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Posted on August 20, 2012 by Emilia Garcia Romeu

I had heard that dOCUMENTA (13) was gigantic, confusing, and megalomaniac; that it was full of grief and suffering; and that it was the most commercial edition ever, for most works were financed by major international galleries. Although these statements might be partially true (the presence of big galleries is pervasive; the show certainly huge; and trauma ubiquitous), I just loved it. To me, this edition is an exciting, profound, and consistent reflection on the role of object in memory and history. And it works quite well. Despite its multiple venues, in Kassel, dOCUMENTA (13)‘s main exhibitions are held at the Friedricianum and the Hauptbahnhof (the old railway station).


The show at the Friedricianum focuses on the presence and materiality of the (art) object, stressing qualities such as tactility, surface, and process, while propitiating an intimate relation vis á vis the beholder. The circumstances and conditions of creation of these objects are often quite extreme, so that they appear to have functioned (and maybe still do) as talismans or vehicles for processing unbearable experiences.

Bactrian Princess, 3rd-2nd millennium B.C.

Lee Miller having a bath at Hitler’s apartment, 1945

Julia Isidrez and Juana Marta Rodas’ ceramics, 2011

Objects in Giorgio Morandi’s studio

The building’s rotunda, a semicircular space on the ground floor, is, in the words of the curators, the “brain” of this edition. As a reliquary of sorts, this nucleus contains objects deeply charged with meaning, time-capsules conjuring up past eras: the so-called Bactrian Princesses, beautiful, delicate figurines from Central Asia dating from the third and second millennia B.C.; Lee Miller’s photographs of herself in Hitler’s apartment (1945) as well as the things she took away from it; vases and lamps from Giorgio Morandi’s studio (along with Morandi’s paintings of them, 1936-58); bricks made up to look like radios, as a means of resistance, confiscated by the Czechosloviak police (1969); zoomorphic ceramics by Paraguayan potters Julia Isidrez and Juana Marta Rodas (2011); artifacts from the National Museum of Beirut melted together in shell fire during Lebanon’s civil war (1977-1990); photographs of Cambodian “bomb lakes” originated during the Vietnam war… These objects, traditionally categorized as either art or non-art, are presented here on an equal level, so that any attempt at defining their status becomes not only hard but also ludicrous. In the same fashion, historical categories such as “modern” or “contemporary”, even “old” and “new”, seem beside the point. In the rooms surrounding this “brain”, Ceal Floyer’s brief song, Rayan Gander’s fresh breeze, and Julio Gonzalez thin sculptures fill the space with lightness.

At the two additional floors at the Friedricianum more surprises await. One of them is Swedish artist Hannah Ryggen’s (1894-1970) little-known tapestries on the uprising of fascism in Africa and in Spain. Another, the impressive gouaches by Charlotte Salomon (b. 1917), a German Jewish woman who died in Auschwitz in 1943. From 1941 to 1942, she kept a diary with texts and drawings in which she dealt with her family dramatic history as well as the uprising of Nazism. It is fortunate that the curators chose to show so many of her gouaches (about sixty or seventy), so one can fully grasp their beauty and increasing sense of urgency.

Drawings by Charlotte Salomon, 1941-42

On the second floor, Kadder Attia’s detailed and learned installation The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012) combines documents, books, photographs, and films, to address notions of “normalcy” and “correction” as related the human body and its representation. For years, Attia has been collecting repaired African masks. As opposed to the Western concept of reparation, these masks are not intended to recover their original state, but, on the contrary, their mends are quite visible. They are displayed in shelves and glass cases along with books on Renaissance artists or “black art”, busts of African people, medical drawings, and photographs of men grossly injured during World War I. Here, the human body becomes, literally, an instrument of history that can be formally altered and forcibly constraint, manipulated, bent, and experimented with.

Views of Kader Attia’s installation, 2012



This persistence of the past in the present as either trace or current contradiction continues to unfold at the Hauptbahnhoff. Janet Cardiff & George Bures’ i-pod audiovisual tour (After Bahnhof Video Walk) walks us through the station, its history, and the artists’ experience of both. Our mind goes back and forth between our own present experience of the station, Cardiff and Bures’ own tour as shown in the video, and the events they summon through their narrative: the platform where Jews got on the trains leading to concentration camps; the objects that were left behind… Likewise, Muster, 2012, by Clemens von Wedemeyer (b. 1974), a film on the Benedictine Monastery of Breitenay, near Kassel, fictionalizes the various recent functions of the building (girls reformatory, concentration and work camp, prison) juxtaposing different time-periods, narrators, and interpretations.



Janet Cardiff  Video at Hauptbahnhof

Other memorable works at the Hauptbahnhof are the films The Refusal of Time, 2012, by William Kentridge (b. 1955), and Artaud’s Cave, 2012, by Javier Tellez (b. 1969). The former shows people (among them, Kentridge himself), shadows, and drawings in scenes related to the measuring of time (the clock, the metronome, the carnival…) as a means of control but also of joy and rebellion. The later alludes to Artaud’s play The Conquest of Mexico (1934) and his trip to this country in 1936. As it is customary in Tellez’s oeuvre, the artist works closely in the writing and direction of the film with patients of psychiatric hospitals (in this case those of Fray Bernardino Alvarez, in Mexico City). Shots of the patients talking or interacting with each other mingle with images of themselves representing the conquest of Mexico and fragments of Artaud’s words. Of course, the conquest at Fray Bernardino Hospital is that of the mind, the asylum being the paradigm of disciplinary control and Artaud the victim of psychiatry par excellence. In order to watch the film, one has to enter a huge false cave, too elaborate a device and a rather cumbersome distraction.


 William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012



Javier Tellez’s Artaud’s Cave, 2012

Scattered about the city of Kassel, there are some smaller venues which allow the viewer not only to see great works but also to go through some peculiar (and occasionally kitsch) places in Kassel: and old hotel, a bunker, a finance building, a library, a cinema, a department store… It is interesting (though not successful) Theaster Gates’ occupation of the decrepit Huguenot House. Reconstructed for dOCUMENTA (13) with abandoned materials by teams from both Kassel and Chicago, the building works, in theory, as a permanent cultural laboratory and the residence for artists. In practice, it feels pretty much like Big Brother, with lines of visitors peeping into the residents’ rooms as if they were part of an anthropological museum. It might have worked had they adopted a mechanism to preserve the tenants’ privacy while favoring their interaction with people (i.e. concrete visiting hours in which conversation with the residents is encouraged, in the fashion the 18th century literary and political salons).



Views of Theaster Gates’ installation at the Huguenot House

Also at the Huguenot House is located one of my favorite pieces, Tino Sehgal’s performance This Vibration ( In a completely dark space, a group of performers mixed among the audience start singing a capella. The songs and the intensity of the performance, as well as one’s interaction with the singers, keep on changing and create very amusing situations. Though Gerard Byrne’s film installation, A Man and a Woman Make Love, is not entirely convincing (a bit overacted recreation of a conversation held by Surrealists on heterosexual eroticism), its sound effects are perfect in their theatricality and the 1950’s Grand City Hotel Hessenland-Grosser Ballsaal, where it is located, definitely worth a visit. Finally, Tacita Dean’s Fatigues (2012), exhibited in a former tax office, is composed by several alluring chalk-on-board depictions of Afganistan’s mountains. Dean originally commissioned a local Afghan cameraman to film concrete locations in Kabul, but, the resulting material being flawed she used it as inspiration for these drawings.

Fatigues, 2012, by Tacita Dean

There is nothing as interesting in the rest of the bigger venues except for Andrea Büttner (b. 1972), Emily Carr (1871-1945), Roman Ondak (b. 1966), and Margaret Preston (1875-1963) at the Neue Gallerie; Nedko Solakov (b. 1957) at the Grimm Museum; and the interventions of Pierre Huyghe (b. 1962) (, Joan Jonas (b. 1936), Giuseppe Penone (b. 1947), and Cardiff & George Bures (b. 1957 / 1960) at the Karlsaue Park. To be honest, in my three days in Kassel, I could not fully cover the park and, thus, missed the work of many great artists, such as Pedro Reyes (b. 1972), Natascha Sadr (b. 1966), Anri Sala (b. 1974), or Apichatpong Weerasethakul (b. 1970). I did not see the Orangery either.

Until September 16. dOCUMENTA (13) curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.

All the images are taken from the Internet. Opening picture, Tacita Dean.