A Walk in the dOCUMENTA Park

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, for a thousand years.


Throughout its history, documenta has at times featured artworks in the sprawling Karlsaue Park, just down the hill from the Fridericianum and outside the Orangerie, but never on the scale and magnitude that occurs with dOCUMENTA (13). One of curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s best innovations was moving a sizable chunk of the exhibition–some 52 works–outside the museums and into the park. Developed around 1700 as a Baroque garden, in 1785 it was remodeled into a more “natural” English garden, and has since become a much-used outdoor venue. There is no central theme uniting the artworks here, but this diversity has a potent effect. Many installations are housed in specially constructed small houses, cabins or extant park buildings, while others remain in the open air. A walk (or a bike ride) through the exhibition becomes a compelling adventure over the course of several hours, full of surprises and discoveries.

Near an entrance to the park, jutting from a broad lawn outside the Orangerie, is Chinese artist Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden (2010-12). It is a 20-foot-tall mound of urban rubble and biological waste completely overgrown with grass, plants and flowers. Neon signs around the mound read “Doing” and “Nothing” in Chinese characters. This quasi-earthwork recalls the pulverization of Kassel during World War II and the subsequent cleanup and reconstruction of the city. It also addresses the consumption and waste endemic in our advanced consumer society, suspending them in an endless cycle of entropy and regeneration.

In the park, not far from the Orangerie and the Brothers Grimm Museum, was American artist Robin Kahn’s project The Art of Sahrawi Cooking. During opening week, when you entered Kahn’s encampment (which featured a ceremonial desert tent), women from Western Sahara donning colorful garb served you delicious couscous and tea. In 2009 Kahn spent a month living with a group of women from this region, a disputed, sparsely populated territory bordered by Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Her time there led to a book, Dining in Refugee Camps: The Art of Sahrawi Cooking (2009), and eventually to this documenta piece, which was made in partnership with La Cooperativa Unidad Nacional Mujeres Saharauis (The National Union of Women from Western Sahara).

One could spend time in this convivial place beneath the tent, converse with the women (and the artist), peruse reading materials and learn a great deal about Western Sahara. Home to the Sahrawi people, Western Sahara was colonized by Spain in the late 19th century, annexed by Morocco in 1976, and has long suffered (and resisted) brutalities and oppression from the Moroccan government.

Nearby visitors could slowly walk around and around, but not enter, one of the small, freshly constructed houses, in this case an enchanting installation by Joan Jonas. Jonas altered the four normal windows by inserting cones, props and mirrors. Viewed from the outside, these windows become mini-theaters/projection screens for the display of the artist’s videos, including one from The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2004), her renowned meditation on the idiosyncratic German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929), Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia (1514) and Hopi ceremonies, among other topics. Jonas’s videos are accompanied by her recorded voice and other sounds, and the whole house feels alive with her vision.

Enter another structure near the middle of the park and you are in Mexican artist Pedro Reyes’s earnest yet hilarious Sanatorium, a clinic designed to treat psychological troubles created by stress, breakups, loneliness and anger. Here, visitors sign up to become patients. After being interviewed by “therapists,” each is assigned various treatments, including a “vaccine against violence.” For this treatment you draw a picture of the person who has most hurt you on a balloon, attach the inflated balloon to a headless dummy, and proceed to therapeutically whack the heck out of it. Patients can also write down their secrets and, in exchange, are able to read someone else’s confession.

Much further into the park, visitors can scramble through a muddy section to reach a compost pile, a place where death and decay quite literally lead to new life. This is where you’ll find Pierre Huyghe’s concrete sculpture of a reclining female nude whose head is an active beehive, pulsating with life.

At the edge of a small, man-made lake deep in the park is Sam Durant’s large wood and metal construction Scaffold (2012). This looming, angular work, replete with various beams, stairs and ladders, appears to be slightly levitating, and suggests a cross between a viewing platform and a jungle gym. While signaling fun and adventure, this work is also frightening–it includes scale models of famous gallows through the ages.

Four Canadians stand out in Karlsaue Park, all of them incidentally from British Columbia. Brian Jungen designed an elaborate sculpture park for dogs (Dog Run, 2012), with some of the structures based on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona chair, creating a modernism that’s gone to the dogs.

Over a year ago, Gareth Moore decided to live and work in a remote part of the park next to the maintenance area. Using found materials, including windows left behind from the renovation of the Brothers Grimm Museum and parts of a washing machine, Moore transformed a section of the park into a living installation made up of sculptures, the cabin he built (the artist’s living quarters are private), various other sheds, paths, signs, an “inter-spiritual” temple, a kiosk and a small outdoor cinema. Visitors can even book themselves into Moore’s “pension” for an overnight stay. Here are the terms and amenities, announced in a recent text message:

It starts at 40 €
Bartering is possibly welcome
2 warm beds
Composting toilet
Cold shower (sometimes hot)
Nearby river
Relaxing garden
Gates close at 23:00

A remarkable thing about Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s utterly captivating sound installation for a thousand years (2012) is how it blurs distinctions between site and art. You enter a clearing in the forest, sit down on a wooden stump, and simply listen. Cardiff and Bures Miller’s work incorporates the actual forest into an audio composition emitted from more than thirty speakers. Sometimes there is a near synchronicity of natural and mediated sounds, and it’s tough to discern what is live and what is recorded.

On a sunny day you hear the rustling breeze, but also the recording of a dramatically escalating wind that sounds intensely real. You sonically register that a storm is approaching, even though your eyes tell you otherwise; when you hear a branch loudly snap overhead (in the recording), you become instantly fearful and flinch. The recorded sounds move in a sphere around you, and you feel as if you’re in the shifting presence of history. There are the sounds of war: whistling screeches, big explosions, the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire. There is a brief but shocking scream, a crashing tree, sounds of a mother and child, clanging metal. Singers come close, but then leave. You hear the trees and the wind again, and the crickets and birds. In turn frightening and deeply touching, ominous and serene, Cardiff and Bures Miller’s forest soundscape is a wonder in the park, and one of the best works in the whole exhibition.