Living and working in Kassel during the dOCUMENTA (13) I have been in no rush to see all of the works. My abundance of time lends itself to much alleviation when considering the daunting map of exhibitions and thick program book. I have found the installations, sculptures, and ongoing performances to become part of my daily life. Each morning on my walk to work, I pass at least several art houses in Karlsaue park, the arte povera tree of Giuseppe Penone, Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden, and Massimo Bartolini’s Untitled (Wave). On a rainy day the tram takes me past the Neue Galerie and the Weinberg bunkers where visitors approach the hill armed with umbrellas and hard-hats. The works are becoming more and more familiar, exposing personalities and revealing new layers over time.
In a situation such as this, it is interesting to find which works call for a second, third, or tenth look. Aside from the public works, I have repeatedly found myself at the Neue Galerie. Many of the works of the dOCUMENTA (13) are housed in historical spaces reconstituted for the exhibition of contemporary art. The Neue Galerie was originally constructed as a museum for the Old Masters in the late 19th century. After the destruction of World War II, the museum lost much of its collection and was closed until 1976. The space was reengineered with the intent to house Modern Masters, such as the German Expressionists, along with Romantic and Impressionist painting. The Neue Galerie underwent a major renovation in 2011 and is perfectly suited to showcase the contemporary works of dOCUMENTA (13).
Among the highlights at this particular venue is Leaves of Grass, the compelling sculptural collage of Geoffrey Farmer. I am consistently drawn to revisit the work; it refuses to deny intrigue to myself and to visitors who brave the line for a closer look. Composed of LIFE Magazine cut-outs from 1935 through 1985, the work extends for 124 feet and is an immaculate visual timeline, a jungle of images spanning all realms of popular culture. In the work we recognize politicians, celebrities, advertisements, and products, the layers and stories of American identity and popular world history.
Based in Vancouver, Geoffrey Farmer is acclaimed for his sculptural collages as well as theatrical narrative works. Leaves of Grass is the completing piece to his trilogy of works in which he combines fragments from magazines, books, and pamphlets to comment on the roll of photography in history recording. While the general narrative of Leaves of Grass is familiar, each viewer may read the work differently, being drawn to unlike characters and evoked memories. Perhaps it is the nostalgia that keeps bringing me back, maybe it’s the well-designed space and natural lighting, but it is undeniable that Farmer’s intricate work beckons time, contemplation, and close observation.
Film has been a participatory medium at the documenta since its beginning in 1955. As contemporary art enthusiasts and gallery-visitors we are likely to be accustomed to pausing only a few minutes for films. With so much art to see, it is difficult to justify the 20 minutes or more of some films. This is not the case for the 31.49 minutes of Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades. Located in the basement of the Neue Galerie, this work is a must-see and is unlikely to put up a fight with a viewer’s attention span. Shawky’s work is a historical chronicle of the medieval Crusades and based on the 1983 book The Crusades through Arab Eyes by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf. 200-year-old marionettes act out the plot. Accompanied by brief and direct dialogue, it is the truly emotive faces of the bouncing puppets that provide animation for the film. The narrative is set against stunning sets, which paired with the expressive puppets create an aesthetically irresistible experience. Shawky is known for his work that involves dissection and reenactment of historic moments through child actors, puppets, and digital animation to remove esoteric lenses and interact directly with history.
Back upstairs are the hauntingly beautiful photographs by South African photographer Zanele Muholi. Through a series of portraits entitled Faces and Phases, Muholi describes the homosexual and queer community in South Africa. Through what the artist calls “visual activism,” these direct and intense black and white photographs tell the stories of different characters within the community: “athletes, cultural activists, dancers, filmmakers, writers, human rights and gender activists, mothers, lovers…” The photographs are accompanied by a film that delves into the lives of these women and transmen on an individual and community basis.
The works of dOCUMENTA (13) concentrate on very real subject matter. Alternating from previous documentas in which fantasy and elusive ideas were more pronounced, these works seem to engage directly with history and documentation in order to comment on and understand the human condition.