Today, major surveys of international contemporary art are difficult propositions. Begun as a means of exposing the public to works by artists from different countries—works they would not normally see—they are less needed now to fulfill that function, given the growth of the commercial art world and the accessibility and range of travel. Personally, I always learn about artists I didn’t know from these exhibitions, but I also want the shows to cohere as intellectual and emotional statements. This was not always expected, and it’s not easy to pull off, in part because they’re often very big, and the bigger the show, the more difficult it is to make it coherent, especially across multiple venues.
For those who follow contemporary art, Documenta, which began in 1955 and occurs every five years in Kassel, Germany, is a major event. The latest iteration, Documenta 13, contains the work of over 300 artists, takes place in eight venues, and is rumored to have a budget of around $30,000,000. There are lectures, performances, and other events every day of the exhibition’s 100-day run. As if all that weren’t enough, versions of Documenta will be mounted in Kabul, Alexandria/Cairo, and Banff,Canada.
The Fridericianum, a 1779 building that was among the first public museums inEurope, is Documenta’s main edifice and the place to begin. Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has wisely made it the heart and soul of the exhibition. The rotunda of the ground floor, which she calls “the Brain,” reads as her manifesto. It includes beautiful small stone Bakrian figures from the second and third millennia BCE, as well as a small landscape painting by Mohammad Yusuf Asefi, who, in the late 1990s and early 2000s worked as a conservator in the National Gallery of Kabul. Asefi saved the museum’s figurative canvases from the prohibition against graven images by painting over animals and humans with removable watercolors. Also in the Fridericianum was one of the many bricks that Czech artist Tamás St. Turba painted to look like radios during the repression that followed the Prague Spring uprising of 1968. The bricks were intended to weigh down the Czech police who confiscated anything defined as a radio. These works share space with small still lifes by Italian master Giorgio Morandi, works by Dada artist Man Ray, and more recent art by figures such as Sam Durant and Guiseppe Penone.
Christov-Bakargiev’s mix of contemporary and modern art with ancient art and art made under duress not only effectively separates Documenta 13 from the hype that can surround the latest art world discovery; more importantly, it underscores the fact that, before a work becomes something of value or veneration, the artist felt compelled to make it. That need to make things is fundamental to human experience.
The other venues varied in strength. There was art in buildings around the city, with especially rich offerings along Friedrichstrasse, including a provocative multi-channel video installation by Gerard Byrne; touching intellectual and lyrical installations by Paul Chan and Francis Alÿs; and a remarkably ambitious piece by Chicago artist Theaster Gates, who took over an abandoned house, renovated it with workforce development teams from Chicago and Kassel using recycled materials from both cities, lived in it, and made work there. That street was a highlight.
It was useful for me to see Documenta as we move into the year leading up to the Carnegie International. The depth of feeling and thought with which Christov-Bakargiev and her team presented their exhibition was inspiring. In a different way and across less acreage, the 2013 International will strive to do the same.
Until next month,
Read responses to last month’s issue of Inside the Museum.