documenta 14, an institute of meanings

Review of the Kassel exhibition of documenta, its themes and key works

Sergej Timofejev

Adam Szymczyk reads from paper

The author of these lines has never taken part in orienteering events; nevertheless, these sporty skills undoubtedly would have come in handy during the three press-preview days prior to the official opening of documenta 14 in Kassel – for instance, on the occasion when I, armed with the booklet I had been handed at the press conference, circled in front of the impressive edifice of Neue Hauptpost, the main local post office, which this year has become one of the documenta venues. The brochure had a sort of brownish cover, and I encountered a number of other art-seekers equipped with identical little books; having teamed up, we walked around the building and ‒ bingo! ‒ on the side of the garage and driveway for trucks, we finally discovered the entrance to the two floors housing the art exhibition.

 It was pretty much the same when I went looking for objects of contemporary art at the long-defunct underground railway station in the very heart of the city. There were also rumours of one of the editors of falling into a ditch while trying to locate sculptures in Karlsaue Park. Of course, it was much easier to find the traditional documenta venues ‒ the Neue Galerie, documenta-Halle, the Fridericianum. Still, it was only later that I visited these places; the first impression was exactly as described: of an ever-escaping art evading capturing, not that keen to engage in a dialogue.

Kimsooja. Bottari. 2005. (Work by the South Korean artist shown at the exhibition of EMST, the Greek museum of contemporary art, at the Fridericianum)

I visited these more ‘difficult’ places on the first day of the press preview, after a big and lengthy press conference featuring speeches by all the curators of documenta and several high-rank officials from Germany and Greece. The last one to take the floor was Adam Szymczyk, who read his speech from paper; at that, he was focusing so hard that he hardly ever raised his head and looked at the audience. During the whole length of his speech, he glanced at the audience only five times, and at these rare moments the crowd of photographers burst into frantic action, snapping away at him with machine-gun-like speed. They were not that interested in taking pictures of a man reading from his notes without as much as looking up.

Adam Szymczyk speaking at the documenta 14 press conference in Kassel. Photo:

documenta 13 vs. documenta 14

And yet ‒ stop... These are just details. We are, after all, speaking about one of the biggest events in contemporary art, a project that has existed since 1955 and returns once every five years with a new exhibition, new curators and artists, laying the foundation for the next few years of development in this area. To date, I have managed to visit two editions of documenta, and the 2012 version seemed to me then like an amazing adventure ‒ first of all, thanks to the great variety of approaches to arranging the artistic narrative and creating the displays, the visual storytelling. Then principal curator of the project, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and her team had managed to create an almost mystical sense of a constant presence of an intangible stratum, a glimpse of an elusive flicker on some sort of ‘another plane’ of which she wrote in her introductory essay: ‘[...] at every step, one needs to know that there is something fundamental that is not known, that is invisible and missing ‒ a memory, an unresolved question, a doubt [...] a ghostly other.’  

Boulevard 3 (2015) by the Albanian painter Edi Hila (2015) is on view at the Torwache

It may sound somewhat esoteric, but nevertheless, it really felt almost like that back then in June 2012. And it was this mysterious ‘another plane’ or some sort of dancing, quivering, slipping-away-from-any-attempts-of-capturing spiritual dimension that ‒ it seems to me now, five years later ‒ glued together the whole fragmented multilevel project featuring 150 artists from 55 countries into one solid whole, a single united story.

Read in the Archive: A conversation in with Hendrik Folkerts and Dieter Roelstraete in Kassel

Apparently, the new team of curators, invited to take on the role ofdocumenta 14 organizers, intentionally did not give any thought to forming a solid whole. ‘We deliberately turned away from a dream of a panoramic vision; we do not believe in that: who can view everything at once? No-one. It is a kind of totalitarian dream’, – I was told by one of the key curators of the Kassel part ofdocumenta, Dieter Roelstraete. Equally, of essential importance is the fact that

Adam Szymczyk split the project into two self-sufficient components right at the very beginning ‒ the exhibitions in Kassel and Athens. He invited to ‘learn from Athens’, and the very intent of this act ‒ sharing not only the attention from the international press and art media, but also the considerable budget of the project with the cradle of Western civilization, currently experiencing some difficult times ‒ is, without doubt, a noble and resolute gesture.

As I was told in an interview by the other documenta curator playing a key role in the Kassel exhibition, Hendrik Folkerts, for the mechanism of the exhibition to work, it is essential to be constantly aware of this ‘other’, this parallel show existing in a distance of 1850 kilometres. It ‘prompts you as a viewer to not only focus on the time and space that you currently occupy as you view the exhibition in one of the cities but also be aware of the fact that something is taking place simultaneously in another space, in another city ‒ that everything is dually structured here.’ In other words, this fragmentation of impressions, these whole archipelagos of ‘islands of meaning’ that were also mentioned to us by Dieter Roelstraete, are of fundamental importance. It is quite possible that documenta 14 can only be properly appreciated after visiting both of the host cities, in each of which you will become aware of a certain incompleteness of the picture. An only by combining the two visions you will be able to see the genuine image of this edition of documenta.

Miriam Cahn. Rennen müssen2016. From the exhibition at the documenta-Halle. Photo:

The body immersed in history and politics

Be that as it may, I did not have an opportunity to try that; it was directly to Kassel that I had come. Besides, an exhibition that has brought together such a great number of artists, both internationally acclaimed and only striving to achieve such fame, should be able to speak for itself. And speak it does. Firstly, it speaks about the human body, and in this sense adopts, to an extent, the practice of dOCUMENTA (13), for which the most important theme was recovery of a full-bloodied experience of life, impossible without acknowledging the role of the corporeal in the formation of subjectivity. Nevertheless, Adam Szymczyk explores the subject of the human body in a different context, a socio-political one, choosing as his point of departure the fact that the giant wave of human migration that has emerged over the last few years (the largest since the Second World War) is, essentially, a mass-scale global movement of bodies. In his interview for the Artforum magazine, Szymczyk says:

‘I think we are more interested in the body immersed in history and politics, the individual body and the kind of subjectivity that is bound to this particular body in specific contexts—where the body can become a sign while retaining agency.’

Eva Stefani. Virgin's Temple. 2017. (Fragment of a video work)

Hence the significance of the Parliament of Bodies ‒ the conglomerate of documenta’s public events, discussions, debates, talks by activists that was launched with great energy in Athens and is now carrying on in Kassel as well. And it is the same subject that the diverse individual elements of the exhibition tell about in a variety of intonations ‒ the bodies of the disabled Russians in the video work by Artur Żmijewski; the drawings and photographs by the artist with ‘limited physical capabilities’ Lorenza Böttner; the tumour sculptures by Alina Szapocznikow; the slow, only-just-moving, incapable of crossing the marked boundaries, bodies of performers choreographed by Maria Hassabi; the sensual video stories by Eva Stefani, one of which consists of meditative passages above a torso that displays attributes of both female and male body ‒ at the same time presenting various forms of humanity undefeated by any conditions, as in the case of Lorenza Böttner, an artist who, having lost both arms as a child, learnt to draw using his/her mouth and feet whose giant self-portrait is the key point of the Neue Galerie exhibition.

A drawing by Lorenza Böttner at the documenta 14 exhibition in the Neue Galerie

Channel of dust and displacement

The theme of bodies and the corporeal here is rubbing shoulders with the subject of refugees, migrants as well as resettlement and displacement in general ‒ one of the most popular at this edition of documenta. In this respect, one of the works that stand out is the 23-minute video operetta The Dust Channel by the Israeli artist Roee Rosen, showing at Palais Bellevue, just opposite the Neue Galerie. It is a perfectly composed and thought-out story of a bourgeois Israeli family, consumed by obsessionwith cleanliness to the point of absurdity and passionately adoring their Dyson DC07 vacuum cleaner. From time to time, their life is invaded by all sorts of dirt, sand or refugees; however, thanks to the joint efforts of the vacuum cleaner and the police, orderis always restored again. Both the personal and the state vacuum cleaners suck in everything, without leaving a trace. The musical narrative featuring Buñuelesque surreal moments is interspersed with fragments of an interview with James Dyson, the inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, footage of a desert full of sand and scenes from the Holot(Hebrew for ‘sand’) detention centre where refugees are ‘pressed’ like dust inside a giant vacuum cleaner. The intent and meaning here are pretty obvious, but the brilliant narrative, jam-packed with humour and music and spiced up with some vacuum cleaner-related kinkiness, sounds both convincing and not in the slightest didactic, deserving special kudos for the final ariathat sees the young and extremely good-looking couple in a space filled with tiny specs of dust floating in the air, singing in unison: ‘Suck, suck it gently!’

A still from Channel of Dust (2016), a film by Roee Rosen

To make another work dedicated to the same subject, the Mexican artist Guillermo Galindo went to the Greek islands that have become the landing place for countless refugees and their fragile watercraft. It was from two of these vessels, washed out on the shore of Lesbos, that he constructed his impressive installation under the super-lengthy German title of Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper, equipping the boat carcasses with strings and other sound-eliciting devices and making the shipwrecks tell vibrating, drawn-out stories of themselves and their passengers whose fate we can only guess. For Guillermo, this is a sequel to a whole series that he started on the American-Mexican border, picking up assorted objects, various trash left behind by people, and transforming all these lost belongings into musical instruments of sorts.

‘When I came to Lesbos, the shore was scattered with a multitude of things, first of all ‒ hundreds, thousands of life jackets. Clothing items, empty plastic water bottles, various primitive cooking utensils... And not a soul around. It was so silent that I could hear my own breath. And then there was the sight of the Turkish coastline in the distance. These two fragments of ships ‒ I brought them back from that place, a wooden one and another one made of fiberglass. They are both still very picturesque, like a Pollock created by the elements. And every single scratch on the hull ‒ it is a hit against a cliff, it is the sound of a blow. A sort of brrrum!’ ‒ he tells me during the intervals between his improvisations on the ‘ship strings’ at the documenta-Halle. He associates his method with prosopopoeia, the Ancient Greek practice of telling stories from the point of view of objects instead of people.

Art among passers-by

The work by the Kurdish-Iraqi artist Hiwa K, on view in the square in front of documenta-Halle, resonates both with this approach and the subject of refugees ‒ an object consisting of 20 enormous pipes with a separate human dwelling set up in each of them, featuring all sorts of typical elements of household furnishing or decor: somewhere a radio is playing; somewhere there is a Turkish carpet hung; elsewhere, a pair of laundered trainers put out to dry. The fact that these dwellings are exposed to view from both ends makes them particularly vulnerable and fragile. But there is also a direct reference to the families of refugees stuck at the Athens port and searching for shelter in any possible ‘hole’, any more or less vacant space.

This object by Hiwa K was put together with assistance from students of Kunsthochschule Kassel

Again, this is not the only public object dealing with the subject: a whole obelisk has been erected in the central square of Kassel to honour the refugees and everyone who was prepared to give them shelter and help. The American artist Olu Oguibe adorned the 16-metre monument with gilt letters ‒ a quote from the Bible: ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’. However, the actual structure seems quite formal-looking and blends in with the rest of Königsplatz (this square full of fountains and shopping centres) perfectly, without creating any particular conceptual rifts or contrasts.

Obelisk by Olu Oguibe. Photo: 

Artistically, a much more successful project is The Parthenon of Books, constructed by the 74-year-old Argentine artist Marta Minujín – a giant 70-metre structure built from books in transparent plastic wrappers. This is not the first Parthenon of this kind: the original was erected in Buenos Aires in 1983 after the fall of the military dictatorship and inauguration of a democratically elected president. The building blocks for the first Parthenon were banned books that, at different times, had found themselves under the heavy boot of censorship. It is not quite the case with the Kassel one; it is not exclusively ‘objects of persecution by censorship’ that have served as building material here; on the other hand, this edition of Parthenon is looming above Friedrichsplatz, the very square where, in 1933, Nazis made their notorious bonfires of books, burning volumes of publications that the new regime had found not to its liking.

Marta Minujín. The Parthenon of Books. 1983–2017 

Texts and sounds

Wrapped in plastic, the Parthenon books are impossible to read, but on the whole, there are more than enough various texts as elements of the artwork on show at documenta 14. They include poems and notes by ‘Mexico’s most important conceptual artist’ Ulises Carrión (1941–1989) at the Neue Neue Galerie (at the partially-functioning Hauptpost building, two floors of which have been taken over by art), as well as signs with texts by Dmitri Prigov in several languages, pinned up in the stairwell of Leder Meid Apartment (another documenta venue in the vicinity of the press centre), which you can read on your way up to the third floor. For instance: ‘Citizens! The Alps are looking into my window and sending greetings to you all! Dmitri Aleksanych.’ Or ‒ ‘Citizens! Take a break from your worries for a while ‒ everything has already been settled without you. Dmitri Aleksanych.’ The cheerful tone of the messages from the great Russian conceptualist contrasted wonderfully with the general mood of documenta, concerned about politics and these difficult times. Presented at documenta-Halle, musings by the American artist Pope.L on people of different colours of skin, were also quite poetic: ‘Black people are the wet grass at morning’; ‘White people are the cliff and what comes after’…

In one of his interviews, Adam Szymczyk commented it in the following way: ‘I would like documenta 14 to be as much about text and spoken word as images, still or moving, or objects. The conventionally subservient position of text to object is something we’d like to destabilize, or at least begin destabilizing.’

Sound object by Pope.L from his Whispering Campaign project (2016–2017)

Another way of expression important for documenta is sound. A significant number of sound art-style works are scattered all over various venues and shows. In front of the queue at the entrance to Fridericianum, there is a modestly-sized portable construction with a loudspeaker, suggestively whispering from time to time: ‘Ignorance is a virtue’. It’s still the same American artist Pope.L and part of his ‘Whispering Campaign’ project (2016‒2017); the rest of his whispering objects are simple white ‘speaking’ squares built into walls; they can be found and heard at the Neue Galerie.

Takis. Gong. 1978

Another piece worth a special mention is Gong (1978) by the Greek artist Panagiotis Vassilakis or ‘Takis’. It is an electromagnet ‘beating’ at certain intervals a giant iron sheet, curved all the way from the ceiling to the floor, sending a signal and calling to attention.

Landing troops of Greek art

Gong is displayed almost directly next to the entrance to the Greek contemporary art show at the Fridericianum museum; the exhibition was brought to Kassel from the Greek capital, from the collection of the EMST contemporary art museum, the premises of which have now been taken over by part of the Athens part of documenta.

The Fridericianum is traditionally the heart of documenta; since 1955, it has served as home to the central part of the exhibition, and the fact that this time it has been assigned specifically to Greek art is also a significant sign and yet another symbolic gesture by documenta 14.

George Hadjimichalis. Crossroad. The Crossroad Where Oedipus Killed Laius. A Description and History of the Journey from Thebes to Corinth, Delphi, and the Return to Thebes. 1990–1997. Photo: 

The show, spanning Greek art from the 1960s to the present day, does not look provincial in the slightest. Great masters like Jannis Kounellis and less known names all work together here, making obvious a single underlying truth: shown the way it has been presented in Kassel, Greek art works productively and convincingly with the same subjects that are important for documenta 14: injustice; limitation of freedoms; migration of people and concepts; personal stories told through mundane and completely real things and objects (various interpretations and paraphrases of arte povera).

Fragment of Fortunately Absurdity Is Lost (But They Hoped for Much More) by Stelios Faitakis (2014)

Among other pieces, the show features a striking painting by Stelios Faitakis entitled Fortunately Absurdity Is Lost (But They Hoped for Much More). The giant canvas, a take on the subject of mass political clashes, executed in a manner that combines the traditions of ancient Byzantine iconography and the eruptive dynamics of murals by Diego Rivera, fascinates with the legibility of easily recognisable details and internal tension. Two murals by this pronouncedly politicized artist were shown last year at the Paris Palais de Tokyo, while other works from the Fortunately Absurdity Is Lost series, along with the piece currently on view in Kassel, were first displayed in public as part of the Shit & Die exhibition (one of the three curators of which was Maurizio Cattelan) at the Turin Palazzo Cavour. Faitakis is mostly interested in clashes, political debates, mass struggles, contemporary landmark events, which he depicts in a manner as detailed and powerful as the one used by his Greek and Byzantine fellow artists painting biblical stories a thousand years ago. 

‘Real Nazis’ 

Meanwhile, the political ‒ both in its contemporary and historical context ‒ is not so much the general theme as the ‘emotion’, the ‘vibe’ of the current edition of documenta, comprising a plentiful number of subthemes, from post-colonialism and the fate of the African and Asian countries that gained their independence in the 1960s (this, as well as what is left in the world of today from the turbulent activities of the Non-Aligned Movement and its first summits in the 1970s‒1980s, is, for instance, the subject of the impressive 3-channel 85-minute video installation Two Meetings and a Funeral by Naeem Mohaiemen, an artist born in London in 1969), to the story of ‘looted art’ overlapping with this subject.

View on video installation Two Meetings and a Funeral. Photo:

The story is simultaneously a key subject and a shadow one for documenta: following the 2013 discovery of an art collection that had disappeared from the global art horizon during the Second World War (almost 1500 works of art by top artists, from Picasso to Dürer, mostly confiscated from their Jewish owners, were found in the Munich flat of an octogenarian named Cornelius Gurlitt), Szymczyk wanted to make it the main theme of the forthcoming documenta and show the whole collection specifically in Kassel. However, according to one of the curators of documenta 14, Dieter Roelstraete, ‘Sadly, it turned out to be impossible for political reasons; we were not allowed to work with this material due to the fact that it is deemed extremely politically sensitive. Nevertheless, we decided that we cannot disregard the questions raised by this discovery, and that is why the current show at the Neue Galerie features a series of projects focusing on the subjects of restitution, looted art and so forth. The shade of Gurlitt is very much present here. However, the story of looted art is not just about the era of the Second World War. It is also the story of colonial conquests when so much art left the place of its birth.’

Piotr Uklański. Real Nazis. 2017. Photo: 

Meanwhile, a direct reference specifically to the Nazi era in the history of Germany is presented in a visually effective way in one of the most notable pieces on view at documenta. In one of the rooms of the Neue Galerie you encounter a giant panel consisting of portrait photographs and drawings of a whole host of men and women in Nazi uniforms. It is Real Nazis by the Polish artist Piotr Uklański – a

kind of remake of his 1999 Nazis exhibition where a bunch of Nazi militaries of various ranks were represented by an assembly of actors, from Marlon Brando to Michael Caine. The display, on view at Zachęta, the largest national art gallery in Warsaw, something like an invitation to a critical examination of the practice of endowing the whole Nazi ‘brotherhood’ with considerable sex appeal and gloomy chic by the mass film culture, caused an uproar at the time. The Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski (who was also among the popular figures playing Nazi roles) made his way into the Zachęta building armed with a sword and attacked the work of art. The show was eventually closed down, and the then director of the gallery, Anda Rottenberg, was forced to resign from her post. Nevertheless, to quote Rottenberg, ‘with every scandal also comes a name’. And on that occasion, these names belonged to Piotr Uklański and his curator… Adam Szymczyk, the head of the current edition of documenta.

The Nazis are back, this time ‒ real ones, both as photographs of members of the SS and high-rank Wehrmacht officers and as drawings of actual Aryan Übermenschen from German illustrated publications of the time. You can approach each and every one of them, look into their eyes, trace the contours of the determined chin or check out the angle of the garrison caps on the hairdos of Nazi military women. The work resonates with the neighbouring exhibit, A War Machine (2017), an installation by the Peruvian artist Sergio Zevallos, in which he attempts to systematize the physiognomic peculiarities of the ‘war criminals of today’ ‒ weapon manufacturers and defence ministers of warring countries. The attempt is actually a complete failure. Appearance-wise, these people are the same as everybody else.

Nazism and Stalinism, the appeal of authoritarianism and squeamish rejection of anybody who is ‘different’ are not, in fact, things that belong to a distant and irretrievable past. They are viruses that are still alive in the European soil. And it seems that documenta 14 is most closely connected by family ties with the very first edition of the project ‒ the one born in 1955 as a sort of vaccine against a relapse of the political and historical nightmare of the past. After all these years, the Kassel documenta is still a citadel of artistic freedom and diversity; however, it seems that it is the current situation in the world that has shifted the emphasis to political statements. It is safe to say that, on the whole, this circumstance has not worked to the benefit of the artistic qualities of the project: the statements are convincing and yet the effect is not striking. Nevertheless, Germany in the current role it plays in the context of a united Europe, needs an ideological and cultural core like it never has before, and, apparently, it is the concentration and definition thereof that the giant cultural research institute named documenta, with its two branches in Kassel and Athens, is dealing with. So, let Adam Szymczyk read his speeches without looking up from the paper. The shadow looming behind him is that of a peaceful united Europe with its head held high ‒ that of an idea nurtured largely by the same culture that was born in Athens, the city that Szymczyk urged all of us to learn from this year.