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The Art Exhibition Documenta Contains Almost Too Much Good Art to Experience

Documenta, the world’s greatest art exhibition, offers an exhausting yet fulfilling menu, writes Blake Gopnik.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is a god. You wouldn’t know it from looking: born in New Jersey in 1957, she seems normal and cheerful enough, with a big head of curls and a distracted manner. But as artistic director of the latest Documenta, the world’s most important art exhibition, she has managed to build a whole universe. The twice-a-decade show is launching Saturday, June 9, in Kassel, Germany, in its 13th incarnation. As visitors pour in—the 2007 edition averaged more than 7,500 a day—they will see ... everything.

Fiat art, she said. And there was—almost a whole city full, spread across dozens of venues packed with hundreds of works of all kinds.

For me, knowledge of Documenta’s world begins, as it should, with an apple. Or rather 372 of them, of every variety, meticulously drawn over many decades by a German priest and activist named Korbinian Aigner, who bred fruit while interned by the Nazis at Dachau. Packed onto two walls at Documenta, this nonartist’s apples, drawn in color and pretty much at life size, stand for artistry at the service of fact, a crucial constellation in Christov-Bakargiev’s cosmos.

Other art in her show is even more strictly informative: a tent in a park where refugees from Western Sahara feed visitors couscous and outline their plight; a presentation, in science-fair mode, on five centuries of damage done to Lake Chalco in Mexico and to the people around it. There are also photos of Hitler’s apartment, shot in conquered Berlin by Lee Miller, as well as a crude painting by a Khmer Rouge survivor named Vann Nath that shows torture in progress. That painting doesn’t need to be better than it is, since it does a fine job of showing us a moment of oppression.

In this god-of-knowledge mode–call her Athena, for a moment–Christov-Bakargiev is even staging five real, flashing-light experiments in quantum physics conducted by Austrian scientist Anton Zeilinger in a museum gallery. In the context of Documenta, it’s not the experimental results that matter; it’s the idea that art can be—as it so often used to be—an investigation into the nature of things.

At the other end of the Documenta 13 universe, there are a few works that are Poetic, very much with a capital P. An installation by South African animator William Kentridge, vaguely on the subject of time, recalls 1920s expressionist theater. Another, by the Italian Chiara Fumai, fills a small cabin with utterly obscure, stagy riffs on occultism, Hegel, and “the theosophical interpretation of the Lucifer myth.” These pieces show Christov-Bakargiev wearing her Apollo hat and strumming the lyre too loudly.

And somewhere between are the best works in the show, which take the world as it is and bend it out of shape. An artist called Clemens von Wedemeyer starts with the true history of an old monastery near Kassel, which has done duty as a Nazi concentration camp, a reformatory, and a memorial and psychiatric clinic. Then he imagines moments in each of those three lives of the building, reenacting them on video with actors in costume. Because von Wedemeyer joins the three screens for his projections at their edges, around a triangular footprint, you can only see one story at a time, even though their soundtracks overlap in weird ways. It’s disorienting, but so tied to the real that you can’t turn away.

Other reality benders include birdcalls from the Brazilian jungle, subtly introduced by Anna Maria Maiolino into one corner of Kassel’s great Karlsaue park—as formal and unjungly a site as could be­—as well as a nearby park piece by American artist Sam Durant. Durant has taken a number of different gallows, from the one used to kill Chicago’s Haymarket Martyrs to the scaffold where Saddam Hussein met his death, and mashed them up into one lakeside folly. You realize that gallows are architecture at its most basic. A hut looks deluxe by comparison.

More than four dozen other projects come scattered across the vast acreage of the Karlsaue. It takes serious biking to take them all in, and even then you need most of a day. But I think the sprawl itself of Documenta—which continues across four museums and any number of historic and cultural sites—gives crucial insight into how this exhibition functions. It isn’t about one overall effect or argument. Christov-Bakargiev has often said that she doesn’t have a “concept” for her show. And it isn’t even about judging single works and their excellence, or failure—as though we were on a shopping trip for the best merchandise we could find. Somehow, it’s the act of seeking itself that matters in this show, and the way we’re given such a vastness to do our seeking in.

When I first began to take in Documenta, it felt like a hopeless task: on top of all sorts of commissioned creations, it includes historic works that range from the Bronze Age through most decades of the 20th century, from most corners of the globe. I was worried that I’d never get through it all and that not enough of it would be great. But then it occurred to me, does any sane person go through life disappointed that there are corners of the world that will never be taken in—disappointed, that is, about some heel of a shoe in Cambodia, or one pigeon in Central Park, that will go unstudied forever? And does anyone expect every corner of the world that does get noticed to yield pleasure and stimulation? No, what matters is being in the world, as it is, with its high points and lows, and having that world to be in.

In terms of art, at least, that is what Christov-Bakargiev gives us.