dOCUMENTA (13) is vast, even by Documenta standards. Works by some 190 artists occupy multiple venues and are individually sited as far as the pedestrian-spectator can go – to a river’s edge, beyond the baroque Karlsaue Park and down train tracks, where Kassel’s armaments factories stood during World War II. The exhibition takes at least four or five days to see, and that’s before you’ve taken in any of its public programme of lectures, seminars, screenings, performances, hypnotisms, etc., or begun reading its 100 commissioned essays – by luminaries including Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Judith Butler, Susan Buck-Morss, Boris Groys, Donna Haraway, Suely Rolnik and Michael Taussig – gathered in the hernia-inducing, tree-gorging catalogue The Book of Books. Look in the companion publication, The Guidebook, and you see that Kassel is billed as just one of four dOCUMENTA (13) sites: an exhibition, workshops and seminars have also been held in Kabul, Alexandria/Cairo and Banff – locations that for the curators correspond to the existential conditions of being under siege, in hope and in retreat. To the average three-day visitor, it appears endless and partially virtual – the exhibition in all its dimensions is only really available to its core curatorial team, if that. A large part of it must live in one’s head.
dOCUMENTA (13) lacks an overall concept and doesn’t feel master-planned; instead it appears to have self-generated, like a huge organism. Its mathematical emblem would be the Fibonacci sequence, icon of Arte Povera, to which Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has devoted much of her career. The dialogic and associative processes of research amongst artistic director, core team and successively recruited artistic and intellectual participants are everywhere apparent in the exhibition’s physical and discursive formation. This sense of proliferation, intuitively and relationally arrived at, tends to keep dOCUMENTA (13) dynamic and performative. While it has its more flatfooted sequences (there are too many indifferent art works occupying prefab, pop-up white cubes in the park, for instance), rarely does it feel overwhelmed by its scale, ambition or expectations. The general direction of the show is centrifugal, its diverging and far-reaching trajectories rendered meaningful by a sophisticated, ironic play around the idea of its centre – in display terms, the Fridericianum Museum and, in geohistorical terms, Kassel itself, the former often acting as metonym for the latter.
Built in 1779, the neo-classical Fridericianum was one of the world’s first public museums. During World War II, Allied bombs ruined it and much of the city – Kassel was an important centre for tank, aeroplane and train manufacture, as well as a military HQ. Reconstructed, the museum remains a potent symbol of Enlightenment in crisis, and on entering it appears the building has been evacuated. An unseasonal breeze courses through the building (Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize [The Invisible Pull], 2012), as if the museum’s windows were still blasted. There are few other signs of life in these large, ground-floor rooms, and those there are speak of suspension, abdication, displacement and substitution: a long heartrending letter from an artist explaining how personal crisis has forced him to withdraw (Kai Althoff); the politically and logistically improbable journey of a Picasso from the Netherlands to Palestine (Khaled Hourani); Tammy Wynette forever stuck on the line ‘I’ll just keep on’, never quite reaching ‘Til I get it right’, the song’s eponymous lyrical and melodic resolution (Ceal Floyer). A spare, isolated display of small abstract sculptures by Julio González is presented exactly as it was in Documenta II in 1959, enacting a tear in time that reminds us of Documenta’s founding mission to reconnect Germany to international Modernism, and modernity in general, after the catastrophe of fascism.
Behind this curatorial play of absences and hauntings, past a glass wall inscribed with the apt ‘The Middle of the Middle of the Middle of’, in Lawrence Weiner’s familiar font, within the Fridericianum’s cranial rotunda, is what Christov-Bakargiev calls the ‘brain’, a densely choreographed collection of small objects from disparate epochs and cultures – a mind-map and microcosm of dOCUMENTA (13) as a whole. The most compelling theme the ‘brain’ introduces is what could be described as the biography of objects, biographies that allow the artists and curators to establish affinities and correspondences between different cultural, historical and disciplinary spaces and temporalities. A collection of small vessels is extraordinary because they were the props used by Giorgio Morandi for his intensely neutral still lifes, and paradoxical because these objects are themselves painted by Morandi. In a photograph made with David E. Scherman, Lee Miller is having a bath; it’s a seemingly ordinary scene, but this is Adolf Hitler’s bathroom in his apartment in Munich, and he will commit suicide that same day – 30 April 1945 – in his Berlin bunker. Earlier that day, Miller had taken photographs in Dachau, which would traumatize her for some time – we see her muddy boots by the bath. The Nazi-approved neo-classical statue of a female nude, which in the photograph echoes Miller’s naked torso, also makes a physical appearance in the ‘brain’, alongside a monogrammed towel belonging to Hitler and a perfume bottle belonging to his wife Eva Braun. Elsewhere, a perfectly circular ‘bomb pond’, made by an American bomb in a Cambodian rice-field, forms part of the photographic series ‘Takeo’ (2009) by the young Cambodian artist Vandy Rattana, while an antique exhibit from the National Museum in Beirut was transformed into a fusion of metal, ivory, glass and terracotta by the bombs that fell there during the Lebanese civil war (1975–90) and thus given a new abstract beauty. Exquisite ‘Bactrian Princesses’ or earth goddesses, carved by unknown artisans in Central Asia from variously coloured minerals and small enough to hold in one’s hand, have, miraculously, survived four or five millennia unscathed in relative obscurity.
Objects in dOCUMENTA (13) – the majority of which are the work of artists – are primarily valued for their encoded social, political and cultural relations, even when they are singularly authored. The exhibition approaches objects as quasi-subjects, unfolding the histories that have shaped them and that they have in turn shaped. The method is textual, forensic, archaeological. As Paul Chan says in a commissioned interview: ‘A thing is not a thing but an assembly of relations.’ The objects and images in the ‘brain’ and elsewhere are prized for the complexity, intensity and heterogeneity of their social lives: these are objects that are ‘eccentric’, ‘destroyed’, ‘have lost something’, were ‘stolen, hidden or disguised’, that are ‘in refuge’, are ‘traumatized’ or are ‘transitional’, in the words of Christov-Bakargiev.
Many of the best art works in dOCUMENTA (13) relate to this approach to objects in the ‘brain’, involving acts of recovery and retrieval, of adaptation and transformation, of combination and re-contextualization, beginning with objects and materials that are already explicitly ‘assembl[ies] of relations’. In Allora & Calzadilla’s video Raptor’s Rapture (2012), installed in the Weinberg Bunker (which housed up to 10,000 civilians during war-time air raids), a musician, specializing in prehistoric instruments, tries to serenade a griffon vulture with a 35,000-year-old flute made from the wing bone of that same species. The flute, discovered in Germany recently, is the oldest known instrument, so is symbolic of the dawn of human culture, while the griffon vulture, a European scavenger with huge wingspan and a name that derives from a mythical, monstrous creature (the griffin), is close to extinction. The performance is a failure. Echoing the species’ existential predicament, all the musician can draw from the delicate perforated bone is a soft wheeze. In a single performative assemblage, Allora & Calzadilla merge human and avian destinies and the disciplines of zoology, ecology, archaeology, musicology and classical myth.
Often, artists in the exhibition transpose material from one historically and culturally resonant condition to another, suggesting alternative trajectories history might have taken or might still take. In the second part of Wael Shawky’s two-part video Cabaret Crusade (2012), antique Italian puppets become specific historical protagonists in an ingenious re-telling of the first and second Crusades from an Arab perspective, through subtle shifts in the marionettes’ costumes and beautifully crafted sets. In another highlight in the Neue Galerie, Geoffrey Farmer replays the hegemonic American version of postwar history as an absurdly bucolic Midwestern pop prairie formed from tens of thousands of illustrations from Life magazine, each on its own ‘stem’. Over in the documenta-Halle, in another act of virtuoso cultural metamorphosis, Thomas Bayrle has made Tibetan mandala-like choreography from reconfigured and animated engines, a reminder of Kassel’s fateful wartime industries.
For What Dust Will Rise? (2012), one of a number of works that establishes mirror relations between the destruction of Kassel and Kabul (specifically, the Fridericianum and the neo-classical ruins of Darulaman Palace), Michael Rakowitz organized workshops to revive traditional stone-carving skills in Bamiyan, close to where the giant sixth-century Buddhas stood until dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. The participants carved some 40 life-size medieval books from Bamiyan’s rosy stone, basing the pseudo-artefacts on descriptions of precious books that belonged to the library in the Fridericianum, largely destroyed in the blitzes. By crossing heterogeneous form and material, Rakowitz and his Afghan collaborators forged a new mnemonic and somewhat redemptive hybrid between two previously singular acts of traumatic iconoclasm. Nearby in the Fridericianum, where that same library had been kept, Emily Jacir presented images she stealthily took with a camera-phone of books previously owned by Palestinian institutions and civilians that were looted by the Israeli military in 1948 and that now reside in the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem classified – like so much of what rightly belongs to Palestinians – as ‘Abandoned Property’. The exhibition repeatedly implies that iconoclasm – the destruction or disappearance of a people’s culture – is the inevitable, necessary prelude and accompaniment to ‘ethnic cleansing’.
dOCUMENTA (13) approaches objects as quasi-subjects, unfolding the histories that have shaped them and that they in turn have shaped.
Where art works are in traditional media, made from scratch (to set aside their chemical, biological and industrial pre-histories), they tend to be historic inclusions, objects that share an extraordinary historical trajectory with their senior or late authors: for example, the delicate, Cubistic watercolours by Konrad Zuse from the 1920s, a key inventor of the computer and a self-taught artist, or the extraordinary diaristic and dramaturgical text paintings from 1941–2 of Charlotte Salomon, who was murdered in a concentration camp, that recount Jewish life under the shadow of Nazism. These historical inclusions, subtly and adroitly chosen, acted as bridges between projects by contemporary artists and objects with no disciplinary relation to art. Gustav Metzger’s David Bomberg-influenced sketches from the 1940s and ’50s are inseparable from the loss of his family to the Holocaust, his later invention of Auto-Destructive art and the drawings’ invisibility for six decades. By contrast, the charmingly folkloric style of Cambodian artist Vann Nath’s paintings jars with the first-hand recollections of torture by the Khmer Rouge that they depict, while Dinh Q. Lê, whose family was driven into exile by the Khmer Rouge, has curated a lyrical exhibition of observational drawings by artists in the Vietcong of downtimes between engaging the enemy.
These lives of art works and objects, and the trans-national, trans-cultural and trans-historical conditions they interconnect is an important leitmotif in an exhibition dedicated to unfolding less anthropocentric, less Eurocentric and more ecologically minded forms of agency and intelligence. These forms include the genetic plurality of biodiversity; animistic encounters between humans, animals and plants; the mathematical trajectories of cosmic bodies; and the artificial and independent intelligences of computing and cybernetic systems.
The Lebanese poet and painter Etel Adnan occupies a special place in the 13th edition of Documenta, the international exhibition of contemporary art that opens every five years and lasts for a hundred days in the central German city of Kassel. The current iteration of the event, led by the curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and known typographically as documenta (13), spreads across more than 30 venues, including museums, parks, dilapidated houses, derelict cinemas, the grand ballroom of a downtrodden hotel, a department store, a parking garage, a train station, a hospital and a bunker. It features the contributions of some 300 participants, including not only artists but also writers, philosophers, political theorists and a slew of experts and scholars from the natural and social sciences. And still, despite being just one among such an enormous exhibition of so many players and constituent parts – and a petite, unassuming, octogenarian at that – Adnan is everywhere.
Her palette knife is on display in the rotunda of the Fridericianum, where it sits in a glass case next to a pair of objects borrowed from Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture. Fusions of metal, ivory, stone and glass, those objects are amalgamations of archaeological artefacts that were melted together and totally transformed during the early stages of Lebanon’s 1975–90 civil war, when militiamen occupied Beirut’s National Museum, shelled the city and, in the process, set fire to a storage area where part of the collection had been moved. In a gallery on the upper level of the Fridericianum, a letter Adnan wrote on behalf of a project Christov-Bakargiev hoped (and failed) to realize is tacked to a piece of wood, lending elegance to an argument about the wisdom of moving a meteorite – Argentina’s 37-tonne rock known as El Chaco – halfway around the world to an idyllic, small-town, three-month-long art show. Thirty-eight of Adnan’s delicate, diminutive, untitled paintings from 1959–2010, oscillating as you approach them between landscapes and abstractions, line the walls of another gallery on the ground floor of the documenta-Halle, the glass-fronted exhibition venue down the street. There is a riotous tapestry in there, too, called Jazz (1999).
During the first week of June, the old Bali cinema in the half-used local train station, the Hauptbahnhof, hosted a screening of Adnan’s first-ever film, Motion (2012), a 90-minute collage of super-8 film stock she shot in New York in the 1960s. For the rest of that month, Adnan was the star of the writer’s residency programme ‘Chorality: On Retreat’, which is being staged in a Chinese restaurant at the far end of the Karlsaue, the baroque public park where 51 other art works for dOCUMENTA (13) have been placed, planted, buried, hidden or housed in their own purpose-built shacks (other residents in the programme include the French-Afghani filmmaker Atiq Rahimi and the Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli). Lastly, two new books by or about Adnan have been published on the occasion of the event. One is a slim yet potent pamphlet titled The Cost for Love We Are not Willing to Pay, which was number six in dOCUMENTA (13)’s terrific series of 100 tiny notebooks, none more than 50 pages long, which were published separately in the years and months running up to the exhibition opening and have since been collated as The Book of Books. The other is a more substantial, self-titled monograph of Adnan’s paintings – plus drawings, tapestries, accordion-folded artists’ books and other ephemera – featuring interviews with the artist by Christov-Bakargiev and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and a text about her work by Adnan’s longtime partner, the sculptor and publisher Simone Fattal, founder of the avant-garde Post-Apollo Press.
In her book about painting the same Californian mountain day after day, year after year, Etel Adnan declares: 'I write was I see, I paint what I am.'
What accounts for such generous and sustained interest in Adnan? Until a few years ago, she was best known as a literary figure and the author of Sitt Marie-Rose (1978), a lean and forceful novel about a woman who was kidnapped during Lebanon’s civil war and killed for her commitment to the Palestinian cause. Her paintings are adored for their attention to light, colour and texture, but her practice is primarily that of a writer with a mark-making ritual that brings focus and clarity to her work. No one has wrestled the experiences of Beirut into words with as much brutal honesty or rueful devotion as Adnan. Her writing is as fiercely complex and political as her paintings are serenely spare and personal. Not for nothing did Adnan write, in Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986), her book about therapeutically painting the same Californian mountain day after day, year after year: ‘I write what I see, I paint what I am.’
dOCUMENTA (13) isn’t the first art world event to embrace Adnan as a visual artist. Nor is Adnan the only female artist in the show whose work Christov-Bakargiev has discovered and contextualized anew. The exhibition spaces of the Fridericianum are particularly rich in this regard, with Hannah Ryggen’s wildly graphic wool and linen tapestries, such as Ethiopia (1935); selections from Charlotte Salomon’s visceral series of 769 gouaches, Life? Or Theater? A Play With Music (1941); and Anna Boghiguian’s Unfinished Symphony (2011–12), a rowdy installation of back-lit drawings, twigs and a makeshift military barracks with a peep show. But Adnan’s multi-faceted presence is also an important mark of Christov-Bakargiev’s interests in abstraction, feminism and environmentalism, which recur throughout the exhibition and give dOCUMENTA (13) a crucial, if largely invisible, internal support structure. Moreover, Adnan has been responding to wars and unconscionable acts of violence with great sensitivity and steadfastness for more than half a century. Her commitment to her role as an increasingly endangered species of public intellectual, and her belief in the capacity of her art not only to make sense of the world but to allow her to fall in love with it over and over again – these are the qualities of work and living through work, as Adnan so brilliantly does, that give Christov-Bakargiev’s exhibition its heart.
That is not to say that the heart of dOCUMENTA (13) remains entirely untroubled. The exhibition as a whole has its share of dark shadows, murmurs and arrhythmic echoes. The workshops, seminars and exhibitions in Kabul and Cairo in particular have raised important and uncomfortable questions about what it means for an institution of Documenta’s size and scale to travel. In the world beyond Kassel, the exhibition is an unsettled entity; it has yet to prove itself a model of good or meaningful engagement, capable of relating to communities of artists and curators in their own fragile ecosystems, or able to act gracefully in situations of considerable political upheaval, ambiguity and uncertainty. But whatever the problems between the core and the periphery of this show may be, Christov-Bakargiev seems to have anticipated and created alibis for them all. There may be something rotten in the heart of the exhibition, but there is certainly something rotten in heart of humanity – and Documenta is distinguished among all other perennial exhibitions of its kind in that it was founded to address precisely that notion of damage and decay.
The painter and teacher Arnold Bode created Documenta in 1955 in the aftermath of World War II, in an attempt to suture the wounds of that conflict and stitch Germany back into European culture. Bode’s own work had been banned by the Nazis, and the first exhibition was dedicated to art that had been deemed ‘degenerate’ by the Third Reich. That was how Documenta aligned itself with history in 1955. In 2012, Christov-Bakargiev has not only honoured her lineage and scattered her exhibition with self-referential moments recalling past editions of the event – including an embroidered tapestry by Alighiero Boetti that was planned to be shownat Documenta V in 1972 but never arrived – she has also tied dOCUMENTA (13) to the wars and upheavals of our time – or, at least, to some of them.
Consider the conflict that is, in the world of this exhibition, the freshest and most painfully raw: the Syrian crisis. This is witnessed through the video footage gathered by Rabih Mroué to create one of his ‘non-academic lectures’, The Pixelated Revolution (2012), a performance he presented for the opening of dOCUMENTA (13) at the Staatstheater Kassel, which grafts the rules of the Danish film collective Dogme 95 onto the making of activist video footage by protesters against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Or Mroué’s related installation at the Hauptbahnhof, which consist of sounds, projected pictures and flip books trying to pick apart the political, ethical and philosophical implications of an artist using an image of a sniper shooting an image-maker who is definitely anonymous and, in the time of our looking, possibly dead.
Six weeks before dOCUMENTA (13) opened, Christov-Bakargiev presented the ‘Notebooks’ project in Beirut, where she explained that because Lebanon’s population was so small, it actually had the highest density of artists per country in the whole of the exhibition. The so-called Beirut School – including Mroué, Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari – is particularly strong on notions of a post-traumatic art practice, but its members also complicate the genre in interesting, conceptually clever and intellectually searching ways. And so, Raad’s astringent performance and sizable exhibition of works associated with the long-term project Scratching on Things I Could Disavow (2007–ongoing) delve into the after-effects of violence in the Middle East that are not only political but also economic, such as the creation of a retirement fund for artists that blithely hops across the major fault line of the Arab–Israeli conflict, or the construction of new museum projects in the Gulf, or the movement of Raad’s own work in relation to art-historical narratives in different places and times that exert various pressures on him, which at one point appear to drive the artist-as-performer insane.
Zaatari’s two-part contribution to dOCUMENTA (13) similarly challenges the expectations audiences may bring by casting his latest works on archives not in the context of politics, history and memory but rather as a love story for two men played by three actors, in the black and white, 16mm silent film The End of Time (2012), and as a mentor–apprentice drama in Time Capsule (2012), an extended performance for which the artist buried a concrete-encased collection of small monochromatic paintings – a tribute to an unnamed photographer said to be losing his sight – in a hole in the ground that was dug next to the Fulda River in the Karlsaue Park, with four spokes of rebar marking the spot. A complex piece in Zaatari’s overall oeuvre, Time Capsule not only serves as a sort of sequel to the artist’s earlier video In This House (2005), for which he unearthed a letter buried by leftist militants in 1991 (right after the Lebanese Civil War ended), it also links the experience of the Arab Image Foundation, which Zaatari co-founded in 1997 (he recently resigned from the organization’s board, which inspired the time capsule project), to that of Beirut’s National Museum, where dOCUMENTA (13)’s team found the wrecked objects that are now on view with Adnan’s painting tool in the rotunda of the Fridericianum.
Hassan Khan’s mesmerizing and meticulous nine-part video Blind Ambition (2012) likewise refuses to satisfy the shallow end of curiosity about art and the Arab Spring. Shot on a mobile phone with actors cast in situations where the social bonds are composed of idle talk – conversation as material – the piece offers an incredibly complex, jigsaw-puzzle picture of class relations in Cairo – all of which preceded and persisted through the thwarted 18-day revolution that began in Egypt on 25 January 2011. Paired with The Knot (2012), a sculpture of a rope tied into a figure-eight and made out of frosted glass, Khan’s work for dOCUMENTA (13) is tough-minded, precise and uncompromising in its commitment to form.
What is striking about the high number of works of art in the exhibition that are somehow related to the Arab world or the Middle East is that none of them confer a cheap or easy sense of timeliness on Christov-Bakargiev’s project. Her exhibition is neither political nor apolitical but digs somehow deeper. That she has chosen to show a number of artists who work in challenging conditions – with high probabilities for conflict and low levels of support from arts institutions or cultural infrastructures – seems to reaffirm what may sound trite but is effectively dOCUMENTA (13)’s sweetest and most profound gift to its visitors: its strange and tender love for what art has been and may no longer be. ‘The riddle of art is that we do not know what it is until it is no longer that which it was,’ Christov-Bakargiev writes in her essay entitled ‘The dance was very frenetic, lively, rattling, clanging, rolling, contorted, and lasted for a long time’, this text comes closest to laying down her dense pattern of ideas in lieu of an irreducible curatorial concept. The fact that her exhibition so trenchantly blends contemporary productions with objects and artefacts and other material remains that are thousands of years old is not only an indication that this edition has freed Documenta of any pulse-taking, new-art-now surveying obligation. It is also an act of mourning, an unabashedly romantic embrace of the ruin and the start of a probing inquiry into how knowledge is produced and shared and passed from one generation to the next, reaching way back into history and going forward from now. Under all of this is the queasy, unspoken idea that Documenta matters so much because people are odd enough beings to love unequivocally the weird things and awkward situations they call art at the expense of their time, energy, livelihood and inexhaustible willingness for the enrichment of argument.
This is where Adnan’s essay for the ‘Notebooks’ series comes in. She writes of her love for the sea, a mountain, the curve of someone’s back, the length of an eyebrow, the beginning of a smile. But she writes most passionately of her love for a statue in a museum, an inanimate object that stirred in her the capacity to love another woman, a life in all its difficulties, the planet in all its natural disasters and manmade deformations, the world in all its terrible and unforgivable flaws. ‘Love in all its forms is the most important matter that we will ever face, but also the most dangerous, the most unpredictable, the most maddening,’ Adnan writes. ‘It is also the only salvation I know.’
First published in Issue 149