Jerry Saltz: Eleven Things That Struck, Irked, or Awed Me at Documenta 13

Visitors look at paintings displayed in the installation
Yan Lei’s installation, “Limited Art Project, 2011-2012,” commissioned for Documenta. Photo: BARBARA SAX/AFP/GettyImages

Documenta is the biggest of the art world’s big regularly scheduled biennials, triennials, and international group exhibitions — the whale of them all, with more than 200 artists and scores of exhibition sites. Held every five years in the out-of-the-way German city of Kassel, it’s also seen as the most “serious.” Its curators are often super-brainy mandarin globe-trotting movers-and-shakers. (During the opening press conference last week, at a moment when a breath of relaxed lightness crept in,  curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev reprimanded the crowd saying, “No. This is serious, you know. This is Documenta.”) My review of the show will be in the print magazine next week. Till then, here’s a quick list of good, bad, and very bad things about Documenta 13. Read it, weep, retch, or wag your finger — at me or anyone you like.

1. Like many of her academic ilk, Documenta 13 curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev seems hostile to art’s old unruly cave creature, painting. Unless it’s painting by older, unknown, overlooked, or dead artists. Or painting by or about people from third-world countries. Before her show Christov-Bakargiev crowed that her Documenta would have “not much painting.” At least she’s upfront about it. But she also carried out a revenge scenario, sequestering most of the remaining painters in a single large building, the Documenta-Halle. Hanging like-unto-like all but negated painting’s power as one of the greatest tools ever invented by human beings to imagine and depict the world. As I walked through this dead zone, I thought, “This is where painting goes to die.”

2. Most big international shows find curators acting like modern-day conquistadors, colonizing as much space as possible. At Documenta, they’ve occupied ballrooms, bars, stores, hospitals, parking garages, train stations, movie theaters, museum wings, department store windows, bakeries, youth libraries, and mosques. Countless structures, huts, and houses have been constructed in Kassel’s beautiful Karlsruhe Park. The visitor’s experience turns into a combination truffle hunt, forced march, and wild goose chase. Without a map, you’re dependent on luck; if you don’t stumble on things, you’re up a creek. As if these empire dreams weren’t enough, parts of the show are located in Banff, Alexandria, and Kabul. I would imagine that more people saw Damien Hirst’s eleven-country dot-painting show than will see the whole of Documenta.

3. Artists and curators at these shows always say they’re against the sterility of the gallery. Yet as soon as numerous artists here were given the opportunity to construct their own buildings in the park, many mindlessly made what they say they hate: walk-in black boxes where they screened videos about war, peace, revolution, social suffering, science, politics, ecological disaster, or some idiotic observation they made riding a bus. Or they constructed little white-cube spaces to show their derivative sculptures, assemblage, and Relational Aesthetics pieces about how bad white cubes are. Nothing’s gonna change their worlds.

4. Then there’s the endlessly idiotic “anti-market” stance of many curators and artists involved with shows like this. Documenta 13 likely cost over $15 million. Artists are brought in; so are assistants, sometimes more than once. They make work that no individual person without a gigantic budget and enormous space could possibly afford, buy, or install. This is art only for the .01 percent. Yet this ultra-funded institutional crowd constantly crows that it is “outside the market” and that it is “anti-market.” Please. Selling to an insular, hyper-rich clique is as commercial as it gets.

5. Something really annoyed me in the lead-up to this Documenta that’s becoming commonplace at these giant shows. The official list of artists was not released until the day the show opened. The control-freak secrecy is an attempt to create a mystique; it’s an egregious disservice to the artists in the show, turning them into freaks under a sheet. It also means that those of us who don’t have our travel tabs paid for can’t make informed decisions about whether to show up at all. Curators should simply have the courage of their convictions, making it clear up front what kind of show they’re putting on. If people prejudge an event because of the list, well, that’s their problem.

6. Christov-Bakargiev claimed to have gone outside the market to select her participants. Yet more than a third of the artists represented by the Marian Goodman Gallery are in her show. Many of the others included here are the same artists who show up in all these international wing-dings. If you’re going to turn the page, then turn the page.

7. A big unnamed influence in this show is the film Apocalypse Now. I can’t tell you how many ruins, overgrown structures, blown-up craters, rural-villages, huts, return-to-nature scenarios, and shacks in the woods I saw at Documenta. It’s a Neo-Romanticism, not unlike the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century, with many of the same concerns and tics: the urge to escape society, the desire for a return to a simpler state, discomfort with the present, a preoccupation with the future, homesickness, the feeling that one is living in end or momentous times. All this is cool. I’m just saying we’ve seen this movie before.

8. A number of things at Documenta 13 that weren’t art took my breath away, in ways that turned into art. A label next to a small lovely nondescript landscape made in 2011 by Mohammad Yusuf Asefi made me love the bravery, caring, and creativity embedded in this work. It explained that in Kabul in the nineties and 2000s, Asefi carefully (and reversibly) painted over the figures in landscapes owned by the National Gallery of Kabul, saving about 80 paintings from destruction by the Taliban. I was stopped in my tracks. I loved how Mark Dion’s work merged seamlessly with life in the two additions he fashioned for Kassel’s landmark Wood Library. Here I sensed obsession, art, science, joy, and imagination fuse. I watched an elaborate lecture-diatribe-descent into psychosis by Walid Raad, as he wove together a real-life story of an art-world pension scheme, the unfathomable wealth of Abu Dhabi, and how new forms are constantly appearing if only we would notice them. Raad, before my eyes, transformed the form of the lecture into Borges by way of Kafka, Spalding Grey, Joseph Beuys, hallucinations, geometry, and fiendish imagination.

9. Someone told me that they’d heard artist Lawrence Weiner at the exposition saying “I’m still looking for something that changes my world.” I could have told Weiner that not ten feet from his own pretty good Documenta contribution, in the rotunda of the Fridericianum, nine stone figures made in Afghanistan around 4,500 years ago were the most powerful forms in the entire show. They blew me away with their loving attentive masterful detail, scale, feel for material, line, shape, density, body-language, nobility, and individuality. These figures altered my internal world forever and are now permanently installed in my inner-museum, reverberating with all the other objects there. But I didn’t tell Weiner, because I’m sort of afraid of his intelligence, and of the way he always has a coat draped over his shoulders like it’s a cape.

10. I saw an exorcism at Documenta 13. Lee Miller’s black-and-white picture of herself in Hitler’s Munich bathtub was taken in 1945, immediately after the war, and published in British Vogue. Miller’s dirty boots are up against the outside of the tub. You feel her coming into this space of phobia, psychosis, and banality; having no choice but to violate it, destroy it with life, merge with evil, wash it and herself away, letting a part of herself go down the drain with history.

11. After looking at a young woman sitting alone at a table for the longest time, I approached her and said, “Are you a piece of sculpture?” According to my checklist, outside the Orangerie, somewhere along this long graceful terrace of restaurants and cafés, there was a work by Ryan Gander. My checklist said, “An actor/actress sits in a cafe … working on a screenplay about … Hollywood.” I spent twenty minutes watching everyone. Which really must have been a sight: a haggard-looking older American man wearing his wife’s hat to protect his balding head from the sun and rain, carrying two shoulder bags filled with catalogs, pamphlets, books, notepads, extra jackets, two umbrellas, and sandwiches made at the hotel that morning, staring at the chic Documenta visitors. That’s when I spied that elegant woman sitting alone with a glass of wine, writing in a notebook. “There it is,” I thought. After I asked if she was a piece of sculpture she looked up at me surprised, and very quietly said, “Bitte Schritt entfernt.” I don’t speak German, but figured she was saying, “You are right.” I’d done it! I’m so good at this! I thought! I told everyone I met “I found the Ryan Gander!” Later my wife asked what she said and then told me, “The woman was asking you to please step away.” Art is long. So is embarrassment.

Saltz: Notes on Documenta 13