Documenta 14 More political than ever

The Documenta 14 has arrived in Kassel. A few weeks after its launch in Athens, the world art show is now taking place in its traditional home in Germany – and is more political than ever. A tour.

Students have comfortably furnished the 20 huge sewage pipes that a construction crane stacked before the Fridericianum, now as a bathroom, now as bedroom, now as a dog pound. But Hiwa K’s metres high installation soon has you laughing on the other side of your face. Although he maintains the opposite, the Iraqi-Kurdish artist has here set an exclamation mark: his pipe hotel calls to mind refugees who, like him, are stranded in the Athenian harbour and seek shelter from wind and weather.

Guillermo Galindi’s work, which dangles fragments of two broken boat hulls from the ceiling of the lower floor of the Documenta Hall, is hardly less outspoken. It soon becomes clear what the Mexican artist is about here: he is pillorying escape and expulsion, the exodus of thousands who end up drowning agonizingly in the sea.

This is what the Documenta’s boss, Adam Szymczyk, has in mind when he calls for us to untie ourselves in times of flight and uncertainty from traditional certainties. “We believe that we must unlearn what we seem to know”, the artistic director of the Documenta dictated to the journalists’ notepads. “Learning must be the working principle of this Documenta.” And the curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung says: “We live in an age of insecurity. Insecurity often leads to violence.” He calls upon artists to be “defiant”.

Art for a world out of joint

And what has art to say when the world is out of joint? When neo-liberalism is running rampant, nationalism is rife, new wars are breaking out, and when politicians like Trump, Erdogan and Putin rule with bare force, not to mention the danger of terrorism? What questions does art then pose? And what answers does it provide? So much is certain: in Kassel more than 160 artists go at it with a will at about 30 exhibition venues. They have spread themselves out across the entire city. If you want to discover them, you will need a sturdy pair of shoes.

Starting at the centrally located Fridericianum Museum, which is currently host to the collection of the Athenian National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), the world art show extends over museums, squares and parks. Even a cinema, an underpass and halls on the university campus serve as art venues, not to forget the former main post office in the northern part of town, a problem district of Kassel.

 “Being safe is scary”

Over the portal of the Fridericianum, Banu Cennetoglu has mounted a new inscription. The Turkish-Kurdish artist has replaced “Fridericianum Museum” with “Being Safe Is Scary”. It is intended as a memorial to the deceased Kurdish journalist and freedom fighter Gurbetelli Ersöz.

The adjacent, monumental replica of the Acropolis temple also has to do with forbidden books. The steel framework columns of the Parthenon of Books are clad not with stone but with thousands of books. The Argentine artist Marta Minujín has taken the hearts of Kassel residents by storm; her construction is probably the most photographed art work in the city.

Artificial smoke – concerned Kassel residents call the fire brigade

The following art action, however, has been a source of confusion: since the start of the Documenta in Athens, the Romanian artist Daniel Knorr has been releasing white smoke from the venerable Zwehrenturm of the Fridericianum. Five smoke machines, as used by the fire brigade, now give off clouds of smoke for the Expiration Movement. Smoke, says Knorr, is a means of communication. Whether to signal the election of a Pope or at the book burnings of the Nazis. It is said, however, that the number of calls to the fire brigade from concerned citizens of Kassel is declining.

The messages are not always so clear. Some art works tell long and complex stories. Take the Icelandic artist Britta Marakatt-Labba, who has knit in wool an historical panorama of the Sami people. The expulsion from Paradise as an impressive poetic handiwork. Quite different is the work of the Australian artist Gordon Hookey: a member of the Waanyi people, he too protests against the oppression and exploitation of colonialism; but his house-high mural Murriland, painted in screaming colours and displayed at the former post-office in the northern part of the city, is a significantly louder statement.

Performance and film are having a boom

What is striking is that pictures and sculptures have become rarer at the Documenta. Instead the focus falls on performance and action art; more and more, mixed forms consisting of film, installation and documentary material occupy eye and ear. An example in provided by the 91-year-old Romanian artist Geta Bratescu. Her short film sequence Automatism shows a man who repeatedly cuts open the screen with a knife. When instead of the screen a man stands before him, the man stabs him again.

At the heart of the immigration society are the photographs of the Palestinian artist Ahlam Shibli. Heimat (Home) shows the life of Germans expelled from Eastern Europe alongside that of foreign workers from the Mediterranean. These are images of departing and arriving. The outcome remains uncertain. The same applies to the historical exploration of Berlin on which the Thai artist Arin Rungjang sends his main figures in the film And Then There Were None.

Finally, the American filmmaker Ben Russell invites the public into the lugubrious catacombs of the Fridericianum, where his documentary film installation Good Luck affords them insights into the world of hard-working men in a Serbian copper mine and a South American gold mine. You are a rogue if you thereby harbour thoughts of escape or think of the obelisk by the American artist Olu Oguibe: over 16 meters high, this art work towers over the Königsplatz. Emblazoned on it in golden letters: “I was a stranger – and you took me in”.

The rush of visitors to Documenta 14 has broken all records, thinks Kassel’s mayor Bertram Hilgen. Two months after the start in Athens, 2,000 journalists travelled to Kassel for the opening. The last Documenta already had 860,000 paying visitors. This one would like to break the one million mark – with the most political world art show for a long time. “This exhibition shows a rebellion at the museum farm”, says the curator Paul B. Preciado, alluding to George Orwell’s Animal Farm.