It's enough to make one schizophrenic

2012-07-16 00:00

DOGS should get the vote and meteorites should have opinions on travelling. Soil gets cast as ingots of currency, sheep graze in stately parks and grass grows. Scrap metal rusts, piled up in the rain. Wind blows through an empty display hall. This is art. This is the dOCUMENTA art festival in Kassel, home of the brothers Grimm, where we’re told that confusion is good. I watch a man staring at a light switch trying to figure out if it’s art. He’s in the room after the wind display, and his mind is unmoored from cultural overload. He’s not alone.

Flyers along the main street temptingly advertise a Lachseminar for relief. But some of the artists themselves provide all the laughter you need. One artist asks on a poster: “You blow your nose. I blow mine. Who is right? You or me?”

Amid the apparently random, the discordant, the gimmicky and the pretentious, there are pieces and performances of immense power. We were lucky to stumble early on to what turned out to be by far, in our opinion, the best on show: William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time. The venue is a hall at the old railway yards, near Platform 13, from where Jews were sent on to their final destinations of Auschwitz, Dachau and Birkenau. Projected simultaneously across five screens is the story of destruction and massacre, from Angola to South Africa to the Nazi concentration camps. Frenetic African cadences pump into the enclosed space, metronomes march frantically out of step with each other. In the middle of the hall a wooden breathing machine — the lungs of an elephant perhaps —heaves rhythmically, meditatively. The surrealistic multi-media performance plays with the notion that all that has happened in history is contained in present time, and transmitted across the ages through light. Information, and so the traces of atrocity, does not ever vanish into a black hole. Bottom line is that, short of destroying time, there’s no clean slate for a species whose trademark is destruction, and the film closes with a brass band hurrying the procession of the damned to its fate.

Kentridge’s demented metronomes chime with a display across town in the Fridericianum Museum, which includes a drawing of Man Ray’s metronome, titled “Object of Destruction”. The drawing in turn faces a display of pictures by his very beautiful former lover, the war photographer Lee Miller, including the morally disquieting ones of her in Hitler’s bathtub, taken on the day he killed himself. She wrote at the time in Vogue magazine that “Germany is a beautiful landscape … inhabited by schizophrenics’’, whose inability to comprehend what had been wrought in their name was profound.

That history is never far away. From this art festival where humanity’s relationship with its past is a common theme, we drive out into the country to visit a friend who lives in a village about an hour from Kassel. He farms organically and observes how global warming has extended the habitat of bugs from across the Alps to his doorstep. We visit the old school, which is now a museum filled with domestic and agricultural artifacts from a nostalgic time. Amid the careful displays, at the head of the stairs, are portraits of a dozen young men, each in a Nazi uniform: the village’s war dead who are fondly remembered. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was. Bury it, dig it up, show it off, ignore it, the past is always around the corner.

Just outside Kassel, in the opposite direction, is Breitenau monastery. This is where filmmaker Carel von Wedemeyer locates his exploration of how to live with and engage the past, in a multi-screen telling of the story of some of the monastery’s various incarnations. In 1945, it was a concentration camp. In 1970, it was a girls’ reformatory (and Von Wedemeyer bases this part of his story on a script by Ulrike Meinhof of the Baader-Meinhof gang). By 1994, it had become an asylum for the insane. Each story bleeds through into the others in a never-ending telling and retelling of events that can never fully be grasped, never be seen simultaneously, never be finalised, and from which the viewer can never be exonerated. Turn away from these events and there’s a reworking of “Artaud’s Cave”, set in a Mexican psychiatric ward and acted out and rescripted by inmates. Turn the other way and there’s an exhibit of bits of the gigantic Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan blown apart by the Taliban, shrapnel from the Iraq war, burnt books that survived the 70 bombs dropped by the Allies on the very building where they are being displayed, and where a library of 400 000 volumes was destroyed.

It is in this context of layers upon layers of often gratuitous destruction that festival curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s controversial statement that dogs should get the vote starts to make sense. Shifting the axis of meaning away from one in which people are central, she talks of a vision that recognizes “the shapes and practices of all the animate and inanimate makers of the world, including people’’. She asks, after activists blocked a 37-ton meteorite named El Chaco from leaving Argentina to be displayed in Kassel for 100 days: “Does it have any rights? What shift in its inner life would its being placed temporarily in Kassel have brought?” The obvious answer would have something to do with colonialism and the theft of traditional artifacts. But the underlying answer to why one group of people gets to claim as theirs in perpetuity a lump that happened to fall from the sky in their back yard, and not in Kassel, for example, and why feuds erupt as a result, is one that the festival as a whole grapples with. The measure of the success of this chaotic, sprawling confrontation between art and society lies in how well one negotiates confusion. dOCUMENTA, says Christov-Bakargiev, “is a state of mind”. It’s enough to make one schizophrenic.

dOCUMENTA is massive, stretching over 100 days through to August, with displays and performances by 150 artists and others, and taking place simultaneously in Kassel, Kabul, Alexandria/Cairo and Banff. Each location represents a different condition: of being on stage, under siege, in a state of hope, or in retreat, respectively. It was started in 1955 in Kassel by an art lecturer as a display of art deemed too decadent by the Nazis. The theme of human destruction permeates the entire mood of the event.

It is staged every five years, this being its 13th, and is regarded as a key international exhibition of contemporary art (even Brad Pitt showed up. Who knew?), and “a moment of reflection on the relationship between art and society”. It also, this year, “speaks about the uniqueness of our relationship with objects”, and many of the displays are living exhibits, some edible.

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