Spreading across the central German city of Kassel, dOCUMENTA (13) covers equally wide territory. Devoted to a host of concerns, the general tone of the project produces encounters with conflict, repetition, idealism and withdrawal. In bite-size form, the intention behind curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s program seems to be an inclusion of the marginal and a provision of testing grounds for the cohabitation of alternative knowledge systems. The project concedes to a lack of cohesion, preferring to emphasize the relationships developing between works rather than a completed world view. The effect is uneven at times, and unfortunately a number of projects seem redundant. But when the work is good, it is very, very good. A reductive list of highlights cannot encompass the sheer breadth of exceptional work to be seen. Nonetheless, these are six projects not to be missed.
The subtle and splendidly installed exhibition The End of Summer by Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer is as sharp as it is mysterious. Gently winding through a disused office building near the old central train station, the project offers a labyrinthine unfolding of rooms populated with historical artifacts, bookworks, texts, photographs, plinths, films and framed cuttings from books. There is a distinctly nostalgic sensibility in each of the items, evoking a past that is only approachable indirectly. It is as if we are looking through a not-so-distant time towards a more ancient and unknowable one. Both intermingle with our present to position us at a remove: a museum of a forgotten museum. The result is a minimal, conceptually dense, generous experience, one that becomes Borgesian with its rebus-like dimensions.
Raad is best known for his earlier works as the Atlas Group, a project devoted to the machinations of the Lebanese civil war. His more recent project here is Scratching on Things I Could Disavow, a selection of sculpture, image, video and performance works examining art in the Arab world. The exhibition itself is powerful and complex, moving between wry humour, speculation and a devoted attempt to address the position of Arab art today. Particularly important is the movement from marginalization to epicentre, positions analyzed through the economics of Arab artists, Arab states and world art markets. A centrepiece of the exhibition is the miniature gallery that Raad constructed to house some of his earlier Atlas Group artworks. These artworks have mysteriously shrunk, as the artist points out during an hour-long performative walk-through of the exhibition. These walk-throughs are as compelling and rhetorical as any performance/lecture I’ve seen. Raad is a consummate public speaker, drawing his audience in with disarming wit and ease. It isn’t until you’re already hooked that you realize the intricate net he has woven around you.
Situated in Karlsaue Park, far away from the hubbub of the main attractions, there is a small hut built above the water in one of the park’s canals. This old wooden building contains The Worldly House, an archive related to Donna Haraway’s ideas of multi-species co-evolution. The archive is compiled by Tue Greenfort and covers a vast array of Haraway’s thoughts and influence on art and animal/human relations. Haraway scholars and neophytes alike could spend the entirety of dOCUMENTA (13) in just this little space. There is a plethora of books and documents to peruse as well as an online archive. A particular highlight is the work Birdsong by Hannah Rickards. The audio piece is installed in a separate antechamber in the building, where the floor is replaced by the water of the canal. Fish can be seen swimming below. A text projected on the wall informs us that the birdsongs we hear are actually recordings of the artist singing. Rickards changed the pitch of the original songs, learned to sing the songs at that pitch, and then changed the recording of her singing back to the pitch of the original songs. It’s a tricky work, but in this location the result is a blending of outside and inside and a peaceful co-becoming through voice.
The documenta-Halle is a large, oddly shaped building near the centre of Kassel. The exhibitions inside are mostly disappointing, save for an exceptionally strong collection of works by the writer and artist Etel Adnan. Adnan’s paintings stand out across dOCUMENTA (13) for their calm palette and lightness of touch. Here, there is a sense of meditation, of a slow concerted reflection. The subject of the paintings is Mount Tamalpais, a mountain near San Francisco that the artist has painted repeatedly during her lifetime. The immediate reminder is of Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire, although here colour emerges as dominant, with the compositions taking on increasingly simplified and formal arrangements. A tapestry work of unusual beauty is also presented in the space. One could spend hours here, far from the madding crowds of more spectacle-driven projects.
The Orangerie venue is itself a sight to behold. The collection of this museum covers early optics, cybernetics and scientific instruments amongst other attractions. Tucked away in its vast collection is In 2048, a small project compiling works by Finnish artist, experimental musician, student of nuclear science and all-around polymath Erkki Kurenniemi. The exhibition design leaves much to be desired, but the overwhelming content is impressive, bringing attention to this significant pioneer of electronic technology. On a long wall of flat screens we watch various scenes recorded by the artist during his day-to-day activities over the last 40 years. Far from a self-involved autobiographical process, Kurenniemi sees this personal documenting as a “backup” of his life. In the future he hopes that when human and machine consciousnesses are united (in 2048) they will be able to reconstruct aspects of the 20th century through his archive. A smattering of interactive instruments are also available to play, alongside a robot shaped like a wonky, disembodied human head, two fascinating documentaries on Kurenniemi, and a large case displaying his notes, personal documents and smaller experiments with computers.
The final work I saw at dOCUMENTA (13), but perhaps the most compelling, was Untitled by Pierre Huyghe. I am resistant to reveal too much here, as the work’s impact lies precisely in the surprises and discomforts it unearths. The project is a kind of camouflage: a disguise that only begins to uncloak itself upon thorough investigation. Even with the ruse revealed, there are moments that remain disquieting, opening the work into further unexpected territory. The discovery of a marijuana plant, a ghostly dog silently striding up beside you, a human being who is indifferent and confrontational all at once—there seems to be no certain point at which the work begins and ends. Huyghe’s project is like a chemical seeping into the system. Penetrating outwards, it uncannily takes hold of an entire world, making hallucinations real.
To view more images from dOCUMENTA (13), visit canadianart.ca/documenta13.