Reflections on Language, Location, History & Identity at Documenta 14

At perhaps the wettest Documenta 14 on record, there is plenty to look at, read, watch and think about. While for some years curators at contemporary art fairs have considered the viewer’s experience by providing respite from the potential overload of goodies, -ennials remain a challenge. Can anyone really absorb so many stimulating works in a relatively short space of time? Noteworthy, in this respect, is the Walking Building of architect Andreas Angelidakis (2006) which addresses the limits of a fixed place museum in the modern media age.

Nevertheless, the many spaces used for this year’s documenta do not feel crowded, and works are very well-chosen for their locations with, for example, The Dust Channel (2016) by Roee Rosen at the Palais Bellevue proving particularly popular.

From the opening shot of a young couple lying in bed, the elegant woman’s armpit hair immediately signals humour, socio-political commentary and striking aesthetics combined with witty references to Un Chien Andalou that are very satisfying to spot. The long space of the documenta halle houses Britta Marakatt-Labba’s 23.5 metre Historja (2003–07), exploring Sámi history and storytelling through traditional embroidery, while Susan Hiller’s video installation, Lost and Found (2016) perfectly fits the beautiful Grimmwelt Kassel, where the background of the Grimm Brothers’ epic dictionary and fairy tales (which, to their annoyance, were usually translated from local dialects into High German) complements the artist’s exploration through new technology of dormant, endangered and extinct languages. Employing terms more familiarly associated with species in the animal world, Hiller celebrates the primary human skills of talking and listening to explore the ways in which language communicates identity through social and political environments.

The wide range of languages represented in Hiller’s film equally relates to the wide geographical scope of artists at documenta, which continues its tradition of presenting works that the European viewer may not otherwise see, while the Brothers Grimm also feature in The Parthenon of Books by Marta Minujín, Originally produced in 1983 for the artist’s native Buenos Aires, it is now located in the Friederichsplatz, on the site where books were burned by the Nazis. Thus, the physical location of Kassel is brought into focus, with the first part of documenta taking place in Athens while connections between the two cities are underlined by the majority of works in the Fridericianum on loan from the National Museum of Contemporary Arts, Athens (EMST), which interestingly includes the video I, Soldier (2005) by the Turkish artist Köken Ergun.

Filmed in a huge sports stadium on the National Day for Youth and Sports, the beautifully-shot, two-channel projection contrasts the highly-disciplined professional soldier, articulated through controlled camerawork, with the viewpoint of the casual observer, as seen through a hand-held camera. A powerful observation of a contemporary ritual to mark a historic event, the short video includes a poignant poem on the role of the soldier. Whether the crowd is cheering patriotic lines in the poem, or something going on elsewhere in the stadium, remains unclear.

Documenta 14 thus provides a frame, or perspective, through which to view and think about contemporary art and the contemporary world, while it also reflects on the past, especially the history of documenta itself. Hans Haacke’s photographs in the Fridericianum are particularly interesting in light of the subsequent works by which he has become known. While a student at the Kunsthochschule Kassel, Haacke worked as an exhibition guard and art handler at documenta 2, in 1959, where he observed and documented visitors in the exhibition spaces. Predating the better-known, large-scale, colour, Museum Photographs by Thomas Struth, and only printed this year, Haacke’s Fotonotizen documenta 2 (documenta 2 photographic notes, 1959) make visible the ways in which the selection of works has changed over the years with the second documenta seemingly dominated by European and, especially, US abstraction while equally indicating the works that then interested Haacke.

The photographs are more document than art while effectively demonstrating the subtle line between the two. Homage is also paid to Arnold Bode, the founder of documenta and instrumental in its first four editions (1955–64), with a selection of his abstract paintings and of his works on paper of ancient Greek monuments on display at the Neue Galerie making connections between the individual interests of Bode, the art scene in post-war Germany and the pre-eminence of Greek classicism in western art, neatly reinforcing this year’s connections with Athens.

There are far too many wonderful works on display to discuss them all here and, although the danger of sensory overload can only be alleviated, documenta 14 provides plenty to sustain the viewer for the next five years.


Deborah Schultz is a Senior Lecturer at Regent’s University London

IMAGE: Hans Haacke, Fotonotizen documenta 2 (documenta 2 photographic notes, 1959) Deborah Schultz

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