Sequential art at documenta 14

The 2017 edition of the documenta art show ended on September 17 with a slight increase in visitors, but also a financial deficit. While the danger of a discontinuation of the exhibition series seems to have been averted, many visitors (including this one) felt disappointed or at least underwhelmed with regard to the majority of art that was on display.

Like five years ago, the documenta didn’t include any proper comics as far as I could see, but lots of sequential artworks that fit Scott McCloud’s definition of comics. Here are some of them (only from the Kassel portion of the show, not from Athens which co-hosted this documenta):

The Fridericianum venue was almost entirely taken over by works from the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) in Athens. This array of 192 inkjet prints is XYZ 1550 – Placebo 97 from 2015 by Lucas Samaras. Their arrangement implies a vague sequence, and each of them is composed of multiple panels.

Most works from the EMST were rather old, though, such as this painted Newspaper Book from around 1962 by Chryssa.

A clever piece of conceptual photography in which two photographers pass by each other on a staircase, also out of the EMST collection but by Belgian artist Danny Matthys: Brabantdam 59, Gent, Downstairs-Upstairs from 1975.

Another Greek work in the Fridericianum: Diary (Robinson Crusoe) from 2008, a book with sewn lines by Nina Papaconstantinou.

Prints of photographs from documenta 2 (1959) by none other than Hans Haacke.

Images in Matter from 1995 by Rena Papaspyrou. On closer inspection, these ‘books’ made of stone, metal and wood bear faint ink drawings.

Over at the documenta Halle, the long embroidered canvas Historja (2003-08) by Britta Marakatt-Labba supposedly tells the history of the Sami people.

At the Neue Galerie, a kind of storyboard (Atelierul: Scenariul, 1978) by Geta Brătescu is exhibited next to the corresponding video.

Grimmwelt Kassel is the successor of the old Brothers Grimm museum and was used as a documenta venue for the first time. The primary exhibit here was The Blind Merchant (1989-91) by Roee Rosen, a kind of revision or reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice with illustrations, some of which consist of multiple panels.

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Sequential art at documenta (13)

Comics will be part of documenta when hell freezes over. However, there are some works at this year’s documenta (Kassel, June 9 – September 16) that come quite close to the McCloudian definition of comics. The following list is just a personal selection and by no means meant to be exhaustive.

The very first work I’ve seen at documenta could actually be called a comic, sort of. In the Ottoneum, Amar Kanwar has several books (and other things) on display. One of them, Photo Album 1: The Lying Down Protest, documents a protest action in India through a series of photographs, sometimes with captions added. There is one photo on each page, on both sides of the leaf, resulting in a layout similar to that of Martin tom Dieck’s hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt (cf. my essay).

For an exhibition of contemporary art, there is a lot of old art to be seen, e.g. a sizeable collection of abstract drawings from the 1940s and 50s by Gustav Metzger in the Documenta-Halle. Some of these drawings are arranged like comic panels, i.e. in different sizes, with clear borders, on the same sheet of paper. Are these drawings meant as independent sketches which Metzger placed closely together on the sheet only to save paper? Or is there a relation between adjacent drawings, maybe even an intended sequence?
Another example of a not-quite-contemporary exhibit is Charlotte Salomon’s widely publicized Leben? Oder Theater?

Khadim Ali‘s four-part painting The Haunted Lotus in the Neue Galerie is reminiscent in style of traditional East Asian religious paintings, but at the same time the framing makes it look like a panel sequence in a comic: the continuous background evokes a “tracking shot” from left to right or vice versa, so that each of the four parts can be seen as one point in a chronological sequence. The figures in the foreground remain largely the same in all four parts of the painting, thus giving the impression that some figures move between the “panels” while others stand still. Another comic-like feature is the writing next to the figures’ heads.

Then there’s Nedko Solakov at the Brothers Grimm Museum. Among many other works, some drawings are shown in several display cases. Their arrangement in two horizontal lines suggests a sequential relation between them, but although each drawing has a handwritten caption text on it, it’s hard to make out any order in which they could form a narrative. Still, the surrounding works by Solakov strongly suggest a narrative reading, since they are all about his dreams and fantasies of medieval knights in shiny armours.

All in all, while not completely absent, sequential art is sadly underrepresented at documenta (13). Unfortunately, the exhibition of comical art, Caricatura VI, which is on in Kassel at the same time, doesn’t show many comics either, although it contains cartoons by comic artists such as Guido Sieber, Harm Bengen or Nicolas Mahler.


Exhibition review: Neue Galerie, Kassel

Between documentas, Kassel hadn’t really been on the map for art lovers lately. With the reopening of the Neue Galerie in November last year (which was closed for five years for refurbishment), this is likely to change.

This collection of 19th-21st century art is truly impressive in terms of both quantity and quality: there are masterpieces by Hans Makart and Wilhelm Trübner, two rooms of Paul Baum paintings including his lesser known pre- and post-pointilist phases, two rooms of works by the underrated Curt Herrmann, lots of stunning impressionists and modernists I’ve never heard of… It’s almost easier to name artists you won’t find there. For instance, I think I didn’t see a Hans Hartung there, although it would fit nicely into the otherwise well-equipped Informel section.

However, the gaps become larger the closer we get to the present, and that’s where the problem with this collection becomes evident: its scope isn’t clear. For the 19th century, the museum does a great job at representing German painting (with some local or regional emphasis). In the contemporary section, though, the scope widens to encompass international art, at which point the collection isn’t complete or even representative anymore, showing classics next to artists that have yet to make a name for themselves. Likewise a problem of scope is the ratio of painting (predominant) to sculpture (very little) to other arts (almost none). Maybe the museum should be named “Gemäldegalerie” instead of claiming to house a “collection of modernism – art of the 19th-21st century”.

That being said, the Neue Galerie is still definitely worth a visit. Besides, the admission is only €4 (conc. €2). Another cool thing about this museum is its website, which is made entirely in posterous (albeit in German only).

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○