Trip to documenta (13), Kassel

On a bright sunny afternoon we followed the map to a shabby building, went round the back, shuffled down a corridor and through a doorway. At this point we were plunged into darkness and separated. A little hand took hold of mine and guided me across the pitch black room. There were lots of people in the room – we could sense them, but not see them. A number of people were harmonising a spooky, hypnotic sort of song; mc-ing, speaking, humming and dancing.

This continues, becoming increasingly frantic and intense, the dancers jumping and pounding on the wooden floor. The lights began to strobe, revealing about 15 dancers in black costumes, and around 30 spectators looking on transfixed. The room went black again and the sweaty, exhausted dancers started speaking (in American accented English) about their childhood dreams and proposing that “the income derived from producing things of slight consequence is of great consequence”. This became a mantra, repeated over and over.

Even if you have experienced Tino Seghal’s performances before, they always surprising; whether they involve a little girl purporting to be a character from a computer game, or you are confronted by a person asking you the question: “so, what is progress?” Or, as in this case, comprising a choreographed song/dance delivered by whole troop of performers in pitch darkness. We went twice on that sunny afternoon and had a totally different experience each time. The title, This Variation, hints at an open-ended format, and people, participants and the audience, arrive and leave all the time, suggesting that they were working in shifts. Performance art tends to require a bit of thinking and processing afterwards, and luckily we knew just the right place to go and reflect with a cold glass of Riesling.

When we realised that dOCUMENTA (13) was happening in Kassel during the summer (having already thought about a German camping adventure), it was a no-brainer. Here was an opportunity not to be missed, as dOCUMENTA happens only every 5 years. This would be our first ‘biennial’ experience other than Liverpool – the UK variant. dOCUMENTA is deeply embedded in twentieth century history, emerging out of the cultural dark-ages of Nazism. The first festival, held in 1955, showcased the art of the day (Fauvism, Expressionism, abstraction etc) and aimed to re-establish Germany as a cultural force. 2012′s incarnation reflects on its own history – and art history – as well as trying to create an impression of today’s complex and constantly shifting international contemporary art-world.

We arrived on 2 July, 40 days after the opening of the so-called ‘100 day museum’. The website advises that visitors spend at least two days owing to the quantity of artists involved (over 160) and the geographical spread of the exhibits (and that doesn’t include the outpost in Kabul). We camped 30 minutes by train outside of Kassel in a town called Zierenburg. Like Kassel itself, Zierenburg was mostly rebuilt after the second world war, and its 1950s architecture is dated. Both city and town were scrupulously clean and occasionally, surprisingly, beautiful; however, the C&A in Kassel and the lack of commuters at Zierenburg station at 8.30am reveal the lack of prosperity behind the well-kept facade.

For anyone catching the train into Kassel in the near future, a good tip is to stay on past the Hauptbahnhof, whereupon the train becomes a tram and takes you all the way to Königsplatz – about five minutes away from the Friedrichanium, the hub of the festival. This will save a small amount of time and energy, which you will need to traverse the festival. Another tip for those after the full experience, is that food doesn’t come more authentically German than Kaffee und Kuchen; ideal for keeping energy levels up during a long day. Our favourite cake of the trip was an amazing Kirchkuchen at Jugendcafe, Treppenstraße.

We had to fight the feeling of regret, which started on day one, that we wouldn’t be able to see everything. If this is your intention, you are doomed to failure, as even if you stayed a week to see all of the exhibitions and interventions, you would not be able to see every film or artist talk in the associated programmes. Therefore, each visitor’s experience will be unique – shaped by chance encounters, desire to see the work of certain artists or a compromise with the desires and needs of your companions. Having said that, the Frieze documenta-special ebook has the following piece of rousing advice: “If you’re with a group, don’t walk around together but divide up and conquer.”

Whether we conquered the festival is up for debate, but we certainly had highlights from our particular dOCUMENTA experience. If we were to just recommend one thing to see it would be that Tino Seghal performance, but hard on its heels are Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden (a wild flower garden grown on a mound of rubbish); Goshka Macuga’s tapestry, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not (the partner piece of which is on display in Kabul); lovely paintings by Etel Adnan; the classification of human DNA by Alexander Tarakhovsky in his installation DNA sequencing of genes affected by fear; and Mark Dion’s museum within a museum at the Orangerie.

The Neue Gallerie is an essential part of a visit to dOCUMENTA (13) with some great pieces including Wael Shawky’s puppet-film Caberet Crusades, Andrea Büttner’s investigation of religion through film and printmaking, and Geoffrey Farmer’s ambitious installation of images cut from Life magazine (pictured).

Some of the artworks were more interesting when compared and contrasted with one another, and there were lots of interesting exhibits that revealed the process of curating the festival. A thought-provoking video directed by Khaled Hourani and Rashid Masharawi about the politics and logistics of loaning a Picasso painting to the International Academy of Art Palestine, exposed the sometimes fraught museum processes. It was interesting to think of this in light of the artworks borrowed for dOCUMENTA (including pieces by Lee Miller and Dali) and how curatorial decisions create meaning.

‘Museums’ was a theme woven throughout the festival; Halle Yan Lei explored this by densely hanging his paintings on 10 metre-high walls and showing yet more on roller-racking. As well as classifying and memorialising, a lot of the selected artists were trying in some way to challenge accepted narratives: Zanele Muholi’s photographs of lesbian and trans people in South Africa and Dinh Q. Le’s watercolour representations of the Vietnam war two prime examples. We talked a lot during our time in Kassel about guilt, memorial and remembrance and how connected we felt to the past – it was not clear whether this was prompted by the art or because we were seeing it in a city that had been bombed to pieces by the allies. A bit of both maybe.

From Kassel we drove on to Berlin – via Dessau to see the newly reopened Bauhaus school – and from there to Hannover. Some of the thoughts that we took with us from Kassel, about responsibility, regret and trauma resonated in Berlin, where WW2 is being constantly analysed and reflected on by successive tourists. This was off-set slightly when we saw a fun Haroon Mirza installation at Ernst Schering Foundation’s Project Space, visited Asterisms by Gabriel Orozco (classified and documented flotsam and jetsum) at the Deutsche Guggenheim, and in Hannover we walked the sculpture mile.

Northern Germany isn’t as pretty as the south and it is still deeply scarred by the past; but a visit will offer heaps of good quality cultural experiences, and not just in trendy Berlin. We are already making plans to visit dOCUMENTA in 2017 when it coincides with the once-every-ten year festival, Skulptur Projekte Münster. However, I am sure that Germany will tempt us back before then.

Linda Pittwood

dOCUMENTA (13) continues until 16th September 2012

First published July 2012

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