I am on my way to Documenta, the international art show in Kassel, Germany. Curated by a different person every five years, Documenta is a 100-day show of 200 works of contemporary art. The first Documenta, in 1955, was an attachment to a horticultural exhibit, and showed works deemed by the Nazis to be "degenerate." Today, hundreds of thousands of people come to see pieces hung in museums, performed in galleries, and installed in the open air in the middle of the city.
Kassel does not offer the cobblestone charm you might expect from the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm, but it is also not "the ugliest city west of Siberia," as one American art critic claimed. Not even close. (Clearly the critic has never been to northern Ontario.)
After two months of steady writing, I am weary of that half-and-half place of composition (half-way between images and words for the images, where no picture or sensation can be left on its own for more than half a moment before the phrases swarm in and overpower it and and alter it forever). In short, I am tired of words: I want to look.
Every article on Documenta 13 mentions the installation by Ryan Gander: a steady cold breeze blowing through an empty room. Title: I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize (The Invisible Pull). The idea, apparently, is that the breeze gently moves us through the gallery.
I am unmoved.
But I love This Variation by Tino Sahgel, a performance piece that begins when you enter a very dark room. Twenty performers move among the viewers, singing, dancing, creating rhythms and instrumentation with their voices alone. It is disorienting, standing in the dark with strangers, feeling performers brush past, not knowing what to expect or what is expected of you. You feel strangely exposed even though no one can see you (because no one can see you?) Then the music catches you, and the discomfort fades. But not the strangeness.
It is thrilling.
I also love an installation by Ida Applebroog: fragments of journals blown up, hung along with images of the human form, poems, a found letter about the end of a friendship. ("To end this letter I would like to inform you in order to save time, please do not try to answer me any more, if by any chance Y receive a letter from you I will destroy it and I will not reed it.") The texts have been reproduced on posters which viewers can take with them.
I take the letter.
I also love the installation by Michael Rakowitz, What Dust Will Rise: books carved out of stone from the Bamiyan valley, surrounded by remains of the Taliban-destroyed Buddha sculptures. On one display case is a quote by Mullah Mohammad Omar, who ordered the destruction, claiming as his justification the fact that Westerners were more concerned about stone statues than living humans. "We are only breaking stones," he said. A lie and a prophecy: now there are only stones, broken into unrecognizability. Another note reminds us that stone books were carried by illiterate people as talismans: the silent power, not of the written word but of the idea of it. In another display case are charred, unreadable books from the Kassel museum after it was bombed in World War II: a reminder of the flimsiness of the written word, the defenselessness of paper. The law of conservation of mass applies neither to stone nor paper art: there is nothing humans can make that they cannot also destroy.
All the way home, I hold the letter and think about those stone books and try to find words for the music in the dark. We put things into words (and other shapes) even though they will eventually be erased. We cannot help ourselves.