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documenta 14: Learning from Women

documenta 14 is the 14th edition of the quinquennial art exhibition held in Kassel. Founded by Arnold Bold in 1955 to help reignite artistic culture in a post-war germany, documenta has a reputation for subversiveness as it pushes back against a white eurocentric art scene. Unlike many of the larger art world events, documenta is not a sales show, its works are instead commissioned and curated for the general public and not (only) the art world elite.

documenta plays an important role in feminist curatorial practice. In 2012 for the 13th edition Roberta Smith of the New York Times declared the shows approach as ‘ardently feminist’ and this year’s edition calls into question its own capacity to function as feminist by raising the question ‘Can the museum work against its own colonial and patriarchal regimes?’ in its programme. Demonstrating a self reflexive outlook which understands its own ills whilst also seeking to remedy and unpack said ills through both introverted and extroverted curatorial practice (as demonstrated by its attempt to learn from Athens).

This year we attended the Kassel branch of documenta, which for the first time had expanded into two cities. An earlier exhibit, which opened in Athens, seemed to be placed as a sounding board to provide a conversation for the exhibition in Kassel. This new element of the exhibition appeared curatorially as essential for this years documenta, however, having not seen the Athens site it is hard to entirely appreciate what might have been learnt by this edition’s endeavours in the Greek city. From a critical perspective the continual referral to Athens often proved uneven - as a member of the audience it is hard to learn from an exhibition you have not seen. The learning therefore was to only be done by the curators or those who had the good fortune of seeing both shows. This being said documenta’s continued dedication to exhibiting works by women and artists from across the globe has paid off - providing a stage for diverse, challenging and insightful works. Here are our top picks:

Studies for Massacre - Seven Stages by Alexandra Bachzetsis (2017)

Screened in the documenta Halle Studies for Massacre - Seven Stages is a two channel video performance by Zurich based Alexandra Bachzetsis. Based on her earlier work Massacre: Variations on a Theme this new work details the process body painting in a room walled with cardboard and makes for addictive viewing. Given that the whole piece is 98 minutes it’s surprisingly hard to tear yourself away.

Untitled by Marie Cool Fabio Balducci (2011)

Another work screened in the documenta Halle. The duos study of the everyday through water, tape, movement and repetition disguises the normative nature of these elements through the intensive act of looking.

Stared at the Beauty So Much: Waiting for the Barbarians by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Jorege (2013)

Screened as part of the collection from the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST) in the Fridericianum this work by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Jorege stands out as one of the more introspective works in this display. Commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Centre for the Visual Dialogues Stared at the Beauty So Much: Waiting for the Barbarians shows panoramic visions of Beirut which move from stillness to movement creating an ambiguous sense of motion and a looming sense of foreboding.

The Public Cervix Announcement by Annie Sprinkle (1990)

Shown in Kassel’s Neue Gallery you will find Annie Sprinkles infamous Public Cervix Announcement screened through the eye of a medical speculum (for added effect). The work documents Sprinkles’ famed performances in 1990 where she invited members of the public to take a look inside her cervix. She states on her website, ‘A cervix is such a beautiful creation, yet most people go through life having missed the chance to see one’.

Cleopatra was a Black Bitch by Tracey Rose (2017)

Tracey Rose’s playful and unnerving Cleopatra was a Black Bitch can be found in the Neue Neue Gallery (also known as the Neue Hauptpost), an abandoned Post Office which now remains largely vacant. The work is screened amongst three other varied works by the South African Artist. Cleopatra was a Black Bitch is a playful and theatrical work which features a drag queen, cleopatra and a fetishitic dungeon master which veers wildly from playful eroticism to themes of forced sex which makes for an uncomfortable yet essential watch.

Commensal by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (2017)

Commensal is the most uncomfortable moving image work of documenta 14. Screened in Tofufabrik an abandoned tofu factory Commensal is an installation and documentary work featuring the famed and fetishized Issei Sagawa. A Japanese criminal infamous for cannibalising a fellow student in paris and serving a short 5 year incarceration in a mental health institution for his crime. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor cast a neutral eye over Sagawa who describes in detail his desire for cannibalism and how he brutally performed his crimes. At times this work is borderline unwatchable, however, it offers insight into the depraved mind of this mostly unpunished killer.

Crossings by Angela Melitopoulos (2017)

Perhaps one of the most timely pieces from this years documenta, Crossings is a four-channel installation video installation and sixteen-channel sound installation that features testimony from the residents of various refugee camps across europe. The film explicitly exposes the experience of mass migration which is on the whole ignored or pushed aside by western europe.

Words by Jennifer Shearman

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