documenta 14


Roars of warfare in the cinemas and a cannibal in the tofu factory

Film as medium at eminent exhibition


documenta 14 from Adam Szymczyk constitutes a reading of modernity’s art history, and by doing so, he continues to pursue the paradigmatic aspirations of this major exhibition since it was first held in Kassel in 1955. It is one of the greatest exhibitions of contemporary art, with film programmes being a component of it already from the beginning, in addition to film and media installations since documenta 8 (1987) at the latest.


Szymczyk’s compilation of artistic positions aims to provide spaces for diversity, and in this way, he recounts stories of the suppression to which this art has been exposed and the intransigence with which it stubbornly affirms its own position and repeatedly poses critical questions. In this regard, the “prevailing” discourse is always recognisable as a negative mould, whether as a counter model that has to be overcome, or as a pattern of appropriation.


One unique subject of the exhibition is the issue of notation, the question of the forms and possibilities of recordings. In this sense, the focus is placed on the documentary as a classic theme of film and on the indexical as a concept of photography. With artistic positions reflecting their standpoints close to and at a remove from that being depicted. Consequently, the categorisation of the immediate presence in the works on display takes a back seat in favour of approaches that reveal their own referential structures and accentuate the specific narrative.


In a typescript from Jani Christou from 1969 on display in the documenta exhibition building, the word “re-enactment” appears. The repeating in conscious imitation and differentiation of an original event permits, by attempting to have a greatest possible approximation to the exemplary occurrence, a return that extends to the delusion of authenticity. Doing so, the first action is eclipsed by the renewed action. And loses itself with each further performance. Understandably, this is of interest to a composer such as Christou, as each depiction represents for him an imitation from the matrix of the original score. These are accompanied in the documenta venue by photographs and sketched layout plans that document dance choreographies from Anna Helprin. Next to this, Igo Diarra has collected photographic material about the Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, as well as the band members remaining after his death, and juxtaposes these with their items of clothing. Thus, the reality is abrogated in the photos and the clothes.


The repetition of memories through filmic media in documenta 14 seems at times like a kind of deep drilling exercise. Historically, it leads to the era of World War II or the 1970s. The films being screened in the exhibition space on monitors or as projections permit insights into the studios of artists and their ways of life at locations beyond the usual routes. And utilise the actual distance within the filmic medium, which consists of transformations in immaterial projections, to present intimate situations. This permits, above and beyond the aesthetic boundaries, a closeness to the human body, especially when this is a “different” one because it concerns a deformed or stylised body. To some extent, the films occur installed with other objects, or with documents and works of art, and together with paintings, photography or drawings.


In his three-channel video installation, Naeem Mohaiemen recounts the history of the non-aligned states in the 1970s (fig. 1). Doing so, their political actors at that time, including Tito, Gaddafi, Castro, Boumedienne or Gandhi, are shown in historical recordings, such as at the Algerian conference in 1973. Their iconic appearance is placed in relation to the modern, utopian architecture of conference rooms and accompanied by current assessments from historians and artists. This work is being shown in a separate room on the second floor of the Landesmuseum. Running for 85 minutes and with a dramatic composition that follows the historic course of the events, it does indeed correspond more to the format of a feature-length film. Yet by contrast, its camera tracks through the buildings demand an encounter with the images in the space. And through the episodic separation, the concept is also conveyed in individual sections. Within the scope of a major exhibition such as documenta with so many works on display, the length of time one spends in the installation remains far below its total screening time. On the one hand, a soundtrack with a rhythmically pulsating bass sound illustrates the relentless advance of history, while on the other hand, through the pattern of repetition, the section being viewed extends beyond its own boundaries.


Fig. 1: Naeem Mohaiemen (born 1969, London): Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), three-channel digital video installation, colour, sound, 85 min, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Michael Nast


Likewise, despite having pre-set starting times, viewers are permitted to view the film from Douglas Gordon, which is being screened in a multiplex cinema, at all times, so that coming and going by the audience also occurs during the screenings. Which is even more disruptive as the film is designated most of the time by a black screen. The auditorium is completely dark and it is not uncommon for those entering or leaving the cinema to reach for the torchlight on their smartphones to find their way around. The main reason arguing for this work to be screened in a cinema is the sound system there, which permits an enhanced spatial experience of the piece’s soundscape. Gordon’s work focuses on the biography of the filmmaker Jonas Mekas. He personally narrates an account of his flight during World War II, which is interwoven with his first time in New York, thus getting directly under the viewers’ skin, especially because the sense of bodily distance progressively disappears in the complete darkness. A longer passage with the sounds of war is particularly intense, conveying the acoustic impression that bombs and grenades are falling beside us and gun volleys are whooshing right over our heads. Only rarely is the darkness severed with images, such as a hand touching the camera lens or the image of a monkey staring listlessly (fig. 2). It illustrates a passage in the narrative where Mekas is describing a visit to a zoo in Hamburg, in which only a monkey survived the bombing raids.


Fig. 2: Douglas Gordon (born 1966, Glasgow, Scotland): I Had Nowhere to Go: A Portrait of a Displaced Person, 2016, digital video transferred from Super 8 film and video, colour and black, sound, 97 min, Cinestar, Kassel, © Douglas Gordon/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke


Mekas’ biography as a “displaced person” finds its equivalent in the biographies of numerous artists in the exhibition.


The special relation of a bodily impact of the incorporeal film medium can also be found in a work that is being shown in the white, tiled spaces of a former tofu factory. The close-ups on the face of an old man are in such sharp focus that every pore can be seen, with the sebum on his skin and the tear fluid in the corners of his eyes perceptible and triggering off revulsion. Other sequences from this large-scale projection film work by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor are shot out of focus using a handheld camera, thus conveying an impression of immediate closeness (fig. 3). In a slow and broken voice, the Japanese man Issei Sagawa – who is being insistently urged to do so by the brother caring for him – recounts how in 1981 he killed and partly ate the body of his fellow Dutch female student in Paris. Doing so, the film concentrates in big close-ups on the pages of a comic drawn by the cannibal himself. The explanatory displays scattered throughout his narrative, such as a childhood recollection of a miscarriage his mother had, or his obsession with white women, like the star Grace Kelly, seem pitiful, frightening and fascinating at one and the same time. Old black and white film footage from his family life is being projected parallel to it in the entrance.


Fig. 3: Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (born 1971, Neuchâtel, Switzerland/born 1968, Liverpool): Commensal, 2017, double projection, digital video, 16 mm film transferred from Super 8 film, video: colour, sound, ca. 30 min, film: colour and black & white, sound, ca. 40 min, installation view, tofu factory, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke


That the documenta curatorial team decided to show this piece in a former tofu factory may seem like a bad joke, yet it is one repeated within the conception for the exhibition:

Ben Russell’s multi-part video installation about miners in Serbia and Suriname is being screened, of all places, in the cellars of the Fridericianum with its rough stone vaults, while Susan Hiller’s video work about dying languages has been installed in the GRIMM WORLD venue in reference to the German dictionary written by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. However, these multi-layered works are capable of withstanding such eye-catching contextualizations and, through their complexity, resisting such one-sided curatorial attributions.


Fig. 4: Ben Russell (born 1976, Springfield, Massachusetts): Good Luck, 2017, four-channel digital video installation, transferred from 16 mm film, colour and black & white, sound, 71 min, installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke


With its four channels, Ben Russell’s work corresponds to the concept for a classic multi-part video installation, as its individual film tracks are screened on differing spatial berths bordering each other. The work starts with images of a countryside rutted and completely ploughed up, so-to-speak, by an open-case mine. This is shot by a camera slowly following a mineworker. Subsequently, the artist shows portraits of the miners, which they themselves have taken with an automatic release mechanism. On the third track, we see them in a lift going down in to the pit, and in the fourth track on their break (fig. 4). Something like an everyday occurrence within an extreme situation appears to unfold in these cinematic images of their break from work and their discussions. Their conversation seems to be recorded in real time. With their time together determined by completely normal topics, the great desires for a better life or small jokes among the miners. The simplicities and banalities emerge from a certain implacability in the film, which records whatever appears before its camera lens when this is forgotten by the people being observed by it – as happens only too much nowadays – and shoots what they are talking about and how they are behaving. Moreover, this develops over time through uniformity and duration, or through awkward pauses that did not end up on the editing suite floor. This is recurring as a topos through several film works in the exhibition. The everyday can even be found when fleeing from war or when the elderly man requiring care is a cannibal. It plays the central role when invalids from the Chechen war have to do physical exercises in order to get used to wearing prostheses and be able to lead a normal life doing so.

In six projections, Artur Żmijewski presents men maimed in war during sports training (fig. 5). The men move in such a natural way as though a blind spot is concealing the places where their limbs are missing. Comparable exercises by the men and their repetition in the six projections create a spatial rhythm that is reminiscent of the uniform motion sequences of a machine and exemplifies therein the desired ideal for having functioning actions in an impaired reality of life.


Fig. 5: Artur Żmijewski (born 1966, Warsaw): Realism, 2017, six-channel digital video transferred from 16 mm film, black & white, no sound, each ca. 4 to 12 min, installation view, Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost), Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke


In a further thematic area, several cinematic works in documenta 14 take their viewers into the studios of artists. For instance, Rosalind Nashashibi documents the living and working conditions of the Jewish artists Vivian Suter and her mother Elisabeth Wild in Guatemala. Greta Brătescu devotes a short film to her studio in Bucharest, made in 1978. And Ashley Hans Scheirl stages and presents himself in his studio in a direct interaction with his artworks. In all of these cases however, further works are exhibited with the films: In addition to Nashashibi’s film, which is being projected in the natural history museum Ottoneum, there are also works by the two painters being portrayed by her for documenta 14. Pieces by Vivian Suter are on display in a glass pavilion on Kurt-Schumacher-Straße, while collages by Elisabeth Wild can be found in the Neue Galerie. Several paintings by Nashashibi are on show in Palais Bellevue, including one with the title “Vivian’s Garden”. Brătescu’s filmic portrait of her studio is being screened together with the corresponding screenplay. Produced on a single sheet with overlapping drawn perspectives, it seems like an alternative form of film script. The camera slowly glides from one object to the next with an awareness for the simple things. Running next to it on a further monitor in the Neue Galerie is a performance documentation of the artist, again accompanied by the corresponding screenplay. Likewise, Scheirl’s works can be seen in the Neue Galerie. In these filmic pieces, he presents his acrylic paintings as trading partners, masks, body extensions or camouflage. Among others, he pulls on a painting by sticking his legs through slits in the surface of the picture intended for this purpose. These films occur as documentations of performances and studio processes on small monitors placed inconspicuously on the floor, like a commentary on the large paintings hanging above them on the wall. His works stand for transgender themes in documenta 14, which are also addressed, among others, by a monumental painting from Lorenza Böttner in the Neue Galerie and documents on her life.


The film thus becomes the place of action for the performance, which can be contextualised and edited differently by the medium. The recording and the screening by means of a projection or on a monitor create a medial differentiation, a distance between the documented event and the recipients. This aesthetic border protects the artist, as indeed the viewer,  thereby maintaining the spatial intimacy. When the actors in Peter Friedl’s “Report” – refugees living in Athens – read the text from Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” in their respective mother tongues, the distance is preserved by the filmic adaptation: None of them look directly into the camera. It is as though they – and through them also the viewers they represent – are not present. On the other hand, the lack of visual contact is a topos of narrative cinema, generated by the voyeuristic desires of the viewers. They would like to have something recounted to them without them being noticed doing so. Kafka’s text deals with an experimental attempt by an ape to adapt itself to the behaviour of humans. One of the perverse paradoxes of such social patterns is that the integration of “displaced people” is demanded unilaterally without its counterpart becoming visible or even wanting to be affected by this. Accordingly, Friedl’s film is being screened in the Stadtmuseum in Kassel, which does indeed address the history of migration in the city, but inevitably in a museum setting.


The concentration on the issue of the filmic image at documenta 14 is due to the fact that a fundamental contextual aspect of the exhibition, the view of Athens, has only been taken into consideration in the case of the work by Peter Friedl, as there is a unique contextual connection here. The majority of the works being discussed were also displayed at the exhibition locations in Athens. Or other works by the same artists were shown there. However in both Kassel and Athens, the works are situated with a reference to their locations.


The filmic image in the documenta 14 exhibition utilises the medial distance to establish a closeness to that which is remote temporally, spatially and contextually. In this way, a polyphony is created that confronts the established stringent narrative of art history in the modern age. The use of film in conjunction with other artistic objects opens up the exhibition space on a perspective level. The art object creates a presence, which is juxtaposed with the absence of the realities represented in film. Doing so, the individual artistic forms of film are suppressed to the benefit of the narratives established by it. For this very reason however, the much-loved film work by Roee Rosen does represent an exception to this. The piece being screened in Palais Bellevue reveals in an absurdly comic way the relationship between the Israeli refugee policy and a fetishized Dyson vacuum cleaner in an erotic operetta. Several of the films being shown as installations, and especially those with longer screening times, do however disintegrate into small parts because they can only be viewed for a short period of time at the exhibition as a rule. This segmented and skimmed viewing occurs inevitably due to the abundance of work on display in such a large exhibition, in which the works also converge on a thematic level. This is contrasted by the attempt to give some justice to individual positions in their respective unwieldiness.