Documenta has never been a cheery affair. The citywide, twice-a-decade art exhibition was launched to lift the spirits of a German town laid waste by Allied air raids on Kassel during World War II. The first Documenta in 1955 reintroduced Nazi-banned “degenerate art,” while the latest edition, June 9-Sept. 16, 2012, gathers 150 artists to look at other “moments of trauma, at turning points, accidents, catastrophes, crises -- events that mark moments when the world changes.”
That’s putting it mildly. This 13th Documenta invokes ruin so persistently -- from Kassel to Kabul -- that not even the press preview proceeded without combat.
On a cold, rainy Wednesday, artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev deflected a surprising fusillade of Q&A-period insults. One man took the mic to challenge her inclusion of scientists, farmers and other non-artists in the exhibition -- did she want to attract visitors as “uneducated and confused as you are?” Someone else suggested that organizers were pandering to cell-phone companies by promoting the mobile map app dMap. Another attendee stood up to wonder why Christov-Bakargiev included “like 19 images” of herself in the press kit, making the exhibition “all about yourself” (to which someone in the audience objected, “Bullshit!”).
Yet the most heated exchange came from a commenter who accused Christov-Bakargiev of colonialist intentions for considering Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolas Goldberg’s controversial proposal to transport a 37-ton, 4,000-year-old meterorite from aboriginal land in Argentina to Kassel. “It was a fragile political situation and it was completely ignored,” he said. “That’s why we criticize Documenta and yourself.”
Christov-Bakargiev, who had mentioned earlier that she agreed with local opponents and ultimately abandoned the plan, replied, “Thank you for reading that question from your iPhone. I addressed this very carefully at the beginning so I urge you to get a copy of the lecture.”
And, with that, Documenta 13 was off. The journalists were sent out into the cold to visit the two-dozen venues filled with hundreds of artworks, few of which offered much comfort in their overwhelming, at times crushing, concentration on destruction.
One can take a tour through seemingly every major conflict in history at the main Fridericianum Museum alone. There’s Vandy Rattana’s photograph of a “bomb pond” in Phnom Penh; a Hannah Ryggen tapestry of Musssolini getting his head speared off by an Ethiopian; an array of Bronze Age artifacts damaged during the Lebanese civil wars; Vann Nath’s painting of Khmer Rouge soldiers torturing a Cambodian prisoner; a video taken by Ahmed Basiony just before he was shot to death in the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising; and, of course, Germany’s own dark past is interrogated by dozens of artists, including Man Ray, Lee Miller and even by a feature in the 1944 issue of British Vogue on Hitler’s home decor.
The neoclassical Fridericianum is one of the few buildings renovated after the bombings, and French-Algerian artist Kader Attia mirrored his own vision of postwar repair in one of its rooms. He stocked a maze of steel shelving units with vintage colonialist texts and African wood-carved busts bearing disfigured faces. Viewers who wind through the aisles to the end encounter a final twist: a slideshow of grossly injured World War I soldiers, revealing Attia’s weird reversal of history in which the traditional African figures echo the shattered faces of European white men.
Even those projects that weren’t outwardly despondent at least tended to invoke a healthy malaise. The ground floor of the Fridericianum was mostly empty, with a large section devoted to Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise, an “installation” constructed of thin air. And, outside, just past the Grimm Brothers Museum, in Karlsaue Park, Chinese conceptualist Song Dong constructed the Doing Nothing Garden, a sizeable, lumpy hillock planted with foliage and yard-sign-like yellow Chinese characters that can be translated in many ways, but more or less describe the act of doing nothing.
“I asked what [Christov-Bakargiev’s] concept was, and she said, ‘I have no concept,’” he said. “I said, ‘Great,’ if no concept is your concept I will do nothing.”
Over at Documenta Halle, the bright colors alone in Lebanese painter Etel Adnan’s abstract landscapes are enough to jar the heart momentarily free. The small canvases burst with innocent oceans and pink suns, but even those turn out to be, according to the wall text, “shaped by the displacement and the trauma of the Lebanese civil wars.”
And what could be wrong with those hundreds of apple still-lifes lining two of the hall’s walls? Well, the artist, Bavarian gardener Korbinian Aigner, drew them all in a concentration camp dedicated to pharmaceutical research. He had been assigned the task of developing new varieties of apples.
Another work in the paradoxically feel-good category is artist-activist Robin Kahn’s camp for women refugees from the Western Sahara. Kahn visited the women in Algeria, where they’d fled the Moroccan civil war, and found that “they were the strongest people I’d ever met,” she said, and “they used the weapon of hospitality” to survive. She wanted to share their culture and stories with Kassel, so visitors who enter the makeshift camp in the park are immediately offered a bowl of couscous by a woman with flame-singed fingers and then ushered under the tarp tent to eat with other Sahrawi women.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s impossible to see all of the venues, or even half, in just one day -- and you may already leave with a bit of damage.
At least you can’t criticize Christov-Bakargiev for not suffering a little herself. In recent iterations, Documenta has set up exhibition outposts and curator “retreats” around the world, more than once in cushy resort towns. But this year’s series of global “Positions,” as they’re being called, take place in Kabul and Bamiyan, Afghanistan, Cairo and, for that luxury destination, Banff, Canada.