Learning from Kassel? Artists from the Deutsche Bank Collection at the documenta

Nikhil Chopra’s trip ends here – on the platform of an underground tram stop below a train station in Kassel that had been closed for twelve years. Shortly after the documenta began in Athens, he set off on a 3,000-kilometer journey to the second part of the world’s most important art show. On a journey across many borders, he pitched his tent in sundry places, covered the tarpaulins with drawings, and sang. The entire drawing—a montage of landscape representations that deal with migration and nomadism—is on view in Kassel for the first time. Like a medieval bard, the Indian performance and video artist, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, crossed half of Europe, a continent whose societies have deep chasms—between poor and rich, left and right, native people and migrants, nationalists and dedicated Europeans.

Amidst this climate of upheaval, the art shown at the documenta is not only supposed to make a statement about the condition of society, but also to provide answers. “Learning from Athens” is the programmatic title of the two-part exhibition. The first part in Athens met with considerable criticism, from both the local art scene and leftists who viewed the highly subsidized mega show as an act of cultural imperialism. The press also reacted cautiously, but waited for the second part in Kassel, which opened recently with almost the same list of artists as in Athens. But there were major shifts. For example, the Fridericianum, the central venue of the documenta, is hosting the collection of the Athens-based National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), which was never shown to this extent in the Greek capital because there was not enough money to keep the museum’s operations going. At the moment, the museum in Athens is housing part of the documenta.

One of the highlights in Kassel is the Pantheon of Books by the Argentinian artist Marta Minujín, who collected tens of thousands of books from all over the world that were banned in the past or are in the present day, to send a signal against censorship and political persecution of authors. This work was originally realized in 1983, after the end of the military dictatorship in Argentina. This documenta is primarily a show of political statements, be it the obelisk of the U.S. artist Olu Oguibe with the biblical quotation “I was a stranger and you invited me” that was installed on Königsplatz, or Maria Eichhorn’s project on looted art.  

Like Eichhorn and the Swiss painter Miriam Cahn, Douglas Gordon is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. His contribution I Had Nowhere to Go is also a political statement, in several respects. The film essay revolves around the biography of the legendary underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas. In 1962, he co-founded Film-Makers' Cooperative and the Filmmakers' Cinematheque in 1964, which eventually grew into Anthology Film Archives, one of the world’s largest and most important repositories of avant-garde film. And he also supported important film artists like Tony Conrad.

Mekas was born in Lithuania and in his youth deported by the National Socialists to a labor camp in Elmshorn, Germany. After his liberation he became a displaced person, like many concentration camp survivors. Douglas has Mekas tell his story off camera. But unlike in many documentaries, the filmmaker does not work with archive material, does not tell a linear story. The screen is often dark, glows colorfully, or cinematic still lifes appear that have no apparent link to the narrative about his lost home and arrival in the USA. Mekas, a central figure of avant-garde cinema, enables Gordon to think about the development of this art form and to break its rules through aesthetic decisions. Expulsion, placelessness, and loss are not conveyed by the narration, but mainly by the form.  

Many critics of the documenta feel that this search for an artistic language, that formally transports the political or historical, is missing. Many find the show curated by Adam Szymczyk too didactic, too self-righteous. They feel spoon fed and lectured, and see art as being reduced to the illustration of global political discourse. Other voices view this skepticism as a defensive reaction to a Eurocentric establishment that cannot cope with new, political forms of art and its presentation. In the end, it is up to each visitor to decide for him- or herself what can be learned from Kassel.

until September 17,.2017