Chatting about dOCUMENTA(13), instead of reviewing it

A. Groom Michaela Gleave Sarah Mosca Stella Rosa McDonald Sumugan Sivanesan

From: A. Groom

Subject: documenta 13 review

Date: 21 June 2012 4:08:53 PM

To: Stella McDonald, Sumugan Sivanesan, Michaela Gleave, Sarah Mosca


Hi S, S, M and S,

I agreed to review Documenta for Runway magazine, but then I realised I don’t want to. It seems to me that this Documenta has managed to emerge as a cluster of conversations rather than as a monologue, and I’d rather approach this as a series of Skype chat transcripts with some of the Sydney artists I know who are visiting Kassel (you). This will hopefully help keep things more discursive. What do you say? Chat with me? (I’ll split Runway’s writer’s fee between us.)

x A




Sumugan: Hit me

A: Hey, great to bump into you there at Kassel!

S: Yes, it was a surprise!

A: Just saw today that Occupy is there now

S: ha ha … ‘officially’?

A: Not part of the program, but sanctioned, apparently

A: It would be interesting to compare it with the stuff at the Berlin Biennale now, no? (Occupy as art?) —I haven’t seen BB yet but I keep being told it is a disaster

S: Yeah … I had a quick look around BB. The main critique seems to be about how it has ensnared/contained that kind of political work

A: Political aspects of d13 seem to have a relevant and direct presence though

S: Yes… can you be more specific?

A: Groups like Critical Art Ensemble seemed to have been given appropriate space to operate autonomously within Documenta rather than perform on its terms …

A: And within my first few hours in Kassel I was sitting in the tent with the women from the West Sahara Polisario hearing about their struggles for independence

S: Ah, yes, they were an interesting inclusion/ intervention

A: Did you eat any of their couscous?

S: Yes. And mint tea. Didn’t get a henna tattoo though, you?

A: I did, lasted forever

S: ha ha … you’ll make a good wife 😉

A: doubt it

S: … I think the Tino Sehgal work is the most ‘affective’

A: Oh I loved that work

S: Who didn’t?

A: Especially because I stumbled into it, I had no idea what was going on, I was looking for a toilet

S: Even better!

A: (Blacked out room with dozens of moving bodies making music and stories, really disorienting choreography)

A: … a definite highlight of d13, and so hard to tell anyone about it, because so corporeal

S: Yeah totally immersive

A: Do you want to talk about Etel Adnan? You loved her

S: Yes the Super 8 films were amazing! And I LOVED the conversation with CCB. How did you put it—the way she was still able to express such wonder in the world

A: Yeah pure awe, right?

S: Those things she said about the activity in stillness, the vibration of the world

A: … no objects, only energy

S: which is something that comes up in the Otolith Group film—did you see?

A: the Fukushima documentary?

S: Yes, ‘The Radiant’

A: Oh you’re right, when he talks about a Japanese word for ‘landscape’, fuukei, but it means literally ‘pictures of wind’, so ‘landscape’ is a poor translation as it suggests something static, but these images show transition—fog, mist, dusk, dawn, always flux

S: Oh great, I was trying to remember the word!

S: … It’s a tough topic to not say the obvious about.

A: Post-disaster Japan? Absolutely

A: It’s amazing how we revert to cliché in catastrophe (and in love) … I really struggle describing my experience of Tohoku

S: Tohoku?

S: Tell me more?

A: I went to the tsunami devastated towns last September

A: But yeah cliché is really all I’ve got, for something so intense

S: Yes … you could be right …

A: Thoughts on Christov-Bakargiev’s curating?

S: I think she sets a benchmark for things, in anybody else’s direction it could have slipped into a total mess

A: Yes

S: Documenta is so influential in shaping the discourse around postwar art—and this one is playing with that, asking how the past speaks to the present and visa versa

A: Yeah. Like the Picasso in Palestine film we saw?

S: Hang on I’m going to get the book …

A: OK while you’re gone I’ll briefly describe the project: the Van Abbemuseum in The Netherlands sent a Picasso painting to Ramallah last year for a temporary exhibition, it took two years to get it there – all sorts of obstacles with insuring it, sending it to a place that has no art institutions, no bureaucracy in place for accepting museum loans – they had to build humidity controlled rooms, get the work through Israeli check points etc etc

S: I think it’s a contemporary classic

S: Did you read Michael Baers’ piece?

A: Oh not yet, you told me about it, I shall


A: Thanks!

A: It raises so many questions. Does Palestine need a Picasso? Probably not. But why shouldn’t Picasso go there?

S: Well every modern state has a contemporary art museum

A: … the painting was done in Paris in 1944, when that city was under occupation, but in becoming a twentieth century masterpiece its political potency was diluted—remember Žižek in the film making the gaze of Picasso’s woman the gaze of the ‘occupied’ state, looking both inwards and outwards?

S: Yes. .. What about the Paul Chan talk we went to?

A: … ‘objects do not think’

S: Well they don’t think like we do

A: This was very important to him, personifying objects was too close to objectifying people

S: Of course the … ahem … current discourse is around our relationship with ‘things’

A: and there’s so much at the moment on the agency of ‘things’

A: oh jinx

S: snap

S: I have no problem with objectifying people

A: But if humans are objects, what is a corpse?

S: Meat

S: … was there a corpse?

A: No corpses in Documenta 13! It doesn’t have everything after all

S: I’m not so sure … There were pieces of the Bamiyan Buddhas … I reckon there’s a corpse in there somewhere




Michaela: Hi A, ready to tackle the beast when you are

A: Hi! So you did the whole Euro summer art tour? Manifesta, Track, Berlin Biennale, Paris Triennale, Documenta?

M: I certainly did. It was quite a whirlwind. You?

A: Yes …

A: This was the first Documenta I’ve been to, and I think I expected a lot more nonsense —there was none of the glitz and sycophancy of a Venice Biennale opening, for instance, no Disneyland queues or corporate-sponsored VIP sections …

M: Yes the lack of glitz is refreshing

M: … It’s really exciting seeing art on this scale. The scale is so impossible, I guess that’s part of the plan. Also one of the weird things—how many people would have been able to travel to all those venues?! I’m not sure how I feel about that aspect but wowee, I really enjoyed my time there.

A: Yeah it’s really unthinkably huge and dispersed … and it’s feeling even less graspable to me now: the closer you look, the more it expands. I think it is actually physically impossible to see it in entirety (Cairo, Banff, Kabul?)— And that’s the quantum physics stuff, being in more than one place at the same time?

M: Yes 🙂 The show obviously takes itself very seriously but the nice thing is it feels no need to bombard the audience—rather building these layers of experiences to create a giant, amorphous mass

A: Yes it’s extremely well researched without being dogmatic—rigour isn’t confused with rigidity. But you have reservations about the immensity of it?

M: I love the immensity of it. I also find it a little problematic. On one hand it is beautiful, this feeling of ungraspability as one navigates their own path through, forming links. On the other hand it could be read as art for the super elite, a prize for the 0.01% … I don’t know. I think the web she created was really powerful and magical, but at some point this might spill into decadence?

A: Speaking of decadence, did you see the Omer Fast video work in the park, with the looped incestuousness of the bourgeois German couple and their ‘son’ returning from war in Afghanistan?

M: Oh yes! That was super amazing, and strange and challenging

A: Really got to me, so beautifully produced, and so deeply horrifying. The title is ‘Continuity’—I also find that disturbing: the cinematic reel, the circular narrative, and trauma’s insistence on repetition.

M: The festishization of war, the confusion of motivations driving political acts, the distance between these concurrent events in time, space and experience.

A: I am told they are supposed to be hiring male escorts in each chapter, getting them to dress up as the son they have lost in Afghanistan, with sex standing in for loss.

M: Yes, I didn’t realise that until I referred back to the book. These very intense emotions colliding with one another. I imagine that’s what happens during war, the mind and body get pushed so far that these basic human responses, sex and violence, collide …

A: What did you think about all those separate huts in the park?

M: I spent the whole of my first day in the park, with a bicycle, so saw almost everything … It is odd to have created so many little ‘galleries’, but the nature of most of the work fitted conceptually well, if not physically so well.

A: Did you get therapy at Pedro Reyes’s ‘Sanatorium’, or hypnosis in Raimundas Malašauskas and Marcos Lutyens’s ‘Reflection Room’?

M: I missed my reflection room booking but had a group therapy session in the Sanatorium.

A: I missed both. How was therapy?

M: It was relaxing and fun but ultimately seemed vacant to me … I thought relational work didn’t stand up very well in Documenta … I don’t think this means relational forms are over, I just think good art needs to be engaging with such trends in a more sincere way. And after the Berlin Biennale, the Occupy movement is definitely not art!

M: A poetic imagination is a requirement of art, and I appreciate that there were very few didactic political works in d13.

A: The resistance to didacticism is a real achievement, and yet there are political voices that feel alive and urgent, and that are given their own space to operate in

M: Indeed. Sincerity. I didn’t ever feel like I or the subject of the work was being exploited.

A: But that was the feeling you had at the Berlin Biennale?

M: Gosh, Berlin. It was incredibly arrogant of the curators, exclusive of the viewer, artificial, and it would have been nice to see some art in there! All of these shows really were a tour de force of the curators, for better of worse. And, Berlin just crashed spectacularly.

A: There is still this concern over the rise of the curator’s power (concomitant with the fall of the critic’s power)—but I think a positive thing about making the curator a more present force is it that it means they have to be accountable, you know?

M: I agree, I’m enjoying the position of curators in these settings.




Sarah: Are you there?

A: Hey. I was just looking up the Daniel Gustav Cramer and Haris Epaminonda installation

S: … swoon

A: Great huh?

S: Just so great

A: Took me a while to give … that subtle manipulation of the architecture, the use of negative space, objects always partially obscured, and those big bronze balls in the attic—those balls knew something …

S: Ha. It all felt so beautifully considered and choreographed

A: Elegant but unsettling

S: Elegant is a good word

A: Also precarious and tense, which I loved

A: What were other highlights for you?

S: Ceal Floyer

S: Tino Sehgal

A: yes!

S: Ryan Gander

A: yes yes

S: Gerard Byrne

S: Tacita Dean

A: OK here’s a question

S: ready

A: Can you say anything more critical about this Documenta? Because when I met you for coffee yesterday we were pretty emphatically approving, and I may have even said it was the best thing I have ever seen, and it can’t ALL be good, right?

S: It is a good question

S: OK thinking thinking

S: … Biennales etc are often about the spectacle—this Documenta I felt resisted the spectacle

A: Mmm, and there’s an unusual earnestness, or lack of cynicism

S: It makes me want to make big statements

A: Hang on just grabbing some juice …

A: … yeah! It’s intelligent and curious without shying away from immensity. Cheers!

S: OK still looking for a negative …

A: The website is completely shit

S: hmmm Kassel needs to be more bike friendly

A: Bam! Take that Kasssel

A: … ok ok

A: You mentioned Ryan Gander

S: yes

A: Could you please describe his work, ‘I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull)’ for the readers?

S: A gentle breeze moving through the front rooms of the Fridericianum, otherwise empty, with no art object to be seen

A: When I was there the floors were pretty dirty and clumps of dust were blowing in the breeze: Object?

S: Wow

A: Made it seem like something had been removed, something heavy that had been there for a long time

S: That is a great way to look at it

S: These shows are so heavy, the history, the responsibility, the discourse and criticism … the Julio Gonzalez statues in this space were also beautiful—a restaging of his work from the 1959 Documenta

A: Yeah that was great, there’s a real thread of playing with the weight and potential malleability of history

S: Exactly




Stella: Where you at babe?

A: Hello I’m in a waffle cafe in Berlin

A: Where are you at?

S: Safely ensconced in apartment on Chateau d’eau in Paris. Africans are spruiking cornrows outside

A: So, Documenta. You were impressed.

S: Yes. I kept encountering things and thinking ‘oh, I like this, I actually like it’—and being surprised by that … one work that really affected me and also kind of sums up the premise of d13: Korbinian Aigners’ apple paintings, did you see them?

A: Yes! Astounding … what a find! Hundreds of postcard-sized paintings of different varieties of apples by a Bavarian pastor who ended up in the nearby Dachau concentration camp for his anti-Nazi sermons, and who cultivated a new strand of apple every year of his imprisonment … Did you try the apple juice they did in Kassel?

S: I did not, I can’t even remember eating in Kassel actually … don’t you think the “apple priest” room expresses perfectly the mix of biography, history and artistry that was there?

A: Yeah, and it’s not just an amazing forgotten story, the paintings are also exceptional

S: You can taste the crunch

A: The whole approach to history throughout d13 is really smart …

S: Yep, I wouldn’t really want to term it as an historical investigation or challenge to historical representation. The feeling was that d13 is a curious being that wants to disseminate every corner of the world … did you see the Hannah Ryggen tapestries?

A: They blew my mind to pieces! Swedish woman stitching anti-fascist tapestries in the lead up to WWII …

S: They’re incredible and violent, and she must have been so alone in not only her work but also her political position and activism … she was a carpet activist!

A: There was anger and terror in the images, but such dedication to careful, delicate labour

S: Yeah

S: But do you sense something of the ethnographer’s zoo in certain works at this Documenta? Like the West Sahara tent, or Anibal Lopez bringing a Guatemalan hit man to stand behind a screen and speak about ‘the social and political circumstances in Central America and armed conflicts everywhere’ to an audience via simultaneous translators?

A: Yeah this is a general criticism that is surfacing. Like with the Documenta seminars in Cairo: *why* are we planting this German art show in these sites of current political struggle? What can d13 possibly do for Cairo? I think the curating starts to look a bit ADHD in these areas.

S: Yeah the ‘four positions’ that were meant to connect to the four curatorial conditions—Banff, Cairo, Kabul, Kassel. I guess an attempt to decentralise d13? But the ‘conditions’ did not mean much to me, the works and venues and museums said it all without having to read ‘on stage’ ‘under siege’ ‘in a state of hope’ ‘on retreat’

A: Decentralising d13 = international holidays for Team Documenta?

S: haha, wonder if they got to ‘retreat’ in Kabul, or be ‘under siege’ in Banff 😉

A: ha

S: I did feel like I gained an insight into Kabul though, warzones can seem hopeless places, already disappeared, but the connection to it at d13 gave it life

A: Yes I also felt that with the Picasso in Palestine project—such a dramatic contrast from the media representation of the place and situation.

A: Umm … Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller?

S: Only did the sound work in the park …. was totally fooled by it—trying to ‘find’ the work, while the whole time I was experiencing it. When connections were made to Kassel, the concentration camps and the painting in the Orangerie collection, the ground moved, you know? There was suddenly a split in the fabric where you moved closer to the people who carried on their lives next to these torture chambers, or who lived through bombing and destruction.

A: A similar thing with their ‘Alter Bahnhof Video Walk’ at the train station—the threshold between passive spectatorship and confrontation with the other is crossed very quickly, as historic catastrophe becomes present … that work is also a meditation on the distance between people/lovers, between pasts and presents, the impossibility of reaching outside the self, ‘connecting’

A: … are you there?

A: … lost you!


A. Groom is writer who grew up in Sydney and currently lives in London. She recently edited an anthology on the theme of 'time' for...

Michaela Gleave is an Australian-based artist whose practice investigates perception and the systems and structures through which we construct our understanding of reality.  Operating across a diverse range...

Sarah Mosca is an artist and curator currently based in Sydney. Her practice explores the sculptural possibilities and materiality of photographs and investigates ideas regarding...

Stella Rosa McDonald is an artist and writer based in Sydney. She has contributed writing to Vitamin P3, New Perspectives in Painting (Phaidon), Ocula, The...

Sumugan Sivanesan is an anti-disciplinary writer, researcher and artist. His interests range across: Contemporary Art and Activism, Media Theory, Multispecies Politics, Queer Theory, Tamil Diaspora...


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