Push­ing the Bound­aries

Doc­u­menta is one of the art world’s most an­tic­i­pated and provoca­tive events. Mar­i­anna Cerini finds out what all the fuss is about

Hong Kong Tatler - - July -

Doc­u­menta is one of the art world’s most an­tic­i­pated and provoca­tive events. We dis­cover what all the fuss is about

Try­ing to breach the de­fen­sive PR wall of Ger­many’s big­gest con­tem­po­rary art show feels like an im­pos­si­ble task. Ef­forts to ar­range an in­ter­view with the artis­tic direc­tor of Doc­u­menta 14, Adam Szym­czyk, go nowhere. The Pol­ish cu­ra­tor, I’m told, is ret­i­cent about talk­ing to the me­dia in the run-up to the 100-day art event. Szym­czyk has been busy cul­ti­vat­ing an aura of mys­tery around this sprawl­ing show, which comes round ev­ery five years, ever since he took the helm in 2013. There is no ad­vance list of artists. De­tails of the venues are in­com­plete. Emails to the press team go unan­swered un­til even­tu­ally I get a brief re­ply say­ing that the cu­ra­to­rial team is “sim­ply too busy to take any call or of­fer any com­ment.”

This, of course, is all part of the game. It’s this type of stud­ied in­dif­fer­ence that has made Doc­u­menta one of the most an­tic­i­pated, and at times con­fus­ing, en­tries on the in­ter­na­tional art cal­en­dar since it be­gan in 1955.

Dubbed the “100-day mu­seum,” Doc­u­menta was founded by Kas­sel na­tive Arnold Bode in the af­ter­math of World War II. His hope was to re­store cul­tural life in the city—the cen­tre of which had been flat­tened by Al­lied bombs in 1943—and to re­con­nect his coun­try with the rest of the world through art.

An ar­chi­tect, painter, de­signer and cu­ra­tor, Bode was banned by the Nazis from mak­ing and teach­ing art. He saw Doc­u­menta as a chance to bring back the “de­gen­er­ate” art that had been ei­ther shunned or de­stroyed by the Nazis, but he also wanted to con­front au­di­ences with no­tions of cre­ativ­ity from the coun­tries that had been their en­e­mies.

The ex­hi­bi­tion be­gan as a way to pro­voke and ex­per­i­ment and it has continued to do so for six decades—in the process help­ing to shape the cul­tural iden­tity of Kas­sel, lo­cated on the Fulda River in cen­tral Ger­many.

“Since its in­cep­tion, Doc­u­menta has emerged as a grand spec­ta­cle that sets Kas­sel as well as the art world in mo­tion,” says Nora Stern­feld, who teaches cu­rat­ing and me­di­at­ing art at Aalto Univer­sity in Helsinki and was re­cently named Doc­u­menta Pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Kas­sel’s art and de­sign school. “It’s a tem­po­rary in­ter­ven­tion, yet it has ac­quired a cer­tain con­ti­nu­ity through­out its 60-odd years: the con­ti­nu­ity of change. Each edition rein­vents it­self, shed­ding a com­pletely new light on its his­tory and its fu­ture.”

The first ex­hi­bi­tion drew 130,000 vis­i­tors and showed works by some of the most in­flu­en­tial artists and move­ments of the early 20th cen­tury—in­clud­ing Henry Moore, Pablo Pi­casso and Um­berto Boc­cioni—but also the works of many Ger­man artists that had not been seen for years.

Two decades on, in 1977, the sixth edition

was a more po­lit­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plor­ing the re­la­tion­ships be­tween high and low art, ac­tivism and per­for­mance, and fea­tur­ing ex­per­i­men­tal films, pho­tog­ra­phy and sculp­tures as well as art­works from East Ger­many.

By the time the next show came around in 1982, the con­cept had broad­ened to large out­door in­stal­la­tions with a sim­ple fo­cus: “the beauty of art.”

The 10th show in 1997 was per­haps one of the most in­tel­lec­tual edi­tions, cu­rated by a woman for the first time and ad­dress­ing so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and cul­tural is­sues. It was a great success, with visitor num­bers reach­ing some 630,000.

Show num­ber 13, 10 years later, went the op­po­site di­rec­tion, with a con­certed ef­fort to ap­peal to the masses that ex­as­per­ated crit­ics. Held across five venues, the huge ex­hi­bi­tion in­cluded Ai Wei­wei’s Fairy­tale—a ref­er­ence to Kas­sel as the home­town of the Broth­ers Grimm. The per­for­mance piece saw the Bei­jing artist bring 1,001 or­di­nary Chi­nese, and 1,001 chairs, to the event. The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith de­scribed the 2007 Doc­u­menta as “al­ter­nately in­spir­ing—al­most vi­sion­ary— and in­suf­fer­able, in­no­va­tive and pre­dictable, metic­u­lous and sen­ti­men­tally pre­cious.”

She continued: “I would not have missed this seething, shape-shift­ing ex­trav­a­ganza for the world, and I’d rather not see its like again—at least not on this dwarf­ing, im­pe­ri­ous, self­can­celling scale.”

But for Doc­u­menta Pro­fes­sor Nora Stern­feld, the cu­ra­tors have been do­ing ex­actly what they should be do­ing. “Doc­u­menta sits within the con­ven­tions of con­tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion­mak­ing while si­mul­ta­ne­ously ex­ceed­ing these con­ven­tions with each edition,” she says. “It ex­pands the bound­aries of what can be said, shown and seen.” Which brings us to this year’s edition, be­ing held for the first time in two lo­ca­tions: Kas­sel and Athens.

“Learn­ing from Athens” opened in the Greek cap­i­tal in April and runs un­til July 16. Mean­while the Ger­man event be­gan on June 10 and con­tin­ues un­til Septem­ber 17, un­der the same ti­tle. The work of some 160 artists will be shown in the two cities, across sev­eral venues, with the idea of cre­at­ing a di­a­logue and con­tin­uum be­tween the works and coun­tries.

Al­though cu­ra­to­rial team mem­ber Monika Szewczyk had some ad­vice for the me­dia at the Athens open­ing (don’t go look­ing for “red

threads” be­tween the two shows) the same themes ap­pear in Kas­sel. Many of the works touch on val­ues, iden­tity and mi­gra­tion—themes that were to be ex­pected con­sid­er­ing the two coun­tries in­volved and their roles within the Euro­pean Union.

But how these themes are ex­pressed is where things get in­ter­est­ing. In Athens, Malian artist Aboubakar Fo­fana ad­dresses the per­ils of mi­gra­tion in Africa Bless­ing (2017), which saw him re­lease into an or­chard 54 lambs that have been dyed dif­fer­ent shades of indigo— they rep­re­sent each of the 54 African coun­tries. Amer­i­can vis­ual artist Pope.l, mean­while, has em­bed­ded frag­mented, whis­pered nar­ra­tives at mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions in the city for his Whis­per­ing Cam­paign (2016–17), in­spired by post-truth pol­i­tics.

Kas­sel’s cen­tre­piece is The Parthenon of Books, by Ar­gen­tine con­cep­tual artist Marta Min­u­jin. It is a life-size model of the Greek Parthenon, made of metal scaf­fold­ing and thou­sands of banned books from around the world: Friedrich­splatz, where the model is lo­cated, is where the Nazis burned some 2,000 books on May 19, 1933 dur­ing the so-called Cam­paign against the Un-ger­man Spirit.

Other pieces, from Kur­dish-iraqi artist Hiwa K.’s When We Were Ex­hal­ing Im­ages (2017)—a series of ce­ramic pipes in­spired by his flight from Iraq in the 1990s and sub­se­quent home­less­ness—to Mex­i­can An­to­nio Vega Ma­cotela’s The Mill of Blood (2017), a re­pro­duc­tion of the mint­ing ma­chines pow­ered by the slaves of Span­ish col­o­niz­ers in South Amer­ica, of­fer re­flec­tions on poverty and the global econ­omy.

As with ev­ery Doc­u­menta, the crit­i­cal re­cep­tion has been mixed. At home, the crit­ics fear for the co­her­ence of the show given the sec­ond location, and there are con­cerns that vis­i­tors might skip Kas­sel and go to Athens in­stead. In Greece, there are com­plaints that lo­cal artists have been over­looked, while some see the ex­hi­bi­tion as Ger­man cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ism and a bid to ex­ploit Greece’s eco­nomic and refugee woes for “mis­ery tourism.”

But this sort of con­tro­versy is just part of the show. That’s be­cause Doc­u­menta, ac­cord­ing to Stern­feld, is far more than an ex­hi­bi­tion. “The show can be ap­proached as an in­ter­ven­tion, a po­si­tion­ing, an assem­bly, a dis­course, and re­search,” she says. “Dif­fer­ent re­sponses to it are just part of its na­ture.”

Doc­u­menta 14 runs in Athens un­til July 16 and Kas­sel un­til Septem­ber 17. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit www.doc­u­menta14.de

draw­ing a Line through Land­scape, 2017 a piece by kolkata-born per­for­mance artist nikhil Cho­pra, on show in athens for Doc­u­menta 14

the por­trait, 2016 iqhiya, a net­work of young black fe­male artists liv­ing and work­ing in Cape Town and Jo­han­nes­burg, presents a per­for­mance about the roles society forces on black women

Bi­in­jiya’iing onji (from in­side), 2017 anishi­naabe-cana­dian artist re­becca Bel­more’s work for Doc­u­menta 14: a mar­ble tent over­look­ing the Parthenon in athens, sym­bol­iz­ing the refugee cri­sis in greece

tripoli Can­celled, 2017 Bri­tish artist naeem mo­haiemen’s film pre­miered at Doc­u­menta 14 in athens. It is in­spired by the direc­tor’s fa­ther’s ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing trapped in a greek air­port with­out a pass­port for nine days in 1977

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