East Contemporary

documenta 14: Learning from Athens?

Kassel, Germany, June 10 – September 17, 2017, http://www.documenta14.de

At first sight Documenta 14 appeared as very “political”. There were a lot of works seemingly addressing political topics, criticizing capitalism and its inherent relationship. At first sight, that is. After spending some time walking around, this first impression gave way to another reading. I felt that under the guise of a politically engaged topic, there was a huge emptiness, a random arrangement of artworks that spoke to what documenta 14 has become: A large spectacle and a money making (and money loosing as we learnt during the recent weeks) machine. The side effect of every exhibition in a major institution or museum is a boost to the market position of exhibited artists. In the absence of any other clear narrative, being part of the show appeared to be the only rationale for being part.

There was a lot of “old” art in the exhibition: 1960s, 1970s… Especially in the Friedericanum site which has been dedicated to a presentation of the EMST Collection (National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens). EMST is a very young museum, less than 20 years old. A lot of the exhibited works were donated or acquired from 2014 onwards. That is, at a point when the cooperation with documenta 14 could have been already known. The works came from all over the globe, and I could trace very little thematic coherency in their selection or arrangement. I had a strong feeling that the EMST Collection presentation was in fact a Trojan horse, a vehicle through which to transport the works of certain artists (lobbied for by the artists or by the galleries managing the estates of these artists) into the exhibition in Kassel in order to legitimize their artistic oeuvre on the art market. The fact that the Greeks made the Germans pay for this self-presentation of their national museum, was a nuanced irony that could not have been left unnoticed, especially when it has been revealed in recent weeks that it had to be paid for not only from the approved budget but on top of it.

The dubious presence of the EMST exhibition in Friedericanum has been replicated in other parts of the show located in buildings around the Kassel city center. One could feel the hands of different curators in charge of different locations. Some locations still managed to put forward a coherent and meaningful experience, see below.

The quantity of old or dead artists throughout the show was really a riddle for me, especially in relation to the political cosmetics shrouding the show as a whole. Politics take place in the presence. I also thought the whole point of documenta was to document the artistic developments of the last 5 years. How come themes like post-truth politics, surveillance technology and post-internet art were largely missing from this show?

The answer I could come up with was in line with the institutional theory of art: The directors and curators succumbed to the temptations of stakeholders (galleries, collectors, corporations and artist “friends”), pocketed their bonuses and “gifts”, and showed whatever has been supplied by these parties. Another equally sad conclusion could be that the directors and curators were simply out of touch with reality, living in the art historical past and too old themselves to perceive current trends.

But let’s move on to the actual show. It felt a bit like walking around a flea market or garage sale: There is always something interesting to be found. None of what I have written above should be understood as a criticism of any specific artwork. There were lots of artworks worthy of visitors’ attention. My personal highlights of documenta 14 were Ben Russell, Daniel Knorr and Andre du Colombier, for reasons that I explain below. The best curatorial approach was to be found in Palais Bellevue. And David Perlov’s film retrospective was also worthy to see. But let’s take it all in in chronological order of my walk.

I started my tour in the Neue Hauptpost on an early evening. Beatriz Gonzalez’ copy of a Manet classic looked spectacular, but not sure what else to say about it… that is was big? At least it was not lost in the huge warehouse hall.

On the second floor there was a very popular video screening room featuring a mix of South African shamanism and perv porn remakes by Tracey Rose (not pictured here) and around the corner a large pink carpet with little location marks on it, an artwork by Maria Hassabi that was probably from time to time activated as a performance setting. The carpet was pink and smooth, not bad.

Next to it was a whole row of mail-art collages of Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, an East German artist active in the mail art movement. Nothing new, but a nice-to-know, an artist I have not heard about before but that definitely deserves to be known.

Right next to it were the photographs of Ulrich Wüst, another East German artist. The symmetrical photographs of architectural structures without people reminded me of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Once again, a nice-to-know oeuvre of an artist marginalized by the East-West split getting its due.

The unused underground train station of Kassel main station opened for documenta 14 only. The space itself was the most powerful exhibit. There was also a nice mosaic of Kassel city and some old advertisements left from the time when the station closed. And some artworks by Nikil Chopra (tent) and Michel Auder (video monitor wall).

Kassel main station also housed the Bali Cinema, which showed a daily repeating film program. There was some Africa and refugee themed creative documentary by Manthia Diawara (An Opera of the World) that I watched for about five minutes. Then I spend much more time in the other screening hall where a retrospective of Israeli documentarist David Perlov was screened. His Diary series showed daily life in multiple locations as it passed by. However at 7 hours length, who will ever find time to see it all.

I returned to the Bali Cinema another day to see the morning screening of Perlov’s earliest film, a surrealistic fairy tale based on found drawings (Old Aunt China) and a documentary of the Memories of the Eichmann Trial. This was just a crude talking heads documentary, but the subject matter made it engaging. How does one transmit or explain one’s experience to another generation? In the film the trial was revealed as a catalyst that enabled the transmission, at least partial, of the Nazi horrors from one generation (those who went through holocaust) to another (their children).

I enjoyed Perlov’s movies due to their historical value, and also due to the fact that I could sit down in comfortable cinema chairs. Seeing his films was one of the positive discovery moments of documenta 14 for me. However I lacked the presence of some curatorial strategy that would relate it to the present and contextualize it beyond being a mere historical documentary movie screening. But this wish of mine remained unsatisfied throughout the whole documenta 14. Curators took a very hands-off approach.

Arriving in Fridericanum, there was a monumental installation of ready-to-use razor wire fences by Kendell Geers. What did the artist want to say? Something about borders? Refugees? Or maybe something about fences themselves and the conditions of their production?

Jannis Psychopedis showing some late Fluxus-like tape-collage art from 1982. No cutting-edge art made just yesterday, but something nice to see and know about in a historical context, and a pleasant work to see.

Kimsooja’s Bottari were spread around different rooms in Friedericanum. Here is a yellow one.

Nikos Tranos cake-like porcelain sculpture on a large table. Not much context or explanation provided, but it looked nice and pink. I thought of Jonathan Meese’s sculptures.

I remembered Haris Epaminonda from the large scale environment that she (together with Daniel Gustav Cramer) presented in documenta(13). Her work approach seems to be mainly one of collecting and arranging different objects in space, using basic geometries of walls, plinths, shelves etc. This work was not that spectacular as the one from five years ago, but it was sensitive and I felt something, a distant echo of the past exhibit. For her an important line on her artist resume, in the overall documenta 14 context… I don’t know.

The assemblage sculptures of Vassilis Skylakos reminded me of the constructions from wooden refuse by Liu Wei.

Bill Viola’s Deluge from the EMST collection. A great artwork, nice-to-see-you-again!

Allan Sekula’s Fish Story, was another deja-vu that I recently saw at TBA21 in Vienna. Also a great work.

Kogen Ergun’s video showing Turkish soldiers exercising taek-won-do accompanied by techno music was a huge audience attraction. And unsurprisingly. After passing through floors of rather dry and unengaging exhibits, some refreshment of the senses was needed.

The underground cellars of the Friedericanum contained the highlight of the whole show for me: A multi-channel video installation by Ben Russell. The space fitted perfectly to the contents of the videos. The sound was perfect. The image quality was perfect too. The content: two beautiful documentary videos reminiscent of National Geographic footage. One shot in a makeshift goldmine in Surinam, and one in a copper mine in Serbia. The on-site documentary footage was without voiceover and with only sparingly inserted on-location dialogues. It made me realize how much I hate those monotonous voiceovers so often heard in video art. Russell let the images speak by itself. The subject matter reminded me also of Yang Fudong’s Blue Kylin and On the Double Dragon Hills. But while Yang likes to add a touch of mystery to his works, here the individual characters were brought forward. This established more of a balance between the spectacular locations and the people who inhabit them. They were not anymore just acting out their daily routines, but they became persons, someone to identify with. Besides the on-location footage, some projections showed video portraits of the miner’s faces in black and white. Looking someone into the eyes is always powerful. This work united the sublime of the nature with the power of human emotions, all without being descriptive or melodramatic. It provided an environment the viewers could enter, dive into and comprehend without words. 

Marta Minujin’s Parthenon of Books was the landmark artwork of documenta 14. The size and quantity of books ensured its impressiveness, and it was an artwork at a right place. Nevertheless, it still was quite a traditional artwork. Who still reads books today? Minujin developed the idea for the Parthenon of Books in the early 1980’s and showed it first in 1983 in Argentina in a site specific context. While it is a great artwork, I think it’s valid to ask what has happened to the world in the 35 years since the works’ first showing and how it could be updated to fit today’s post-truth circumstances. Due to the digital networks spanning the globe, it’s almost impossible to forbid a book today, yet the amount of control and censorship has not ceased but morphed into more subtle ways.

The Neue Galerie was the worst experience for me: Two floors of little crowded rooms with lots of very random artworks. It was a bit like walking through a storage. What caught my attention: Annie Sprinkle & Beth Stevens We Love to Fuck Book (sex sells!) and a curiosity, a record Voices of Haiti made by Maya Deren, who is better known for her experimental films. In both cases I wished I could flick through the pages of the We Love to Fuck Book while listening to the recordings of Voices of Haiti. But no, I was only allowed to look and wonder…

Palais Bellevue next door was smaller and it contained a much better curated selection. In my opinion it actually was the curatorial highlight of the whole documenta 14. The ground floor was mediocre and I can’t remember it anymore, but the first and second floors of the main building showed a selection of works that were mutually interconnected and in dialogue despite their different provenance.

The key room to me was one with abstract works representing landscapes by Olaf Holzapfel next to Sorbian handicraft products. This juxtaposition pointed towards the interdependence between nature (materials) and culture in a non-stereotypical way, without suggesting any single dominant direction. Humans reproduce patterns from nature and in return use them to modify nature. The following rooms built onto the theme of material and structural relationships between human inventiveness and the environment.

Hermann Gloeckner’s graphics complemented Holzapfel’s approach. (Holzapfel is an architect).

Abel Rodriguez’ works were displayed in the natural history museum (Ottoneum), but also on the second floor of Palais Bellevue. They documented plants and animals from the Amazonian forest in a simple and honest drawing style, stressing the interrelationships between knowledge, experience and the environment.

Lala Meredith-Vula’s photographs of straw stacks were on one hand reminiscent of the Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work in their serial nature. Similar to Bechers’ celebration of industrial architecture, they were also a proof of human ingenuity in stacking and shaping these man-made objects. There was a material connection to the straws used as a material in Holzapfel’s work, but also the architectural and constructivist concern present in his and Gloeckner’s work.

Almost at last I visited the Documenta Hall. There were two artworks that stood out for me. On one hand it was Guillermo Galindo’s wrecks of refugee boats repurposed as musical instruments. While wandering though the exhibitions, I just wondered when this theme will come up and I thought I am going to puke when I saw my worries turn reality. The most stereotypical stereotype of all stereotypes, the most meaningless representation of human misery and thousands of lost lives. Some a**hole artist pulling out a piece of trash from the sea and some a**hole curator placing it inside one of the biggest and most important art shows in the world (which I start to question). A piece of real human tragedy turned into an entertainment for the art crowd. Simply tasteless.

The other work that stood out to me was that of Andre du Colombier. He was a new discovery to me, and it was very refreshing. The institutional context was symptomatic of what I have described in the introduction: An artist deceased a decade ago, with no apparent connection to the overall context of the exhibition, probably put into place by curator Pierre Bal-Blanc and the gallery managing his estate. Colombier’s work reminded me a bit of the style that can be seen in the Secession Vienna exhibitions (and his work was indeed included in a Secession exhibition curated by Bal-Blanc), something I call WTF-art. These artworks appear totally meaningless, usually made from common materials placed inside of the gallery without much modification. Yet despite their minimal appearance, maybe because of their minimal appearance, they manage to elicit an audience reaction and do initiate a thinking process questioning existing standards and conventions.

Colombier’s work consisted of sheets with simple words written on them. Nothing more. Yet this simplicity, this lack of depth, resonated with the overall feeling I had from the whole documenta 14 show. What appeared to be meaningful and addressing social and political topics on the surface, was in fact utterly meaningless beneath. Yet that was not the whole truth. The was something in the way the whole documenta 14 was put together, something highly ironic, also reflected in the title Learning from Athens (learning what?). A felt a tongue-in-cheek approach was applied to the whole show. Maybe the whole documenta 14 can be seen as an ironic statement on the state of the art world and the world as such, on the pointless nature of all the artistic positions and poses taken, especially those engaged in some social cause. It contained a touch of nihilism, but also a certain joy of talking (using a syntax) without saying anything. This approach resonated well with Colombier’ artwork. Even in the face of this impossibility to speak out, it is possible to do so in an absurd dada way. An approach that might, in the end of the day, be the only effective one in disrupting existing lines of thinking.

One interesting discrepancy between the official exhibition view photograph of Colombier’s work and my real photograph of the exhibition view. Don’t know why. Because it will look better in the catalogue?

Last, Daniel Knorrs smoking Friedericanum tower. This work resonated equally well with the overall documenta 14 concept (if there ever was one). All that is solid turns into air. Learning from Athens. Spending money that is not there. Politics without politics. Curating without context. Whatever.

Colombier’s and Knorr’s work became the key works to me for reading the whole documenta 14. It was not a very happy story, but nevertheless, it was a story worth reading and piecing together. An adventure. And a little hope shimmering in the distance that art and life will go on, anyway.

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