LEAP | Documenta 14
It’s the worlds most important exhibition that everybody loves to hate. From the last edition I remember everybody hating curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, as the whole show ‚was only about CCB’ (for insiders) and if you weren't a traumatized artist there was no place in Documenta 13 for you. Now everybody loves to hate the approach from Polish curator Adam Szymzcyk from this years 14th edition of Documenta. Which resulted in hilarious social media posts begging CCB to come back („all is forgiven, please don’t leave us”). What CBB and Szymzcyk have in common (besides the ambiguity of hate and being a super-star-curator) is that they wanted to expand the scale of Documenta. The small German town of Kassel where Documenta takes place every five years since 1955, wasn’t big enough for their ambitions. In the 2012 edition CBB presented a few works in the cities of Cairo, Kabul and Banff.
But Szymzcyk has taken the idea of expansion to the next level and moved half off his team together with half the budget (quite literally as the money was carried in suitcases) to the historical capital of Europe, Athens in Greece. The German government had already done something similar after they bailed out their troubled Greek eurozone partner in their financial debt crisis that started in 2010.
Szymczyk is driven by the desire to intervene through art in the real world. „Artists have the capacity to introduce a moment of uncertainty, or enigma” says Szymczyk. His decision to take Documenta outside of the comfort-zone of the art world and bring it to the epicenter of Europe’s economic, social and refugee crisis is highly criticized. Critics pointing out that the curators are exploiting the city’s crisis as a marketing trick for their exhibition, the lack of a Greek curator in the team and the elitist imperialism and paternalism, claiming that the Germans want to colonize Greece not only financially but also culturally. While others say it is the best possible moment for this exhibition to happen as Documenta could help the city out of its displacement and dispair.
Since the first Documenta in 1955 a new era broke for Kassel, after the devastations of World War II and in an ongoing manner the exhibition questioned memory, retrieval and the possibilities of rebuilding and re-imagining history. The other backdrop of Documenta is Athens; a damaged city dealing with a major refugee crisis due to the European refugee-deal with Turkey, an unemployment rate from 25% and years of recession and austerity that have brought the country to it’s knees. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that this years title is „Learning from Athens”.
Documenta is the political and social conscience of the international contemporary art world and the curators are taking their roll as moral social high ground extremely serious. So serious even that it was bordering on pure arrogance during the press conference in Kassel. The preaching to the choir briefing of the press turned into a platform/performance to air political grievances for two hours (interspersed with a 20 minutes violin concert - no joke); about smashing the patriarchy, the legacies of colonialism, capitalism and neoliberalism. After two hours marked by big abstract nouns I knew nothing about the works or anything about what this years Documenta sets out to do. Looking for wall texts and signs in one of the 30 exhibition spaces in Kassel (I’ve been told by people who have seen both, that Athens had even more sites and locations), in search for (much needed) contextualization, unfortunately resulted in a further mystification of the intentions of the curatorial team and the works of over 160 artists. A large number of artworks did not have wall texts, and when there was context it was often corrected for typos and mistakes by hand. Instagram was exploding with the loveless marked and scratched out wall texts.
On a quest for answers I decided to visit the monumental Fridericianum museum, traditionally the heart of a Documenta exhibition. But Szymczyk breaks with this tradition and invited the Greek National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) to showcase their collection at the museum thereby „offering new histories while challenging prevalent ones”. It is the first time this collection is on view in Germany and never before so many unknown Greek artists were represented at the Documenta. Some of the works are beautiful, such as the installation of a large weaving loom and medical computer that seem to read the same REM graphics (I don’t know the artist as there was no wall sign and the museum-attendant had no clue) or Eirene Efstathiou’s ‚Anniversary’ (2010) in which she composed 36 lithographs based on images from the student occupation and rebellion at the Athens Polytechnic in November 1973 that resulted in the collapse of the regime. The decision to hand over the heart of Kassel’s Documenta to the EMST is a bold statement, in which Szymczyk wants to discuss the hierarchy of the international art world. But to understand how big this break is with the past, you need to know a bit more about the history of the museum and Kassel.
The museum was commissioned and named after Friedrich von Hessen-Kassel II. In the 18th century Germany was still a patchwork of small states and Friedrich II was the landgrave of the state Hesse-Kassel and ruled his land as an enlightened despot. He hit on a brilliant way of enriching his domain and earned a fortune with the trade in soldiers. The Hessians, as they were known, were a regular army for hire and their most famous employer was Great Britain whom the Hessians helped to fight the American Revolutionary War. It is a dark page in the history of the state of Hessen, where besides his trained soldiers, farmers were taken from their own land to fight other peoples’ wars. Thousands were killed and the profits were used in an Enlightenment campaign to improve society as a whole. In Germany Friedrich II is not only seen as a villain, but as a statesman and mecenas for the arts and science. In 1779 he opened the neo-classicist museum and allowed ordinary citizens (for payment of course!) to view the collection and thus the Fridricianum became the first public museum in Europe.
On the facade of the museum it reads in a copper font "MVSEVM FRIDERICIANVM". Well, for the last 350 years at least, as now it states: „BEING SAFE IS SCARY” a work by the Turkish artist Banu Cennetoğlu. It is a tribute to Kurdish journalist and former freedom fighter Gurbetelli Ersöz and based on graffiti on a wall at the National Technical University of Athens. The square where the museum is located, Friedrichsplatz was also named after Friedrich II and is one of the largest inner-city squares in Germany. The Argentinian artist Marta Minujín created a monumental replica of the famous Pantheon-temple in Athens, a symbol for the aesthetic and political ideals of the world’s first democracy. Her work is composed of 100.000 banned books and is protesting the censorship of free speech. As every artwork and every location beams that we have to learn from history it comes as no surprise that the Friedrichsplatz has a troubled past. It was here in 1933, where the Nazis burned approximately 2.000 books during the so-called “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist” (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit).
But Friedrich’s expansionism didn’t stop there and he commissioned the famous Königsplatz, connecting the old city center and Nordstadt, the northern part of Kassel and still the Königsplatz is an important commercial and transport hub. This is emphasized by the monumental concrete obelisk in the center of the square by Nigerian-born artist Olu Oguibe. On ‚Monument for Strangers and Refugees’ a phrase from the New Testament is carved in Arabic, English, German and Turkish: “I was a stranger and you took me in”. Kassel, like Athens, is a city of immigrants divided by ethnicity and wealth. After the destruction of the city in World War II a lot of refugees from the neighboring DDR sought refuge in the West-German town and at present refugees from Africa and the Middle East are arriving in the city in search of a better future.
It is not the pompous Fridericianum museum but an old postoffice in Nordstadt, a suburb mainly populated by migrants, that sheds the most light on this years Documenta. Initially hard to find, the area around the postoffice (now named Neue Neue Galerie) bustles with life and friendly neighbors guide me in the right direction. On entrance the Spanish artist Daniel García Andújar presents a thoughtful analysis of war and the use and abuse of classicism in his work ‚The Trojan Horse’. The work of Columbian artist Beatriz Gonzalez is a massive curtain in half, a remake of Edouard Manet’s famous ‚Luncheon on the Grass’ (1863) and protesting the Eurocentric focus within art history. Without a doubt the most important piece of work is from the Society of Friends of Halit in collaboration with Forensic Architecture from London; an ongoing investigation into the problematic murder inquiry of a young Turkish man, Halit Yozgat, who was murdered in an internetcafé in Kassel’s Nordstad in 2006. He was the ninth victim in a series of murders across Germany committed by the National Socialist Underground, until the neo-Nazi group was uncovered in 2011. Forensic Architecture, formed at Goldsmiths in London by architect Eyal Weizman, previously investigated warcrimes and questioned the involvement of the German intelligence service in the murders. After new analysis they found evidence that one of the undercover agents of the German intelligence service was in the internetcafe when Halit Yozgat was murdered. Until now it is uncertain if this evidence will be used in court. The project shows the ultimate potential and power of art to change the course of history: art as a witness.
Nordstadt is also part of the city that was home of the industrial military complex that’s defined much of the city’s history and present. During the period of Documenta several performances are taking place in the Henschel Hallen. Again, as Documenta tells us over and over again: we should learn from history. The company Henschel & Son was founded in 1810 in Kassel and the large industrial hall was once the primary site of production for Henschel locomotives, airplanes, tanks and bombs. Currently merged with the Canadian company Bombardier, it remains one of the biggest arms manufacturers and exporters in Europe, delivering to over 34 countries worldwide.
In the Henschel Hallen the work Check Point Sekondi Loco from the young Ghanese artist Ibrahim Mahama examines the relationships and paradoxes between different historical spaces through the act of production. According to Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Documenta’s curator-at-large „It is possible to disrupt and subvert the politics of spaces by granting them new forms, imposing new meanings upon them, or divesting them of their intended significance.” Should we read Ibrahim Mahama’s practice of swathing buildings in fabric within this framework? Or the interesting fact that none of the present manufacturing of arms is addressed by the curators, although indirectly Documenta receives a lot of funding from them (though the income and property tax from the City of Kassel and the State of Hessen).
End of June a German activist was removed by the police and Documenta GMBH from the Friedrichsplatz when he was demonstrating in front of the 'Pantheon' (of all places), while carrying a sign that stated 'War city Kassel builds weapons' and on the other side of the sign 'Documenta city Kassel builds art'. He was protesting the famous tank manufacturer Krauss-Maffei-Wegmann from Kassel, as the arms they delivered to war striken countries ultimately exacerbated the conflicts, and thus caused refugee flows - one of the main themes in this years Documenta.
Documenta is masked by these sort of contradictions. Critics have accused the German government of hypocrisy; of pursuing its own national interests via an unwillingness to adjust fiscal policy in a way that would help resolve the eurozone crisis. The German government profited from the deal with Greece. Documenta profited from Athens. If Athens profited from Documenta is still undecided. The third Greek bailout program is due to expire in June 2018. Maybe then we can say what we’ve learned from Athens. Greece recently announced that they want to be treated the same as Germany as the country received debt relief when it was rebuilding after World War II. Kassel’s postwar trauma resulted in Documenta and we can only hope that Athens Recovery is sparked by German money and the moral high ground of Documenta 14. One thing we’ve learned thus far: memory is currency.
Athens (Greece), 8 April - 16 July 2017
Kassel (Germany), June 10 - September 17, 2017