A very bookish art fair

I just returned from Kassel, Germany, where the documenta contemporary art exhibition takes place every five years. What struck me after two days of wandering around was how many books there are in the art being made now. Real books. Physical books. Ledgers and notebooks and written documentation of every kind.

We’re all fairly done with the idea that the electronic book was going to replace the physical object that has been around for two thousand years. Still it was interesting to see the degree to which artists rely on this modest vessel. At this very political documenta, “the book” appears in many guises: as reminder of atrocities past, the persistence of ideologies, shorthand for the life of the mind, a locus for self-expression. And so on. The huge centerpiece of the show is “The Parthenon of Books” by the Argentinian Marta Minujin (above), in which thousands of books previously banned or restricted by governments around the world are encased in plastic to create a replica of the Acropolis’s main building. So far, so obvious. A more interesting exhibit, to me, is the vast “Rose Valland Institute” by the German artist Maria Eichhorn which is a huge research project attempting to inventory all of the personal property, books and libraries included, expropriated from Germany’s Jews by the Nazis. (It’s named for a German art historian who secretly listed expropriated property during the Nazi occupation of Paris www.rosevallandinstitut.org).

One mixed media exhibit by Daniel Garcia Andujar featured all kinds of references to the horror of war, including stereoscopic images of war damage, the artist lounging reading a — book — and a copy of Bertold Brecht’s Kriegsfibel (War Bible) along with a puzzle made from Picasso’s Guernica, among others. Another horrifying exemplar was Louis XIV’s 1742 guide defining the conditions of enslaving black people in French imperial colonies. It is considered “the most monstrous legal document of modern times.”

And then, in a break from the dreadful past, scattered throughout the show are individual volumes as objects, similar to those one might see in a contemporary fine book show. One book featured delicately stitched pages; a group of others were fashioned from bread dough. There was even a “wall” in the “Neue Galerie” which was made on site from books and mortar at the fourth documenta in 1977: the “Door to the Library” by Huburtus Gojowczyk.

While this documenta (the 14th) explicitly addresses questions of migration, refugee flows, economic justice and other pressing political issues, these exhibits to me suggested more. They underscored how verbal is much of the art being made today. As these examples show, many artists are interested in documenting processes — of exploitation, democratic resistance and so on. Conveying such complex human exchanges, it seems, requires words as much as images. Vive la parole, one might say: Long live the word.