Wind and strings: five of Documenta 13’s best

I’ve given a venue-by venue guide to Documenta 13 here, but I promised to cover a few faves in more depth. I’ve been busy redesigning estimable art monthly The Art Newspaper, so my reviews are a bit late – but here they finally are, just a fortnight before Documenta’s whole five-yearly art-boree ends.

Susan Philipsz: 
“Study for Strings”
Hauptbahnhof

• Kassel’s massive, superannuated central train station is an atmospheric place: a mix of 19th and 20th century architecture thanks to the RAF’s wartime visits, it is nowadays bombed only by pigeons (so watch for plummeting guano). A bit remains smart and is still used for trains, while the rest crumbles into weedy decay or is repurposed as creative spaces. At the end of platform 13, where unwilling passengers once departed for the concentration camps, a ghostly piece of music plays over the tannoy every 15 minutes: a snippet of the modernist “Study for Strings” by Paval Haas, a local Jewish composer. From this very station he was deported to Terezín, where in 1943 he wrote this bleak chamber piece; a year later he died in the gas chambers, though the music clearly survived. There’s always the thorny question of whether it’s possible to make art about the Holocaust, but Philipsz didn’t create this, she’s just resurrecting and re-presenting it. The music’s emotive power is magnified by platform 13’s mountain-framed desolation, its tangle of black power lines stretching hazily away beneath bomb-amputated church spires and a skeletal, watchtower-like phone mast. Straining to hear the frail music, it comes as a physical jolt when a real tannoy message barks over it, a real train pulls in, and real Germans stream out – all unaware, no doubt, of the scratchy music at the disused end of the platform, and how it’s altered the perceptions of a small group of listeners loitering uncomfortably there.

Video clip (disappointingly static, but at least a train appears at the end):

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller:
“Alter Bahnhof Video Walk”
Hauptbahnhof
“Forest (for a thousand years)”
Karlsaue Park

• The highlight of my visit was undoubtedly this Canadian duo’s half hour video walk through the most resonant venue, Kassel’s old Hauptbahnhof. Holding an iPod’s hi-res little screen before you, with headphones enveloping you in utterly convincing Binaural sound, you are guided through the station by a narrated film, meshing sensitively together memories of the speaker, the building, and their relationship to the Holocaust. Weaving through the real station, seen only as a frame around the unnervingly immersive video, you start to believe the filmed figures – clattering travellers suddenly dropping their wheelie suitcases, dancers grappling in a vaulted hall – are real, and treat the real people as ghosts. If you’re walking round with a companion whose digital visions are slightly ahead of yours, as I was, it’s even more disturbing. Is this what the onset of schizophrenia feels like, I wondered at one point – or is it that I haven’t played enough video games? It’s either cognitive dissonance in action, or how we’ll all interact in future.

Equally gripping was the Cardiff & Miller’s sound installation in a dell in the park, for which you don’t even need a ticket. A compilation of noises you would and wouldn’t want to hear in such a setting, it runs the gamut from birdsong, domestic clitter-clatter and a heavenly choir to stormy thrashing, charging horses and a blistering bombing raid. Threatening at first to be a simplistic play on life and death, it rapidly develops into something more complex and strange, though I never worked out quite what they were driving at. What’s really compelling is the superb sound quality and the bosky setting (possibly more challenging on a rainy day) – true 3D surround-sound in nature, which as with the Hauptbahnhof video walk, tricks the brain into treating as real what’s not really there. I’ve never been a fan of the pair’s work before, finding its too-careful construction rather twee and laboured, but I’ll pay more attention in future.

Video clip (Video Walk):

Video clip (Forest):

Haegue Yang:
“Approaching: Choreography Engineered in Never-Past Tense”
Hauptbahnhof

• Being a keen follower of this Seoul artist’s immersive domestic environments, I knew broadly what to expect: a derelict platform with an installation of venetian blinds. Going by her previous atmospheric work, I was looking forward to a fragile confusion of ricketty multicolour kitchen blinds, perhaps blown by electric fans and wafting with the smells of past-their-sell-by-date oriental foodstuffs. What I found was altogether darker, and cleverly apt for the space. Hanging above the shadowy tracks were serried ranks of sombre blinds of the kind more normally seen in minimalist yuppie-dromes, neatly arranged up and down the platform, uniform in their metallic black perforated slats and beige cording, which gleamed like golden epaulettes in the broken sunlight. The only noise was an intermittent snap and whirr, as hidden mechanisms caused batches of blinds to smoothly open and close, rise and fall, reveal and conceal, in a glacial string-driven choreography. It was fast and slow at the same time: movements always seemed to start where you weren’t looking, so alerted by another snap and whirr, you’d whirr your head too, to be confronted by a bank of blinds half way through some stately movement. The evocations and contradictions were obvious but effective: hide and show, domesticity versus office, drilling as dancing, public display masking hidden control, veiling used for modesty or temptation, with even a hint of monkish garb complicating the military implications of the cappuccino colourway. Aaaaah, cappuccino. Another point in favour of this installation is that it’s next to the cafe.

Video clip (sadly non-moving):

Allora & Calzadilla:
“Raptor’s Rapture”
Weinberg Bunker

• Screened in a cave-like bunker, and requiring viewers to don ill-fitting white hard hats to view it, this stupidly-named film’s venue is presumably a somewhat literal reference to archaeological digs. Some musically-expert friends found the whole experience uncontrollably hilarious, which I can understand, but I enjoyed this odd little chamber piece, and not just because I was accompanied by a prehistorian. In a glossily filmed scenario reminiscent of an earnest New Romantic music video, a woman struggles to blow a stringy bone pipe, watched over by a huffy, fluffy vulture. The woman is a flautist allegedly expert in prehistoric musical instruments, the prehistoric bone pipe is one of the earliest such ever found, and the bird is – supposedly – a descendent of the provider of the bone. The flautist (whose bona fides my cynical musical friends seriously questioned) looks utterly perplexed by the instrument; she treats it like a puzzle, tapping it, puffing over the finger holes, stuffing gunk in the end, holding it like a flute, and doing everything except giving it a good old parp. Her experimental approaches make only terrible sounds as she goes redder in the face and the tension and embarrassment grow, till at one climactic point she does get a few harmonious notes from it. But who’s to say the pipe ever worked? Maybe it was broken, maybe it was a reject, maybe an Amazonian tribesperson would have had more luck. It’s a fascinating look at how we interpret such mute relics, though the distinctly non-rapturous raptor doesn’t add much. My prehistorian companion wasn’t impressed either, so maybe I’m the only person who found enlightenment in the film’s ear-splitting absurdity.

Video clip (Raptor’s Rapture appears half way through):

Ryan Gander:
“I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull)”
Friedericianum

• I know Gander is a “good thing”, a generous, public-spirited fellow who helps other artists along, but I never really get his work. This, however, I did get: a mildly chilly blast of air, as if from a windfarm-scaled Dyson fan, rushing softly and urgently through the near-empty ground floor of Documenta’s large primary venue. On a basic human level, this works on two counts. If it’s hot and humid weather (likely in high summer in central Germany), then it’s nice to cool down. And if you’ve already been trawling round art-stuffed venues for a couple of weary days, as I had, then it’s a massive relief to find two whole display halls with nothing to do in them but stand and shoot the breeze. On an art level it also works, and not just – as the curator has stated – as Documenta’s austere anti-commercial riposte to glitzy art market billionaire-fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze. Surely, in arse-obsessed Germany, Gander saw a baser play on the relationship between Documenta and wind: a giant fart in the face of the assembled art intelligentsia’s overwrought (and often pseudo) intellectualism. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part.

Video clip (not much happening, you had to be there):

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