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dOCUMENTA (13): The Uncommodifiable Quinquennial
Kassel Exhibition is “Emphatically For and About Artists”

By Olga Viso

“dOCUMENTA (13) is dedicated to artistic research and forms of imagination that explore commitment, matter, things, embodiment, and active living in connection with, yet not subordinated to, theory.” —Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

We’re in an age in which the proliferation of global biennial exhibitions and art fairs has, lamentably, created a culture around contemporary art where distinctions are becoming barely discernible between exhibitions (driven bycuratorial theses and historical context) and art fairs (shaped by market demand and trends in consumer consumption). dOCUMENTA (13) provides a welcome and refreshing departure.

In marked opposition to the economic forces that have dominated the contemporary landscape for more than a decade, dOCUMENTA (13) curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev offers a vision that is fiercely skeptical of the “persisting belief in economic growth,” organizing one of the most earnest and authentic surveys of contemporary art in my recent memory. Emphatically for and about artists and all forms of creative pursuit, experimentation, and inquiry, dOCUMENTA (13) affirms the valuable and necessary perspective that creative members of our society bring to life and to an understanding of our complex, multifaceted existence. It elevates artists, providing a deep and penetrating lens into the myriad things they consider, examine, and do as they respond to, reframe, and reflect on the world we inhabit and collectively create.

This sprawling survey, which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, presents work by more than 300 artists, writers, and performers as well as research by leading scientific thinkers in fields including genetics and quantum physics. Decidedly more expansive than exhibitions of past decades, the 2012 edition includes many new commissions and projects, sited both indoors and out, and spread across multiple venues throughout the city of Kassel, including the Karlsaue public park (which hosts more than 50 projects), movie theaters, museums, and historic houses. dOCUMENTA (13) also has three major satellite sites in Kabul and Bamiyan, Afghanistan; Cairo, Egypt; and Banff, Canada. The exhibition in Kassel will be on view through September 16, while the other venues will host a range of artistic retreats, lectures, screenings, seminars, exhibitions, and live performances on select dates throughout the summer.

A Broad Scope

The artist list for dOCUMENTA (13) is not comprised solely of the “usual suspects” frequently seen on the global biennial circuit, although some familiar names are present—including artists well known to Walker audiences, such as Allora & Calzadilla, Paul Chan, Sam Durant, Trisha Donnelly, Theaster Gates, Pierre Huyghe, Julie Mehretu, Pedro Reyes, Tino Sehgal, and Haegue Yang—as are a few artists from recent documentas, among them Amar Kanwar and Sanja Iveković. While this documenta does present some singular works by a number of well-known artists—Gates, Huyghe, Sehgal, and Allora & Calzadilla in particular stand out—it tends to showcase artists who are less well known and encompasses many new voices. It also focuses on individuals who have resisted easy categorization throughout their careers or positioned themselves outside the established art world—artists such as American expatriate Jimmie Durham and Los Angeles–based Llyn Foulkes. For more than five decades, Foulkes has been making large three-dimensional painted tableaux and performing a one-man show on his self-made musical “machine.” For dOCUMENTA (13), he performed during the opening weeks and presented two tableaux, one incorporating a TV set and a dead cat titled The Last Frontier (1997–2005), which depicts the United States in a state of utter devastation and decay.

dOCUMENTA (13) also includes a number of artists from the Middle East and countries in Asia not typically represented, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. There are tributes to many deceased and underrecognized artists from around the world, many of them women, including Emily Carr of Canada and Margaret Preston of Australia, and others born in the late 19th century. The show also contains artifacts from antiquity, contemporary aboriginal painting, woven tapestries, and other decorative objects of aesthetic and historical interest as well as cultural artifacts appropriated, transformed, destroyed, or “disguised” during times of war and global conflict. Experiments by DNA epigenetic theorist Alexander Tarakhovsky and quantum physicist Anton Zeilenger are also on view.

Stage, Seige, Hope, and Retreat

Christov-Bakargiev conceptualized the show from four simultaneous positions, which she describes as “phenomenal spatialities” that are interrelated and embody the conditions in which artists and thinkers find themselves “acting in the present”—being “on stage,” “under siege,” “in a state of hope,” or “on retreat.” The cities of Kassel, Kabul, Cairo, and Banff are metaphors, respectively, for these alternative positions that she seeks to continually disrupt. Primary in Christov-Bakargiev’s intent is the desire to “unfreeze” the associations between each position and place, “stressing their continual shifting.”

Her conception of dOCUMENTA (13) is further distinguished by a clear understanding of the survey’s history and context as a post–World War II phenomenon originating in Kassel. This German town northeast of Frankfurt is home to one of the first public museums and theaters in Europe, the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm, and the site of a Nazi labor camp. Since 1955, Kassel has played a role in the Germany’s postwar reconstruction. It was then that the city began to host this episodic survey of contemporary art, advancing a form of German cultural diplomacy. In the exhibition’s main space, located in the Fridericianum (documenta’s main exhibition hall), Christo-Bakargiev pays homage to the first edition of documenta and its intent by re-creating an installation by the late Spanish sculptor Julio González. It serves as a historical marker and echo, of sorts, which remind us of the intentions of an age that sought to showcase a decidedly post-1945/post–World War II view of the world and European culture.

To activate local history, Christov-Bakargiev encouraged participating artists to freely respond to the city, its resources, and its stories. Nedko Solakov created an installation inside the Brothers Grimm Museum; Mark Dion realized a commission in the Ottoneum, the city’s natural history museum; Guillermo Calzadilla and Jennifer Allora took over part of a Nazi-era bunker; Adrián Villar Rojas placed plaster and concrete sculptures throughout a terraced public garden; Theaster Gates inhabited the historic Huguenot House with artists and laborers; and Matthias Faldbakken created a temporary installation in the city’s main library amid the book stacks.

The curator also included a fountain by Kassel-based artist Horst Hoheisel, first completed in 1987. Hoheisel’s Negative Form is an “anti-monument,” a negative copy of the original fountain that was destroyed by the National Socialist Party in 1939, and which the artist literally embedded into the public square across city hall. By including the fountain, which is activated by a rush of water below ground, Christov-Bakargiev brings striking focus to this powerful public artwork—a piece that has gone relatively unnoticed by the international visitors to Kassel every five years. She drew further attention to Hoheisel’s monthly maintenance process, by adding his ritual cleanings (which he has independently financed the past 25 years) on the eleventh of each month to the dOCUMENTA (13) performance schedule. While Joseph Beuys’ more familiar participations from documentas past were not explicitly called out by the curator this year, I was decidedly more conscious of the residues of his legendary 100 lectures (one given each day of documenta) and found myself counting the now stately trees and weathering stone markers of the artist’s seminal 7000 Oaks project around Kassel’s Friedrichsplatz.

Several artists took on Kassel’s war-torn history directly, most notably Croatian artist Sanja Iveković, who was the subject of a recent survey exhibition at MOMA New York as well as a documenta 12 participant. For dOCUMENTA (13) she researched the archive of a forced labor camp near Kassel, where many eastern Europeans were detained between 1940 and 1945. The Disobedient (Reasons for Imprisonment) (2012) presents some of the disturbing and mundane reasons listed in the archive as posters sited in public places throughout Kassel. The Disobedients (The Revolutionaries), an installation in Kassel’s Neue Galerie, pays homage to familiar revolutionary figures around the world and across time who have fought oppressive regimes, often at their own demise.

Dialogue with Afghanistan and the Middle East

In the same way that Christov-Bakargiev acknowledges the show’s specificity as a survey originating in Germany and specifically taking place in Kassel, she dislocates these German and European narratives by weaving in discourses from other centers of the world in conflict, most notably in the Middle East. Afghanistan takes center stage as a place of special curatorial and artistic focus. Indeed, several artists, including Ryan Gander, Giuseppe Penone, Mario Garcia Torres, Walid Raad, and Goshka Macuga, made or performed related works in both Kassel and Afghanistan. Among the most poignant and personal reflections on Afghanistan, and Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorial theses around place, desire, and displacement, was produced by Mexican artist Mario Garcia Torres. His project was inspired by the late Italian Arte Povera artist Alighiero Boetti, whose major survey is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In this multidimensional research project, Garcia Torres seeks to find Boetti’s mythical One Hotel in Kabul to understand what it might look like and how it might function today. One Hotel, the temporary residence Boetti occupied between 1971 and 1977, was the site where many of Boetti’s embroidered maps were woven in collaboration with Afghani and Pakistani women, including his first Mappa of 1971. Legendary curator Harald Szeemann sought to include the piece in his seminal 1972 documenta, but the work was in the end not available. Boetti’s original Mappa is part of Garcia Torres’ installation 40 years later, along with Szeemann’s correspondence with Boetti and a narrated slideshow in which the artist describes his Internet and archival research into the hotel’s existence and photographic history. Garcia Torres’ poetic ruminations about place are accompanied by a series of faxed letters in which he reports his imagined journey and engages in a fictional dialogue with the late artist, who died well before the Taliban regime and US invasion of Afghanistan. Garcia Torres eventually found One Hotel. He made repairs to the site and now conducts concerts and seminars there. As Christov-Bakargiev notes, the project “illuminates the simple idea that places generate space, and is the region of the possible.” Christov-Bakargiev’s frequent reference to this project throughout the exhibition and its publication acknowledges the work of Szeemann, whose artist-centric approach to the 1972 documenta similarly redefined the landscape of contemporary art through its generous embrace of conceptually-based artistic practice.

Wael Shawky’s epic Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo is another standout work that provides perspective on Middle Eastern histories and narratives that disrupt the western, Eurocentric perspective. Completed for dOCUMENTA (13), it is one in an ongoing series of animated films by the Egyptian artist inspired by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf’s The Crusade Told Through Arab Eyes; this dramatic work is enacted by 200-year-old puppets on strings. Khaled Hourani’s installation, documenting his project Picasso in Palestine (2011), was also among the most memorable works in the exhibition. For this audacious work, the Ramallah-based artist orchestrated the successful loan of Pablo Picasso’s Buste de femme (1943) from the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, to the Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah. The painting’s presentation marked the first time that work by Picasso—an icon of modern Western art—had ever been exhibited in the West Bank. Made by during World War I at the height of the Spanish Civil War, the painting carries its own history of pain and conflict. Fascinated by the potential of the work to translate meaning in a vastly different societal context, Hourani documents the painting’s journey, the complex negotiations and processes he pursued to successfully transport and insure the work, and its presentation and reception by the public in Ramallah. He also included footage from newscasts showing the piece guarded by uniformed Palestinian guards as well as a drawing he received from an individual in a local prison for whom the work and its presence powerfully resonated, reflecting his own personal situation.

Conceptual Activism

A commitment to “conceptual activism,” Christov-Bakargiev’s term for art that involves rigorous research, staged actions, and projects that challenge institutionalized systems or cross national borders, informs many of her selections throughout dOCUMENTA (13). Another example is work by San Francisco–based artist Amy Balkin. After declaring Earth’s atmosphere public domain, she has launched a multinational petition to add it to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Balkin’s efforts reveal the complexities of collaborative and collective action against global climate change. Another project that underscores these challenges and exposes legal frameworks and systems of government, cultural patrimony, and belief is the ongoing work of Buenos Aires–based artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolás Goldberg. Since 2006, the duo has been conducting research and creating projects around multi-ton meteorites originally found in Campo del Cielo in the Chaco region of Argentina. The “cosmic alreadymades” are of cultural and spiritual significance to the region’s indigenous people. One of the largest meteors in the field, “El Chaco,” has been the subject of heated negotiation with the artists and an array of Argentinean scientists and officials who wouldn’t allow the meteor to be moved from its site and presented in Kassel. The artists hoped that El Chaco could be positioned on the Friedrichsplatz near the first and last of Beuys’ oak trees during the run of dOCUMENTA (13). Despite the negotiation’s failure, the site and foundation to support the meteor’s arrival is visible on the Friedrichsplatz and labeled as part of the exhibition.

The Embrace of Failure

Working with numerous artists to facilitate the production of adventurous new work for dOCUMENTA (13), Christov-Bakargiev created a clear atmosphere of support and production that readily allowed and embraced the possibility of failure. This is one of the most refreshing aspects of her curatorial project, and she incorporates themes of experimentation and failure literally and metaphorically throughout the exhibition. Ceal Floyer’s compelling sound piece ’Til I Get It Right (2012) on the opening floor of the Fridericianum, sets the stage for this approach. Appropriating Tammy Wynette’s famous love song, Floyer takes the title lyrics and plays it back in a seemingly endless Sisyphean loop, poignantly commenting on the “futility of trying to reach perfection as a artist.”

Floyer’s piece is adjacent to Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull) (2012), one of the most surprising and compelling works in the exhibition. Quietly filtering through the entire ground floor of the Fridericianum, it is a light blowing breeze manufactured by the artist and felt in the passageways, main thoroughfares, and open spaces of nearly empty surrounding galleries. Gander’s resistance in making a “fixed” artwork is echoed by the presentation of a letter by German artist Kai Althoff to the curator, in which he painfully articulated the reasons why he felt overwhelmed at the prospect of participating in this important global survey in an art world dominated by speed, financial success, and fueled by the economic engines of the contemporary art market.

The Exhibition “Brain”

The curator’s self-professed Rosetta Stone to unraveling some of the exhibition’s major ideas and conceptual gestures is affectionately referred to as the “brain”—a small gallery located in the center of the Fridericianum, which condenses Christov-Bakargiev’s chief “lines of thought” and captures the concurrent ambitions and modesty of the exhibition in a glassed-in microclimate. The gallery presents myriad objects from antiquity to the present, of both large and small scale (although mostly small). Their selection was inspired by the societal fascination with objects and a desire to reveal their memories and “troubled histories.” Some of the most notable and fascinating inclusions are the so-called Bactrian princesses, composite stone figures made in northern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan between 3000 and 2000 BC and a collection of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi’s vases, the subject of his creamy still-life paintings of the 1950s. The curator includes what she describes as “damaged” and “destroyed” objects by artists Gustav Metzger and Man Ray, as well as “protest” objects, such as Tamás St.Turbas’ Czechoslovak Radio 1968, a brick crudely painted to look like a transistor radio, and one of hundreds ironically confiscated by Czech police in the former Soviet bloc country during prohibition of radio use.

Among the most moving and unforgettable artifacts was a “disguised” object, one of 80 paintings in the collection of the National Gallery of Kabul that painter Mohammad Yusuf Asefi covered with unremarkable abstractions using water-soluble paint in the 1990s. His “conservation” saved these works from the conservative Taliban regime that targeted and destroyed depictions of animals and humans. Among the “innocent” objects included are selections from the 900 postcards painted by Dachau inmate Korbinian Aigner between 1913 and 1960. These formulaic illustrations depict the strains of apples and pears Aigner cultivated while imprisoned in a Nazi camp. Christov-Bakargiev pays tribute to the unlikely artist by planting an apple tree from the single surviving strain in the Karlsaue garden; a similar apple tree is dedicated in Dachau. Giuseppe Penone’s pair of boulders juxtaposed in Essere fiume 6 (1998)—one quarried by artist and the other formed naturally by the river—affirm the potency and integrity of the conceptual artistic gesture.

If I were to select one work that singularly encapsulates the complex theses and poetry of understatement that typifies dOCUMENTA (13), it would be the outdoor installation by Pierre Huyghe. The work, comprised of “alive entities and inanimate things, made and not made,” was easy to miss. In the composting area of Karlsaue Park, it is marked by a discreet label at the foot of the trail leading to a seemingly abandoned site, which was selected by the artist and barely altered. Huyghe chose to draw attention to the site’s current conditions by enacting some subtle interventions: the addition of caution tape, the frequent roaming of a groundskeeper and a dog marked by a fluorescent patch of color, plantings of marijuana and hallucinogenic specimens, an uprooted Beuys oak tree, and a swarming beehive cultivated on the head of figural sculpture.

Huyghe’s emphasis and de-emphasis of certain aspects and conditions of the site are not always clear or readily discernible. As he notes in his artist statement, the “set of operations” that occurs between found and created conditions “has no script.” There is no “choreography,” “organization,” “exhibition,” or “representation.” The existence of a system is “uncertain;” there are “rules” but not “a policy.” Relying on context and open to serendipitous juxtaposition and associative meanings that occur naturally during the course of a day and the presence of visitors, Huyghe orchestrates an experience that has the potential to feed and heighten our senses and awareness. He invites us to engage, if we so desire, in the same processes of examination and discovery that artists do when surveying and responding creatively to the conditions of our existence; he offers fertile ground for creative inquiry and experimentation.

In this way, Huyghe’s project serves as a metaphor for the entire exhibition and Christov-Bakargiev’s subtle yet potent curatorial orchestration. Her approach is distinguished by a deep and abiding respect for artists and their individual processes and a commitment to providing generous frameworks of support, frameworks not seen and easily sustained in a success-driven, economically motivated culture. This is what makes dOCUMENTA (13) so refreshing; while everything in the exhibition may not “succeed” and is largely uncommodifiable, what does succeed is the generative culture of expression and iteration that is modeled and privileged.

I spent three days in July roaming through the myriad exhibition sites in Kassel, taking in and processing what this thoughtful and at times unexpected assembly of artistic projects and objects might say about contemporary culture and our time as well as the places I know, thought I knew (like Kassel), and clearly don’t know. Mindful of the fact that I would never see key aspects of the exhibition in Afghanistan, Canada, and Egypt, I was both humbled and heartened by the possibility and impossibility of experiencing and knowing these locales. Yet it is through the works of artists, and their thoughtful presentation in forums like this, that lenses to knowledge and experience and other “phenomenal spatialities” are possible. This exhibition restored my faith in the power of contemporary art to reflect and shape our understanding of the world. It boldly affirms the important role that artists serve in society and underscores the freedoms they should be afforded each and every day. Artists must exist and operate freely outside of dogma and the dogmatic, which is why we need them to feel free, supported, and empowered to do so, everywhere.


Olga Viso is executive director of the Walker Art Center. dOCUMENTA (13) is on view through September 16, 2012.

Sam Durant, Scaffold

Photo: Olga Viso

Theaster Gates, 12 Ballads for the Huguenot House (detail)

Photo: Olga Viso

Theaster Gates, 12 Ballads for the Huguenot House (detail)

Photo: Olga Viso

Pedro Reyes, Sanatorium

Photo: Olga Viso

Haegue Yang, Approaching. Choreography Engineered in Never-Past Tense

Photo: Olga Viso

Adrián Villar Rojas, Return the World (detail)

Photo: Olga Viso

Adrián Villar Rojas, Return the World (detail)

Horst Hoheisel, Negative Form, 1987

Matias Faldbakken, Untitled (Book Sculpture)

Massimo Bartolini, Untitled (Wave)

Photo: Olga Viso

Giuseppe Penone, Idee di pietra

Song Dong, Doing Nothing Garden

Song Dong, Doing Nothing Garden (detail, showing neon signs of the words “Doing” and “Nothing” in Chinese)

Photo: Olga Viso

Ryan Gander, I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull)

Geoffrey Farmer, Leaves of Grass

Photo: Olga Viso

Pierre Huyghe, Untilled