Contributed by Loren Britton / Banu Cennetoğlu‘s work in documenta 14 BEINGSAFEISSCARY cleverly rearranges and edits the building text from the Kassel Fridericianum’s façade into a statement that clairvoyantly points to the propositions and challenges of documenta 14. What are the stakes of “safety” when it comes to organizing in Germany a multi-country exhibition that engages more than 160 artists? How does it become “scary” when the political realities of German and Greek relations become amplified through the dialectic set-up in exhibiting these same artists within these two starkly different contexts? While being safe might be scary, the problems that this year’s documenta raises also touch on the limits of safety with respect to the art world.
The Kassel-based painter and professor Arnold Bode initiated documenta in 1955. Kassel was almost completely leveled in World War II, and he aimed to bring Germany back into dialogue with the contemporary art world with an exhibition entitled the “Society of Western Art of the 20th Century” that celebrated artworks that the Nazis had been labeled “degenerate.” Since then, a Documenta show has been mounted in the Kassel Fridericianum every 5 years. This year’s documenta 14 continues the program’s mission–and Bode’s vision–of illuminating contemporary social, political and financial conditions.
Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of documenta 14 and Paul B. Preciado, curator of public programs, made the decision to documenta in two venues. The “100 Days Museum” was on view from April 8 through July 16 in Athens, Greece; a second segment, styled “Learning from Athens,” opened on June 10 in Kassel, Germany, and will remain on view there through September 17. One of the most generously funded arts festivals in the world, documenta 14 operated this year with a $40 million budget, half coming from the German government and half from ticket sales. At worst this twinned city exhibition has been called “a form of German cultural imperialism, or misery tourism…“ where the Germans are “coming to Greece to show them what ‘good’ art is…” Szymczyk has retorted that “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Amid the harsh critiques of the “100 Days Museum,” what is there to be experienced within the exhibition itself? Is it possible to remain engaged in the financial and political discussion of a pop-up art museum, while still fully experiencing the art that is on view in Kassel?
After reading as much criticism as I could and holding these dynamics in mind, I spent an afternoon with Pope L., Miriam Cahn and Lala Rukh at Documenta Halle–one of the major venues of documenta 14 in Kassel. As a Yale-educated, trans*gender, white American who recently moved to Kassel for love, I was overjoyed to see Pope L. in my new hometown. Works from Skin Set Drawings (1997 – ongoing) as well as Whispering Campaign (2016-17) greeted me in Documenta Halle and throughout the city, respectively. In Skin Set Drawings, Pope L. gestures to folks of many colors: Red, White, Orange, Green & Black etc. Red People are my mother when she is sick and visiting me in the hospital, White People are God’s Way of Saying-I’m sorry, Orange People the way things used to be when they were in power, Green people are a recent invention… and so on and so forth.
Pope L.‘s works are a witty and direct way to address race that expands beyond a binary conversation between black and white relationships and points to the need for a more nuanced conversation about kinds of colored people. Another way of organizing sets and systems of information, Pope L.’s Whispering Campaign takes the whole of Kassel and creates an audible, playful space with it. Whispering Campaign is a sound piece that has been installed at inconspicuous sites all over Kassel, employing speaker systems on maintenance trucks, on library shelving carts, underneath staircases and on unassuming cars that whisper to you as you stroll by. His list of materials for the project includes Nation, People, Emotion, Language & Time 9,438 hours. Potentially misunderstanding what you’ve heard is built into Pope L.’s Whispering Campaign and, through the possibility of misunderstanding, both that and Skin Set Drawings can, paradoxically, be better understood.
Miriam Cahn, a painter whose work I was previously unfamiliar with, has a group of 23 paintings hung salon-style in a single room. She is known as a Neo-expressionist-influenced Swiss painter, and her work has been written about as a cyclical relation to the self in connection with the horrors of the contemporary moment. The titles of Cahn’s paintings point to an intense psychological space that is palpable in the paintings. She titles the works only in German. A few rough translations impart her evocative approach: Koennteichsein = Could be me; waffenlandschaft = weapons landscape; herumliegen/fremdkorper = lying around/foreign body. The piercing stares from the paintings and their dense array create a thick emotional swamp. The hazy cast of figures, tree branches and hands delivering punches also establish the visual emotional thump of the horror of the news.
Lala Rukh’s piece Crimes against Women 1985 caught my attention as soon as I saw it illuminated across the way, poised as if by chance in the corner. It said to me, “You come here often?” I answered, “If you’re critiquing the power structures of the patriarchy as it exists in a relationship to morality imposed by religion, then … why yes I do.” Rukh, who passed away in July, was a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), and was known as one of the foremost feminists of South Asia, having committed herself to activism after she retired from teaching. Many of her older works were on view in Kassel, and a newly created work is displayed in Athens. The older works archive crimes against women in Urdu and in English and recall to my eye early feminist agitprop in their design and sense of urgently necessary communication.
Whether it is possible to see documenta 14 outside of its aforementioned, heavily criticized context is not a question I can answer for others. Based on my experiences with Pope L., Miriam Cahn, and Lala Rukh’s works in Documenta Halle, however, all three artists are looking carefully and thoughtfully at the social conditions and the communities that nourish their practices.
documenta 14, Athens and Kassel, through September 18, 2017.
About the author: A recent grad of Yale’s MFA program, Loren Britton is a co-founder of the curatorial projects Improvised Showboat (with Zachary Keeting), lcqueryprojects (with Christie DeNizio), and Queering Space. They also maintain a solo curatorial and art practice that shape shift in form from project to project.