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documenta 14 / impressions

Visiting documenta 14 can be overwhelming. The minute you set foot in the city centre you will not only run into the main galleries, open air art installations and performances but also into another couple of hundred art lovers walking around with their maps and brochures in their hands, trying not to miss a thing.

documenta was founded in 1955 with the intention of using art as a way to avoid dangerous nationalistic tendencies repeating themselves. Since then, it has been held every five years in the city of Kassel, just a couple of hours away from Berlin. This year, as part of the artistic direction of curator Adam Szymczyk, the exhibition was split between Kassel and Athens. Under the title Learning from Athens both cities are linked through art. The art works are shown in relays as a dialogue about the history and international conflicts that bring both cities together.

There is definitely a lot to see, with more than 160 artists on show and works in all kinds of media and size, you will need to planyour visit ahead and choose wisely between the many venues spread around the city.

The three main venues this year are the Neue Hauptpost (also called Neue Neue Galerie) which contains the largest amount of the newly commissioned works, the documenta Halle which despite being built especially for documenta, is hosting the smallest amount of works opposed to the Neue Galerie’s largest collection of works. This year, the Fridericianum museum hosts mainly works borrowed from the National Museum of Contemporary Arts of Athens. There are also some smaller – but certainly not less appealing – venues such as the Kulturbahnhof, the Palais Bellevue, the Hessisches Landesmuseum , the Grimmwelt and the Museum für Sepalkralkultur. The film programme takes place at the Bali-Kinos and the Gloria-Kino.

But art also takes to Kassel’s streets. The old and the new art works coexist in harmony making the spectator feel like they are walking in an open-air art collection. Joseph Beuys’ 7000 oak trees can be found all over the city, planted in 1982 as a part of documenta 7. Two of them, planted just in front of the Fridericianum, now share the square with Argentinian artist Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books, still under construction for this year’s edition. This colossal work features a collection of 100, 000 books prohibited by dictatorships all over the world. From Mickey Mouse comics and the Twilight novel to texts from Marx, Goethe and the Grimm Brothers. The wide range of books is surprising and as with every Minujín installation, the audience gets to be part of it; walking around it, recognizing the titles and trying to guess where and who could have prohibited them. The reason, however, is clear. Censorship has always been an important tool of every dictatorship, used to control the masses and show what they consider to be an unquestionable and unique truth.

Facing the Parthenon of Books, five banners cover the façade of a building. It is Hans Haacke’s work Wir (alle) sind das Volk also from this year. The German artist protests against the nationalistic propensities and proclaims that we are all the people.

Martha Minujín – The Parthenon of Books © Roman Maerz

Contemporary art is often given an accusatory role, some sort of socio-political responsibility, with expectations of it to shake the observer and to expose reality in the most cruel, and honest way possible. documenta 14 is not the exception. As a mirror to contemporary culture, it reflects many of the most urgent issues; the gain of power of nationalism worldwide, the impact of neoliberalism and it consequences, the new wars and terror attacks and the problem of forced migration around the world.

Regarding migration, No olvidado by Andrea Bowers at the Fridericianum acts as a memorial to honor the people who have died crossing the Mexican/American border. The artist points to the fact that this long list of names is still incomplete as it is constantly growing. She also remarks that many of these people were never identified. Some of these unnecessary deaths were caused by attempts to cross in extreme weather conditions (heat strokes, dehydration, hyperthermia, among others) while many others were racial crimes.

In the same building, Acropolis Redux (the Director’s cut) by South African artist Kendell Geers is a commissioned work from the National Museum of Contemporary Arts in Athens. The artist was also interested in borders and limits but in a much more physical way. Several standing shelves display coils of the steel wire used to create fences. The matter of migration is reduced here to the most minimal fundamental element.

At the Kulturbahnhof, a former underground train station now transformed into a subterranean gallery, The Course of Empire by French filmmaker Michel Auder also points out the failures of the political system through the course of history. It is a video installation composed of fourteen screens that simultaneously expose some of the worst aspects of colonialism. More than 500 videos made over five decades depict brutal images of war and weapons being fired, while classical art and sexual images are shown on others. The media depicted is also interesting; some political comments were filmed directly from an iPhone. Words also have an important role; on one of the screens Alexander von Humboldt’s notes read: “The slave is exposed in the solitude of a plantation or a farm, where a rude capataz, armed with a machete and a whip, exercises absolute authority!”

Meanwhile, in the Neue Galerie a room is completely filled by a series of school desks. There are photos placed on top, each one covered with a thin layer of white paper. South African photographer Peter Magubane is the author of this photography installation which depicts the violence and suffering in the times of Apartheid. The paper covering them acts as a metaphor of what we see and what we chose not to and invites us to remove it to confront the worst things we, as humanity, have ever done. Numerous long paper sheets with childish figurative drawings made with pencils, lipstick and markers hang from the ceiling. At the end of the room, a video installation shows the documents of the art expropriations made at the Nazi times and parts of the Code Noir can be heard through speakers. This installation The Missing link. Dicolonisation. Education by Mrs Smiling Stone by artist Pélagie Gbaguidi calls for a deeper understanding of these developments of oppression and what the education system taught us as the “official history”.

Pélagie Gbaguidi – The Missing Link. Dicolonisation Education by Mrs Smiling Stone (2017)
© Mathias Voelzke

Another political work, also at the Neue Galerie is Maria Eichhorn’s Rose Valland Institute. A nine part interdisciplinary project that talks about cultural theft and historical destruction. It is a piece of research about expropriation and its on-going impact in society. A big bookcase stands as a tower in the middle of the room. The bookshelves are filled with books that were acquired from Jewish collections during the World War II and are still held in the state libraries of Berlin. In this case, the aim is to highlight the restitution of books and artworks illegally expropriated during the war, but the effects of which we can still see today. As in many of the pieces, there is the feeling of invitation for reflection as a way to prevent repetition of the past. Germany’s Nazi past is of course a common topic.

Maria Eichhorn – Unrechtmäßig aus jüdischem Eigentum erworbene Bücher
© Mathias Voelzke

Many other political works stand out this year at documenta 14 making strong statements on the different subjects, which is clearly supported by the views of the organizers. As the artistic curator Adam Szymczyk said at the inauguration press conference: “The great lesson is that there isn’t one lesson; no school that can dispense it and that no masters that can tell us how to live and what to do. We must assume responsibility and act as political subjects instead of simply leaving it to elected representatives.”