This year I was lucky enough to be funded to visit Documenta as part of the AN bursary scheme. I had been before in 2000 but this year I was especially drawn to the curatorial agenda ‘Learning from Athens’ with the exhibition being staged for the first time across two cities Kassel and Athens and promising to form a dialogue between the two, a reflection on the varying fortunes of Northern and Southern Europe. As an artist whose work frequently reflects on sense of place and the relationships between place and community I was keen to see how this curatorial agenda was enacted, and particularly went with a view to seeing works which tackled this relational approach to place. Perhaps thinking of the geographer Doreen Massey’s observation that in the age of global capitalism the local is inevitably constituted in the global.

In the introduction to the short guide the exhibition is described as “…defined by personal and collective encounters and decisions – a precise public realm in space and time, anchored in existing stories and places, gesturing towards those yet to come.”

It’s hard to know exactly what’s meant by this statement, it seems to point to a kind of co-production in the curatorial process, but other than references in the short guide to work with lots of different institutions and groups it was hard to tell what this process involved or to know how it had effected the choice of works on show. That said, I haven’t at this point read the more detailed guides that come with the exhibition which will, no doubt, expand on these ideas further. I suppose the reason to bring this up is as an audience member it’s hard to know how to evaluate this process when looking at the artwork; how might it affect the ‘reading’ of an artwork to better understand it’s production or curation? And is it something to be judged ethically or aesthetically? I can’t say I have an answer to these questions and with an exhibition the size of Documenta it would be impossible to give any definitive account of how these ideas played out across the exhibition in a short review.

It’s worth mentioning that even in its Kassel iteration there were hundreds of artists across 33 venues. It is perhaps inevitable then that everyone would take away a different sense of the show as a whole – even before you take account of differences in taste – by virtue of the fact that talking to my fellow bursary holders we all saw different shows, or bits of them at the very least. I resolved initially to look at the larger curated shows as a first point of call which I imagined might deliver an overview of the bigger curatorial agendas. Though this worked to some extent, I quickly found that nearly all the group shows were huge and at times my understanding of what was going on was hampered by the fact that some of the exhibitions seemed to be still being installed – information panels appearing (or not) over the course of the preview. Having set out with an interest in how the exhibition might articulate relationships between place or different articulations of place, I have to say I didn’t really find this, or at least I didn’t find many works that illuminated these ideas for me.

Nikhil Chopra Drawing a Line Through Landscape

Certainly these agendas were there to be found in the work for example Nikhill Chopra’s performance work travelling from Athens to Kassel, which featured a tent painted with scenes of the landscape en route seeming to echo the thousands of journeys made across Europe by those fleeing conflict and poverty. This was a work I sought out but I have to say sadly that though I liked the concept I didn’t really connect with the work, it may be that it was a little undermined by being displayed in an old rail station – perhaps hammering the point home a little too hard. The blog entries which went with the work were more interesting in a way and it seems unfair to single out one artist here, there were in fact quite a few works which seemed on paper to build a dialogue between places, but also seemed a little too obscure or fragmentary in their approach when I did get to see them. It could be here that this was also an effect of seeing work in Kassel and maybe only getting half the picture. This was perhaps an issue for me across the whole exhibition, with a concept that promised much but seemed to struggle to articulate ideas – perhaps because of the enormity of what it was taking on.

Maria Eichorn Rose Valland Institute (2017) auction records with lists of buyers 1925-42

Documenta seemed to be asking a multitude of big questions, what does it mean to be part of a nation state, how do we represent or relate to those communities of people who are stateless? Can art act resistance to oppression? This last idea in particular is completely intertwined with the history of the exhibition, and something which I would like to have seen more clearly articulated than it was since it’s a really interesting history. There were fragments of it across numerous group shows from photos of Documenta 2 in the Fredericium by Hans Haake and perhaps more noticeably in the Nau gallery which included iconic works by Joseph Beuys alongside paintings by Karl Leyhausen a prominent member the German secession (and a close friend of Arnold Bode founder of Documenta) who committed suicide in 1931 in the face of the growing barbarism of National Socialism referenced here in a portrait of Peggy Sinclair from 1928 which for me brought a chilling reminder of the dark historical context Documenta grew out of. This work then sat next to contemporary curatorial projects such as the Rose Volland Institute by Maria Eichorn, a kind of radical archiving or restorative historical work seeking to reveal and rectify the huge volume of art and literature plundered by the Nazis and often still held in public collections. The art gallery here acting as a kind of host for radical historical practice, I’m intrigued to see how this project develops and whether it impacts more widely on historical discussion in this area.

Also in the Nau gallery was a sound work and improvised musical scores by Katalin Ladik which was installed in a long corridor with a series of allegorical sculptures from the late 1800s representing idealised visions of European Nations by Karl Friedrich Echtermeier. Ladik’s work made when she lived in the former Yugoslavia a kind of noise poetry reminiscent of Dada. I found this work really hypnotic, the combination of elements seeming to tap into the critique of enlightenment values, the reshaping of language and questioning of nationhood which were recurrent themes.

Katalin Ladik Improvised musical score (detail)

Karl Friedrich Echtermeier (1845-1910) Countries of Art (detail)

It was perhaps these issues of both European history, identity and what might be considered a crisis in Europe which has been building since the financial crash of 2008 and the wider global context this all sits within which came across most clearly to me in the exhibition. The relationship Europe forms with developing countries referenced by numerous works dealing with experiences of migration and also works by artists from outside what might be considered the traditional western cannon of modernism. This was an aspect of the show which I enjoyed, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that as a photographer the works which stood out for me were photographic and video based. In particular Gauri Gill who showed two bodies of photographic work which are exhibited on the top floor of the Hessisches Landesmusuem working with marginalised communities in India. Similarly I really enjoyed Khvay Samnang and Preah Kunlong’s film work explored notions of borders and embodied knowledge by working with native people from the Areng Valley in Cambodia. The project was the result of a collaborative process working with the Chong people alongside a dancer and choreographer to capture this way of knowing the landscape which is increasingly under environmental threat. In both cases I really admired both the aesthetic and ethical approaches taken by the work so I suppose thinking of my earlier question there doesn’t always have to be a choice.

Preah Kunlong The Way of the Spirit (2017) three channel video installation.