Outside expectations: highlights of documenta 14 in Kassel

, 10 June 2017

After Athens edition was marked by formal dryness and an unmanageable quantity of works and locations to see, expectations for documenta 14’s Kassel iteration were mostly rather shy. In the German town, many of the artists presented in the Greek capital are on view again, sometimes with similar works. While there are certainly fewer vitrines and only 22 locations, compared to Athens’ 47, the Kassel presentation remains true to the vision initiated in Greece by the curatorial team.

With over 150 positions, there’s a lot to see. Here is a selection of highlights:

Britta Marakatt-Labba, ‘Historja,’ (2003-07)
On view at documenta Halle

Covering almost an entire wall of documenta Halle’s central hall, Marakatt-Labbas breathtaking work consists of several contiguous panels of white fabric embroidered with scenes inspired by her native northern Sweden. A pack of wolves and foxes escape from woods dotted with minuscule heads of what appear to be some type of leprechaun. The hunt transforms itself into a procession of humans and reindeer, followed by a scene of violence, in which heads are severed and a church is burned. Reindeer come back as the main protagonists, always in large numbers and both wild and domesticated. They cross rivers and snowy plains, at times mixing with human figures seemingly harvesting reed from the shores of a swamp. The combination of technical delicacy and narrative vigour makes the Sami artist’s work passionating and unforgettable.

Olaf Holzapfel, ‘Latitud 40°’ part of the artist’s installation ‘Zaun (Fence)’, (2017).
On view at Palais Bellevue

In this video work, contemplative views of wild Patagonian landscapes alternate with images of humanity’s clumsy attempts to establish itself in this rough part of the globe. A particularly striking section of the film veers towards abstraction, focusing on cloudy skies bathed in the most exquisite golden light. It equally and successfully insinuates a planet’s birth and an apocalypse. While the overexploited ‘man versus nature’ theme transpires a bit too obviously at times, Holzapfel’s elegant take on it gives this piece a formal gravitas that one painfully looks for in many other works on view.

Forensic Architecture, ‘77sqm_9:26min’ (2017)
On view at Neue Galerie

Forensic Architecture re-investigates the 2006 murder of Halit Yozgat by a member of the neo-nazi organisation NSU (National-Socialist Underground) in this masterful installation, commissioned by the People’s Tribunal ‘Unravelling the NSU Complex.’ In particular, the work focuses on the presence of undercover secret service agent Andreas Temme at the crime scene (an internet café in Kassel) when the murder happened, as well as his contradictory testimony. With a calm precision devoid of any polemical tone, the collective had the different scenarios reenacted and examines the narrow timeline in which Yozgat was fatally shot. Aesthetically reducing to the clearest possible codes, ‘77sqm_9:26min’ may possibly be the most complex, accessible and ultimately most urgent work in the whole exhibition.

Hans Eijkelboom, ‘Photo Notes 1992 – 2017’ (2017)
On view at Stadtmuseum Kassel

Eijkelboom’s work consists of photographic prints, each one framed separately and showing grids of people grouped together according to a specific item of clothing or look; location and date of when the pictures were taken are displayed at the bottom of each print. Dozens of these categorisations cover an entire room in the museum, enabling the viewer to drift into the role of a pre-Facebook voyeur. This feels at times joyful and at others uncomfortable, however, the extensive documentation of the shifts in Western visual codes is genuinely fascinating. Trends might come and go, but what stays is our unconscious tendency for wanting to be part of the pack, the work seems to be saying.

Alina Szapocznikow, works from ‘Tumor Series’ (1969–71)
On view at Neue Galerie

The Polish artist’s sculptures on view in Kassel, on which she started working the year she was diagnosed with cancer, are loaded with a chilly form of violence. Szapocznikow clearly knew what was happening to her body, and her works illustrate the terrifying process of tumorous growth without relying on metaphors or innuendos. Additionally, the materials used — polyester, underwear, photos, newspaper pages — harshly anchor the works and what they represent within reality. The incredible atemporality inherent in those pieces make them stand out, brutal and vivid. There’s no doubt Szapocznikow’s work will remain a reference and inspiration for many young artists addressing corporeality.

Maria Lai, ‘Donna che setaccia la farina (Woman sifting flour)’ (1955)
On view at Neue Galerie

The Sardinian artist, who died in 2013, has gained some momentum this year, having been included in the Venice Biennale as well. While the motive of discovering talented female artists at old age or shortly after their death seems to have become sort of an obvious pattern among famous curators, the inclusion of Lai’s work, often referring to processes of labour in her native Sardinia, makes total sense in documenta 14. ‘Donna che setaccia la farina (Woman sifting flour)’ sticks out in a room dedicated to the artist because of the impressive economy of means she applied in this illustration of domestic peasant life. A few black brushstrokes, pale water colors, blank space are enough to conjure the physical and metaphysical complexity of a situation in which Italian women of the 1950s might have often found themselves caught in against their will.

Ashley Hans Scheirl
Works on view at Neue Galerie

Inexplicably squished in a sad corner of the show at Neue Galerie, Scheirl’s work combines a large figurative painting and three videos of her in a studio, toying with a gymnastics ball, stumbling around in an amused way or pushing her legs through a canvas. The latter motive is reprised for the painting itself, tying the works together and bringing a highly required dose of queer humour to the show. Adorned with fabulous sequins, platforms and black tights, the artist’s legs almost take over the role of a nice, straight middle finger to the expectations consumers of art might have of an artist. Hers is one of the few irreverent gestures within an exhibition often burdened by painful seriousness.**

documenta 14 is on in Kassel, running June 10 to September 17, 2017.