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Documenta 13

by Emily Nathan
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Visitors to the German town of Kassel for Documenta 13, June 9-Sept. 12, 2012, are advised to rent a bike. Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s 13th edition of the 150-day-long global art quinquennial is bigger than ever, occupying the idyllic acreage of Karlsaue Park, a handful of enormous exhibition hubs including the Natural History Museum, the main train station and the Fridericianum, and a smattering of quirky “off-site” venues, from a brick bomb shelter built into the side of a highway to a downtown department store. Getting lost is part of the game -- so why not do it with the wind at your back?

Considering its size and multinational profile, it’s no surprise that Documenta 13 resists easy categorization. Sprawling, unfocused, at turns ironic and earnest, ultimately it offers a delightfully dynamic viewing experience -- and a triumph of “relational esthetics.” “Living artworks” abound, in which an artist produces not an art object but rather “a space for dialogue” or other audience participation. Projects are physically integrated into the infrastructure of the city, spilling out onto the streets or popping up in a residential courtyard. And while many works are political, addressing the power relations involved in colonization and war, they often focus on education or empowerment rather than simple denunciations of oppression.

The show’s schizophrenic character is no accident, according to Christov-Bakargiev, who told a hall of note-scribbling journalists at the June 6 press conference that she did not expect Documenta to appear “in sync or in harmony.” Dissonance, contradiction and failure, rather -- failure to summarize, to resolve and to satisfy multiple parties, perspectives or ideologies at once -- are part of Documenta’s framework, especially in the contemporary era (last time around, curator Roger Buergel refused to even admit to having a curatorial point of view).

But plenty of invigorating art is on hand nevertheless. It doesn’t hurt to begin in Karlsaue Park, where some 40 projects have set up camp in custom-built wooden shacks scattered among grassy knolls along winding dirt paths. There, sprouting from an expanse of sunny lawn, is Giuseppe Penone’s Idee di pietra (Ideas of Stone) (2003 / 2008 / 2012). Installed by Bakargiev as Documenta 13’s inaugural artwork in 2010, this realist sculpture of a winter tree whose barren branches hold aloft an impossibly heavy boulder is in fact made from bronze. It’s a vision of unexpected strength in the face of seemingly crushing opposition, an arboreal David and Goliath.

Vitality is echoed in a project installed nearby. The Art of Sahrawi Cooking is produced by New York-based artist Robin Kahn with the National Union of Women from Western Sahara, and it features a tent that simulates the Algerian camps of displaced Western Sarhara refugee women. These refugees frequently transform their own mud huts into centers of hospitality and nourishment despite their own deprivation, and for Kahn’s project, a handful of actual refugees offer the same generosity -- glasses of mint tea, bowls of vegetable couscous, a soft place to sit -- to visitors who remove their shoes and enter. A series of wall texts outside detail the region’s history of colonial manipulation, but the space inside the tent is dominated by these women’s vitality and warmth, a platform for cultural exchange and co-existence rather than victimization.

Underrepresented populations are the subject of other projects located in the park in well. Senegalese artist Issa Samb’s installation, La Balance desequilibre (Out of Balance), incorporates traditional African dolls hanging from the branches of a tree surrounded by piles of burned books and treasure chests collaged with images of Western Africa’s post-colonial inheritance, from beer bottle caps to glossy magazine advertisements for European beauty projects. At intermittent moments throughout the day, a man dressed in traditional African garb paces the site, recounting his country’s past in French, dappling it with exclamations of “Sahara libre!” -- free Sahara -- and reclaiming the right to recount his own story.

A similar act of transformation takes place inside the Neue Galerie, where Sanja Ivekovic’s The Disobedients (The Revolutionaries), aligns the donkey, a symbol of the poor and the disenfranchised -- the proletariat -- with some of history’s most progressive thinkers. Inspired by an old black-and-white photograph in which a Nazi traps a donkey inside a barbed wire fence as a warning to “stubborn citizens,” Ivekovic’s installation includes a large glass vitrine that displays some 50 stuffed-toy donkeys, all of them old and worn. Each one sits behind a card inscribed with the name of a revolutionary historic figure, from Martin Luther King to Walter Benjamin. Collapsing the image of the lowly ass with the courage and conviction of history’s great minds who dared to think against the grain, Ivekovic suggests that it is from low down, in the dirt, that important changes begin.

Other projects offer services in the place of the art object, and these are often tongue-in-cheek responses to the conditions of contemporary life. Australian artist Stuart Ringholt’s Anger Workshops (2008 / 2012) invites interested parties to sign up for a series of free 30-minute “neuro-cardio workshops” that teach methods for expressing frustration in “kinder ways.” As a video installed inside makes clear, techniques include standing face-to-face with a stranger and screaming at the top of your lungs. At least it’s less expensive than divorce.

Dogs need to let off steam, too. But they won’t find liberation in Canadian artist Brian Jungen’s Dog Run -- a large, fenced-in space that would be perfect for running wild, were it not outfitted with a series of exquisitely produced obstacle courses. While inside, dogs are encouraged to perform for an audience; even their space of freedom has been transformed into a stage. Sound familiar? If so, head over to Pedro ReyesSanatorium, where visitors can procure cures for generalized modern malaise. Therapies are “not necessarily problem-centered” but are healing nonetheless, and draw from the dual histories of art and psychology, including “theater warm-up exercises, Fluxus events, conflict resolution techniques, shamanism and hypnosis.”

Also on the roster are installations that emphasize the importance of sustainable practices like food cultivation. The art collective AND AND AND has partnered with local farmers to install a small vegetable market and bakery on Karlsaue Park’s grounds, while elsewhere in the city they have created a small gym. Swiss artist Christian Philipp Muller’s Swiss Chard Ferry (The Russians aren’t going to make it across the Fulda anymore) (2012), is a series of long narrow boats that stretch across a stream in the park like a bridge -- people step down into them in order to cross the water -- and are filled with potted soil beds of leafy Swiss chard.

Inside the Neue Galerie, commonality is expressed through song in Susan Hiller’s 100 Songs for 100 Days of DOCUMENTA 13. In a high-ceilinged white room filled with benches and headphones, visitors are invited to play music from a jukebox. The available selections all express various cultures’ triumphs and tribulations, from the French national anthem to Arab pop and the American blues, and each is projected over the loudspeaker in the gallery as well as in the headphones. Human history is diverse but shared, it seems to say.

Indeed, Documenta was founded in the name of reparation, and its weighty past is an ongoing part of its legacy -- how to engage with its own history while looking forward and keeping things fresh? Preserving the tension between the archival and the contemporary, many living artists included in the show this year have chosen to “reactivate” pages from the annals of history, imbuing old spaces or objects with new life. On the north side of town, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates has moved in to a decaying historic building called the Huguenot Haus with members of his studio team and his band. Using wood he salvaged from a Chicago building, Gates has built a new structure in and onto the existing architecture, as if to link his own subjective existence to a German past.  The team is living and working there throughout Documenta, cooking, building and playing music, and the old walls are literally alive with contemporary energy even while history is preserved within and by them.

As Christov-Bakargiev declared at the press conference, “The riddle of art is that we do not know what it is, until it is no longer that which it was. This is in part to say that it is defined by what it fails to achieve.” Documenta 13 is an ambitious, exhausting, inconsistent exhibition, and if it fails to come together seamlessly, it certainly feels alive -- which doesn’t seem like a failure at all.

Documenta 13, June 6-Sept. 12, 2012, locations all over Kassel, Germany.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email