Documenta 14 is nothing if not clever. Exhibit A of its dry wit in referencing Europe’s anti-immigrant bigotry would be the positioning of Olu Oguibe’s monumental obelisk placed smack in the center of Königsplatz. On each of the obelisk’s four sides, a phrase from the book of Matthew—“I was a stranger and you took me in”—is printed in four different languages: Turkish, Arabic, German, and English. The cleverness is in the placement of the sculpture. The Königsplatz has been the site of numerous political demonstrations, notably one two years ago over the living conditions of refugees. But there is also something more subtle going on here: The obelisk’s German-language side faces the Königsplatz tram stop, where multitudes disembark, and, farther on, the Fridericianum, Documenta’s main venue, which was built in the late 18th century as one of the first public museums in Europe and later briefly served as a German house of parliament. The Turkish side faces the Nordstadt, north of Königsplatz, where many of the city’s immigrants live. And the English side faces . . . wait for it . . . Starbucks. OK, maybe that sounds a bit crude, but come to think of it, Starbucks takes in multitudes of strangers, especially those direly in need of wifi. (Did I mention that I am filing this from the very Starbucks of which I write?) On a more bitter note, the obelisk can’t help but remind Americans of the Washington Monument, of which they’d perhaps rather not be reminded at the moment.
More Documenta cleverness can be found in Kassel’s natural history museum, which plays home to, among other works, Rosalind Nashashibi’s brand new Documenta-commissioned film Vivian’s Garden (2017). The following is going to sound extremely meta, but I assure you this is one of the best, most immersive works in the entire festival. Nashashibi’s film is a mini-documentary following Vivian Suter and her elderly mother Elisabeth Wild as they make their way around their house and garden in a former coffee plantation in Panajachel, Guatemala. Both of them are artists, and both are included in Documenta 14. In the film, Suter, whose paintings deal with the sometimes extreme meteorological conditions in Panajachel, is preparing to leave for Athens, for the portion of Documenta there. (Her mother, we are to assume, will not make the trip.) We watch as Suter lays out potential outfits for the trip on her bed, as her mother, in a wheelchair, looks on and helps her vet them. We watch as they eat lunch and talk to their dogs. We watch as Wild pages through an issue of Artforum and stacks of her drawings. Suter provides the voiceover throughout, talking about their relative isolation as the camera pans around the lush, jungle-like setting. The film ends with Suter making a painting out in the jungle, then retreating to the house when it begins to rain. Nashashibi has created an intimate, absorbing portrait of these two self-sufficient artists, all the more impressive for its brevity. And Nashashibi herself has new paintings in Documenta, at the Palais Bellevue—bringing things full circle, one of them is titled In Vivian’s Garden.