For a traveller who seeks art there’s no place like an international large-scale art exhibition, as it offers dual opportunities to voyage to interesting lands and soak in the creativity of the times. Topping my must-visit list this year was Documenta 14, a contemporary art exhibition held every five years in the charming university town of Kassel, Germany. This year, for the first time, the festival was presented on an equal footing in Athens.
Documenta is neither an art fair chasing sales nor a biennale chasing after spectacle; it is a stage where urgent cultural and socio-political contexts of our times are discussed through art. In the Greek capital, contemporary art was one more discovery amid the breathtaking antiquities and buzzy urban energy the place exudes. Kassel, on the other hand, looked like a purpose-built urbanscape created for Documenta 14, with art dotting museums and even a disused railway station.
Documenta 14 focuses on indigenous art and thought, as is evident in the exhibits by the Sami artists of Scandinavia. This curtain of reindeer skulls, “Pile o’ Sápmi”, on display at Kassel, was conceived by Marét Ánne Sara to highlight her people’s struggle to maintain their cultural identity.Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Stringer/Getty Images.
In between the two, I took a detour to visit the Skulptur Projekte at Münster, a picture-perfect city of towering church spires and lush, canopied walkways. I was struck by how art and city were in thoughtful balance there. To see the art was to roam the city itself: To see a harbourside artwork, for instance, I crossed a tunnel near the train station that featured a sound art piece by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, while the search for Cerith Wyn Evans’s modified church bells had me ambling through Münster’s lovely leafy residential areas.
True, the quantity of art on view—spread across a staggering number of locations—was daunting. My path regularly crossed those of other “artravellers”, the neologism describing well our peripatetic puzzlement, grasping at maps and guides to figure out the sites. Then pondering the question: how to see it all?
The answer: You can’t. Even with my generous allotment of time, it wasn’t possible to experience all the art on show, or indeed, all of the city. Instead, I learnt how it was fulfilling to walk through for a macro picture, then zoom in to spend time with a few works. I learnt that my viewfinder could belong to the worlds of traveller and art viewer. I learnt to let the art unfold through the timbre of the city.
“Dear Documenta: I refuse to exoticize myself to increase your cultural capital. Sincerely, the people.” —Athens graffiti
High-powered Documenta 14 has polarised opinions in Athens, eliciting outbursts about colonial attitudes and German imperialism. It’s inevitable, given how the ancient city of Athens is at the centre of current European crises around migration and economics. Even Documenta 14’s title “Learning From Athens” has come up for its share of criticism. I, however, decided to take the expression literally; to me, the term encouraged a two-part interaction with the ancient and the contemporary, as well as with art and the country.
This interpretation was also an excuse to go wandering in beautiful Greece. My three-island day cruise from the Athenian port of Piraeus to Aegina, Poros and Hydra was rushed on a rainy day. Yet Hydra stood out—its quaint pathways leading invitingly up the hill, luscious olive and lemon trees interrupted by splashes of gaudy bougainvillea, and the ubiquitous donkey, the only form of transport on the island. Rather more leisurely was the trip to the marble Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. It is a spectacular hour-long drive down the coast from Athens to the tip of the Attica peninsula. Every detail—ochre sands, blazing sun, expansive skies, and vivid blue seas—came together in perfect orchestration to set up the symphony of the Temple.
There’s no dearth of magnificent architecture in the heart of Athens itself, with the Acropolis presiding over the urban sprawl from its panoptic perch. Reasonably close to the New Acropolis Museum is the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), one of the principle sites of Documenta 14 artworks, and a first port of call on the exhibition voyage.
Canadian artist Beau Dick’s masks on display in Athens, are on ode to the rich and layered indigenous art of British Columbia. Photo by NurPhoto /Contributor/Getty Images.
A work that stood out at EMST was a sound art piece—a reconstruction of the monumental “Simfoniya gudkov (Symphony of factory sirens)” by Arseny Avraamov (1886 -1944). Avraamov was an avant-garde Russian composer, political activist and clairvoyant theorist who predicted the coming of synthesised sound 35 years before the creation of the first electronic music studio. The original extravagant production by Avraamov in 1922 included among other curiosities, thousands of choir singers, two artillery batteries and all the factory sirens in the city of Baku in Azerbaijan. And here I was, almost a century later, marvelling at the recreated symphony for Documenta. It was accompanied by archival material, the artist’s notes and drawings of music, all of which energised my imagination and helped me picture the majesty of the original work. It was also a welcome break from the art world’s addiction to the youngest and flashiest artists: there’s a high percentage of older and deceased artists at Documenta.
At the Athens School of Fine Arts, I came across a multipart installation, “Plastikos Praegressus: Memento Mori” comprising video, sculpture, and photographs. At the centre lay a spiral of found-abouts—garbage, I presumed— that a visitor could walk into. I ventured in rather desultorily, but when I paused to read the inscriptions, I realised for example that a reptilian-looking vacuum cleaner represented the fauna of our future: genetically engineered house gadgets that live on an exclusive diet of plastic rubbish. This grim treatise on ecology injected with wry, black humour truly came alive for me then.
To take in the art and the city was to create a mixtape of old and new. I punctuated my visits to venues such as the Benaki Museum and the Athens Conservatoire with other activities—what I had seen needed time to settle. A quick walk through Hadrian’s Gate to see the Temple of Olympian Zeus, was interleaved with bargaining at the flea markets of Monastiraki. I soaked in some more Documenta art scattered along at Athens’ main square, Syntagma, and the gardens of the Byzantine and Christian Museum. I balanced the jaw-dropping day visit to the Acropolis by a frivolous night jaunt to the buzzy neighbour-hood of Plaka, to eat ice cream against the backdrop of the lit-up Parthenon.
My hotel was located amid an atmospheric jumble of streets at the foothills of Mount Lycabettus—which I was tricked into climbing, but was only rewarded with a brilliant view. In my neighbourhood were cafés offering vantage points to watch the world go by, as well as good moussaka and great Greek cheeses such as feta and and the hard, salty white Kefalotyri. Ouzo, the aniseed-flavoured drink, dispensed “on the house”, was so fiery that I was always looking for creative ways to dispose of it without causing insult.
I left Greece in complete acceptance that Delphi is the centre of the world and that Plaka is the “neighborhood of the Gods”. As for the more contemporary art at Documenta, many works moved me, but even more raised difficult questions, such as the lack of emphasis on visuality: do works have to stubbornly resist visual appeal in the search for being politically relevant art?
Onwards to find answers.
“Roam more, We’re on nowhere, emit time” —Performer, at Alexandra Pirici’s Leaking Territories (2017), Skulptur Projekte Münster
Alexandra Pirici’s “Leaking Territories” extends ideas of public sculpture at Skulptur Projekte Münster.Photo Courtesy: Henning Rogge
The inclusion of video and performative pieces—such as that by Alexandra Pirici—suggested that what constitutes “public sculpture” is being challenged at the truly unusual Skulptur Projekte Münster. Before going on to Kassel for Documenta’s mirrored other half, we took a small detour to this quaint German city, for the fifth edition of Skulptur Projekte, that’s held every 10 years.
Tracking the sculptures on display is the best way to experience the city. We did the trail on foot and bus; but I immediately see why Münster is known as the bicycle capital of Germany—there are extensive cycle paths, as well as the Promenade that encircles the city, offering a scenic route to view the 35 new site-specific works. I began my two-day visit from Domplatz, the square in front of the Münster Cathedral. Every Wednesday and Saturday, it hosts Wochenmarkt Münster, where carts overflow with fresh produce, cured meats, cheeses, and hot munchies. Stalls gaily display brilliant blossoms, painted scarves and handmade jewellery. I enjoyed hearing the chatter of unfamiliar tongues and church bells ring in familiar universality, before attending to the more serious business of art.
Nicole Eisenman’s “Sketch for a Fountain” comprises five oversized bodies grouped around a pool in a Münster public park. Their awkwardness and stance questions preconceptions about body, and sexual orientation. Photo by Parvathi Nayar.
Many floors of contemporary art await visitors at one end of Domplatz, at the LWL Museum of Art and Culture. However I headed there to experience a particular work, by German artist Gregor Schneider, who is notorious for his creations of rooms and dwellings that offer deeply unsettling spatial experiences.
I queued up and waited patiently, as only one person is allowed to enter Schneider’s installation at a time. This one was an apartment belonging to a fictional N. Schmidt, constructed by Schneider on the top floor of the museum. When it was eventually my turn to walk through the “apartment”, I experienced how the emptiness, peculiarly emotive lighting and clever mirroring of rooms really did play mind games. To shake off the weirdness, a brisk walk was in order through the main marketplace Prinzipalmarkt, just a stone’s throw away.
What comprises sculpture was further challenged by a few works. French artist Pierre Huyghe’s “After ALife Ahead” is a powerful sculptural installation created within a gigantic disused ice skating rink. The work is “live”— with beehive and aquarium, and an incubator of cancer cells, whose rate of division controls the light and other conditions within the space. Another spatial experience was Turkish artist Ayşe Erkmen’s “On Water” at the city’s harbour, which links the city’s socially active Northern and industrialised Southern piers with a walkway just beneath the surface of the water. Visitors are encouraged to take off their footwear and walk on water across to the other side. And perhaps think a bit more deeply about borders, social demarcations and city planning while at it.
“I was a stranger and you took me in.” [Matthew 25:35], carved on the obelisk “Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge” monument for Documenta 14 at Konigsplatz, Kassel, by Nigerian-born artist Olu Oguibe
The final leg of my journey was a late evening bus ride. Though it was past 9 p.m. when we reached Kassel, the city was still visible in the lingering twilight that’s slightly disconcerting for those of us used to a more fugitive dusk.
First, Athens and now, Kassel. Right there, in that controversial pairing of cities is an indicator of some of Documenta 14’s flashpoints: Eurozone entanglements and Greek’s debt crisis, immigration and the indigenous. Political agenda is hardwired into the exhibition’s DNA: Documenta’s inception in Kassel (1955) by artist-curator Arnold Bode arose from a desire to reintroduce to the public, modern Western art that had been dubbed “degenerate” in the Nazi era.
In his installation “Expiration Movement” Romanian artist Daniel Knorr evokes book burning by the Nazis by turning a section of the city’s Museum Fridericianum into a chimney: smoke bellows out of the museum’s Zwehrenturm tower. It was quite the snapshot moment, preceded by a brief desire to call the fire department, as apparently several Kassel residents had actually done when first confronted with the emission.
Argentinian artist Marta Minujin’s emotive protest against censorship is the colossal Parthenon of Books located at the centre of Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, the site were the Nazis burnt books. Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Stringer/Getty Images.
At Kassel, Documenta features works by over 160 international artists. I experienced a certain pleasure in seeing familiar names from back home—Nilima Sheikh, K.G. Subramanyan, Nikhil Chopra, Gauri Gill, Ganesh Haloi, Amar Kanwar. The works are spread across multiple locations; but most venues are clustered around the city centre, such as the Neue Galerie, Palais Bellevue and Landesmuseum. Others, including the Neue Neue Galerie, a former post office, lie a bit farther.
On a tour, Indian curator Natasha Ginwala highlighted how the written text—whether as scores, books or libraries—is an integral part of the show. For example, Maria Eichhorn’s work “Rose Valland Institute” at the Neue Galerie displays a tower-like bookshelf of works unlawfully acquired from Jewish collections during World War II. Another equally significant work I was drawn to was a curtain of about 200 reindeer skulls, the “Pile o’ Sápmi” by Sami artist Máret Ánne Sara, which highlighted her community’s struggles to maintain their cultural identity.
During my trip, I enjoyed riding trams to the slightly more offbeat venues—a disused tofu factory displaying a film about cannibalism; site-specific works at the purpose-built museums of Grimmwelt Kassel dedicated to the Brothers Grimm and the Museum for Sepulchral Culture dedicated to death rites; and Kulturbahnhof, a disused underground train station. Walking and talking about art through three different cities transformed my experiences of tourism and art.
Documenta’s excavation of multiple historical, cultural and economic pasts all the way to a febrile present suggests that everything usually begins somewhere else. Every “answer” only poses more questions. Even fundamental ones such as: Where should it be presented? How should it be experienced? And, anyway, what is “it”, exactly?
The “it” in question is of course contemporary art, about which everything—including a definition—is up for grabs. Visitors to Documenta and the Skulptur Projekte Münster won’t necessarily find answers; but it’s heady to be part of the debate.
The quaint German town of Kassel hosts the contemporary art exhibition, Documenta, once every five years. In its 14th edition this year, Documenta was held in the Greek capital, Athens, too. While it wound up in Athens on 17 July 2017, it continues in Kassel until 17 September 2017.
The best way to get to Kassel is via Münster, which itself is hosting another art festival, Skulptur Projekt, until 1 October 2017. There are no direct flights from India to Münster and Kassel. Visitors can fly to Düsseldorf from Mumbai or Delhi, via at least one stopover at Moscow or a European gateway city, and take a bus to Münster (www.goeuro.com; from €6/Rs450). After visiting Münster, the best way to head to Kassel (200 km/3 hr southeast) is by bus (€12/Rs900).
is a contemporary visual artist and writer based in Chennai. She is known for her complex drawings, installations and video work. She was part of the Kochi Biennale (2014-2015); public installations of her work include A Story of Flight, (Jai He art programme, T2 Terminal, Mumbai airport) and solos include Haunted by Waters (2017, Chennai).
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