June 9-September 16, 2012
By Rosemary Heather
Mindboggling, exhausting, a blockbuster, whatever superlative you choose for it, Documenta 13 stands as some kind of nirvana for denizens of the artworld. Presenting an in-depth picture of contemporary art practice with the work of over 200 artists, as well as dozens of events featuring professionals from a wide range of fields—including hypnotherapists, priests and political scientists—an exhibition this big hardly lends itself to neat summation. Everyone’s experience of Documenta 13 can’t help but be a different one. Recognizing this, artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev avoids stating an overall theme. Instead, as is appropriate, art finds its definition through the artworks presented, the Documenta 13 experience offering less bird’s eye view of contemporary production than an arduous, if pleasurable, trek through its underbrush.
After arguing with unhelpful Deutsche Bahn staff in Berlin about train tickets apparently lost or delayed in the mail (buy a new one, I was told), things improved. Meeting the first of numerous acquaintances I would bump into in the city, I was pointed in the direction of a work by 2010 Turner Prize winner, Susan Phillipsz, one of many projects located in the train station. Positioned at the far end of Track 8, the artist’s Study for Strings (2012) presents an audio piece based on the eponymous composition by Pavel Haas that was written in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944. Fanning out on speakers arrayed across a number of the tracks, Phillipsz aligns cello string with railroad track to create a doleful, layered experience of a location once used to deport Jewish families to Nazi death camps. The work offers a shimmering instance of Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorial goal to create an exhibition that presents “the shared practices of knowing of all the animate and inanimate makers of the world, including people.” Peer into the weirdness and incoherence of this sentence and you can grasp a useful idea: Demoting humans to just one element amongst others in the experience of being offers a way forward for a crisis-addicted planet in the early 21st century. Artworks are a mechanism by which we can grasp this reality. History precedes the artist and the artwork and it’s the latter’s special task to create the circumstances through which the viewer experiences its meaning in the present.
As is typical of an ambitious contemporary event, Documenta 13 supplements art presentations in conventional museum spaces with many many off site locations, including Kabul (naturally), Cairo, Alexandria and Banff. The “walk-in” art experience often associated with the off site location sees perhaps its finest use at Documenta in Pierre Huyghe’s assemblage of animate and inanimate elements found in a clearing in the expansive Karlsaue Park. Composed of piles of rubble, a reclining nude sculpture with a beehive as a head and a white dog with one leg dyed pink running loose, the work proposed itself as “plants, animals, humans, bacteria…without culture.” To become culture-less is a lofty if not impossible ambition, but the piece did have the effect of evoking the Sci Fi mise en scene of a post-apocalyptic world. Instead of eliminating culture, Vancouver’s Gareth Moore proposes to construct it from scratch. In residence in the park for the past year, Moore homesteads a forest enclave, constructing a place for himself to live that includes all the elements of an incipient society. Flagstone paths lead to various way stations, including garden, workshed and lean-to for napping. Spiritual needs are met in a quasi temple, which like the rest of this grand, beguiling project attests to attention the artist has paid to vernacular modes of architecture. Herculean effort was also at work in Geoffrey Farmer’s installation of 16,000 figures cut out from the pages of Life Magazine. Spanning the years 1935-85, the artist creates a delicately monumental artwork that suggests a figural double for photography’s—and latterly, the internet’s—decontextualizations. Constructing culture from detritus is also the theme of Lara Favretto’s massive pile of scrap metal. Assembled by the artist, she then removed various “sculptural” elements from it, replacing them with concrete casts and installing the originals in an adjacent building as if they were artefacts in a museum. A mental operation connects the two parts of the work, the mind finding relief in the separation of order from chaos, making this piece akin to the best conceptual artworks.
However overwhelming, Documenta’s organizational commitment to ensuring massive projects are fully realized can’t fail to impress. Argentinean Adrián Villar Rojas presents roughly fashioned concrete sculptures of people and animals together with giant casts of forms that look like discarded bells or overturned flower pots, all of it strewn on the different levels of a hillside terraced garden. The figure of the classical ruin is writ large and improbable. Nearby, in a nineteenth century bunker carved into the side of the hill the team of Allora and Calzadilla film a griffon vulture in ambiguous proximity with the white-gloved hands of a flautist. The musician, a prehistoric instrument specialist plays a 35,000 year old flute made from the wing bone of one of the bird’s ancestors. While only feint sounds emit from the instrument, the idea of an ancient and unbroken avian lineage suggested by the buzzard sent shivers down my spine. Achieving a similarly eerie frisson was Michael Rakowitz’s use of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum to present an archive of reconstructed books representing volumes housed in the same building that were destroyed by bombing in 1941. The artist presented the books in a display that included other remnants such as fragments from a meteorite and shrapnel from ammunition rounds used to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan. Equally provocative in its cultural elisions was French-Algerian artist Kader Attia’s installation, which compares makeshift repairs done on African masks, the seams of each fix clearly visible, with documentation of the grotesque injuries and “repairs” endured by soldiers in WW1. Among the best received works in the exhibition was Tino Sehgal’s group of youthful dancers performing a cappella pop songs in a darkened room. The presentation dissolves boundaries between stage and audience, as visitors’ inch their way around the room, walking between the performers who occasionally embrace them. For the public, the low risk of having to tentatively navigate a space in the dark offers the pleasing reward of a gentle disorientation. More bracing—and widely discussed—was French choreographer Jerome Bel’s performance piece. Working with a Zurich-based troupe of mentally disabled actors, Bel had them, each in turn, perform not a play but tell their own stories and perform dances they choreographed themselves. Bordering on the confrontational, self-acknowledged as a “freak show”, the ultimate effect was humanizing. The sum of my own experience was expanded upon in ways that continue to resonate.
This article originally appeared in Border Crossings Issue No. 123
More info about Documenta 13 can be found here.