MICHAEL RAKOWITZ, What Dust Will Rise?, 2012, stone carvings, commissioned and produced by Documenta 13 with the support of Dena Foundation for Contemporary Art, Paris, and Lombard Freid Projects, New York. Photo by Roman März. Courtesy the artist, Dena Foundation for Contemporary Art, Paris, and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York.

EMILY JACIRex libris, 2010–2012, installation with photographs taken by cell phone Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA 13 with the support of Alexander and Bonin, New York; Alberto Peola Arte Contemporanea, Turin, special thanks to Yusef Nasri Suleiman Jacir and Munir Fakher Eldin, Fridericianum, Photo by Roman März.

NALINI MALANI, In Search of Vanished Blood, 2012, 6-channel video-shadow play, 5 rotating reverse-painted Mylar cylinders, 4 spotlights, sound, each cylinder 183 cm, diameter 120 cm, 11min. loop. Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA 13 with the support of Galerie Lelong, Paris, Arario Gallery. Courtesy of Burger Collection, Galerie Lelong, Paris. Photo by Anders Sune Berg. 

CEVDET EREK, Room of Rhythms, 2010–12, mixed-media installation, commissioned and produced by Documenta 13 with the support of SAHA, Istanbul, and the assistance of MIAM, Istanbul Technical University. Photo by Nils Klinger. Courtesy the artist.

SONG DONG, Doing Nothing Garden, 2010–12, rubbish with plants and neon signs, 7 × 32.5 × 23.5 m, commissioned and produced by Documenta 13 with the support of Baureka Baustoff Recycling GmbH, Kassel, Pace Beijing and Uli Sigg. Photo by Nils Klinger. Courtesy the artist and Pace Beijing, Beijing.

Documenta 13

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With the realization of Documenta 13, the practice of directing large-scale exhibitions—what is commonly called “curating,” though this word is far too modest for an event of this size and scope, five years in the making—achieved a decisively baroque apogee. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta 13, consisting of more than 300 “participants,” 200 artists’ projects and 100 days of events in Kassel, and various workshops, seminars, retreats, publications and programs in Kabul, Cairo–Alexandria, Banff and other locations, was far beyond the ability of any one spectator to behold. In fact, one suspects that only the artistic director herself and perhaps a few of her closest curatorial “agents” were able to experience Documenta 13 in anything close to its entirety. So then how does one analyze and critique such a massive, temporally and geographically dispersed event, the entirety of which we, the people, were not invited or able to attend?

Rather than feeling daunted or excluded, one could have followed Christov-Bakargiev’s own suggestion to think of Documenta as “a state of mind,” as if it were more comparable to the desert art-festival Burning Man than an art-world biennial. But the reality is that Documenta 13 was no DIY, populist affair, despite the crowd-sourcing curatorial approach of naming 20 consulting “agents.” Instead it was plainly reflective of a prolific, hyperactive consciousness, whose reach extended from the structural level of the festival down to specific artworks. This mind eschewed a single all-encompassing theme, instead opting for “four main positions”—“under siege,” “on retreat,” “in a state of hope, or optimism,” and “on stage”—and, following Documenta’s 20th-century origins in post-World War II and Cold War politics, was fixated on, “moments of trauma, at turning points, accidents, catastrophes, crises—events that mark moments when the world changes.”

The Rotunda of the Fridericianum (Documenta’s main venue), dubbed “the Brain,” was brimming with artistic arcana reflecting these concerns. Included in the densely packed room were carved stone Central Asian sculptures from 2000 BCE (the “Bactrian Princesses”), a landscape canvas by Mohammad Yusef Asefi, who in the 1990s and 2000s saved more than 80 figurative paintings from the National Gallery of Kabul by covering portions of them in watercolors, a video by slain Egyptian artist-activist Ahmed Basiony, bathroom articles that Lee Miller stole from Hitler’s apartment when on a journalist photographic assignment, Charlotte Salomon gouaches from 1941 before her murder at Auschwitz two years later, a single photograph by Vandy Rattana of the craters (so-called “bomb ponds”) left behind by the United States’ covert military campaigns in Cambodia in the 1970s,  and artifacts from the National Museum of Beirut that were damaged in the country’s sectarian fighting from 1975–90.

Beyond the jumbled Brain, one of Documenta 13’s greatest appeals continued to be the wide-ranging selection of objects, artworks and practices of all kind, rather than those exclusively plucked from the international contemporary gallery scene. Among the incredible, if occasionally esoteric, sights were Anton Zeilinger’s quantum physics experiments, a demonstration of epigenetics (changes in genetic expression that do not reflect changes in the genetic code of an organism) by Alexander Tarakhovsy, and the 900 drawings of apples and pears by village pastor Korbinian Aigner (1885–1963), who bred fruit trees while he was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp for refusing to recognize National Socialism. Stunning abstractions from two members of the Papunya Tula Artists collective filled an entire gallery: Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri’s patterned canvases on the walls and Doreen Reid Nakamarra’s (1950–2009) works displayed horizontally on a wooden dais. Upstairs, Sopheap Pich’s wall-mounted grids of rattan and burlap, smeared with soil from Cambodia, looked wondrously out of time and place, like modernist relics dredged up from a polluted post-industrial lake. Particularly in the Fridericianum, art and science, the ancient and the futuristic, were put on the same level—as analytical models, of history, of nature, of colonialism, of mortality, of experience writ large.

Another of Documenta’s consistent strengths was the careful consideration of a venue’s history. In the Zwehrentrum, a tower that survived Kassel’s bombing during World War II, were several pieces about objects that did or did not survive destruction. Emily Jacir’s Ex Libris (2010–12) consists of photographs taken with a cell phone of Palestinian books (an estimated 6,000) that were looted by Israel in 1948, and are now kept in the National Library in West Jerusalem in the “abandoned property” section. Downstairs, Michael Rakowitz displayed stone books created with restorer Bert Praxenthaler and student stone-carvers from the Bamiyan area of Afghanistan who recreated volumes from the Fridericianum library that were lost during the war.

The modernist ethos of industrial-machine production and its relationship to tropes of abstraction (repetition, precision, automation) was explored at the Documenta Halle, most dramatically in Thomas Bayrle’s machines made from car engines and his enormous photomontage of an airplane. At the far end of the venue was Nalini Malani’s mechanistic theater created from video projections and rotating drums with reverse-paintings, In Search of Vanished Blood (2012), which creates an immersive, haunting shadow-play that linked acts of political violence to mythology and modernist avant-garde theater. Seen in this context, the 38 small canvases depicting Mount Tamalpais in California by Lebanese poet and painter Etel Adnan (made between 1959–2010) suggested a parallel between the reduction painterly style and the streamlining of industrial production. Unfortunately, this parallel between painting and industrial fabrication devolved into hackneyed, cynical tropes in Yan Lei’s hands. For his Limited Art Project (2011–12), he had a painting based on aimless internet image searches made each day for one year of the Chinese calendar (360 days) and then displayed them on the walls, in ersatz museum storage racks and hanging from the ceiling. Each day during Documenta, one of them was covered over with car paint at a nearby Volkswagen factory, which seemed more like a crass sponsorship ploy for a regional industry than a compelling gesture.

At the neo-classical Neue Galerie, several galleries were given over to Documenta artists whose work joins a strong, lyrical formalism to political content. Füsun Onur’s Dance of the Crows (2012) is an embroidered screen that covers a large window and showing birds circling over a village; in the next room was her iconic, untitled chair from 1993, draped in chains, with a placard bearing her name. Lining the walls of an adjacent room were canvases from Gordon Bennett’s “Home Decor” series, (2010) which are enlarged versions of gouaches based on Aboriginal designs painted by Margaret Preston from the 1920s, also on view. The dialogue between a European and an Aboriginal Australian in those works had its therapeutic corollary, or corrective, in the center of this space, where a carpeted pavilion hosted Stuart Ringholt’s “anger workshops,” which featured blaring house music, screaming sessions and then hugging and reconciliation. Postcolonial social conflicts aren’t likely to be solved so easily, but the gesture of pairing these Australian artists’ projects as a kind of site for “truth and reconciliation” was plainly understood.

Documenta 13’s connection to Kabul, which was forged out of Christov-Bakargiev’s interest in Alighiero Boetti’s oeuvre (the Italian artist lived there in the 1970s and had his famous map works produced by Afghani weavers), as well as the ongoing military occupation of Afghanistan since 2001 by a US military-led coalition, had seemed somewhat contrived, even politically opportunistic, in the years before the exhibition, but it did yield interesting results in Kassel. Sequestered in the former Elisabeth Hospital building were works by Afghani artists, either living in Kabul or abroad. Mohsen Tarasha, born in 1991 and a graduate of the Kabul Faculty of Fine Arts, displayed neo-miniature style drawings in vitrines as well as around the top of the wall. Lida Abdul’s two-channel video What We Have Overlooked (2011) depicts a man carrying a red flag as he walks into the middle of a lake outside of Kabul until he is under water, half-swimming, half-stumbling—an evident allegory for the country’s failing aspirations for national unity. More affective was Berlin-based Jeanno Gaussi’s series “Family Stories” (2012), for which she hired a professional sign painter to create family portraits based on old photographs. The ten canvases were accompanied by metal plaques explaining the painter’s own speculations about the identity of the figures depicted in the canvases. Why most of the artists of Afghani descent—even those who live in Europe or the Americas, with the exception of Mariam Ghani, whose video about Kabul’s Dar ul-Amam Palace was screened in the Fridericianum—were quarantined together (in a former hospital, of all venues) was unclear on any other conceptual level. The decision gave the impression that these artists’ works were a special case, and not yet ready to stand alongside their international peers—the same kind of inherent patronization found in international development projects.

In more wondrous moments, Documenta also felt like a treasure hunt. Scattered at sites throughout Kassel were several engaging and accessible sound pieces. Cevdet Erek’s Room of Rhythms (2012) occupied the upper floor of a department store, with speakers positioned throughout the empty space to create overlapping fields of percussive beats, which metaphorically transform linear time into rhythms in the same manner that visual space is abstracted into a grid. In a Tino Sehgal piece, located in the back courtyard of the Grand City Hotel, visitors were led around an almost pitch-black space by chanting, singing or talking performers. At the Hauptbahnhof station, once the departure point for trains headed to the concentration camps, Susan Philipsz installed speakers that played excerpts from Study for Strings (1943) by Pavel Haas, who wrote the piece in the Theresienstadt prison before his death at Auschwitz in 1944.

If there was a tendency throughout Documenta toward gratuitous over-production and the realization of projects that didn’t seem to merit what must have required substantial funding (no less, in the year when Germany was lecturing Europe about the virtues of fiscal austerity), this was most evident in the sprawling Karlsaue park. Among the many middling, anodyne park projects was Song Dong’s six-meter-tall “bonsai mountain,” Doing Nothing Garden (2010–12), made from rubble and covered in grasses, which was nothing more than what various municipalities have already done in converting their landfills into recreation areas. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s Village and Elsewhere: In This Circumstance the Sole Object of Attention Should Be the Treachery of the Moon (2012), is a walled compound with video monitors on the house’s exterior showing Bangkok street dogs; there, the artist lived (on retreat) for three weeks with dogs, a project that perhaps will lead to other more viewable works in the future. Shinro Otake’s Mon Cheri: A Self-Portrait as a Scrapped Shed (2012), a custom-decorated hut based on a snack bar in Uwajima, was filled with a large scrapbook of the artist’s paintings, bicycle wheels and a collage-covered guitar and amp, intriguingly displaced to this German park but physically inaccessible except through the glass windows.

Requisite curatorial tropes of an “exhibition within the exhibition” and “the artist as curator” had their appearance in Dinh Q. Lê’s, Light and Belief: Voices and Sketches of Life from the Vietnam War (2012), a mini-pavilion filled with private drawings made by propaganda artists from the Vietcong. As this and many other projects revealed, the Karlsaue unfortunately deprived many artists’ works of a connection to place, history or to one another. CAMP’s engaging video The Boat Modes (2012), about the trade in the Indian Ocean between the Subcontinent, Arabian Peninsula and eastern Africa, and made from sailors’ own video footage, was strangely adrift in a hut in the middle of the garden. The Karlsaue was Documenta’s field of enervation, or place of exile, for many projects that didn’t quite fit elsewhere, thematically or physically.

Left out of this review so far have been memorable, show-defining works by Ryan Gander, Mario Garcia-Torres, Ida Applebroog, Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Clemens von Wedemeyer, Javier Téllez, Kader Attia, Llyn Foulkes, Geoffrey Farmer, Pierre Huyghe, Omer Fast, William Kentridge, Trisha Donnelly, Nedko Solakov and Tarek Atoui, along with: Amar Kanwar’s video installation at the Ottoneum about agricultural activists in India; the new directions embarked on by Bani Abidi and Tejal Shah in their respective videos at the Hauptbahnhof; an installation by Paul Chan of Chinese landscape-esque paintings on the covers of old books; a mini survey of Walid Raad’s recent project “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow” about the history of Arab modern art, including new photographs of the reflections of objects owned by the Qatari royal family; Akram Zaatari’s 16-mm film of two men undressing one another, and his time capsule in the Karlsaue; Rabih Mroue’s video and performance-lecture about the depiction of the Syrian revolution on cellphone cameras—all of them engaging works that deserve proper space and time for viewing and critiquing that the shear enormity of Documenta does not readily provide.

More (projects), in this sense, was less (time, energy, attention), and this, in the end, was what made Documenta maddeningly self-indulgent and inaccessible in equal measure to its many instances of poignancy, sincerity and brilliance. As a mega-archive of projects whose number, duration and complexity challenged a walking-eating-sleeping visitor’s capacity for meaningful interaction, Documenta 13 was paradoxically both moment-defining and moment-defying. In that same regard, Documenta was also a genuinely and refreshingly serious undertaking, rather than the easily consumed mimicry of intellectualism that is performed and produced post-haste at most mega-exhibitions today. Furthermore, to its credit, Documenta did not feel subordinate to to the art market (through its eclecticism, defiance of cost-efficiency, absence of city branding and urban lifestyle-promotion), though commercial forces undoubtedly influenced its realization behind the scenes and the market will rapidly assimilate the new forms, discourse and discoveries it proposed. But everything that made Documenta 13 distinctive comes with its own risks and faults, ones that are perhaps presaged in history. While Documenta 12 looked back at the Modern era to ask, with classicist’s turn of phrase, whether it is “our antiquity”; Documenta 13 was a baroque festival of sheer immensity rather than comprehensibility. One fears that what will follow is the exhausted, picturesque era of the rococo—a mood that was already blooming in the gardens of the Karlsaue.

While it was truly wonderful to partake in an event with a surfeit of aesthetic and intellectual experiences that couldn’t quickly be reduced to so many slogans or one-line curatorial gestures, there is a potential hazard, or even lack of responsibility, in creating something so willfully incomprehensible. As Christov-Bakargiev writes in her Notebook (no. 3/100), “the question [of the contemporary state of the exhibition format] is difficult and complex, and I really have very little to say, because I am so busy doing things”—namely, organizing Documenta itself, which, the director believes “resists the atomized, molecular organization of human transactions in the digital age, to the degree that this obsolete twentieth-century object, the exhibition, takes on a new life as it mutates into a noncommercial place to intensely aggregate.” But then later she does confess, “Truthfully, I am not sure that the field of art will continue to exist in the twenty-first century.” So will we then look back at Documenta 13’s chaotic and conflicted contribution to this conjectured outcome as having heralded a welcome liberation of ideas from form and the redefinition of intellectual fields? Or will Documenta 13 have augured the submission of the autonomous cultural sphere to a totalizing information economy?