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Innovations in exhibitionary practise

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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Fighting the Friday night traffic to escape from Liverpool, we battle through the rain and put our lives in the hands of the sat nav as we plunge into the darkness. It was worth it when we arrived at Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, for the opening of A Private Affair: Personal Collections of Contemporary Art. No time to linger over the permanent displays – but they look to be worth a few hours lingering – although we did catch a glimpse of a vast ceramics collection from the balcony above an elegant atrium.

This new temporary exhibition was co-organised by the Contemporary Art Society and the Harris, a local-council funded public gallery. A Private Affair showcases contemporary art taken from private collections based in the north of England. The owners have been convinced to part, for a time, with some of their favourite objects, and also to reveal the personal stories behind their collections.  Collectors are important to the work of the Contemporary Art Society and were historically important in the creation of our public museums and galleries. We are reminded by Paul Hobson, director of the CAS, that The Grundy (Blackpool), the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool) and the Harris all bear the names of their benefactors. This exhibition is very timely, given the shift in focus from public subsidy to private philanthropy to support the arts. This project makes visible the incredibly important work of the CAS, whose mission it is to support the continued acquisition of contemporary art.

The art in this exhibition is displayed in satisfying quantity and outstanding quality: Gordon Cheung’s Neon Shadows (pictured) depicts a scene of cowboys on horseback in melding layers of neon paint on Cheung’s trademark strips of the Financial Times; Iain Andrews Mythopoela, an intricate landscape etched on to a school desk; Blaise Drummond’s Excerpts from the Western World; and Tracey Emin’s Little Owl – just a handful of the covetable things on display.

Some of the pieces are on a domestic scale, but others such as Laura Ford’s Boy Story II, are hard to imagine in a living room context alongside family photographs. Ford’s sculptural work is most commonly seen in biennales and exhibitions showcasing the best of new British Art, and she is represented in the Tate collection. Here, her sculpture of a life-size faceless child wrapped in army-green, pulls a bundle of wooden sheets as big as him across the floor. Growing out of his face a gas mask reminiscent of a small elephant’s trunk adds to the chilling surrealism and mystery of the moment.

This begs the question, what art could you live with and revisit day after day? Peter Woods and his partner Francis Ryan usually see the artworks in their collection alongside the antique furniture and objects in their Merseyside home. This gives them an opportunity to use contemporary art to create witty interventions, such as displaying their Lisa Milroy painting, Blue Plate, above their collection of blue and white china. Peter says that sometimes he and Francis start to take their collection for granted in a domestic setting and sometimes they “sit with their backs to it”. This exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to experience fantastic creations by Glen Baxter, Roger Hiorns, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili and others, but also for the collectors to reacquaint themselves with their own collections. The CAS will certainly be pleased to hear that one of the legacies of this exhibition is that Peter and Francis say the experience has given them the courage to buy more challenging artworks in the future.

Some, such as Catherine Braithwaite, do not have all of their collection on display all of the time.  Catherine, a marketing professional specialising in the visual arts, lends to exhibitions as often as possible. Like many of the collectors, Catherine has bought from Ceri Hand Gallery, Manchester Contemporary and the John Moores Painting Prize. A recent purchase is Samantha Donnelly’s Singapore Sling. This sculptural object combines the visual harmonies of a Naum Gabo mathematical piece with the punky spirit of a Linder Stirling collage, topped off with a suggestive bulldog clip.  Donnelly opened her first solo show at Manchester’s Cornerhouse Gallery in January this year, suggesting that the collectors here have their fingers on the pulse of the UK contemporary art world. However, the collectors are all in agreement that art should not be purchased as an investment; they recommend buying something only if you love it and it excites you. None of the collectors talk about regret or being prohibited by the cost of contemporary art; they talk passionately about developing long-lasting relationships with artists and how the process of collecting improves their quality of life.

Private and public are usually presented as adversarial and distinct, but this show demonstrates they can co-exist and are intrinsically linked. Collectors have been the unsung missing piece of the puzzle in an art market, which is dependent as much on dialogues between passionate individuals as it is on finance. This is the first of three exhibitions planned at the Harris on the subject of collections and this year the gallery will open a new Heritage Lottery-funded local history gallery. On the basis of this thoughtful and daring exhibition, I expect any future endeavour at the Harris will be worth a visit.

Linda Pittwood

Exhibition continues until 5th May

First published February 2012

Watching the rain out of the window again, I am kept from working on my garden for another day.  Being forced indoors has; however, made me think about the concept and meaning of gardens, and how their meaning is explored in contemporary art.

Back in June 2011, I met  Apolonija Šušteršič  (pronounced apple-ony-a shoshtershay) when I was visiting her home town of Ljubljana, Slovenia.  Our group was lucky to catch her there as Šušteršič’s international practise takes her all over the world.  We caught up with her in a community garden that she initiated for one neighbourhood in Ljubljana.  The garden occupied a former wasteland space, in a city where land is cheap and abundant, but the pace of rejuvenating run-down areas is slow – reminding me a bit of the situation here in Liverpool.  (Interestingly, we were visiting at a time when Maribor – the country’s second city – was preparing for 2012 when it would have European Capital of Culture status.)  Around 30 people participate in the care – and reap the rewards – of Šušteršič’s garden, which is surrounded by high-rise flats.  Each family or individual has their own raised bed and everyone shares in the hard work required to keep the rocky ground hydrated.

Ljubljana is a capital city trying to spearhead a new identity for its country, and move away from its pigeonhole as a former Yugoslav nation. Former architect Šušteršič wants her projects to help audiences to think differently about their environment as well as about the decisions and motivations of politicians and policy makers.  Urban gardens symbolise togetherness as well as responding proactively to the global food shortages and the anxiety around food miles and industrialisation. Ironically, Šušteršič revealed to us she isn’t actually that green-fingered and she learns gardening skills from the other participants.

I was reminded of Šušteršič’s garden recently, when I heard Fritz Haeg speaking at Metal, the arts venue at Edge Hill station in Liverpool.  Haeg is working on the Everton Park project, which will be part of Liverpool Biennial 2012.  Like Šušteršič, Haeg was trained as an architect; although he has moved away from what he calls ‘Art and Architecture with a capital A’, to create events, build gardens and teach yoga, using the lifestyle he has adopted at his home in Los Angeles as the starting point. In his project entitled ‘Edible Estates’ Haeg helps families to build vegetable gardens at the front of their houses; by being visible he hopes to encourage more conversations to start.

Haeg’s projects are about empowering people to find local solutions to globalised problems as well as, sometimes, introducing young people to gardening for the first time.  He has worked in cities such as Istanbul and Budapest, introducing gardens and ‘modest gestures’ to what he calls ‘the dystopian mess of early 21st-century urban life’.  At Everton Park, Haeg hopes to initiate a long-term project which may or may not involve ‘food gardening, cooking, tours, wildlife restoration, native wildflower plantings, archaeology digs, performances, and maybe even a pond’ in partnership with Field Operations and the National Wildflower Centre.  For more information keep an eye on his website (www.fritzhaeg.com) and www.biennial.com.  Another interesting local project is www.alphafarm.org, which is part of Manchester International Festival – hopefully I will be writing more about that soon.

Some of the time my own garden feels like a hard fought battle against weeds, cats, slugs, sciarid flies (a new and unwelcome resident) and high-winds to generate a modest amount of edible produce; and yet it is an important expression of my desire to impact as little as possible on the resources of this planet.  I say ‘as little as possible’ as it is hard in a world of disposable fashion and the expectation of international travel and tomatoes all year round. Sometimes projects such as those by Haeg and Šušteršič blur the boundaries between art, life and, well, gardening.  But I think that they are important in taking art theory and making art active and meaningful and embedded in daily life.  I am not making art when I am gardening, but by thinking about these issues and actively trying to make our planet more sustainable I hope I am taking on some of their spirit.