15 Documenta Artists with Staying Power
In his keynote remarks to open documenta 14, curator of public programs Paul B. Preciado noted that those about to take on the 35-venue, over 160-artist show should “not be in search of something new.” That’s somewhat surprising given that most of the artists included have never before shown on an international scale. More accurate might be to say that documenta 14 offers little that’s novel other than, perhaps, in its curatorial framework—no new art form, no new technology, and, for the most part, no new blood for collectors at Art Basel in Basel next week.
What documenta 14 does offer, however, is the opportunity for some artists to break out and others to show the full resonance of their practices with our current moment. Here are 15 highlights among that group.
Gbaguidi’s contribution, The Missing Link. Decolonisation Education by Mrs Smiling Stone (2017), is one of documenta’s most literal—and hopefully most effective—interpretations of Adam Szymczyk’s educational mandate for the exhibition. In a sun-drenched arcade of the Neue Galerie’s upper floor, school desks and supplies are strewn about, while somewhat childlike sketches on long scrolls hang from the ceiling.
Half-used notebooks sit on some of the desks; they are, in fact, the product of workshops that Gbaguidi is holding over the course of documenta with pupils from one of Kassel’s local schools. Her aim is straightforward: to wind back the legacies of colonialism and prejudice.
“How might education contribute to / purge from consciousness that there exist no / under-beings but that the birth of life is a value in itself,” she writes, in a poem affixed to the wall. “That every human has a right to a cradle.”
Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost)
One of the largest and most arresting works in documenta 14, Atlas Fractured (2017) projects faces onto a banner covered with African masks that once covered the exterior of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum. Eshetu cut the banner to create what he calls a “new world order.” The projections’ effect is more arresting than one might immediately expect, faces and masks melding together to create a new whole almost indistinguishable from its parts.
It's the work’s accompanying audio, however, that drives its message home. “We need less thinking and more feeling,” one face declares. Another, nodding to today’s political climate, notes: “If we are not prepared to defend tolerant society then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance along with them.”
Psychoulis’s six-minute film Alexandros Delmouzos and the eighty may beetles (2014) tells the story of a unique school in his home town of Volos, which was established in 1908 based on a proposal by physician Dimitris Saratsis to provide basic education to girls after primary school. Among the school’s untraditional practices for the time: It taught the girls classical texts in modern Greek, used no textbooks, took the students on walks to supplement their education, forewent morning prayers, and gave no grades or tests.
This history is the catalyst for Psychoulis’s work, which intersperses text with gauzy footage of young women acting out various activities described in the narrative. Viewers quickly learn that this ambitious educational endeavor did not end well for school director Alexandros Delmouzos and his colleagues, however. Following a series of negative articles in the press about their pedagogy (which was deemed vulgar), a number of pupils were withdrawn—and, upon the high school’s closure, authorities prosecuted the school’s staff
Delmouzos’s persecuted efforts echo in portions of the world to this day. And Psychoulis’s work serves as an important reminder to those in developed, Western societies just how close in historical terms we are to similar denials of education to women and minority groups, the knock-on effects of which reverberate still.
First presented at New York’s Socrates Sculpture Park in 2015, Denes’s The Living Pyramid (2015/2017) now sits as the north-most point of documenta 14. Its many-tiered grass planters offer a visual respite from the more visually accosting selection of works that precede it in this portion of the show.
But it’s an interactive survey that accompanies the work, however, that is the most interesting aspect here. Denes asks participants to respond in writing to 18 questions, including: “How do you feel about the current state of the environment?” “Do you think you can help reduce the cause of climate change?” “Do you think we are slaves to our customs?” “What would you rather be or do, if you had a choice?” “What might the ultimate reality be?”
The recorded answers will be digitized and placed in a time capsule meant to be opened 1,000 years from now. (One hopes she’s using an M-Disk since most data storage solutions would be unreadable in a fraction of that time.) Given the speed at which society and technology is accelerating and which the climate is evolving, it’s a poignant opportunity to wonder who or what might break the capsule’s seal.
Part opera, part video mashup, Rosen’s film The Dust Channel (2016) begins in the bedroom and takes viewers through a singing, vacuum-obsessed couple’s morning routine. As the man finishes his breakfast, and the woman tucks her beloved Dyson DC07 into bed, we’re allowed a glimpse through their pristine home’s window—onto what is later explained to be a refugee detention facility in Israel.
The majority of The Dust Channel skips between scenes, as if we’re watching a television being remotely controlled by an impatient owner. We move between footage shot inside the camps (a voiceover explains that Israel is not allowed to expel refugees, and so conditions are made dire enough that they go home on their own); clips of two Harun Farocki works; cable news footage of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring that his country must round up illegal workers and “bring them to justice”; and an onslaught of interviews with Dyson inventor Sir James Dyson.
Sir Dyson has been outspoken in his conservative political views and pro-Brexit stance. Rosen creates a link between these views and Dyson’s obsession with cleanliness: “I liked to see the dirt,” he says of the reason for the Dyson vacuum’s signature clear receptacle. Uncleanliness has long been cast as an attribute of the Other. What makes Rosen’s marshaling of this stereotype particularly cutting, however, is the humor with which viewers come to the realization that our daily housekeeping and self-care practices may have a surprising conceptual link to the crisis facing refugees.
Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost)
Haiduk’s SER (Seductive Exacting Realism) (2015–ongoing) is undoubtedly the most multi-faceted installation in documenta 14. Viewers enter into a boutique of sorts selling a number of different items made by a company the artist created called Yugoexport. The main attraction here are recreations of the Borosana shoes that were originally manufactured at the Borovo Rubber Industry Headquarters from 1960 to 1969. Yugoexport’s reboot of the brand is worn in this installation, and throughout Kassel, by a so-called Army of Beautiful Women, all of whom balance books on their heads while they walk.
The shoes can be purchased on a flexible pricing scheme depending on the buyer’s self-declared income level. Consumers then have to sign a contract pledging to only wear the shoes while working (the nature of the art world means you’re probably going to be seeing these around a lot at social functions that, to the layman, might not appear to constitute work). Another stipulation: When the shoes wear out, buyers must either recycle them or return them for a new replacement pair.
This shop is paired with a 28-minute-long sound piece that plays in a pitch-black room. In it, Haiduk interviews Srđa Popović, a former leader of a non-violent Serbian student movement who went on to found the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), a pro-democracy consultancy.
The conversation begins in a flattering way, with Haiduk and Popović discussing some of CANVAS’s accomplishments, including helping to initiate the Arab Spring. But it also problematizes CANVAS’s work, looking at the destabilization of societies that undergo such pro-democracy movements and the Western corporate interests that swoop in to privatize former national industry and services in their wake. (It doesn’t go unnoticed that these same corporate interests indirectly fund both CANVAS and Haiduk’s practices.) Listeners are forced to take a more critical view of the unexpected side effects of the values, like democracy, that we hold dear.
Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost)
While documenta 14 is titled “Learning from Athens,” Shibli’s Heimat (2016–17) anchors a portion of the show in the Neue Neue Galerie that could be called “Learning from Kassel.” The 53 photographs, each paired with an explanatory text, picture two distinct groups of individuals: expellees and refugees of German descent that had to flee this region and the Third Reich from 1944 to 1945, and Gastarbeiter (or guest workers) who were brought to Germany starting in the ’50s in order to fuel the country’s post-war economic revival.
Shibli’s images, documentary in style, look at the various ways in which these groups succeeded and failed, both willingly and unwillingly, to integrate into their new homes. The photos of Turkish Gastarbeiter are particularly compelling, chronicling the clubs and cultural centers that these immigrants set up to maintain their culture and the struggles they have faced to stay true to their heritage and basic beliefs—such as the ability to have a traditional Muslim burial without a coffin, which has only been permitted in one cemetery in Kassel since 2014. These indignities are underscored by the fact that this Turkish immigrant community has been the labor force behind of so much of their host country’s growth.
Leave the Neue Neue Galerie and, on the street outside, you’ll see see the façades of clubs just like those examined in Shibli’s piece. This direct proximity is the perfect primer for viewers to become more sensitized to the many struggles of migrants present in works across documenta 14 that can, at times, otherwise feel distant.
Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost)
The Society of Friends of Halit
One of the images in Heimat shows Halitplatz, a square named for Halit Yozgat, a 21-year-old internet café clerk from northern Kassel who was murdered in 2006 by the National Socialist Underground (NSU). His was one of a string of 10 murders carried out by the group from 2000 to 2007. The final living member of the group of three NSU murder suspects is still on trial for the crimes. But in the lead-up to the proceedings, questions arose regarding the knowledge of the planned attack on the part of the Hessian state’s authorities—and, in particular, the presence of a Hessian secret service member, Andreas Temme, at the internet café in the moments leading up to, and possibly during, the murder. (Temme later claimed that he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary while in the cafe.)
Using the visual language of an exhibition and auspices of documenta, The Society of Friends of Halit presents the findings from their extensive investigation into Temme’s whereabouts during the murder. According to Eyal Weizman, a member of the group, they chose this point to investigate as it was both the most narrow in scope and had potentially the greatest consequences, if they were able to prove that Temme was indeed in the café when the murder occurred. They believe this is the most likely scenario based on records of his internet activity and other evidence compiled in their investigation, and at the very least are certain that Temme lied under oath.
The presentation is perhaps the one example of an evolution of art practice present in documenta 14. Taking cues from archival and research-based practices, it employs these methods to make a real-world impact. While the group’s compiled evidence was rejected by the court for consideration in the trial, they are presenting it at documenta as a prompt, or maybe even a test, for German civil society.
Though created over a decade ago, Ergun’s documentary video I, Soldier (2005) finds even greater relevance today. It shows a ceremony for Turkey’s National Day for Youth and Sports in which students from a military high school march in formation through a large stadium. The youths act as if they’re fully-grown fighters while a military officer barks over the loudspeaker, reminding them that a soldier is just like any other man, with one exception—he cannot die.
The rituals surrounding this holiday mark the start of the nation’s war for independence, which was led by national hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1919. And while Turkey is certainly not alone in indoctrinating its youngest citizens, I, Soldier is striking for just how manipulative this messaging of military service (and martyrdom) can be. It’s even more chilling against the backdrop of the ever-growing nationalism of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who came to power in 2002 and has marshaled this sentiment among his country’s youth—despite the fact that many of his government’s policies fly in the face of Atatürk’s foundational belief that Turkey should be a secular nation.
Argianas’s installation The Length Of A Strand Of Your Hair, Of The Width Of Your Arms, Unfolded (2010) was originally shown at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, in 2010 before entering the museum’s collection and thereby making its way to documenta 14 as part of a conceptual gesture by curator Adam Szymczyk whereby the traditional center of documenta, the Fridericianum, is filled with the Athens museum’s collection.
Off in its own room within the museum’s tower, Argianas’s piece at first appears like a fairly routine shadow-play of Constructivist sculpture against illuminated paper—pleasing, if not entirely original. But, just as you might be about to walk out of the room, a voice beckons out, a performer having appeared seemingly out of thin air behind the screen.
It is in fact a video recording of artist Hilary Koob-Sassen, who rattles off the various unspecified measurements that comprise the work’s title. There’s something riddling to the effect that leaves you standing there longer than you might expect, perhaps instrumentalized as part of documenta curator-at-large Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung’s wish for us to consider denying productivity.
Marakatt-Labba’s embroidered tapestry, Historja (2003–07), spans the full length of a wall within the documenta Halle’s main, cavernous space, more than 70 feet long. Ostensibly, it chronicles reindeer-husbandry practices in the artist’s native Idivuoma, Sweden, a remote village some 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle. At various points along the work’s length, we see depictions of animals penned, surging out in a vast herd, domesticated to pull sleighs, and emerging from a forest in an arc-like procession.
Though immediately redolent of a timeline, the piece breaks in places, seemingly shifting time and evolutionary order, suggesting an inevitable cyclical movement of human activity and natural law. Key moments in the region’s history, such as the bloody 1852 Kautokeino uprising, are depicted along the tapestry’s length—but things inevitably return to collectivity and the practice of raising reindeer.
A strong argument for abandoning the neoliberal capitalist order pervades much of the work in documenta 14. Yet few of the works provide much of an answer as to what form the resulting new society might take. Plessas’s Eternal Internet Brotherhood / Sisterhood (2012–ongoing) gives a few hints.
Viewers are invited to sit on gold and silver lamé-covered couches, watching a series of videos that show members of a “brotherhood/sisterhood” founded by the artist himself. The installation also documents the sixth gathering of this organization, which took place in a nature preserve outside Kassel on May 5th, and which Plessas conceived as “an altar of digital detox, a therapy session, a place to explore our bodies and minds, a social environment surrounded by ideas and particles, and an attempt to float freely in space and time.”
As with many works in documenta, Eternal Internet Brotherhood / Sisterhood suggests a way out of our current state of perpetual crisis and uncertainty: namely, the need to pull back the layers that have constructed the individual as the ideal. But Plessas’s framework doesn’t appear to reject technology and advanced scientific inquiry as a prerequisite to that process, suggesting instead that it is how we use those technologies, and what ends we have them serve, that require greater intention.
Multiple locations throughout Kassel
Walk through Kassel for long enough (which you certainly will if you come to to this sprawling exhibition) and you’ll find yourself spinning around at least once looking for the source of a disembodied voice. It’s most likely not a monster from the Kassel-born Brothers Grimm haunting the city, but instead a work by Whitney Biennial and now documenta favorite Pope.L.
The artist has installed dozens of hidden speakers throughout Kassel and Athens, some of them attached to moving cars. They whisper thousands of narratives about the two cities—some of which are more directly connected to the political climate between the E.U. and Greece than others.
Pope.L’s text-based works from the early 2000s are also shown in the documenta Halle, providing a fuller picture of the scope of this artist’s practice. Whispering Campaign (2016–17)finds him exploring an ingenious method, putting paper aside and using the city as his medium.
A masterful merger of space and artwork, Russell’s film Good Luck (2017) occupies the cellar underneath the Fridericianum (you enter from the square through what looks like it would be the stairway to a subway station). Co-produced by documenta, the four-channel, 71-minute film lays bare the human and ecological toll of the gold-mining industry in Suriname.
We see wide shots of a marching band playing along the mine’s edge in colonial garb. At the far end of the cellar, installed in the curvature of its roof, black miners’ faces, one at a time, fill the entire wall, staring out in a way that allows for prolonged eye contact and an emotional punch in the chest. (Another screen gives the same compositional treatment to a set of suspiciously clean white mine workers who, at times, appear to laugh off the exercise.)
More casually shot footage plays on a flat-screen TV around yet another bend of the cellar cave. In it, the same black miners share stories of how they ended up in the mine, the conditions there, and what they hope for the future. “When I first came here I didn’t know how they mine for gold,” says one, describing with some horror the first time he saw the deep gash made into the excavated earth. Explaining that they only get Sundays off, another says, “The jungle wants to rest too; all day the machines cry out.” When asked about their children, the men take a more pragmatic view. “I work here so they can work in an office with this thing here,” says one, holding up a pen.
In its eschewing of the “new,” Documenta foregrounds many artists whose work was overlooked in its time or has since been forgotten. Exemplary among them is painter and sculptor Vidal, who, despite being one of his home country of Cuba’s most prominent artists of the 20th century, has received little recognition beyond the island nation’s borders.
A member of the Grupo de los Once (Group of Eleven) who together shaped the future of Cuban art beginning in the mid-1950s, Vidal strongly opposed totalitarianism in his country. He was among the artists who participated in a so-called “anti-biennale” in 1954 (“Contemporary Cuban Art: Homage to José Martí”), which confronted the joint effort of Francisco Franco and Fulgencio Batista to create a Hispano-American Biennial in the region.
Vidal passed away in 2013, but his abstract canvases and sculptures remain remarkably fresh. A smart gallery would do well to make inroads to secure his estate.