Documenta 14 debates immigration and democracy

It sits on a medium-size, industrial city at the heart of Germany’s Hesse State. The city of Kassel receives once again the Documenta 14. Although the art show has had an earlier edition in Athens, Greece, it is here that we better acknowledge its spread, disarticulated, and site-specific project. Without wrapping itself in only one sign, as the Venice Biennale does to Venice, or the São Paulo Bienal dwells on a big modernist building, the Documenta is distributed in multiple sites; it is impersonal, and does not have a big crowd, though it still conserves a certain charm.

From the short visit I paid recently, I attempted to summarise the key trends, as curators seemed particularly anxious to talk colonialism, globalization, and democracy.

1. Parthenon of books, Marta Minujín

 

As one of Kassel’s big feats of this year, the Argentinian artist Marta Minujín has recreated that old Greek Parthenon by attaching books to large, real-sized structure. Appropriately, Minujín has chosen titles that were banned during the Argentinian dictatorship. As an archetype of democracy, and culture as social justice, the construction sounds like a cliché. However, it ends up complying with Documenta’s ambition to discuss it as an ideal. First, curators seemed much influenced by the Athens’ edition. Second, as found elsewhere in the Documenta, Minujín mimics in her construction not the whole democratic project in the shape of a building, but seems to agree that “democracy” has to be re-enacted as utopia, as no building is sustained only by books. In fact, by underlining her work with bloody, and, somehow, unresolved legacy of the Argentinian dictatorship, the artist rightly recovers some degree of originality by also highlighting the slow reconstruction of democracy in her home country, since the early 1980s. The monumentality of the work at Kassel’s main square eventually helps us to forget the common place in which the artist operates.

2. Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper – Guillermo Galindo

 

By appropriating remains or reliquiae left behind by those rushing to cross the US/Mexico border, Guillermo Galindo gives us a powerful image of an important issue of our time. If migration is rather abstract and ephemeron, the artist gives to it an image of a hanging boat wreckage. If the news media exploits the portrait of migrants arriving in Greece from the East; or lining up to crosses fences in Calais, swimming to escape drowning in the Mediterranean, Galindo reverses this repertoire by promoting absence and nostalgia. Emptied bottles, a weathered plastic comb, animal bones are other parts of his imagery, as if they were monuments in praise of those who are neither there, nor here; they are gone. Such enormous drama echoes O’Keeffe with her carcasses, which also runs in risk of commoditising hardship, and the run of those souls through the desert, and yet, what happens is the opposite: the artist sensitizing us about the questions that stem from these hanging remains. The calm that arises from the still life does not explain the whole story, nor it should.

3. Proud and Well – Ali Farka Touré

 

It is easy to say that de-colonial art is something about identity and that’s it. In fact, many contemporary artists have embarked into the train of the so-called ‘identity politics’. Different from that expectation, part of the first floor of the Documenta Halle building featured the interesting work of Ali Farka (1939-2006). We find his records, posters, clothes, guitars as his resumé, which are testimonials of the exuberant career of the Malian artist. We see that part of the effort of privileging non-mainstream starts cannot escape from the mission of documenting it. It is not only about discussing it, or making it controversial, but gently memorializing it as part of collecting the relevant and the admired far from the heyday, as it happens with Touré.

4. Democracy and its Greekness

Apart from the main sites, there is much more to be seen and critiqued at Documenta 14. I tried to group some of the main works that are highly representative of other smaller initiatives. For instance, Ibrahim Mahama’s great installation that covered a pair of old buildings in central Kassel with jute sacks to remind of colonialism. Oliver Tessler’s videos on democracy, featuring commentators from different countries giving their views; Moreover, one sees the Parliament of Bodies (picture above), an interactive installation where visitors are invited to sit on military-dressed cushions and debate, as in the old Greek agora.

These works dialogue with the crisis of democracy of our time. If on the one hand,  the guest artists are well positioned to draw a consensus on what are the authoritarian forces we should fear; on the other, we are still dwelling on one kind of democracy, the Western-centric myth that has in Greece its epicenter, which is a  rather restricted thesis about it.  The universality which Documenta has over the years called to itself, firstly by Arnold Bode in 1968, does not appear to subside new visions. It is all about contemporary Europe and viewing the world from here. As far as this view still invites key issues to other non-European societies, in next editions the show must dare to break with its Eurocentrism in benefit of other kinds of realities, elevating them to the status of documents, as it has done it, over the years, with the so-called Western heritage.

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