dOCUMENTA(13) day three: off the main sites, central Kassel
Jêrôme Bel, Disabled Theatre, 2012
This is a documenta of many surprises, not least pleasant ones thanks to artists being given the opportunity to realize ambitious projects. But even with the positively large critical mass of good artists included, it also brings up structural questions about conceptualization, editing (editing as in film or text editing, the shaping of footage), and economy of means that may linger on for years to come. Both in terms of the overall scope (there are roughly 2000 events scheduled in the course of this documenta) as well as in the form individual works take. Some operate with overabundance and confusion (sometimes for better, and often for worse), and a few I have seen so far are based on a clear and strict aesthetic economy of means, including my highlight so far, a theatre dance performance by French choreographer Jérôme Bel.
But before discussing Bel, let me first tell you what a naive plan I had made for myself yesterday; I devoted myself to visit the projects taking place outside of the main sites but in the centre of the city, mostly featuring works by single artists in closed down cinemas, bunkers, or vacant buildings – I thought I could easily do these in half a day or so, but it almost took the whole day. Given that there are 30 documenta sites in Kassel – one of which, the vast Karlsaue park, features 53 projects alone – you might be tempted to skip these off-the-main-sites ones. Especially if you also planned to take a few weeks off and devote a lot of time and money to also visit the official documenta events scheduled to take place in Egypt, Afghanistan, and rural Canada. (There seems to be a logic of overbidding in place: not only more, but evermore remote and difficult sites; in 2002, there were documenta ‘platforms’ in Lagos or the Caribbean; in 2007, ElBulli restaurant in Spain was declared a site; so how could the director of the next documenta in 2017 top that – Antarctica? Waziristan? Chernobyl? The moon?)
But skipping the ‘off-the-main-sites’ projects in Kassel, you’d miss not only some great stuff, but also a chance to look at work generously allowed to flourish outside of overarching and sometimes overbearing curatorial postulations, such as they were in place at the Ottoneum natural history museum where – thinking especially of Claire Pentecost’s bricks of compost stacked on gilded tables (Soil-erg, 2012), meant to represent a currency based on the exchange and recycling of ‘soil’, or of AndAndAnd’s herb garden – mushy, heavy-handed, and largely humorless suggestions of ecological healing were put forth (on that note, there is generally a lot of gardening in this documenta, as if in the pious vein of the quote often ascribed to Martin Luther that ‘if the world would go to pieces tomorrow, I’d still plant my apple tree’).
But again, there is some great stuff; in the first frieze blog from documenta Christy Lange already discussed Tino Sehgal’s twenty protagonists chanting and talking in the dark, and Theaster Gates’ Jazz approach to dwelling and sculpting in an abandoned house. Just a few houses down the street is an elegantly modest presentation by Francis Alÿs of postcard-size paintings juxtaposing fragmented scenes from Kabul with abstract colour studies reminiscent of television test screens, testifying to doubts about the possibilities of ‘appropriately’ representing a war-torn nation but the need to still do so (while a simple note pinned to a board read, line after line, ’1943, I think about Morandi paiting on top of a hill surrounded by fascism, I think about Picabia finding inspiration in soft porn magazines on the Côte d’Azur… I think about Leni Riefenstahl filming Tiefland with extras from concentration camps… I think about Blinky Palermo born in the rubbles of Leipzig…’).
You might have been mistaken to think that Trisha Donelly presented work in a similar vein, approaching the classic cinema space with big letters announcing Salmon Fishing in the Yemen outside, but that was of course the title of a recent Lasse Halström movie; inside, instead, Donelly’s opaquely beautiful abstract, silent film loop was screened continuously. Darkly grey flickering and shining patterns suggested, in equal measures, veils in a breeze and digital error, as if one was watching not a film but the ghost of a film. I enjoyed that piece, not only because it managed to strangely mesmerize and puzzle my eyes but also because it also seemed to comment on the demise of cinema without the least bit of sentimentalism or nostalgia.
A film project by Tacita Dean involving a camera man commissioned to film in various locations in Kabul didn’t come through because the footage turned out to be flawed, but Dean made the best of it by realizing a whole set of large-scale chalk on blackboard ‘murals’ filling most walls in a former tax office space dominated by a beautiful brass-railed stair case and balustrade.
These delicate and unsealed drawings of Afghan mountain and river landscapes, in the vein of previous works of Dean’s, included fragmentary allusions to handwritten storyboard instructions (‘a pan’, ‘Anglo Afghan War 2’); one of them felt like a comment on documenta: placed between snow-covered mountain peaks, a horizontal arrow and the words ‘narrative direction’.
Next I got a hard hat and entered the vaults of a bunker underneath the Kassel city vineyard terraces. Here, Allora & Calzadilla’s film Raptor’s Rapture (2012) was congenially placed: its point of departure is the unearthing, in 2009 in a cave in Southern Germany, of a flute that was carved 35000 years ago from a griffon vulture’s bone. The artists asked a flutist to try playing the flute in a studio setting confronting her with the presence of a living griffon vulture. The animal reacted rather stoically to the flutist’s systematic probing of different techniques of blowing, suggesting a time capsule being opened for the first time (the equivalent of archeologists in the distant future retrieving data from an ancient computer hard drive). Given that the griffon vulture itself is a highly endangered species, the staging of the animal listening to an eery tune whistled on a bone of its one species nevertheless had a intentionally perverse and tautological undertone, emphasized by the slow and painstakingly precise camera work.
While the placing of Allora & Calzadilla in the tunnels immediately convinced, the Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi’s installation remained puzzling: Resolution (2012) seems to be a fairy tale story about war (featuring dragons in place of military planes etc.) creating allegorical links between contemporary wartime Kabul and the Brothers Grimm city of Kassel. Even disregarding the meaning of the story around a female cigarette seller (which I couldn’t quite figure out even though I spend quite some time in the installation), it was difficult to understand why the book was put on display to be leaved through, but on a plinth and in a tunnel, with a voiceover of the text of that same book as well, as if the act of reading itself had to be somehow doubled and staged as a torturous lesson (if that was the intended meaning of the installation, I surely got it). All of which is to say that I’m sure there are interesting observations included in Mojadidi’s book, but sometimes the way things are presented make it excessively hard to appreciate their possible merits.
That feeling lingered on when after giving back the hard hat I made my way up the steep vineyard terraces which didn’t include vineyards however but a huge number of monumental outdoor sculptures by Adrián Villar Rojas seemingly made of wood, rock and cement covered with unfired clay. They surely are intended to look like ancient excavations as if covered in ash, however they also look like very contemporary neo-surrealism suggesting all sorts of confused tropes of nature (newborn in an eggshell) or technology (a big cogwheel).
These kinds of experiences made me all the more ready for the simple, stripped down conceptual clarity of Jérome Bêl’s performance piece Disabled Theatre (2012) that carried it all the way through 90 minutes of uneasy, preconception-probing estrangement and empathy. (The piece is scheduled for three performances per day during the opening period of documenta to be followed by screenings of a cinematic version entitled 2 Dances .)
The curtain opens and a stoically calm ‘instructor’ seated at the side of the stage, operating a simple p.a. system and also doubling as a translator from German into English, announces that the actors of the piece have been asked by Bel to first appear, one at a time, on stage to stand still for about a minute. The eleven protagonists do so, and after a short while it becomes clear that the title of the piece is to be taken literal: a majority of them appear to be handicapped given the physical attributes of Down Syndrome. This creates obvious unease on the part of a self-assumingly ‘intelligent’ audience in terms of staring at a supposedly ‘handicapped’ person in such a way, as if subjected to enforced voyeurism. But this was only the first of five stages that gradually unravelled that very unease, however never giving in to simple comic relief, cynicism, or sentimentality. The second part, again announced and explained in simple terms just as the following ones, involved a microphone stand being put up at the same spot at the centre of the stage, this time involving the protagonists giving their name, age, and profession. As for profession, all of them said “actor” – which is indeed the case, since they are members of the Zurich-based theatre group HORA (and which also explains their Swiss German idiom). The third part involved the question of them being asked what their disability was – and they simply stated it on a spectrum from learning disability to the different terminologies of ‘Down Syndrome’, ‘Trisomy 21’, or, as one protagonist said of herself in a proud retort to medicinal as well as derogative terminology, ‘I’m a fucking mongoloid’.
The forth and fifth part followed essentially the classic logic of climax and denouement: the fourth involved seven of the actors doing short dance performances according to their individual musical choreographical choices. Michael Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Really Care About Us’ was performed with skill and intensity, but of course not the kind of perfection expected of professional dancers; but still you didn’t feel like just wanting to appreciate ‘good will’ – your own, that of the protagonist – but genuine love for music and dance. ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba is a song that moves me even if it is played in a Muzak version in a hotel lobby; here the same performer who had described herself as ‘mongoloid’ danced to it with Heavy Metal dedication – the applause was roaring, and mixed feelings gave way to a momentary rush of shared enthusiasm. But the fifth and last act involved the simple question put to the performers what they thought of Bel’s piece: some simply said ‘great’ or ‘good’, while others went into detail and told little stories. One of them quoted his mother saying she thought it was a freakshow but that she liked it anyway. Another said his sister cried in the car, saying he had been put on display like in a circus. This was not just a tired exercise of deconstructive self-reflection (as is so often the case with contemporary work) but a gradual shift from the authoritative, absent voice of Bel (the ‘instructor’ continuously using the phrase ‘Jérôme Bel would like you to do this or that’ etc.) to the autonomous voices of the protagonists themselves, who elegantly frustrate precisely the freak show tendency by taking the opportunity to voice their observations or, simply, performing their very own dance.
There is a number of artists who could learn a lesson or two from Jérôme Bel’s piece, in terms of how it doesn’t shy away from difficult confrontations and yet steers clear of simplistic demonstrations of ‘taboo-breaking’ or – equally annoying – moralist complacency. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.