“Is There Art Here?” Documenta 13 Takes a Turn for the Better

Lara Favaretto's "Momentary Monument IV (Kassel)," 2012
(Photo © Alexander Forbes)

KASSEL — Though first impressions of Documenta 13 found the waters a bit tepid, a deeper exploration of the utterly massive exhibition discovers some significantly warmer currents within it. Where the Fridericianum and Neue Galerie were drab and undistinguished in mood, the Documenta-halle and Hauptbahnhof (nicknamed the "Kulturbahnhof," or cultural train station) brought Carloyn Christov-Bakargiev’s exhibition to a different level. Architecture plays a huge role in both spaces, and their expansive halls and high ceilings provided relief from the cramped quality at the Fridericianum. But the art spoke for itself as well. “They’re super,” the Hamburger Bahnhof’s Udo Kittelmann remarked at Lisson Gallery’s dinner on Wednesday night, saying that based on the Documenta-halle and Hauptbahnhof alone, Documenta’s 13th edition had already far surpassed the previous round.

In the entrance floor of the Documenta-halle, Julie Mehretu’s “Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)” (2012) brought wall-based works in the exhibition to a new level with its balance of fine detail, line, and blocked color. The relatively narrow space, which made it nearly impossible to view all four monumental canvases in one panorama, further complimented the work. Down the stairs, Thomas Bayrle’s series of open-faced engines powered by electricity were strangely entrancing. Far from mechanical intrigue, the series brings about notions of the effort necessarily exerted in time’s seemingly effortless procession. In what seems to be a secret passageway off of the main space, Nalini Malani’s six-channel video and shadow play, “In Search of Vanished Blood” (2012), brought further depth to the Halle. Though references to Hans-Peter Feldmann’s “Shadow Play” come about immediately, Malani’s work takes its playful formal construction and turns it rather more sinister. Lights flash, a voice reverberates through the room, uncanny videos tread the line between the figurative and abstract. All the while, the five cylinders, which create the shadows, spin menacingly overhead.

It’s the Hauptbahnhof where Documenta 13 truly takes flight, though you wouldn’t know it if there wasn’t a steady stream of people wearing neon yellow lanyards flowing in and out. Several passersby even stopped to ask, “Is there art here?” Easily overlooked but equally a must-see is Janet Cardiff’s audio walk of the premises. Though the attendants who pass out the iPods and earphones may tell you it’s an audio guide, don’t think you’ll get a nice narrative of the exhibition. Cardiff — who also has an outdoor piece in the sculpture park with her partner, George Bures Miller — takes you around the main space via video and her steady voice, which turns into something of an interior monologue for the viewer. A brass band comes from above and leads you through the main hall, where a ballerina twirls and then disappears. The unfortunate use of the station as a human shipping-point during National Socialism is told via personal narrative on the platform on which those trains once stood. You travel through back halls and finally to a side waiting area in which a man and woman act out an acrobatically choreographed routine and then vanish.

The north wing of the Hauptbahnhof continues to impress, just out the side and back along the tracks where freight used to come and go. Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer created an installation throughout an old house, which sits at the end of the freight terminal. Though utterly minimal in its formal construction, the work, “The End of Summer” (2012), hits like a punch to the chest. Letters between Cramer and an unknown Javier tacked up intermittently throughout the house describe their mutual failure to accept the fact of death’s impendence. Other objects are placed exactingly in each room, some drawings and paintings stuffed behind columns as if artifacts to some dark past.

Further down the wing, William Kentridge’s “The Refusal of Time” (2012) is also notable. The work quickly became the topic of conversation from all those in attendance who had yet seen it. And, despite skepticism brought on by such universal hype, it was undeniably worthy of all its praise. Metal megaphones amplify, directing and distorting the sound so that each quarter of the installation has a unique tonal and narrative quality imposed on the five channels of video. The so-called elephant-breathing machine that sits in the chamber’s center bellows methodically, moving in and out. In the end, it’s the installation that visitors spent the most time with in the Documenta.

Outside, Lara Favaretto worked with massive hunks of metal to form a scrapheap, in what is the largest single work on view thus far. 

Titled “Momentary Monument IV (Kassel)” (2012) for its scale, it doesn’t read particularly strongly. Across the wing, Javier Telléz created a cave for his video installation, giving it a slightly Disney World feel. However, across the board, works in the two locations felt extremely of the now. The experience, when paired with the slight conservatism of the Fridericianum and Neue Galerie, creates a lovely balance for the exhibition as a whole.

Click on the slide show to see images of work from Documenta 13.