The second of our editors’ first impressions from Kassel, Harry Thorne on the Neue Neue Galerie
Tell me this isn’t déjà vu. Tell me I haven’t been here before. A month ago I was at the Venice Biennale, in Anne Imhof’s German pavilion, and I found myself standing over a body in motion, moving and flexing as if fighting underwater. Now I’m in Kassel, in the Neue Hauptpost (documenta is calling it the Neue Neue Galerie), a former post office and mail distribution centre, and it’s happening again. Below me, a figure enacting Maria Hassabi’s performance STAGING: Solo (2017), iterations of which are strewn across the venue’s two floors, is struggling in unnaturally slow motion. Clad in blues, tartans, pinks, and stripes, he lies and slowly extends each and every limb in an attempt to make it across a wide finish line of pink paint. The would-be-escapee is illuminated by a second work from the Cypriot artist: STAGING: Lighting Wall #1 (2017), a square of wall-mounted LED Par lights. Set beneath this blinding glare, it's hard to know whether our figure is a star beneath a spotlight, or a fugitive illuminated by a pursuing military faction. Either way, he is set in our sights; set within a performance that will never allow his body to cross that line.
A separate breakaway is attempted in Daniel García Andujar’s The Disasters of War/Trojan Horse (2017), a tall grouping of Grecian statues held in place by wooden crates (curiously, the first of very few works to actually reference documenta’s recent sojourn in Greece). Two fractured upper bodies hold discuses; a Trojan helmet sits proudly without its host; Cupid, nonchalant, prepares his bow. These are stories, lessons, legacies (all three words should be prefaced: ‘masculine’) frozen in time and place only to be revived at a later date when some generation or geography might lose its way. At the crest of the assemblage, a female figure has somehow broken away. Free, naked, unashamed, she stands with a fist in the air; no longer satisfied with re-enactments of old tales, but ready to act. The Disasters of War/Trojan Horse originates from a consideration of the practice of securing and preserving classical sculptures during periods of civil unrest – on a nearby wall, amidst a series of images tracing a non-linear history of dictatorship and despotic rule, is an extensive list of riots that have occurred since 2000. What does it mean for state-run institutions to refuse these sculptures the right to be influenced by social change? What does it mean for state run institutions to refuse society the right to influence these sculptures? While history preserves, memorializes, teaches, it also holds things in place – it preaches lethargic repetition of impulse and ideology and, in doing so, negates progression. As we move forward, should we not see history as something to mourn, but something to build upon? Something to clamber over as we reach, thrust fist first, for something better?
Outmoded narratives, philosophies and systems of regulation are taken to task in a number of surrounding works. In Ross Birrell’s inkjet prints, Criollo (2017), for instance, we visit Buenos Aires, and a statue commemorating General José de San Martin, who is remembered on the back of a rearing bronze horse. In the foreground of Birrell’s photographs stands an actual horse, more apprehensive than war-ready. We follow the equine protagonist into a video of the same name, where it nervously attempts to make sense of the New York streets – a very different battleground, but a battleground nonetheless. For Birrell, as for Andujar, history can be celebrated, retold, but it should not be taken as the final act.
Carving through the centre of Neue Neue’s main room, Theo Eshetu’s video Atlas Fractured (2017) is projected onto a vast banner that the artist salvaged from the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in 2014. The tapestry is emblazoned with five masks, and is subtitled with the five regions represented in the museum’s collection: Afrika, Amerika, Ozeanien, Asien, Europa. Eshetu’s projections onto this all but obliterate any distinctions between the regions. Ghostly faces blur in and out of the fabric, suggesting identities but refusing to settle, while a frenetic soundtrack moves from the music of Greek composer Petros Tabouris and Glasgow-based producer Koreless to quotations from Hannah Arendt and Charlie Chaplin. The work, which uses these voices as proxies to denounce hyper-capitalist ideologies and neo-liberal notions of competition, is far from subtle. But there is something engaging about the sheer bravado of the piece, from scale to sound to subject. There is something vitalizing about hearing a multitude of voices in unison as they proclaim a single message of tolerance and transnationalism. Subtlety is overrated, anyway. Chaplin, his face stretching from floor to ceiling, his toothbrush moustache still inspiring sideways glances, is emphatic: 'More than machinery, we need humanity'.
This drive to inspire a reinvestment in humanity via artistic process and product, as well as to divulge information and disseminate knowledge to the many (not the few), stitches together a number of otherwise disparate projects. Take Carved to Flow (2017), which has seen Otobong Nkanga produce 45,000 bars of black, marbled soap in Athens, following a number of educational workshops. The practical skills will remain in the Grecian capital, but the bars themselves have made their way to Kassel: some wrapped in tight, circular columns in one of the many loading bays that flank Neue Neue’s main space; some stacked in a wall in the neighbouring Glass Pavilions; others on the streets, being sold for a fee that will ultimately be reinvested in the initiative. A vivid presentation of recent geometric paintings by Rasheed Araeen are flanked by the bare structural chairs and tables of The Reading Room (2016/17), which allows visitors to peruse copies of Third Text, a critical journal centred around art and post-colonialism that the artist founded in 1987. In an upstairs room, Moyra Davey picks up on this idea of knowledge circulation and communication within social groups with an ongoing series of photographs that have been folded into envelopes at sent to the documenta curators. Paul B. Preciado received an image of autumnal leaves resting in mud; Adam Szymczyk, a bold, graceful letter Z, surrounded by Greek cursive. (A proposition: Zeta derives from Zayin, the seventh letter of the Semitic abjads, which originally demoted a weapon or a sword. Be bold, Adam. Or, perhaps, arm yourself.)
The Society of Friends of Halit are a conglomerate of international activists, researchers, and artists brought together to investigate the murder of 21-year-old Halit Yozgat, who in 2006 was shot in a Kassel internet café by the neo-Nazi organization National Socialist Underground. The German secret service agent Andreas Temme, who was in the very same café as Halit when he was murdered, claims not to have heard the gunshot. The Society believes the judicial system is supressing this evidence. With 77sqm_9:26min (2017), they open the findings of their counter-investigation to the public. In a large-scale installation, we are presented with paper copies of the suit, digital mock-ups of the crime scene, recorded testimonies, harrowing footage of Turkish-heritage Germans mourning in the streets of Kassel and, perhaps most surprisingly, an art rediscovering its unifying potential and its oft-questioned ability to affect real-time politics.
Above the main postal hall of Neue Neue there is a fully functioning gym – McFit. As you wander the space, considering the enforced devolution of cultural practices criticised by Máret Ánne Sara or Gordon Hookey, or the excavation of a conflicting personal history that plays out in Arin Rungjang’s touching film 246247596248914102516... And then there were none (2017), you will occasionally make out short, rapid-fire bursts of feet landing above, or the dull thuds of dumbbells dropping to a cushioned floor. This unexpected soundtrack took me back to Mark Greif’s essay ‘Against Exercise’, in which he writes: ‘Nothing can make you believe we harbour nostalgia for factory work but a modern gym.’ There is nostalgia here too, I think, amongst the work: nostalgia for a time when things were connected but fluid, when bodies could occupy space without resistance, when language was malleable, imposed systems of control absent and knowledge freely transferrable. Whether this time existed in the first place is another question (sadly, I suspect not), but there does seem to be a tangible longing for something that is now lost. It is, however, a generative longing. As with Grief’s gym-goers, who actively assuage their wistfulness within the battleground of McFit, or something similar, a number of works presented at Neue Neue refuse to revel in their lack. Instead, they lay the foundations for a new campaign, one that would not ‘unlearn in order to learn’ (a naïve and counterintuitive proposal that the curators of this exhibition seem curiously devoted to), but would allow itself to be educated by the misgiving and misanthropy of the past as it toils, sweats and stretches towards something that might be a better fit.
As I descended the stairs to leave Neue Neue Galerie, considering how I would ever tempt an article on this fractious (at times dislocated, at times contradictory, at times down right confusing) presentation to a natural close, I found my path blocked by another of Hassabi's bodies, still striving, like the first, towards some unseen finish line. I recognized this body. Actually, I recognized this very performer. I had been standing over him in Venice one month before.
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Maria Hassabi, STAGING: Lighting Wall #1, 2017, installation view, Neue Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14. Photograph: Mathias Völzke