25. July 2012 / Jessica Bridger
Pure Vanilla Moments: Documenta 13
There seems to be something almost decadent and old world about an international art event that occurs once every five years. Documenta 13, currently taking place for a total of 100 days in Kassel, Germany, is just this kind of event. However, unlike the art fairs where collectors are born out of global capital’s warm, well-papered embrace of the products of artistic production, Documenta functions more like a fairground for anyone from those with merely a passing interest in art and serious practitioners and critics. It is about experience, not acquisition. It is an event complete with ice cream, celebrities and it has a half-life of ideas and concepts for art that is much longer than your run-of-the-mill Biennale. Documenta is important. The welcoming atmosphere and hum of excitement make it almost easy to miss the fact that Documenta tends to set a broad tone for the art world, which echoes forward through the years.
Museum Fridericianum, 2012. Photo: Nils Klinger ©
Documenta 13 is an embrace of the kind of art that can’t be sold as easily as sidling up to a booth and discretely dropping a word in a dealer’s ear. The artists included by Documenta 13 curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev span a range of countries, practices and media. This is to be expected. The immersive, highly singular moments of clarity in and around this version of Documenta are not, but are most welcome. Many artists in the Documenta 13 are given a few years to germinate and develop their contributions specifically for the event.
Overspread throughout the Kassel, Documenta encompasses both buildings and outdoor sites. Kassel, normally a city of 200,000 in western Germany about 120 miles from Frankfurt, swells with over 750,000 visitors during the duration of Documenta. The town is consumed by the event, held there since its inception 1955. Documenta forms a landscape of its own, overlaid on the normal composition of Kassel.
The most spectacular part of the landscape of the Docuementa is along Kassel’s Au, (floodplain and riparian corridor) called the Karlsaue. This space, established and developed from 1654-1730, is surely one of the most beautiful and sensitive treatments of this kind of riparian corridor and surrounding land in Europe. During Documenta the winding park paths of the Karlsaue are like a network of taut sinew connecting the scattered bones of over 50 outdoor installations, which are free admission to anyone and everyone. And somehow, even during the opening weekend (complete with Brad Pitt sightings) it was always an option to plunk down in the grass of the Karlsaue, and focus one’s perception on the trees and sky. Relaxed and personal, singular and clear – this is the Documenta 13’s vibe. It is one of the most important international events in the art world, severely limited in instance, but one can bring one’s kids, lover or brother and sit with an ice cream, chatting or have a personal experience with pieces by some of the most outstanding artists in the world and interact with serious content and world issues, unfettered by the hypermarket of art fairs or the pretensions of an academic conference.
Gabriel Lester, Transition 2012 - one of the many installations found along the Karlsaue. Photo: Nils Klinger ©
One of the most outstanding pieces, one that is indicative of the personal singular experience at Documenta 13 is German artist Ceal Floyer’s 2005 audio piece “Till I Get it Right” located at the hub of Documenta, the Fridericianum. The piece is housed in a small white gallery room, where a perfectly tuned and pitched sample of country singer Tammy Wynette, with the lamenting mantra lyric “So I’ll just keep on/till I get it right” invites you to stop, and become mesmerized by a pure white aural experience, a vanilla purity as intoxicating as a heady alcohol extract. The pure vanilla moments are what make Documenta a transformative experience. Ceal Floyer’s piece is one to make you forget the sunshine outside.
Ceal Floyer’s piece is one in a multitude of outstanding pieces and the Documenta offers everyone a chance to discover resonant favorites. Other pieces that were outstanding to this particular attendee is Chinese artist Song Dong’s “Doing Nothing Garden,” a gigantic mound of trash – landfill as installation, overgrown by flowers and grass, its form pitched and formed by decomposition. Also “In Search of Vanished Blood” a multiple projection piece by Nalini Malani was immersive in the best kind of fantasy. Art as social commentary and an aesthetic of the conflict-politic was of course at the fore, most plainly effective and affecting in Robin Kahn’s transplanted tent located in Karlsau from the contested African nation of Western Sahara, more a open air museum education piece and wholly appropriate. The satellite sites of Documenta 13 are in Kabul, Afghanistan, Banff, Canada and Alexandria/Cairo, Egypt. Rounding this out, should anyone find himself or herself hungry for live-performance science, was the transplanted Quantum Physics laboratory of the Zeilinger Group (University of Vienna) complete with scientists working while viewers milled about. The variety and depth of content at Documenta 13 is astounding and inspiring.
Song Dong, Doing Nothing Garden, 2010–12. Photo: Nils Klinger ©
Nalini Malani, In Search of Vanished Blood, 2012. Photo: Anders Sune Berg ©
It is moments like those that make for continuity out of the hundreds of things to see at Documenta 13. And, like any good exhibition, visitors are free to compose their own narratives, choose favorites – in a careful way there is something for everyone. Even the atmosphere in Kassel is something to savor, amid this landscape of art. The infrequency of the event is something to value as well - as we grow more and more accustomed to multiple instance events, less patient and carelessly consuming experience, it is things like Documenta that remind us that anticipation and infrequency can be just as delicious and more fulfilling than the always-on, ever recurring events.
Documenta 13 runs through September 6, 2012 in Kassel, Germany alongside satellite sites in Kabul Afghanistan; Banff, Canada and Alexandria/Cairo, Egypt.
A series of publications “100 books / 100 thoughts” sourced from the artists involved – and thinkers invoked – in Documenta 13 is available as single issues or a compendium from Hatje Cantz, along with a guidebook and other publications.