I recently travelled to Kassel for a whirlwind weekend at Documenta 14, the massive festival of visual art, performance and cinema that happens every five years. In order to keep my mind occupied on the journey from Berlin, I had brought some reading with me. This included an essay by Zuzanna Dziuban, which ended up influencing my perspective on the function and effectiveness of the festival.
What particularly resonated with me was Dziuban’s discussion of how intention and meaning is constructed in art through interpretive frames. She writes that a frame functions “both as a horizon within which the meaning of analysed artworks is constituted and as a signifying device through which the art operates.” These words would rattle around my head for the weekend as I attempted to parse the sprawling festival and the motives inherent in the patterns underlying the curatorial choices that illustrate this year’s theme, “Learning from Athens.”
Back in April, artistic director Adam Szymczyk stated that, “There is a large untapped potential when visitors come together for an exhibition — a political potential.” This year’s Documenta is split between Athens, Greece and Kassel, exploring themes relevant to current and historical socio-political unrest and trauma. Szymczyk and the curatorial team have compiled a body of artworks that emphasise unlearning as a key component to their looming objectives of mobilisation and solidarity.
Over my short visit, I encountered plenty of interesting art. But when I was prompted to think and ‘unlearn’, I had difficulty separating the art itself from the institutional framework of Documenta. The aspirations of the festival seemed clear in the choice to display Hans Haacke’s Wir (alle) sind das Volk—We (all) are the people (2003/2017) in key public locations around the city. It’s an aspirational statement chosen as a repeated motif in a festival that is not as inclusive and active as it presents itself to be.
Saturday: Wang Bing Retrospective
I wandered to Gloria-Kino after my visit to Documenta-Halle, for an afternoon in the dark with a film that promised respite from the crowds of the central venues. During the weekend, Gloria-Kino screens the entire catalogue of Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing, and I showed up to catch the beginning of Ku Qian (Bitter Money, 2016), a film that would hold me in my seat despite the disruption of other Documenta visitors entering and leaving the cinema.
Wang, one of China’s foremost documentary filmmakers, casts his eye onto transitional landscapes in his country, recording cinematic portraits of people and places embroiled in the tumult of historical flux. He is especially interested in the often disjointed but inevitable changes wrought by industry, choosing to follow workers in a number of his films including Ti Xi Qu (West of the Tracks, 2003) and Tong Dao (Coal Money, 2009).
Bitter Money brings us to a series of small clothing workshops in the city of Huzhou, home to over 18,000 such small factories and over 300,000 workers, mostly migrants from surrounding rural provinces. Wang follows three of these workers at their workplaces, revealing the intense monotony of the labor that is expected of them, also showing a glimpse of their individual aspirations and struggles in their everyday routines.
The act of following itself becomes one of Wang’s documentary frames. He forgoes the more didactic structure of the documentary in favor of visual narratives structured by his camera. We are brought into living quarters where workers unwind from arduous 12-hour workdays, illuminated by the cast of florescent light and the glow of their phones. We view cramped workspaces filled with coursing white threads from sewing machines, punctuated with repetitive industrial sounds, dustings of crackly radio music, and heated conversations.
I returned the next day to seek shelter from a cold rain that began around mid-morning and settled into the middle of Feng Ai (’Til Madness Do Us Part, 2013) and stayed for the beginning of Fang Xiu Ying (Mrs. Fang, 2017). In these three films, I was especially intrigued by the long shots following subjects as they move from one space to another. It is in these liminal moments that Wang’s unique documentary aesthetic flourishes most in the film, because the viewer is made very aware of a presence behind the lens. While the eye-level camera jostles with each step, we are reminded of the subjectivity of Wang’s gaze; where he chooses to take us and what could possibly be omitted.
Sunday: Neue Neue Galerie
Besides Gloria Kino, I spent most of my time on Sunday in Kassel’s former central post office, now known as the Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost). A few works in this space caught my attention, including an installation by The Society of Friends of Halit with a particularly fascinating video piece titled 77sqm_9:26min, produced in collaboration with the London-based research firm Forensic Architecture. This piece is a multidisciplinary investigation of the 2006 murder of Halit Yozgat, who was killed by a member of the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Underground while working in his family’s internet cafe in Kassel.
Out of all of the pieces in the Neue Neue, this one perhaps interested me the most due to its direct confrontation of the definition of art and what purpose art should serve. It is a presentation of evidence that moves away from the aesthetic expectations of what ‘should’ fill exhibition space. It also deals heavily with witnessing, an action crucial in Szymczyk’s idea of unlearning. With this intrigue though, I once again arrived at the problem of the frame.
The artwork at Documenta, when convened in the institutionalised framework of the ‘art world’, inherit the problems enacted by that frame. Documenta prioritises looking as an active response to the highlighted issues. But looking, when hailed as an end, rather than one of many necessary means towards creating change is simply not enough. Athens-Based collective, Artists Against Eviction articulate this shortcoming in an open letter where they write, “Now is a time for carving out a space for all, not a time of culturally archiving crisis. Now is a time of action, not blind consumption.”