Two days at dOCUMENTA (13) felt like an infinitely brief but massively dense instant. On the train ride from Berlin, I wound up like a spring; when I hit the Wilhemshöhe Bahnhof at 1pm on Friday, I started running.
This, I know, is no way to take in art—as I was continually reminded by pieces that refused my impatience, chiding me back into a more considerate stance. The first such encounter was really outside dOCUMENTA proper, though it may as well have been considered an artwork “Off the Main Sites.” This was meeting my host, Martin Hering, a resident of Kassel, a schoolteacher of small children, and a wildly enthusiastic art aficionado whose kindness detained me for what felt like ages but couldn’t have been above a half-hour as he described the things I must see at dOCUMENTA (13), and who returned the time by driving me down to the old Hauptbahnhof to start my afternoon.
On the way down, Martin described for me the historical background of dOCUMENTA: The art fair was started in 1955 by Arnold Bode as a forum for bringing together and exhibiting in Germany what the Nazi party had suppressed in the ’30s and ’40s as “degenerate art.” At first held once every four years, and later once every five years, dOCUMENTA always lasts 100 days, transforming the small city of Kassel for this duration into an international contemporary art festival of worldwide repute. This year’s dOCUMENTA was directed by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, former senior curator of MoMA PS1, and it drew its intellectual, political, and aesthetic foundations from Christov-Bakargiev’s interest in Italian Arte Povera, as from a deep awareness of global ecological, humanitarian, and financial crises, from the ruins such crises produce, and what we do with them.
The old Hauptbahnhof was a good place to start to get a sense of the festival as a coherent piece. It used to be Kassel’s main train station until 1991 when the Wilhemshöhe station overtook that function. The Hauptbahnhof was built in the 1850s but was totally destroyed, along with most of Kassel, from aerial strikes during World War II, and it now sports a fairly plain, unattractively modern interior. As the dOCUMENTA catalogue informs: “Today, it is only a local commuter station, and large parts stand empty or are used for new purposes.”1 Also significant to the curation—to its engagement of the weighty themes of social tragedy, historic injustice and ruins—was the fact that the old Hauptbahnhof was a major location from which Jews were deported to concentration camps during the Second World War. If the rotunda in the Fridericianum was known as “the brain” of the exhibit (it housed an array of artifacts and artworks “brought together in lieu of a concept” in an effort to create a miniaturized exhibition “that condenses and centers the thought lines of dOCUMENTA (13)”2), I’d like to think of the Hauptbahnhof as the lungs and throat: With the long Northern and Southern wings it was shaped a bit this way, and with Cardiff and Miller’s Alter Bahnhof Video Walk, Susan Philipsz’s Klangtest / Soundtest, and the Friday night poetry readings in the Offener Kanal Café on the second floor, the Hauptbahnhof was filled with voices.
Alter Bahnhof Video Walk by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: The first piece I committed to at the Hauptbahnhof I would never have had the patience to wait for had it not been for the lessons in graciousness I’d so recently been given by Mr. Hering, and for his very sincere endorsement of the work. Not a few times while standing in the crawlingly long line (I’d been warned: you’ll wait for an hour and then it takes a half hour) I thought about leaving. I was told by Mr. Hering that I’d trade my passport for an ipod and headset so I could watch a short movie and partake in some sort of performance. As visitors wandered by the line, gazes glued to the ipods, I couldn’t tell from their deadpan expressions whether they were immersed, skeptical, or bored. I felt like asking a woman who had just returned her set whether it was worth the wait, but not speaking much German, I figured it was better to just bear with it. I read a poem or two out of a copy of Pelt I’d brought with me, I looked at the dOCUMENTA map, reviewing the names of artists, waited a little longer, watched the couple in front of me necking while sharing a Whopper, thought about Janet Cardiff’s piece at MoMA PS1 and wondered how this one would relate; eventually, I got to the front of the line.
At the front desk I had to wait just a little longer—the batteries on the returned ipods needed charging. Finally, I got my set and went out to the bench as the gallery attendant instructed and hit play. “I’m sitting here right now with you in the train station at Kassel,” Cardiff intoned in an intimate monotone. We were watching people walk by as she described them. The video on my ipod was shot from this very spot in the same direction I faced, so I could watch the video and the station simultaneously and have the same “picture.” “Try to align your movements with mine,” Cardiff instructed, “Move your screen up to the left as I do… Let’s get up.”
I was holding the ipod before me, out a little ways trying to match the video as best I could with my field of vision. If you’ve ever taken a depth perception test, you’ll recall how when you hold your index finger in front of an image, such as a circle, and then focus on the circle, it appears as one image between two images of your finger on the right and left; then, when you focus on your finger, the circle becomes two and your index finger one. With the ipod out in front of me, something similar was happening between the video and the space I was inhabiting. They began to overlap, to meld and then separate. Sometimes it seemed the images in the space around me were taking place in the video, sometimes the images in the video seemed to pass into my present space.
A small band appeared, walking through the station, playing instruments and singing—and a dancer, a ballerina, in fact. They were weaving through the line where people stood waiting. A blind man passed by the dancer and she seemed to engage him in her performance; but then, no, he was really here I realized, in the same space as myself. The use of sound in Cardiff and Miller’s piece contributed powerfully to the confusion between what was around me in space and what was in front of me in the video. It might have been possible to dismiss the work as gimmick, as hoax, if it hadn’t been done so very well, and if it hadn’t been so candid in its attitude—not at all meant to trick the viewer but to experiment, perhaps, with getting its participants into a flexible frame of mind, to play with “perspective” like an anamorphic painting, still Baroque in its melancholy manner, but strikingly contemporary in its technique, or technology.
In the middle of the piece the low battery sign flashed on. I was quickly irritated, wishing the attendants would have properly charged the ipod before sending me on this trip. I was already 10 minutes into the piece and I was spellbound. Now the battery was going to fail and the illusionism along with it. Of course, when the power did fail and the screen went black, Cardiff’s voice talked me through as she changed the battery. She told me to sit for a moment at the café table ahead of me. I waited again, this time giving up control over my experience, realizing that I didn’t know what was happening and that I couldn’t properly anticipate anything.
The piece closed with a dance choreographed and performed by Laurie Young and Grayson Millwood: a wrenching, massy, soporific dance that lulled me back into Kassel, 14th of September, 14:30 o’clock. I still don’t know whether the attendants were really charging my ipod at the start, or whether this was a part of the performance.3
Into the Southern wing of the Hauptbahnof, where a few remarkable pieces by Seth Price, Tejal Shah, Jessica Warboys, and Bani Abidi stood out even amongst a group of otherwise strong works. Abidi’s Death at a 30 Degree Angle was particularly compelling with its intelligent use of space and materials: three related video projections thrown onto overlapping plywood planks subtly painted in patches of grays and purples, freestanding at a roughly 30 degree angle to the wall, with materials from the video such as plaster, paint, wooden beams, a ladder, and large sheets of plastic, filling the space of the room. The texture and depth of the video on its odd support played against the humorous subject of the film, which was the story of an egotistical minor political official commissioning a statue of himself.
In the Northern wing of the Hauptbahnhof, István Csákány’s Monument for a Monument, Haegue Yang’s Approaching: Choreography Engineered in Never-Past Tense, and Lara Favaretto’s Momentary Monument IV were all extremely intelligent, delicate, and sometimes humorous works. Csákány’s piece, consisting of a carved wooden replica of a section of a garment worker’s factory—sewing machines with their complicated spindles, spools, levers, pedals, wires and all, stools, mannequins for fitting, light fixtures, and so on, were lined up in two rows on an elevated platform also constructed of pine. Adjoined to this on one side was a third row of phantasmically empty blue-black suits, modeling in various positions, and all very finely patterned and sewn. Yang’s Approaching: Choreography Engineered in Never-Past Tense consisted in a number of mechanic venetian blinds installed above an empty train track, performing a slow, intermittent, motorized dance: extending, retracting, flicking open then shut. At 3 o’clock when I caught the piece, the light was just such that when the blinds flicked open they would fling the sun against the walls and floor of the platform. Favaretto’s Momentary Monument IV utilized 400 tons of scrapmetal—including a coal car—dumped on site over disused train tracks in the most painterly heaps of shape and color conceivable. Blue lights touched down on certain spots of plant matter and metal, and where nine items had been removed from the yard to a small gallery room inside the Northern wing, roughly equivalent concrete shapes filled their places and added again to the sense of balance throughout. For lack of better vocabulary, I would refer to the piece as a “landscape”—a kind of literalization of the surface of a landscape painting into landscape itself—rather than sculpture or installation.
Leaving the Hauptbahnhof and after taking a short detour into Cevdet Erek’s Room of Rhythms housed in stripped space inside a shopping mall, I spent the rest of the day at the Fridericianum. Though I won’t go into detail about all that impressed me there, I can’t help but mention the moving collection of Korbinian Aigner’s apple studies, Hannah Ryggen’s tapestries, and Charlotte Salomon’s gouaches for Leben? oder Theater?—all of whom could be considered non-traditional artists, and all of whom have passed (Solomon died in Auschwitz in 1943, Aigner, imprisoned in Dachau during WWII died in 1966, Ryggen died 1970), created works whose simplicity and directness felt strangely like an appeal, though to what exactly I know not.
There was much more worth mentioning here, and many works that I didn’t have the chance to “see” (some because of time constraints, while others, like Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize [The Invisible Pull], because it was a variable breeze that filled the first floor of the Fridericianum). But after 8pm when the doors to the galleries closed, it was off to dinner, followed by a poetry reading by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Jimmie Durham at the Offener Kanal Café in the Hauptbahnhof. Here, every Friday night for the duration of dOCUMENTA (13), poetry readings followed by an open mic had been taking place from 11pm to 1am, and this was the last one on the last weekend of the event.Durham led with a few short poems and Christov-Bakargiev followed with a selection of her poetry spanning from 1970 to the present. Hesitant but playful; at once disavowing (she dismissed her early poems as juvenalia and confessed herself not really a poet) and still owning up to what she had produced in writing, in life, (when she read, it was with easefulness and conviction), Christov-Bakargiev struck me as a very unpretentious person. The scheduled readings were followed by an open mic, and the atmosphere was one of friends among friends—people who had spent the last ninety-eight days together, and who were still glad to have another two left.
1DOCUMENTA (13): Das Begleitbuch/The Guidebook. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantze Verlag, 2012, p.111.
2DOCUMENTA (13): Das Begleitbuch/The Guidebook. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantze Verlag, 2012, p.25.
3Disclosure: After discussing the piece with a friend who had seen it earlier in the year, and mid-week, the battery charging was not an elaborate ruse, for which I’m thankful. Also, originally only two people were to do the walk at any given time, and it was timed so that in the beginning, from the bench, Cardiff would tell you to look up to the windows on the second floor at the person looking down on you, and someone on the walk a few minutes ahead would be looking down from that spot. In turn, you would become the person looking down on another who had started the walk a few minutes after you. When I did the walk on a Friday on the last week of dOCUMENTA, many more than two people were out at once, probably because of the long lines to see the piece. Because of that, this aspect of the piece was partially eclipsed for me.
*Part II is forthcoming on mostperfectworld