Some highlights from Lucas Blalock
Just before arriving in Kassel I had watched a documentary on the Grateful Dead produced by Amazon. In it, the band’s manager Sam Cutler, who is English, talks about how American artists are caught up in a tradition of trying to both find and define America in their work as the screen flashes images of paintings by Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg and Warhol. He goes on to say that this activity is elementally American and that it just wouldn’t make any sense in his native England – to go out into the countryside in search of the England. The endeavor would be “preposterous.” This may be the case for the individual nations of Europe (I don’t deign to stretch this proposition any further than Cutler himself does) but it does not seem at all out of character for artists dealing with a collective Europe, particularly a Europe as tenuously held together and uncertain of its future as the one we are in now. And these questions of collectivity – European collectivity particularly – headline the Kassel edition of Documenta 14. Even the decision to bridge Germany and Greece with an exhibition speaks to this desire to attend to an imaginary body in a state of distress.
One of the best works in the Kassel show, Roee Rosen’s The Dust Channel (2016), uses just this sort of body doubling (body corpus and body politic) to imagine an extra-European situation in Palestine. Rosen’s video is equal parts operatic exchange, domestic situation, commodity history, and real politic. It does a lot to earn the viewer’s attention. Another work, Irina Haiduk’s Seductive Exacting Realism (2015 – ongoing), also uses the body as a political signifier and centers around an interview with political activist and consultant Sadja Popovic. The conversation explores the relationship between the kind of imaginative thinking (and efficacy) performed in art compared with that of real politic. Haiduk brings to the table her ongoing project Yugoexport where she has restarted the manufacture of the Borosana – an orthopedic women’s shoe designed in the 1960’s that was mandatory for a time for women working in Yugoslavia’s public sector, and when exhibited, the shoes become “the official work shoe of the host institution.” The label on the show box concludes that the shoe “extends the architecture of labor and provides the wearers with a distinction between labor time and leisure time.”
Other standouts from the show also employ the body – at various distance to metaphor; the body of the Contemporary Art Museum Athens staged in the Fridericianum, the presentation of artist Lorenza Böttner who was deprived of both arms to the shoulder in a childhood accident, Christos Papoulias' corporeal architectural models, Maria Hasabi’s power clashing performances in slow-motion, and Artur Żmijewski’s film cycle Realism (2017) which shows lower limb amputees performing everyday movements for the camera.
Though, of course, not all of the strong work in the show centers around the body. It would indeed be impossible to describe a show as diverse and sprawling as documenta through any one lens. A personal favorite that does not pick up these concerns was the inclusion of a mid-fifteenth century Giovanni Guidi painting, one of two that take up the subject of Saint Anthony fleeing a mound of gold, in the opening room of the Neue Galerie. In a show that can often feel freighted with the state of the world this 500 year old painting finds a way to address contemporary conditions in a drier and more comic register.