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documenta 12

1521 words

With the documenta being one of the more famous art exhibitions and it takes place in Kassel which is rather close by, we of course had to visit the current one, documenta 12. Of course modern art can be somewhat difficult as it frequently isn’t clear how exactly things are supposed to be great / important / moving / whatever. Yet I still thought the previous documenta was sufficiently interesting to justify another visit, even if there are a number of harsh critiques out on this one.

One problem about the event is its size. There are a number of locations across Kassel and if you are there on a day trip you won’t get to see all of them. Particularly if you want to actually have a good look at things and perhaps enjoy yourself a little, have a snack in between and so on. With a ticket price of 18 Euros (12 Euros for students), the exhibition isn’t exactly cheap either. And as it seems that you have to buy a one day ticket for all locations – rather than being able to get a cheaper one for a single location and then being able to split things up across different visits without ending up broke, this was a little stressful.

We ended up visiting the three central locations – the museum Fridericanum, documenta hall and Aue Pavillion. And even that left us exhausted at the end of the day with everything still feeling like a bit of a rush.


To me the exhibition wasn’t particularly well done. In fact, it seemed downright visitor hostile to me in many places. This starts when you look at their web site which uses Courier for all the information on it – suggesting that they don’t actually want you to read their texts. The same typographical horror was seen for whatever supplementary information they posted around the exhibition.

Which, to be honest, was next to nothing. Each artwork had a label listing the artist, year of creation and materials used. And nothing else. Additional information on the artist or the clan he belongs or the ideology he subscribes to – i.e. often vital background information - were missing. I just stopped reading those after a while as I for sure neither cared about the artist’s name nor would have remembered it among the dozens of other names. There were only a few places where they posted additional information. And thanks to the typewriter look of that I just skipped those as well.

The final straw were their signposts. They used a really hard to read and rather ugly ‘hand written’ typeface for that. While that seemed consistent it certainly wasn’t particularly useful or good looking. And as they used a rather simple tinned font for it, there weren’t even variations in the glyphs which could make things, if not pretty or readable, at least vaguely clever. And I didn’t envy the people working there who had to put on ugly plastic thingies labeling them as ‘Guard’s.


The thing is that I have no idea about modern art. And with all the different styles, techniques and ideas people have there I somewhat doubt that you can actually have such an ‘idea’. Works can be ‘beautiful’ or they can manage to evoke some feelings in you. If they aren’t it’s hard to ‘get’ them. Also, plenty of modern art fails to be beautiful but instead is built on some clever idea behind it. And once you know about that idea, an otherwise non-remarkable work may actually become strikingly clever or amusing. The problem of course being that you need somebody to tell you about the idea.

And telling you about these backgrounds – as mentioned above – is something the exhibition doesn’t do. Perhaps buying a catalogue would have helped or running around listening to their podcast as a number of people did (using bank sponsored borrowable iPod nanos which make this less clumsy than the typical museum audio-guides), but with many people moving through crowded rooms I find that this turns you into an obstacle or just runs you through the exhibition with someone else’s view.

Which means we probably ‘lost out’ on a number of things just because they were only accessible to those with additional information. In a few places, you could overhear some nearby tour guide actually explaining what the point was, which helped. An example that struck people as funny was an exhibit where you saw black and white photos of what looked like Eastern European high rises. One of which with a bare breasted woman on her balcony reading a book and another with some politician driving by in a fancy car / parade. The thing you didn’t see and which made this remarkable was that the artists knew there were secret service people in the high-rises around the street of the parade, told them about the woman who was then told that she could lie on her balcony like that when the parade came by. An amusing set-up, for sure.

This example also highlights another aspect that I found quite surprising: Loads of the works they had seemed to be quite old. From the 1960s/70s/80s - where I had expected more contemporary works.

A thing I disliked about many of the exhibited works was their low quality. 10% Inspiration, 90% Transpiration is a rule that is frequently quoted. And I think it holds for art as well. People come up with millions of clever, smart, funny, ironic or iconic ideas every day. But only very few will manage to put these ideas into a form that is outstanding or unique. This may be called a conservative view of art, but if an artist’s idea isn’t particularly unique or elaborate and the execution isn’t outstanding either, what’s the point?

Many of the photos shown – they had a full room with laminated collections of small photos on related things (a concept that seems rather trivial these days as you can easily get similar collections of photos on the web) – were downright mediocre in their quality. And don’t even get me started on the films ‘artists’ make. They just don’t seem to be particularly good at that and using fancy huge HD displays to show them is just a waste of resources in many cases. But even in less technical disciplines, I often had the impression that wanting to take a closer look at a work that looked appealing from a distance often was disappointing because it lacked the attention to detail which I expect.

This makes the work seem half-assed in my opinion. Another example of that was the following: A long table with plants in it and little signs displaying plants and how these plants or their substances have been patented by multinational companies. While I’d file this as a political rather than an artistic issue, it’s certainly a worthwhile one. But it didn’t impress. All the plants they had their were pretty much identical and had nothing to do with those mentioned on the signs. And the signs which were made to look like bags of plant seeds actually had a few repeating designs only with the barcodes on the bags not being unique. Now this might have been an impressive thing if they had the actual plants there and really made everything unique. But I suppose that might have required an effort going beyond a bit of copy and paste.

Thankfully my memory isn’t that good. Otherwise I could go on writing for days on works I saw which would have benefitted from their creator actually caring about them beyond the quick ‘look here I’m clever!’ attitude (perhaps we should call them web-2-artists…)

There were a few nice works as well. I saw some clever sculpture of curvy metal sticks which surprisingly looked like heads. And there was also some metal sculptures which cast an unexpected shadow on the wall. Not bad. Some photos were rather good as well. For example a collection of photos of hairstyles of African women which looked quite cool and were printed on silver-gelatine on aluminium which probably isn’t the easiest thing to do. Another fun thing was a black painting on which you could just see white teeth and eyes. But when viewing it from the side you saw that there were different levels of reflection in the black, revealing a whole body.

Other things that were impressive for their depressing atmosphere were a red room (with the windows tinted red and the look outside being all red) with a radio and a completely dark room behind it where an undefined truckload was hiding and could be discovered after your eyes adjusted to the environment.

Apple-lovers might enjoy a work consisting of three Cinema Displays in a portrait orientation that are hung next to each other and display a shade of red which apparently is referring to terrorist alerts levels. As pointless as that may be, the screens do look good. But shouldn’t the artist have removed the Apple logos from them? I thought so.

bad photo of Exit signage at documenta 12

July 22, 2007, 13:17

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