Art on the Tracks at dOCUMENTA


Since 1991 Kassel’s Hauptbahnhof is no longer an important hub, or even the city’s “main station”; that was the year when Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe opened a couple miles away, connecting the city with high-speed trains. The Hauptbahnhof is still in business, but as a local commuter station, without much hustle or bustle. But after all these years the Hauptbahnhof is still a major site for dOCUMENTA 13 and well worth a sustained visit. Twenty-eight works are housed here, among the station and outlying buildings.

Stars of the Karlsaue Park, Canadians Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are also must-see (and must-hear) artists at the station. At a little office near the entrance visitors receive an iPod and headphones, and then can walk through the station as the media plays. The duo have filmed scenes and created a voiceover for After Bahnhof Video Walk (2012). Listening to Cardiff’s hypnotic voice and following her gentle commands you move through the station, even its side stairways and obscure halls, and out to the tracks.

Sometimes what’s happening on the iPod video almost perfectly corresponds to what’s really happening at the station, but at other times it does not. When you see a little band marching through the main hall on the iPod, you half expect that the same band should be there in real time. What’s fascinating is how the real place and its mediated version coexist and play off one another. At the end, you are standing in a big hall while watching (on the iPod) the same hall, from the same perspective, but now with two dancers twining about one another in a way that seems at once erotic, potentially violent, and chock full of complicated life.

On June 1, 1942 some 500 Jews from the district of Kassel were loaded onto trains at the Hauptbahnhof and deported to concentration camps. Near the station are the factories of the company formerly called Henschel & Sohn, which began making locomotives in 1848. The company grew into a major industrial company manufacturing locomotives, engines, and vehicles and was a prominent supplier of armaments for Germany during World War II (the company also helpfully provided the staff railroad car used by Hermann Göring). When the Allies bombed Kassel, destroying much of the city center and killing thousands, the Henschel works were a primary target.

This sets the scene for Scottish artist Susan Philipsz’s outdoor sound installation Study for Strings (2012), a top work at dOCUMENTA and among the most searing and entrancing works that I’ve encountered anywhere.

On the exhibition map Philipsz’s work is at the very end of Track 12, the longest track in the station, but as you approach what should be the site you can’t see anything by the artist and at times can’t hear anything either. You’re alone in a lonely part of the station, with trains coming and going, the nearby factory buildings, and the landscape in the distance.
Suddenly things start. From somewhere above the train tracks you hear stringed instruments playing, and the sounds don’t seem to come from a specific place; it’s more like they are in the air, part of the atmosphere, and as you get closer to them they also seem to be withdrawing. The music is lovely, elegiac, mournful, and riveting. What’s playing, through seven speakers installed in a half-circle above the tracks, is a composition based on Czech composer Pavel Haas’s Study for Strings (1943). He wrote this work while incarcerated in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. There, it was performed by the Terezin String Orchestra before an audience of prisoners; this performance was filmed and incorporated into the absurdly upbeat propaganda movie Theresienstadt: Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem judischen Siedlungsgebiet (Terezin: A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area), 1944. You can see an excerpt here. It is appalling.

The German Jewish actor/director Kurt Gerron, also a Theresienstadt prisoner, was forced by the Nazis to make this film showing how lovely and industrious life was for Jews in the camp. Subsequently, Pavel Haas, Kurt Gerron, and thousands of others (including, no doubt, many that appear in the film) were summarily transported to Auschwitz and executed.

Philipsz’s ethereal sound work, punctuated by the movement of trains, draws from this history in an exceptionally poignant way. The music is incredibly sad, but also lovely and hopeful: pure, stubborn loveliness in opposition to total evil and mayhem. It was a great decision to situate the work above the real train tracks, and to make it so intangible. The music, which comes and goes (remaining silent for a long time), is simply there, and it’s a powerful force.

Other highlights include Berlin-based Venezuelan Javier Téllez’s film installation Artaud’s Cave (2012) inspired by Antonin Artaud’s 1934 text The Conquest of Mexico and his 1936 trip to Mexico. Seated in a steep, faux grotto, or artificial cave, you watch Téllez’s film, which was largely shot in a Mexico City psychiatric hospital; patients in the hospital are the actors. Sometimes they speak about their lives directly into the camera. At other times you see them going about their routines (watching television, playing soccer, sneaking a smoke) and performing in homemade theatrical spectacles. Artaud was all about a theater that could engulf and derange the senses. Here, Téllez flips the script, revealing these pariahs as incredibly dignified, intelligent, and creative—all of which makes you wonder what exactly constitutes mental illness.

German artist Clemens von Wedemeyer’s complex, multilayered film installation Muster (Rushes), 2012, simultaneously occurs on three screens in a triangular formation. Each of these three stories concerns a different incarnation of a former Benedictine monastery outside of Kassel which was a correctional facility and later the Breitanau concentration camp during Nazi times, a reformatory for girls in the 1970s, and later a psychiatric clinic. Since the early 1980s it has been the Breitenau Memorial Museum commemorating Nazi atrocities. In von Wedemeyer’s tripartite film, blasé students visit the memorial in 1990 on one screen while Allied soldiers liberate the concentration camp in 1945 on another. On the third reformatory girls in the 1970s segue into actors preparing for a film similar to Ulrike Meinhof’s (of the Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof Gang) scathing 1970 television film Bambule which exposes the authoritarianism and gross injustices operating in a reform school for girls (you can see part one of Meinhof’s film here). The other parts are also available on YouTube). As three main characters “time travel” between these periods, appearing in the different stories, the fraught, complex, and varied life of the site over decades gets conjoined.

Nearby, South African luminary William Kentridge debuts a major new video installation called The Refusal of Time (2012). This complex meditation on time, including 19th century attempts to standardize time, and how Einstein erupted such standardization, plays out in a fascinating panorama of video projections on the walls, accompanied by rollicking and at times anarchic music. Large metronomes, clocks, maps, Kentridge repeatedly stepping on and off chairs, dancers, books, and the artist’s signature animated processions all factor in, while a male voice quietly intones from speakers.

In the middle of the room is a kinetic contraption/machine, an artificial lung “breathing” in and out. Rather than making rational sense of the installation, you give yourself over to its delightful verve, high jinks, intelligence, and humanity as it situates us in relation to the vastness of time, the world, and the cosmos.