Drawing and photography are central to my practice. Both make pressing - if sometimes fictitious - claims to the capture of lost moments.


documenta 13: political agenda

Still thinking about the curatorship of documenta and why it got under my skin, so to speak. Or perhaps 'up my nose' would be a better corporeal metaphor. Caroline Christov Bakargiev is anxious to focus on Kabul and Cairo/Alexandria - Afghanistan and Egypt. (Banff in Canada was the third external venue, but there seemed no further mention of it in the show). 'Egypt' of course stands in for the political hopes invested in the Arab Spring, but it is really Kabul that has the strongest presence at Documenta and events organised in that city as part of what one might call 'Documenta outreach' were much publicised. This is great for those residents of Kabul who have time and energy to entertain the notion of art (and not surprisingly, it is all politically motivated, socially engaged art), but is Bakargiev suggesting that schlepping to Kabul for the full Documenta experience might be of interest to anyone else? She argues that Kabul now must be a little like Kassel was after the end of World War II (untrue on all significant counts, not least because the outrages against human rights are not over in Kabul). We're perhaps invited to surmise that Kabul is the Kassel of the future (and always will be!)

The staging of Documenta in Kassel - a city that was largely bombed in the war - was part of a symbolic redressing undertaken by Germany (and not by some foreign curator in Germany) ten years after the end of the war, and for historical reasons, it makes sense that Kassel should continue to host this important event. Bakargiev acknowledges the historical role of Documenta by including one work from each of the previous twelve Documentas in 'her' show. Because it takes place only once every five years, the individual curators invited to co-ordinate this prestigious event have seen Documenta as a barometer not only for artistic transformation, but also for social and political change, and it is of course fair enough - indeed, desirable - that these should be reflected in the show. 

But Bakargiev is so anxious to fawn all over the Arab and Muslim worlds that in the curatorial voice - and I mean in the curatorial voice, and not in the exhibition per se – there is a sticky attitude of obsequiousness to certain cultures, and to very particular cultural forms and voices. Her approach is anything but inclusive, and answers to a disavowed political agenda. This happens at the expense of a more rounded and balanced historical contextualisation or exploration of the themes that, despite their declared absence, are very much on show. 

The Hauptbahnhof  in Kassel - once the main railway station - is one of the primary venues used for the exhibition, and in the current Documenta, it hosts some of the most exceptional works on show, by artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, William Kentridge, Lara Favaretto, Susan Philipz, Istvá Csákány and Haegue Yang. (Other artists whose work stands out at Documenta are Nalini Malani, Goshka Macuga, Song Dong, and - with the more traditional mediums of painting and collage - Julie Mehretu and Simryn Gill.) The same Hauptbahnhof  saw the deportation of Jews from that city during World War II. From the Jewish Virtual Library, the following details:

'On November 7, 1938, two days before the start of Kristallnacht, the main synagogue was set on fire, but the local firemen extinguished the blaze, something that they were explicitly instructed not to do on Kristallnacht. Two days later, the Liberal synagogue was burned down and the Orthodox synagogue destroyed, and a completed manuscript of the second volume of the history of the Jews in Kassel, prepared under community auspices, was destroyed, as later were all records on emigration and deportation. Three hundred Jews including the rabbi were sent to Buchenwald and 560 Jews emigrated over the next year. As to the remaining Jews, 470 were deported to Riga in 1941, 99 to Majdanek in 1942, and 323 to Theresienstadt that year. In 1945–46, 200 Jews (mainly Displaced Persons) lived in Kassel, 102 in 1955, 73 in 1959, and 106 in 1970. With municipal aid a synagogue with a community center was built in 1965. The Jewish community numbered about 1,220 in 2004 after the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Since the synagogue became too small it was pulled down and the architect Alfred Jacoby designed a new one with a community center, which was consecrated in 2000. It was financed by the Jewish community of Kassel, the Association of Jewish Communities in Hesse, the Federal state (Land) of Hesse, and the city of Kassel.'

In a Documenta that seems to explore geo-political and historical contexts, migrations, multiple cultures, collective memory and the idea of memorialisation, it is more than surprising that there is no curatorial mention of this aspect of Kassel's history. 

In every respect, the best artists on show bypass the curatorial remit and explore their own themes. Two works at the Hauptbahnhof hauntingly address this aspect of Kassel's past. Susan Philipz's sound work is mapped onto  the longest track at the station, Track 12. You're alone in the loneliest part where the building gives way to an industrial hinterland, and suddenly, the scratchy soundtrack brings you plangent, elegiac strings. Through seven speakers installed in a half-circle above the empty tracks, what we hear is a composition based on Czech composer Pavel Haas's Study for Strings (1943). He wrote this piece while incarcerated at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. It was performed by the Terezin String Orchestra before an audience of prisoners; this performance was filmed and incorporated into the now famous propaganda film Theresienstadt: Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem judischen Siedlungsgebiet (Terezin: A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area), 1944. The absence of any  form of materiality in this work immerses the expectant 'viewer' in sensation, history, memory.

Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller also staged a heart-stopping work at Documenta. At a kiosk in the Hauptbahnhof, you receive an iPod and headphones and, plugging into the iPod, you get taken by the artists for a walk through the station, where your senses are gradually confounded between what you actually see before your eyes in the present, and what you are shown on the small screen of the device, and hear as though convincingly 'present' on the headphones. I found myself continually removing the headphones to clarify whether what I was hearing was the soundtrack of their walk then, or the actual sounds of my walk now. During this walk - an immersion in real time in which the viewer/participant engages with architecture, history and performance art - Cardiff and Bures Miller lead us to a small vitrine in a corner of the main atrium, just before it branches off into the separate tracks. Here, in the glass box,  stones (reminiscent of those traditionally left on Jewish graves) and handwritten notes serve as a discreet memorial to this unhappy aspect of the city's history. 

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