A visit to documenta 13

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Documenta 13 exhibition in Kassel.  I went because it is the largest contemporary art event that happens globally and it is almost on my doorstep so ….  I also went because I have difficulty with a lot of conceptual art and needed to gain a better understanding of why it is made… I find it to present all kinds of conflict: I have enjoyed seeing some installations be they sculptural, kinetic, audio-visual…. but these are the exceptions.  I often feel that so-called post-modern art is a case of the emperor’s new clothes and yet some of it is tremendously appealing.  A lot that I have seen leaves me cold and yet galleries and private individuals pay huge sums for some pieces. I focused on a question raised in my mind recently by reading Robert Henri’s book The Art Spirit (1): is art process or product?   I was also interested in gauging what attracted people to certain installations / works of art and how this might relate to the process versus product question. 

During my two day visit to Kassel, I looked at many different pieces of work, some situated in gallery spaces or museums, some in the open air or in a purpose-built space in a park or other public space. I was all documenta-ed out by the end of the second day and yet had only seen a small part of what is on offer.  I recommend hiring a bike to get around the installations that are spaced across the park and across town; although the free bus service is useful for getting between galleries, it does not help in the park. 

Robert Henri (1) said that art is “the inevitable consequence of growth and is the manifestation of the principles of its origin.  The work of art is a result; is the output of a progress in development and stands as a record and marks the degree of development.  It is not an end in itself, but the work indicates the course taken and the progress made.” (p.67).  I interpret this as meaning that the point of making art is not the product but the process; the doing / making of art is more important than what is made but that also the product should tell us something about why and how it was made (“the course taken”).  Henri also said that “All manifestations of art are but landmarks in the progress of the human spirit toward a thing as yet sensed and far from being possessed” (p.66). Viewed in this way, all art whether produced in the fourteenth or twenty-first centuries, whether an oil painting or an audiovisual installation, is an expression of the human spirit and the inspired process is more important than the product of the endeavour, which might be seen as only one step on a journey. 

The problem with this for the individual viewer is that the product is what faces us in a gallery or museum, and rarely the process unless an installation is its own process.  I wanted to observe what kinds of art the people who came to Documenta, including myself, seemed to engage with, and some possible reasons for this.  If all art is an expression of emotion on some level then to be appreciated there has to be an emotional connection between the work and the viewer.  However, Henri seemed to be saying that the response of the audience is not the point. This presents a source of aesthetic conflict because from the artist’s perspective, according to Henri, their art is primarily process, with the product of secondary importance, but from the perspective of the viewer, only the product matters.  Although, for an artist to live on their art, of course the product does  matter because they have to be able to sell it, so an artist is always going to have one eye on their market.  This in turn raises other issues about intention in artistic process which are not pursued here.

If I take the work at documenta 13 to be representative of contemporary art, it appears that a lot of conceptual installations have their origins in issues of personal importance to the artist(s) and that they arise out of emotional connections that artists make with social and human conditions.  When successful, they reflect back to us human experiences, characteristics and our essential nature.  In this expression, they bring an issue to others’ attention and when seen in this way, the process is clearly of at least equal importance to the end product.  The installations that seemed to “speak” most strongly to their audience in Kassel were those that held humanity at their core, whether, for example, in the form of a memorial to victims of injustice, or to present historical events as if they were unfolding in today’s world (which in a way they are because contemporary parallels can always be found).  That humanity was the point at which artist and viewer connected. An installation that focused on language, visual and aural, also drew an audience because language is our primary means of expressing human experience.  Installations and exhibits that were unable to forge such connections seemed to momentarily puzzle but did not detain passers by.  

It might help us as viewers of art to know more about the process(es) that lead to the piece we are looking at.  The increase in interest in recent times in sketchbooks demonstrates a public interest in how visual ideas surface and their role in the development of art work.  It could be useful to include such visual detail and explanation in public installations in order to enable audiences to better engage with conceptual art work (which they want to do or they wouldn’t attend events like documenta…)

My conclusion (for now) to the process versus product question is that art is primarily a process for an artist but the product is more important to the viewer, so it is partly a question of perspective.  This may seem obvious but it has implications for viewing and understanding much contemporary art.  Art that is purely process can also be an indulgence, when intended for public exhibition, if that process does not also produce something that can connect with an audience on a personal and emotional level rather than on a purely intellectual one.


Some personal favourites in documenta 13 which are definitely not indulgent, in my view:

  • Hubertus Gojowczyk’s  Tür zur Bibliothek 1977 (Books, cement, wood).  This was originally installed in the Neue Galerie for documenta 6 and is not really a part of the current exhibition but I guess it cannot easily be moved!   I connected with this for its simple and yet clever conception and also for its humour: a “door” of books that from a distance have the texture of stone. I liked the duplicity of the texture – one material masquerading as another.  I also liked the sense of preservation of the books, even while they were no longer accessible and the title “the door to the library” is a play on language because the “door” has become the library.  
  • Wael Shawky’s  Cabaret Crusades. This film of eleventh century crusades performed by string puppets gathered a large audience on the day that I saw it.  It appealed to me because a medium that is more usually used to entertain children is being used to convey the story of the crusades in a very adult and disturbing way.  This was definitely not for young children!  The film was made in Arabic with subtitles and conveyed the horror and brutality of the times.  It successfully sustained tension and interest despite the characters being so obviously puppets with visible strings.  This worked so well because the artist used his medium to convey character and evoke universal emotions including horror and fear, which transcend time and culture. In the context of recent events in Syria, as well as countless other wars in our lifetimes, events from 900 year ago seem horribly contemporary.  More information about Wael Shawky here.
  • Margaret Preston’s gouache miniatures and Gordon Bennett’s abstracts of her work.  Preston’s designs in turn were taken from aboriginal art.  I teach in an IB World School and this caught my eye as an excellent example of the Area of Interaction Human Ingenuity.  The areas of interaction form the core of the Middle Years Programme (MYP) and students often find it difficult to see how human creativity forms a chain of ideas leading to more ideas and new knowledge.  This work is an excellent example of this… Bennett has altered the orientation as well as the scale of some of Preston’s images.  It would have been interesting to see images of her own inspiration for the work.  It struck though that there is a fine line between appropriation and plagiarism and this might be a useful starting point for a discussion in a future TOK class…
  • Susan Hiller’s Thoughts are free. 100 Songs for 100 Days.  100 Days is the length of the documenta 13 Ausstellung. The exhibit is  a quiet room with lyrics of songs and poems on the walls and a jukebox in order to listen to them. Crowds gathered here to sit and read and listen if they wished.  Language can evoke images in our minds as strong as any in front of our eyes.
  • Guiseppe Penone’s bronze sculpture in the Karlsaue park. This bronze tree with a rock held in its branches looks like the real thing even up close.  I sat for a while and watched how people interacted with it.  I saw more photographs taken with this tree than with any other exhibit. People walked round and round it, looked up, looked down, examined the plant growing at its base and also knocked with their fists on the trunk to reassure themselves that it really was made out of metal! I don’t know if it will remain in the park but it seems very at home there!  There were some sheep grazing there for a time, too… I liked it for its humour and for the way in which it naturally attracted people who wanted to check out its “reality”.  People connect naturally with trees even when the trees aren’t natural!
  •  This “picture” of Kassel within a picture frame is situated at the end of Friedrichsplatz above Karlsaue.  It offers many interesting       perspectives from above and below as the picture changes with the angle and distance of the viewer. Also, it is only when you stand between the frames that you realise that the larger frame is not standing vertically but is tilted towards you. Standing between the frames you are simultaneously a viewer of a picture and in someone else’s picture.  
 There were many others….

An incidental discovery in the Orangerie, which is now a science museum.  Konrad Zuse, an aircraft engineer, saw Feininger’s work in an exhibition in 1926 (Dresden?) and started painting shortly afterwards….Some of his work is currently showing in the Orangerie and Feininger”s influences are clear.  Some images here. 10 Years later, he invented the computer.  So often, art and science come together, merge and feed off and fire off each other. 

I missed the new work by Julie Mehretu at the documenta Halle.  I like her drawings very much and regret that I didn’t get around to seeing these.  I am sure that there were many other things that I would have enjoyed seeing had I had more time. There is a review of the exhibition from the New York Times which reflects some of my own feelings about the overwhelming scale of the documenta event, which this year is based in Afghanistan, Egypt and Canada as well!  Kassel was enough for now…



1 Henri, Robert (1923) The Art Spirit  (1984 Ed. published by Westview Press)




2 thoughts on “A visit to documenta 13

    1. Hi, I am still thinking about this… it is surely never an indulgence to make art per se: the artistic process has many facets and is as individual as the person / artist who undertakes to create something. As human beings we all have some in-built creative capacity, even though we are often unconscious of this and may never explore and develop our own creative impulse. It becomes an issue (for me, at least) if we release that product into the public sphere and it fails to connect on an emotional / experiential level with an audience, whether they are an intended audience or not. I have been to several exhibitions in recent years which have left me cold and, even after reading a critic’s review of the “artist’s intentions” I have failed to connect with the work. Is this just an “experience gap” based on different understanding and experiences of the world, or is the work lacking something that would facilitate more intuitive human connections regardless of divergent experience? I don’t expect to understand and connect with all art but I do look at a work of art as a way of understanding and interpreting the world and making connections with others through their ways of looking at it, which may be different from mine and so in turn open up and extend experience through discussion and sharing of ideas. However, I think that this can only happen if the viewers can forge some kind of individual connection with the work in the first place.

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