You could be forgiven for being somewhat befuddled by the approach taken by this year’s documenta 14. For the 2017 edition of the exhibition, held every five years in Kassel, Germany, the curators decided to repatriate it to Athens, Greece – but only partly. With the second leg of this exhibition opening this week in Kassel, I find myself wondering: why bring it back to Germany at all? And how should the two parts of this exhibition relate: as iterations, segments, mirror images, chapters, or broken halves?
Those of us seeking to get a glimpse behind the curators’ thinking would be wise to turn to the Neue Galerie, the most densely occupied venue in Kassel. Here, through historical works, we find an attempt at an argument – by way of an intellectual and art historical justification – for the unusual routes taken by d14’s curatorial team. For the first time, documenta has occupied the entirety of this museum – which usually houses the state collections of Hessen of 19th to 21st century art – and devised a show along the lines of economy, restitution and politics, repatriation and commerce, material and visual culture, historical relationships between Germany and Greece, and the Global North and South. It’s an intense, ambitious effort – spanning centuries and including probably a couple of hundred works – which attempts to provide no less than an artistic-intellectual reparation for culture’s imbrication in political and economic damage throughout history. Bear with me.
In many ways, the curators’ assessment that ‘culture’ – here meant broadly as cultural and personal maturation, in the German sense of Bildung – is couched in destruction and oppression is correct. In 1955 Arnold Bode deliberately chose the West German city of Kassel as the host for documenta because of its close proximity to the border with East Germany. His express interest was in using contemporary art as a tool or decoy to deter German culture from future nationalistic tendencies – as was expected in the wake of the Second World War. Kassel was steeped in war: shrapnel shards still littered the fields outside the Fridericianum as Bode opened the exhibition; the city’s broad avenues were made so that tanks could easily cross, and munitions factories and tank production plants had long surrounded the city. The works at the Neue Galerie that relate specifically to Bode include art by Bode himself, placed alongside Gerhard Richter’s Portrait of Arnold Bode (1964). Bode’s deliberate instrumentalization of art in the name of preventative politics is a similar tactic that the curators seem to attempt here.
This sequence of the exhibition begins with themes of debt, alms-giving, temptation and economy. Two small Florentine old Master paintings by Niccolo di Pietro Gerini (The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1390–1400) and Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guidi (Saint Anthony Abbot Tempted by Gold, c.15th century) depict Saint Anthony resisting worldly temptation and we see re-imaginations of the theme of Saint Anthony’s temptation in two abstract, monochrome canvases by contemporary Chicago artist David Schutter (DP P 587 PR and DP 588 PR, both 2017). The moral implications of debt and indebtedness are brought home by a painting by Gustave Courbet, L'Aumône d'un mendiant à Ornans (Alms from a Beggar at Ornans), an 1868 picture depicting a beggar giving alms to a small child: presumably sacrificing what he does not have for the sake of a child’s jejune desire. The moral here is that if even the poor and disadvantaged can be generous, we the privileged should be ashamed of our selfishness. While painted in a realist style, the work sets up the awkward, romantic claim that lionising the less privileged is a politically valid stance.
This argument resonates with the inclusion of a number of works by 20th century modernist artists who, living in perilous historical conditions, still championed the worth of art. Close to Andrzej Wróblewski’s intense Surrealist Execution from 1949 are Pavel Filonov’s works from the 1930s that respond to political catastrophe in gouaches that combine realist tendencies with abstraction (After an Air Raid, c.1938). Nearby, there are paintings and sculptures from the 1950s by Cuban artist Antonio Vidal, who protested against the unilaterally ‘political’ framing of artists included in the second Bienal Hispanoamericanica de Arte of 1954. Nearby, an exquisite series of paintings – alternately tortured and surreal – by Chilean poet and artist Cecilia Vicuña depict figures such as Karl Marx and Salvador Allende, staring distortedly outward.
Geta Brătescu’s performance video Automation (2017) depicts a man breaking through canvases with a knife, placed next to a curious paper work in which a man is shown doing the same – until he stabs a person who bleeds. These are placed next to book works by Ulises Carrión, which also deal with art’s relationship to forms of individual autonomy. An entire room is given over to 40 of the small-format, recent, collages and works on paper of Vienna-born Guatemala-based artist Elisabeth Wild, Fantasias (2016–17). These ludic, lively scherzos, among the most vibrant in the venue, make a claim for artistic autonomy. Yet they sit uneasily with the claim levelled elsewhere in the show that art and culture are products of historical-material realities. Here Wild’s works attest to a belief that art can overcome the immediacy of politics and context: it’s an idea of artistic liberation that feels needed.
Another figure who stands with graceful autonomy is the Chilean, Kassel-based artist Lorenza Böttner: a figure (once profiled by Roberto Bolaño) who lost both arms, studied for a thesis on disability in Kassel’s university and made art about being ‘behindert’ and transgendered, before moving to New York and ultimately dying of AIDS. Hers is an emancipatory note that is all the more remarkable for its rarity in this show. Mounted above historical documentation, their thesis, photographs and paintings, we have a triumphal large-scale painting, made by the artist using their feet: a historical document says ‘Lorenza is physically handicapped, in that he has no arms, yet he is able to do everything anyone can do … One very notable talent is painting, which Lorenza does with his feet on the sidewalks of New York city. He is also a sculptor, ceramicist and dancer.’
Upstairs, though, we find the opposite claim: the intertwining of systems of exploitation, cultural theft and historical destruction with art history and aesthetic economy. Books such as an edition of the Code Noir, an important edict concerning black slaves in the US state of Louisiana are placed near to an open book – First Complete System of German Idealism – and neo-classical and Romantic landscapes by family members of Cornelius Gurlitt, famous for the ‘trove’ of Nazi-looted art that was found in his apartment in 2012. Maria Eichhorn’s project carried on this theme centring around research, documentation and restitution of books and artworks (Rose Valland Institute, 2017).
The connection between artistic modernism and 19th century philosophical, political and literary debates is made in part through an examination of Samuel Beckett’s relationship to Kassel, placed beside postwar German edicts and even near posters of the Marshall Plan. In the 1930s, Beckett stayed in Kassel eight times while visiting his lover (and distant cousin) Peggy Sinclair, a portrait of whom is on view in the exhibition (Karl Leyhausen, Portrait of Peggy Sinclair, 1931). Nearby, a portrait (the artist unknown) of the art historian Winckelmann (Johann Joachim Winckelmann Shown against an Italian Landscape c. 1800), opens a section on German Hellenism and neo-classicism during the romantic era. This leads, quickly, into neo-classical and romantic paintings both from the estate of Cornelius Gurlitt as well as, pointedly, by Gurlitt’s own family members: his great uncle Louis Gurlitt’s Akropolis (c.1958) or his aunt Cornelia Gurlitt’s untitled works on paper from 1917. Aside from giving a glimpse into the interesting (and in part destructive) historical alliance between German culture and the ancient world, it leaves a bitter note. It’s hard not to think that here art itself is being villainized; culture in general placed in a damning relationship to forms of political terror and and economic oppression.
While a line is sketched between German philosophical pursuit in the early 1800s to colonial exploitation it remains a hazy one. Works by the Grimm brothers present caricatures of African people – a shameful and brutal typological oppression. Yet there is a lack of engagement on the critical legacy of the German philosophical models that are referenced, including reflection, for instance, on notions of ‘cosmopolitanism’, such as were already being considered by Immanuel Kant. It was Kant, after all, whom Beckett read while in Germany in the 1930s. Indeed, Kant himself was a critic of colonialism and slavery, devoting a 1795 text to condemning it. Yet in place of this balanced historical attention, there is a unilateral conflation of nation-building, romanticism, and artistic modernism that strikes me as both historically imprecise and conceptually confused.
The exhibition culminates, meanly, with two works by Maria Eichhorn which drive home the somewhat distorted facts of this exhibition. A tower of works show books stolen from Jewish owners that are still held in the state libraries of Berlin. The accusatory tone of this work resonates with many works in which art is forced to recognize its sense of complicity with the structures of oppression and subjugation – while offering nothing in its place. Overall, one is left to suspect that the fundamental structure of this presentation, and the curatorial line, is a religious one: guilty, yes, but also demanding penitence, atonement, confession – but granting no absolution. So it is a relief to see the religious arguments pointed at by R.H. Quaytman, who has centred her project on Paul Klee and Martin Luther: Klee, it was discovered recently, painted his famous Angelus Novus (1920) on an image transfer depicting Luther.
This year’s documenta suffers, I think, from two distinct mistakes. The first is the demeaning of artwork to act as footnotes for critical arguments, a status of ‘evidence’ for historical and political catastrophes that the exhibition attempts to counter. The second is the imprecision with which these critical arguments are articulated. The works at the Neue Galerie valiantly attempt to construct an accusatory revision of art historical norms and canons. Yet this venue left me wanting, quite simply, for either aesthetic experience or philosophical depth. What results is ultimately a loveless, at times self-hating presentation that, while historically interesting, meanly subordinates art – and by implication all of us – into structures of guilt, and reparation with no chance of repayment. I, for one, share in the belief of Bode himself, as well as the numerous artists and curators who have participated past editions of this important show, that art can emerge from the ruins on its own. When we deny art’s inherent critical and autonomous potential, it’s our own power that we overestimate.
Main image: works by Lorenza Böttner, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14