dOCUMENTA (13). Day Two: Hauptbahnhof and Neue Galerie
Javier Tellez, Artaud's Cave (2012). Installation view. (Courtesy: dOCUMENTA (13). Photo: Henrik Stromberg)
Visiting Kassel for a documenta is a little like visiting, say, Swindon or Slough for a biennial: a small town, characterized by grim postwar architecture (with a few exceptions in Kassel’s case) and the faint feeling of wanting to escape elsewhere. There are none of the distractions of a Venice, Berlin, Sydney or New York. I thought this as I wandered through the drizzle up to the Hauptbahnnof – where works by 29 artists could be found in the old buildings and storage areas of Kassel’s local train station, and where I spent the bulk of my second day at dOCUMENTA (13). Whilst it’s true that you’re not going to find yourself sipping Campari sodas by the side of astonishingly beautiful canals, you’re also unlikely to find at a documenta any of the fluff and nonsense that gloms onto events such as Venice; no blue-chip fashion brands hiring expensive palazzos to exhibit the work of some Russian oligarch’s girlfriend’s pet poodle, no collectors with dazzling perma-tans shoving their Damien Hirst dot-decorated yachts in everyone’s line of vision. And God bless documenta founder Arnold Bode’s cotton socks for that.
dOCUMENTA (13) has so far – but boy do I still have a great deal of ground to cover – proved itself to be a surprisingly thoughtful and complex show. I say ‘surprising’ since what scant pre-exhibition information there was that drifted from dOCUMENTA (13) has – if we’re being polite – been as opaque and overblown as many a common-or-garden biennial, what with its claims to being ‘driven by a holistic and non-logocentric vision that is skeptical of the persisting belief in economic growth’ and recognizing ‘the shapes and practices of knowing of all the animate and inanimate makers of the world, including people’. (Not to mention curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s insistence on the similarities between women and dogs in a recent German newspaper interview…) Punch-drunk with politically hectoring or ‘we are the world’ approaches to large-scale exhibition making that would make even Bono seem modest in his outlook, I expected more of the same, yet dOCUMENTA (13) is an exhibition of subtlety and imagination, if somewhat over-optimistic in its attempts to get audiences to engage with other areas of intellectual activity, such as quantum physicists (as could be found in the Fridericianum, next to Mario Garcia Torres’ work about Alighiero Boetti’s One Hotel in Kabul).
Highlights of the Hauptbahnhof began with the first work I encountered this morning, a sound piece by Florian Hecker. Three speakers hung from the ceiling in a small room, each emitting a series of electronic tones and textures, sound that created as much a sculptural space in the room as it did an auditory or psychological one. Where Hecker’s work concerned itself with the ear, Rabih Mroué’s installation was about the eye, in particular looking at depiction of conflict in the Middle East through the prism of 19th-century investigations into ‘optography’ and the idea that the last thing a murdered person sees before their death is their assassin, an image that was somehow imprinted in the eyeball and salvageable by medical and photographic science. A series of garments made by Seth Price resembling military aviator jumpsuits fused with stationery envelopes (I realize that sounds like an unlikely combination, but think along the lines of the patterning inside an envelope) were an intriguing teaser for a catwalk show the artist is putting on this evening. Jessica Warboys’ video, sculpture and large wall painting also seemed beguiling at first glance, as it purported to connect the work of an early 20th-century dancer with megalithic standing stones in Cornwall, UK. However, her video of said standing stones seemed to fall a little too much into the current modish obsession with ‘mystic modernist Britain’ that characterizes a certain strain of British art right now.
Clemens von Wedemeyer, Muster (Rushes) (2012). Installation view. (Courtesy: dOCUMENTA (13). Photo: Henrik Stromberg)
There were a good number of engaging and sophisticated artists videos to be found, from Tejal Shah’s Between the Waves (2012) – a fusion of animation, choreography and stark imagery of vast acres of waste dumps – through to William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time (2012) an energetic steampunk opera piece with parping tubas and scenes straight out of an early Surrealist film; enjoyable although a little overwrought with its metaphors. A three-channel film by Clemens von Wedemeyer (Muster (Rushes), 2012) was a sophisticated and beautifully directed look at how historical meaning is established and grows across generations; its first chapter looks at Nazi atrocities committed in an old building in Kassel, then looks at a group of young actors attempting to make radical work in that venue, followed by a group of teenagers being taken on a tour of the grounds as an audio guide tells them of the horrors that had occurred there. Also of note was Javier Téllez’s film Artaud’s Cave (2012), elaborately installed in an imitation cave-cum-Aztec temple, and made in collaboration with residents of a psychiatric hospital in Mexico City; a film that excavated Antonin Artaud’s experiences in Mexico.
Other installations of note were those by Lara Favaretto (a vast scrapyard, through which one could hear mournful cello music, an experience that seemed extra charged walking through it in the rain having just watched the Von Wedemeyer film) and Michael Portnoy (a huge, intimidating pyramid of mud and clay in the centre of which, and accessed by a special staircase, was a small circular arena filled with a set of shelves and plinths, and which will each day play venue to a game show hosted by the artist and designed to create an atmosphere both ‘exhilarating and fright-inducing’).
The afternoon took me to the clean, white gallery spaces of the Neue Galerie. A very brief rundown of highlights from here would have to include Geoffrey Farmer’s installation (written about by my colleague Christy Lange yesterday); landscape and still-life paintings by the Canadian Emily Carr, and Australian artist Margaret Preston; Stuart Ringholt’s anger therapy classes (a strange echo, perhaps, of Portnoy’s participatory work), and Andrea Büttner’s screenprints, video and sculpture looking at a sisterhood of nuns who live in and around communities of, amongst other groups, fairground workers.
Tomorrow I am going to tackle the Karlsaue which contains more than 50 different works spread throughout the park; if the exhibition so far is anything to go by, then I am excited to see what is in store. (However, one crucial question remains. Does the overlaboured spelling ‘dOCUMENTA (13)’ herald a return of the early 1990s exhibition title? ‘Site/[in–]Sight’, ‘(in–)TERRA–gating Gender’…)