by Ally Rue, MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies

Main Gallery of the Documenta Halle

Documenta, the world-famous contemporary art exhibition which takes place every 5 years, has been divided between two venues for the first time. For its 14th instalment, the exhibition is being hosted both in its traditional home of Kassel, Germany and Athens, Greece and is titled ‘Learning from Athens’; the idea is that the two exhibitions will create a dialogue and the exhibition organizers argue that you cannot fully experience this Documenta without going to both venues. It is incredibly presumptuous of curator Adam Szymczyk to assume that visitors to the exhibition have the means or even the desire to attend two huge festivals, particularly during a year that coincides with the Venice Biennale. It just comes off as an elitist attempt to restrict the full experience to ‘real art lovers’ (the rich) while those who would most benefit from the experience like artists and students *ahem* can only afford to see half the show. Whatever.

The exhibition in Kassel was not about aesthetics, new artistic techniques, or having fun; it was about serious contemplation of current political and humanitarian crises. Many of the artworks did not speak for themselves and were not aesthetically interesting enough to enjoy without reading the wall texts. Szymczyk even said during the opening press conference, ‘If you think of aesthetics as more akin to cosmetics, as a pretty thing, I suppose this can be useful sometimes, but we’re more interested in the texture and the structure.’ This is definitely noticeable in the main gallery of the Documenta Halle where the centre of the room belongs to Guillermo Galindo’s Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper—which repurposes remnants of wrecked migrant boats into musical instruments—and is flanked by the indigo plants and hanging fabrics of Aboubakar Fofana’s Fundi and the giant, cascading knots of Quipu Gut by Cecelia Vicuña. Finding the Fridericianum Museum was slightly confusing as the indicative lettering on the building’s pediment has been rearranged and added to by artist Banu Cennetoğlu to create the powerful phrase ‘BEING SAFE IS SCARY’. This building has been given over to the Greek National Museum of Contemporary Art and addresses issues facing Greece today including migration, economic downturn, and returning to democracy in the post-war era. The rest of the exhibition was hosted in galleries, buildings, and public spaces throughout the city.

Many of the works sprinkled throughout Kassel were so unconcerned with aesthetics that you would miss them if you didn’t know they were there. The sound installation When Elephants Fight, It is the Frogs that Suffer by the late American Fluxus artist Benjamin Patterson consists of four speakers hidden under a bridge in Karlsaue Park that play frog croaks, humans imitating frogs, and incomprehensible spoken words; an unaware passerby may simply assume that there are a lot of energetic frogs in the brook. I was not aware until I got home that the obelisk in the middle of the Königsplatz, the city’s main square, is actually an artwork by the Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe titled Monument to Strangers and Refugees where the New Testament phrase ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’ appears in four languages; I simply assumed it was a pilfered Egyptian obelisk, which are found throughout Europe. When I saw smoke billowing out of the tower of the Fridericianum I wondered why no one else seemed to be alarmed, until I realized it was simply Daniel Knorr’s Expiration Movement, which references book burnings by the Nazis and the crematoriums of concentration camps.

Weißer Rauch über Kassel
Daniel Knorr, Expiration Movement, installation of smoke machines, 2017

Adjacent to and in conversation with the faux fire is the centerpiece of the exhibition Parthenon of Books on the Friedrichsplatz, a site where Nazis once held a book burning. The work is a life-size reconstruction of the Parthenon in Athens, but is instead constructed of donated books that are currently or previously banned adhered to the structure by layers of cling film. This piece proves that art can be aesthetically appealing and prove a point, as does Hiwa K’s outdoor work While We Are Exhaling which is simultaneously beautiful, amusing, and heartbreaking. The artist stacked twenty large ceramic pipes and made each into the rooms of a house complete with bedrooms, a library, drawing rooms, and a bathroom; this charming work actually recalls Hiwa K’s harrowing experience fleeing northern Iraq in the 1990’s when, upon arriving to Greece with no money, he lived for a time in ceramic pipes used for canalization.

pantheon of books
Marta Minujin, Parthenon of Books (with inset detail image), steel, books, and plastic sheeting, 2017
Hiwa K., While We Are Exhaling, vitrified clay pipes, laminated beams, furniture, and various objects, 2017

Overall, Documenta 14 read more like a political protest than an art festival, not that it is necessarily a bad thing. The resurgence of extreme nationalism in the West and the rhetoric surrounding the refugee crisis need to be addressed, however it is debatable whether such an exhibition will actually change anyone’s mind. Political art is most effective when it is disbursed and targets specific communities in need of change, not condensed in a small German city in the mountains or mixed with all of the other art of a city like Athens. If Documenta is intended to document current practices in contemporary art then my takeaway is this: aesthetics is no longer important and art for art’s sake is dead.