Review of Documenta 13

by Pac Pobric

Clemens von Wedemeyer. Muster. Video installation .Photo courtesy of Latitudes | www.lttds.org

The first thing to say about Documenta 13 is that it wasn’t really curated. It’s true that its director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, gave some general idea for what the show was supposed to be about, but it wasn’t much more than that. There was an argument about the artwork being altogether driven by “a holistic and non-logocentric vision that is skeptical of the persisting belief in economic growth,” which may or may not be true. But it’s probably more true of the artists than it is of the art, which is only to say that it would be difficult to find someone today who isn’t skeptical about the possibility of unfettered economic expansion. But what that idea did to anchor the actual artwork at Documenta is unclear.

Of course, that’s something of a problem. The show is obviously too big for a single idea, or maybe even a set of ideas, but the fact that there was little in the way of critically framing the work says something about our profound inability to understand contemporary art. Documenta is another reminder that no one really knows what’s going on.

Setting that aside, it remains that the quality of the best work was quite high. It doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere specifically by the organizers, but much of the work dealt with dramatic narrative, and some of the best of it came from this category. Clemens von Wedemeyer’s film, Muster, is especially worth mentioning. The piece revolves around three separate narratives projected on three screens simultaneously, each of which depict events taking place at a former Benedictine monastery near Kassel. The dates of the events range from 1945 to 1973 to 1990. Of course, the problem with video art is that few of us have the time to see something in its entirety. (This is especially a problem at a fair like Documenta, where there were so many things to see.) But what was especially of interest to me in the roughly 15 minutes I spent with the piece was the quality of the cinematographic eye, particularly in the section of the film dealing with an allied Second World War battalion. Simply put, the direction is clearly from that of a filmmaker trying to tell a story succinctly, without wasting a single shot. Efficiency is a difficult art, but von Wedemeyer seems to be figuring it out. 

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Forest (For a Thousand Years). Sound installation.
Photo courtesy of Geir Haradseth.

But it was the sound work that stood out as particularly strong. Without having been to Kabul or Alexandria, where parts of the fair were staged, it seems clear to me that Florian Hecker’s  Chimerization took best in show. A sound collage of noise intermittently broken into by by more rhythmic, “musical” moments, the piece consists of three audio parts of slightly varying lengths playing simultaneously on three separate channels. What that means is that the work cannot be heard the same way in one day, nor until the sound is turned off and restarted at the same time the following morning. That adds a layer of complexity to the work, but the real reason it was so strong was purely through ease of composition. Recorded noise often sounds forced, which is why it’s largely unappealing to most audiences, but there is a grace to this work which declares itself clearly. 

Then there was Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s sound installation, Forest (For a Thousand Years). The piece was staged in a wooded area in Kassel’s park. Surrounding the audience were probably fifteen speakers largely hidden away in trees or under brush. Over the course of roughly half an hour, the piece covers what can only be described as the history of humanity. This is especially clear because one of the major final sections—a thunderous war scene replete with falling and exploding bombs, gunfire, and sounds of running, all of which imbue a deep sense of anxiety—can only allude to the Second World War, which left a marked impact on Kassel. (History too was a major theme throughout the entire exhibit.) The piece is beautifully edited, but deserves applause in particular for dealing with history in a novel fashion. 

Tino Seghal’s sound piece, This Variation, is difficult to explain without it sounding stupid, which is partly why it’s so smart. (But that’s true of all good modern art.). In a large, pitch black room, perhaps six performers danced and chanted. It was only clear that they were moving because they bumped into you, as navigating the room was impossible without feeling your way through it. But the piece is less about navigation than it is about just hearing, which is all you can really do. The rhythm the performers maintained was steady throughout, and their efforts were tireless. They deserve praise, but of course it’s Seghal’s design of the piece that’s truly clever: by allowing us to do only one thing—focus on listening—Seghal forces us to do it well.

Theaster Gates, Llyn Foulkes, and Mark Dion all deserve mention, even if their work falls outside of my current purview. There were a significant number of other strong works as well, making it fair to say that the exhibit was a success. No one would doubt that probably 85% of the art was poor or worse, but if five percent of it was good, the other five was truly excellent. Still, it’s difficult not to feel that the experience of the work has not been met by the criticism surrounding it, which is often quite confused. It’s clear enough that some of the best artists here are not well enough understood by anyone. Certainly criticism always lags behind art, if only because it can only respond to it, but much of the contemporary reception of a lot of recent work is nowhere near its intelligence. If there was a problem with how the show was put together and what the reactions to it were, it was here. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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