travelling light: Kassel documenta 2012

In September 2012 I flew into Frankfurt and took a fast train straight from the airport to Kassel. The German countryside is covered in wind turbines, their huge white sails like giant’s toys striding over the hills into the distance. Following the Fukushima accident, Germany immediately shut 8 of its nuclear reactors, and plans to close its remaining 9 reactors by 2022.

My project in Kassel was to see dOCUMENTA 13, one of the biggest contemporary art exhibitions in the world, that takes place every five years for one hundred days. It was begun in 1955 by an artist/designer/curator named Arnold Bode, initially as part of a Federal Horticultural Show, in an attempt to showcase the modern art that the Nazis had banned.

Kassel is a town, with a population of roughly 200,000, located in the middle of Germany. It was heavily bombed by the Allies during the war as it was full of armaments factories. A striking feature on arrival is what looks like a large turquoise fish twisting high on a pedestal overlooking the town. It is actually a somewhat kitsch neoclassical copper statue of Hercules, set up there 300 years ago and recently restored.

The dOCUMENTA 13 curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev was the curator of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney. Owing to the time she spent in Australia there are an unprecedented eight Australian artists selected for dOCUMENTA though nationality both is, and isn’t, a feature of the exhibition.

Exhibition…there needs to be another word for this behemoth of art by over 200 artists and artist collectives from around 50 countries spread over 7 major and 25 other venues. Day after day, you walk and walk, looking, finding, and walking again. At some points you need to keep a close eye on the map, at other times it is better to drift and just find works as during lunch one day when I encountered Susan Hiller’s free jukebox in the Schöne Aussicht Café. A sense of discovery is essential in such an event, and patience, as the crowds are large and you often have to queue to get in to certain spaces.

One of the works that had a long queue was the ‘hunting lodge’ of Adelaide-based Fiona Hall in the baroque Karlsauhe Park, originally designed as a pleasure garden in 1570. Hall’s work Fall Prey is an intense memorial to a selection of endangered animals on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list. Her work possesses great passion and ferocious ‘outsider art’ energy. The hunting trophies of the animals are made from the ripped and knotted camouflage army uniforms of each country that the animals originated in. Their ears and noses are flattened and beaten beer caps, and they are draped and punctuated with the flotsam and jetsam of culture and waste. The monkey has a ring-pull for an ear to remind you of the human-made garbage littering the world. In between the trophies, pieces of driftwood in the shapes of all kinds of animals haunt the walls.

dOCUMENTA 13 has no theme but takes the temperature of the times. Thus it contains a sense of millenarianism, of references to war zones, sites of global disasters, of a world in crisis in terms of climate, species decline, social change and food shortages. Noticeable also are various ingenious and memorable quests for deeper meaning in a consumerist world. In the vast documenta-Halle Thomas Bayrle’s work Carmageddon joins pistons from car engines together in puzzle-like configurations with their sound configured as repetitive prayers. The intense soundwork in Karlsauhe Park for a thousand years by Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller brought together a crowd of people standing and staring upwards in the clearing of the forest like druids. Sited on the large formal grounds in front of the Orangerie, Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden was a giant bonsai garden, a six metre high Chinese landscape, of hills made of rubble, overgrown with fragrant delicate weeds. It also included neon signs repeating the Chinese characters for “doing” and ”nothing”.

I first encountered the travelling van of Mother Courage and Her Children by Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton outside the Brothers Grimm Museum within which Nedko Solakov was humorously living his dreams of being a knight in shining armour and playing in a rock band. Thornton’s van was like a slice of life lifted from remote Australia. At the back through the open doors you see a projection of an elderly Aboriginal woman making a dot painting while her grandson listens to what sounds like the remote community radio station from Thornton’s 2005 film Green Bush, a radio program of music requests for Aboriginal people in prison. On the outside of the van rough paintings hang, next to the front seats old biscuit tins hold travelling necessities. These small details bring home some things I know, the importance of a sense of time and location, and the intersections of global and local meanings that make art work.

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