Participant Observation

Brian Droitcour at the opening of Documenta 13

Left: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, artistic director of Documenta 13. Right: Documenta 13 participant Alexander Tarakhovsky and Documenta 13 chief agent Chus Martinez.

1. THE Q&A at Wednesday’s press conference was bracing. Reporters were long-winded and rude. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev resisted them with sass, though at times her frankness lost its edge and spilled over into strangeness. One asked her to “tell us more about the end of art.” Another, irked by the exhibition’s rangy interdisciplinarity, wondered how it could be parsed by a million viewers who are “as uneducated and confused as you.” She replied: “I didn’t know there were sports journalists here with us.” When a woman asked “how do you feel, what do you feel” about working in Kassel, Christov-Bakargiev mentioned the hassles of getting approval from municipal safety authorities, adding that this is an issue at any major exhibition, not like “back when art was a few people lighting fires in a basement.”

2. “Is that art?” The question comes up repeatedly while navigating Kassel. The Ottoneum is a natural history museum where Mark Dion’s library of bark-bound wooden “books” hid among other odd dioramas. By the entrance stands a plastic dinosaur that I think is a work by Jimmie Durham. There is so much empty space and outdoor movement between venues that you notice the extraneous or realize, belatedly, that what you had looked at was art. Outside the press conference, young people wore sandwich boards with slogans like WHAT ARE BLUE BALLS? THEY’RE LOVELY and EVERYONE IS EATING HUMAN FLESH. Despite its absurdity, I automatically associated the action with the Kassel art-student protests of 2007. Only when I saw the same boards in Ida Applebroog’s installation in the Museum Fridericianum did I know that they belonged to it.

Left: Documenta 13 participant Anton Zeilinger. Right: Documenta 13 participant Ida Applebroog.

3. On the second floor of the Fridericianum, quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger set up a lab for visitors to observe the measurement of uncertainty and entanglement. Zeilinger has teleported a photon into the past. A friend asked Zeilinger what he would do if he could send his own body back in time. “I would admit Hitler to art school,” he said.

4. Another viewer saw Zeilinger’s badge and asked if he was one of the artists. The brusque reply: “I am not an artist.” Everyone here is a “participant.”

5. Sankt Elisabeth, a former church on Friedrichsplatz opposite the Fridericianum, has an exhibition program independent of Documenta’s. It is currently showing the work of Stephan Balkenhol. One of his wooden men stands in the belfry, arms cruciform, visible from all sides. Christov-Bakargiev said she asked Balkenhol if he thought it was “appropriate” to put a sculpture there this summer. He thought it was. Local newspapers cried “censorship.” But it was merely an imperious request for an exercise of modesty.

6. Jérôme Bel presented Disabled Theater with Zurich’s Theater HORA, a company whose members have Down syndrome and other learning disabilities. The actors stood silently on the stage, then introduced themselves, then named their handicaps, then performed dance solos they had choreographed themselves. “My mother said it’s some kind of freak show,” says Damian Bright, one of the actors, onstage. “But she liked it a lot.” It is hard for an audience to face such unfamiliarly open attitudes about song, dance, and theater. Many walked out of Wednesday night’s performance. “Now I have to go thank the millionaires who made this possible,” Bel said afterward, and joked: “I hope they didn’t see it!”

Left: Documenta 13 participant Jérôme Bel. Right: Members of the company Theater HORA.

7. The list of dTOURs—guided visits to Documenta—includes a Multispecies dTour, “a series of walks with experimental dog trainers […] to challenge the focus on the human.” In Pierre Huyghe’s swampy environment for Karlsaue Park (“Be ready to get your shoes muddy,” I was warned), a beehive grows on a statue’s face. It is patrolled by a white dog with a leg painted pink.

8. Some call Kassel the anti-Venice. For others it’s the anti-Basel. The lack of anywhere cool to go in the city bares art-world insecurity. Everyone is inert at night without the pull of the Best Party, or any party.

9. Lee Miller bathed in Hitler’s Munich apartment and wrote about it for the July 1945 issue of British Vogue. The magazine is displayed in the Fridericianum’s rotunda. Upstairs hang anti-Fascist tapestries woven by Hannah Ryggen in the 1930s, and Charlotte Salomon’s narrative in gouaches of a Jewish artist’s life under Nazism fills a room nearby. Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller’s iPod tour of the Kassel train station excavates its history as a departure point for concentration camps and weaves that history into the viewer’s present. In the station’s cinema, the Otolith Group’s film about the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster edits in hints of Japan’s irradiated past. “Wow,” I marveled to myself. “World War II was a big deal!” This unspeakably banal phrasing of a bald truth popped into my head after I had spent a day with an exhibition that expansively and subtly articulates why we think art belongs to an age, why textbooks call it “art since 1945.”

Left: Documenta 13 participant Tarek Atoui. Right: Documenta 13 participant Pierre Huyge.

10. Seth Price collaborated with designer Tim Hamilton on a line of clothing. The prints tiled financial logos like the patterns that line envelopes—fashion to envelop the highly mobile modern body. The collection was presented late Thursday night in a parking garage beneath Friedrichsplatz. The models stood still on the catwalk, pretty and sweating, as the guests circulated with cigarettes and Absolut cocktails. It was a perverse insertion of Miami Beach into Kassel.

11. The front page of the latest issue of Kunstzeitung has a photo of Christov-Bakargiev in a hard hat, emerging from a manhole. On May 31, a photo was posted to Documenta’s website of Christov-Bakargiev and her dog Darcy. “Die ‘Lady Gaga’ der Kunst,” crowed a headline in Wednesday’s Hessiche Allgemeine. Two months ago, a viral post on Nadja Sayej’s ArtStars TV blog ran photos from Documenta’s CD-ROM “press kit from hell”: Carolyn peering through a gate, Carolyn squatting beside a furred oblong sculpture, Carolyn lounging barefoot in a hall strewn with garbage bags. At the press conference Sayej asked: “What would you say to all the people who think this exhibition is too much about you?” The curator said: “I would tell them to go see the exhibition.”

Left: Bees on a sculpture in Pierre Huyghe's work. Right. Cover of Kunstzeitung.

12. The exhibition is about Documenta. It repeatedly reminds viewers of the history and process of Documenta’s making. Amid Mario Garcia Torres’s installation about his search for Alighiero Boetti’s One Hotel in Kabul hangs Boetti’s Mappa—listed in the catalogue of Documenta 5 though it was never exhibited there. By coincidence, the converse happened at Documenta 13. Kai Althoff, absent from the catalogue, exhibits a letter announcing his withdrawal from Documenta in an otherwise empty room, and has an unlabeled painting in the rotunda.

13. Kassel is die documenta-Stadt, its postwar identity defined by an art show. (Old posters around town advertised the previous weekend’s body-art festival, Tattoomenta.) If Arnold Bode had not invented it someone else would have. Documenta 13 tingles with the necessity—the inevitability—of a periodic survey vast enough for the diversity of art since 1945, art whose awareness of its own contemporaneity has it looking forward, backward, sideways. Even if Zeilinger had admitted Hitler to art school we would all still be here.

14. During Friday evening’s sudden sunshower, photons and water molecules met to make a thick, vivid rainbow that, as seen from Friedrichsplatz, arced from deep in Karlsaue to Hessen’s hinterlands. What does it mean?

Left: Documenta 13 participant Michael Rakowitz. Right: In Kassel.

Left: Documenta 13 participant Llyn Foulkes. Right: Documenta 13 participant Joan Jonas.

Left: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev with Documenta 13 participant Etel Adnan. Right: Documenta 13 participants Anna Boghiguian and Goshka Macuga.

Left: Documenta 13 agents Koyo Kouoh and Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy. Right: Documenta 13 participant Pratchaya Phinthong.

Left: Documenta 13 participant Kader Attia with Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume. Right: Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist with Documenta 13 participant Tino Sehgal.

Left: Documenta 13 participant Paul Ryan. Right: Artist Tamarind Rossetti and Documenta 13 participant Doug Ashford with Documenta 13 agent Adam Kleinman.