Reflections and giving directions at documenta 14

I was introduced to Noreen Shannon by her daughter Bridget Reweti on the second day of documenta 14. By this time Noreen had travelled around many venues that myself and my partner Salote Tawale hadn’t yet visited. On the morning of day three, Noreen had a coffee with us and offered us some excellent advice for our time visiting venues around documenta. We both left our coffee chat feeling more confident knowing where things were and how much time we might need to spend in each venue. Over the next few days Noreen continued to give us hints and tips about what venues were the most impressive, but also went on to have interesting conversations with us about which works she had found most interesting, and which works she found were lacking. What I loved most about talking to Noreen is that her reviews were completely direct and fresh. Noreen is a trained Nurse who has spent her entire life caring for other people. This approach to care was evident in her reviews as she took time to try and understand the complex emotions and ideas presented in many of the artworks on show at documenta. However, like many nurses I know (including my own mother and sister) she coupled this care with an excellent ‘no bullshit’ approach to the reviews of these artworks too. In a world where honest critique is often hampered by the potential of starting a shitstorm of offence, and dense theoretical critique is just too much to wrap your head around Noreen’s reviews were carefully considered, intelligent, light and honest. The following is Noreen’s own written account of advice, highlights and reflections on documenta 14. – Anna McMahon

I went to documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany because my daughter Bridget’s collective, Mata Aho had been invited. In fact, this is the first time New Zealanders have ever been invited to exhibit at documenta. I thought this would be an incredible experience, to go to documenta with Mata Aho. I felt like I had a special privilege and opportunity to watch these four women, Sarah, Terri, Erena and Bridget install and present their work, Kiko Moana made from meters and meters of blue tarpaulin intricately, skilfully and deftly sown together. It was exciting to see it being raised up and draped from the ceiling, shining, rippling designs of textures and contrasts of shades of blue. A stunning effect of water.


I had little knowledge of this major exhibition and once the work was installed, I suddenly realised I could actually go and see some art. There were 2 days of the exhibition open to the press, curators and gallery professionals before it opened to the public and I decided this was my opportunity. The little golden map-book lists the venues, over 38 museums, and in the middle of the book, these venues are divided into maps of the city. I spent the night before with a glass of wine and the golden map-book and pen, trying to orientate myself with the maps and the venues. It took some intense concentration, especially as I am not skilled in this area.

Day One

The first day saw me in the long wriggly queue outside the Fridericianum, the main gallery in the centre of Kassel. It seemed to be a good first stepping stone into the heart of this world event. I wanted to go by myself with no distraction or influence, to experience it and to be able to respond with my own real emotion. Isn't that what art is all about? 

I walked into the huge echoing museum, now crowded with the elite of the art world and distanced myself by turning left into another large room. The first image I saw was a stooped headless man made from wire, kneeling beside some battered suitcases.  His jacket was threadbare, his shoes were old and scuffed and and the whole effect was hopelessness.  This was the plight of refugees, captured in this one figure. I wondered what stories he was bringing and where his final destination would be. The work was by Vlassis Caniaris and called Hopscotch (1974).

I moved on and passed through the throngs of the professionals, clothed in their stylish black garb, different, unique and so interesting to watch. I observed them as they greeted and conversed; an art form in itself. I browsed through the four levels of paintings, photos and installations which is a bit of a blur now as it was a lot to take in and process. 

The next museum was documenta Halle. My little golden map-book was quite intriguing and confusing as it didn't seem to correctly judge distances between venues. I was anticipating quite a walk to the next venue and I crossed the road and suddenly here I was! 

My pass given to me as an artist’s guest took me into impressive places, esteeming me an honour I didn't deserve but I was going to enjoy its benefits anyway. The queue into documenta Halle, was long and slow but on showing my pass, I was escorted to the front and went in, past the press and curators.

This venue was all light and glass and seemed to resonate with music and gentle sound. I browsed through the exhibits, masks and photos, pictures making noises, huge paintings and videos. I was starting to feel overwhelmed at all the creativity and energy and then I saw a long piece of embroidery running along the length of the wall. My tiredness disappeared as I became engrossed in the story unfolding before me. I walked slowly along, marvelling at the scene of the tiny embroidered houses and villages and dogs and sleds and branches and trees. It was so cleverly and artfully stitched. One tiny stitch beautifully placed showed a branch being shaken. And through it all, I sensed a sadness, struggle, suffering, and courage. 

Historja by Britta Marakakatt-Labba

Historja by Britta Marakakatt-Labba

Beside every exhibit is a written piece with the artist's name, country and description of the art work and sometimes a quote from the artist.  I had made it a point not to read this until after I had viewed the art work, again to avoid any influence. I now went and read about this artist, Britta Marakakatt-Labba from Sweden and her work Historja made between 2003-7. It wasn't until later that night, when we attended a performance in front of the embroidery that I really understood the struggle. There was a singer who was Sámi, singing beautiful haunting rhythms in his language. I was standing behind some women dressed in colourful costumes and I commented to them about the beauty. They introduced themselves as the President of the Sámi Parliament of Norway and three members of parliament.

They had come to documenta to support their Sámi artists.  They were proud and honoured that many Sámi artists had been selected, including the beautiful embroiderer, a petite humble woman. I spoke to them for quite a while as I was very impressed that they would come. I couldn’t help but compare their support to our own talented artists, this little unknown collective of four women: Mata Aho Collective. I felt that they had not received the recognition and honor from New Zealand, that being invited to exhibit at such a prestigious event deserved. So Reweti, Erena's husband, here with their two small children and myself promptly promoted ourselves to be the ‘Unionised Support Crew of Mata Aho’. We took on the responsibility of encouragement, supplier of coffees, teas, water, fresh fruit, washing dishes. And even though we did have a wee grumble which sometimes turned into a kitchen union meeting, about yet another dirty cup just left on the table, we said to each other, "Hey! Our girls are here on the world stage. So what if they leave a cup lying around. They deserve it."

Anyway back to Day One.  Refreshed and rejuvenated, I moved on to my third venue, Neue Gallerie. Exhibits filled every tiny space. It was busy and crowded and people were pushing. I tried to give each exhibit time but my untrained eye passed over them and I quickly learned to stop before the ones that I responded to.

Detail of Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind by Nilima Sheikh

Detail of Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind by Nilima Sheikh

At the very end in a corner, I saw long colourful scrolls hanging from the ceiling. There were at least 10, in varying colours each telling a story, either with words or images or pictures or just merely with depth of colour, descriptive in detail and imagery, profound and impacting. I spent a long time there living alongside the women who had been poisoned or jumped into a well or accidentally drowned. Such accidents happen? The work was by Nilima Sheikh of New Delhi and called Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind (2016–17).

Enough Today. I emerged into the bright sunlight and stopped for an apple juice and battled with the fact that my processing ability was so overloaded, it was shutting down and on the other hand...I will probably never get this opportunity again. So keep on going. GO.

I climbed the stairs to the first level of the Hessisches Landesmuseum and there was the stunning Kiko Moana surrounded by admiring people. One man commented that this was his highlight. It had touched him on a deep level.

On the top story I found many clear coloured photos of villagers wearing masks from the local drama club, in their different daily roles. Gauri Gill, from Chandigarh India in her series “Acts of Appearance” series (2015– )  was depicting life in this rural town with the utmost simplicity yet portraying so much hardship. It was really moving.

Day Two

I wanted to start the day gently. Bridget wanted to watch a performance and I was impressed by the performance of the Sami singer the night before and so anticipated something similar. I enthusiastically went with her and we entered a different museum, Stadtmuseum and went up to the third floor. It was a bit confusing as we inside the gallery, we walked around the outside of a room and at each corner of the room was a gun positioned facing through a window into the room. Inside a woman was standing still.  I watched and waited but nothing happened. I whispered to Bridget and Sarah "is this it?" She answered with "maybe I should write down Mum's ‘art’ comments". It made sense when I went and read the artist profile. This should have been one of those times when I read it first. Germany is the fifth largest arms dealer in the world and for the Guatemalan artist, this was the reality. The work was by Regina Jose Galindo from Guatemala City called El Objectivo (The Objective, 2017).

I made my own way to the next museum, Naturkundemuseum and this time my day did begin gently. I happened on a little film called Vivian’s Garden (2017) by Rosalind Nashashibi and it was just delightful. It was set in a lush, tropical garden, in a beautiful, colourful house that was richly painted and decorated. It followed an artist, Elisabeth Wild who escaped WWII and her daughter, also an artist, Vivian Suter who live in Guatemala.

By this time, it was lunch. Time really does disappear looking at art and we all met in the square for some German sausages and beer. It was pretty good. We headed off on a group outing to Neue Neue Galerie getting on and off the tram and walking for two blocks. This was a huge space of art and everyone went on different directions. Nothing really stood out for me apart from when Erena and Bridget brought the shoes we’d noticed everyone wearing around Kassel from Irena Haiduk in Nine Hour Delay (2012–58) and Spinal Discipline (2016– ).The artist presented this shoe project as her art and it certainly was wonderful art. When Bridget brought the beautiful, elegant dress that was made for strolling and from the design that freed women from the corset, the artist said "Welcome to the army of beautiful women." I didn’t realise how exhausting it was looking at art and I was really tired.

Day Three

On reading through my little golden map book, the only thing that had been suggested for me from people we’d met, was a film entitled Opera of the World (2017) by Manthia Diwara. I decided this was the day. I was a little unsure as to how to navigate the confusing map but off I went. At the next intersection, I looked up and there in front of me was the sign...Kulturbahnhof. 

I do have to make a comment about this map. It needed to clearly explain the distance to be walked and clearer directions showing all the little walking streets. I came across quite a few people standing on street corners looking very bewilderdedly (if there is such a word) at the map and often I was able to turn the map around and point out the venue for them. Maybe it could also have helped having people on the streets giving directions. There was certainly thousands of documenta art lovers wandering the streets to justify this.

Bali Kinos had two movie theatres and I found the small one with An Opera of the World. There were only two others there and it was a relief to be in the dark and quiet to become absorbed in the film. And it was absorbing. An opera by Mali singers was filmed and intertwined with live footage of refugees arriving from the late 1940s to the most recent waves to come to Europe. There were also four men calmly and sensibly discussing what an opera is and the crisis in motion. But the most haunting scene was a young Syrian man standing on the shore, looking back where many had just drowned and he was calling out to the sea.

This film was deeply moving and impacting. And it gave more understanding of the refugee crisis. I left and walked down to the supermarket to buy coffee for the house, wanting to do something ordinary as I absorbed this film. And then walked back to Bali Kinos to watch the film again. This time I was the only one in the theatre and I cried all the way through.

Day Four

The press opening of documenta 14 was two days ago. And it was now open to the general public, a different crowd, more casual and relaxed. I had now been to most of the venues and viewed many of the exhibits. I thought it would be good to listen to a more experienced and knowledgeable opinion so I accompanied Bridget to the Museum Für Sepulkralkultur.

On entering we watched a video of two middle aged men posing in various outdoor settings. Prinz Gholam and their work Speaking in Pictures (2017).  On first impression, it wasn't very interesting but as I watched I realised it was actually very clever and enjoyable as they posed representing ancient sculptures. We saw their videos in two other venues and it was like meeting friends again. Just goes to show you. Some things need time.

The Fridericianum with Banu Cennetoglu's Being Safe is Scary

The Fridericianum with Banu Cennetoglu's Being Safe is Scary

I returned to Fridericianum with Bridget and it was interesting to view the art that I had rushed through four days ago now with a seemingly fresh eye and perception, but again the stooped wire figure was the one image I left with and remembered with impact.  

BYZANTION by Romuald Karmakar

BYZANTION by Romuald Karmakar

The finale for me, my last day at documenta 14 was at the Orangerie, a beautiful building overlooking large palatial gardens. Romuald Karmakar's video of BYZANTION (2017) Agni Parthene (Greek version) and Agni Parthene (Church Slavonic version). The pure human voice raised in worship surrounded by incredible church architecture.  What perfect art. It left me with goosebumps.

Day Five

I was to leave the security and companionship of Bridget and friends, especially my awesome support buddy - Reweti, and navigate my way around Germany, trains, buses, hotels to view German castles. So with some trepidation on my part, Bridget escorted me to the train station and made sure I was at least for this first part on my journey, on the right train and in the right seat. As I left her, I thanked her for the awesome privilege of being here. I’d experienced so much more than I could ever have imagined. 

I had the opportunity to see art presented in beautiful venues and to leave with a lasting impression that art can and does make an impact and difference to the world, countries and individuals lives. I learnt that art is able to offer positive solutions by not just empowering women with elegant dresses but showing videos, photos and objects of beauty when there is suffering and giving insight and understanding to refugee and political crises.