The world exhibition of contemporary art 2017 unfortunately has been cancelled and hopefully will make good for it in five years. No documenta ever has raised such high expectations in the preparatory stage and was praised so much in advance. But in the meantime a hangover feeling arises is Kassel because of the frustration that is created by this cheerless and unhumorous event among many visitors to the exhibition and art enthusiasts.
Curator Adam Szymczyk had threatened with it: In order to be able to learn from Athens, one has to unlearn before and emancipate oneself from the established practice of art to gain an unbiased view on reality. In achieving this aesthetic catharsis he has been thoroughly successful, as art plays only a minor role at this documenta, instead the artists are exploited to enforce an ideologically biased world view with art being used only as a vehicle. Szymczyk had presented his curatorial concept with the sentence “we hope that documenta 14 will be one of many steps towards a world we want to live in“. That sounded perfectly like a noble undertaking, the members of the documenta committee could certainly agree with gladly. However, probably no one could have guessed that in Szymczyk’s vision of a better world art wouldn’t have a place anymore.
That curators are the true stars of the art world in the meantime who use artists like service providers in order to enforce their own world view isn’t a new phenomenon. New is that this time the visitors are declared to be minors the world needs to be explained to with a patronizing know-it-all attitude. The outcome is a show that is choking from its own pretentious ambitions. Documenta 14 wants to be everything at the same time, art revolution, do-gooder, investigating judge of colonialism, tribunal for looted art, advocate of the underdogs, alliance for sustainability and centre of excellence on gender issues. From the curators’ point of view the world we live in wouldn’t have to be as evil, if the western world had fully understood the lessons of the school of Athens and hadn’t committed themselves to the capitalist exploitation for centuries, thus betraying Plato’s sublime ideals.
documenta 14, Marta Minujín, The Parthenon of Books
Athens, cradle of Europe! This was the cleverly laid bait to get the contract for documenta 14 awarded, by linking the Greek tragedy of the past with the one of the present, the difficult relationship between Greece and Germany, represented by the city of Kassel, included. But after all the curatorial team fails in this attempt in a spectacular way, as the spiritual heritage of Athens with its fundamental influence on the western world is too complex to explain all social evils of today from a politically dogmatic point of view.
Documenta 14 is nothing but an accusation that divides the world into good and evil, without omitting any ism: capitalism, neo-liberalism, colonialism, nationalism, fascism, racism, chauvinism etc. In view of the alternative facts and fake news that are told us by the populists of this world every single day, the critical questioning of these economical and social mechanisms is absolutely topical and necessary. But the division into victims and perpetrators is too simplistic to live up to the opaque relationships in a globalized world.
For documenta 14 learning from Athens means to come to terms with the subject of looted art comprehensively.
The function of the art that is showed at documenta 14 is to encourage the audience to take sides and join Szymczyk’s intended revolt. This kind of art doesn’t ask any questions, but solely gives precisely preformulated answers that have in no way something to do with open conceptual spaces. Learning from Athens, this motto runs like a central thread through documenta, but the curatorial concept gets entangled in the dense crisscross of its home-knitted associative chains like in the maze of the Minotaur. This becomes apparent most clearly at the Neue Galerie, where Nazi-looted art, imperialism, colonialism and the gender debate cause such a thematic information overkill, that the visitor is glad to escape into the Staatspark Karlsaue.
documenta 14, Conrad Felixmueller, Nurse Cornelia Gurlitt, 1917
documenta14, Conrad Felixmueller, Portrait Franz Pfemfert, 1923
Documenta with its claim to be a world exhibition of contemporary art actually stands for the discovery of artists who work away from the multi-million dollar collectors market. In Kassel the visitor can be glad not to encounter the omnipresent Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst who get on his nerves with their obtrusive branded art in any capital of the world. At documenta 14 it is surprising, however, how few contemporary positions are presented. A tour of the Neue Galerie takes the visitor mainly to artists from Poland and the Balkans who represent the 1970s and 1980s. To provide the artists behind the iron curtain a deserved entrance at last and to serve up poetic justice, seem to have been more important for the selection of the works than their quality. In doing so, Szymszyk could tick off one of the points on his to-do list, to revisit the cultural hegemony of the western world.
In this regard Germany with her history of the Third Reich is an easy target of course, which is why the topic of looted art plays a major role. The original plan to present the Gurlitt collection at documenta couldn’t be realized, but at least the sister of Hildebrand Gurlitt, Cornelia, is represented in a drawing by Conrad Felixmueller. Such established connections can be found often, in order to take full circle back to the overarching subject of Athens, Leo von Klenze and the entire period of Classicism are used for the thesis that Greek culture was appropriated by Germany. The accusation of looted art is expanded to the statutory criminal offence of looted culture which allegedly has paved the way for nationalism and later fascism. This construct is so daring, as if the master builders of the Renaissance, Brunelleschi and Palladio, were termed the intellectual incendiaries of Mussolini’s fascist Italy.
documenta 14, Sergio Zevallos, A War Machine
One of the founding fathers of documenta is politically dismantled to question the established practice of art.
Hardly has one made it through this bombshell, one is confronted with the hunger crisis in the world and the statue of a fast breaking buddha from the collection of the Neue Galerie. But Szymczyk’s systematic confusion goes on by exploiting local artist Ernst Lorenz Boettner to kill two birds with one stone, the subject of handicapped persons and the gender issue. The tragic story of Boettner’s life, who lost both arms as a child, became a painter using his mouth and feet, later on flipped genders and called himself Lorenza, was exotic enough to predestine him for “the creation of an armless transgender subjectivity“, as it is called in curator jargon. The tragic of this fate inadvertently slips into the tragicomic, only a strong act of volition can prevent one from bursting into laughter from this gibberish.
On the upper floor of the Neue Galerie the visitor is caught up with by German history again as well as the topics of collective guilt and atonement with full force. Maria Eichhorn concerns herself with the history of NS-looted art. Specially for this purpose she has founded the “Rose Valland Institute“ in honour of art historian Rose Valland who was forced by the Nazis to document their art theft in Paris during the German occupation. However, she copied the top secret lists and handed them over to the US army after the German surrender. Key element of Eichhorn’s installation is a meters high shelf with unlawfully acquired books from Jewish possession which belong to the inventory of the Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin today. The book tower is a memorial of NS-looted art which points out to the fact that looted Jewish property can be found in any German household and is passed on from generation to generation.
documenta 14, Maria Eichhorn, Rose Valland Institut
documenta 14, Maria Eichhorn, Rose Valland Institut
Impressive is Piotr Uklanski’s space-filling photo wall “Real Nazis“, a compilation of portraits of all Nazi greats who are looking the viewer in the eye. The work has an oppressive impact, if there wasn’t one disconcerting detail: alongside Goering, Goebbels und Mengele there is also a portrait of Joseph Beuys who served as a signalman in the Luftwaffe. Not necessarily one has to be a fan of Beuys with his guru affectations and his fat corners, but to place him on the same level with the slaughterers of the Third Reich, the curators commit a daring ideologically biased distortion of history. The bashing of Beuys is nothing else than a covered attack against documenta as an institution at the same time to whose godfathers the inventor of social sculpture belongs to without doubt.
documenta 14, Piotr Uklanski, Real Nazis
Visitors who have got a bad conscience after this crash course in European history of oppression can cleanse themselves from it by purchasing a piece of soap from Otobong Nkanga. The artist from Nigeria has ordered the production of 45.000 pieces of soap for documenta, they were manufactured in Athens under fair conditions with ingredients from three continents. The revenue from the sale of the “black stone“ will be spent for workshops and schools, an endeavour which deserves to be supported. But what has this performative act of fair global trade to do with art now?
With its focus on the history of colonialism documenta loses track of the present.
A walk through the Karlsauen park and a coffee break on the terrace of the Orangerie offer the opportunity to think about the social function of art. The baroque park with its strictly symmetrical design does good to clear one’s head, after one has unlearnt everything at the Neue Galerie which one had thought to know about art so far. That the Orangerie is the architectural expression of feudal power and exploitation is obvious to be assumed, anyone who is still missing the point can be helped with “the Mill of Blood“ by Antonio Vega Macotelas. In Potosí in the Andes of Bolivia great silver mines were discovered in 1545 which were exploited by the conquistadores through slave work. Indigenous slaves were forced to drive mills with their own body power in order to mint silver coins. The reconstruction of the mill is an impressive testimony to carpentry, but that’s it, the mechanics of the wooden wheelwork are more fascinating than the depressing story that is told by it. The topics of colonialism and exploitation play a major role at this documenta, however, they are pretty intangible through the historicizing context. And yet, the problem of modern slavery in the 21st century with all its disgusting facets would have been appropriate for an artistic exploration, from disenfranchised nannies and construction workers on the Arab peninsula to the slaves in the textile industry in Southeast Asia.
documenta 14, Antonio Vega Macotela, The Mill of Blood
Not only the contemporary gets a raw deal at this rigid documenta with its narrowed view on history, but also art itself as a social catalyst. In Kassel one encounters the evil in the globalized world at every turn, but often it’s just a repetition of the horror news we are accompanied by in the social media all day long anyway. Art shouldn’t mess about with everyday politics, but should show an abstract interpretation of reality in order to reveal its archetypal core. From this results an aesthetic added value which goes beyond the mere depiction of reality and initiates a process of cognition in the mind of the viewer. If this act of abstracting is missing, art doesn’t have any visual impact that goes beyond its own cultural area and remains conventional local art. By misusing art for his political agenda, Szymczyk reduces it to propaganda art and disables it from functioning also in open conceptual spaces on an aesthetic level.
Documenta doesn’t give any answer to the crisis of meaning of contemporary art.
Here the cardinal question arises, which purpose the art of the 21st century should serve at all in addition to its mere monetary value and its function as currency of the super-rich. The very specific means only fine art and no other genre possesses, are the visual power of images and the sculptural form. However, these prototypes of art don’t play any role at all at this documenta, painting doesn’t as most of the exhibited images are extremely poor, and sculpture almost doesn’t exist at all in Kassel. Instead performing arts such as performance, video art and documentation have taken possession of the stage of fine art and reduced it to a marginal phenomenon among many other artistic ways to express. Since the invention of the ready-made by Marcel Duchamp art has gone through all varieties of expression like assemblage and installation that alienated it more and more from its original function to bring about social identity. In the course of this development art has turned into goods for a market cut off from the outside world the clientele of which have distanced themselves from the rest of society as well.
documenta 14, Neue Hauptpost, Staircase, Office of Child and Youth Services
Socially utopic visions cannot be found in contemporary art anymore, instead it is running after the news generated by reality, and rehashes them again and again. The true innovations, creative discoveries and social changes take place long since outside the field of fine art, in the creative labs of the fashion and industrial designer, the animation studios in Hollywood, and the digital high-tech world in Silicon Valley. Art, however, has become a playground of a handful of billionaires who are the beneficiaries of the socio-economic aberrations of neoliberalism artists like to denounce so much.
In order to be able to survive in this shark pool, many artists escape into monumentality, quick producibility and calculated public-oriented provocation. But in one of his last interviews even Marcel Duchamp has admitted that the means to break a taboo doesn’t work in the practice of art anymore and he himself is to blame for it in a certain way. For a long time now society has got accustomed to the breaking of the very last taboos and got desensitized by the daily horror pictures in the news, therefore the political provocation at documenta is bound to come to nothing. The obvious crisis of contemporary art would have provided enough starting points for an exploration with regard to contents, but unfortunately the curators didn’t want to ask themselves this essential question. To enforce their political agenda, they try to compete with other media instead, which are much better at this than art, namely film, news portals and political platforms. It is naive to believe in being able to make the world a better place through art let alone save it, in history of art this attempt never has been working out and in the end it was mostly art that has been exploited by politics and misused for their purposes. But this belief makes the curators feel complacent to be on the side of the good guys by rehearsing a mini-rebellion.
documenta 14, documenta Halle
Only few works at documenta are as touching as the pipes by Hiwa K.
One of the few works at documenta 14 which is not pathos-laden, is the pipe installation by Kurdish artist Hiwa K. The reason why it appears so authentic and emotionally compelling is that Hiwa K hunkered down in such a stack of earthenware pipes and tried to make it his home, when he fled from the henchmen of Saddam Hussein. They are prison and shelter at the same time, but bring Homo erectus to his knees, which is a powerful metaphor for the misery of the refugees. At the same time the installation points out a connection to the history of the city of Kassel with the devastating destruction after the bombing during the war in 1945.
documenta 14, Hiwa K, When We Were Exhaling Images
Ambivalent, however, is the presentation in the neighbouring documenta Halle. One of the favourites of the audience are the masks by Indian artist Beau Dick from Canada who was chief of his tribe and points out the oppression of the culture of the American Indians through white immigrants. His carved works don’t represent works of art in a western sense, but depict living beings that are designed to be burnt in a ceremony after a ritual dance. The cremation is followed by the rebirth which requires the masks to be created anew. Although Dick’s totemistic masks and animal figures aren’t meant to be pieces of art at all and their presentation is quite unfavourable, is their colorful and magical appearance an exhileration at this dismal top-heavy documenta.
documenta 14, Beau Dick, Twenty-one masks from the series “Undersea Kingdom”
Contemporary painting is strongly underrepresented in Kassel and many of the displayed positions, such as the multicolored geometric-abstract pictures by Stanley Whitney are more decorative than profound. A real gleam of hope is the space of Swiss artist Miriam Cahn. Recurrent subjects of her work are feminism and the role of women, as well as war and fear. Probably the curators had casted her to cover the gender topic, however, Cahn’s images are too complex to be taken over by this attempt. She has installed 23 paintings in her space under the title “koennteichsein“ (“could be me”) which describe the general intelligence situation, as she calls it. Here the viewer can observe closely, how good figurative painting works, namely by using painterly means in a visually exciting contrast, such as the treatment of planes, the brush strokes and the use of color. At first glance Cahn’s images still appear easily accessible, but on closer inspection and as a synopsis they develop a disturbing impact. Her vulnerable figures appear traumatized, victims of sexual violence who are forced to roam through the garish image spaces without any protection. Cahn’s images speak to the viewer without any patronizing undertone and leave him with the unpleasant feeling that is generally so rarely evoked in Kassel.
documenta 14, Miriam Cahn, Koennteichsein
The Parthenon of Books – landmark of documenta or backdrop for social media images?
Mexican artist Guillermo Galindo focuses on the subject of the refugee crisis. Debris from broken refugee boats are hanging from the ceiling of the documenta Halle, which have been retrieved by Galindo from the Mediterranean Sea and turned into musical instruments. The hulls become sounding bodies with tightened strings in it, and wind chimes are hanging in the bows, that’s why Galindo called it “Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper“ which could be translated with “Flight Destination Europe Average Resonance Body“. Why he links these fatal boats with the poetry of music will remain his secret. Such a superficial approach doesn’t evoke any feelings with the viewer which he hadn’t known from the news already, as the fragments appear too abstract and taken out of context.
documenta 14, Guillermo Galindo, Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper
Aboubakar Fofana from Mali has been dealing with dyeing textiles with natural dyestuff for quite some time, with his main interest being the blue of indigo. His goal is to revive the lost tradition of indigo dyeing in his home country Mali. Cloth strips and garments are hanging from the ceiling of the documenta Halle like a mobile, which are dyed in twelve different tones of indigo. To protect ecology by preserving traditions is absolutely worth to be supported, but why does this need to be in an exhibition of contemporary art?
documenta 14, Aboubakar Fofana, Fundi
The landmark of this documenta is without doubt “The Parthenon of Books“ by Marta Minujín at the Friedrichsplatz, it works brilliantly as backdrop for social media images, however, on closer inspection it turns out to be a scaffolding with plastic strips the books are welded in. But the magic fades away completely considering that Marta Minujín has made this concept erected as “Tower of Babel“ already and the same parthenon 30 years ago in Argentina to celebrate the end of the dictatorship. Thus only a monumental Potemkin village remains in the end which has appropriated the Fridericianum as well.
The Fridericianum, heart of documenta, falls victim to a political gesture.
Szymczyk’s decision to leave the Fridericianum, the nucleus of the documenta, to the EMST, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, isn’t to be understood as a political gesture only, but as a challenge to documenta as an institution with its 13 previous versions as well. Thus the permanent collection of the EMST spreads out at the Fridericianum now under the pompous title “Parliament of Bodies“, without meeting the expectations on the international quality that would justify a presentation at the Holy Grail of Kassel.
documenta 14, Fridericianum
What can we really learn from Athens now? All in all the split of documenta across two cities has resulted in a logistic challenge some of the artists couldn’t cope with, with the outcome of a curatorial disaster. Often identical works by the respective artists were displayed in Athens and Kassel, and not a trace of an examination of the genius loci could be found. To present half a documenta to the crisis-stricken Greek capital which still couldn’t open its museum of contemporary art ten years after its completion for lack of money, and to draw the attention of the public to more positive topics at last, could be considered as a generous gesture if it didn’t come along with the moralizing hint at the budgetary constraints that have been enforced by the creditor country Germany. But all in all the documenta in Athens was an even bigger failure than in Kassel, where a new record number of visitors was missed by a narrow margin only. In Athens, however, after its in terms of public relations successful opening documenta soon struggled with a lack of visitors and endet without a sound, with nobody being interested in this.
The only exhibition location in Kassel, where the visitor gets the feeling of having arrived at the art of the 21st century, is the Neue Hauptpost. The abandoned brutalist industrial building with its rough charm exudes the flair which one knows from international art fairs and similar events. The visual highlight at the Neue Hauptpost is the curtain from reindeer skulls by Máret Ánne Sara to protest against the decision of the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture to cut down the reindeer population considerably. The reindeer herds are of essential importance for the Sami people, but it can be assumed that the Norwegian government put several opposed interests in consideration, unfortunately there is no information given on the reasons. Nevertheless Sara’s work works on an artistic level, as its archaic appearance appeals directly to the emotions of the viewer. In a photo documentation she shows a protest, where she had piled up 200 bloody reindeer heads, together with a historic parallel, when in North America huge buffalo herds were slaughtered and their bones processed into fertilizer or buffalo bone porcelain.
documenta 14, Máret Ánna Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi
Also Dan Peterman’s work with bags of iron ingots has a strong aesthetic effect through its simplicity and materiality. Peterman has dumped his iron ingots at several locations of documenta, for him they are a metaphor for a physical intermediate state that works like a monetary reserve. The metal changes its shape according to its use and will be remeltet after documenta. At the opposite wall Theo Eshetus has installed a video installation reusing printed banners from the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. He projects photos of faces and demonstrations onto the reproduced masks with the words Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania in order to merge times and cultures with each other. The video includes the sound installation “Atlas Radio“ which combines different text and sound fragments. The declared goal of Eshetus is to deconstruct the perception of world religions and present it in a new way.
documenta 14, Dan Peterman, Kassel Ingot Project
Propaganda and dismay art aren’t appropriate means to strike up a conversation with the viewer.
Leaving Kassel in the direction of the Wilhelmshoehe, one passes the installation by Ibrahim Mahama who has covered the two buildings of the Hessischer Verwaltungsgerichtshofs and the Sammlung des Kunsthandwerks facing each other with jute bags stitched together, thus turning them into an impressively gloomy city gate. The jute bags served the transport of cocoa, coffee beans or coal and bear the traces of their journeys round the world between developing and industrial countries. The visible marks and inscriptions on them reveal the mechanisms of the worldwide trade as an instrument of power of neo-liberalism. The principle to make things visible by covering them isn’t new of course, but it works in a contemporary way if it challenges the imagination of the viewer.
documenta 14, Ibrahim Mahama, Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030.
Unfortunately this happens only rarely at documenta 14, art that arises in the viewer’s head is consistently choked off by the numerous concept-driven works that don’t become accessible to the viewer without instruction manual. On the other hand this version of documenta exceeds by far what is bearable for the audience with its overdose of dismay art. The presentation concept also needs to be talked about, as it doesn’t meet international standards. The careless presentation makes the weakness of certain works clearly visible and prevents the stronger ones from unfolding their full potential, due to the poor exhibition design, the lousy illumination and the cheap information signs from warped cardboard that are mostly pretty big and dominant because many works are overly theoretical. A user-friendly app that guides the visitor through Kassel and provides information on the artists and their works one is searching for in vain.
Now Kassel will fall asleep again for five years, which is enough time to reflect on what went wrong this time and which conclusions should be drawn from it. Documenta as an institution will survive this unsuccessful 14th edition, but a repeated refusal of art in five years certainly wouldn’t be accepted by the disappointed audience which the association for city marketing of Kassel would feel severely. This time there is no art for Kassel that could help to continue the debate on contemporary art and to transform and upvalue the urban space of this city wiped out by war by means of its function to create identity. How important art in public space is becomes clear not only through the acquisitions of past documenta exhibitions, but also if one looks to Muenster, where the Skulptur Projekte take place every ten years, this year parallel to documenta 14 again. In Muenster it can be observed what art can bring about if it subtly refers to its environment and gives the viewer a chance to discover something new himself. Often called the little brother of documenta, the Skulptur Projekte are a much greater success in this year despite the considerably smaller budget. When the members of the documenta committee will put the award of the 15th edition in 2022 out to tender, they should let themselves be guided by the following principles: “less is more“ and “learning from Muenster“.
10.06. – 17.09.17 Kassel