Documenta 13

07/05/2012 06:00 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2012

Documenta is a decadal European art fair that attempts to give an overview of the contemporary world art scene, or at least those aspects of it that the given curator (this year, Carolyin Christov-Bakargiev) finds most important. I recently attended the Venice Bienale, a similar event, and went away feeling that, if this were the best of contemporary art, there were better things to do. And one can never get beyond the dovetailed feelings that A) there is a better party than the one you are at, with a hipper, more connected crowd, and B) that you have missed some of the best exhibits.

As these events are major attractions, lodging in the host town is problematic, but I was fortunate to have friends living in Kassel, which included the perk of local guides. Somehow, my New York team convinced the Documenta folks that I was a VIP, God knows how, so I had a nice pass for the first days. Our first excursion took us to a ramshackle house that was being occupied and "renovated" by a team from Chicago (Reader, please forgive the lack of artist identification in this narrative). Comfy, nice feel, not revelatory. Then, across the street, some unmemorable works on paper that sparked the "Oh no, another BS conceptualist art expo" in my gut. First, patient reader, a word about the scrivener's bias: art should have meaning. It should be created by someone who is master of a medium, and has something to say therewith. Nor am I interested to travel around the world to see decorative sofa-matching creations.

Next stop, the old Bahnhof (train station) which housed numerous exhibits, our first being a performance piece in a dark warehouse centered around a big pile of dirt. A man walked around mouthing drivel and carrying a tray of small items that he obviously wanted the audience to take, but be assured your clever narrator did not fall into the trap. Eventually the rest of the audience caught on and started accepting the offerings (rubes), at which point an assistant directed them to hold the items aloft, perhaps in token obsequiousness? They were then lead into the mound to play a game, at which point I looked for a roost. Usually when one is not party to a "happening" but can hear it or glimpse it, one feels exclusion...

Next stop: some films. Give me a plot, please.

Wait, Wait: way cool, a replication of a tailor's shop, made entirely of wood. Every sewing machine, steamer, press, iron. Genius.

End of day -- beers, hooray Germany -- good friends, and let's not forget a nice supper of Ursula's green sauce, Goethe's favorite, and a local specialty.

The Fridericianum is Kassel's main museum, largely given over to Documenta (I'm sorry, the dOCUMENTA logo tires me). Yes, some conceptual performance nonsense, but... One of the themes I really liked was the focus on war and militarism (apropos in a town famous for making tanks). Inside are some really nice sculptures from war detritus, and a fantastic slide show comparing nightmarish war wounds with primitive masks. One of my favorite things is a tremendous surreal tapestry of a scene with a giant snake, abandoned building, people sleeping (or dead) in snow. Amazing. Genius. This was part of another theme I really liked, which was the inclusion of an Islamic point of view: there were some great photos of detritus from the US invasion of Afghanistan that have been incorporated into the fabric of daily life, and some great graphic works by artists from the East. I feel that if we perhaps dialoged with the East rather than bomb it and take the oil, our world might be different.

One night, my hosts announced that we would go to a performance piece staged from the top of the Fridericianum, my eyes rolling in anticipatory horror. But, off we went, early enough to procure chairs in the park. The presenters could not have foreseen that this would be the first German victory in the soccer championships, so the event waited for the tooting horns and yelling to abate. And there was a nice breeze, making it a bit chilly and difficult for the performers atop the building to be heard on the ground, in spite of the megaphone they used. The female Italian performer proceeded to screech a feminist screed in heavily accented English. I'm all for feminism (men have managed to make a right mess of the world), but the whole thing seemed pretty dated, PC, and definitely monotonous. Later I met the performer at a party, intelligent and well-spoken. I kept my opinions to myself.

In sum, it was a fantastic event. I would have liked more outdoor music events, and regret the short time spent there, knowing there was much more to see, but Art Basel was calling: the commercial side of the art world.