The Art of Ecological Thinking: documenta 13

Post by Ben Tendler

Now held every five years for 100 days in Kassel, Germany, documenta is one of the largest and most important international contemporary art fairs in the world. It was originally one element among many aimed at social, political, and cultural recovery following the collapse of Germany’s Nazi regime. As such, at its inception in 1955, one of its key purposes was to restore to prominence artworks that the Nazis had branded “degenerate” (entartete Kunst) in 1937. Since then, documenta has provided a unique window on international art movements. By the time documenta 13 ended in September this year, themes of collapse and recovery associated specifically with the post-World War II scenario in Germany had clearly become entangled with themes of collapse and recovery associated with contemporary or pending ecological crises around the world.

Environmental concerns are not new to documenta. Take Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks project, initiated at documenta 7 in 1982. It involved planting 7,000 trees (species other than oak were also used, such as gingko, maple, and walnut) in Kassel. Beside each tree, a four-foot-tall basalt column was placed. Of course, the basalt retained its form—but the relation between tree and basalt changed as the tree grew. The meaning of this symbolic gesture remains open to interpretation, but it had a lot to do with transformation: the actions of the artist were no longer contained within a gallery and, moreover, they were aimed at raising a new level of ecological consciousness among the public at large. Beuys’s motto at the time was “For we want the planting action never to end” (Beuys et al. 1994, 6ff). Indeed, the Beuysian oak haunted documenta 13—albeit in ways that Beuys likely never anticipated.

Let’s descend from Kassel central station…

“The tranquility of this place is ambivalent.” (Catalog 3/3:  The Guidebook / TGB, 360). Factories to the north housed Henschel & Son, a major WWII armaments manufacturer. Jews, the composer Pavel Haas included, were dispatched from here to concentration camps in Terezin (where Haas composed the Study for Strings in 1943) and Auschwitz (where Haas was murdered in 1944). Pictured here, people witness Susan Philipsz’s sound installation Study for Strings at documenta 13, a work that recreated Haas’s composition, only scattered across seven speakers just beyond the end of the platform, every half-hour.
“The tranquility of this place is ambivalent.” (Catalog 3/3: The Guidebook, 360). Factories to the north housed Henschel & Son, a major WWII armaments manufacturer. Jews, the composer Pavel Haas included, were dispatched from here to concentration camps in Terezin (where Haas composed the “Study for Strings” in 1943) and Auschwitz (where Haas was murdered in 1944). Pictured here, people witness Susan Philipsz’s sound installation “Study for Strings” at documenta 13, a work that recreated Haas’s composition, only scattered across seven speakers just beyond the end of the platform, every half-hour.
You’ll soon realize that the ecological dimension of documenta 13 is everywhere: it involves regional and international institutions as well as Kassel museum collections; the public spaces, parks, and gardens contain traces of it. The Ottoneum, formerly a theater and now a natural history museum, houses some of the most thought-provoking works. Prior to entering, we pass the vertical vegetable gardens adapted from a project to assist people living in the degraded urban environment of a slum with growing vegetables by composting organic waste. The first room contains soil-erg, a work by Claire Pentecost that envisions soil as “a form of currency that anyone can create by composting.” This idea is embodied in the discs and ingot forms made of soil, as well as paper banknotes adorned with the portraits of figures that have made major contributions to ecological thinking, many of them writers and activists. They range from Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), through Rachel Carson (1907–1964) to Wangari Maathai (1940–2011) and Vandana Shiva (b.1952)—and also include Joseph Beuys (1921–1986). Indeed, the proximity of Maathai and Beuys in the display serves as a reminder that Maathai’s initiation of the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, which raised awareness, particularly among women, of the relations between tree-planting and water supply and fertile soil, predated Beuys’s planting action at documenta 7 by five years. Today, the Greenbelt Movement is thriving.

Matthai, Portrait With Tree
A soil-erg sketch for a money note featuring the Kenyan environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai. From the work soil-erg © Claire Pentecost 2012. By kind permission of the artist.

Seeds, social movements, and urban gardening are all major preoccupations at documenta 13. “I was asked about the seed but find myself dreaming about soil.” Thus begins Pentecost’s wide-ranging essay “Notes from Underground” (Catalog 1/3: The Book of Books [TBoB], 384–88). She then conceptualizes seeds as “a material form of collectivized knowledge,” and “one of the longest-running open-source systems in history.” On the grounds of which, Pentecost objects to the patenting of seeds as “legalized theft of the commons” (TBoB, 384)—a phenomenon that Vandana Shiva examines further in her essay The Corporate Control of Life (TBoB, 121–24). Against this background, soil-erg playfully reflects upon the nature of commodification and, in combination with Pentecost’s essay, alludes to an alternative constellation of values that promises to bypass the agrochemical inputs, financial debt, and monocultures associated with high-risk, industrialized agriculture. Meanwhile, just around the corner, the packets are displayed that contained the seeds of 60 varieties of chard from all over the world, which went into the making of Christian Philipp Müller’s Swiss Chard Ferry.

Like Pentecost in her work on soils, Müller cooperated with the Department of Organic Agricultural Sciences at the University of Kassel to create the Ferry. It too plays with different modes of representation, from the two-dimensional seed packets with various countries of origin displayed opposite a traditional diorama containing models of local habitats, to the bridge of boats across a channel in Karlsaue Park where two chard-tasting events were staged during the course of documenta 13. The advantages of locally grown food were further explored in another community project “Commoning in Kassel,” in which the same university department partnered with the artist’s collective AND AND AND. But we shouldn’t leave the Ottoneum without seeing The Return of a Lake by Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves, a work that documents the ecological disaster faced by the native population of Xico in Mexico, traditionally reliant on the Chalco lake for their livelihood. Amar Kanwar’s film installation The Sovereign Forest,concerning the impact of extractive industries in Orissa on the east coast of India, also tackles the impact of land grab on local populations and ecosystems, not to mention the traditional knowledge embodied in seeds. We then ascend to the second floor where, not far from Goethe’s elephant, Mark Dion’s re-display of the Schildbach Xylotheque resides. This is essentially a library of 530 wooden “books,” or rather small cases made of wood and bark, and sculpted to look like books. Each contains preserved samples of the leaves, flowers, and fruits of a species of tree. They are now housed in a hexagonal chamber of oak—the accompanying text relates the choice of wood back to Beuys. Dion’s design is such that each side of the chamber represents a continent, with the sixth side left open: providing the viewer with an entrance.

Descending to the Karlsaue Park, we may choose to pause alongside other gardens, whether it be Kristina Buch’s butterfly garden entitled Lover or Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden, built on a six-meter-high mound consisting of rubble and organic waste—like a rogue planet dumped illegally in the solar system modeled within the Park’s grounds on a scale of 1:495 million. We’re heading for Tue Greenfort’s Worldly House, which the artist suggests may bring to mind Henry David Thoreau’s hut as described in Walden (1854). It contains an archive dedicated to the works of Donna Haraway. On the way, it’s impossible not to call in to Pierre Huyghe’s installation in the compost area of the Park, where a fallen Beuysian oak features among the debris, along with a classical sculpture that sports a beehive as a head and a couple of (more or less stray) dogs.

Worldly House contains Tue Greenfort’s multimedia archive, an homage to the work and ideas of Donna Haraway. It was formerly the residence of the Karlsaue Park black swans (Cygnus atratus) but until documenta 13 had remained empty since the late 1970s. Traces of Kassel’s raccoons, another introduced species, were found in the interim.

The films in the Worldly House, too numerous to mention here, include footage of Joseph Beuys’s I Love America and America Loves Me, in which the artist spent several days incarcerated with a coyote in an art gallery in New York. The coyote later became a figure of nature in Haraway’s work.

This blogpost is hardly able to begin to reconstruct the enormous variety of ecological thinking that took place at documenta 13: from the local community garden project and reflections upon other grassroots movements on different continents, to the grand concepts, ranging from coevolution to the anthropocene. At least, the latter did feature, albeit marginally. The Book of Books included an essay on the subject by Jill Bennett (345–7) and Donna Haraway discussed the concept with reference to the mass extinction of species in her address to the first part of the conference “On Seeds and Multispecies Intra-Action.”* Going forwards, it will be interesting to observe to what degree the relation between art and ecology develops around the concept of the anthropocene as the program at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, for instance, unfolds over the next couple of years.

*Most of the talks given there can still be viewed on the official documenta 13 website.

Further reading

Beuys, Joseph, Bernhard Blume, and Rainer Rappmann. 1994. Gespräche über Bäume. Wangen: FIU-Verlag.

documenta, and Museum Fridericianum, eds. 2012. Das Buch der Bücher / The Book of Books. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Scharrer, Eva. 2012. Das Begleitbuch / The Guidebook. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Ben Tendler is a Research Associate at the Rachel Carson Center. From January he will be an editor of Eurozine.

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