Not Comfortable in Its Own Skin

Becoming a stage for the voices of the oppressed is a means for Documenta 14 to unburden itself from the weight of its own prominence.

Prinz Gholam, Speaking of Pictures, 2017. Photo: Simen Joachim Helsvig.

A man sits on his knees on the bathroom floor, diligently scouring the WC with a toilet brush; a woman is brushing her teeth frenetically, toothpaste frothing at her mouth. They check the house for dust and scrub the dirt off banknotes while singing odes in praise of the vacuum cleaner manufacturer Dyson: “Rise, Dyson Seven, suck, suck, suck”. The mania for hygiene in this bourgeois home becomes a parable of political xenophobia in Israeli artist Roee Rosen’s video operetta The Dust Channel. In the video the young couple’s cleaning is interrupted by news updates about the Israeli detention centre Holot on the borders of Egypt, where African refugees are detained.

Rosen’s hysterical farce is one of the highlights of Documenta 14’s Kassel exhibition, which opened Saturday 10 June, two months after the first instalment opened in Athens. The subtitle of Documenta 14 is Learning from Athens, but insofar as the vast exhibition seeks to convey any message to the audience, it seems to be that the European crisis – economic, humanitarian, democratic – propagates beyond the borders of the continent. The Dust Channel is one of many examples of how the Documenta curators endeavour to go beyond the Greek-German axis that they themselves constructed by dividing up the exhibition.

In a world of politics dominated by clear-cut divides and simplistic solutions, insisting on complexity is a praiseworthy position. Artistic director Adam Szymczyk and his many-headed team of curators encourage disorientation, a fact that was made pointedly clear during the press conference ahead of the opening in Kassel. This sounds reasonable enough in speeches, but its usefulness as a curatorial principle is debatable. In Kassel one certainly often looks rather desperately for pointers by which to navigate. The problem is not that the exhibition is short on themes threading through it all; quite the reverse: there are too many of them. The obvious concerns about creating a binary, Eurocentric exhibition have prompted the curators to pursue a plethora of alternative pathways reaching from Patagonia to the Polar circle.

Máret Ánne Saras, Pile o’ Sápmi, 2017. Photo: Simen Joachim Helsvig.

Documenta 14 is obviously uncomfortable with its role as the world’s largest and most important mega-exhibition, the authoritative mastodon that comes to life every five years in the centre of Europe. The solution to this monolithic quality has been to extend beyond national borders, to spread out across radio channels, TV channels and journals, to arrange educational programs and discussions, to grow ever larger in a paradoxical oscillation between humility and megalomania.  

It is no surprise, then, that the Kassel exhibition has no definite centre. The entire Fridericianum building, the eighteenth-century palace that has acted as Documenta’s main venue ever since its first instalment in 1955, houses the collection of the Greek national museum of contemporary art, EMST. The selection on display is not without interest; the collection consists of pathos-laden, Greek arte povera, and of works which address issues of migration and conflict in various ways. Even so, the symbolic gesture – relocating a Greek national collection that has never been presented before in its home country to Kassel – becomes more important than the actual display.

Instead of being shown at the Fridericianum, the usual Documenta exhibition has been scattered throughout the city. There are 35 venues all in all, ranging from museums to cinemas to public squares. Many of them are located in the Nordstadt neighbourhood, a rather dilapidated area mainly peopled by working class or immigrant citizens. A certain thematic consistency can be found at each venue, but they rarely put forward any clear argument. At documenta Halle we find scores by the composers Cornelius Cardew and Janis Christou, but also Britta Marakatt-Labba’s epic panorama tapestry Historja and Senegalese artist El Hadji Sy’s relief paintings executed on jute sacks mounted on stretchers. The Ottoneum, a museum of natural history, shows one of the more stringent sub-exhibitions: it deals with how one’s sense of connection to a given territory is linked to the physical, bodily experience of the landscape, as is evident in Columbian artist Abel Rodríguez’s remarkable botanical drawings from the Amazonian rain forest, or in the spastic, animistic dance performed in a dense tropical forest in Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang’s video installation Preah Kunlong.

Khvay Samnang, Preah Kunlong, 2017. Photo: Simen Joachim Helsvig.

Walking through the city while searching for peripheral venues is one of the joys – and at times frustrations – of large-scale exhibitions like Documenta. In Kassel, visitors can, for example, find Apostolos Georgiou’s paintings in an abandoned apartment on Friederichsplatz. Down in a cold, dark disused subway station we find Michel Auder’s multi-screen installation The Course of Empire, where scenes from world history wash over you in the form of a brutal, constantly updated newsfeed. Another brutal work is Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s video installation Commensal, located in a former tofu factory in a rickety industrial area. Commensal is an intimate portrait – in the extreme sense of the term – of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who, grotesquely, became something of a celebrity in Japan after killing and eating a Dutch fellow student in Paris in 1981. Paravel’s and Castaing-Taylor’s camera drifts in and out of focus while shooting close-ups of Issei’s face as he relates the event and leafs through a manga comic illustrating the killing.

Insofar as Documenta 14 can be said to have a main hub, it must be the exhibition presented in Neue Galerie. Many of those who visited Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta 13 in 2012 will recall the “brain” in Fridericianum’s central rotunda, a small selection of art works and archaeological artefacts that constituted a distillate of the overall exhibition. The “brain” of Documenta 14 fills out the entire Neue Galerie, featuring more than eighty artists and several hundred works, most of them historical. The curators describe Neue Gallerie as Documenta’s “historical consciousness”; here, the relationship between Germany and Greece throughout history is offset by considerations of a wider colonial past.

Apostolos Georgiou, Untitled. Photo: Simen Joachim Helsvig.

For an exhibition based on responding to a current geopolitical emergency, it is striking to note how obsessed Documenta 14 is with history. This may be a natural consequence of the fact that exhibitions, even those operating on the scale and scope of Documenta, is a form of expression that rarely results in any immediate social or political change. However, as a device for generating knowledge and insight it has real potential for affecting how history is written and rewritten. The narrative produced by Documenta 14 is very much about the history of “the Other”, but devoid of the ethnographic approach taken by museums and the documentary tradition. If Documenta 14 is to be remembered for something other than being split between Athens and Kassel, it may be for its insistence on giving voice to the “Other” of the nation state – whether they be immigrants, indigenous people or people who fall outside the parameters of traditional gender categories. During the press conference the curator of Documenta’s Public Programmes, Paul B. Preciado, who is himself transgender, thanked Adam Szymczyk for “allowing us to come out of the vitrines” as subjects rather than as objects of study.  

In this sense, the quintessential historical Documenta 14 artist is Lorenza Böttner, who was born Ernst Lorenz to German parents in Chile in 1959 and died from an AIDS-related illness in 1994: a transsexual, disabled artist who used herself as the subject of paintings executed by mouth or foot and in performances. In addition to smaller drawings, photographs and paintings, Neue Galerie shows a huge self-portrait in which the diva Lorenza, fully made-up, looks straight ahead, her hair fanning out like a mane. The painting hangs in an atrium and can also be viewed from the floor above; a vantage point that brings the observer close enough to notice that the painting is made up of footprints.

Lorenza Böttner, selvportrett. Foto: Simen Joachim Helsvig.

Generally speaking, the presentations of individual artists – such as Sicilian artist Maria Lai and the Russian painter Pavel Filonov, whose Futuristic-Cubist paintings were banned during the Soviet years – work better than the various attempts at building arguments through juxtapositions. In some places it seems as if the curators found an interesting subject, a potential constellation of artists and documents in keeping with the exhibition’s overall theme, only to drop it half finished and rush on to the next section. One of the rooms contains an abstract painting by the French surrealist Yves Laloy placed next to tapestries by the American Navajo weaver Marilou Schultz, depicting circuit boards of the kind used in computers. They are accompanied by documents that describe how women workers in a Navajo reservation assembled diodes and circuit boards for an electronics company back in the 1960s. The formal similarities between the Navajo patterns and the link between indigenous traditions and digital technology paves the way for an intriguing narrative, but it is at best a tentative, if not downright non-committal presentation.

The connections in Documenta 14 are most clearly visible across the individual exhibitions. And often the rather slack recurring threads are tightened up in individual works. Bouchra Khalili’s The Tempest Society is one such work. The starting point of the video is the current situation faced by immigrants in Athens, but it evolves into a more wide-ranging conversation about the stage as a place where people who have no visible public profile can become political agents. Three young Greeks come together on a stage in an empty industrial room where they, along with other invited parties – including a paperless woman who was born, undocumented, in Greece – speak about their lives and the conditions they face. The work is modelled on the theatre ensemble Al Assifa (meaning “the tempest” in Arabic, hence the title), which was set up by French students and North African immigrants in the early 1970s. The ensemble acted as a kind of “theatrical newspaper”, performing in public squares. Here immigrants and workers were allowed to act out episodes and gestures from their hard, precarious everyday lives. In Khalili’s film the dramatic and political “stages” are interconnected: it is not about representation, but presentation. One clip shows the protest rally in the Syntagma square ahead of the vote on the conditions of the Troika bailout agreement in 2015 – that, too, is a stage.

Joar Nango, European Everything, 2017. Photo: Simen Joachim Helsvig.

Viewing matters through the lens of The Tempest Society makes it easier to understand the political impetus behind the many stage structures that appear in Documenta 14, such as Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet’s large podium in the documenta Halle, and Joar Nango’s nomadic stage installation European Everything, built out of reindeer hides, scrap metal, neon lights and marble blocks and used for performances throughout the exhibition period. These stages invite and await activation. The interest in scores also makes sense when viewed in this light, as do sculptures such as Guillermo Galindo’s Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper, which consists of the relics of two shipwrecks discovered near the Greek island of Lesbos, transformed here into musical instruments.

This expectant, latent quality also applies to many of the performances. The German-Swiss duo Prinz Gholam and the dancers employed by Cyprus artist Maria Hassabi all carry out movements so slow that they are reminiscent of stasis, a kind of living tableaux where the bodies occupy a territory somewhere between sculpture and dance – never locked in a static pose, but at the same time the movements are too far extended in time to be read as recognisable actions. They look like symbolic, pantomime-like gestures, but never convey any clear-cut meaning, remaining locked in these unfinished, undetermined states.

It is tempting to infer that the artists and curators of Documenta were interested in such latent objects, instructions, constructs and actions precisely because they reflect the overall exhibition as such. Documenta 14 is in itself undetermined and unclear. Few of the ideal ambitions of the exhibition survive intact and unsullied when the demonstratively symbolic gestures are translated into concrete action. The decision to relocate Documenta to Athens was far too potent to be adequately matched by the exhibition as it actually appears.

Maria Hassabi, Staging og Staging: Pink Floor, 2017. Photo: Simen Joachim Helsvig.