Call it a modified form of synaethesia; it seems as if each city I rolled into produced an endlessly looping song in my head. In Madrid, I would hear the opening plaintive horn of Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain. In Kassel, it was Springtime for Hiter.
Perhaps my mind was making up for a kind of absence. There was an anti-Nazi protest march one day, and being a card-carrying member of the ACLU, I felt some dissonance (in my mind) between the concept of liberty and a march against it. There was also a shop specializing in war memorabilia that was without Nazi memorabilia for sale, and the occasional WWII-era German eagle with the swastika in its talons chiseled off.
In my hotel room I flipped through the cable channels and saw reruns of Hogan's Heroes dubbed into German. It seemed perfectly normal to hear Colonel Klink and Sargent Schultz speaking in a heavily accented German; it seemed to fit better with the show's context. At the same time it brought me back to an earlier trip to Germany, backpacking across Europe in 1979. Outside the Hofbräuhaus I stopped for a bite to eat and encountered a German WWII vet who drunkenly extolled the virtues of the Messerschmidt while calling Americans schafe. I thought that a show like Stacheldraht und Fersengeld might be oddly comforting to an elderly unapologetic Nazi. Even though the Germans are made to look like buffoons, at the end of each episode they remain in power and the allies are still the prisoners. Every week on German TV there's Nazi visibility in a fictional reality where the war was never lost.
At the same time I came to the realization that the old guy was now probably dead. My father, a veteran of World War II, died in the early 90's. The youngest veterans of that war are in their 80's. In another generation they will transform from eyewitnesses to historical footnotes. I realized that Germany is on the cusp of history, the point where lived experience is becoming extinct, only to be replaced by newly created historical fictions. It is in this context where the past becomes a story that ultimately has to lead up to a present tense where the people have some self esteem, and a sense of morality.
It's this odd congruity of history, and a Documenta that (historically) has been both about art and politics. Rather than mention specific works I enjoyed, this take on Kassel's survey of contemporary artistic practice is more about the gestalt of my time at Documenta.
Suspiciously, there seemed to be something for everyone. A little painting and some video, political work and artists wrestling primarily with aesthetic issues, familiar faces from the cannon of contemporary western art and lesser-knowns from the developing world.
My previous post on Documenta was my (trying to be clever) attempt at looking at something so big and trying to make coherent sense of it. I used John Godfrey Saxe's poem based on the Hindu parable of the five blind men and the elephant, as a way to show that no matter what you personally thought of the show (or conclusions you made based on what you read) you would have been right to some degree. Perhaps the Documenta can be seen as a collaborative project of the curators and the 113 artists included in the show; an attempt to produce the world's most ungainly Rorschach inkblot.
If that's the case, one doesn't need a curator per se. If too many recently produced artworks are gathered together in one place, then the curating will ultimately be left of to the viewer. After walking room after room of the Schloss Wilhelmshohe, Neue Galerie, Museum Fridericianum, documenta-Halle, and Aue-Pavilion, it would be impossible to give each of the 500+ works the time needed for proper decoding and/or appreciation. In Venice, one would greet other art-viewers on the street with the phase, "Have you seen anything interesting?" if only out of the fear that there was some incredible, groundbreaking, transcendent installation in a crumbling villa that somehow got overlooked. In Kassel, it was all laid out German-style, with maps, floor plans, and lists of artists. It was as if Ruth Noack and Roger Buergel were taking a page from the playbook of William Mulholland when he opened the gates of the Owens Valley Aqueduct and famously proclaimed, "There it is. Take it."
I became hyper-aware that I would quickly check off familiar works (in my mind) and gloss by stuff by artists who's interests seemed too far afield from my own. Some sort of time editing became necessary--even with three full days to view the work. The "run, skip over, then pause" mode of looking at works of art was in use by many other viewers of the show. One would catch art-worn folk looking through the corrugated plastic walls of the Aue-Pavillion at the crenellated landscape beyond.
If you thought that didactic political work was mediocre and futile at best, then you saw plenty of work to support your position. If the voices of people in the developing world are important to hear, then parts of Documenta would have left you pleased. If you like looking at Persian rugs, there was one in the show for good measure.
Am I being old-fashioned by wanting the curators to present a well-reasoned argument, or at least a point of view? The world is a complicated place. The topics addressed in some of the work are complex issues. Perhaps the art world is very much like an elephant, but I'm not willing to leave it at that. In attempting to make sense of the world, every generation goes about the process of writing it's own history. Looking around Kassel, I felt as if I was a witness to that awkward process. At Documenta, it felt like someone dropped the pen.