, but it has to be said, that he traditionally works close with a North German automobile manufacturer who - by pure coincidence - happens to be also one of dOCUMENTA (13)'s main sponsors.

 

The "Neue Galerie" shows good works from Khadim Ali to Anibal Lopez, but then there is this memorial for failed revolutionaries. Sanja Ivekovic presents toy donkeys with the names of political activists and rebels (no, not Luke S.) and their short biographies on the opposing wall. All of them have fought for their convictions, have suffered and were killed or chose to die by their own hand. We find French and German resistants to Nazi terror side-by-side with Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Ahmad Shah Masoud (!), Rosa Luxembourg, Bobby Sands, and even Russian journalist Ana Politkovskaya, murdered some years ago.

 

This is not bad, but I wished, the artists (or the artistic director) had had the balls to integrate some provocation. As it is this work hurts no one, Che is long established as a pop star of Mickey Mouse dimensions. The duty of art should be to initiate discourses, to contest, to question established ideas, to defy the common sense - or represent the entirety of facts without any judgement. Ivekovic could have easily done this by reflecting on the definition of a revolutionary and the difference to a terrorist - if there is any objective one. Why are these people seen as heroes today and other are not? She could have joined Andreas Baader/Gudrun Ensslin/Jan-Carl Raspe, the left-wing German revolutionaries of the 1970, who killed themselves (or "were suicided") in prison, or what about Theodore Kacynski, the Unabomber? In certain parts of the world even Ben Laden is accorded the same status - everything depends on culture and points of view. Here you could have started a controversy, a discourse, everything that lacks in our society. Many people's stories are the same: fighting against a (legally/politically, not necessarily: morally) justified government with the use of violence in order to create a change. But this artwork only presents the surface of contemporary consensus, without trying to explain or only explore new ways. Art that wants to be political should not follow the trail but take the lead, suggest and explore new ways, new interpretations - that surely can lead into dead ends and wrong conclusions - but this risk has to be taken if you aim for relevance. There are shades of grey everywhere, and who should talk about them if not artists? But maybe these ugly complexities overstrain today's public.

 

And this spirit continues in dOCUMENTA (13), it's political correct cuddle time. The dOCUMENTA (13)'s real attitude toward rebellion is unveiled by a work presented in the neighbouring room: anti aggression training with Stuart Ringholt. Don't attack, sit down, pour a cup of tea and stay save, no danger to yourself or others. Revolutions are only good for entertainment. Susan Hiller created a protest song jukebox, 100 tunes from "Fight the Power" to "Himno Zapatista", from "Get Up Stand Up" to "Die Gedanken sind frei" (early 16th century). An interesting point: there is only one jukebox but some twenty headsets on the benches around. You may thus sit down and listen to what somebody else wants you to hear, no option to change the song yourself. In any revolution there are leaders and the mass, you have to follow what they chose for you, until your time comes and you may fight for your own place in control...

 

Before leaving Neue Galerie he showed up, the ugly German: Two paramilitaries take care of every visitor who dares to lean to the wall when contemplating a work. Don't ask them "why", not even with a smile. They will look you up and down - "this guy's means trouble" - and you wonder if there was a camp for insubordinate dOCUMENTA visitors. Time to go. For example to visit church "Sankt Elisabeth" with Stefan Balkenhol's exhibition of sculptures and paintings, the Catholics even accepted a naked couple - b.t.w. the only breasts to see in Kassel, this issue of documenta is perfectly compatible with Sarah Palin family values.

 

And to end this review with the mixed feeling the whole event creates:

There are art projects in several department stores; I entered one deserted storey of C&A following the signs inside. A nice sound installation by Cevdet Erek, but then I found another way out through a staircase leading directly to a special entrance on the street. It seems a bit paradoxical to promote the meeting of consumption culture and arts but at the same time offer a way in and out sparing you this exact experience...

Back at the train station I met some boozing and burping groups dressed in black that were changing long distance trains to get to WACKEN! - as far as I know, there exist no shuttle busses between Kassel and the world's biggest Heavy Metal festival; not yet. Could be an idea for next time.

 

dOCUMENTA (13), from June, 9th to September, 16th; if you don't find a hotel there, Hannover is only 50 minutes away by train, Frankfurt about 80 minutes.

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