Of plants and trees, dogs and bees
Closed September 16
by Cathy Byrd
For me, documenta (13) was most remarkable for what took place in the Karlsaue, Kassel’s queen of parks. The Karlsaue Park dates from 1586, originating as a formal pleasure garden filled with herbs and exotic plants. Around 1700, when the Orangerie (a documenta venue) was built, the park was extended in the Baroque style—a strict symmetric layout with artificial ditches, geometric gardens and sculpted woods. In 1785, the park was reshaped into the hugely popular English-style parkscape that remains. The green space at the park’s East end has been used for documenta sculpture displays and a few installations since documenta II (1959). This year, documenta fully activates the Karlsaue as its topography becomes a space for contemporary art. Artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s move to make the Karlsaue a real venue has completely transformed the documenta(13) experience for thousands of locals and visitors. The park not only offers specially constructed and existing space for stand-alone video and sculptural installations, but also becomes a resonant setting for experiential projects that merge art with plants and trees, dogs and bees.
To create the surreal and controversial biotope that is Untilled, French artist Pierre Huyghe turned to an overgrown area at the far end of the park. Visitors follow a muddy path around a fallen, rotting tree and skirt puddles sprouting algae to look down upon a small clearing. At the edge of that raw stage is a statue of a reclining woman on a cement block. A swarming beehive sits where her head might be. Her kingdom is contained within the subject of the bees’ attention—a seemingly wild, though, in fact, carefully cultivated, growth of specially selected plants. The bees, we realize, are there to pollinate: toxic foxglove, mind-altering cannabis, deadly nightshade, poisonous jimsonweed and a species of rye that tends to catch a fungus with the effects of LSD. Just beyond, a puppy with one pink foot lies sleeping in the sun amongst piles of unused stepping stones, black gravel, stacks of cut wood and cement blocks. I didn’t meet his companion, an elegant white greyhound with one pink leg who was out roaming the park during my visit. Since 2005, when Huyghe’s A Journey That Wasn’t took him to Antarctica on a search for the rare Albino penguin, he has increasingly given his power over to the art that he sets in motion. The artist seems less interested in controlling his media than he is in freeing himself from its constraints. In Untilled, by working with an unkempt environment that negates the surrounding manicured landscape, he manifests his permissive philosophy.
In contrast to the sprawling assemblage of Untilled, Forest (for a thousand years), by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, is practically invisible. On their site, 18 small speakers and 4 subwoofers are hidden in the underbrush and perched high in the trees. A dirt path, a small wooden walkway and a few tree stumps for seating are all that marks the spot. Cardiff and Bures Miller employed Ambisonics, a 1970s technology that creates a three-dimensional sound-field from their recordings of noises, vibrations and explosions. Immersing visitors in a transcendent 25-minute experience Forest evokes the land’s imagined memory through a suite of sound movements— birds cawing, wind hissing, radio static, laughter, gunfire and a sublime choral piece sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Gathering silently beneath the trees, visitors stand or sit motionless until the final explosion shakes them back to the present. The artists have effectively channeled a temporal passage through the woods.
With Swiss Chard Ferry, artist Christian Philipp Müller demonstrates perhaps the greatest vision for what documenta might cultivate. The Swiss artist known for his conceptual garden projects, worked with the local university’s agriculture department to grow sixty different organic chard varieties. Planted in crates on three barges from the cold war in one of the Karlsaue canals, the humble greens became central to a narrative that weaves together history, environment and culture. The barges tied together create an eco-sensitive bridge for visitors to cross from the exhibition to Kassel’s Kunsthochschule where Müller is now director. Along with five hundred other curious people, I showed up at the ferry one day to taste the harvest: 20 varietals and ten gourmet entrees prepared by local chefs. The artist’s research-based eco-practice was beautifully realized in this communal project.
Müller, Huyghe, Cardiff and Bures Miller—mine the park’s potential to play an active role within their projects. At the edge of the overwhelming and often dense display of art in museums, exhibition halls, train stations, and other built spaces at the heart of Kassel, the Karlsaue—with paths that separate and connect the creative spaces that occupy its green expanse—alters our experience of this iteration of documenta.
Cathy Byrd is an independent critic and curator currently based in Berlin. She directs and produces the Fresh Talk audio podcast series for FreshArtInternational.com.