FOR A GOOD FOUR DAYS in the first half of June, an army of beautiful women marched, sashayed, and drifted into the central German city of Kassel for the preview and opening of Documenta 14.
Some were members of the actual Army of Beautiful Women, a continually growing band of the female-inclined and their howeverly gendered enthusiasts who have been initiated into a series of interrelated works by the artist Irena Haiduk. In material and conceptual terms, Haiduk’s project is to revive the design and manufacture of a durable uniform for the female workforce, taking numerous cues from the industrial history of Yugoslavia (and the political experience of feminism) along the way. For the inaugural days of Documenta 14, several members of the event’s battalion-size curatorial team chose to wear key pieces from Haiduk’s Yugoexport collection—including the now-iconic lace-up Borosana work shoe (peeking out from beneath curatorial advisor Natasha Ginwala’s mint-green sari), a sensible blue dress (elegantly belted by the curator Candice Hopkins), and a lavender jacket with dramatic slits in each sleeve (pulled off with great aplomb by the curator Hendrik Folkerts).
Other, official members of the Army of Beautiful Women include the Sirens, an elite, thirteen-person unit within Haiduk’s work who were performing the artist’s Spinal Discipline, a mock runway show happening several times a day on an upper floor of the Neue Neue Galerie, Kassel’s Brutalist half-abandoned post office and distribution center, which, along with the more traditional Neue Galerie, represents one of the crucial nodes in the ellipse-like exhibition overall. The Sirens wore the full so-called yugoform and were fairly compensated for their labor. The Documenta viewers and visitors who bought and wore the shoes actively negotiated the price with the artist according to a sliding income scale.
Perhaps most interesting of all were the soldiers in spirit, who resided wholly outside of Haiduk’s project but were no strangers to its core concerns. These were the women of an art-historical past who returned like apparitions, took up some of the more unassuming corners of the exhibition, and proceeded to blow my mind in small but consequential bursts as I wandered through the thirty-two venues scattered across the city.
One example is Amrita Sher-Gil, an Indo-Hungarian painter of Sikh lineage who was born in Budapest, became a sensational pioneer of the Indian avant-garde, and then died in Lahore of a sudden and mysterious illness at the age of twenty-eight. She is present in the Neue Galerie through two astonishingly good paintings from the 1930s, including her Self-Portrait as a Tahitian, which wrestles Paul Gauguin’s depiction of exotic sexuality back into a woman’s hands and gives it a remarkably powerful self-emanating gaze of defiance and skepticism.
Others wonderful presentations include Maya Deren’s films, writings, and sound recordings of voodoo rituals in Haiti; Tina Modotti’s photographs of an Indian agronomist experimenting with wheat while exiled in Mexico; Maria Lai’s gorgeous paintings, textiles, and baked books; and Alina Szapocznikow’s haunting resin sculptures, many of them embedded with photographs of women who appear seemingly frozen in moments of agony, ecstasy, and the innocence of childhood. Another example still is the story of Tom Seidmann-Freud, a painter, illustrator, and author of children’s books who was born Martha-Gertrud Freud, the niece of Sigmund, in late nineteenth-century Vienna. At the age of fifteen, her family moved to Berlin, where she changed her name and took to wearing men’s clothes.
I won’t go so far as to argue that artistic director Adam Szymczyk has deliberately organized the first feminist edition of Documenta. But I think he may have created the conditions to allow such a thing to appear legible and be populated by this fluid army of Haiduk’s beautiful women and then some. Is there gender parity among this Documenta’s staff or participants? I have no idea and I’m not sure what the hard and fast numbers would really mean. But I do know that I was struck, day after day, by the twin spirits (and ghosts) of feminism and femininity throughout the exhibition in Kassel and echoing around the back of my mind from Athens. More concretely, I was impressed by the very real women, one after another, involved in all facets of the Documenta enterprise.
This began on day one, last Wednesday, during the opening press conference at the Kongress Palais Kassel. What has been described elsewhere as a “fiery, combative” event was to my eye a more relaxed affair. Nine members of the Documenta 14 team sat in a line and spoke one by one. The curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung began his keynote address on ways of being in a world of uncertainty and fear with a quotation from Warsan Shire (the poet behind Beyoncé’s Lemonade). Paul B. Preciado, curator of Documenta’s public programs, followed up with a talk on transitioning bodies, extending the metaphor from objects in the vitrines of an ethnographic museum—“We are no longer in the vitrines,” he said. “We have come out of the vitrines, we have been given the agency to destroy the vitrines”—to exhibitions, institutions, the nation-state, and the very planet itself.
The press conference bumped along for three hours. The Greeks made an astute decision in asking Lydia Koniordou, the current minister of culture and sports and a famous Athenian actress grounded in classical theater, to speak for Documenta’s other side. She painted a vivid picture of current conditions—“austerity measures that affect us all and are unprecedented in peacetime”—and the work that local artists are doing to resist fear and defy hardship. Natasha Ginwala gave one of the only acknowledgements of this Documenta’s rather difficult title, “Learning from Athens”: “Artists [in the exhibition] are linked together as teachers and thinkers. Learning is not a euphemism here.” Szymczyk gave the briefest remarks of all, noting that “we must act as political subjects” and that “the process of becoming a political subject is a process of unlearning.” A throwaway, that.
What may have been most noteworthy was that every single speaker on behalf of Documenta’s greater administrative machine—including Annette Kulenkampff, the organization’s amiable CEO; Bertram Hilgen, the chairman of Documenta’s supervisory board and Kassel’s mayor; and Hortensia Völkers, the charismatic artistic director of the German Federal Cultural Foundation—championed staging one show in Athens and another in Kassel, calling them a single exhibition in two parts, and bringing with them the inevitable mess of history that has tied Germany and Greece together for generations, and not always nicely.
No journalists had anything tough to say about budgets or bad politics. There were virtually no questions of note and the only scrap of news that fell to the floor was the fact that Sindika Dokolo, the Congolese businessman who is married to Isabel dos Santos (aka the richest woman in Africa and the daughter of Angola’s slightly dictatorial president José Eduardo dos Santos), had funded the participation of artists from Africa and, in return, was getting a Documenta sampler in Luanda, to be curated by Szymczyk and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung in 2018.
From there, I basically ran for four days. First, to the Hessisches Landesmuseum to see the paintings of Ganesh Haloi, a terrific new series of lush color photographs by Gauri Gill, and Two Meetings and a Funeral, a three-screen video by Naeem Mohaiemen that tracks the legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement through footage of a 1973 conference in Algiers. In the space of a staircase I ran into Frances Morris and Achim Borchardt-Hume of Tate Modern, Massimiliano Gioni of the New Museum, and Cecilia Alemani of the High Line. In Documenta Halle, I got a friendly wave from Gregor Muir, also of Tate, while I was fishing for the opinion of the dealer Andrée Sfeir, who has seen every single Documenta since Rudi Fuchs’s in 1982. It was too soon to say, but she was tentatively positive.
On Thursday, I bolted from the Neue Neue Galerie to the Glass Pavilions on Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse and took a spin through Mounira Al Solh’s re-creation of her father’s bakery, which he opened in Lebanon in 1984 to give jobs to people who were mentally and physically disabled, and therefore wholly marginalized in the context of the country’s civil war. No one wanted to buy bread from the bakery until the town was nearly starving. Then, for a short time, the business was a stunning success. The artist, only a child at the time, pitched in, stuffing loaves of bread into bags for customers. A few weeks later, the bakery was bombed and burned to the ground. And lest you think the Lebanese are always tricky with history, know that every single word of this story is true.
In another of the pavilions, I was wowed by the paintings of Vivian Suter, who, in a fine bit of curatorial triangulation, is the subject of a luscious new film by Rosalind Nashashibi, alongside Suter’s mother, Elizabeth Wild, whose magazine-cut collages had caught my eye in the Neue Galerie. I continued on to Georgia Sagri’s Dynamis, a work totally captivating not only for how she and her fellow performers move, but in that she is quietly, breathily singing, throughout.
Of course, this is not a flawless Documenta. You can walk into every room and ask yourself: What fresh horror is this? And answer: Oh, Bengal famine, death and destruction in World War II, the abominations of slavery everywhere. It’s grim, and it’s thoroughly troubled by guilt and the desire to do good. Some works such as Artur Żmijewski’s Realism—a six-channel black-and-white video, shot on 16 mm, showing men with amputated limbs going about their days, exercising their stumps—are too fetishistic and in-your-face for me. On Friday afternoon, I had lunch with one of the more cantankerous elder artists in the exhibition. We were sitting in the rain when he looked up at Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books and said: “What is that, anyway? Why is it so fucking big? What’s the use of all those banned books up high and closed up in plastic? Take them down, put them on the floor, and let people read them.” The moments that seem to work better are those that capture a spiritual breakthrough, those that are true to the process of struggle.
And let’s say one thing plainly. The selection of works from the collection of EMST, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, which fills the whole of the Fridericianum, is a disaster. I get that it’s a gesture. But without any curatorial rigor, it doesn’t do anyone any good, not the history of modern-to-contemporary Greek art, nor the handful of works by other international artists called in to legitimize it. Filling the museum’s rotunda with Andreas Angelidakis’s stuffed camouflage tank is, as one colleague told me, quite a statement.
But quite another statement was made in that same space on Saturday evening, when people packed into the rotunda, dismantled Angelidakis’s sculpture, and turned it into soft seating for the first session of Preciado’s Parliament of Bodies. This is the public programing arm of Documenta 14, and I’d heard nothing but negative reports about it from Athens. The director of an art space there told me it was the main thing that turned local audiences hostile. An Athenian photographer told me he’d gone to the first session and was so totally disgusted by the pretentious discourse that he’d walked out.
Much to my surprise, what followed in the Fridericianum was both powerful and down to earth. First, there was a pointed, detailed discussion of reparations for German war crimes against the Greeks in World War II. A young person in the audience—picture him in a splendid Angela Davis afro over a heavy five-o’clock shadow and a bright floral dress—made the forceful point that the debt of colonialism was unpayable, so what else was there to do? Then he stood up and left the room. Three women from the audience sang a funerary song. Szymczyk, now sitting on a camouflage cube, seemed genuinely moved. “I understand that we cannot fix everything in one meeting,” he said. “This is just the beginning. But we are touching important strings. These are not exaggerated conspiracies. These are facts. An exhibition is just a pretext to bring these things to light.”
The next session featured the Syrian violist Ali Moraly, the aboriginal painter Gordon Hookey, and the professor Johannes Fabian, an anthropologist largely responsible for bringing to public attention the work of the late Congolese painter Tshibumba Kanda Matulu, whose cycle of 101 history paintings is a strong part of Documenta 14 in Athens. Fabian asked a question that summed up all that is uncomfortable about Szymczyk’s exhibition: “Why am I here?” He offered three possible answers: to be put on display as an exhibit, to be called upon as an informant on the past, to be called upon as a witness, because he was there and had some insight onto Tshibumba’s work when he was alive. “But what is being contested?” Fabian asked. “What court case is being tried?”
I left the Fridericianum with artists Banu Cennetoğlu and Didem Pekün and headed to the Hauptbanhof for the opening party. The train station was packed. Curator Dieter Roelstraete was playing music and seemed like the happiest man alive. Later, when someone sidled up to me and asked, “So what is your space?” I knew it was time to split.
Defne Ayas, director of the Witte de With in Rotterdam, was feeling similarly—“Who are these people? This crowd is so horny!”—so we shared a cab to our respective hotels, bantering with the driver along the way. Originally from Belgrade, he told me Kassel was still just a small town, except for every five years when people came from all over. “It must be kind of fun,” I offered feebly. “Kind of,” he said. “But they are all totally crazy.” Then, for perspective on “crazy,” he reminded me that my home city is located between Syria, Israel, and the deep blue sea.
The next morning, at the crack of dawn, I flagged down a taxi to the train station. The driver bounded out of the car, threw open his arms, and cried out: “Beirut!” I blinked a few times. “Belgrade?” It was the same driver. “Last night, the art world was as crazy as ever,” he told me. Most of it had already moved on to Zurich Art Weekend or Skulptur Projekte Münster. I was happy to be going home. I was starting to think this army of beautiful women thing might actually catch on, that we might one day look back and say it started here. A dream. A delusion? Such is the deal with hope.