More than a month has passed since I visited Kassel to see dOCUMENTA 13. The exhibition came to an official end on September 16th, but my thoughts about my experience have continued to slowly trickle from the well of inspiration I found there. My visit was both puzzling and stimulating—an overwhelming, exhausting blur of perceptual and intellectual muscle flexing.
It seems impossible to make sense of an exhibition whose scope is so vast, both globally and conceptually, that it is nearly unfeasible for someone to view the entirety of the work included in the exhibition catalogue. This year, the curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, displayed artworks and events in satellite exhibition spaces in cities outside of Kassel including Kabul, Alexandria, and Banff. In doing so, she hoped to expand the topology of the exhibition to include areas one only hears or reads about remotely. She was especially invested in answering a series of questions concerning our relationship to physical places. In particular, “what does it mean to know things that are not physically perceivable to us through our senses, and what is the meaning of the exercise of orienting in thought towards these locations?”
After my visit, I am uncertain that I can answer these questions comprehensively—at least not to the extent that the curator perhaps envisioned. To my dismay, I was unable to see the exhibition in Kabul, Alexandria, or Banff. In many ways, I find these satellite exhibitions make dOCUMENTA even more inaccessible to the general public than it already is. It is difficult enough to get to Kassel, let alone Afghanistan, Egypt and Canada. While I didn’t personally see these additional locales, I do wonder if it would be more effective to keep the exhibition less sprawled and more contained? How would this streamlined approach affect the overall reception of the exhibition? Would it feel more integrated?
In my experience, the strictly local venues in Kassel were enough to provoke a similar set of questions regarding one’s relationship to place. For one, the physical demands of the exhibition, even contained within a humble town, were formidable. I trekked for hours in Karlsaue park, a sweeping, English-style garden with an almost perfectly symmetrical layout before moving on to the Orangerie. This building was originally Landgrave Charles’ royal summer palace that housed an indoor winter garden for protecting non-native plants. After studiously making my way through these first two venues, which contained over fifty artists in total, I quickly realized I would never get to everything. Many works would be left unseen, and my own grasp of the exhibition would be shaped only by the pieces I ‘physically perceived through my senses.’
Now looking back, I realize that this perceptual obscurity, the impossibility of absorbing all artists and artworks selected by the curator, is part of what makes dOCUMENTA such an intriguing endeavor. Every visitor leaves with a unique experience of what has been seen and what has been physically and visually absorbed and assimilated. These diverse impressions are the very matter that forms the discourse of the exhibition as it continues to unfold after the hundred day period it is open to the public.
The diversity of venues at dOCUMENTA are often upstaged by the works of art themselves, and as a result, overlooked as an integral element of the exhibition. It is precisely these physical spaces that challenge the viewers’ perceptual capacities, and add an additional layer of complexity to its already intricate infrastructure. This year’s exhibition included, as always, several venues in Kassel’s well-established art museums (the Fridericianum, Neue Galerie, and documenta-Halle), but also in less art-centric museums such as the Ottoneum, a building originally used as a military chapel, cannon foundry, observatory, and anatomical theater before becoming the Natural History Museum in 1885. Another delightfully unexpected venue was the Hauptbahnhof, Kassel’s central train station up until the new Bahnhof Kassel-Wilhelmshöh was built in 1991. The station’s high ceilinged warehouse spaces provided an extraordinary framework especially for video installations, which were exhibited in abundance this year.
William Kentridge’s memorable piece The Refusal of Time was positioned in the station’s North Wing. The work comprises five films projected on three walls of the room, as well as a large wooden structure moving in sync to a soundtrack of fragmentary commotion: an array of instruments, a metronome singing, and sometimes Kentridge’s own speaking voice projected through giant silver megaphones. While I am still not sure what to make of this piece, it is undeniable that the space itself impacted my perception of the work. In the darkened, dilapidated room—away from the central pulse of the town and white-walled museums—my senses became sharper, more attuned to the subtleties and textures of the artist’s work. A similar effect occurred in the various off-site venues in Kassel including the Ex-Elizabeth Hospital (the building was once used as a leprosarium) and the Never-Mosque, a storage building partly rebuilt to become a mosque, though never finished.
In addition to these satellite spaces were works of art occupying even more unconventional venues located off dOCUMENTA’s main grid. Allora & Calzadilla’s Raptor’s Rapture was the most outlandish example of an alternative approach to art installation. The main component of the piece was a film that captures Bernadette Käfer, a specialist in prehistoric instruments, attempting to play an ancient flute carved 35,000 years ago from the wing bone of a griffon vulture—the oldest musical instrument ever found to date. The film was displayed in the ice-cold underground tunnels beneath the Weinberg Park. These labyrinthine bunkers were once used as air-raid shelters during World War II, but the flute’s prehistoric melody transcended my perception of space and of time. For a moment I felt transported to a different era where cavemen painted on subterranean walls. But while our primitive inclination for art making has remained constant, man’s conceptualization of art and its complex relationship to time, place, and history has inevitably shifted with our intellectual evolution.
9 June–16 September, 2012