June 2012: dOCUMENTA (13): Sound Works

Cevdet Erek, Room of Rhythms, 2012
C&A Department Store at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany.
Photo: Emmy Skensved

June 9 through September 16, 2012 in Kassel, Germany.

In the press release for dOCUMENTA (13), the curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev states that the exhibition "takes a spatial or, rather, ‘locational’ turn, highlighting the significance of a physical place." It seems fitting then, that in addition to the Fridericianum, Ottoneum, documenta-Halle, Neue Galerie and the Karlsaue park, dOCUMENTA (13) boasts multiple off-site venues including the Hauptbahnhof, Brüder Grimm-Museum, Orangerie and a plethora of alternative spaces scattered throughout the city. Despite the sheer density and the overall quality of the material exhibited in the main venues, it was the site-specific sound works in unconventional spaces that captured my attention. Cevdet Erek's installation in the C&A Department Store fused location and sound, creating a sonic environment that one could literally enter into. Susan Philipsz’s outdoor audio piece in the bleak area behind the Kassel Hauptbahnhof cast a somber mood over the industrial space. Tino Sehgal's performance in the Grand City Hotel Hessenland created a surround sound experience, evoking feelings of uncertainty.

I stumbled upon Cevdet Erek's Room of Rhythms (2012) accidentally, while searching for the dOCUMENTA (13) press office first thing in the morning. After stepping through a non-descript doorway on Theaterstrasse and mounting several flights of stairs, I was blown away by what lay waiting on the vacant top floor of the C&A Department Store. A white patterned corridor led to a curtained-off area with a solitary white bench facing a large, monolithic tower of black speakers. I took a seat opposite the symmetrical, alter-like configuration. The speakers, emanating rich, pulsating beats, made for a simultaneously stilling and stirring experience, creating a palpable sense of electricity in the air. Seated across from the monolith, I soon discovered that the sounds were not only coming from this point, but also from multiple locations behind the curtains. As I made my way past the fabric barrier and deeper into the space, I noticed a series of speakers dotting the venue, each emitting one sound and collectively forming the unified piece. The work assumed a sculptural quality as I walked through the venue, approaching the speakers one at a time. Void of all furniture and wall coverings, this floor of the department store looked vacuous and virtually untouched by the artist. Upon closer inspection however, I discovered that Erek had inserted subtle sculptural interventions, working with elements already present in the building.  Small plaques, resembling industrial safety signage punctuated the venue, but instead of reading the usual "Exit" or "Fire Extinguisher" they read "60 bpm," "Arrhythmia" and "International Style,” linking the architecture and the acoustics. Larger, commercial signs, bearing the word "reduziert" (reduced) made reference to the department store, to Minimalist art and music, and to the emptiness of the space itself. With the combination of raw concrete and throbbing base, Erek's installation was reminiscent of raves held in temporary venues. In this case however, the space was flooded with daylight and devoid of other people, making for an uncanny solitary experience.

Cevdet Erek, Room of Rhythms, 2012
C&A Department Store at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany
Photo: Emmy Skensve

Later that same day, while ambling through the industrial area behind the now only partially functional Hauptbahnhof (central station), I came upon Susan Philipsz's eerie outdoor piece. Drifting over the bleak stretch of railway track was a disquieting, minimal string composition. Notes on the violin, played one at a time over loudspeakers in this desolate, transitional locale, evoked an incredible sense of melancholy. Despite the somber tone of the work, it was only through reading the exhibition guidebook that I discovered the tragic background to the score. The composition Philipsz used was based on a piece entitled Study for Strings (1943) by a Jewish composer from Kassel named Paval Haas. During the Second World War, Haas, along with many other residents of the city were deported to concentration camps from the Kassel Hauptbahnhof. It was during his time in the Terezín camp, that Haas wrote his Study for Strings. The following year he was sent to the gas chamber. In commemoration of Haas and others who were deported, Philipsz projects a fragmented version of his composition over the tracks of the Hauptbahnhof. Her piece not only acknowledges the city's past but also draws attention to the importance of events like Documenta in defining its current identity.

Susan Philipsz, Study for Strings, 2012
Kassel Hauptbahnhof at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany.
Photo: Emmy Skensved

On my final day in Kassel, after hearing rumors circulating about a powerful performance in a darkened room, I went to visit Tino Sehgal's work, This Variation (2012). Unsure of what to expect, I tentatively entered the pitch-black Bode Salon of the Grand City Hotel Hessenland. Hampered by the lack of light, I slowly made my way deeper into the space, barely able to make out the silhouettes of others as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. After several minutes of waiting and anticipating what might happen next, I began to hear faint clicks, grunts, whispers and whistles. Almost inaudible and seemingly sporadic, I wondered if I was simply hearing things, or if visitors were making fun of the situation, anxiously and anonymously breaking the silence. Gradually however, the sounds grew louder, more prevalent, the intervals between them becoming shorter and shorter until they finally came together to form a distinct and cohesive rhythm. Growing louder still, some performers began singing a cappella, overlaying melody onto an already rich and varied beat. Adding further sonic depth, the actors wove their way through the crowd performing a perfectly choreographed dance, encircling members of the audience and singing in their ears. Intentionally invading the boundaries of personal space they created a unique and intimate surround sound experience. Then, as quickly as the song began it transitioned into a different melody. Repeating a new refrain, emphasizing the words "now" and "time," the performers broke off from the audience, corralled us, and using song and dance, forced us out the door. It was closing time. Swept up in this grand, choreographed gesture we were escorted out of the work. It was a clever end to the performance and the perfect closure to my experience of dOCUMENTA (13).

Tino Sehgal, This Variation, 2012
Grand City Hotel Hessenland at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany.
Photo: Emmy Skensved

In their immaterial nature, musical spatialization and strong relationship with their surroundings, these site-specific sound works at dOCUMENTA (13) stand apart from the rest. Perhaps it is precisely because they cannot adequately be captured by other means, like film, that the works of Cevdet Erek, Susan Philipsz and Tino Sehgal make such a strong impact. Thwarting our current tendency to document, archive and re-circulate images and audio, they necessitate lived experience and memory instead. Go and see (or rather hear) it for yourself.

Emmy Skensved

Emmy Skensved is a Canadian artist currently based in Berlin, Germany. She holds an MFA from the University of Waterloo and a BFA from OCAD University. She has exhibited her work across Canada and Europe, including solo shows at Greener Pastures Contemporary Art in Toronto and September Gallery in Berlin. Her review of Kathrin Sonntag’s Double Take at Galerie Kamm won second prize in the 2011 C Magazine New Critics Competition.

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