An art exhibition that began as an attempt to heal Germany after the horrors of Nazi rule and World War II is now being replicated in Afghanistan.
“Documenta” arose from the ruins of the bombed-out German city of Kassel as artists sought to reconnect West Germany, as it then was, with movements of contemporary culture banned under Adolf Hitler’s murderous 1933-45 regime.
The show has been held every five years since 1955 but is now making its international debut with a month-long exhibition in Kabul, which opened last week.
The parallels between post-war Germany and Kabul — battered by three decades of conflict — are obvious and much of the exhibition explores ideas of destruction, rebuilding and memory.
But the aim is also to create an alternative vision, to counter the precarious reality of everyday life in the Afghan capital, said Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director of the exhibition, Documenta 13.
She describes it as “choosing to act” as if the checkpoints, cement walls, conflict and militarisation do not exist, “through acts of radical imagination and creativity”.
In one of the works, a video by Belgian artist Francis Alys entitled “Reel-Unreel”, children run through the streets of Kabul rolling a film reel along like a toy.
Smiling and laughing, the boys whizz past cars and market stalls, donkeys and checkpoints, leaving a trail of film on the undulations of the city’s rocky, battered streets. Behind them more children spin another reel, rolling the film back up.
For 20 minutes the unforgiving traffic-clogged streets of the city are transformed into a children’s playground as the film the youngsters unwind feeds through Kabul’s topography as if passing through a giant projector.
Strolling around Documenta in the peaceful rooms of the Queen’s Palace — restored in the past 10 years after being destroyed during the 1992-96 civil war — it is easy to imagine yourself in a gallery in western Europe.
Andrea Viliani, one of the exhibition’s curators, said this sense of otherness is at the heart of Documenta 13.
“It’s a catalyser of change,” he told AFP.
“Saying you don’t feel like you’re in Kabul is working ‘as if’. This is not like escaping reality, it’s to advocate for different realities.”
Documenta features works created by artists from 13 countries, some stemming from seminars organised in Kabul and Bamiyan, the central Afghan valley where the Taliban destroyed two giant ancient Buddha statues in 2001.
While the majority of the artists are Afghan, Viliani stressed that the exhibition was about creating links between cultures and countries.
American artist Michael Rakowitz used stones from Bamiyan to make sculptures of medieval books from Kassel that were damaged by Allied bombing raids, creating objects that forge connections between World War II and Taliban destruction.
Afghanistan faces countless challenges as NATO troops prepare to pull out in 2014, but the Documenta organisers are passionate about the importance of art in rebuilding a society battered by conflict.
“War creates facts, but art, too, creates fact of a different order, and art has a major role to play in social processes of reconstruction through imagination,” said Christov-Bakargiev.
Rahraw Omarzad, director of Kabul’s Centre for Contemporary Art Afghanistan, agreed.
“War has been going on in Afghanistan for 30 years. The first step to develop Afghanistan is to bring peace and art is the language of peace,” he said.
Such a major exhibition will revitalise a Kabul art scene that is stuck in traditional ideas and techniques, and help inspire young Afghan artists, he said.
“From the outside they will see that they are not alone. They will see that something is happening in contemporary art in Kabul and there are more people to work in this field, so they are encouraged to work,” he said.
There are fears that when foreign forces leave Afghanistan the country will slide back to the oppressive Islamist moralising of the Taliban, but Omarzad sees hope.
“After the foreigners go contemporary art will develop, but maybe not very fast. It may be very slow, it may be with only a few artists, but it will continue,” he said.