by Mark Van Proyen
Situated under the long morning shadow cast by the Acropolis, the archeological site of Aristotle’s Lyceum reveals itself to be a serene and quiet place, seeming more like an undisturbed graveyard than a place of active excavation. But throughout the late spring and early summer, it was eerily reanimated by a sound piece by the group Post-Commodity (Raven Chacon, Christóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist) titled The Ears Between Worlds Are Always Speaking (2017), which was mysteriously broadcast into the site by way of long-range directional speakers that created a wafting, ghost-like effect. It was in fact a kind of pocket opera performed in multiple languages, with singing characters and haunted interludes bespeaking the perils of people seeking to negotiate various border crossings, be they from Latin America, Libya, Syria or elsewhere. The opera runs for the length of an entire day, interspersed with long interludes of silence, which are omitted in the online version.
Not only was the piece haunting, it was also the perfect synoptic overture to the entirety of Documenta 14, which this year was split into two venues, Athens, Greece (April 8-July 16) and Kassel, Germany (June 10-September 17). Organized under the direction of Adam Szymczyk (Director and Chief Curator of Kunsthalle Basel), this iteration of Documenta operated under the thematic banner of “Learning from Athens,” emblemized by a ubiquitous logo featuring an orthopedically challenged owl quizzically looking back at the beholder with vertical bug eyes, as if to ask, “what have we learned from Athens?” Indeed, the owl of Athena wants to know, and the time is right to follow-up on the question.
Of course, one obvious answer is that the whole world has learned much from ancient Athens, but in a more pointed register, we might say that Szymczyk’s question has much more to do with what can be learned from that city in relation to a more recent history of pitched financial crisis and from its position as epicenter of overwhelming immigration pressures. One can almost imagine an ancient discourse that would encapsulate it, but it would have much less to do with Aristotle’s forwarding of a philosophy of inductive reasoning than with an imaginary debate between Xenophon and Democritus on the subject of cultural loyalty. Documenta 14 sides with Democritus on this topic, and in so doing posits a vast and far-flung counter- narrative to Trump/Brexit’s recent and hoary conjuration of Xenophon, this by way of a complex intermingling of representations of us-ness and them-ness undertaken with the purpose of challenging the limitations placed on full social participation, be they jurisdictional or mythologically otherwise.
As it happened, Post-Commodity’s Lyceum project was in close proximity to the Documenta press office in Athens, so it would seem that the staging of it as a starting point was intentional. If not, it was certainly fortuitous. Nearby was the Athens Conservatory of Music, which hosted presentations by 47 of the well-over 300 participating artists or artists’ groups included in either or both of the Athens and/or Kassel stagings of Documenta 14. In the deep sub-basement of this building was a stunning installation by Emeka Ogboh titled The Way Earthly Things Are Going (2017), consisting of recorded acapella chants broadcast through a dispersed array of well over a dozen speakers surrounding the perimeter of the darkened amphitheater-like space. Mounted overhead were a like number of digital video screens capturing real time, moment-by-moment financial data reflecting the global equity markets, suggesting that the gains indicated therein were at the expense of the shrieking voices below. In the two floors above there were presentations of works in all media, leaning rather heavily on crypto-archival installations.
There were some interesting paintings too. I was intrigued by the works of Andreas Ragnar Kassapis, which were rather bleak still-lives featuring old telephones as subjects, their dials wiped clean of numbers and other significant information in a way that made them look like faceless prisoners. In terms of color and scale, these works paid honorable homage to the work of Giorgio Morandi, and the idea of treating old telephones as if they were the Italian master’s evanescent bottles had a certain grim charm to it that looked much better in Athens than it did in Kassel’s Neue Neue Gallery, that being a cavernous postal distribution center that was given over to the exhibition. Returning to the exhibition at the music conservatory, we can note that the revived interest in Pitoria Metafisica was also echoed in Ulrich Wust’s photographs of uninhabited swaths of the German countryside, providing a uncanny shadow amid the transplantation of a large part of Documenta to Athens. In Elisabeth Wild’s zany, futuristic collages (all Untitled and almost all from 2016), the spirits of Joan Miró and Jean Arp are conjured and then given tech-savvy facelifts that rebalanced the age-old dialog between Surrealism and Constructivism.
The central venue of Documenta 14 in Greece is the new home of the Athens Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), which was recently repurposed from the remnants of the old Fix brewery building. It is an expansive space spread over five large floors, and is much more sterile than most other institutions of its type, owing to the fact that the most of the gallery spaces had little or no natural light. The installation of works at the EMST followed this suit by being sparse and spare. Ascending from floor to floor, it seemed clear that much of the work was either information-heavy and vitrine bound, or staged in tightly regimented clusters of small greyscale photographs. Other works rely on the old ploy of presenting themselves as fake archeological artifacts in the manner of Lois Weinberger’s Debris Field (2010-2016), or atavistic animations of geological specimens, as was the case in an array of works by Sammy Baloji. Otherwise, the anemic tenor of most of the works at the EMST was rather deadening, so it is not surprising that the ceiling-hung deluge of blood red fabric by Cecilia Vicuna stood out, looking like a gargantuan spill of entrails hanging from the ceiling of the second floor gallery. And upon reaching the sunshine-drenched top floor, a sextet of exuberantly colorful abstract paintings by Stanley Whitney came across as an oasis of sassy pleasure for parched eyes, revealing themselves to be exuberant updates on Hans Hoffman’s post 1958 work. As was the case with Vicuna’s work, Whitney’s paintings in Athens looked a lot better then the similar works that he showed in Kassel’s Documenta Hall. The same might be also said about the paintings by Apostolos Georgiou (installed at the Megaron Concert Hall in Athens), which featured anxious, hastily executed figures framed in cold and brittle interior spaces. These paintings looked like introverted cross-pollinations of the work of Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti, with a little bit of Franz Kafka thrown in for tragicomic measure.
For the record, it should be noted that painting plays a much more pronounced role in Documenta 14 than was the case in any of its four predecessors, but it should also be noted that the painters included in Documenta 14 were not of the ilk that one might expect to see in Chelsea galleries, or of the type that Alex and Patricia Marshall would place in the Jvanka collection of contemporary art. In other words, Symcheck and his associates reveal themselves to have a penchant for paintings that are cryptically obscure, quasi-symbolist and oftentimes unrooted in the mainstream tradition of western representation. A great example of this drift is found in the single large painting by that was installed at the Neue Neue Gallery in Kassel by Gordon Hookey titled Murriland! (2017). It is a brilliantly colorful panorama featuring the key
episodes in the English colonization of Australia as seen through indigenous eyes, full of humorous captions and scurrilous caricatures. Other works in Kassel by Abel Rodríguez, Miriam Cahn, Nilima Sheikh and K.G. Subramanyan, all follow this in idiosyncratic vein, and when we think back to the paintings that were exhibited at last spring’s Whitney biennial or the recent La Biennale de Venezia, we can surmise that, in the land of curators, the past decade’s vogue of “zombie formalist” abstraction has been officially retired—with Whitney’s work being the only exception.
Remembering back to the works in the Athenian music conservatory, it is also important to note that performance played a much larger role in Documenta 14 than has been the case in the past four iterations of the event, including musical performances by composers such as Guillermo Galindo and Alvin Lucier, and also featuring a tribute concert of the music of Pauline Oliveros, who died last November. Also, the exhibition’s map book indicates dozens of performance events taking place throughout the run of both portions of Documenta, many more than were featured in any of its recent predecessors. In Kassel, one of these was by Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo (titled The Objective, 2017), who stood motionless in a small room that had gun ports at its four corners, complete with new Heckler and Koch assault rifles (unloaded) suspended from the overheard. Viewers were invited to take turns “aiming” the unloaded rifles at the artist, allowing them to confront the experiential feel for what it would be like to contemplate the shooting of an unarmed person. At another venue, the same artist presented a video projection titled The Shadow (2017) that intercut two views of her fleeing a tank in a desolate landscape. One view had her facing the camera with the tank visible behind her; the other was from atop the tank’s turret, shot in such a way so as to make the artist’s figure look like the fleeing prey of some master predator. The tank itself was a German Leopard II, the turret of which was manufactured in Kassel by a company still partially owned by the family of Arnold Bode, who founded Documenta and organized the first four iterations of the event. The artist said that she wanted to highlight the under-recognized fact that Germany is a major arms exporter, with Guatemala and Honduras being favored customers.
Film also looms large in the current Documenta, much more so than in past years, with full retrospectives given over to Jonas Mekas (Athens), David Perlov (Kassel) and Wang Bing (Kassel). And here, by film, I do not simply mean black box projections ensconced in exhibition spaces shared with other artists, but full-on retrospectives hosted in sit-down theaters so that the entire careers of radical directors can be given extended examination. Additionally, there were several installations that also made good use of film projections. I was particularly impressed by one that was located in an a building that was a recently abandoned tofu factory, that being a long documentary interview by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Chastaing-Taylor titled Commensal (2017), consisting of the macabre 27 minute confession of Issei Sagawa,
who, in 1977, killed a woman in Paris, cannibalized her flesh and then made a lurid comic book describing the details of the crime. Lets hear it for cannibalism in a tofu factory! Another film installation by iQhiya titled Monday (2017) was located in an abandoned underground tunnel of the old Haptbahnhof. It consisted of a room filled with small desks and other objects that we might associate with an underfunded school room, all placed in front of a looped film projection of an African schoolmaster fending off a small insurrection enacted by students who were obviously fed-up with a curriculum designed to transform them obedient colonial subjects.
At the other end of the abandoned tunnel was an installation by Zafos Xagoraris titled The Welcoming Gate (2017), which was interesting because of the historical problem that it represented. In 1916, a Greek military unit of 7,000 soldiers was captured by the German army and sent to a prison camp. The problem was that Greece was not at war with Germany, so to smooth over ruffled diplomatic feathers, the Greek soldiers were given some obscure guest status that did not allow them to leave. During their three-year stay in Germany, they turned their incarceration into an experiment in stateless community by doing things like publishing their own Greek language newspaper. All of these factors were subtly activated by the installation, the main component of which was the sign that welcomed the displaced Greeks to Germany. You didn’t need to be a native speaker of Greek to surmise the disingenuous happy talk that it conveyed, which looked particularly convincing when placed next to the terminus of an unused rail track. The parallel between this obscure historical event and the current immigration/migration issue in Europe was lost on no one.
There were a few impressive outdoor installations on or near the Friedrichsplatz, although far fewer than in past years. Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books (originally executed in Buenos Aries in 1983) was the single most noticeable work in the entirety of Documenta 14. It was a slightly smaller replica of the Athenian Parthenon consisting of a metal skeleton that was covered by thousands of books that were shrink-wrapped around its exterior pillars. The books themselves all had two things in common. One was the fact that they were donated by visitors to the piece, and the other was the fact that these books had all at some point been subjected to some form of censorship. Because of its dramatic stage lighting, Minujín’s work looked particularly stunning at night, and its grand celebration of the relationship of unconstrained speech to democratic ideals was almost over-the-top. In front of the nearby Orangerie was another provocative work by Antonio Vega Macotela titled the Mill of Blood (2017). It was a
large wooded structure featuring a complex system of clockwork gears that could be activated by the manual pushing of a heavy turnstyle housed in its lower portion. When so pushed, the piece jumps into operation, revealing itself to be a coin press that manufactures custom made pieces of limited edition, documenta-themed cryptocurrency. Yet another work that lurked in several of Documenta 14’s outdoor spaces was Pope L.’s Whispering Campaign (2016-17), featuring quasi-audible injunctions being softcast in various hidden spaces. I was unable to make out what was actually being whispered in the piece, but the title tag near one of speakers proclaiming that the medium of the work was “Nation, people, sentiment, language, time” spoke (whispered?) volumes, and may be the world’s most concise statement on the subject of aesthetics.
Our lives have become increasingly subjected to and governed by apparatuses of power. Institutional bodies and their corresponding regimes of truth serve nation-states, coloniality and capital—all political, judicial, disciplinary, educational, medical, military, economic, cultural and myriad other military dispositifs designed to control and manage our bodies. Documenta 14 understands its role as one of exposing these techniques of governance and confronting them with an unlimited array of techniques of the embodied self.— Unsigned Epilog in the Documenta 14 Daybook (2017)
In Kassel, Documenta 14’s center of gravity is the Neue Gallery, a large, two-story building that hosted the almost too-cluttered installation of the work of close to 100 exhibitors. In keeping with the two previous editions of Documenta as well as the past four Venice Biennials, we see an assortment of historical works strategically included among the contemporary pieces, all seeking refreshed re-contextualization by way of their inclusion in a contemporary context, One of these is a 1868 drawing of two male figures in a landscape by Gustave Courbet titled Alms from a Beggar at Ornans. The work’s theme of fraternal generosity might have special meaning in the context of a Germany that has recently shown hospitality to well over a million refugees. Another work that no doubt had a special meaning in Germany was Piotr Uklanski’s collection of 203 c-prints titled Real Nazis (2017), which was a collection of creepily colorized re-photographs of head-shots of historical Nazis in military uniform intermingled with similar
images of well-known actors who have at various times played the role of Nazi soldiers. There is also a bronze sculpture by Ernst Barlach from 1907 titled Russian Beggar Woman, while another lunge in the direction of art history comes from a series of obscure and very early 1920s photographs by Tina Modotti, which detailed the scientific advances in crop cultivation made by Pandurang Khankhoje. And, speaking of Art History, what student of the subject could help but be intrigued by a vitrine full of original manuscripts by Johann Winckelmann from the mid-18th century, particularly his History of Art in Antiquity from 1767. He too learned something from Athens, and it bears mentioning here that Winckelmann’s writings are the foundational texts for the art historical profession’s longstanding fetishization of ancient Greek sculpture. On the topic of sculpture, we might also note the presence of a quartet of Gandharan works from the 2nd and 3rd century CE showing episodes of the life of the Buddha.
Documenta 14 featured many displays of archival ephemera, which is another aspect that differentiates it from its processors. For example, there was a hand-written diary by Samuel Beckett from 1936, and an artist book with assorted ephemera by Marcel Broodthaers from 1973. Yet another collection of documents highlight the careers of ecosexual activists Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephans, which were augmented with a sequenced display of greyscale
photographs of Sprinkle creating an alphabet of semaphores from the compositional interaction of her gloved forearms and ample cleavage. Another Bay area native who showed well in the Neue Gallery (and also in the curated portion of the Venice Biennial—one of two artists to be so honored) is Anna Halprin, whose 70-year career is represented by a large array of archival photographs reflecting her career as an experimental choreographer, augmented by an original score for her now legendary work titled City Dance (1978). Nearby, a suite of about 35 early drawings from 1953 by Fluxus founder George Maciunas took the archival cake for fascinating obscurity. Titled the Atlas of Russian History, this collection of charts and diagrams remind us that Maciunas once was a civilian employee of the US Air Force, working as an illustrator and graphic designer.
There are some more interesting paintings to be found in the Neue Gallery. There was a stunning trio of works by Vija Celmins collectively titled Night Sky (Nos. 23-25, 2014-17), each paying sublime homage to the depths of the nocturnal heavens. R.H. Quaytman presents ten works from 2014-2015 that are, for lack of a more descriptive term, mixed-media works that have components that are digitally printed, silkscreened, hand-painted and otherwise constructed along a rigidly conceived proportional system. Several of these works were reflections on the work and life of Walter Benjamin, but what they chose to conceal was every bit as interesting as what they revealed (and how they revealed it), in relation to their evocation
of a complex game enacted across multiple registers of space and time. There was also a singular, rather ghoulish painting by Gerhard Richter from 1964. Its subject is taken from a photograph of founding Documenta director Arnold Bode re-executed as a blurred, ghostly and colorless phantom. Interestingly enough, Bode himself is represented by eight works spanning the years 1920-1965, including a few portraits in oil, some watercolors and a few landscapes. By any standard, these works have to be judged as conservative and amateurish, but they are eerily similar to the works that Adolf Hitler submitted in application to his unsuccessful bid to study at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in prior to the First World War. Maybe the lesson is that if a frustrated artist cannot become a diabolical political leader, at least he can organize major international art exhibitions.
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Documenta 14 in Athens closed July 16. The exhibition in Kassel, Germany continues through September 17, 2017. Part II of this report on Documenta 14 is forthcoming.