If it’s Tuesday this must be Basel
Armed only with a European Rail Pass, a shamefully underused German phrase book and an extravagant six days off work, Paul Carey-Kent tackles Frankfurt, Zurich, Basel, Kassel, Hanover and Hamburg in a city spree which encompassed the major events of Art Basel and the thirteenth in the quinquennial Documenta – or, as curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev would have it, dOCUMENTA (13) . Here’s a small pick from the excess…


Omer Fast


Frankfurt has wonderful banking-backed institutions, and several were involved in a thorough overview of lens-based work, ‘Making History’, on how historical happenings are reflected in the images of today. This also proved to be the first part of an impressive Omer Fast survey: ‘Take a Deep Breath’, builds dizzying layers of reality and unreality on the back of the making of a film inspired by an incident in which someone found they had called first aid for a suicide bomber. It was to be followed by ‘Continuity’ in Kassel, ‘Game Show’ in Hannover and ‘Nostalgia’ in Hamburg,  all highlighting the Berlin-based Israeli’s ability to show differently repeating iterations of material in compelling way which expose the artificiality of ‘the truth’.. .
Jorge Macchi

Zurich has special openings of all its galleries on the Sunday prior to each Art Basel, and this was also the reopening after two years of the refurbished Lowenbrau building. There Hauser & Wirth now have one of Europe’s biggest galleries, spread over three floors.  Roni Horn’s drawing retrospective was good, as was a sharp and funny selection of Ger van Elk’s 70’s work at Bob van Osouw; Silvie Defraoui’s videos (especially ‘Aphrodite Ping Pong’), cunningly linked to a neat painting show at Susanna Kulli; young British painter Benjamin Senior at Bolte Lang; and Jorge Macchi’s ‘Light & Weight’ at Peter Klichmann, in which the ingenious  ‘Illumination’ made the show’s title literal by casting the beams from torches in concrete so that they formed a star of heavy light.

Koons’ ‘Split Rocker’ in the Beyeler gardens

Basel’s too-much-to-see in its busiest week included many interlocking shows, talks and events  in addition to the central concept of  250 world class galleries selling their best work: I also got to Art Edition, Art Features, Art Unlimited and Art Statements on the main site; Art Parcours in the city; the separate Liste, Volta and Solo Projects fairs; and concurrent shows around Basel, of which the highlight – as everyone I spoke to agreed – was a stunning presentation of Jeff Koons at the Foundation Beyeler.

Horoshi Sugimoto

There must be 10,000 works to choose from, but one comparatively unassertive one which surprised and drew me was a set of five sculptures by Hiroshi Sugimoto. They  relate to his much better-known photographs of the sea, which he depicts in patiently-awaited periods of meditative calm. Here, the images of five seas were set inside glass pagoda-come globes, placed on tall plinths to integrate the world, its seas and man.

Mike Nelson
The biggest hall houses ‘Art Unlimited’,  projects sponsored by participating galleries, with a tendency towards the spectacular. In Mike Nelson’s ‘After Kerouac’ the oddly non-Turner-winning Nelson turns literature into a space as usual, but not through a  warren of atmospheric rooms, but  single architecturally striking form: a spiralling white corridor covered in black tyre marks stands in for the single continuous scroll on which On the Road was famously typed, leading one into a central zone suddenly piled with tyres.

Alicja Kwade
Alicja Kwade’s ‘In Circles’ brings us from spiral to circles: an installation of particularly richly textured found objects which the artist has somehow bent to her will, citing the definition of a circle as ‘a special ellipse in which the two foci are coincident and the eccentricity is zero’ only to make a most eccentric world out of it. 
Gitte Schäfer

28 young galleries are invited to produce single artist projects in the ‘Art Statements’ section. Zurich’s Lullin + Ferrari had the highest-maintenance stand, made by upcoming German artist Gitte Schäfer. Like many, she collects items to turn into sculptural combinations, but like Kwade she brings a rare flair to the process: 288 whimsically distinctive vases were installed on a mirror wall, and a Rorschach-shape’s worth of them were filled with locally-sourced blooms to make a vanitas regularly freshened from a veritable florist at the back of the stand. Cue intricate rhythms and references to the vanitas tradition and religious triptychs’ grisaille outer wings (here left flowerless).

Rosemary Trockel

By no means everything in the Fair is new, and Rosemary Trockel’s  prints of found images of spider webs is a classic from 1993.  The eight spiders in question had been given various drugs, so altering the natural web pattern shown in the centre to versions which would struggle to operate in fly-catching practice. They  provide a different spin on the artist’s own creativity, the advantages of getting outside oneself, as flagged by the title ‘What it is like to be what you are not’;  and on Trockel’s own best-known method, the weaving of ‘paintings’.


Levi van Veluw
Four artists new to me who particularly impressed in the subsidiary fairs were kinetic sculptor Pa Lang; process abstractionist Andy Boot, whose latest paintings use gymnastic ribbons fixed in a wax ground; Dutch painter Greet van Autgaerden, who bases abstracted landscapes on communally-collected childhood memories of summer camps; and  – staying with childhood memories – Levi van Veluw’s amazing reconstruction (at the Ron Mandos Gallery in Volta) of his boyhood bedroom by means of a life size room made out of wooden blocks suitable for young builders at play.

Of course, many familiar artists showed well: I could mention Neo Rauch, Walead Beshty, Doug Aitken, Los Carpinteros, Alexis Harding, Peter Funch, Daniel Lergon, Sarah Barker and Boo Ritson or I could desist…

Matias Faldbakken

On to Kassel, where there’s more work than one person could see fully and more themes than one person could assess – though you can buy a vast ‘Book of Books’ in which a hundred people do so between them. The trends include:

·         lots of material which wasn’t created as art, but is now presented as such, making the curatorial team the artists

·         myriad excavations of the past – both historically and in terms of how work was produced
·         a whole pile of accumulation pieces, some rigorously orderly (Korbinian Aigner’s apple paintings, Geoffrey Farmer’s vast shadow puppet collage, Sanya Ivekovic’s stuffed donkeys), some far from it (Song Dong’s ‘zero effort’ garden hills, Lara Favaretto’s scrapyard, Matias Faldbakken’s book-spill in the city library)
·         a thoroughgoing – if sometimes slightly wearying – use of ‘unexpected’ locations around the city
·         plenty of paintings, but not by famous painters: they’re almost all either by-products of people who mainly do other things, or attempts to revive interest in long-unfashionable artists, most of them dead. That was part of a strenuous effort to foreground the overlooked… despite which, the work I liked best was almost all by artists already well-known to me
What you really want to concentrate on if visiting Documenta is ambitious, knock-out work which is unlikely to be as good anywhere else. As it happens, much of that is in two areas somewhat away from the main Friderichsplatz centre:

The old railway station has compelling work by many artists, including Clemens von Wedemeyer, Tejal Shah, Willie Doherty, Haris Epaminonda & Gustav Cramer and also:

·         a half hour personal video tour by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, which is spookily effective in placing you between your present, her present when recording it, and the pasts she talks about.
·         William Kentridge’s tour de force installation ‘The Refusal of Time’, with five large walls projections across three walls, plus sculptural and kinetic elements

Haegue Yang

 ·       Haegue Yang’s stately dance of blinds along an abandoned platform

·         Rabih Mroué’s account of the self-documentation of the deaths of Syrian protesters
And the zone around the Huguenot House, newly converted to artists’ studios as artworks by Theaster Gates, has:

·         Tino Sehgal’s remarkably effective ‘This Variation’. I entered a pitch black room which felt crowded with other visitors. Soon, I realised it was just me and a dozen performers, who dance around you making noises, calling out words and singing – a stunning a Capella version of ‘Good Vibrations’ is mixed in with statements about the value of art. After five minutes your eyes adjust, and the visual interest of the movement comes into play. Then some other visitors did come in, adding a comic element as they stumbled around in their turn for initial confusion. After fifteen minutes of what seemed to be a forty minute basic cycle, I was sufficiently in vibe to pretend to be a performer when the next newcomers arrived…
·         A gently resonant installation of paintings by Francis Alys
·         Paul Chan’s ‘Volumes Incompleteset’ – six hundred book covers on which the artist has painted in grisaille
·         Gerard Byrne’s multi-screen re-enactment of collaged conversations from writing set up to answer questions about male sexual attitudes. ‘Can you tell if a woman has an orgasm?’ – ‘What do you think of onanism?’ – ‘Must love be reciprocal?’.  How much of our speech is an act?
So there you have a handily compact eight of my personal top dozen from Documenta. The others being largely accumulations in line with the trend:

Kader Attia
·  Kader Attia’s  ‘The Repair’ at the top of the main Fridericianum venue is a teeming installation which makes a stunning full and disturbing backwards historical comparison between African wooden heads and the faces of those injured in World War I


Anna Maria Maiolino
·   Anna Maria Maiolino’s obsessive accumulation of clay items ‘Here & There’, which fills an entire  gardener’s cottage in Karlsaue Park, where you’ll also find…

Sam Durant

·  Sam Durant’s ‘Scaffold’, which looks innocuous but proves to be a mash-up of the gallows on which famous executions took place.

Tacita Dean
·  Tacita Dean’s blackboard drawing project ‘Fatigues’ linked Kassel to Afghanistan – a set theme for this Documenta – and was ideally placed in the unlikely site of a former tax office.  

Sven Johne

As luck would have it, I arrived in Hannover just in time for the annual ‘Museum Night’, with 19 spaces open till midnight and served by a fleet of specially laid-on buses.   The perfect way to take in the three venue ‘Made in Germany Zwei’, surveying the work of 45 up and coming artists working in Germany – whether German or not – and a good mixture of those new to me and those already well-known internationally (Cyprian Gallaird, Rosa Barba, Saadane Afif, Keren Cytter, Ulla von Brandenburg, Simon Fujiwara, Bernd Ribeck, Shannon Bool, Mike Bouchet…). I like a good reason to look at the perversely nondescript, and conceptual photographer Sven Johne – another who seemed to crop up in every city – provided that with a large series of somewhat muddied, semi-urban fields. They resulted from him following the circus he remembered from his East German boyhood, and documenting the sites just after the tent had been dismantled.

Louise Bourgeois
The Kunsthalle in Hamburg is Germany’s biggest and, indeed, with only three hours in the city I got no further. The pick of its current special exhibitions is of late work – ie after age 85! – by Louise Bourgeois. It includes several cycles of the textile works made from her own old clothes, which Bourgeois saw as an exercise in the memory of ‘how did I feel when I wore that?’. Many of them turn on the spiral, which fascinated her for its ambiguity: was it winding down into a compressed point of disappearance or radiating out into a trusting acceptance of the world? The spiral appears in the sky in the cycle The Waiting Hours, which makes for a visual match with the Jorge Macchi above…

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