documenta 14

by Raimar Stange

Share on:

In recent decades there has rarely been a documenta as distant from the real (commercial) industry of art as documenta 14, which for the first time this year not only takes place in Kassel but extends to Athens. The reason for this setup, which overlooks most of the art stars that are trendy right now, is clear: documenta 14, under the art direction of Adam Szymczyk, aims at exploring what today may be viewed as political art and how this could respond to the most pressing political issues of our time, i.e. the neo-liberal globalization, the refugee crisis and the climate change, to make a few examples. But such an art is less and less found in an art industry that has long been working on neoliberal principles even on a global scale, and it is notoriously aimed at serving a powerful community of collectors by offering the most spectacular and high-status artifacts. And this is exactly where documenta 14 explicitly refuses to play the game and instead addresses those artists – and their art – that give priority to the analysis of content and criticism of sensual formalism, taking the reinterpretation of history and the commenting of current developments very seriously. For its aesthetic research, documenta 14 undertakes a journey through time and space. First in Athens and then in Kassel, the exhibition presents the art of 160 artists coming from all over the world and who are not confined to embodying only “current positions,” as in fact they are themselves in part already history. This journey through time and space is also staged through a mix of all (so far) imaginable media: painting, sculpture, space installations, performance and, of course, public art.

Hiwa K, When We Were Exhaling Images, 2017, various materials. In Zusammenarbeit mit PD022, dem Diplomstudiengang Produktdesign, Prof. Jakob Gebert, Kunsthochschule Kassel, Installationsansicht, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, documenta 14. Ph. Mathias Völzke 
Otobong Nkanga, Carved to Flow, 2017, performance and installation. Installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14. Ph. Liz Eve 
Sammy Baloji, Tales of the Copper Cross Garden: Episode I, 2017, various materials. EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14. Ph. Stathis Mamalakis 
Artur Żmijewski, Realism, 2017, six-channel digital video. Installation view, Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost), Kassel, documenta 14. Ph. Mathias Völzke 
Beau Dick, installation view. documenta Halle, Kassel, documenta 14. Ph. Roman März  
Andreas Angelidakis, Unauthorized (Athinaiki Techniki), 2017. Installation view, Polytechniou 8, Athens, documenta 14. Ph. Angelos Giotopoulos 
Stanley Whitney. Installation view, documenta Halle, Kassel, documenta 14. Ph. Roman März  

In Athens, home to the first part of this edition of documenta, there is room for realistic painting, including works of socialist realism from the 1940s to the 1960s. The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, for example, exhibits the painting Femijet (‘children’, in Albanian) of the Albanian artist Spiro Kristo (1966), who with an orthodox enthusiasm represents the fighting spirit of real socialism. The work depicts children playing in a street in Tirana, the capital of Albania: one has a toy rifle, another is drawing a weapon on the street with a piece of chalk. Upstairs, these figurative political images are reread through abstract painting, for example in the bright colored grids of the American artist Stanley Whitney. Only the titles of these chromatic orgies devoid of any figurative element refer to their political content. One of the paintings is titled No to Prison Life (2016). Those of Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, who died in 1981, are realistic paintings and his series of paintings in the Benaki Museum in Athens, 101 Works (1973-1974), faces the brutal (colonial) history of his homeland, Congo, with an expression that could be called ‘naïf’ or even ‘folkloric.’ Among the works there is a portrait of Lumumba, the first prime minister of independent Congo, and many military scenes. Painting as a tool is also questioned by another means, the film: this is the case of Artur Zmijewski’s mute black and white movie, Glimpse (2016-2017), which portrays refugees in the camps of Paris, Berlin and Calais. With intentionally sharply outlined images, for this resulting all the more intense, in its twenty minutes it shows for example a refugee who puts on a pair of new shoes, others standing in the rain in desperation, or the artist himself instructing refugees to turn their heads in one direction or another, so as to make it obvious that they are akin to freely usable objects for Zmijeweski’s artistic enthusiasm. Discharging this narrative as a voyeuristic means not to understand where the video is aiming: in this context it makes no sense to talk about voyeurism, which defines an unintended intrusion into a private sphere, precisely because these refugees have been long defrauded of any private sphere.

In Kassel the same political problems are discussed with the artists themselves, but in this case also through large sculptures exhibited in public spaces. With their almost ostentatious aesthetics, these sculptures embody the attempt to formulate political statements in such an unequivocal manner that they are immediately understandable, without being negatively populist or tendentiously simplifying. This is the case of Hiwa K’s sculpture, When We Were Exhaling Images, 2017, made with nearly four-meter-long vitrified clay pipes stacked next to each other and one on top of the other. These pipes are commonly used for sewers, but for Hiwa K these pipes forming a huge abstract sculpture perform another, twofold function: they remind us that architecture does not necessarily need to extend vertically. The artist also intends to criticize the tendency to build ever-taller, high-status buildings. Yet, at the same time these pipes allude to another current use of horizontal architecture: refugees in Greece in fact use these pipes as temporary housing, while waiting to be transferred to Italy on a ship. Although the interior design of these pipes, conceived by Hiwa K along with Kassel’s design students, with their almost glamorous appearance seem a bit over the top, the artist succeeds in giving an incisive and compassionate expression of the problem of the refugee crisis. Consequently, When We Were Exhaling Images is a good example of the direction of this documenta 14, which is definitely committed and brave.

Text by Antonio Grulli
180 The Strand, London
Titled We don’t need another hero, the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art is a conversation with artists and contributors who think and act beyond art as they confront the incessant anxieties perpetuated by a willful disregard for complex subjectivities.
Kevin Space, Vienna
Giorgio Galotti, Torino
New Museum, New York. The much anticipated New Museum Triennial, titled this year ’Songs for Sabotage’, opened in February presenting the works of twenty-six artists from nineteen countries, some of which are showing for the first time in an institution.
A project by kurimanzutto Gallery, Mexico City
Peres Projects, Berlin