Title : Nedko Solakov, Knights (and other dreams), 2010–12, Multilayered media, Dimensions variable, Courtesy Nedko Solakov; Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Le Moulin, Commissioned and co-produced by dOCUMENTA (13), Photo: Richard Kasiewicz
Website : http://d13.documenta.de/
5 Days at documenta: diary notes
by Harun Morrison
How do you write about documenta? Can it be treated like any other group show? The scale of the exhibition is such, that if you are dealing with a given 1500 word limit, many names will be excluded, and so the text, failing to be inclusive, must engage in the politics of representation and exclusion that so concern documenta 13.
Having made the most of Ryan Air’s £16 London to Frankfurt deal, taken the 2hr coach to the station, then the ICE train to Kassel, simple questions of the economics of travel and mobility ricochet in my head. How a train ride within Germany compares with a train ride in London, with a flight across Europe. . . The role of petroleum, who has it, who can process it - is surely one of the drivers of scarily cheap international travel. Coupled with the Internet, these drivers enable and catalyze the circulation of images and ideas motoring globalisation, and correspondingly the contemporary art world’s connectivity.
I was in Calgary, Alberta earlier this year; and wandered through the glass and steel facades of Canada’s wealthiest province. It is home to numerous oil companies, many of them sponsors of the arts. The environmental costs of extraction of oil from the tar sands has been the focal point of much controversy and debate. The province is home to the Rocky Mountains and Banff - one of the other sites of documenta 13 beyond Kassel. The others being Alexandria in Cairo and Kabul in Afghanistan. The latter, a current site of military conflict, notably resourced with oil. (There is a fascinating dialogue in the ‘log book’ that contemplates how the reductive media representation of Afghanistan can be negotiated by voices in contemporary art.)
Back in Germany the Oberste Gasse, formerly the Elisabeth Hospital, hosts a number of works by Afghani artists. A photography series by Zalmaiï, ‘Ghost War. Playing With Empires’ (2012) echoes the repurposing of the exhibition space, with its depiction of alternative uses of the detritus of the successive armies that have fought on, over or above, the country’s soil. Weeks after my visit I mentally return to the image of a militia man submerged to his waist in the sea featured in Lida Abdul’s ‘What have we overlooked’ (2011). If these projects deal with the abundance of corporation style news footage as the normative visual representation of military conflict through appropriation, then Abdul Qasem Foushanji’s installation of black marker jottings and graffitti across the space’s white tiles, coupled with a polyphonic soundscape, performs a more overtly personal response: humorous, angry and confused.
Not far away is the Fridericianum, the space described by documenta 13 curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev as the exhibition’s ‘brain room’. A gentle breeze pervaded the ground floor space. Here there was none of the emphasis on national identity placed on the largely Afghani artists in the Oberste Gasse. Recurrent through the ‘brain room’ was a jumbling of time. The first noticeable work I encountered was a group of figurative sculptures, presented with a photograph of a much earlier documenta in which the work first appeared. As two young women turned a corner their hair blew upwards - this must be the Ryan Gander work, I’d heard about. Literally circulating through documenta. I was intrigued that a gesture so determinedly low key, subtle and immaterial, drawing on a wealth of phenomenological positions was pleasantly functional too. Negotiating the bustling crowd becomes an inevitable aspect of the experience of these large-scale art events; the ventilating service of the work was very appreciated. The unexpected comic potential of Gander’s oft-repeated strategy of camouflage in the everyday, came to the fore at another exhibition site, the Orangerie, where according to the map there was a Gander work in the cafe, perhaps near one of Susan Hiller’s jukeboxes of protest songs? A friend insisted his work was a bowl of oranges. Catching my eye another bewildered visitor, simply giggled ‘No Ryan Gander?’. The official guidebook later clarified things. . .
The poignancy of failure, was elegantly communicated in Ceal Floyer’s 2005 soundwork ‘Til I get it right’ created from a short sample taken from Tammy Wynette’s song of the same name. Installed in a room which allowed you to look past the entrance on to the green in front of the Fridericianum, the passing of attendees, as though on a conveyor, created a second level of repetition, granting this intimate gesture a defiant, public, grandeur.
Through this window one could spy the tents and work of the ‘Occupy Kassel’; the day-glow or tie-dye colour schemes of the camp are disconcertingly uniform from one Occupy settlement to the other. (In Calgary the ‘occupation’ occurred on the Olympic Plaza, a post-modern square built for the 1988 Winter Games.) Those on this settlement had installed a sculptural array of white tent like structures with single words evocative of the current economic crisis. A plaque pointedly asserted it was not part of documenta.
Emily Jacir presented ‘ex libris’ a ghost of a library. The installation consisted of photographs of books printed on translucent plates. The original books were looted by the Israeli army from Palestine communities in 1948. Evoking the absence of the thing itself, leaving us to reconcile with the substitute, the trace of lost ideas has been materialised. The form of books as sculptural entity recurred repeatedly in the work of a number of artists. Mark Dion created a hexagonal oak wood display case for the Schildbach Xylotheque (or Wood Library) in the Ottoneum. The disjuncture of time was further heightened while coursing through this natural history museum. Replica skeletons of pre-historic aquatic animals followed the curvature of the stairs. An awkwardly made mammoth peered out from its own display, for an untranslatable reason a naturalistic model of a unicorn was accompanied by panel explaining the history of fictional animals. The wooden structure encasing yet more wood was charmingly self-reflexive, perhaps an exercise exploring materiality itself.
The presence of trees was manifest in work by Pierre Huyghe and Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller’s 28 minute audio installation, ‘FOREST (for a thousand years...)’ sited in a park’s cops. In the later, a score from speakers placed at various heights and locations in the trees themselves, brought to mind helicopters, axes, saws, plants wrenched from their roots. Huyge’s work located in the compost area of the park left its intentions ambiguous, leaving us to gauge where if anywhere the work began and the park ended. This compelling resistance to borders or clarification generated the poetry of a white dog, right leg dipped in pink dye breathing heavily on a mound of earth, while mounds of concrete paving stones lay nearby, piles of upturned trees (are they always there like that?) were drawn in to any reading, their roots in open air, felt explicit, a reclining statue of a woman, her head obscured encased by a bees’ nest. The sweet sickly smelling pollen. . . Later I see the white dog trotting by another installation in the Karlsaue. A brown dog white paws, one paw also dipped in pink momentarily appears. WTF?!!
The dog scampered by Shinro Ohtake’s architectural self-portrait: a ramshackle hut, draped with fishing nets, boats hoisted into trees, pages of 60s looking fashion catalogues, phones stripped of their casing, flashing screens converted in to other display mechanisms. This overt performance of the self, was equally self-evident in the dancers in Jerome Bel’s short film 'Disabled Theatre', in which the performers (with humour and self-knowing) proclaim their difference from the statistical norm. Celebratory dance to Abba. Unforgettable. Nedko Solokov fulfils a fantasy of being a Knight of the Crusades and a rock band drummer. . . simultaneously – a typically economic act of autobiography and personal mining of a historic encounter. Solokov’s skilled band mates wittily use his armour as a percussive surface for their drumming. Playing soldiers in both senses of the phrase. Wael Sharky’s visually sumptuous film, “Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo” (2012) re-enacts an account of the Crusades with hundred year old marionettes, finding a similarly indirect mode to broach a conflict usually represented in the clichéd manner of the Hollywood epic. Where do Solokov and Sharky meet in the desert?
At the train station I wander out to the platform and hear Susan Philipz's mournful distortion of fragments of a score rescued from a concentration camp. Janet Cardiff, commentates on the footage of a video recording of a series of ordinary and extraordinary moments she and Miller have staged in the Hauptbahnhof. It is punctured with their telling of the deportation of Jews from this station. The battery dies, there are black outs. I think of Tino Seghal’s choral beat boxers in the dark.