Don’t touch that meteorite: an attempt to make a beeline for the video art of dOCUMENTA (13), while politics-of-space debates rage from all directions.
As we speak, a tent embassy of sorts has been set up in the main square of Kassel, Germany. The organisers are calling themselves Doccupy, in the spirit of the Occupy movements across the globe. Simultaneously, a very public debate is raging over whether it is right or wrong for two dOCUMENTA artists to transport an ancient, culturally precious meteorite from its home with an indigenous community in Argentina to Kassel (at a huge expense), for the purposes of art.
For dOCUMENTA (13), it seems that this meteorite, along with the activities of Doccupy, is what has been grabbing the headlines across international media. dOCUMENTA(13), showcasing 200 international artists and showing for 100 days until September 16 in Kassel (along with satellite events in Kabul-Bamiyan, Alexandria-Cairo, as well as Banff and Switzerland), has run once every five years since 1955. And this year, these debates, centered on a politics of space, are threatening to steal more attention than the exhibited artworks themselves.
In her essay on dOCUMENTA, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director, states that there are four positions around which dOCUMENTA (13) is articulated: Siege, Hope, Retreat and Stage. These, she intuits, are ‘four possible conditions in which artists and thinkers find themselves acting in the present’. A zeitgeist full of contradictions; a time when contradiction is a welcomed state of mind, perhaps? Christov-Bakargiev also surmises that dOCUMENTA (13) explores ‘terrains where politics are inseparable from a sensual, energetic, and worldly alliance between current research in various scientific fields and in other knowledges, both ancient and contemporary’. In other words, political debate and creative explorations are inseparable: dOCUMENTA is a place of transition, and of being in transit within these explorations. And in the midst of an overwhelming sprawl of artworks across the city of Kassel, the legs of visitors will certainly get a sense of being in transit, if nothing else. The place is huge.
It is not unique to dOCUMENTA, of course, to debate the concept of space in a political sense within the context of art. This very debate is a hot topic right now across the art world. It’s just that the meteorite incident and Doccupy are such strong visualisations of this particular, Western world/ developing world tension, making it easy for the international media to grab a hold of it. In another recent colourful example, this year’s Berlin Biennale experienced a staged subsuming of the festival by another art group called ‘Occupy Museum’, also parroting the Occupy concept. They borrowed the turns of phrase, methodology and even some of the exact slogans used in real-world protests and uprisings – all while maintaining really cool hair…
For dOCUMENTA, however, this dedication to politics is precisely the point of its existence, as it has been since 1955. In a press release, Christov-Bakargiev expressed her welcome of Doccupy, stating that the movement ‘continues the wave of democratic protests that have been spreading across many cities in the world. It enacts the possibility of re-inventing the use of public space and appears to me to be in the spirit of the moment and in the spirit of Joseph Beuys, who marked dOCUMENTA and its history significantly, embodying another idea of collective decision making and political responsibility through direct democracy’. Doccupy’s opponents argue that the movement is an attempt to fulfil personal artistic aims by intellectually piggybacking a form of political action used in bloody situations such as those of Egypt and Syria. For the artistic director, however, Doccupy works towards the ‘germination and flourishing’ of ideas, befitting dOCUMENTA.
It follows, then, that a festival concerned with the germination and flourishing of ideas between art and politics should have such a strong video-art presence. Video possesses the immediacy and accessibility to communicate urgent political messages, and is of course widely respected for its power as a political weapon, as well as a documentary and ethnographic tool. Video art, when traditionally screened, is also far more ephemeral than other art forms in terms of the space it physically occupies. When it’s effective, it occupies the space within us (psychically) far longer than its existence in the gallery space. For dOCUMENTA (13), video pieces occupy the traditional spaces (cinematic projections) along with far more surprising spaces; they are projected on the arched ceiling of a planetarium, on hand-held iPods, within cabins in the woods, and situated as a film-in-progress within the minds of hypnosis subjects in trance. Of course, some occupy their chosen space with far greater effectiveness than others.
Every morning in Kassel, for the 100 days of dOCUMENTA (13), video artist Albert Serra shoots a part of his film, titled The Three Little Pigs. He then edits in the afternoon and shows the new extract in a dOCUMENTA cinema the following morning. The film is an audiovisual portrait of three famous German figures – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Adolf Hitler, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – engaging in conversations taken from historical records. The artist claims that he has used the rule of three as a method to arrive at a solution that will avoid the disaster of the proverbial wolf, as well as using the third cultural approach in order to tell this story successfully – not literature or history, but film. Based on viewing just one of the daily excerpts, however, it could be argued that (similar to the attempts of Doccupy to embody their manifesto) the idea of the film is far more interesting than the results on screen.
In the adjacent cinema, another video work, this time by the Otolith Group, is being shown. It is titled The Radiant and is concerned with the aftermath of the recent nuclear disaster in Japan. The most striking aspect of it is the interview with a Japanese man in his sixties, who is arguing that spaces contaminated by nuclear radiation in Japan should now only be occupied by people of his age group or older. He argues that the young are too vulnerable and have their whole lives ahead of them, whereas he and other elderly people will most likely be at the end of their lives by the time the radiation affects them. His proposal of a self-sacrificial occupation of space in Japan based on age is both alarming and heart-warming in its urgent selflessness.
Downstairs in the Hauptbahnhof (or main train station) is an interactive sound-and-image work by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, titled Alterbahnhof Video Walk. At first glance, it appears to be very much in line with Cardiff’s earlier aural and film installations. A few minutes into the experience, however, the work causes an emotionally violent collision between the real space in the present and the real space of the past. The work plays with your experience of your present space through the artists’ re-imagining of it, via sound and images recorded in that same physical space. You play the work through a hired iPod, and are led by Cardiff’s recorded voice around the station, in synch with the movements of her video of the space. It is as if she is leading you in a tango dance between the present and the past, the real space and the recorded space. This could seem just a clever gimmick, with a few personal and uncanny touches thrown in, until it hits you that Cardiff is guiding you to one station platform in particular. It is the very platform from where so many people were transported to concentration camps during World War II – many of whom, as we are all acutely aware, never returned. It’s an inordinately emotional moment when the video forces you into this realisation. You are standing in a place of tragedy. That tragedy is dragged suddenly into the present once more. It’s a re-mapping of time and space that blurs history with a recorded ‘present’ to force you to re-evaluate the real-world present and the space you occupy. This is a feat that is arguably very rarely achieved in film or indeed art of any medium.
Past the Hauptbahnhof, in the desolate train yard, is a four-storey house that is perhaps a century or so old. As you reach the threshold, you are asked to leave even the smallest of bags in the cloakroom. Immediately upon stepping inside the house, it becomes clear why your belongings could be considered hazardous inside. The house is plunged into almost complete darkness, with only tiny pools of light emitted from the video art scattered throughout several rooms. With only this light to guide you, your eyes are forced to pay attention to these works. The stillness and simplicity of the images are mesmerising and comforting as you are forced, fumbling, around the blackness. As you climb the stairs, the house gets lighter, although still the ‘House of Horrors’ sensation pervades. Each storey of the house contains more video work, but also blank, beautifully bound books, as well as letters exhibited on the walls that are the only clue to piecing together the history that has been created for this house. They are letters between two men over several years. The letters’ content is beguilingly simple, hiding an undercurrent of longing, nostalgia, loneliness and desire. Up in the attic are two large metal balls standing solemnly, their only artistic companions being the orchestral string music trickling into earshot. Their mystery is a fitting end to the tour of the house, whose history, created by Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer (The End of Summer, 2012), generates more questions than answers. (It later became apparent that the music is part of Turner Prize-winner Susan Phillipsz’ latest sound installation, featured nearby at the Hauptbahnhof. No matter – the synchronicity of music and place only served to further articulate the sense of longing in this house.)
Back outside, towards the station, is an opening that leads to Artaud’s Cave, a film projected within a concrete ‘reconstruction’ of Plato’s cave. Created by Javier Téllez, the film was inspired by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and shot in a psychiatric institution in Mexico using non-actors. Viewers must crunch along a gravel path and clamber over cold stone walls to view the work. Somehow the combination of cave and film are claustrophobic, with the sense that you too are confined in an institution of sorts, with no clear way out.
Nearby is a five-channel video installation by Indian artist Tejal Shah, titled Between the Waves. The work is thematically positioned around an archaeological excavation in India that hopes to find the possible true origins of the unicorn. The work uses live-action video, animation and even an iPhone Morse code app to tell its story, and repositions a traditionally Western mythological creature back within its purportedly accurate Indian heritage. As Shah explains about her work: ‘All clues lie within, decoding them is a matter of our own cognitive or imaginative limits.’
Wooden cabins scattered across Kassel’s beautiful parkland, Karlsaue, contain all manner of installations and video works, including sail boats washed up in trees; a film depicting archived impressions from a Swiss sex commune from the early 20th century; a film and sound installation exploring the existential space of the voice that is at once haunting and frustrating (Manon de Boer, One, Two, Many, 2012); along with a narrative film depicting a privileged white family sitting around a candlelit dinner table, speaking about their son’s racist ‘honour killing’ of a violent man (Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012). At last, unassumingly nestled amongst the fir trees, is a cabin that you must book to visit and is an absolute must for your dOCUMENTA experience: the Hypnotic Show in the Reflection Room (Marcos Lutyens, Raimundas Malašauskas).
Upon your arrival, you must take off your shoes and follow the artist downstairs. There, once alone with the artist, you will find yourself in an almost bare wooden room, which is still somehow cosy. You are told that you are being filmed. You are told to relax and choose a ‘story’ from a book consisting of no words, only colour combinations. And from there on in, the hypnotist and your unconscious mind take over to become the featured artwork. The hypnotist works to project your inner thoughts back to you in the form of verbal descriptions woven into the narrative he speaks. In this sense, each individual session results in a completely new ‘artwork’, which is captured in an ongoing video. This process is accompanied by a series of events when the artist switches roles and places himself under a trance-like state. The artist, while in this state, escapes the cabin to roam the streets of Kassel, filming the results of his interactions with people going about their days and nights. This work is a disquieting example of how art can occupy your utmost personal space: it fixes the exhibition space of the film directly inside the unconscious mind.
The Hypnotic Show in the Reflection Room has the potential to occupy all four positions of thinking as outlined by Christov-Barakiev, depending only on the state of mind of its subjects: Siege, Hope, Retreat and Stage. And the same could be said for the poor meteorite trapped in the midst of all these artistic and political debates. The meteorite is at once besieged from all sides, hopeful for resolution, attempting to retreat and yet spot-lit on the world stage of media attention. One can only wonder what thoughts the meteorite itself would have under the spell of hypnosis. Four thousand years’ worth of tales to tell us. A humbling thought.
‘The riddle of art is that we do not know what it is until it is no longer that which it was.’ Christov-Barakiev