Axolotls are odd creatures. An endangered Mexican species, they look like giant tadpoles in a late stage of metamorphosis. Thankfully they don’t grow into monster frogs, hopping like slippery kangaroos through swamps.
Admiring their prehistoric weirdness in an aquarium in Kassel’s natural history museum, it’s easy to forget this is an art exhibition. It’s the 13th edition of Documenta, a show with a reputation for discovering talent that transforms Kassel, an unassuming city in the middle of Germany, into a mecca for colorful art pilgrims every five years.
This year’s edition unites many disciplines. There are 4,000-year-old figurines of princesses from central Asia, experiments in quantum physics and a library of tree bark.
Like the last one in 2007, the show is sprawling, and the themes as laid out by the curators are so broad as to be almost meaningless. Unlike the last Documenta, it captures the spirit of our times. The mood is one of quiet protest; an unsettling sense that something has gone very wrong with the world, and no one is quite sure who’s to blame.
It starts with a cool breeze in an empty space. At the Fridericianum -- one of Europe’s oldest public museums and the main Documenta venue -- Ryan Gander’s “I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize” blows a gust of wind through almost the entire ground floor. It’s enough to make you shiver and pull your jacket more tightly around you on a drizzly day.
Ceal Floyer’s sound installation “’Til I Get It Right” is created from the Tammy Wynette song of the same title. It repeats the first line: “I’ll just keep on” and the last “’Til I Get It Right,” as a mantra with the rest of the song omitted; a comment, it seems, on the artistic process.
Upstairs, things get more political, without shouting or haranguing the visitor. Dark tapestries by Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970), woven in the 1930s, depict Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and the rise of fascism in Germany. The blend of sharp political criticism and a traditionally feminine, domestic craft makes a powerful statement.
Perhaps it is Korbinian Aigner’s work that best captures the mood of the exhibition. Aigner (1885-1966), a Bavarian village priest, was imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp for criticizing the Nazis. While there he developed four new apple varieties, of which one is still grown today and a sample is on display in the Karlsaue park in Kassel.
There are also 372 of his meticulous drawings of different sorts of apples. It is his life-affirming love of nature’s variety in one of mankind’s darkest eras that is touching. These drawings are a flashback to the original spirit of Documenta, which started in 1955 to showcase art forbidden under the Nazis.
Amy Balkin of San Francisco, described as “a conceptual activist,” has written to 186 member countries of Unesco seeking a state to sponsor her project “Public Smog,” which campaigns to add the world’s atmosphere to the World Heritage List. The letters are all here, along with a postcard petition.
The axolotls are lurking in a tank in the Ottoneum, as part of an installation about Lake Chalco in Mexico City by Maria Thereza Alves. An indigenous community farmed the island on which it lies, until a Spanish entrepreneur purchased it in 1890 and desiccated the lake, ruining the agriculture.
Alves’s installation is a protest against the lake drainage and colonization in general. Consisting of photographs, text and a model of the lake as well as the axolotls, it highlights the efforts of local people to win back their land for farming.
At the Neue Galerie, Susan Hiller offers a collection of 100 protest songs, from John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” to the Sex Pistols’ version of “God Save the Queen.”
A spectacular collection of hundreds of shadow puppets cut from Life Magazine between 1935-1985 create a collage the length of an entire hall. “Leaves of Grass” is like a long, many-masted ship, encapsulating the 20th century.
Documenta is scattered around 10 main sites in Kassel and would take a week to see properly. The exhibition runs through Sept. 16, so there’s still time.
For more information, go to http://d13.documenta.de/
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include: Richard Vines on food, James Russell on architecture, Zinta Lundborg interview.