23. June 2017

What should you see at documenta14? Painting, performance, film, documentary material... A few suggestions and tips should make it easier to navigate.

By Lisa Beißwanger

documenta14 has been open in Athens since April. Now, the wait is over for Kassel too, as the world’s biggest exhibition of contemporary art opened there on June 10. Have curator Adam Szymczyk and his team achieved the goal they pursued under the motto “Learning from Athens”? There are a number of big themes on the agenda, for example the fundamental questioning of documenta as an institution, democratization, decentralization or new political and economic forms of organization. One of the most powerful art institutions is making itself the object of its own criticism. But can that work? Really, it’s essential to form a picture of that for yourself, particularly since there are exciting works to be discovered. This (subjective) selection and a few tips and tricks should make it easier to navigate.

The classic documenta visit begins at Friedrichsplatz. There, visitors are already greeted by some works that have been placed in the outside space. You don’t need a ticket to see these works. One impressively monumental piece is Marta Minujín’s work “Parthenon of Books”, positioned directly opposite the Fridericianum. It is a temple, the pillars of which are adorned with books that have been banned in various contexts in the past or indeed still are today. Opposite, the epistyle of the Fridericianum bears the ominous words: “Being safe is scary”, a work by artist Banu Cennetoglu. To the left of this, in front of the SinnLeffers department store, you can see Hans Haacke’s large-format banner, displaying the multilingual message “We (all) are the people”. Anyone who stands in the right spot and listens carefully might also already hear one station of the “Whisper Campaign” by Pope L. here, which visitors will encounter again at almost all the other exhibition sites. A column of smoke rises from the Zwehrenturm tower of the Fridericianum – this is the work “Expiration Movement” by Daniel Knorr. All of these works already address key issues of the exhibition.

Professional frog imitators

Other works in the outside space include the “residential tubes” by Hiwa K entitled “When We Were Exhaling Images”, which stand in front of the Documenta Hall, the grass-covered “Living Pyramid” by Agnes Denes, which stands in the Nordstadtpark, and the interactive “Mill of Blood” by Antonio Vega Macotela, which is located in the Karlsaue Park in front of the Orangerie. Ibrahim Mahama has clothed the city’s Torwache building in jute sacks, a work that bears the title “Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901-2030” and points to global (postcolonial) trade links. “When Elephants Fight, It Is The Frogs That Suffer” by Fluxus legend Ben Patterson is likewise a work you shouldn’t miss seeing, or indeed hearing. It is a frog choir, with croaking from actual frogs and professional frog imitators, offset with hidden political messages. This Fluxus symphony par excellence can be heard in the Karlsaue Park.

Marta Minujín, The Parthenon of Books, 2017, courtesy the artist, Photo: Lisa Beißwanger
Ibrahim Mahama, Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030. 2016–2017, 2016–17, courtesy the artist, Photo: Lisa Beißwanger

A central component of the curatorial concept of having documenta take place in Kassel and Athens is the interaction between documenta and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, the EMST. For this reason, the historical primary location of documenta is to display works from the still relatively young collection (since 2000) of the EMST this year. In Athens, a monumental building, which currently hosts part of the documenta, has otherwise stood empty, since there is no money to open the museum definitively. 

A secretive main venue

The Neue Hauptpost or Neue Galerie is the secretive main venue of documenta14. You can see art on three floors at this place. The staircase is easily missed, and is located directly to the right of the entrance. A piece of graffiti by Gordon Hookey entitled “MURRILAND!” covers an entire wall directly opposite the entrance, raising the issue of the realities of life for aborigines since the colonization of Australia. It is an example of the cheerfully colorful aesthetic that is typical of the artist, yet is in stark contrast to the bitter facts he presents to us here. Somewhat hidden in the corner at the back left is a particular highlight, the video “77sqm_9.26min” from the Forensic Architecture research agency at Goldsmiths, University of London, which examines the murder of Halit Yozgat by the German right-wing extremist group NSU. Another highlight: “Staging”, a piece by Maria Hassabi that runs right the way through the building. Today, the highly-concentrated performers who moved during the first few days of the exhibition in slow-mo but with great precision at various different places within Neuer Hauptpost have disappeared, however, their presence can still be felt. In the spotlights on the ground floor and on the large magenta-colored carpets on the first story, it is now the visitors who take the limelight.

Maria Hassabi, Staging, 2017, courtesy the artist, Photo: Lisa Beißwanger

What medium could tackle democracy, collectivity and individuality better than dance and performance, which focuses primarily on the human body? The numerous live works mean it’s worth taking a look at the daily schedule, since some things are only “activated” at certain times. Performance artist Regina José Galindo is represented with two works, both of which address violence with weapons. Her brutal social study “El Objetivo / The Objective” at the Kassel Stadtmuseum, can be activated by visitors themselves. Not live, but no less impressive for it, is the video “La Sombra / The Shadow”, in which Galindo is running, pursued by a Leopard tank. The Museum of Sepulchral Culture is hosting a documentary synopsis of the project “Collective Exhibition for a Single Body”, which is taking place in Athens, coordinated and choreographed by a documenta curator Pierre Bal-Blanc and choreographer Kostas Tsioukas. 

Archives and display cabinets as far as the eye can see

documenta14 now resembles something of an archive presentation. Meter after meter of display cases contain material that awaits patient and curious visitors who want to delve into the stories behind the material. It’s worth coming up with a selection and then researching a little and consulting the texts on offer or the Daybook. It’s also worth daring to leave gaps too though, particularly if you have only planned one or two days for your documenta visit.

Exhibition view, Collective Exhibition for a Single Body, Museum Sepulkralkultur, Kassel, Photo: Lisa Beißwanger

There are three interesting painting positions: First the works by Vivien Suter, which are presented unconventionally in one of the glass pavilions on Kurt Schumacher Strasse. Either before or after seeing them, it’s worth watching the 30-minute documentary about the artist, “Vivian's Garden”, which can be seen in the Natural History Museum in the Ottoneum and was shot by artist Rosalind Nashashibi, whose own works are in the Palais Bellevue. The documentary shows how Suter lives and works with her mother, the artist Elisabeth Wild, in the jungle in Guatemala. A true feast for the eyes are the large-format, bright color-field paintings by Stanley Whitney in the Documenta Hall. They radiate a poetic power, which appears to have been lost in many of the very conceptual works of this documenta. Also in the Documenta Hall, visitors can see the fascinating paintings by Miriam Cahn, which revolve around the themes of gender and sexuality, fear and existence, and in doing so maintain a kind of limbo between pictorial genius and naivety.

Incomprehensible language sequences

In an enormous exhibition such as the documenta, it is often hard to take the time to watch longer films. A full 85 minutes are needed to view the wonderful film “Such a Morning” by Amar Kanwar, which can be seen on the first floor of the Neue Galerie. Yet it’s worth gaining even a brief insight into this film’s calm and poetic pictorial world. Another cinematographic discovery of this documenta are the works by Naeem Mohaiemen. In Kassel, he is represented by the film “Two Meetings and a Funeral”, which constitutes a look back at the movement of non-aligned states. The film can be seen on the top floor of the Hessen State Museum. A third film is less pictorially and more vocally powerful: Susan Hiller’s “Lost and Found” at the Grimmwelt focuses on (virtually) extinct languages. The longer you linger and listen to recorded language sequences that are incomprehensible to us, the more the language becomes like music.

Vivian Suter, Nisyros (Vivian’s bed), 2016–17, courtesy the artist, Photo: Lisa Beißwanger
Vivian Suter, Nisyros (Vivian’s bed), 2016–17, courtesy the artist, Photo: Lisa Beißwanger

The concept of documenta14 allowed for over 160 invited artists to decide for themselves whether they wanted to exhibit in both Athens and Kassel or at one location only, and also whether they wanted to show the same work in both locations or two different works. Thus, visitors to both locations can have fun discovering links and connecting the two sites. But for those who only travel to Kassel, the reference to Athens is clear to see and sense. Anyone wanting to delve a little deeper should treat themselves to the so-called Daybook with texts on the participating artists, since the information given alongside each of the works is sometimes very basic. There is also a free city map on which all the venues are marked. For € 2.50 visitors can also purchase a booklet about all the venues, each with a correlation to the names of the artists on show there. Most of the material is also available online. Anyone who enjoys cycling should hire a bike, for example using the city-wide Konrad bike loan system. This saves time and takes the weight off your feet.

Daybook documenta 14 via public Domain dokumenta 14