Review: Documenta 1430 July 2017
“DEAR DOCUMENTA 14: IT MUST BE NICE TO CRITIQUE CAPITALISM ETC. WITH A 38 MILLION EURO BUDGET.”
This is the note I find stuck to a hand dryer in the bathrooms of the Documenta Halle as I meander around Kassel for this year’s incarnation of the contemporary art mega-show Documenta. It is not an official artwork in this year’s exhibition. However, it does give voice to the major criticism levelled against the international art biennale and art fair circuit of which Documenta is a part. It is a jab at the fact that many of these ostensibly locally rooted exhibitions have become nothing more then blown out spectacles for the elite audience that can afford to jet around the globe to attend them. When it comes to these ‘pop-up’ versions of internationalised exhibitions that are all the rage right now, there can be a fine line between festivalism and experimental platform. I’m eager to see which side Documenta 14 falls on.
Started in 1955 in the unassuming town of Kassel in Germany’s centre, Documenta has evolved over the years to become a locus for debates on global contemporary art and their socio-political contexts. This year the quinquennale renders concrete this global perspective; for the first time it transverses two cities, Athens and Kassel, with the two locations’ divergent histories, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds and the attendant tensions between them acting as a framework for many of the works presented. Spanning 163 days and 160 or so living artists, Documenta is a heavyweight on the international art calendar that occurs only once every 5 years. So with the Venice Biennale and Münster’s Skulptur Project all coalescing in Europe within a few months of each other, this year is something of a perfect storm in the contemporary art world.
I arrive in Kassel on June 7 for the press preview of the exhibition’s German leg, and for an exhibition 4 years in the making, things still seem somewhat chaotic. Coming into the biennale’s hub in the city’s Friedrichplatz, the first thing that catches one’s eyes is Martha Minujín’s monumental Parthenon of Books; a colossal sculpture that directly replicates the Athenian Parthenon temple on a one-to-one scale. However, unlike the classical Greek structure, this version’s frame is overlayed with as many as 100,000 formerly or currently banned texts donated from around the globe that have been attached to its pillars in some kind of large-scale plastic cling-wrapping process. The placing of the work is particularly pertinent, as it was in this square in 1933 that some 2,000 books were burned by the Nazis in a ‘Campaign against the Un-German Spirit’. It is a pivotal public work that provides a useful introduction to some of the major themes of this year’s exhibition: emblematising defiance in the face of repression, and a continued resistance to hegemonic or totalising narrative voices. However, when I arrive it is not quite finished; and its imposing façade gives way to spidery legs of scaffolding as I walk to its rear.
Entering the press hub, I sidestep queues of vaguely impatient professionals, bulky cameras in tow, grab a map and set off. The map I am offered by staff has been graphically streamlined to leave only the major arteries between Documenta 14’s 33 exhibition sites, minus street names: a decision that is perhaps aesthetically pleasing, but not enormously practical. This, in combination with distinctly uninformed gallery attendants (made up primarily of Kassel’s student population), often leaves me feeling as though I am just missing out on something.
It is impossible to see everything, especially without travelling to the Athenian half of things. Documenta’s attempt to challenge hegemony with a multiplicity of perspectives and positions, while undoubtedly positive, also engenders a cacophony of voices that can be somewhat deafening: it is easy to be overwhelmed here. Nevertheless, some common threads do arise as I walk through the exhibition spaces. This year, there is of course a central focus on Greece, with Kassel’s Fridericianum museum having been given over to Greek curator Katerina Koskina for a selection of works from the collection of Greece’s National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), of which she is a director. It is something of a symbolic gesture to transcontinental partnership: due to a lack of funding, this collection has never been on view in Athens, so the move to Kassel grants it a critical visibility. Next to this perceptible turn to the south, artists from most countries are represented, and throughout Documenta’s various venues one gets a repeated sense of bearing witness to, or being offered historically supressed voices and alternative histories.
In the central Documenta Halle there is an intricate embroidered history from Sámi artist Britta Marakatt-Labba entitled Historja. It is an epic non-linear narrative that unfurls across a white linen banner, offering a variety of entry points into Sámi epistemology and storytelling as it undulates between daily rituals of animal husbandry and agricultural activity, Sámi cosmology, and key historical events such as the 1851 Kautokeino uprising. The work is also activated by an embodied performance that occurs at various scheduled times over the course of the exhibition. In the same room, Mali born artist Aboubakar Fofana’s Fundi (Uprising) presents a cascading fabric mobile in various shades of indigo that hangs above a corridor of plants used to produce the naturally fermented dyes of its textile panels. The work is a living visualisation of the exploitation of African colonies by the West from the 17th through 19th centuries, referencing the monopoly held by Western nations on indigo as source of status and wealth. By recultivating three varieties of indigotin-bearing plants from Japan, West Africa and Europe, and reviving the traditional means of producing indigo dyes, Fofana somehow reclaims them while also commenting on Western imperialist practices: their habit of exploiting the natural resources of others, only to abandon them once they have become exhausted.
Australia is represented by Bonita Ely and Waanyi artist Gordon Hookey. Hookey’s large-scale mural in the Neue Neue gallery is a blocky non-chronological history of Queensland that combines colonial events with Aboriginal stories, summoning divergent historical images to link them across time in vivid colour. In a manner characteristic of the artist, the work uses sections of English text to draw audiences in with mutually recognisable symbols (ie. the language of the coloniser), only to subvert them from within. In this mode of dissident infiltration, Hookey offers us a circle inlaid with the stars of the Southern Cross that is captioned AUSTIKA, rebranding the term Swastika to refer specifically to Australia’s particular idiom of subjugation.
Still other works focus on displacement, diaspora, and the global refugee crises: headless mannequins with suitcases in tow arranged around a chalked game of hopscotch to represent the often impenetrable hoops and hurdles of immigration policy, a canvas tent printed with the names of those who have died crossing the Mexican-American border, in a manner somehow reminiscent of Tracy Emin’s infamous Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, however with a much heavier commemorative purpose. Everywhere you go there is a reiterated and inescapable critique of the dominance of Western systems – political, cultural, economic – and their totalising claim to cultural and ideological power. In the face of the West’s preeminent written and image based history, we are given oral histories, alternative pedagogical and epistemological systems, and attempts to reclaim archival knowledge as a means of questioning who has the right to hold and speak such histories. The tensions between the dominant and subjugated, and particularly between Northern and Southern pedagogical and cultural traditions, is in some ways emblematised in the tensions between Kassel and Athens: cities with discrepant social and political contexts – especially now with the fraught weight of European debt hanging heavily between them. The central question is not whether these divisions can be resolved, but rather whether or not Documenta 14 will be able to manifest this tension as a critical space from which to articulate a new artistic agency.
These are heavy themes, but given the spectres of nationalism, decolonisation, terrorism, mass migration and the fraying of European unity that currently haunt the European and global stage, to ignore them would be an overt and unforgivable act of burying of one’s head in the sand. Recognising the enormity of this project, and the impossibility of any sort of neat resolution, Documenta asks openly: “Can the museum work against its own colonial and patriarchal regimes?”, “How can we produce critical agency in a mega-exhibition within a global neoliberal economy?” and responds: “We will fail. But we will try.” Given Documenta’s integral role in the production of international soft power, this could very well just be a smokescreen to defer some critique as to the museum’s complicity in the very issues that it seeks to unpack. While the exhibition offers itself as something of a stage for marginalised voices, stories, and histories, the curatorial effort towards cultural inclusiveness often seems epidermal. That being said, the permissive display of the flagrantly antiauthoritarian note I discovered earlier suggests that at the very least Documenta 14 is attempting to be somewhat transparent about its own internal biases.
The effort to give space to non-western voices and to acknowledge entrenched hierarchies of power–even if it does little to materially change them– should not go entirely unacknowledged.