Dreams come from far-away places: Documenta 14 and Skulptur Projekte 2017
Art News New Zealand, Summer 2017
Edited by Anna Hodge
The most valuable gift of travel is to be set adrift in thought. I was reminded of this in August while en route to a 10-year alignment of events on the Western European art calendar. My journey began in Edinburgh. I was there to curate an installation by artist Shannon Te Ao as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival. Te Ao’s work With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods evoked a mournful tone and suggested that there is something missing in our current human-to-earth and human-to-human relations. I meditated on this sentiment as I travelled. And as I physically moved between cities, encountering other artworks, so too did my mind shift. Most notably it was artworks from documenta 14 and Skulptur Projekte 2017 that contributed to this trail of thought. Documenta 14’s dual themes, about learning from Athens and focusing on the Global South, were a refreshing example of how the curation of a large art event can be focused yet expansive – notwithstanding financial and logistical challenges. The Greek connection was used as a means to understand the impact of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis but also to consider the even more pressing crisis of democracy by way of its Athenian roots, and events were held in both Athens and in Kassel, Germany.
Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaiemen’s three-channel video work Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017) worked in concert with documenta’s premise. This compellingly edited, rigorously researched work offered insights into the complexity and contradictions of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a bloc of countries largely from the southern hemisphere which from the 1950s sought to be a counterweight to the dominant global powers, and in particular the moment Bangladesh joined the group in 1973. Through insightful interviews with activists and historians, who specialise in Third World politics, the paradigm of Anglo-American democracy and political control were tipped on their head. Mohaiemen used cinematic studies of NAM conference venues as formal and aesthetic manifestations of these political dreams – a device that grew even more pointed when juxtaposed with interviewees discussing the ideological predicaments of the revolutionary left.
Less overtly political but equally concerned with alternative perspectives of unity was the Mata Aho Collective’s elaborate work Kiko Moana (2017), one of three works by New Zealand artists at documenta 14. This large quilt was created through an immersive noho wānanga approach where the four Mata Aho members sleep, socialise and work together over a defined period of time supported by family. This social labour transformed metres of mass-produced blue tarpaulins into a handmade textile resembling an expansive oceanic colour feld. A strident weave appeared through the middle, like a river in constant fow. Ideas of water, its movement and connective attributes, as well as the strength of collective thought, also fed into Taniwha Tales, an online component of the work. This website collected various stories of taniwha – short and long, poetic and colloquial. Guardian-like entities that preside over environs and regulate the passage of human movements, the taniwha here became more elusive and open to interpretation with each entry.
The politics of mobility was also an aspect of the work by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, I Had Nowhere to Go (2016), screened in Kassel’s CineStar, a 1990s-style multiplex cinema. The film’s subject and narrator is New York-based avant-garde film pioneer Jonas Mekas and tells the story of his teenage years feeing Nazi-occupied Lithuania. Rather than joining the Lithuanian resistance, Mekas opted to escape and embarked on a long journey which finally ended in Brooklyn, New York.
Gordon’s choice to feature only a small fraction of visual footage added to the power of Mekas’ story. It was also a reminder that lens-based media has significant limitations in representing lived experiences. This is emphasised at the start of the film, where Mekas recollects his first experience of using a camera. He was snapping shots of Soviet tanks rolling into his village when a Russian soldier ripped the camera out of his hands and destroyed the film. From that point on, for what seems to be three-quarters of the film’s 97-minute duration, the cinema audience are plunged into darkness, assailed by war soundscapes and entranced by Mekas’ voice. Gordon takes full advantage of the cinema’s surround sound system to palpable affect. There were numerous points at which the textural sounds of gunfre and bombs resonated through my body or transported me to another time and place. When visuals were used, they were enigmatic. A caged chimpanzee stared blankly at a camera. Feet tramped through the snow. Someone haphazardly cut up a beetroot.
These short interludes didn’t have the direct audio-to-visual correlation we are conditioned to expect. Only afterwards did I begin considering the images as reflections on diaspora and existential crisis. Similarly, my travel companion said that her mind filled the void with pictures of the world’s current humanitarian disaster, the Syrian refugee crisis. It was a sober reminder that not everyone in 2017 has our ease of mobility – let alone the freedom to be idle in thought as I was. As Kurdish poet Hiva Panahi writes in The documenta 14 Reader: “A thousand nights tell about how I travel”. In comparison, only 30 hours tell about how I traversed the distance from Aotearoa to Europe, a privileged briskness and accessibility. This thought lingered with me as I waded through Ayse Erkmen’s work for Skulptur Projekte 2017 in Münster. In On Water (2017), the Turkish artist submerged large shipping containers to create a bridge covered shin-deep in water that connects two sides of a shipping canal – on one side an unkempt industrial lot, on the other a chic, gentrified restaurant precinct.
While waiting for staff to open the gates, I removed my shoes and saw strangers on the other side of the canal doing the same. Once in the water, we advanced towards each other like two tribes of visitors tasked with negotiating a borderline between our respective lands. Our groups did not clash but seamlessly merged, creating a momentary wall of meandering people blocking the canal. During this moment of overlap I gave way to an old woman and, stepping a bit too close to the platform’s edge, discovered that there was real depth to this canal.
On Water could be seen as a blatant metaphor for physically overcoming arbitrary borderlines. The idea of walking on water also has obvious symbolic connotations, especially in a city such as Münster that has a rich Judeo-Christian history. But these references were secondary for me. It is one thing to appreciate a conceptual gesture and another to be embodied in the gesture itself – to experience being dry then wet; being on one side and then the other; being safe and also close to danger; and being first oppositional to others, then unified as one. Skulptur Projekte 2017 provided many other such experiences. After wading in the water, I walked on clay mounds in Pierre Huyghe’s After ALife Ahead (2017).
‘Bitte Klopfen’ the sign read, and so I knocked. The door opened and I stepped into a disused ice rink. Once a venue for teenagers skating hand in hand, it was now an otherworldly, post-human environment hosting a feral ecosystem. The slick concrete floor had been diced up by a tessellated array of incisions and the earth underneath excavated to form an alien landscape. A colony of algae grew in a stagnant pond; a beehive was in residence in a clay mound; a small fish held captive in a glass tank. Clover leaves pushed through the gravel and mould spores bloomed across the ceiling tiles. Intermittently, an inverted black pyramid on the ceiling split apart on hydraulic arms. This allowed sunlight to beam down, breathing fresh air into the arena and allowing the bees passage to the outside world. Later I read that the skylight’s mechanism is governed by an algorithm based on HeLa cancer cells – an immortalised cell line taken from a woman called Henrietta Lacks in the 1950s without her consent.
Huyghe’s merger of urban entropy, wild and engineered biology and artificial intelligence may seem fictional and sci-fi derivative, but it was a living, breathing, decaying reality. I found company for this sentiment in a short text by writer Emilie Rakete that I’d just read in the The documenta 14 Reader. She argues that modernity encourages us to think as anthropocentric-focused individual units but in reality “we are not beings who are of the land but the land itself… we are a function of the ecology, we are ecology foremost… we are Papatūānuku writ small.” Many other artworks I experienced on my travels echoed that, seeming to imply that the supposedly human-centric agenda of our present age is ironically anti-human – that so many of the things we do to advance the human species are actually harming ourselves. It is difficult to ascertain whether this thinking is representative of a new political shift worldwide, an old idea renewed or merely an ideological aspiration, inflated in the art-world echo chamber. Dreams and reality are hard to distinguish these days. As Hiva Panahi so perceptively writes: “Dreams come from far-away places … And we live far away these days, like dreams.”