Essay: From dOCUMENTA 13 With Love

(For the essay that follows, the Ministry of Artistic Affairs invited Toronto artist Bogdan Luca to discuss his recent experience at dOCUMENTA 13, the highly important exhibition of modern and contemporary art that takes place in Kassel, Germany, every five years.  He sent this essay from Berlin on July 27, 2012.)

Located in the very center of Germany, Kassel is a city where history has a tangible presence, both in the sense of two world wars, and the cummulative history of the twelve Documentas that precede this one. Here you may happen to lean on a basalt pillar, one of 7000 Oaks planted by Joseph Beuys across dOCUMENTA 7 and 8. In the center of the city there is a brass rod driven into the ground during dOCUMENTA 6: Walter deMaria’s Vertical Earth Kilometer. Only the top surface of this metal column is visible, appearing as a small disk on a granite plaza and leaving the actuality of its real dimension invisible and only comprehensible as an act of faith. Reaching deep through geological strata, this piece is a good symbol for an entire exhibition which often pairs new art with select 20th century works as a way to question the new coordinates of the world we inhabit in this 21st century. Kassel becomes part of a network of historically, politically and artistically active sites connected by an effort to redefine and understand anew our roles in creating the world.

I started my visit at the building called the Friedericianum. One of the first public museums in Europe, this 18th century building had been destroyed in the second world war, beautifully reconstructed after, and had become the principal building of dOCUMENTA since its beginning in 1955. In the center of the building is a rotunda, referred to in the exhibition guide as “The Brain”. In her curatorial essay, artistic director Carolyn Christo- Bakargiev discusses the possibility that objects of art can embody the human conflict and trauma which surrounded their creation, and The Brain proposes many examples. Some of my favourites included bottles from Morandi’s studio, along with several of his paintings of the same; hybridized metal and glass artifacts fused as a result of rocket fire on the National Museum in Beirut; photographs of Lee Miller posing in Hitler’s Munich apartment bathtub, the same day the latter committed suicide in Berlin. A room of stories told through objects.

The second major venue of dOCUMENTA is Karlsaue Park hosting several dozen projects. Here, an architecture of mind takes shape as you walk across the lush baroque expanse of the park. A place for reflection but also surprises. You may come across a huge rock in a tree (from Giuseppe Penone) or a complex structure resulting from the unlikely merge of several life size historical gallows (from Sam Durant), or a fanciful dog park composed of larger than life upturned Mies chairs and wooden ramps (from Brian Jungen). Between looking for specific works, following the requirements of the map, stopping for lunch, being surprised, and understanding the rational layout of the park, a wonderful volume of imaginary space appears as an augumentation of the geographical.

In an age of constant stimulation, walking slows us down, gives us a sense of our bodies, allows room for reflection, until we are confronted with another artist’s view of the world. The artistic encounters I enjoy most are those where I am not sure if I’m experiencing something real or staged by the artist. Following the sound of explosions and screaming, I reached a boardwalk which led me into a thicket of tall trees and to a circle of stumps where people were seated under the distant green canopy. The air was then filled with the haunting voices of a choir. Then silence. Then footsteps through the forest. Is that real rain or is it art? I found it difficult not to flinch at the creaking and thunder of a falling tree behind me. One of two dOCUMENTA contributions from Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, For a Thousand Years is a auditory experience that creates an intense imaginary space on top of, or inside of, the physical space I occupied as a park wonderer. The forest becomes a cathedral, a road, a field of battle, a forest where things happen, and a thousand years go by in front of your ears.

A different kind of space is proposed in the works of Geoffrey Farmer and Yan Lei. These two artists’ contributions are extraordinary for creating a tangible space and volume for something ubiquitous but ephemeral: images. Lei’s Limited Art Project is a room filled with paintings: salon style hanging, many canvases looming from the ceiling, and vertical racks that the viewer can pull to reveal yet more paintings. The artist selected 360 images from Google searches, one for each year of the Chinese calendar. He painted all in a variety of sizes and formats. Entering the room, I felt as though I was inside the visual Matrix of the Internet, surrounded by images painted in a manner and palette that somehow embodied the homogenizing veneer of a Google Image search. The artist’s intention is to slow down our consumption of images by investing each with the time required for painting, and by presenting them in a way which asks that we relate to these images in terms of our bodies. As a final comment on the disposable and ephemeral nature of such images, everyday for the duration of dOCUMENTA, Yan Lei takes one painting out of the room and to a car factory outside of Kassel. There, the painting is coated with a bright, even and permanent layer of enamel. It is then returned to the room. Everyday the room changes as more bright, solid colour canvases appear amongst the representational images.

Though I had seen images of Geoffrey Farmer’s dOCUMENTA installation, only in the flesh did I realize the scale and the incredible amount of work and time invested in it. Drawing from a collection of Life magazine spanning 50 years, Leaves of Grass is a huge installation of shadow puppets, which gives a new body to images and, again, forces us to reconsider our relation to images and what new meanings may emerge from large sets of visual information. This installation also requires time. Time to walk its length along both sides. There is a small note on a wall in which the artist tells us that the shadow puppets are made with tall grass, some of which he grew over seven years. Just like grass, these images will eventually wither, as they are exposed to sunlight. I found it hard to find a particular logic of organization but other intentional choices became visible, such as size relationships, shapes and colours that resonate with each other. One of many beautiful moments occurs where a passage of black and white images slides into a colour one. When you look at the images from the back, you notice the delicate wooden frame that supports each of the thousands of images which make up this sculpture.

dOCUMENTA 13 continues in many other smaller venues peppering Kassel. Overall, I sensed an attempt to thoughtfully reconsider our time in relation to what we’ve inherited from the 20th century. Connecting across distance and time is one important thread that is also defining of our networked information age. Egypt and Afghanistan are sites of deep history as well as of present change and upheaval. Libraries, archives, and collections are also typical of our time as we seek to understand the total components of the universe from the Higgs Boson to the human genome. Alexandria, site of the legendary library is an apt symbol for our continuing search that is wonderfully expressed in so many artistic voices this year at dOCUMENTA 13.

By Bogdan Luca for The Ministry of Artistic Affairs, Berlin, July 27, 2012.

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