documenta and Münster Sculpture Project: Habitation and Displacement

Nadia Thondrayen, Programming Co-ordinator at John Hansard Gallery, reports back on two of the art world’s most exciting and celebrated European exhibitions that took place earlier this year.

documenta and Münster Sculpture Project have become two of the most celebrated and well-respected art exhibitions in the contemporary art world.
Both in Germany, they inhabit the North Rhine-Westphalia and Hesse regions respectively, just shy of 250 kilometres between one another.

Founded by Arnold Bode and occurs every 5 years, documenta opened in Kassel for the first time on July 15, 1955, whilst its younger counterpart, Münster Sculpture Project began in 1977, reoccurring only once a decade. Both manifestations operate under very distinctive parameters, where documenta is prominently venue based with a thematic thread weaving through the works, Münster Sculpture Project predominantly occupies public spaces, without the constraints of a set curatorial indication. Accordingly, what each exhibition has to offer is built around its own respective curatorial framework, allowing for two differing and quite individual experiences.

This year saw the 60th Anniversary of documenta, and for the first time in its history the organisers have partnered with a second European city, Athens, Greece. Throughout the exhibition, there is a constant exchange with the ancient city, for example the exhibition at the Fridericianum marks the first exhibition made up of works from Greece’s National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) shown in Germany, whilst the home of EMST became one of the main venues for documenta 14 in Athens. The works installed in Kassel were chosen for their commentary ‘on the complex reality of Greece today and highlight the parallel and international journeys of pioneering Greek artists’.

With respect to the exhibitions individual characteristics, governed by their curatorial framework, these exhibitions share some inevitable similarities, particularly their response to local and German histories and current European and world social issues. Within the last few years, Europe has witnessed a dramatic worsening of the economic and humanitarian crisis in Greece, with the displacement of millions of Syrians fleeing civil war, as well as those escaping the violence and repression in Iraq, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa and for many of the refugees entering Europe, Greece has been their first stop. Just in the last few weeks, the situation in Myanmar has escalated, seeing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh and the public unaccountability from their own political leaders. For these reasons it has been widely noted, that at this present time, the world is witnessing the largest global displacement of people since World War II.

The works involved in documenta and Münster Sculpture Project highlight the rich wealth of artistic practice occurring across the globe today, from filmmakers, performance artists, painters and sculptors. What is captivating here, is the way in which artists are able to call into question our present situation. In this state of emergency, Angela Melitopoulos’s Crossing (2017) (documenta, Giesshaus, University of Kassel) responds to the current situation in Greece. Set within the Henschel Factory, previously responsible for the arms production in Nazi Germany during World War II, Melitopoulos offers an observing four-channel video installation with sound. Shot in the metallurgy plants in Lavrion and Skouries, Greece and refugee camps in Lesbos and Piraeus, this sensitive account highlights the social and historical legacies of the region’s economic and political circumstances, via a multi layering of images projected onto the cylindrical structure of the building. There is a wider narrative here, one of fascism and discipline through terror, capitalism and the people who find themselves in its wake.

Momentary Monuments – Lara Favaretto (2017)

Screened as a one-off event and world premiere On Revolution (Preliminary version), 2017 (documenta, BALi-Kinos, Kassel) is directed by Maya al-Khoury and the anonymous artist collective Abounaddara. The film presents the stories of six anonymous Syrians over a period of six years, living in the country today. Shot continuously since spring 2011, the audience is immersed into the lives of these individuals, where it is the viewer’s responsibility to form their own judgement without the crutch of the media. What is clever about the film is each ‘character’ is completely without context, as the film avoids defining them by nationality, or as part of a religious or political framework (however along the way, it is clear that the central female character and her partner, hope for a secular Syria, free from religious constraints).

For Münster Sculpture Project, Lara Favaretto pays attention to the refugees currently displaced and inhabiting Germany. Adopting a minimalist style, her sculptural works are conscientious and significant in their placement, presenting strong political statements. For Münster, Favaretto has produced a towering hollow granite boulder Momentary Monuments (2017) which is part of an ongoing series that began in 2009. This series of monuments act as charitable boxes, inviting the public to drop money into the structure itself. For this current iteration, the collected donations will be given to the organisation ‘Help for People in Deportation Bureaus’ aiding the group in caring for displaced refugees in shelters, where this particular facility is responsible for refugees from across the North Rhine-Westphalia. Generally monuments are made to last and to act as a constant reminder, however the work of Favaretto turns this notion around, as these monuments are destroyed or reused in some way at the end of each exhibition. The location of the boulder is significant, as it has been placed on the promenade facing the Train Monument from 1920’s honouring the Train Battalion and a nearby immigration office.

Life is reinstated in Pierre Huyghe’s, After ALife Ahead (2017) (Münster Sculpture Project). Known for his large scale projects, Huyghe has churned up the floor of a disused ice rink on the outskirts of the city. By exposing the earth, Huyghe transforms the ground into a sunken landscape of clay and sand, and introduced phreatic water, bacteria, algae and bee hives, to almost create a scene of what earth may have looked like before it was inhabited by human life forms. What Huyghe has created is a delicate, time-based bio-technical system involving media technological interventions as the processes taking place within the ice rink are mutually interdependent, for instance the HeLa cell line (an immortal cell line used in scientific research), are made to grow in an incubator within the art installation.

Irena Haiduk’s Seductive Exacting Realism (SER), (2015), (documenta, Neue Neue Gallery, Kassel) is a sound recording delivered in total darkness, where the audience is asked not to leave the room until the audio-performance has ended. What the audience hears is a conversation between two female voices, gradually establishing a conversation between ‘revolution’ and ‘western art’. What we are in fact listening to is a conversation between the artist and the leader of the think-tank organisation, Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) based in Serbia, which has been recorded, transcribed, edited and rerecorded. Played out, the audience listens to a conversation between two significant phenomena’s, ‘revolution’ and ‘western art’, as they ask each other questions and establish that one of the main differences between them is that whilst western art needs hope, revolution does not.

documenta: 10 June – 17 September 2017
Münster Sculpture Project: 10 June – 1 October 2017

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