dOCUMENTA (13). Day One. And so it begins.
Llyn Foulkes performing on his 'Self-Made Instrument'
You can liken the first day of dOCUMENTA (13) to any endurance sport and the metaphor still works. First try: I feel like I’ve been running a marathon, and I’ve still got 25.9 miles to go. Or even: I’ve been in a hotdog-eating contest, and I’m so full I can’t eat another bite, but I’ve still got another 40 hotdogs waiting. Just pick any event in which you feel you’ve taken in is as much as you can without having taken in even a small fraction of what there is to see or do, and that’s dOCUMENTA, Day One.
But, you still have to take that first bite. The best decision of my day turned out to be arbitrarily choosing to start on the top floor of the Fridericianum and working my way down. Before I could get orientated on the museum’s second floor, I found myself being ushered into a room lined with black curtains where a man was sitting behind what looked like a cross between the front of a school bus and a drum kit painted red, mounted with bicycle horns, pipes, trombones, cowbells, cymbals, tambourines and a xylophone. Well, here was something I didn’t expect. Not a bad way to start.
This, it turned out, was Lynn Foulkes’s Self-Made Instrument (1979–2012), also known as The Machine. And sitting behind this elaborate contraption, playing it like an accomplished orchestra of one, singing jazz songs punctuated by his own plaintive moaning and syncopated clucking and whiz-bang sounds, was Foulkes himself, though I only figured that all out after someone whispered it to me (the wall texts in this particular room hadn’t been glued on yet).
Not only was the instrument a marvel, but the performance itself was also virtuosic, polished, and impromptu all at once. In between songs, Foulkes paused to confide to the audience that in the 1960s in Los Angeles he played in a rock band alongside The Doors and The Byrds, but, he admitted, ‘My roots are in music like this – jazz music and cartoon music’. Then he went on to sing ‘I have no name / I have no fame / I didn’t make it / I’m ashamed. / But as a ghost / you’ll hear me boast / that I’m the toast / of Hollywood.’ The lines seemed fitting for an artist who was a pioneer of the LA art scene in the 1960s but remained somewhat obscure until recently being ‘rediscovered’. (Two of Foulkes’s incredible, 3-D, Combine-esque paintings are on view in adjoining rooms). Imagine Ed Ruscha or Ed Kienholz crooning Frank Sinatra-style and wailing away on a drum sit like this. It’s impossible to be cynical in a presence like Foulkes’s. The performance will take place twice daily, so don’t miss it.
Goshka Macuga’s tapestry, installation view in the Fridericianum
The rest of the Fridericianum proved somewhat uneven in tone: lurching from Goshka Macuga’s large-scale digitally-printed black and white tapestry of a tableaux at a dOCUMENTA-related event in Kabul (featuring an oversized cobra front and centre), to the delicate and haunting hand-woven tapestries of Hannah Ryggen (1894–1970), who reproduced violent scenes of wars and conflicts in a medium that few in the 1930s and 40s would have thought to use to do so.
Both of these works focusing on weaving dovetailed nicely (if not a bit obviously) with one of the venue’s highlights: Mario Garcia Torres’s installation, which documented his search for the One Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, a lodging house run by and resided in by Alighiero Boetti from 1971 until 1977, where Boetti worked to produce his famous series of tapestries made by Afghan weavers (which were supposed to appear in documenta 5, but never did).
Downstairs, in the Fridericianum’s cramped Rotunda space, the exhibition displayed the kinds of curatorial flourishes that often seem to accompany a certain kind of anthropological curating that capriciously mixes anthropological artefacts and found objects with art works. This kind of museological, cabinet-of-curiosities approach, having already been a trope of contemporary artists for a while now, seems especially dated in the hands of a curator. In this darkened space crammed with spot-lit vitrines, I had trouble making the connections between Giorgio Morandi’s paintings, displayed along with actual objects from his studio, and the neighbouring vitrines containing ‘Bactrian Princesses’ – a series of small sculptures of seated women created in the late 3rd and early 2nd century BC in what is now modern day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. While these art works and artefacts are no doubt fascinating, there is no apparent justification for their inclusion together, other than their need to be housed in vitrines, and the fact they probably couldn’t have been procured for any contemporary art exhibition other than this one.
Vitrine containing Man Ray’s metronomes and Eva Braun’s powder compact in the Rotunda of the Fridericianum
Another curious vitrine included, on it’s top shelf, metronome sculptures by Man Ray, and on the bottom shelf, items labelled as ‘Eva Braun’s powder compact’ and ‘Eva Braun’s perfume bottle’, along with a porcelain statue by the artist Rudolf Kaesbach (1873–1955), which once sat in Adolf Hitler’s apartment, and a towel with the initials ‘AH’. Still reeling from this discordant Wunderkammer, I turned around to find, on a wall opposite, a stunning collection of photographs taken by Lee Miller, some of which were published in the July 1945 issue of Vogue (original copies of which are also displayed in yet another vitrine). Shortly after the war ended, Miller obtained access to Hitler’s apartment in Munich and photographed herself in his bathtub. In the foreground her muddy boots sit on the bathmat and her coat and watch are draped on the chair beside. Together the photographs and objects make a fascinating collection, but it was difficult to make sense of the concept of this curated space as a whole, other than it reflected a certain documenta-esque curatorial tendency to show all kinds of things, all together, as new and as old as possible, just because you can.
Mark Dion’s installation with the ‘Schildbach Xylotheque’ in the Ottoneum
Next stop: a quick trip to the Ottoneum yielded some predictable ‘eco-related’ contributions scattered among the natural history museum displays of taxidermied animals and animal skeletons. But Jimmie Durham’s 1996 video Stoning the Refrigerator playing on a monitor above the gift-shop kiosk was an unexpected treat, and it’s worth the trip upstairs to see Mark Dion’s specially commissioned installation. Here he designed an elaborate wooden display case to house the Ottoneum’s unique ‘Schildbach Xylotheque’ – a ‘wood library’ made in 1771–79 of several hundred books carved out of different species of trees. The books are actually boxes that house dioramas inside. Dion’s installation and Schildbach’s library is a felicitous match made in nerd heaven.
Geoffrey Farmer’s installation in the Neue Galerie
Nearby in the Neue Galerie, several visitors were fawning in unabashed awe and wonder over Geoffrey Farmer’s impressive installation, which evokes that same sort instantaneous reaction that Christian Marclay’s The Clock recently did, perhaps because of its sheer scale, meticulous detail and the obvious time and manual labour it took to create it. In the basement, Wael Shawky’s two uncanny puppet-show films are similarly impressive, though demanded more time for viewing than the ticking clock was allowing me.
By now the residual joy I’d been experiencing from recounting Llyn Foulkes’s performance to everyone I ran into was beginning to wear off, so it was fitting that my day closed with two more musical performances, both in off-site pavilions. On a sidestreet near the Rathaus, in a dark hall in a backyard of a house, was Tino Sehgal’s installation, in which, as it only became clear once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, are about 20 young men and women in a circle chanting, singing, marching, and slouching against the wall. At a certain point, still in the dark, they start conversing about ‘income’ and ‘output’ and ‘satisfaction’ – I guess the point at which it starts to feel like a Tino Sehgal performance? But the performance still captivates for two main reasons: though it takes place in darkness, it unexpectedly becomes about our vision, or the limits thereof, more than any of our other senses. And because it still has that skillful Sehgal twist, which all his best piece have, by which you, the audience member, suddenly and unexpectedly find yourself centrestage, playing the somewhat sheepish performer.
Theaster Gates’ and The Black Monks’ performance in the Huguenot House
And finally, in the Huguenot House next door, I had my second stroke of dumb luck of the day, stumbling in during Theaster Gates’s musical performance with The Black Monks. Crowded into one of the decrepit rooms of this abandoned house, the musicians chanted, sang, drummed, and clapped while moving on and off the stage and then through the hallways of the house. At this point I was more than happy to fold up my enormous dOCUMENTA (13) map – which all day had been serving as a reminder of the long stretches I had yet to run, installations not seen, performances not experienced, parks not traversed – and was actually content to put it in my back pocket while I just listened. A couple people even clapped along to the music, totally un-self-consciously.
Theaster Gates performing with The Black Monks