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Art as Archaeological Practice, Part II - Documenta 14 in Kassel

  • documenta 14 kassel 2017
July 29, 2017
Deeply invested in modern and contemporary art, the Widewalls magazine aims at providing a unique experience for its readers in the form of in-depth and quality journalism.

Despite the fact that most of the artists selected for Documenta 14 are presenting work both in Athens and Kassel, the two sites feel very different. In my previous article about the Athens show, I likened the exhibition to an archeological site where hundreds of small fragments had been unearthed, offering clues to something bigger. In Kassel, these fragments have come together to create a picture of a deeply troubled global society, but one with glimmers of hope and optimism.

Whereas Documenta 14 in Athens had relatively few large-scale monumental works, Kassel is filled with big, statement pieces: Ghanaian-born artist Ibrahim Mahama covered two buildings with sacks used to transport cocoa, coffee and charcoal from the third world to the first world; Australian artist Gordon Hookey painted a massive wall mural charting the evolution of aboriginal culture through history; and Polish Artist Artur Żmijewski presents a 6-screen immersive video installation offering an intimate view of what it is like to live with a leg amputation. And let’s not forget the two most highly publicised works of Documenta 14: Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books, a replica of the Parthenon structure covered in banned books, and the white smoke emanating from the chimney of Daniel Knorr’s Expiration Movement.

The Artwork by Ibrahim Mahama
The Artwork by Ibrahim Mahama

documenta 14

It is not, however, these bigger works alone that give the Kassel site a more complete and comprehensive feel. The curation also provides cohesion, although no one would say that connections between the works exhibited are 100% obvious. For example, displacement and immigration are major themes of the show. These issues run deep in one gallery in the Fridericianum site (which shows works from the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Greece) that locates Emily Jacir’s Memorial to the 418 Palestinian Village Which were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel, Andrea Bower’s Not Forgotten (listing names of those who died crossing the Mexican/American border), and Andreas LolisShelter together. You might easily walk by the Lolis piece without noticing or understanding its relevance to the other works in room – it looks like a random assemblage of wood, cardboard and styrofoam. However, upon closer inspection, one recognises that the entire work is carved from marble. The Greek artist’s piece explores the irony of creating valuable objects (marble sculpture) in valueless forms (discarded packaging). In the context of immigration, he further plays with the notion that a homeless immigrant might find more value in the cardboard and wood, as these materials can be used to create makeshift housing, than a piece of marble.

Emily Jacir - Memorial to the 418 Palestinian Village Which were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel
Emily Jacir – Memorial to the 418 Palestinian Village Which were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel
Andrea Bower - Not Forgotten
Andrea Bower – Not Forgotten
Andreas Lolis - Shelter
Andreas Lolis – Shelter

Delving into Suffering

The terror of war is explored in the Pallas Bellevue site. The first room presents Regina José Galindo’s The Shadow (which can be seen here), a video performance of a woman running from a tank down a seemingly never-ending dusty road. This is a clear reference to ongoing military interventions around the world. The adjacent room is filled with works by Bonita Ely. In Athens, her work focused on the destruction of the natural environment. Here the focus is on the psychological remnants of war and its affects on home life. Dressers drawers are shaped into a battlefield and a Singer sewing machine has been reassembled to look like a machine gun.

Works by Bonita Ely
Works by Bonita Ely

Between Nature and Man

The folly of man’s environmental interventions is another major theme of Documenta 14. Upstairs in the Palais Bellevue site, Abel Rodriquez presents the natural world through drawings of plants from the rapidly shrinking Amazon and a series of Yare fibre fish trap forms. Abel was born in the Amazon and was a local plant expert until he was forced to move to Bogota to escape violence in the jungle. In an adjacent room, Olaf Holzapfel looks at the built environment through architectural forms that show the power dynamic between man and the environment.

Works by Abel Rodriquez
Works by Abel Rodriquez
Work by Olaf Holzapfel
Work by Olaf Holzapfel

Interacting with Kassel

As the home of Documenta 14, the Kassel venues are better suited for displaying different types of artwork than the Athens venues, which also helped create a sense of cohesiveness. In Athens many of the spaces were re-purposed for Documenta, which sometimes meant there was awkwardness in the placement of works. In Kassel, it looked as though works were explicitly made for particular locations. I particularly loved the use of the curved walls in the atrium of the Fridericanianum for panoramic video displays and the hanging of Mata Aho Collective’s Kiko Moana Tarpaulin, which is framed beautifully by the windows of the Hesseisches Landesmuseum.

Panoramic video displays in the atrium of the Fridericanianum
Panoramic video displays in the atrium of the Fridericanianum
Mata Aho Collective - Kiko Moana Tarpaulin
Mata Aho Collective – Kiko Moana Tarpaulin

The Two Sites of Art

Although the Kassel site was better presented than Athens, the decision to co-locate Documenta 14 has given depth and dimension to the quinquennial event. The power of starting the Documenta 14 journey at the birthplace of democracy, was not lost on me. Reflecting on the principles of a free and democratic society articulated through the archeological remains of the Acropolis, while considering new artworks that articulate issues of global inequality, exploitation, and deprivation of human rights, was a sobering wake up call.

The poet Robert Penn Warren argued that art “is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, a society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.” While alerting us to the problems in world, Documenta 14 artists also present a vision for the future. Gordon Hookey’s mural charting the evolution of aboriginal culture ends humorously with a militia of Kangaroos holding missiles. However, these are not missiles meant to destroy, but to spread love.

Gordon Hookey’s mural
Gordon Hookey’s mural

The Experiment

For those who choose to engage with the entire Documenta 14 experience, a new psychic connection will be formed between two sites – Athens and Kassel – that seem geographically, economically, temporally very far apart. This idea may best be represented by the work of the artist Kimsooja, who re-created her iconic Bottari (bundles) for the show. She believes that “Homeland is not a topographically definable place, but a state of consciousness and belonging.” In Korea, the Bottari is used when one must move, and contains one’s most important possessions. The Bottari presented in the show are filled with clothes Kimsooja wore both in Athens and Kassel. I think this is a fitting way to articulate the legacy of the Documenta 14 experiment.

Kimsooja - Bottari (Bundles)
Kimsooja – Bottari (Bundles)

Written by Tonya Nelson.

All images courtesy of the author.