This is an abbreviated version of my text. The full review can be read in:
Art Monthly, 408: July / August 2017
Documenta 14 Kassel
various venues 10 June to 17 September
What can art do in the face of crises, what can it achieve? How are we to react and how can we create a future? When the artistic director Adam Szymczyk developed his proposal for this show in 2013, the financial crisis in Greece and the hard stance of the eurozone was headlining the news. Since then, the financial crisis’s urgency was somehow surpassed by others, notably the humanitarian disaster of the refugee crisis, that again affected Greece to extraordinary extent.
In the corner of a small room on the upper floor of Neue Galerie is a painting of a young woman by Karl Leyhausen, a close friend of Bode, who prior to his suicide in 1931 was a protagonist of the local art scene in Kassel, Portrait Arnold Bode, 1964, by Gerhard Richter, probably the most prominent German artist of the postwar era, and an ink drawing of Leyhausen from 1920 by Bode himself. The small display succinctly frames Bode and the history of Documenta in terms of artistic practice and sets the tone of how stories are told in this exhibition.
A display cabinet in the same room presents some documents about the Agreement on German External Debts, 1953, that cancelled German debts from the First World War reparations, which it was then understood would have crippled the economic recovery after the Second World War. The German version of the agreement is signed by the then federal president, Theodor Heuss. Another wall is covered with political posters for the Marshall Plan, the European Recovery Programme, from around 1950. Szymczyk and his curatorial team need only a few pieces of paper to offer a convincing precedent for a solution to the financial crisis in Greece.
Continuing this narrative in the adjacent rooms, the curators develop a detailed history of the Germans’ fascination with classical Greece from Johann Joachim Winckelmann in the 18th century onwards. The inclusion of drawings of Athens by Heuss and Bode shows just how tightly crafted these displays are.
Though the exhibition contains a large number of historic works, it does not lack contemporary art, which here is mainly concerned with documentation and political analysis. The installation of Beatriz González’s large-scale painting Drop curtain of mobile and changing nature, 1978, a rendering of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Édouard Manet, is telling. The painting is hung as a stage curtain. What is behind is important; there, viewers find the video installation 77SQM_9:26MIN by Forensic Architecture, in which the London-based group examines the 2006 shooting of Halit Yozgat in a Kassel internet-cafe by the right-wing terror group National Socialist Underground (NSU) and the possible involvement of an undercover agent. Digitally recreating the space and comparing the timelines of computer and telephone records, they prove that the agent’s testimony was false and that he must have either seen the murder or committed it himself. It is now in the hands of the German prosecution to evaluate this information.
Documenta 14 is indeed documentary. Only a handful of pieces speak about nothing but themselves. There are the dancers who in various spaces move very slowly through the motions of Maria Hassabi’s performance STAGING, 2017. Or Vivian Suter with her lively paintings, her mother Elisabeth Wild who creates colourful abstract collages and Rosalind Nashashibi who films both in her video Vivian’s Garden, 2016 – again sounding a nicely curated visual chord.
Only the words with which Banu Cennetoğlu replaced MVSEVM FRIDERICIANVM on the facade of the museum are ever so slightly subversive: BEINGSAFEISSCARY.
Axel Lapp is a writer, curator and director of MEWO Kunsthalle in Memmingen.