31 August 2012

Japan in Germany 9: Shinro Ohtake at documenta 13

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The first weekend in August, my husband and I visited documenta 13 in Kassel.  The amount of art, live performances, and film on offer at documenta 13 is simply overwhelming, so we picked out a few artists whose work we definitely wanted to see and saw a number of other interesting works incidentally while wandering through the installation spaces.

Soil-erg.2012 by Claire Pentecost

My husband, being a conservation biologist, was interested in American artist Claire Pentecost’s installation of soil shaped like gold bars at the Ottoneum.  The concept of soil being as valuable as gold is very relevant to our times as we enter the post-oil era. (b. 1956, artist profile) (artist website)

Image of a metronome in Kentridge's "The Refusal of Time"

I happily stood in line for ages to get into the William Kentridge (b. 1955) installation “The Refusal of Time” (2012) in the Hauptbahnhof North Wing.  Kentridge’s animation has been highly influential – one can see the influence in the charcoal animations of Japanese experimental animator Naoyuki Tsuji, for example (see: Angel).  “The Refusal of Time” is projected on 5 screens with a mechanical machine in the middle.  It explores the various ways humanity has tried to capture time: metronomes, pressurized clocks, time zones, music, and so on.  There were elements of animation (stop motion, drawn) and live action with Kentridge himself even appearing in some scenes.  It is a complex work and I wish I could have spent the whole day in the installation just to be able to take in the diverse elements at work in it.  Learn more about the installation in this interview with the artist.

Also high on my list of things to see were the paintings of Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871-1945, CBC article) on display at the Neue Gallerie.  I had previously only seen a couple of her paintings in person at the McMichael Gallery in Ontario.  It is such a different experience to see her work in person than reprinted in books – they create a certain atmosphere that is hard to put into words.  The seven paintings on display were of her later work and the influences of Fauvism and Cubism were very evident.  Dark and hauntingly beautiful pieces.

As much as I love Emily Carr, she seemed a bit out of place in the documenta.  She seemed to have been selected to balance out the two Australian artists sharing a room with her – Margaret Preston (1875-1963) and Gordon Bennett (b.1955) – whose work is also influenced by aboriginal art.  All three were surrounded by conceptual and installation art – which represents the bulk of documenta works.  The neighbouring room, for example, featured the work of Geoffrey Farmer (b. 1967), which was perhaps the most popular installation at the documenta.  “Leaves of Grass” has been featured widely on magazine covers and newspaper articles – it has mass appeal not only because of the immensity of the project but also because of the popular subject matter: pictures cut from 5 decades of Life magazine (see Guardian review).  The link to Carr is that Farmer is also from British Columbia and attended the art college named after her – but it terms of style and subject matter these two could not be more different.

Japan was represented at documenta 13 by Shinro Ohtake (b. 1955, official website).  Ohtake is known as a collector from his ongoing series of “Scrap Books” (1977-) to the strange collages and ephemera decorating the “I Love Yu” Bathhouse in Naoshima, Kagawa Prefecture (article).  Ohtake’s “Mon Cheri: A Self Portrait as a Scrapped Shed” installation in Karlsaue Park shares much in common with the “I Love Yu” Bathhouse.  “Mon Cheri” is an example of a “snack bar” – the kind of hut one might find frequented by eccentric locals at an off-the-beaten track seaside town.  The neon sign was apparently found by Ohtake ten years ago and the Scrapped Shed was inspired by a defunct snack bar in Uwajima.

We could hear the Mon Cheri snack bar before we could see it as we traversed through the expansive grounds of Karlsaue Park.  At first the music was tinny and difficult to recognize, but as we got closer the song changed and I heard the familiar strains of Kyu Sakamoto’s rendition of the Jimmy Jones hit “Good Timin’.”  The snack bar has been installed under an impressively huge tree, and boats of various kinds are strewn around the bar on the ground and in the tree.  There is also a small caravan next to the snack bar. The snack bar is covered with newspaper and magazine clippings from both Japan and Germany.  The bar was wall-to-wall with a collection of junk from bicycle tires to a guitar and even miniature video screens displaying abstract videos. 

The junk in the tree caused a number of German commentators to suggest that this was a reference to the devastating tsunami of March 2011, but the title of the installation suggested to me that this was a much too literal interpretation.  As a self portrait, it seemed to me that the artist sees himself as being formed from the random detritus of popular and disposable artifacts of modern culture.  One could detect a sense of humour in the way in which the objects and clippings had been assembled – Ohtake appears to both love all this junk and be aware that all these things are simply fleeting in their nature.

Judge for yourself by checking out my photo album of Ohtake’s installation.

documenta 13 runs until September 16. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012