Report: documenta 14 in Kassel
documenta 14, Kassel (10 June–17 September 2017). Courtesy Ocula. Photo: Charles Roussel.
Two women are next to each other in the intimacy of a bedroom. The elder is in a wheelchair, whereas the younger sits, holding a glass in her hands, on a bed covered with beautifully patterned blankets. The two women, whose gentle faces look alike, chat tenderly while exchanging caresses, their eyes full of life, of joy and sadness. They are mother and daughter, and their intimacy is as tender and innocent as it is too close for comfort. They are artists Elisabeth Wild and Vivian Suter captured, in their daily life, by the contemplative eye of Rosalind Nashashibi's camera in her poetic documentary Vivian's Garden (2017), a 30-minute film on the two artists of Swiss-Austrian origin who have being living and working for more than 30 years in Panajachel, Guatemala. This is the portrait of two women, mother and daughter, who seem to have formed a trans-generational alliance through their shared joy, pain, displacement, love, disappointment, silences, violence, solitude, passion for the natural environment and artistic practices. You might be wondering why I am telling you this. This is how documenta 14 feels: like a space of entangled existences and relationships, at the same time emotional, poetic, historical, political, and aesthetic, as well as profoundly existential. This entanglement (of spaces, bodies, languages, histories, materials and affects) can be experienced as much at the level of the individual works as in the way the works, spread across the city of Kassel, resonate with one another.
'An exhibition in two acts', documenta 14 has for the first time taken place in two cities: Kassel and Athens. Entitled Learning from Athens, the exhibition opened first in Athens on 8 April and then in Kassel on 10 June. The Kassel iteration unfolds across the city in 32 venues including the former underground train station (now renamed KulturBahnhof); a former post office and mail distribution centre renamed the Neue Neue Galerie by the documenta 14 curators; a defunct tofu factory; university locations; historical venues such as the Hessisches Landesmuseum (dedicated to preserve regional identity and one of the few buildings which survived the complete bombing of the city); or the Fridericianum, Neue Galerie and Palais Bellevue, among others. In the Glass Pavilions on Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse, which used to house commercial outlets, Mounira Al Solh has transformed one of the abandoned shops into a recreated bakery called Nassib's Bakery (2017). A wall text in the space explains that the original Beirut bakery, owned by her father, became an important provider of bread during civil war in Lebanon. Here in Kassel, the bakery, which will start baking bread in September, hosts a series of portraits (visual and written) of Middle Eastern and North African migrants and refugees awaiting European citizenship (I Strongly Believe in Our Right to Be Frivolous ). Since 2012, Al Solh has collected these stories of war, displacement, death and forced migration. In between personal account and legal testimony, the stories are humorous and tragic, poetic and raw.
An obelisk—dedicated to the many refugees escaping war, famine and destruction, and who made a long journey to Germany—has appeared in Königsplatz. Engraved on each side in English, Arabic, German and Turkish is a line from the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in the Book of Matthew, which reads: 'I was a stranger and you took me in', (Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument [Monument for strangers and refugees] ). It's a work by artist, writer, curator, musician, and poet Olu Oguibe. In his work, Oguibe, who has been awarded the Arnold Bode Prize 2017, has been exploring questions of identity, land, voice, loss, and in particular the loss of language as part of the post-colonial condition. During a book launch of another artist in the show, Hiwa K, curator-at-large Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung read one of Oguibe's poems, I am Bound to this Land by Blood (2013). A line in the poem reads: 'I have cried so often with broken men/And peered into a million faces blank/Faces without bodies bodies without faces'. How do you keep the memories of those faces without bodies and bodies without faces alive? How do you revolt against oblivion? For his work Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper (2017) in documenta Halle, the venue which hosts many of the music-related works, composer and visual artist Guillermo Galindo has created musical instruments from the remains of fibreglass and wooden boats, lifebelts and paddles, goatskin, metal tubes, elastic bands, scrap metal and other materials from the Greek island of Lesbos, where millions of stranded refugees wait to know their destiny. He composed a series of 'odes for border crossers', from his series 'Exit/ έξοδος' (2016–17) (the scores, painted with acrylic on fabric, are visible at Palace Bellevue) to be played on these instruments. During the opening days, Galindo performed these scores in an immersive and deeply moving music performance, which felt like an invocation of the absent presence of those unknown travellers, their voices, cries and screams. Similarly evocative is the work of New Delhi-born artist Nilima Sheikh, Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind (2016–17). Consisting of 16 tempera paintings representing figures moving across the landscape and painted quotations from medieval Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded, Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and American poet Emily Dickinson among others, the work feels like a disarming and passionate lament that speaks of human journeys, pain, belonging, and exile.
The exhibition attempts to look at the way in which artists have addressed, in and through their works, colonial violence and histories of dispossession through depictions of daily violence, pain, and not least resistance. In particular, the monstrosity of Nazism and the violence of colonial power is most directly addressed at the Neue Galerie. For example, the series of ink-on-paper drawings by Chittaprosad Bhattacharya which shows scenes from the Bengal Famine of 1943–44; or the history of dispossession of Congolese people as narrated by artist Sammy Baloji, through the stories of a series of seven mats of raffia fibers stolen from Congo and now part of museum collections around the world, in Fragments of Interlaced Dialogues (2017); Maria Eichhorn's interdisciplinary project that documents Nazi looting of goods, cultural artefacts and property; or again the drawings from the series Deportations (1940) and Cheap as Mud (1944), which refer to the mass deportation of Polish Jews, by Polish avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński. In these drawings, the human figure is alluded to; it disappears and reappears following the rhythmic rising and falls of the pencil line. The body is a trace left on a piece of paper, a blurry memory. Strzemiński depicts the drama of the war and the violence of deportation in the guise of a body that has lost its solidity. Bodies deprived of their humanity, while the body-politic falls apart, disintegrated by war and destruction.
Modern history is a history of bodies: enslaved, subjugated, exploited, commodified, celebrated, or in transit. In his essay for the reader, Paul B Preciado asks, 'When can a body be said to exist? What counts as a body? If existence is everything that exceeds property, when can a body be said to exist?' Artist Georgia Sagri explores the limits of the body in the exercise of endurance, Dynamis (2017), simultaneously presented in Athens and Kassel. The work is comprised of 28 coloured sculptures resembling body organs and ten 'breathing scores' performed by Sagri and ten other dancers who have been living in the exhibition space for a week, during which they have performed day and night, inside and outside the space of the glass pavilion. The weeklong breathing exercise culminated in a ritual procession to carry the organs to different locations across the city.
A concern with the representation of the body rooted in feminist tradition informs Miriam Cahn's paintings. Exhibited in the documenta Halle, her dreamy paintings are enigmatic portraits of naked bodies against abstract backgrounds. These bodies have exaggerated genitals, blood flooding out of their orifices, open arms, clutched fists, organs which look like weapons. These bodies seem to simultaneously express the joy of the flesh and the violence of being an object. They exist in a space in between sensuality and shamefulness; between violence and pleasure, between freedom and subjugation. The body becomes a prison, a space of political and cultural conflict, and a place of embodied resistance. Here the grotesque body becomes a weapon to resist hetero-normative fantasies. Similarly, in her video works exhibited in the spaces of the Neue Galerie under the title WhoreMoans: An Uncivil Memoir Of A Rough Ride (2017), the South African artist and activist Tracey Rose messes with the protocols of hetero-normativity and the colonial representation of the black female body. Her razor-sharp sense of humour enables reality in a surreal and sensual dimension. Cleopatra was a Black Bitch (2017), for instance, is a pantomime in which Rose herself plays a queer, contemporary version of Cleopatra. In her text on Rose's work available on documenta's website, Nana Oforiatta Ayim writes that Rose's art speaks of 'the shaman, the alchemist, the revealer of wounds, the reorderer of worlds.' Indeed, if the past cannot be changed, and the present is what it is, how do we heal the wound of the past and rethink our present? One way is, as Rose's work shows, to laugh so hard that eventually laughing becomes not only an act of feminist subversion, but also of healing and reparation. documenta 14 seems to suggest that art could be a space where healing and reparation might be performed. In her contribution to South, the documenta 14 magazine, poet, activist and artist Cecilia Vicuña—who is also showing work as part of documenta 14—writes: 'I see the poet/translator as the person who goes into the dark, seeking the "other" in him/herself, what we don't wish to see, as if this act could reveal what the world keeps hidden.'
I understand this going into the dark and unknown as a process of learning from each other and together. This is what documenta 14, in its different iterations—as an exhibition, a school, a parliament, a publication, a public space, a radio, a TV, and a series of performative interventions (the different elements of the project cannot be thought of separately)—is: a series of spaces of learning, rather than a place in which to assert artistic and curatorial positions. Not to say that the artists or curators do not have a position vis-à-vis the complex political, economic and social reality we live in. Quite the contrary. But, a learning process requires openness, alertness, emotional investment, love, commitment and a willingness to listen, rather than to claim a territory or produce an ideology that can then be celebrated or dismissed by critics and curators alike. There are as many conceptual threads as there are positions and voices that shape the very fabric of documenta 14. There are contradictions too. But no attempt seems to have been made to solve them, and rightly so. The curators seem to trust the audience to handle this collective articulation of their positions as a contribution to a mutual effort to define what art as a space of learning can be.
Admittedly, there are grounds for criticising this documenta 14. For instance, its lack of contextualising information, a clear map of the exhibition venues, or the disputable choice of the title Learning from Athens which has raised, especially in Athens, enormous expectations. However, I am often struck upon hearing colleagues complaining about the lack of a strong curatorial statement or thread that would put everything into the right box and hence into the right perspective. As a friend recently commented, 'Perspective is for shooting people'. I suspect he is right. Indeed, this documenta does not suggest one perspective; it has evolved over time, opening itself up to the multiple and entangled relationships that form the world we live in. Now, it asks us, the audience, to engage actively in a horizontal process of learning (or unlearning) which involves all of us audiences, curators, artists, critics, editors, and artistic director equally. This shift from vertical to a horizontal learning seems to be at the crux of the documenta project. If this documenta is something to stand by, it is because it takes the risk of becoming something more than an exhibition in its attempt to enter the messiness of the world, and stay with the troubles.—[O]