I have lived in Berlin for many years and, as I am kept busy with the spectacular array of cultural events that this city has to offer, I do not often venture to other parts of Germany. This year, however, I decided to go to Kassel, a provincial town that few people have heard of on the River Fulda in the German state of Hesse. Why would I leave the bright lights of Berlin to go to that backwater? Because Kassel is the unlikely home of one of the most famous art exhibitions on earth; it is called Documenta.
Once every five years, for 100 days in summer, Kassel hosts this fabulous exhibition that invites between one and two hundred artists from 56 countries to exhibit their work. It was established in 1955 by the artist, teacher and curator Arnold Bode, as part of the Bundesgartenschau (Federal Horticultural Show) which took place in Kassel at that time. In the meantime, Documenta has come to be regarded as the most important international exhibition of contemporary art. Organizers of Documenta typically give the artists they choose for the exhibit two years to plan and conceive their artwork, so some exhibits are quite elaborate and, indeed, intellectually complex. The name of the exhibition is a made up word, but intended to show that it is a documentation of art such as was prohibited in the Nazi era in Germany — the raison d’être of the first exhibition in 1955. Documenta this year is the thirteenth since 1955 and the logo “dOCUMENTA 13” with the first letter in lower case and the rest in upper case is influenced by Bauhaus style. The curator of Documenta 13 is Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev who is an Italian-American art historian, writer and curator.
My comrade-in-culture-chasing and I arrived at Kassel main station at 11 am after a nearly three-hour train ride from Berlin. The center of Kassel was nearly 90 percent destroyed by allied bombing raids in 1943. It was rebuilt quickly in the 1950’s and its architecture is functional, grey, austere, and quite ugly. The surrounding areas of Kassel, on the other hand, are beautiful and lush. The fantastic Baroque Karlsaue Park that runs along the River Fulda was landscaped in the 16th century, and since 2009 it belongs to the European Garden and Heritage Network. We immediately bought day tickets which we happily discovered cost a mere €20 (Euro) a piece. We had to decide and prioritize quickly what it was we wanted to get out of the day, especially as the exhibition is spread all over the city in many different venues.
We first headed to the old train station – the Kulturbahnhof – which adjoins an old factory that was used to manufacture military tanks for the National Socialist regime. It is rather a dreary building in an equally dreary, industrial landscape. However, inside this building was what had been recommended to us as one of the biggest attractions of Documenta this year: an installation by the South African artist William Kentridge, winner of the 2010 Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy. The piece is entitled The Refusal of Time and it is an awe-inspiring multi-media piece that runs for twenty-four minutes. The room is filled with movement, sound and picture as Kentridge illustrates society’s attempt at standardizing time in late 19th century Paris. He shows the invention of pressure clocks, the advance of maps, time zones and visions of attempts at control over time in that period. This was all then undermined by Einstein’s conception of time which killed the 19th century aspiration of having perfect control and synchronization of time. As soon as it was thought that perfect time was possible, it was proven to be impossible and civilization was forced to realize that it must deal with a new disorder. But, Kentridge proposes, out of this chaos new hope can be born.
The Kulturbahnhof also contained impressive exhibits by the Northern Irish photographer Willie Doherty, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2003, as well as a strange exhibit that depicted an entire sweatshop made out of wood, down to the power cords and scaffolding, entitled Ghostkeeping by the Hungarian artist Istvan Csakany.
Breaking for a quick lunch, we discussed the Kentridge installation that had impressed us greatly. The clocks of his exhibit reminded us that we were both in our mid-thirties, our biological clocks were ticking and we still had not found our ideal life partners. We noted with humor that the restaurant we had chosen was named ”Il Convento”.
Fully sated, and espresso drunk, we then walked to Friedrichsplatz which is one of the main squares of Kassel, to visit the Fridericianum Museum which houses a large selection of exhibits. In front of the museum we took in the Occupy Kassel activists who have set up their camp there. Documenta is very much a political exhibition and the philosophy of a lot of its artwork displays a belief that continuing economic growth is unsustainable in our modern world. Next to the camp, the Occupy activists have put up twenty-eight plain white tents with different words on them including greed, envy, gluttony, and so forth. The organizers of Documenta, in holding with the philosophy of the exhibition, have welcomed the Occupy Camp. The camp has even sprouted its own nickname: dOCCUPY, the added lower case “d” an ironic comment on the exhibition logo which, as above, is written as dOCUMENTA 13, and the branding of supplementary elements, such as the dMaps and dTours that are sponsored by Sparkasse; Sparkasse is one of Germany’s main banks which adds to the irony of the Occupy activist’s appropriation of their logo.
Among the works displayed at the Fridericianum Museum are those of the Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen, who is a self-taught weaver. Her beautiful and intricate tapestries depict the horrors of war. Images of Hitler, Mussolini, and figures from the Spanish Civil War which are both disturbing, and very beautiful. Also in the Fridericianum is an exhibit by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia entitled Repair fromOccident to Extra– Occidental Cultures. Like Hannah Ryggen, Attia depicts the horrors of war in a research project on the impacts and effects of Francophone colonialism. His exhibit is filled with African wood-carved busts of war-mangled faces. Starkly contrasted with these is a classical marble bust – a benefactor of the spoils of colonialism, perhaps. The entire time photos of horribly disfigured faces of European World War I soldiers are projected onto the wall of the gallery, so we see that the horrors of war are color blind.
Next stop was the Documenta Halle which was built in 1992 to help accommodate the growing exhibition. In here, I experienced the biggest contrast between two art exhibits in one building and it was astounding. Airplane by the Berlin born German Artist Thomas Bayrle and In search of Vanished Blood, by Karachi-born Nalini Malani. For me, these two installations summed up the differences between men and women that persist to this day despite all our advanced understanding of gender relations and theory.
Thomas Bayrle’s exhibit is very bleak and industrial and to my mind, very male. On the wall, there is a huge depiction of a gray airplane that is made up of many smaller images of airplanes. Spread around the room is a display of different engines from cars and planes that are laid bare for observation and are running and pumping the entire time. Bayrle sees the machines as a reflection of our bodies and he draws his inspiration from the precision of engineering for his artwork. As he says: “The engineer is a creative profession that deals with matter in a very real way, much like a doctor. I see this as an incentive. We who make art must strive for precision in our thinking and acting.” [sic]
Nalini Malani’s installation in the next room, on the other hand, struck me as being very female. Pervasive themes in Malani’s work are gender, feminism and displacement. In Search of Vanished Blood was a mesmerizing installation of 5 colorfully painted cylinders spinning from a high ceiling, with images painted on them. Light is projected onto the cylinders as they spin and the images are then projected onto the wall. It is accompanied by voices, sound and music and, like Kentridge’s installation, was a fabulous multimedia spectacle. To me, her installation portrayed female fear and aspiration in the modern world.
Another very impressive exhibit in the Documenta Halle was the ironically named Limited Art by the controversial Chinese artist Yan Lei. Lei’s paintings begin with photographs that are digitally reduced to a narrow range of colors to emphasize their artificiality. Each day a few are spray-painted at a car factory near Kassel to reduce them to monotones. His work reflects on the relationship of the artist with our now globalized art world. In his designated space in the Halle Lei has installed 360 paintings in oil and acrylic on canvas. The paintings are not only hung from the walls, but also from the ceiling and contained in slide drawer archives along one wall of the gallery. Each painting represents one day in the Chinese calendar; they are based on images he found on the internet ranging from classical impressionist paintings to modern fashion models. The effect, despite each painting having its limited color-range and almost 50% of the works already reduced to monochrome, is a cacophony of color and echos the image saturation of city centers like Tokyo’s Kabukicho district or New York’s Times Square. But by the end of the 100 days, the room will look quite different, I suspect like an old faded photograph.
By the time we emerged from the Documenta Halle, the day was drawing to a close. We had managed quite well to make the very best out of the eight hours, although regretful that we had only seen a fraction of the art on show. What impressed me the most were the many stark contrasts that I observed and experienced in this one day. What disappointed me was that only one third of Documenta 13’s artists are women, and this is a huge improvement on most previous Documenta exhibitions. There has been much made of the fact that one third of the artists at this year’s exhibition are women — The New York Times even referring to the exhibition as “ardently feminist.” Yet, in Documenta 12 in 2007, there was a more impressive 46%. And this year’s artistic director of the exhibition, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, is only the second woman to curate the exhibition in its history.
For our last experience of the day, we hurried down to the Orangerie [sic] in the Karlsaue Park. The Orangerie was built in the early 1700’s and, as a venue, could not be more different to the run down train station where we had commenced our day. We walked fleetingly through the Orangerie which houses the cabinet of astronomy and physics, as well as some contentious political exhibits such as a film depicting the construction of a nuclear energy plant in a small Norwegian village. We then walked out into the lush green in front of the Orangerie that overlooks the inviting stretch of the Karlsaue Park. We paused to ponder a nameless pond with rushes in it, and seemingly a wave machine to make the water look like an ocean wave. This pond summed up the contrasts of the day for me: contrasts in the beauty and aesthetics of the artworks, contrasts in the types of venues, contrasts in the landscape and architecture of Kassel itself, and the paradox of an ocean wave in a landlocked city. As we stared at the movement of the wave, we were again reminded of Kentridge’s clocks, and that our time at Documenta 13 had run out – we had a train to catch back to the hustle and bustle of Berlin.
The Documenta 13 runs until September 16 2012, and is easily accessible from Frankfurt-am-Main Airport and by train from other major German cities. Day tickets cost: €20 ($25+/-), two-day tickets are €35 ($43+/-).
This year, Documenta is also launching exhibitions, simulatenously with the Kassel event, in Kabul and Bamiyan in Afganistan, Alexandria and Cairo in Egypt, and Banff in Canada.
For more information on Documenta: d13.documenta.de
Author’s bio: Rhea Boyden is the Irish-born daughter of American parents. After a childhood spent in rural Ireland, she attended the University of North Carolina at Asheville spending her Junior year abroad at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, and graduated in 1999 with an Honors B.A. in German. She lives in Berlin where she teaches business English, and writes.
Featured image, In search of Vanished Blood, by Karachi-born Nalini Malani