This year, Documenta was all about place. Not the open space of Modernism, nor the fetishization of a human or natural geography, but the ways in which human beings make a place for themselves in space, time, and geography. 

Documenta is an art show that appears in the German town of Kassel once every five years. It started in 1955, when this was not just the boondocks, but close to the border with East Germany, as a showcase for Western freedom and creativity. Over the years, its politics have shifted towards the problems of globalization, even as it participants and viewers have come to reflect that international cultural scene.

This year, Documenta 13, which opened last week and runs through Nov. 16, has many exhibitions about the problems of statelessness, refugees, and political repression. Or, as curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev put it in art-speak: “These are terrains where politics are inseparable from a sensual, energetic, and worldly alliance between current research in various scientific and artistic fields and other knowledges, both ancient and contemporary.” For that reason, it spread not only through various locations in downtown Kassel, but all the way to Kabul, Afghanistan, where a satellite exhibition is on view. When such issues are the explicit subjects of the artworks to the point that they exclude the intrinsic form of what is on display, I have to admit I have little interest in the work. I might as well read about the problems or, as I happened to when once wandering past a small theater, attend a lecture by the architect Teddy Cruz talking about sprawl.

When Documenta works, it does so because it awakens our senses to how we make a place for ourselves, how we alter an environment, and how that act gives us power—or takes it away from us, when we are imprisoned in a place that someone else makes.

Right next to the hotel where I stayed last weekend, Theaster Gates has taken over an old building, the Huguenot House. Gates trained as both a ceramicist and an urban planner at Iowa State (now there’s a multimedia combination) before moving on to teach at the University of Chicago. In the last four years, he has made quite an effect by taking over sites and transforming into art them with a band of fellow artists, craftspeople, and musicians.

Here, he filled every room with furniture and what you could only call works of art assembled out of scrap. He left most of the ruinous house as is, only cleaning up bits and pieces so that you could move through its three floors of rooms—the instructions as to what to paint or alter, and not what to, remain at the entrance to each room like a kind of label. As you move through, you might come across pieces of wood combined with worked plaster, framed by metal, or tiles laid around what appears to be drawers. Each composition is a geometric puzzle and material exploration that invites you to look carefully of human-made forms in a new context and set of relations. 

The furniture echoes that order in objects that you can use, transforming what is a picture to look at into what we think of as handicraft or applied arts. The only issue is that you cannot make use of these objects, as they evoke inhabitation more than actually allow you to be part of what remains in the realm of “don’t touch” culture.

That and the fact that Gaster animated the installation with videos of jazz performers, shown on glossy screens and augmented by occasional live sets in what appeared to be a living room, in a manner that seemed of another style, seemed out of whack: Rather than making aural art out of a building and furniture, he presented art of abstract sounds in a way that seemed to come from a very different place, but culturally and aesthetically. Maybe he was trying to emphasize that this was a place for importation, but, in that case, it would have been nice to see the contradiction between the reassembly of the local and the use of the foreign thread throughout the installation.

That confrontation becomes explicit in the installation in a dark room across the garden.  There the artist Tino Sehgal, who works by having actors perform his art to his specifications, seduces you into blackness, where doo-wopping shadows dance around you. As your eyes become used to the dark, you become aware of the performers, whose punctuation of blackness with moving aural exclamations rises at times into harmony, falls apart into isolated points, becomes a song performed by lines of men and women facing each other across the room, and then disintegrates again into shadow play. One of the shadow dancers took my hand and waltzed through the unknown with me, as sounds created moving contours around us. For a brief moment, I was part of a community, lost in space and only in art.