In June I visited Kassel for the opening week of Documenta 13. Even with five days up my sleeve I didn’t get to see all of the parts of the show, so numerous and spread out were the pavilions and works in the gardens. I was also trying to attend as many lectures and films as possible during the week, a definate highlight was Michael Taussig’s talks. Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (who curated the Sydney Biennale) posits that there are four possible conditions (only 4!?) that artists and thinkers find themselves under today: Under siege, On retreat, In a state of hope or optimism, On stage. I would add to that, broke in a flat in Peckham, but still. So Christov-Bakargiev envisions a state of crisis and emergency, and there is a lot of work that can clearly be identified as “politcal” complete with the heavy quotation marks that seem to clang into place when articulated by the art world, which makes it easy to dismiss – however real pathos and power was still to be found amongst the light quotation of others’ raw realities. Of more interest to me were other strands of practice highlighted in Documenta, gardens, feminism, botany, scientific instruments, ceramics and a real return to both expressionist and conceptual practice.I also enjoyed the really globally inclusive policy in curating the artists and the combination of contemporary, modernist and ancient work. This was most clearly demonstrated in the section of the Fridericianum called ‘The Brain’, where contemporary film by my dear friend Tamara Henderson was shown next to delicate Lapis Lazuli Bactrian princesses from 2nd and 3rd century BC, Georgio Morandi paintings and their original subjects, carved stone sacks of marble by Guiseppe Penone and the imfamous objects Lee Miller took from Hitler’s appartment and many other beautiful treasures crammed in. In this smaller space the magpie approach of juxtaposition and ambigouis connection held its fascination.
One of the side effects of collapsing work from all eras was to make me thoroughly sick of the contemporary documentary turn – the contrast was just too much between Alighiero Boetti’s light and profound creativity and Mario Garcia Torres arid longing for (or exploitation of) the trace of Boetti. That and the aggrandising practice of displaying written correspondence in giant plexiglas box frames was another piece of disappointing art self absorption.
In complete contrast to that tendency was the inclusion of several works by Maria Martins. Martins properly belongs to Surrealism, but developed a unique lushly expressionist sculptural form. At once incredibly awkward, almost naive in their intent to portray emotional states but affecting; these works were some of my favourite pieces in the exhibition. I have been thinking about them ever since seeing them in June. The visual manifestations of Surrealism are wayward beasts, often descending to kitsch, and these do have something of the melted clockface about them. They do however make you FEEL, I feel the stringy tough beauty of their forms, I feel the tumbled smoothness of her labour upon them and I feel disappointment with myself for not making art like this.
Maria Martins was born in 1894 Brazil. She is closely associated with Post-war Surrealism and Andre Breton championed her work during the 1940s. Maria (as she liked to be known) is most often written into history for her relationship with Marcel Duchamp, and as the model for ‘Etant Donnes’. Maria’s bronze sculptures are semi anthropormorphic, incorporating stories from Brazilian myths and traditions, with references to nature, particularly the Jungle. MM died in 1972.
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