Letters from Documenta


This 13th version of the mighty documenta—this year it’s dOCUMENTA (13)—held every five years in the relatively small township of Kassel, Germany, begins with a gentle but pronounced wind. As you enter the Fridericianum, historically the exhibition’s main venue, this breeze envelops you, pushing you in some directions and pulling you in others. You would expect to encounter such a wind not when you enter a building but instead when you leave one, which makes for a conflation of inside and outside, museum and world. This particular breeze is rather startling, but often seems natural.

I’m guessing that many visitors won’t initially register British artist Ryan Gander’s invisible artwork, I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize (The Invisible Pull) (2012), as an artwork at all, which would probably be just fine for the artist. Sometimes Gander’s wind, created using customized industrial fans, is obvious; at other times it’s hardly noticeable. It’s in flux. The wind is restless as it courses throughout the museum’s ground floor, and it is the perfect introductory work to an exhibition that is also wonderfully explorative and full of discoveries.

With this circulating wind, and with two prominent, yet largely empty, exhibition spaces on either side of the venue’s entranceway, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev decisively places her stamp on this most famous of exhibitions. dOCUMENTA (13) includes 150-plus artists in several primary locations, including Fridericianum, the documenta-Halle, the Ottoneum, the Orangerie, and the Neue Galerie. Other works are liberally dispersed in off-sites as well as throughout the Karlsaue Park. dOCUMENTA (13) has international incarnations in Kabul/Bamiyan, Afghanistan; Cairo/Alexandria, Egypt; and Banff, Canada, making it a global enterprise. Performances, symposia, film screenings, and literary readings abound, meaning that the 100 days of this exhibition will be packed with activity. This report will restrict its focus to the main venue; subsequent reports on auxiliary sections will follow.

After working in Europe as an art critic and independent curator during the 1980s and 1990s, Christov-Bakargiev was senior curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center from 1999 to 2001 (she was a primary force behind and co-curator of the inaugural “Greater New York” exhibition at P.S. 1 in 2000). She was chief curator at Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy between 2002 and 2008, and in 2008 she was also artistic director of the 16th Biennale of Sydney, memorably titled “Revolutions—Forms That Turn.” For my money, this was one of the very top—and among the most delightfully idiosyncratic large-scale international exhibitions that I’ve ever encountered (see my article “The Wheel is Turning,” A.i.A., Nov. 2008).

The first two rooms in the Fridericianum are prime real estate, prominent spaces where the majority of visitors will first encounter the exhibition and they are exactly where you’d expect to find big statement art by big deal artists. Instead, they are virtually empty.

The room on the right features three partly abstract and partly figurative sculptures (two in iron, one in bronze) from the 1930s by Spanish artist Julio González (1876-1942); the sculptures are in a vitrine on the wall. They are the exact same works that González posthumously exhibited in documenta II in 1959 and an accompanying photo shows how they looked back then. In the 1930s, when the sculptures were made, Europe was veering toward fascism and upheaval and in 1959 Europe was still emerging from strife, brutal war, and economic mayhem. González’s sculptures reappear today in a time ominously marked by economic crisis.

The room on the left also features a vitrine, this one displaying a lengthy letter New York-based German Kai Althoff sent to Christov-Bakargiev. Over five painfully honest handwritten pages Althoff explains, and seeks forgiveness for his decision to opt out of dOCUMENTA (13) after he had agreed to participate. Althoff’s personal letter communicates his anxieties, fear of being overwhelmed by too many projects, intensity and fragility. Including this letter, Christov-Bakargiev mischievously allows for Althoff to participate anyway, while she also shifts focus from artworks per se (and an art market obsessed with them) to the life and mind of the artist.

So you’ve got two mostly empty rooms and a mysterious breeze blowing through them.

From there you move to the rotunda, long a documenta centerpiece and now billed by Christov-Bakargiev and her curatorial team (called “agents”) as “the brain.” It’s an eclectic brain that scrambles mediums, historical eras and intentions. Here you find two lovely bulbous ceramics (both from 2011) by Paraguayan potters Julia Isidrez and Juana Marta Rodas; small damaged artifacts from the National Museum in Beirut melted together by shell fire during the Lebanese civil war; a photograph of a “bomb pond” (water-filled craters in Cambodia made by American bombs during the Vietnam War) by the young Cambodian Vandy Rattana; objects from Adolf Hitler’s bathroom, including Eva Braun’s perfume bottle and a bath towel with Hitler’s initials, taken by American Lee Miller when she was an embedded photographer during World War II, as well as wartime photographs by and of Miller, including one in which she lounges in Hitler’s bathtub; and several paintings by Giorgio Morandi.

A river stone and its copy in Carrara marble by Giuseppe Penone look great with Sam Durant’s sculpture on the floor, also made from Carrara marble, which convincingly resembles a bag of marble powder.  In a drawing by Vu Giang Huong, you see two versions of a Vietcong woman, a rifle slung over her shoulder, bending over to pick up her hat. The works make oblique sense in proximity to an utterly enthralling selection of so-called Bactrian princesses, small, seated female figurines produced in a late 3rd–early 2nd millennium B.C. civilization that once flourished in Central Asia. Trauma, the importance of place, how history conjoins modernity, transformation—important themes throughout the exhibition—emanate from the brain.

Inscribed near the bottom of the glass wall in the front of the brain is Lawrence Weiner’s THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF. This is a great site for a great work, which is physically in the middle of the wall, the space, and the museum, but which also has so many other reverberating connotations.

Photo: Kai Althoff’s letter to the curator.