is a column with my personal observations in the field of sculpture. I’m an art critic for magazines and a newspaper and correspondent for Sculpture Network in The Netherlands. In Field Post, I’m happy to share my experiences and thoughts with you.
dOCUMENTA13: The revelations of things
by Anne Berk
dOCUMENTA13 in Kassel looks like a modern Wunderkammer, with a great variety of objects: contemporary and ancient, art objects as well as natural elements. In this virtual, digital world, curator Carolyn Christoph Bakargiev invites us to surrender to our senses, to reconnect with nature and the other creatures with whom we share the planet. Bakargiev acknowledges the merits of the physical (art) object as tool for reflection and embodiment.
That’s good news for sculptors!
When you look closely to an artwork, it becomes, as in meditation, an ever more abstract exercise, a thinking and imagining,.. a viscous experience that allows the mind to merge with matter, and slowly, possibly, to see the world, not from the point of view of the detached subject, but from within so-called objects and outward: I am the ball, the ball is me.
Experiencing an object
By dedicating a complete hall to two photographs and the three sculptures that are depicted, the Amerian born, Bulgarian-Italian curator Carolyn Christoph Bakargiev makes a statement. The Documenta draws crowds of people – in 2007 more then 700.000 – But what do they experience, when they look at this display of physical THINGS? On one of the photos, we see a man and a woman, looking at the metal sculptures of Julio González, each in their own way. While he’s caught in passing, hands on his back, in an easy stroll, she withholds her step and brings her hand to her mouth in amazement. The woman doesn’t simply look and classify, she responds with her whole body, being there, connected to the world. This photo was taken in 1959 during Documenta2. This contemporary art show was initiated by Arnold Bode, from the deeply felt need for something positive after the destructive war period. By selecting this photo, Bakargiev puts herself in perspective as a curator, she but also points to the crucial relation between things and people. The value of an exhibition lies precisely in this interaction of the object with the viewer.
As the daughter of an archaeologist, Bakargiev is aware that material objects are a source of knowledge. Artefacts reveal the way of living and the values of a society in a specific time. That holds true for contemporary art objects as well. But you can also look at natural things, and contemplate our relation to nature. Things are created (or found) by people, and their meaning is defined through our relationship with them. We cherish them, buy them, hand them over to next generations, recycle them, lose them, destroy them or throw them away. They are part of our lives and loaded with emotions and memories. Things are loaded with hidden meanings, waiting to be unravelled. But they don’t reveal their secrets a first glance. Their appearance is not always that spectacular.
Instead of analysing the object theoretically, Bakargiev invites you to engage with the object, a bodily experience that involves all your senses. Bakargiev is an adherent of Merleau-Ponty, who emphasized the body, and not consciousness, a the source of knowledge. He invented the word sense-experience (sentir means feeling in French). Look with an open mind, empathise and wonder. And when you do so, the show unfolds like the Da Vinci Code.
To revive an object
Take the video of the flute player Raptor’s Rapture of Jennifer Allora (1974, USA) and Guillermo Calzadilla (1971, Cuba). Initially I felt quite uncomfortable, while listening in the in the loaded darkness of the Weinberg Bunker. The musician blew on top of her breath, attempting to play the instrument in several ways, but the sound appeared quite crude to me. However, the vulture that was sitting next to her on a tree trunk, listened attentively, as if the rasping sound revived some ancient memories. And it was his acuity persuaded me to stay. When I learned that this flute, which is made of bird bone, is the oldest musical instrument we know today, I was deeply moved. It was unearthed just recently, in 2009, at the Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany and now, after an inconceivable time span of 35.000 years it was brought to life again by the breath of the flute player. Just imagine! This flute is the tangible proof that humans were not only driven by pure survival. From the dawn of history, we felt the need to express themselves and communicate with objects we call art.
To recreate an object
Essere Fiume of Guiseppe Penone (1947, IT) in the Friedericianum, is another key work. The two rough stones don’t seem very spectacular. But when you look more closely, you discover that they are similar in shape, and you realize that this is impossible in nature. Penone realizes he can’t surpass nature. He humbly confines himself to make an exact copy in marble, as a tribute to the shaping forces of nature. In the words of Penone:
The river is gifted with a marvellous agility and its flowing is continuous, insistent, tactile and eternal. The river transports the mountain and is the vehicle of the mountain. The rock becomes detached from the mountain and changes in its matter and structure. The blows of the chisel, the scoop, the drill and sandpaper are all tools of the river. It is being river that is the true sculpture of stone. It reenters nature and is cosmic heritage, a pure creation.
When he was in his twenties, Penone made a cast of his hand, touching a tree trunk. Years later, the bronze hand had fused with the tree. Nature reveals us who we are. We are part of nature, although we think we stand above it, Penone told me in an interview. But in our increasingly technological society, this is something we are inclined to forget.
To bury objects
Apes used sticks to obtain their food, but people developed a vast array of tools to satisfy their needs, from stone axes and ceramic bowls to cloths, cars and computers. Things could be produced more and more efficiently and became available for the masses. Nowadays, we live in a manmade environment. We produce an innumerable amount of things, and not just to survive. In our growth economy producing and consuming becomes an end in itself.
With his Doing Nothing Garden the Chinese artist Song Dong (1966) questions this development. His enigmatic hill in the Karlsaue Park turns out to be a burial place for things. In particular the stuff that his mother, Mrs. Zhao, accumulated in the sixty years of her life. In 2005, Song Dong carefully arranged her vast array of domestic objects in the MOMA in New York, with the title Waste-Not. In times of scarcity, this was a prescription, but since China surrendered to consumer culture, this has become forgotten virtue.
We are haunted by things. We shop until we drop, spend our life acquiring things, but does that make us happy? Song Dong buries them and transforms them into nature, a grassy hill with flowers where you can relax. Do nothing. Just live.
To dissect an object
In the Documenta Halle, the visitor is overwhelmed by the noise of running engines. Germany takes pride in its car industry (dOCUMENTA13 was sponsored by Volkswagen), and indeed, the perfection of the moving engines is awe inspiring. Existing engines were dissected, revealing the throbbing heart of the car, with its sensually moving pistons, that thrill the male visitors in particular. There’s no object that is so charged with human emotions as the car. The car is a fetish. It physically envelopes us, is literally an extension of our body that multiplies our reach.
The car is the embodiment of our idea of individual freedom, but in reality we spend many hours in traffic jams. Thousands of lives are lost in accidents. Not speak of fuel shortage, Co2 emissions, and climate change. There certainly is a price to pay. The German artist Thomas Bayrle, aged 75, witnessed the rise of mass production, and the phenomenal proliferation of the car that went along with it. What will the world look like when this expansion continues? Bayrle is frightened by the prospect. Those who listen carefully to the moving engines will hear a faint whispering: Lord, save our souls, pray for us, that reveals his underlying message of a Carmageddon.
To collect the remains of an object
The Korean artists MOON Kyungwon (1969) and JEON Joonho (1969) take this line further and imagine life in the 21st century. In their anguished film El fin del mundo they outline a post-apocalyptic society, in which the human race is almost wiped out. The land is flooded and polluted by radioactivity. Two surviving artists hope to get admission to the only safe place, a domed city that is run by a fictional cooperation. But to succeed, they have to research and collect the remnants of nature and of culture. It made me sad, watching the isolated woman in her protected clothing, collecting the leftovers of plants. Hopefully El fin del mondo will trigger people to re-examine and adapt their behaviour, so that this Doomsday won’t come true.
To transform an objectWhen she designs a new currency, the Soil-erg, Claire Pentecost (USA, 1956) makes a clear statement. We need to value soil. We depend on the earth for our food. Pentecost worries about the way we produce food nowadays. She transforms gold bars into earth, quoting investor Warren Buffet: I guarantee, that within hundred years, soil will be more expensive than gold. The earth bars made me think of Midas. You can’t eat gold, as king Midas experienced. Once he was able to change everything into gold, he died of starvation. The story of Midas is a metaphor about materialism and greed. We need a different system of values, that is not driven by money as a goal in it self. That is de message.
I got from experiencing the objects in Documenta13. Surely, curator Carolyn Christoph Bakargiev doesn’t pretend to have the answers to problems such as ‘the growing difference between the wealthy and the poor, and the subjugation of economy, society, and nature to financial systems, connected to advances in computing power rather than the production of material goods’. She acknowledges that there are no simple solutions. But she encourages us to keep searching for them, using the physical art object as tool for reflection and embodiment. In a digital world, Bakargiev invites us to surrender to our senses, to reconnect with nature and the other creatures with whom we share the planet.
The artwork, an ambiguous entity, performs the task of the transitional object, a prop for an exercise of being in one place and time, and not in another,just here, with this food, these animals, these people, poorer, and richer too.
This exercise in embodiment reconnects people with their ancient knowledge of directly caring for their own sustenance and food as well as forms of de-growth, alternatives to financial exchange, as in time banks or barter economies, establishing relations with all things that are not digital, sharing artworks and objects from different places and times, providing the possibilities of a slower form of time—the time of materials.
Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Raptor’s Rapture, 2012, Single-channel video projection with sound, media file played from a media player 23.30 min., Cinematographer: Sebastian Krügler; 2nd unit camera: Ole Jürgens, Harald Mellwig; focus puller: Enno Grabenhorst; sound engineer: Frank Bubenzer, Courtesy Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Commissioned by dOCUMENTA (13) and co-produced by Gladstone Gallery, New York; Lisson Gallery, London; Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; kurimanzutto, Mexico City. Photo: Henrik Strömberg
Giuseppe Penone, Essere fiume 6, 1998, 1 river stone, 1 quarry stone of white Carrara marble, 2 elements, each 36 x 50 x 63 cm, Courtesy Giuseppe Penone. Photo: Anne Berk Song Dong: Doing Nothing Garden, 2010-12, Daily-life rubbish and building rubbish with plants and neon signs, 7 × 32.5 × 23.5 m, Courtesy Song Dong; The Pace Gallery, Beijing, Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Baureka Bausto. Recycling GmbH, Kassel; The Pace Gallery, Beijing; Dr. Uli Sigg, Mauensee. Photo: Nils Klinger
Claire Pentecost: Soil-erg, 2012, Soil: compost and other organic materials, Dimensions variable, Courtesy Claire Pentecost, Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Organic Agricultural Sciences, University of Kassel and Can YA Love; further support by Nature Addict Fund, Special thanks to Jürgen Heß, Oliver Hensel, Christian Schellert, Heiko Tostman, Birge Wolf, and Ben Friton. Photo: Anne Berk