In 2007 I was living in Sydney, terminally, determinedly single, working at the University of New South Wales and in desperate need of inspiration.
And so I went on a pilgrimage to Germany, to Documenta, the five-yearly international contemporary art survey that began in 1952 amid the social, political and historical carnage of WW2 as an attempt to reconnect with the lost ideals of the enlightenment.
Enlightenment was what I was after. It wasn't what I got. I hated Documenta 12. It was obtuse, smug, difficult, glib and frankly, bloody hard work. My most distilled moment of the three days I spent in Kassel (which is a shit-house city by the way - bombed to bits and rebuilt with zero thought for charm) was sitting at a tram stop, in the sunshine and having a curiously calm, philosophical conversation in my head about WHY it was that I had decided to dedicate my career to contemporary art and WHY was it again that I thought art was important and WHAT the fuck am I doing if this is the measure of contemporary art today.
It was a little bit confronting but strangely fascinating at the same time. And useful too. Because then I went to the incredible Munster Sculpture Project (that happens once a DECADE [see: art dilettante]) and fell totally in love with public art and its potential to transform unexpected encounters into something profoundly moving/provoking/delighting/extraordinary.
Fast forward five years and I am no longer 27. Sadly I am every inch 32 (read: faintly wrinkled, on notice for my first grey hair, slightly more cynical and marginally more learned.)
I had a Masters degree in Contemporary Art, four solid years of Looking-At-Art under my hipster London belt and what could only justifiably be called a snotty-fuck-you-Documenta attitude. This time it was not going to defeat me.
And do you know what, it didn't. It surprised me, inspired me, delighted me, occasionally made me roll my eyes (this is contemporary art we're talking about...), moved me and challenged me. Clearly we'd both learnt from last time.
I travelled to Germany on my own - not even the promise of bratwurst could entice Lovely Boy to come with me – but colleagues from work were also there on a pilgrimage and so we had an intense, over-stimulated, delightful 36 hours seeing A LOT of art.
Thinking back over everything we saw (and there was a lot we didn’t get to see) I’m not sure I could articulate any one curatorial agenda but there was a beautiful cadence across the venues and many of the works as they explored ideas of history, memory and site and when I flick the mental flip card of images still lingering in my mind it’s those works that really had something to say beyond their existence as a work of art, that I remember most clearly.
Obviously every piece of art does this to some extent, or at least tries to, but the most successful ones, to me at any rate, transcended the object or experience to offer some sort of philosophical, intellectual or personal experience.
The plan of attack was a well-marked map, a personal list of must-sees and a goal to see as many of the off-site spaces as we could manage, while also seeing the Friedericianum, the Neue Galerie, the Hauptbahnhof and Karlsaue, the park. Pilgrims before us had advised that the Orangerie and the documenta-Halle were weak and the ones to ditch if time became an issue. Which of course it did. Sunglasses, notebooks, guidebooks at the ready, these were just some of my highlights (in no particular order):
Ceal Floyer, Til I Get it Right, 2005
Country singer Tammy Wynette’s soulful song of the same name, cut and looped to play only the refrain: a melancholic, heartbreaking but quietly comedic paean to the unending frustration of being an artist/lover/writer/(insert being of choice here).
Geoffrey Farmer, Leaves of Grass, 2012
Hundreds of shadow puppets made from fifty years of Life magazine illustrations, arranged in chronological order. A nostalgic, delicate, awe-inspiring wander through history, popular culture and the evolution of photojournalism. As Farmer observes, “Even when you show so much you also, in the end, show so little.”
Susan Philipsz, Study for Strings, 2012
A haunting, quietly devastating sound piece at the end of one of the platforms at the old train station, Philipsz’s Study for Strings takes composer Pavel Haas’ 1943 work of the same name that he wrote while a prisoner at the Terezin concentration camp. The original score has long since been lost – Haas died at Auschwitz - and so here Philipsz recreates fragments of the work that was caught on film in 1944, being played by the Terezin String Orchestra for a Nazi propaganda film.
These fragments are played from different speakers out across the tracks and the effect is to make almost tangible the agonising, aching history of this location: one of the major suppliers of WW2 armaments is just north of the station and in the early 1940s, this Hauptbanhof was the site of three major transports of Jews from the Kassel district to concentration camps. Composer Pavel Haas was just one of them. Elegiac, understated and so incredibly powerful as you stand there in the sunshine, completely unable to comprehend such horror, Philipsz's work is truly moving.
Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Alter Bahnhof Video Walk, 2012,
Another work at the old train station, and one of the most popular given the hour-long wait to experience it, Alter Bahnhof Video was a guided, completely immersive video tour of the Hauptbanhof. Following in the artists’ footsteps, Miller’s observations, recollections and own experiences and responses to the space guide you around the building, where fact and fiction, history and the surreal collide to create this truly extraordinary experience. There really aren’t words.
Ryan Gander, (I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise [The Invisible Pull]), 2012
The much talked about “windy room” – I’m not going to say that Gander’s conceptual piece was a breath of fresh air – but it was a brisk breeze. Literally. Gently pushing you from one room to another, throughout the ground floor of the Friedericianum, Gander’s cool gusts of wind had a quietly funny Germanic efficiency to them. Intellectually, it was an effective metaphor for a career in contemporary art: pushed by something you can’t quite grasp under the guise of art in the direction of something (hopefully) meaningful.
Pierre Huyghe, Untitled, 2011-2012
Pierre Huyghe’s strange but strangely compelling work is in a scrubby part of the Karlsaue, an enormous Baroque park by the Orangerie, normally used for composting. You wander around, it’s slightly apocalyptic and a little bit surreal – a hungry dog with ribs like a xylophone and a bright pink leg scavenges with its pup, a man works on the compost pile (turns out he’s part of the work too). Elsewhere, one of Joseph Beuys’s famous 7000 Oaks from Documenta 7 in 1982 has been uprooted. And then, in the middle of this quasi-wasteland, in a small dirt field, is a sculpture of a reclining lady, her head obscured by a hive of bees. There’s no narrative, no one way to explore the area and no one way to understand it. If at all. The guidebook describes it as “objects without culture” and that’s probably the most intelligent way to describe it. Fantastically bizarre is another.
Anri Sala, Clocked Perspective, 2012
Another work in the Karlsraue, Anri Sala’s exquisite piece is a response to the 1825 painting by G. Ulbricht in the astronomical-physical cabinet of the Orangerie. In Ulbricht’s painting, the castle in his landscape has had a gimmicky mechanical clock built into the front that keeps real time, though the front-on clock piece is necessarily at odds with the side-on perspective of the building. Sala’s work is this clock, in sculptural form, as it should be in the painting – in perspective and keeping real time despite the skewed dial, thanks to an elliptical gear. It’s such an elegant, clever work.
|Detail of G. Ulbricht original|
Tino Sehgal, This Variation, 2012, Grand City Hotel Hessenland
I still haven’t got to see Tino Sehgal’s work in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall yet (…yet! Soon!) but have read quite a bit about his performance/intervention works and so was curious to experience his work at Documenta. Sehgal doesn’t believe in documenting his works – they exist for a time and place only – and This Variation was created for the disused ballroom of the Grand City Hotel Hessenland. The whole thing takes place in the dark, the light flickers occasionally but otherwise it’s you, the emergency exit signs and some vague shadowy shape shifters, a mix of shuffling audience members and performers. To an acoustic collection of hums, plonks, whizzes and churning pistons, the performers sang a medley of Beach Boys classics that then shifted to animalistic, tribal beat-boxing and a conversation about the relationship between virtuosity and production. It’s hard to tell as you sit there in the dark if you’re an unwitting performer or a passive audience member and the dark offers no respite from the anxiety of proximity to the work. I don’t know what it meant, I’m not sure how it was supposed to make me feel but it was an exhilarating, immersive, strange experience.
Emily Jacir, ex-libris, 2010-2012
For two years, Jacir made regular visits to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem and took a collection of photographs on her phone of the books and their inscriptions. The books she photographed were designated ‘Abandoned Property’ and were just 6000 of 30,000 books looted from Palestinian homes, libraries and institutions by Israeli authorities in 1948. It’s a powerful alignment of education and knowledge with liberation and an intimate, quietly political statement on the costs of looting. And by translating some of the inscriptions into German and English and posting them on billboards across Kassel, Jacir deftly asks a number of questions about the nature of restitution. I just loved this work for so many reasons, not least these subtle layers of meaning.
I could go on and on but it's probably just easier to buy the guidebook. Or put 2017 in your diary. It was a memorable, inspiring, visually overloaded weekend. One that me and my 27 year old self were very grateful for.