Of Dogs and Humans: Documenta 13 in Kassel
Staged for the first time in 1955 and held every five years in Kassel since 1977, Documenta is the only major exhibition of contemporary art that always promises an analysis of the present day. During its 100-day run, Documenta 13 presents a subtle view of the world’s fragile condition.
Surely it must have been a typo that resulted in the Handwerkskammer in Kassel – the city’s chamber of skilled crafts – appearing in the list of this year’s Documenta venues which was sent out to the press as the “Hundwerkskammer”, “Hund” being the German word for “dog”.
All the same, one did wonder briefly whether this might in fact be yet another of the (anti-) concept gimmicks attributed by the media even weeks before the opening of the 100-day exhibition to the American curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who is the artistic director of Documenta 13.
“Dogumenta” or Documenta?
On the one hand, Christov-Bakargiev insisted that there was “no concept” for Documenta 13; on the other hand, there is talk of a “holistic and non-logocentric vision” being the driving force behind the exhibition. In an interview, the curator speculated about how strawberries can become political actors and noted that there is no fundamental difference between humans and dogs, which resulted in the exhibition being humorously dubbed “Dogumenta” even before its launch.
Anyone who in recent years has read articles by such diverse authors as Dietmar Dath, Bruno Latour or Donna Haraway, however, could be forgiven for assuming that Christov-Bakargiev’s desire “not to place human thinking above the capabilities of other species and things in hierarchical terms” has nothing to do with humorous activism but is in fact a method – described as “eco-feminist” – of using curatorial means to interpret and rethink “traumatic moments, turning points, accidents, catastrophes and crises”.
Documenta 13 – Impressions; © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/M. Conrads
An “associative space for research”
The ideal place in which to open one’s mind to Documenta 13 is a room in the Fridericianum to which the exhibition’s choreography has assigned a particularly prominent position: the “brain”, conceived of as an “associative space for research, in which instead of a concept a series of artworks, objects and documents are gathered together”. These include not only artistic works by Judith Hopf, Judith Barry and Tamara Henderson, but also objects which the American photographer Lee Miller took with her from Adolf Hitler’s apartment when she was working as a war correspondent, a function model by computer pioneer Konrad Zuse and “objects damaged during the Lebanese civil war”.
Outside the “brain” the visitor has to “decipher” the exhibition in a variety of ways, something that can certainly be taken literally at this year’s Documenta 13, where the works by the nearly 300 participants, listed under titles such as “artist”, “non-art artist”, “feminist”, “inventor”, “seed activist” or “critic”, are scattered not only around the “classic” Documenta venues like the Fridericianum, the Neue Galerie, the documenta-Halle, the Ottoneum, the Orangerie and the Hauptbahnhof.
They are also to be found generously distributed around Karlsaue Park, which was ignored by the last Documenta: a Baroque-style public park of 1.5 square kilometres which dominates the centre of Kassel, a city which was largely destroyed in the Second World War and was later rebuilt, partly in a modernist style.
Places to rest and rampaging knights
Like a fairy-tale garden created by the Brothers Grimm, who hailed from Kassel, Karlsaue Park contains installations, sculptures, sound works, landscaped areas and pavilions by around 60 artists. These include the Idee di pietra by Giuseppe Penone (a rock resting on a tree), which was the first Documenta 13 work to be erected in 2010; the Swiss Chard Ferry by Christian Philipp Müller, in which a canal can be crossed on barges filled with beds of Swiss chard; the Sanatorium by Pedro Reyes, in which one can obtain therapy to treat urban ills; or the centrally located Doing Nothing Garden by the Chinese artist Song Dong: an artificial hill at whose foot visitors clearly enjoy taking a rest with a view of the orangery.
Finally, in a museum dedicated to the Brothers Grimm at the edge of Karlsaue Park, part of the Documenta 13 will, significantly, be showing how the Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov lets his hair down as a knight.
Encounters with “nature” generally play a key role at this year’s Documenta, albeit not in the sense of “natural beauty” but rather as an element of a world that has become unbalanced. Some works make more subtle reference to this, such as The Lover, Kristina Buch’s “outdoor installation with live butterflies”. Others are more political and more radical, such as Maria Thereza Alves’ The Return of a Lake, a work which addresses the water policy pursued at Lake Chalco in Mexico City, a policy which is detrimental to the indigenous population.
If Alves, as the catalogue explains, joins a group of indigenous people during the opening of Documenta 13 to create artificial islands for the sustainable management of this lake region, this work is representative of an idea – as questionable as it is fascinating – of the curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. This idea is for Documenta 13 to effect a “spatial turn” in which it is just as important to merely imagine far-distant places as it is to view the works exhibited in Kassel.
According to Christov-Bakargiev, Documenta 13 will thus indeed also be taking place, to a greater or lesser extent virtually and holistically, in Kabul, Alexandria, Cairo and the Canadian town of Banff. Will imagination be enough?
is a freelance author living in Berlin who teaches visual communication at the city’s University of the Arts.
Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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