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Ruins, conflict, culture and science: dOCUMENTA (13)

Kader Attia, The Repair of the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012

Many adjectives have already been wielded to describe this year’s documenta, “earnest”, “grim”, “despondent” and “concept-less” among them. Certainly, there are few laughs in this year’s documenta (the 13th since its founding in 1955 by an artist banned by the Nazis), but in all it’s a deeply satisfying experience.

Many of the works by 300 artists – mostly new commissions – are site-specific, installed in railway stations, disused shops, hotels, cinemas, old hospitals, the natural history museum, and scattered throughout Karlsaue park. I appreciated the serious-minded intent behind the works, and the internationalism of the exhibition both in content and representation, with artists from fifty-six countries including many from Africa and Asia.

A large number of the works mark significant events or occurrences, including varied perspectives on recent upheavals in Egypt, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The works in the main exhibition in the Fridericianum have a particular focus on conflict, catastrophe, ruin, trauma, survival and repair across many historical events, as though such events and restorations were on an endless loop. There are many absorbing works here, but I spent a particularly long time in Kader Attia’s disturbing, fascinating installation, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, a maze of repaired African artefacts, vintage colonialist texts and wood-carved busts of disfigured faces, and a slideshow of facially injured World War I soldiers provocatively juxtaposed with mended African masks.

Many powerful works are sited in and around the Hauptbahnhof railway station, among them William Kentridge’s stunning video and sound work The Refusal of Time (which elicited a round of applause), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s augmented reality audio tour of the station linking it to a darker past, Clemens von Wedemeyer’s three-screen multiple histories of a monastery in Germany: from concentration camp to girls reformatory to psychiatric clinic, and Lara Favaretto’s vast pile of industrial debris.

Lara Favaretto, Momentary Monument IV (Kassel), 2012

William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012

dOCUMENTA (13) has been called “genre-busting”. Its curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev stated that she wanted to broaden documenta’s focus from the visual arts to culture at large. This has been largely done through the mode of the artist’s enquiry, but there are also non-artists involved, including physicists, biologists and social scientists, and a scattering of historical artefacts.

The role of science in this “culture at large” is most prominently represented by the Austrian physicist Anton Zeileger’s Quanta Now, a series of five important quantum physics experiments installed in the Fridericianum, including the double slit experiment and quantum entanglement of photon pairs. There is also an installation in the same building of Russian biologist Alexander Tarakhovsky’s work on epigenetics, and the Bavarian priest and artist Korbinian Aigner’s multiple paintings of the new strains of apples he created while in Dachau concentration camp.

Meanwhile, Donna Haraway’s writings on multi-species co-evolution inspired the artist Tue Greenfort to compile and present an archive of artists’ materials, texts, books, videos and documentation of artworks dealing with the relationship between human and non-human species (including Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema, an Arts Catalyst commission).

Anton Zeilinger, Quanta Now (installation detail of the experiment on quantum entanglement of photon pairs), 2012

Korbinian Aigner, Apples, 1912–1960s

Ecological themes are very present, in the process-based projects by Pratchaya Phinthong, whose simple installation – two dead tsetse flies, one female carrying the deadly disease sleeping sickness and her sterile consort – is underpinned by a research project, in which Phinthong has been traveling in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Zambia and providing locals with inexpensive traps to help control the tsetse fly populations, and Amy Balkin, who has been trying to get the Earth’s atmosphere included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Ecology is closely tied closely to politics in the beautiful and coherent exhibition in the Ottoneum, Kassel’s natural history museum, with Amar Kanwar’s moving installation The Sovereign Forest tackling the forcible displacements of indigenous communities and peasants in Odisha (Orissa), India, by commercial interests, Claire Pentecost’s elegant and thoughtful installation Soil-Erg, in which she proposes a new system of value based on living soil, and Maria Thereza Alves’ installation on five centuries of damage done to Lake Chalco in Mexico and the people who live there.

Pratchaya Phinthong, Sleeping Sickness, 2012

Claire Pentecost, Soil-Erg, 2012

Elsewhere, the politics of nuclear energy are presented both in Mika Taanila’s stylish 3-screen video work The Most Electrified Town in Finland and the Otolith Group’s film Radiant, which explores Japan’s fated love affair with the unstable atom which culminated in the Fukushima reactor meltdown.

In documenta-Halle, Thomas Bayrle’s car engine prayer-machines and collaged airplane suggest our very dreams rely on carbon-burning technologies, while Yan Lei has hung a room with 360 paintings, produced one per day over a year, inspired by internet images. During dOCUMENTA (13), the paintings will be gradually removed, spray painted in the local Volkswagen car factory, and then returned to the exhibition.

Mika Taanila, The Most Electrified Town in Finland, 2012

Thomas Bayrle installation, dOCUMENTA (13), 2012

Yan Lei, Limited Art Project, 2012

Karlsaue park is the site for many intriguing works, both in the landscape and installed in small buildings. Standouts for me are Omer Fast’s extraordinary tale of a couple’s disturbed, unsettling response to the death of their soldier son in Afganistan (confirming my art crush on this remarkable artist), CAMP’s gentle reflections on maritime life and the informal economy across the Indian Ocean, and Sam Durant’s alluring playground-gallows.

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012

Sam Durant, Scaffold, 2012

Two real “conflicts” disturbed the civilised art-going days of the dOCUMENTA (13) previews. First, the failure of dOCUMENTA (13)’s aim to transport the El Chaco meteorite, a 37-ton, 4,000-year-old lump of space rock, from aboriginal land in Argentina to Kassel, as proposed by artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolas Goldberg, continued to stir debate during the opening week. It was a controversial proposal, strongly and successfully protested by indigenous Argentians.

Indigenous Argentinians protesting the removal of the El Chaco meteorite for inclusion in documenta 13

And then, on preview day, above the peaceful sunlit Karlsaue park, rose Critical Art Ensemble (CAE)’s shatteringly–loud helicopter, rising and sinking several times an hour, audible – and frequently visible – across the town, invading art-going experience and drowning conversations. In A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, CAE raised a huge bar graph depicting wealth disparity across the world. 99% of the world’s incomes fitted onto the banner, but the globe’s richest 1% required a helicopter to soar 250 meters up in the sky. Exclusive €300 tickets were purchased by an irony-unencumbered fifty people, only twelve of whom showed up on the day to be escorted down a red carpet for their flight. The 99%, meanwhile, could buy a lottery ticket and the chance to win a ride.

Some of the reason for this economic disparity, as well perhaps as the mechanics for the endless cycle of manmade disasters, are revealed in Mark Lombardi’s obsessive mapping of corruption, politics and finance, that make visible the hidden connections between political and economic processes, corporation, and individuals.

Critical Art Ensemble, A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, 2012


“If Turner were alive today, he’d be launching himself into space.”

The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Mâcon, JMW Turner, 1803

My Arts Catalyst colleague, curator Rob La Frenais, made a really excellent contribution to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, while I was out in Rwanda, discussing with Turner’s biographer James Hamilton to what extent science influences art past and present in the context of the forthcoming exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate, Turner and the Elements.

Hamilton, in his essay for the exhibition catalogue, claims that Turner’s painting The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Mâcon (1803), which is dominated by a ferocious sun, was painted in an entirely new and revolutionary way, based on scientific theories expounded by the astronomer Sir William Herschel, who revealed to the Royal Society in 1801 his discovery that the sun had a surface with “openings, shallows, ridges, nodules, corrugations, indentations and pores”.

Listen again to the Radio 4 feature here –

Zimbabwe in Venice

Misheck Masamvu, Sacred Verse (2011) oil/canvas.

In a deliciously candid symposium at Iniva yesterday, Raphael Chikukwa, curator of the Zimbabwe Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, confessed with a twinkle that – through lack of knowledge of procedures – they’d messed up on signage at the start: “We can say that at first 35000 people walked past the Zimbabwe pavilion – and a few hundred came in!”. Chikukwa’s unlikely collaborator and sponsor, Francois Larini of the Nouveau Musee National de Monaco, was similarly frank. His brand new art museum decided to back Zimbabwe’s pavilion because of their interest in African art – and because they did not feel art in Monaco itself could support a pavilion. “There was a Monaco pavilion a few years ago,” Larini said cheerfully, “It was a disaster”.

Now Zimbabwe is offering advice sessions to other African countries wishing to tackle Venice, where the continent is extremely underrepresented. Chikukwa’s choice of artists was certainly skilful, selecting Zimbabwean artists “who were engaging with international arts discourse”. He left out Zimbabwean stone sculpture, preferring artists whose work in photography, film, installation and painting was more likely to appeal to the Biennale opening week crowd.

I loved Misheck Masamvu’s emotional and powerful paintings and was glad to hear him talk about his work, something he said he rarely does. Incorporating animals as symbols into his paintings took me back to conversations with sculptors in the Zimbabwean village where I worked 18 years ago, as the artists there grappled to combine traditional and contemporary beliefs and ideas, often using animal totems. But Masamvu’s descriptions also reminded me of artists in Tehran speaking about their work, in which critique was deeply coded through symbols, making it hard for censors to ‘read’.

The Government of Zimbabwe also financed the pavilion, though a remarkable piece of negotiation by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Gallery director Doreen Sibanda noted that officialdom is starting to see the positive side of visual arts, because of the success of Zimbabwean stone sculpture. Quizzed about the level of freedom allowed to artists by the government, she countered: “Some of the work we’ve shown over the last 10-15 years has been really ‘out there’ and has raised eyebrows”. She did not mention that the authorities have arrested several Zimbabwean artists this year, and arrested Owen Maseko last year for an exhibition at the National Gallery’s branch in Bulawayo, which chronicled the Matabeleland atrocities carried out by President Mugabe. Life for artists in Zimbabwe continues to be very difficult, economically and politically.

Owen Maseko

Installation by Owen Maskeko from his exhibition 'Sibathontisele' (2010)

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