dOCUMENTA raises questions about what constitutes quality work.
While in Berlin recently, I attended the art festival dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany.
As a dance artist, thinking about choreography and what I want to say, I hope to understand, by looking at the art of others, what is important, what is the value, what is the core of what you take away.
The first work I encountered was a pitch-black room. Standing at the doorway, I heard the choreographed stamping of bodies in the dark, dancing to their own crude beat boxing. I stepped into the room cautiously, letting the movement and sound unfold around me in waves. Out of the beatboxing emerged the seductive lyrics of the Beach Boys. “Good…good…good…good vibrations,” then the song reached full flight, resonating through every figure in the room. No one could contain themselves. We danced along in the dark, adding our own vibrations to the music. Song after song was sung by the performers—the darkness thick with charged frequencies: intoxicating, joyful, sexed-up and silly.
This performance work, conceived by artist Tino Segal, ran 10 hours a day for the entire 100 days of dOCUMENTA. Anything else about the work is a mystery to me. When I looked up Segal’s page in the sizeable dOCUMENTA guidebook, his page number was conspicuously missing. An empty space. I discovered later from one of the performers that Segal wants nothing to remain of the work except the reverberation of memory within each witness, without a contextual influence.
In the words of the festival committee, “dOCUMENTA (13) is dedicated to artistic research and forms of imagination that explore commitment, matter, things, embodiment and active living in connection with, yet not subordinated to, theory.”
The festival’s artworks – performance, sound and visual art – sit amongst a multitude of theoretical writings, lectures and discussions. Opinions were impossible to suppress. On my first day, I became engrossed in a very serious, not fully informed, argument about the role of politics in art. One of my temporary best friends – the kind you gravitate towards when travelling alone – was discussing the politically minded curation of the current Berlin Biennale. The work that really resonated with her was primarily engaged with the composition of its elements. She wondered whether activist art, although powerful in influence, devalued a purity of form – resulting in shallow art practice.
I think most of us have a memory of an inexpressible communion with a work, where something profound happens to your chemistry, your atomic make-up vibrates with some incomprehensible shared understanding between you and everything else. Simultaneously simple and complex, ecstatic peace. After this kind of encounter we enter a space of yearning, a yearning to return to this ecstatic, peaceful sensation. Or is that just me?
One of the most disarmingly beautiful works at the festival was an exhibition in a self-made gallery by artists Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer. The space, described as “an orchestrated, mazelike stage,” housed very unassuming pieces: old leatherbound diaries, photos torn from yellowing books, 16mm projection of exotic locations, and geometric readings of landscape, to name a few. The objects contained a sense of mysterious locale, yet no inherent meaning was overt. As I wandered through the space however, I noticed an energetic communication between the objects. Each choice by the artists, the composition of elements, left a trace of instinctual resonance, or at least this is what I perceived.
I should mention, at one point I did toy with the idea of titling this “Why is everything so terrible?” At first, I wanted to air the frustration I felt when I first arrived in Berlin and encountering several agonising dance pieces. But I became more interested in the question: why is everything so terrible? Let me re-phrase: what is it inside of us that over and over says - some things are simply terrible?
During my travels I was reading the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig. He poses the question quite clearly: "Quality…you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is… there’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what quality is, then how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? What exactly is quality? What is it?"
I naturally compared and made judgments about what I thought was high quality work at the festival, (in four days at the festival I saw 130 artists work). But what are these thoughts worth when I know that other people – some with more informed opinions than I – will have different ideas on what the quality of the work is? What is a value judgement worth, especially when it is apparent that the pursuit of art seems dependant on it?
Quality is resonance. I’m not talking about what we like and what we don’t. The quality of work is inherent in its actual resonance in the world. To again speak from the festival’s own words, “The human body shapes and supports the particularity of a place, and so do artworks.” Every thing has its own inherent resonance. We take for granted that an artist understands and listens to the resonance of their form. But equally as important is the openness with which we, as observers, can quieten ourselves to listen to these resonances. Once we begin to judge, we may decide that we love or hate something, but both love and hate imply strong resonance. The problem of “why is everything so terrible?” is that the more seasoned we become as an audience to art, the harder it is to quieten the inner critic in order to listen to the quality of the artists’ work.
Ryan Gander, for one of his contributions to dOCUMENTA, offered the five front rooms in the documenta-halle gallery as empty spaces. As you walk through the empty spaces, a light breeze gently pulls you through the space. My physiology immediately shifted, relaxed. This breeze is Ryan Gander’s work, “not a strong wind, not immediately recognisable as artificial, but physical enough to create a moment of wonder.”
The immediacy of this resonance is startling. It is so simple, shockingly simple, and I didn’t even have the chance to question it before it was affecting me in that all too elusive way.