Previous month:
July 2012
Next month:
September 2012

Rules for Cemeteries

No trip to Kassel would be complete without a visit to the Museum für Sepulkralkultur (g), a museum devoted to death and burial. There are coffins from around the globe (including simple boxes for Orthodox Jews and gaily-decorated Ghanaian models), hell money and hell cigarettes, Totentanz sculptures, hearses, monuments, embalming kits, memorial portraits, 'death crowns' for children and young unmarried people, monuments, death masks, and art inspired by death, funerals, rebirth, and reincarnation. Outside, there are innovative grave markers designed by contemporary artists. Of course, there are also programs for kids.

There are also the obligatory information-drenched placards describing the origin and nature of European funeral practices. From these you learn that the practice of burying people in individual, marked graves only became uniform in Europe in the last 200 years -- before that, most poorer citizens were dumped in mass graves. You also learn that modern German cemeteries are facing a space crisis -- they're not running out of it, they often have too much of it, since almost 50% of Germans now choose to be cremated, and those numbers keep growing.

While there, I stocked up on a few back issues of Friedhof und Denkmal: Zeitschrift für Sepulkralkultur (Cemetery and Monument: Journal of Sepulchral Culture). In the 2-2011 issue of this handsome magazine, there is a discussion of the model rules for grave design in Catholic cemeteries that were recently promulgated by the Archbishopric of Cologne:

Basically, the new regulations contain only required dimensions for the grave, as well as bans on some materials that are inappropriate for cemeteries. Completely covered graves are forbidden: the grave-plate can only cover up to one-third of the grave.... [Individual church cemeteries can still] add regulations that servce to express shared religious beliefs. An example is a ban on polished stone, since this prevents natural change in the stone, which itself is an expression of the transitoriness of human life in this world. A ban on snow-white marble and showy (überschwänglich) golden inscriptions serve to prevent excessive ostentation in the religious sense.

The back of the book contains reviews of recent burial-related books, including a 400-page work by Regina Deckers on 'The Testa Velata in Baroque Sculpture' (g) an entire monograph (written at the University of Düsseldorf!) on the motif of figures with veiled heads or faces in funerary sculpture.

Now for some of the odd and delightful things in the museum, hover for info.

Skeleton Sculpture MfSK Kassel
Totentanz Figure Knight MfSK Kassel
Death and the Chinaman MfSK Kassel

Skulls Inscribed with Owners' Names from S. Germany MfSK Kassel
Nietszche Memorial Model MfSK Kassel
General View of 19th Century Embalmer's Kit

Eye-caps from 19th Century Embalmers' Kit MfSK Kassel
Kubach & Kropp 'Stein fuer das Licht' MfSK Kassel
Spinster's Burial Crown MfSK Kassel
Martin Luther Death Mask MfSK Kassel
Beethoven Death Mask MfSK Kassel


Treated Like Cattle in the Gemäldegalerie

No visit to Berlin is complete without a trip to the Gemäldegalerie, one of my favorite museums. On previous visits, I'd never stayed until closing time. This time, I saw what they do there at closing time, and it wasn't pretty. Hence the letter:

Dear Berlin Museums Visitors’ Service,

Recently, I visited the Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery) in Berlin. The museum advertised that it was open until 18:00, and I decided to stay until that time to enjoy the collection.

I have always enjoyed my previous visits to this elegant museum, but this time was different. 15 – perhaps even 20 -- minutes before 18:00, my ears were suddenly assaulted by an audio message from blown speakers in the museum’s ceiling. Amid crackles of distortion, the announcement played the melody of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ and announced to visitors that the gallery would be closing shortly. The first announcement, in German, was then followed by an equally distorted and almost unrecognizable message in English, then, if I recall correctly, in French.

But that was not all. At the same time, the museum’s docents positioned themselves in all the doorways to the individual rooms, as if they were nightclub bouncers. To actually get into a room at 17:50 and see a painting, you had to convince a docent to let you in. Many of the docents were unfriendly and suspicious, treating visitors who wanted to enjoy a painting at 17:54 as if they were potential criminals. Finally, all the museum’s visitors were herded out of the museum at exactly 18:00, after being pressured to leave.

As I could tell by the visitors’ comments, this unprofessional treatment left a terrible impression that the museum’s visitors will take back to their home countries. When guests pay to enjoy a museum which closes at 18:00, then they should be able to actually enjoy the museum until 18:00.

To improve the visitors’ experience, I suggest that the Gemäldegalerie (1) repair the speakers in the museum ceiling; (2) broadcast only one closing message (everyone will know what it means, even if they don’t understand the language) and do so at, say, 17:57; and (3) give guests 10-15 minutes after the official closing time to leave the museum.

As paying guests in one of the world’s finest collections of Old Masters, they deserve no less.

Sincerely,

Andrew Hammel


Some Impressions from Documenta 13

D13 Action Mousetrap Poster in Disused Train Station
Instead of giving you a panorama of Kassel to start this post, here's an old 'watch for pickpockets' poster from Kassel's disused former main train station. Wait, that's unfair. Here's a picture of Kassel looking its best:

IMG_0483

By day, Kassel's not much to look at. There's a somewhat grand central square, the Friedrichplatz, lined by a giant 18th-century classical pile on one side (the Friedericianum, on the left in the photo above) and a row of shops on the other. Just south of that, there is a massive Baroque park, the Karlsaue, divided into a huge central field ringed by artificial meadows in the English style. Outside the city center, things quickly get very grim indeed: Kassel was flattened during World War II, and the monotonous 4- and 5-story housing oblongs thrown up in haste in the 1950s quickly numb the eye.

But wait, there's more! Every five years, Kassel is taken over by Documenta, one of the largest contemporary-art shows in the world. The working-class locals generally tolerate the quinquennial onslaught of bestubbled men in black turtlenecks and women in flowing raiment, since they spend lots of money and put Kassel on the map. The art is all over town, so to speak, with exhibitions in the Friedericanum (the main venue) the grounds of a disused central train station, a natural history museum, the classical Orangerie, a special modern hall called the Documenta-Halle, and all over the grounds of the sprawling Karlsaue. The atmosphere is of a sedate, bildungsbürgerlich outdoor festival. Inevitably, the Occupy folks have come to Kassel and set up a tent city just outside the main venue.

The international art scene, we are told, is now split between two camps. First, the major galleries, museums and auction houses, who extract profits from those at the top of the winner-take-all contemporary-art pyramid. Then there are curators of the international bienniales, who often critique the unholy commercialism of the mainstream market by inviting outsiders, non-artists, scientists, and activists to display at the major international exhibitions. The works they commission and display often have a social agenda and cannot easily be commodified.

Carolyn Christov-Bagarkiev, curator of this year's thirteenth Documenta (or dOCUMENTA (13), in the official spelling) stands proudly in the second camp -- her welcoming remarks even promise a 'non-logocentric' exhibition, whatever that might be. This has its good and not-so-good sides. On the positive side, she has invited a spectacularly international cast of participants, with entries from all continents. Anyone coming to Kassel looking for room after room of 'big names' will go away disappointed. She has also invited several scientists to explain their work, including Anton Zeilinger, the Austrian physicist who has invented deceptively simple experiments to illuminate seeming paradoxes of quantum mechanics such as quantum teleportation.

The downsides of CCB's approach are also evident. It's always a bad sign when curators have to resort to fluff-words such as 'foreground', 'practice', 'intervention' or 'technique' to describe what the artist is doing, and there's a lot of charlatanry on display. Thai artist -- I hesitate to use the word -- Pratchaya Phinthong displays two dead tsetse flies in a glass box. Ryan Gardner has hogged the entire sprawling ground floor of the Friedericianum for an installation that features hidden fans which create a breeze. Yup, that's all there is to “I need some meaning I can memorise (The Invisible Pull)” -- two giant, empty rooms with a mild breeze running through them. I couldn't be bothered to find out what this was supposed to teach us, although perhaps it's a commentary on Germans' paranoid terror of moving indoor air. American Susan Hiller features a jukebox playing songs she likes, which 'foregrounds' the exquisite taste and social awareness of her iPod shuffle list. Lara Favaretto has stacked a couple of giant piles of junk in the open area behind the former main train station, an embarassingly unoriginal foray. Goldberg and Faivovich, a hirsute pair of twentysomethings who look like (and may be) heirs of wealthy Argentine families, have filmed themselves crawling over the El Chaco meteorite. They originally wanted to transport this giant rock from Argentina to Kassel, but were very rightly stopped by the authorities and -- the irony! -- indigenous tribes from the area.

Just as uninspired, though perhaps more edifying, are the didactic exhibits by social activists. One room in the natural-history museum, the Ottoneum, is given over to Maria Tereza Alves' massive model volcano, part of a documentation of the struggle of a group of indigenous people to prevent the sale of their land to an international conglomerate. If this were a high-school science fair, this earnest diorama would certainly snap up first prize. Turning to the social studies fair, we have an outdoor exhibit by Robin Kahn on the oppression of certain Western Saharan tribes by Morocco. The display is pasted onto hastily-erected wooden boards in what is supposed to remind you of a refugee camp, and there is a tent in which you may nosh in solidarity on Western Saharan food, if you wish. The explanatory placards, consisting of simple collages, were bettered by many of the impromptu exhibits in the Occupy Kassel tent city in the Friedrichplatz. And then there was the nice Thai lady showing movies about the animal shelter she runs in Thailand, and soliciting contributions for 'DOGumenta' outside her outdoor '"'installation'"'. Then there were the hairy young things from the art collective AND AND AND, whose intervention consisted of the strategy of selling 'anti-capitalist' organic tea from a hastily-nailed-together wooden stand. Or maybe they were giving it away, so as to interrogate the logocentric matrix of late capita-blah blah blah. Anyone who sees revolutionary potential in organic tea obviously hasn't been to a corporate boardroom lately.

But enough of the silliness. They can't all be zingers, in the words of Primus, and there was much fascinating stuff on display. The Cypriot-German team of Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer took over three stories of a dilapidated former train command center to create a hypnotic installation composed of bare rooms with enigmatic pictures and symbols, books containing star measurements or simple diagrams, oddly evocative unsent letters, and framed, faded photographs clippings of everything from Neanderthal busts to Russian waterfalls. The top floor of the building, a creaky loft, has been subtly claimed for art by the placement of black spheres. The installation worked by suggestion and intimation, and left the visitor with an oddly abstract sense of melancholy:

D13 Epanimonda & Cramer ZNL Installation 2
Epaminonda & Cramer ZNL Installation 5Epaminonda & Cramer ZNL Installation 6

Julie Mehretu displayed four massive canvases whose background consisted of a thick mass of overlapping CAD line drawings with different perspective points, overlaid by a complex system of handmade marks and color fields. Looking upon these canvases brought on vertigo, and the contrast between the clinical precision of the computerized drafting and the hand-drawn marks was eerie and evocative. Thomas Bayrle's dissected vehicle engines and stand-alone windshield wipers evoked the hypnotic potential latent in the calm repetition of machines. Also on display were some of his short films, one of which shows anonymous crowds of miniature human figures wandering on the reflective leaves of a rotating rubber plant:

His massive 'Airplane' from 1983, a drawing of a plane made of recursive drawings of ever-smaller planes, evoked the almost hermetic obsessiveness of Hanna Darboven.

D13 Documenta Hall with Carmageddon & Airplane by Bayrle

A roomful of intricately abstract paintings and textiles by Aboriginal artists from Australia mesmerized everyone who entered it, including yours truly.

The crowning achievements of this Documenta were, in my view, two multimedia installations. One, housed in a room of the Documenta-Halle, is 'In Search of Vanished Blood' by Pakistani-Indian artist Nalini Malani:

She has suspended five large transparent plastic cylinders from the ceiling painted with silhouettes reminiscent of traditional shadow plays. As they rotate, film is projected both beside and through them, creating a coruscating, mind-breaking riot of silhouette, shape, and sound. Interweaved are images of women veiled, undressed, and in ritual costume. It's difficult to tell which juxtapositions are planned and which are randomly-generated, which makes them all the more fascinating. At one point, for instance, the image of a woman putting on a dress is shown repeatedly, accompanied by the sound of glass breaking. Of course, neither description nor videos can do it justice, you simply have to immerse yourself in the maelstrom.*

The second is called 'The Refusal of Time' and was masterminded by William Kentridge, the South African artist whose career shows a combination of superb draftsmanship, an unerring sense of symbolism, and a streak of unabashed showmanship.

D13 The Refusal of Time by William Kentridge 2
D13 The Refusal of Time by William Kentridge 1

'The Refusal of Time' is a 25-minute meditation on time and space, projected on six separate non-synchronized screens and accompanied by a soundtrack that is by turns boisterously African, raucously Dixieland, grindingly industrial, and spaciously contemplative. And not just by turns -- sometimes completely different stuff gets stacked on top of itself, just as it does in life. Kentridge takes a broad palette of time-related symbolism -- metronomes, space signals, mindless task-repetition, the life cycle of a family, the slow progress toward extinction -- and subjects them to an spectacularly fertile and inventive series of cross-linked variations that is comical, frightening, and moving. Unlike almost every other installation, everyone who entered the Kentridge room stayed, mesmerized, until the end of the show, and there was often spontaneous applause. As someone once said of John Ashbery, Kentridge truly lives in a Versailles of the imagination.

Such are my thoughts on Documenta. I stopped by a few more museums during the trip, and will post about those in the coming days, as my schedule permits. And below, just for fun, some more images from Documenta (details in hover text):

D13 Approaching- Choreography Engineered in Never-Past Tense by Haegue Yang
D13 Bactrian Princess (ca. 2500-1500 bc)
D13 ex libris by Emily Jacir 1
D13 Momentary Monument by Lara Favaretto
D13 News from Nowhere by Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho-001
D13 Notebook Page from Vyacheslav Akhunov
D13 Untitled by Doreen Reid Nakamarra
D13 Limited Art Project by Yan Lei

Continue reading "Some Impressions from Documenta 13" »


Hellbahnhof Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe

Hi there, folks. Back to blogging after a hiatus during which I traipsed through Germany with a friend, spending a few days at Documenta 13, er, dOCUMENTA (13). Traveling to Kassel means stopping at the Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe train station. For some boring reason having to do with train scheduling or something, you have to stop at this station on the outkirts of the city and then take a train into the central station.

The main feature of the Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe Bahnhof (g) as it's called, is that IT SUCKS. More to the point, there are no elevators or escalators in the station. To reach the main station from the train tracks, you have to drag your luggage up a gradual, seemingly endless ramp. There are also stairs available, but these are cleverly hidden behind the ramps. But either way, you're going to have to schlep yourself, your screaming kids, and your heavy luggage. In this era of wheeled luggage, I can only imagine how many Eisenstein-esque scenes have played out on those giant ramps, with giant luggage, wheelchairs, or baby strollers barreling down the ramp, taking out hapless passengers right and left.

Another wonderful feature of the giant ramps is that they block out most of the central part of the platform, so that the only way to find out where your train car is positioned on the train is to walk all the way to one fucking end of the platform, inspect the train-car diagram, and then walk all the way back to where your car will be. During every Documenta, hundreds of thousands of foreign guests arrive at this train station and curse the stupidity and self-indulgence of the architect, while snorting at the storied 'efficiency' of Germans.

When I got home, I vowed to find out what pretentious little twit had designed those giant ramps, so as to publicly execrate him. The Wikipedia entry for the train station informs me that one 'Büro Dietrich, Waning, Guggenberger' was responsible for the ramp design. But, it turns out, they had no choice. Apparently the Deutsche Bundesbahn, back in the 1980s, ordered the creation of these giant ramps to make it possible to drive cars and trucks to the trains. Why they required this feature in a train station that would mainly be used by humans is beyond me. Don't they have fucking freight yards for that?!

In any event, the Bundesbahn's design has created what has to be the ugliest, most inconvenient train station in Western Europe. If I were a killin' man, I would tie the faceless bureaucrat who ordered those ramps to a brakeless wheelchair and push him down them again and again and again, while cackling gleefully. 

There, now I feel better.


Artificially Chilled Air is Wholesome and Good

It's been a delightfully cool summer here in Germany, but on those rare hot days, I've switched on my air-conditioner and enjoyed a bit of guilt-free refreshment. Yes, guilt-free. Over at Slate, Daniel Engber explains why:

The case against cooling, like certain other pillars of hipster sanctimony, stands on a foundation of half-formed ideas and intuitions. Opponents cite a mishmash of concerns that begin with global warming and extend to worries over personal health, moral laxity, and some ambiguous notion of what it means to live in harmony with the natural world. And running through them all is the strange and puritanical politics of human comfort.

It's true, there is something twisted in the way we warm the planet when we try to cool it. This summer could end up the hottest in 60 years, and all our hiding out indoors will have made the problem worse. Stan Cox, whose 2010 book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, makes this argument with blistering intensity, points out in the Times that the cooling of buildings and vehicles accounts for the release of 500 million tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent every year. But it's easy to get distracted by the giant numbers. Yes, A/C units have grown in popularity, but they are not more of a threat to the environment than heaters; in fact, they may be the lesser sin. Analyses of home-energy use reveal that we use more energy to heat our homes (41.7 million BTUs per year, on average, at a cost of $631) than to cool them (7.8 million BTUs, at $276). That’s true even though millions of people have moved into the hot and humid metropolises of the Sun Belt since the 1970s. In fact, as Cox himself points out, that southward migration produced a net decline in energy use for climate control, since all the extra demand for electricity—in the frigid shopping centers of Houston, Phoenix, and elsewhere—has been more than offset by a reduced need for oil- and gas-based home heating. As of a few years ago, homeowners in cold states like Minnesota were putting out 20 to 25 percent more carbon dioxide through the use of their heaters than were the A/C-happy folks in Florida. And while it's true that the HFC refrigerants now used in home appliances are themselves a source of global warming, these will soon be phased out by manufacturers. Even now, they amount to just one-fourth of the total greenhouse emissions associated with air conditioning.

"All right," says our member of brrr-geoisie as he sips his icy lemonade. "Heating may contribute as much or more to climate change than cooling, but that's because heating is more important. When it's hot, you just open your window, turn on a fan, or take off your clothes. When it's cold, what can you do?" If you take it as a given that it's fine and dandy to sweat out a summer day in your underwear but absurd to huddle up at home in a fur-lined parka, then you've already decided the question. But what if the reverse were true? Our capacity to endure the heat has an upper limit, and one that isn't very high. Even in a northern city like New York or Chicago (where 739 people died in a weeklong heat wave in 1995), the summer weather can be so extreme that an electric fan loses its benefit. (At some point, it's just blowing hot air around.) After you've stripped naked and dipped your feet in ice water, there aren't many other options. Winter chill, on the other hand, leaves more room for maneuvering: If it's too cold, you can always don another sweater, drape another blanket, or huddle with a friend.