Art shows in Kassell and Münster

Time Out examines serious work in nondescript German towns but finds itself in danger of becoming just a ’prisoner of art‘…

  • Art shows in Kassell and Münster

    Ai Weiwei's 1,001 Qing dynasty chairs, standing in for the Chinese citizens invited to take part in his mass migration work, 'Fairytale'.

  • Documenta is a serious name for a serious show. Regarded as the most important contemporary art show anywhere, the so-called ‘100-day museum’ only comes once every five years, placing a huge weight of expectation on the organisers to stage a meaningful, era-defining display. The nondescript city of Kassel in central Germany was chosen to host the first Documenta in 1955 to help heal a war-broken country through the presentation of international art of the highest order. The main venue, the Friedericianum, is the oldest museum in Europe but was just a bombed-out shell for Documenta 1, which presented previously-‘degenerate’ art by Picasso and Kandinsky. The ten legendary editions since have included spectacular projects such as Joseph Beuys’ planting of 7,000 oaks and the reorganisation of a whole residential neighbourhood of Kassel by artists and architects.


    In an art world now accustomed to such grandiose gestures, this year’s curators Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack have tried to change the way we look at art by making discrete connections between ancient cultures and diverse points of view – an admirable vision to place new with old and familiar with unfamiliar. One example of this was the decision to include a chef among the artists for the first time, picking Ferran Àdria, the alchemist of restaurant El Bulli, who has influenced the far-out cuisine of Heston Blumenthal. However, the Catalan cook cannot concoct his famous Parmesan marshmallows or puffed-rice paella anywhere but at his laboratory of a kitchen, so visitors to Kassel are somehow expected to travel to northern Spain to experience this hidden portion of the show.

    The thinking behind Documenta quickly begins to unravel elsewhere, most spectacularly in the purpose-built outdoor greenhouse that was dubbed ‘The Crystal Palace’ in reference to Paxton’s south London architectural wonder. The plastic structure is oppressively hot and dark, and looks more like an animal shed or a ‘piggery’ than an airy exhibition hall. Yet another bold idea that fails to live up to its billing is Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s ‘Fairytale’ project to invite 1,001 of his countrymen to inhabit Kassel for the duration of Documenta. Any intended frisson of ‘otherness’ that this influx was supposed to cause is nullified by the already healthy mixture of Turkish, Russian and Kurdish immigrants in the city and a compromise with the authorities that means bringing five smaller groups for just eight days each.

    With too much anthropological and ethnographical emphasis on the choice of artists – be they Inuit or Indian, from Lagos or Lomianki in Poland – the lack of Brits in the show hardly seems to matter, not least because Documenta 12 will not linger long in the memory.

    Some works stand out among the chromophobic mass of politically engaged tedium, including an incredible dissection of a live football match by Harun Farocki and the monumental painted scrolls of Beijing’s frightening building programme by Lu Hao. In addition to the marginalised folk from afar is a greying brigade of overlooked conceptual artists from the 1960s and ’70s that includes surfboard minimalist John McCracken and architectural agitator Charlotte Posenenske, who generally put their younger colleagues to shame. However, many of their newer works deserve to be ignored, notably Mary Kelly’s recollection of a feminist demo outside the 1971 Miss World contest at the Albert Hall, which has lost all immediacy since she first wrote the words: ‘Miss Used, Miss Laid, Miss Taken.’

    This year’s indifferent outing will not spell the death of Documenta, but all blockbuster shows should be aware that they are now competing with the more frequent art fairs, which are rarely so dull or obscurantist. One fashion boutique in Kassel summed it up by subverting Documenta’s logo – twelve marks of the kind etched onto cell walls – by scrawling ‘Prisoner of Art’ in its shop window. At least there are only about 90 days left.

    Rarer still on the art calendar is the Sculpture Project in Münster, also in Germany. Every ten years public art is presented in every nook and cranny of the city, from the tax office to the public loos and the cake shop. Much of the thrill of the hunt for these scattered sculptures is in stopping for a snack, getting waylaid in a local market or exploring the parks and lakes on one of Münster’s many bicycles. There is a great sound piece under a bridge by Susan Philipsz (who once sang Radiohead to shoppers in a Bethnal Green Tesco), as well as Mike Kelley’s bizarre petting zoo, where visitors are thrust into a throng of cows and goats to consider their place in the circus ring of contemporary art. Or you can contemplate mortality while standing six feet underground in Bruce Nauman’s ‘Square Depression’, a huge sunken concrete plaza, originally proposed for the first Münster Sculpture Project in 1977.

    If further threatened by sheets of rain, then head inside for the film screenings, among them the hilarious playlet by Elmgreen & Dragset called ‘Drama Queens’, which stars six spinning, talking, remote-controlled sculptures, based on Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Elegy III’ of 1966, Alberto Giacometti’s ‘Walking Man’ of 1947 and others. The ‘Robot Wars’-meets-Samuel Beckett script, penned by Tim Etchells of British performance troupe Forced Entertainment, contains tonnes of jokes at the expense of these high-minded sculptures, including the grunting disapproval of the angry German stone stack at the poetic titles of the others: ‘Ich bin Untitled’. Not serious or snobbish, not political or peripheral, but clever and entertaining.

    ‘Documenta 12’ continues until Sep 23; ‘Sculpture Project Münster’ until Sep 30; see www.documenta.de or www.skulptur-projekte.de.

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