Every five years since 1955, give or take some hallucinatory mathematics in the 1960s, Kassel, an economically depressed city in central Germany, has hosted a 100-day-long exhibition charting new ideas in art practice. Known as Documenta, the 13th iteration of German painter and educator Arnold Bode’s generative idea this year features manufactured breezes, a Beach Boys song rendered a capella by a group of invisible dancers, burnt books, lots of rubble and, yes, painting.
Unlike the flashier Venice Biennale — which until 1968 had a sales office and charged artists a 10% commission on successful transactions and still retains a kind of pimping undercurrent — Documenta has long functioned as an intellectual redoubt against an alert and materialistic art market.
Okay, this is only nominally true: all three South Africa-based artists on the show — Zanele Muholi, Kudzanai Chiurai and William Kentridge — are represented by powerful commercial galleries that played a crucial role in facilitating their artists’ appearance in Kassel. It is a reality that Documenta 13’s curator, Carloyn Christov-Bakargiev, is well aware of. On a cold autumn night two years ago in Berlin, Christov-Bakargiev, a New Jersey-born art historian and curator with a wild explosion of tight bleached curls and a thick Italian accent, told me that it was naive to divorce contemporary art from the wider cultural and political drifts that lend it shape and meaning.
Contemporary art, she explained, with its strong belief in its own autonomy, remains a practice founded on ideas that arose with the bourgeoisie in the 18th century. The will of the merchant class remains a strong factor in the display and consumption of art, notwithstanding attempts to collapse the boundary between art and the real.
For Christov-Bakargiev, who at various points likened her role to that of a “traffic controller”, “orchestra director” and “web designer”, the challenge of overseeing the world’s premier group exhibition rests on a contradiction.
“I am doing something that is, traditionally, the most important of the ways in which contemporary art was articulated in the 20th century and I’m doing it in a moment when that thing, that field [contemporary art], might not even exist anymore. It’s really weird.”
Liberating too, one could argue, based on the sum total of what Christov-Bakargiev, a long-time collaborator with Kentridge, has achieved in her role of “affecting procedures and the way that things are done”. If contemporary art is a disassembling category, we need not mourn.
Based on Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta, art is less a thing to be looked at than a fecund collective space for the display and dissemination of ideas, attitudes, positions and, yes, paintings. Spanning everything from experimental dance to avant-garde film, with a nod to the traditional arts, including tapestries, there is a credible case to be made for this year’s Documenta even being something of a literary event too.
Shortly after Christov-Bakargiev launched her concept for Documenta with an 8 000-word open letter in Berlin, a series of chapbooks — small booklets or pamphlets — began to appear in bookshops under the Documenta 13 imprint. Totalling 100 by the time the exhibition opened in June, the first pamphlet contained a remarkable essay on the notebook as literary form by anthropologist Michael Taussig.
“The notebook is like a magical object in a fairy tale,” he writes. “It is a lot more than an object, because it inhabits and fills out hallowed ground between meditation and production.”
Politics, craft and technology
In many ways, Documenta 13 reads like an attempt to straddle a position somewhere between meditation and production — to be a “magic encyclopaedia”, as Taussig defines the notebook. It begins by loosely sketching out a series of ideas in the Fredericianum. As you enter this historical building, long the centre of the Documenta extravaganza, a soft breeze orchestrated by British artist Ryan Gander wafts through the largely empty front display halls.
Upstairs, in a display of Mario Garcia Torres’s attempt to find fellow artist Alighiero Boetti’s 1970s hotel in contemporary Kabul, there is a letter about wind. Dated 2001, it is from Torres to Boetti: “I found a recording of the wind running through the Afghan mountains from 1985,” it reads. “They say the Russians liked to listen to those sounds.”
Afghanistan, like the Arab Spring, recurs throughout Christov-Bakargiev’s politically conscious Documenta. Goshka Macuga’s black-and-white semicircular tapestry in the Fredericianum, a photolike collage that includes the participants in an off-site get-together in Kabul, is an arresting example of this collision of politics, craft and technology.
Directly below this work, in a sealed room marked by its long queues, Christov-Bakargiev displayed a series of artefacts that somehow annotate, almost sketchlike, her impulses, ideas and attitudes.
Four serial studies by Giorgio Morandi, for instance, refer to an earlier impulse by Bavarian priest and gardener Korbinian Aigner to paint apples repeatedly, the latter represented by a display of 900 watercolour, gouache and pencil drawings of apples.
Tamas St Turba’s Czechoslovak Radio, a vintage 1968 brick used by dissidents to object to the snuffing out of the Prague uprising, similarly refers to another brick, an artefact displayed in a room filled with war rubble and lost objects, compiled by Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz. The latter brick is from the Pruitt-Igoe housing scheme, demolished in St Louis, Missouri, in 1972 — and famously heralded as marking the death of modernism by architectural critic Charles Jencks.
If the faltering of the enlightenment idea forms a deep point of meditation, Christov-Bakargiev’s show offers some optimistic notes too. Former University of Cape Town theology postgraduate Theaster Gates’s Huguenot House, a slowly disassembling and reforming house on Friederichstrasse, is both a mood piece and a social statement. The placement of Tino Seghal’s sweaty, slightly hippie performance in a darkened room next door was a curatorial masterstroke.
Seghal aside, expatriate Lebanese poet and painter Etel Adnan was a revelation. Love is an “itinerary”, she writes in her chapbook, a work that cuts through the art world’s use of irony and quotation to hide from speaking simple truths. Love is also a voyage. “The imagination takes of that reality and starts building fantasies, dreams projects …” It seems an adequate summary of Christov-Bakargiev’s remarkable achievement.