We took a long train ride on Sunday, September 10, from Venice to Kassel. There was a fast connection in Verona, a trip through the Alps that was beautiful except when we were in a tunnel: the preposition “through” is carefully chosen; and a more leisurely connection in Munich, where we had enough time to buy a snack and be yelled at by the proprietor of the closest stand in the food court at München Hbf. for sitting in his chairs when our sausages were not from his stand. Later on he decided it was OK. We were done eating anyway and it was nearly time to board the 2020 train to Kassel. We got into Kassel just before midnight, which was a terrific inconvenience to our Airbnb host, Niklas, who was hoping to go out that night. Niklas later said that he was OK with not going out, that he didn’t want to anyway. I wonder if he was being polite, or if people are secretly wishing for reasons not to go out in the noisy clubs of civilization and instead stay at home snuggling their girlfriends? Niklas and his girlfriend were both snuggleworthy, though a bit mismatched in height. Niklas had been an exchange student near San Antonio, Texas, not very far back in the day. He had somehow decided that conventional American beer was the best kind. That’s the sort of foreign influence that gives AfD such a boost.
We went right to bed. I have given a good review on Airbnb for Niklas (although the apartment is listed in the name of Linda, a third party whom we never met) and Monday morning we bought a 72-hour two-person tram ticket for 12 euros, and two two-day Documenta tickets for 38 euros each. And with those in hand, it was time to start walking. We began in the old new post office, and then the North and West of the downtown area, in full-on Kim Jong Un Looking At Things mode.
The post office building set the trend for Documenta. Very political, more exhortation than ideas and more ideas than art. I am afraid I am much with Henry Carr on this one:
“An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted.”
(Tom Stoppard, Travesties)
The folks at Documenta are upset by modern society and I share their discomfort and I wish they were better than I am at expressing it and I wish that what they did could save one of Auden’s Jews (Auden doesn’t know this, by the way; there were quite a few of the Righteous Among Nations and they haven’t all been polled as to what motivated them to risk their lives and the lives of their families.)
It doesn’t take me very long to get tired of art-speak. Unfortunately, the labels were in English, which meant it was hard to resist reading them. Every time I think there will be a reasonable commentary on an art work, the word “formally” appears, like the first sponsored link in a Google search. (And why is it that Airbnb censors the word “Google” out of reviews? It’s weird.) And then “dialoguing”. And then “mediated”, and off to the races and there were many, many, many, instances here and in the Biennale where the curator did not even bother to say what the piece was MADE OUT OF, like is it oil or acrylic, or they said something stupidly useless, as when a photo of a piece in the Hirst exhibit was described as made from aluminum and Lexan because that’s what the lightbox was made out of. I KNOW THAT, 99.
The reindeer skull curtain sticks in my mind. Maybe it’s because what the Americans, my ancestors, did to the Indians, my ancestors, was ten times worse than what the Aryan Scandinavians are doing to the Lapland Scandinavians. Also I can recognize a curtain of reindeer skulls without Artsplaining.
There was a pyramid of plants. There was a dark room with a bunch of pennies and some weird sounds and various stories of colonialism. I’m purposely not referring to any of the paper we collected, while writing this. I want to see what stuck in my head. People have asked what my favorite pieces were, and presumably, they will be the ones I either liked or hated. Or were the last ones I saw.
By the time we got back to the city center, it was time for adana kebab, ezme, eggplant, and ayran, at Restaurant Diyar Ocakbasi. Echt German food. A very good choice.
Afterwards, we began the enormous Fridericianum which had a gong that didn’t work, and a truly epic piece which looks like styrofoam and cardboard really close up, and turns out to be made entirely from marble. And then outside to stand in the drizzle and watch the workers dismantling the Parthenon of censored books.
The Parthenon was a joke. First off, they did not have anything currently illegal, such as porn. Nor did I see a Quran, which could have been such a Teaching Moment, owing to Heinrich Heine’s famous statement in Almansor, “wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen,” which everybody knows, but nobody recalls that the book they are talking about is the Quran.
What is most disturbing, however, is that there seemed to be only a couple of hundred titles, repeated like wallpaper up the whole structure. Solzhenitsyn. The Bible. Salman Rushdie.
Between Russia and Nazi Germany and Saudi Arabia, every book published has been banned. They could have had any library they desired. They could have had a rainbow pillar theme in which one column was papered only with banned books whose covers were primarily green.
I think also a nod to Wikipedia and Facebook would have been in order. It’s 2017 for God’s sake. In the original, Marta Minujín used only books which had been specifically banned by the Argentine government just ousted. That gave focus.
Also, in the light of a marvelous piece in the Biennale in which a pile of magazines was being eroded by dripping water over the course of the months of the exhibit, it might have been nice not to wrap the books in plastic, but to let them deteriorate in the rain. As it was, they were giving them away to the ticketholders, and you could see by the piles of the same title over and over, how few banned works were really represented.
It really reinforced my idea that child pornography is the only uncompromised political art form in production today.
Tuesday was another social day. We have not been many days on this trip without seeing friends. The first days we saw only strangers would have been Monday and Tuesday in Iceland; and then the day we left for Germany. There might have been a day in Venice we didn’t see cousin Johan, but by now we must count Christina at Ca’dell’Angelo as practically a friend because we’ve stayed in her hotel (15 days) longer than we’ve ever been in most countries (26 out of 193).
On Tuesday, our friend Alex drove up to see us from his home near Frankfurt. This was a big hole out of his work day and Dave and I are flattered beyond description that he did it. We had not seen him for thirty years. We met him when he and his friend Bertram were hitchhiking away from the Grand Canyon in 1984. Now he has a family and a job. I have said this before, that seeing very old friends after a long time, is like being introduced to a stranger by a mutual acquaintance, the mutual acquaintance being yourself, decades past. It is a good introduction. Alex is still fun to hang out with. I expect that Bertram is, too. We should look him up soon, before we are too old to talk about anything but surgery.
(Cousin Johan said that about his latest trip on the Queen Mary, that most of the people on board only wanted to drink chardonnay at ten in the morning and talk about their surgeries. I have noticed this also, and tolerate it less well than Johan has. I want the people on my cruise ships to talk about their lenses.)
Alex walked with us around a large batch of outdoor pieces that did not require tickets. The two-day tickets did not have to be used on consecutive days. There was a round tent made out of marble, in one of the parks. Two makes a theme. Alex had to leave before dinner. He gave us a pair of Chicken Guards, which I misheard as Gods. Apparently it is a Danish custom to place stones with holes in them atop chicken houses. I forget how he came to be adopting Danish customs.
As we had had lunch with Alex at Falada, a very nice restaurant in Grimmwelt, we had only to top off with hot chocolate brewed with a dash of Havana Club 7 year rum at a place near the main square, and head back to the hotel.
Wednesday: art. rain. Finished with the Fridericianum, and saw Documenta Halle, Neue Galerie, and started the Palais Bellevue. Waited in line. At the top of a tower at the Fridericianum there was a room full of plate glass flags lying in pieces on the floor. Only five persons at a time, please. Got rained on.
There is a large gallery called “Documenta Halle” which had a bunch of unaccountable stuff. A big fanboy exhibition of Ali Farka Touré artifacts. Kind of like the Experience Music Project when it opened: here’s a bunch of stuff I collected. Except that Paul Allen had enough money to buy himself a museumful, eventually. A very long tapestry with wintery scenes. Descriptions by an artist of an installation he did at the Whitney in 1975 — really, they presume on your attention span at these places.
And just when you’ve given up hope: Annie Sprinkle! in the Neue Gallerie. And a room full of actual Nazi headshots! This is a big deal for Germans; they don’t have Nazis in everyday life the way Americans do. I did not know that Joseph Beuys was a Nazi, but his room was next door to the Nazi head shot room, and it was closed for safety reasons. Fluxus kills.
Thursday: art. rain. Finished with Palais Bellevue — totally worth it, as the third floor, which we hadn’t seen, had the most worth-it twenty minutes of Time-Based Media ever: “The Dust Channel”, by Roee Rosen. Vacuum cleaner love. Refugees in the Negev. Teletubbies. Netanyahu. Parts of it are on YouTube.
Also, in among the posters like “Towards an International Antifascist Feminist Front” (who could disagree with that? But it’s typescript on paper, two columns, justified, how is this what we paid for?), today I saw an Isetta in a museum. Talk about a car ahead of its time. Also: gouache on paper, thanks for sharing that, of naked men dancing something called “Zeimbekiko” which is said to date from Greece in the late 19th century. Really? They were naked? Because Documenta spent its first months in Athens before moving to Kassel, there has been a lot of Greek stuff (most of the Fridericianum). Maybe 400 BC they were naked. Anyway, the dance is from Turkey. Greeks hate when you point that out. Turks also.
A diorama of Kassel after the bombing raids. I don’t know if that was Documenta, though. It might have been one of the permanent exhibitions in the venues that dedicated space to it, for the duration.
There was a room with guns pointing into it — another topic that resonates more with Germans because they don’t live surrounded by them.
And, what made an impression and not just because it was the last thing seen, some nutcase from the Netherlands has taken tens of thousands of photographs of people in the years 1992-2017 and remember 1992 we are talking about film here, photography was a big deal then, and he has picked out the best three thousand or so and classified and printed them in sets of 15 or 20 according (mostly) to what they were wearing: plaid shirts. Hot pants. Carrying two blue plastic bags. Brilliant obsession. makes me want to organize my photos. No artist statement. Hans Eijkelboom, hats off, 15 very similar hats on different people through the ages. Google explains to me that there is a book. I may have to buy it, when I am home and don’t have to carry it.
Friday: We walked up to the base of the Hercules Tower in the UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE “Bergpark”, but we didn’t go inside because you couldn’t see Hercules any better from inside than out, not even upskirt, and he’s naked anyway so why bother seeing displays of medieval armor which is what’s always inside those places anyway.
Then a drive to Berlin which was dreadful. The East is still underdeveloped. 27 years after reunification, there still isn’t data on major freeways, they still haven’t learned to put up detour signs, only guys who hang out at the road closures and tell you you can’t go there. There are, however, mass-produced red X’s made of wood, which clip onto standard road signs to indicate that a particular route is no longer available. It took us 8 hours to get from Kassel to Berlin. Google Maps suggests, 3 hours and 45 minutes. It is true that there are no speed limits on the Autobahn, but what good are speed limits if you are motionless parked between giant trucks waiting to pass the latest accident or construction zone? I wrote in my diary a full page on what went wrong for us, but it sounds too much like drinking chardonnay and reciting surgeries. We stopped at a ruined library and a canal bridge in Magdeburg (a canal crosses a river: impressive).
Dinner was with our friend Lindsay, at the most ironically gendered restaurant ever. It’s called “mädchen ohne abitur” which means approximately “High School Dropout Girls”, and the walls are covered with early-1960’s girl trash, whether bra straps or Barbie Dolls, pictures of Dreamboat Guys in the men’s bathroom, along with ribbons and lace, and predominantly pictures of hairstyles that you remember from your high school yearbook in the mid-1960’s before everyone started smoking pot. If you don’t have a mid-1960’s high school yearbook, I suggest you get one. There are thousands of them on eBay. I don’t know why these people are letting go of their past so lightly. Oh wait, we’re dying. Never mind.
After midnight, we got to the hotel. The clerk was outside the door and said Mr Spears, I presume? And so to bed.