Kassel Documenta Diary Day 1: Bread and Readers at the Neue Galerie

Five years ago, in the rotunda of the Fridericianum, where I sat with the other participants in The Parliament of Bodies for last night’s talk by Georges Didi-Huberman, there stood what artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev called ‘the brain’ of dOCUMENTA (13). A few posts ago I mentioned this area as encountered by Enrique Vila-Matas in The Illogic of Kassel, but to give you some idea of its function for the exhibition as a whole, here is the description by Alex Farquharson and Kaelen Wilson-Goldie from their Frieze article ‘Getting Together’:

Within the Fridericianum’s cranial rotunda, is what Christov-Bakargiev calls the ‘brain’, a densely choreographed collection of small objects from disparate epochs and cultures – a mind-map and microcosm of dOCUMENTA (13) as a whole. The most compelling theme the ‘brain’ introduces is what could be described as the biography of objects, biographies that allow the artists and curators to establish affinities and correspondences between different cultural, historical and disciplinary spaces and temporalities…The objects and images in the ‘brain’ and elsewhere are prized for the complexity, intensity and heterogeneity of their social lives: these are objects that are ‘eccentric’, ‘destroyed’, ‘have lost something’, were ‘stolen, hidden or disguised’, that are ‘in refuge’, are ‘traumatized’ or are ‘transitional’, in the words of Christov-Bakargiev. Many of the best art works in dOCUMENTA (13) relate to this approach to objects in the ‘brain’, involving acts of recovery and retrieval, of adaptation and transformation, of combination and re-contextualization, beginning with objects and materials that are already explicitly ‘assembl[ies] of relations’. 

This description emphasizes the ways in which ‘the brain’ controlled the ‘body’ of dOCUMENTA (13) in the form of the invited artists and their works, whether themselves objects or not. It also highlights how ‘the brain’ is the hub for the expansive works, that bridge artistic and intellectual disciplines, as well as times and spaces, throughout Kassel (and beyond to places like Kabul).

While it would be possible to make the claim that for documenta 14, this space, with The Parliament of Bodies, remained the central and guiding space of this year’s exhibition (mirroring the meetings in the space within the Parko Eleftherias in Athens), that would be to impose the last documenta’s symbolism and structure onto this year’s. There is no equivalent ‘brain’ for documenta 14, however, since instead, the central and guiding model is ‘the reader’. This is not merely a reference to the exhibition’s emphasis on participation, on personal and collective encounters, as a process of reading and active reception. It is also a reference to the genre of ‘the reader’ as an anthology or collection that are focused on a single topic, usually from a variety of authors and offering differing perspectives. (Consider the example of Moyra Davey’s Mother Reader). One affinity between ‘the brain’ and ‘the reader’ is that they are both located within the exhibition and as part of the publication program, with The Logbook being to ‘the brain’, what The documenta 14 Reader was to ‘the reader’. But if we can locate the ‘brain’ to the rotunda of the Fridericianum, where do we find ‘the reader’?

The answer, which I discovered today, is in the Neue Galerie. Here is how the museum and its function for documenta 14 is described in the Kassel map book:

Housing the Museumlandschaft Hessen-Kassel’s collection of nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century art, the Neue Galerie has been an important venue in a number of previous editions of documenta. Nevertheless, documenta 14 is the first to inhabit the building in its entirety—which is fitting, perhaps, for an exhibition so self-conscious of its history, and of the broader historical forces that made the very documenta project possible….Questions of nationhood and belonging, but also of dispersal and loss, weave a loose meshwork throughout the Neue Galerie, which effectively operates as the site of documenta 14’s memory, the primary seat of its historical consciousness.

This description seems at first to hedge its bets. The Neue Galerie is a ‘primary seat’ (an antiquated why of describing the brain?), albeit not for documenta itself, but for ‘its historical consciousness’. At the same time, it is also not like the brain and more like the nervous system, in its role as a ‘meshwork’. For an exhibition as divided self (Athens/Kassel) we should expect an equally schizophrenic center. However, there is another reason for this division. Unlike ‘the brain’ of dOCUMENTA (13), ‘the reader’ of documenta 14 cannot be found separated from its other organs and limbs (the invited artists and their artworks). Instead, historical documents, ancient and modern artworks and artifacts and potent cultural symbols and images are gathered together in a space that also contains interventions by contemporary artists invited to participate in its meaning.

This is how the presentation in the Neue Galerie both evokes and extends the texts and images (with the latter called ‘Folios’) of The documenta 14 Reader. It was in the way that this central site of the exhibition, away from Athens, but always self-consciously with Athens, rewarded the reader of The Reader that was most illuminating and exciting. One way for you to see this in action, is to conduct a somewhat odd experiment in the act of reading. I could lead you simultaneously through the ‘Folios’ of The documenta 14 Reader as well as the rooms of the Neue Galerie, offering you a map of the Neue Galarie, followed by the list of Folios in The documenta Reader. 

[Folio 1] “What color is hunger? What color paper?”

[Folio 2] “The body as body or body politic.”

[Folio 3] “If gold symbolizes the conflation of money and misery…”

[Folio 4] “Among the scattered shadows and traces of the revolution…”

[Folio 5] “When, and where, do German-Greek relations begin?”

[Folio 6] “The time of the ritual is not linear bu cyclical.”

[Folio 7] “Technology suggests the hand…”

Then we could start our tour, say, on the first floor in a room containing evil Le Code Noir , and the two etchings by Ludwig Emil Grimm, which appear at the start of the first Folio. On the left hand page you can see one called Boys from Wolfsganger near Kassel and the Negro Boy (1849) and one on the right hand page another called A Young Lady in Ball Gown Is Presented in a Cage to a Group of Natives (1853). In the room, the only work of resistance against these documents of violent exclusion, is a large painting by Lorenza Böttner (who we could meet properly a little later when we get to the next Folio on the body).

You turn the page and take the stairs to the first floor to see photographs of wheat by Tina Modotti, taken in Mexico in the late 1920s, followed by a series of images of hunger from India to Albania, including the “Famine Sketches” (1943) of Zainul Abedin.  Next, and here the book and the galleries go somewhat in order, we see images of the process of deportation to offer some fundamental connections between deprivation and displacement – made most clear by the juxtaposition of works by Androniqi Zengo Antoniu, one of a homeless person in an market and another of a group of kindergartners eating.

Building on the combination of hunger and displacement, as oppressed to the fodder of being welcomed, invited and at home, you would then take a moment to run downstairs again to the room devoted to Maria Lai’s work. (You may remember seeing her series of photographs with their ribbon of blue cloth in EMST in Athens). There we see her paintings of sheep and bread making, as well as a display of her books themselves made of bread.

We could continue this journey, and perhaps even switch the book and the museum around, skipping across the Folios as we go from gallery to gallery. But what becomes clear pretty quickly, is that if we are guided by the idea of ‘the reader’ in this way, we fail to see the exciting ways the exhibition and the book ground their historical consciousness in contemporary debates, as well as artworks. For The documenta 14 Reader this is done by the essays that each react to and work within the topics of the Folios, but also expand on them in ways that even question the act of reading itself. Perhaps the most striking example of this is how the publications editor for document 14, Quinn Latimer, builds on the theme of the shift from gold and value to the abuse of Indigenous peoples and economies of death in terms of colonialism and fascism, in her brilliantly poetic essay “Signs, Sounds, Metals, Fires, or An Economy of Her Reader”. A comparable operation occurs within the walls of the Neue Galerie.

As this is a blog about the Classical in Contemporary Art, let us take the example of German Classicism and the imposition of the Greek ideal. We find, in the book and in the galleries, the idealized paintings of the Acropolis by Leo von Kenze and Louis Gurlitt, yet it is only in the work of contemporary artists and their juxtaposition that we find their surest critique. For example, consider what is at stake in the movement from the gallery with Marina Gioti’s film The Secret School (2009), through Pélagie Gbaguidi’s corridor length installation The Missing Link. Dicolonisation Education by Mrs Smiling Stone (2017) that ends with Maria Eichhorn’s Library and Reading Room for her 2017 Rose Valland Institute project.

Each work sets up a comparable model for the dangers and manipulations of idealization of a model for teaching (as is Greece to 19th century German Classicism), whether it is in later Greek history as resistance from the barbarous Turks (Gioti), the ideals of an enlightened colonial education (Gbaguidi) or the corrective re-appropriation books and art owned by Jews by the Nazi government (Eichhorn). In each case, the artist attacks the foundation of the ideal in terms of nationalistic, colonialist and fascist brain-washing, and uses key interventions to transform them for the present. Gioti manipulates the soundtrack from the film made under the dictatorship of the Generals, adding her own commentary and subtitles that make explicit the excesses of its skewered nationalist message. Gbaguidi incorporates notebooks and artworks created during a collaborative project with a local Kassel school to ‘purge from consciousness’ the colonialist claim for the existence of ‘under-beings’. Eichhorn parallels the reclaiming of Jewish intellectual and artistic property by the display and availability of a library of further reading on the history of the project of Nazi extermination and cultural destruction.

It is in these ways that the Neue Galerie, as ‘the reader’ of documenta 14, takes its lead from ‘the brain’ of dOCUMENTA (13), but does not leave it to other spaces to expand and critique the history of objects and images. Instead, everything happens in the experience of moving through the museum, from gallery to gallery, document to installation, image to film, the past to the present. All of which arms us with tools that are informed and grounded for combating the future and its challenges. At the entrance to the Neue Galerie, Postcommodity create their Curtain/Blind (2017) of white-noise to cleanse each visitor in preparation for what they are about to experience as a transformative experience. At the same time, The documenta 14 Reader opens with Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s poem To the Reader which includes the bitter lines of experience as suffering:

O my reader

           do not ask me to whisper

             do not expect musical delight

This is my suffering.

It is between these two ‘Readers’ that documenta 14 succeeds in its aim to get us all in the position of ‘learning from Athens’, that is, from the position of suffering, but also that of past and present perseverance and even hope for a better future. No one wants to return to some idealized version of Classical, Periclean Athens, especially not the colonists, women or slaves. But still, then and now, we need bread and roses, or at the very least, what documenta 14 and Maria Lai offer us at the Neue Galerie, bread and readers.

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