BY Jennifer Allen in Features | 31 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

documenta – Looking Back and Ahead

Ahead of dOCUMENTA (13), reflections on the exhibition by its previous curators

BY Jennifer Allen in Features | 31 MAY 12

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012, film still

A still from Omer Fast’s film Continuity (2012) – an eerie double of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer Above a Sea of Mist, c. 1818) – graces the cover of this issue (frieze d/e issue 5, Summer 2012). The film could also serve as an allegory of documenta, although the similarities are not immediately obvious. An anxious middle-aged couple sets off to the train station to pick up their soldier son who appears to have just returned from Afghanistan. Still in his German army fatigues, he hugs his parents awkwardly and returns home for an equally awkward meal, filled with silences, hallucinations and even an Oedipal tryst. The next day – perhaps the next week, month, even year – we see the couple once again in their car on the way to the train station to pick up their son who has just returned from service in Afghanistan. Although this son is also wearing army fatigues, he looks different from the first. As Fast’s film continues, it seems that the couple are hiring young men – soldiers? actors? locals? – to play their son, who may have died in action. Or did he ever exist? Whatever the truth, the trauma of war gives rise to a ritual, which organizes time, people and objects in a provincial German town, without quite quelling the violence of the past.

documenta – initiated in 1955 by the Kassel native Arnold Bode (1900–1977) – is also bound to the trauma of war and the continuity of ritual. As dOCUMENTA (13) artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev recalls in her notebook Letter to a Friend (2011), the exhibition did not emerge from the 19th-century trade and world fairs of the colonial period but from World War II, which left much of Kassel bombed and in ruins. Bode – prohibited by the Nazis from making and teaching art – brought back ‘degenerate’ art-historical works, which had been banned under National Socialism. documenta’s singularity becomes clear in comparison with the Venice Biennale, which began in 1895 and inspired the Bienal de São Paulo in 1951 before spawning endless copies across the globe in the 1990s. After the first national pavilion was built in 1907 by Belgium in the Giardini, the Biennale became a battleground between countries, their artists and their pavilions: an Olympics of art. By contrast, documenta’s internationalism remains rooted in the failures of nationalism: the defeat and material hardship wrought by National Socialism and the repressed shame surrounding the Holocaust. While emerging from total collapse, documenta 1955 was also marked by a hope for recovery: to restore cultural life in Kassel and to reconnect West Germany with the rest of the world through art.

Like Fast’s film, documenta involves a highly-cultivated ritual which unites past and present, locals and foreigners. As Christov-Bakargiev points out in Letter to a Friend, the five-year hiatus between each documenta is a unique frequency for an international contemporary art exhibition: too slow to claim the novelty of a biennial, too fast to take a retrospective look at an entire decade, movement or generation. While the native son Bode headed the first three documentas with Werner Haftmann, documenta 4 was directed by a 24-member board. Starting with Harald Szeemann’s documenta 5 in 1972, each edition was entrusted to one artistic director, selected by committee. Every five years, a new curator arrives at the Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe train station and is most likely greeted awkwardly by the locals, only to be replaced by another one five years later. As Fast’s film demonstrates, the continuity of ritual is about not only repetition but also difference. Each ‘son’ looks distinct, acts differently and has an individual tale to tell. The statements collected here – from former documenta artistic directors – attest to the singularity of each edition while showing how the exhibition, contemporary art and the world in and around Kassel have changed: vaster yet somehow closer. The inspiration for this survey also came from Christov-Bakargiev, who organized the conference d documenta in September 2009 at Turin’s Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, where former artistic directors also gathered. In her statement here, Christov-Bakargiev explains what she picked up from this encounter with documenta’s past, near and distant.

What about the near future? Although the  dOCUMENTA (13) artist list will not be unveiled until 6 June, 150 artists from 55 countries will join participants from many fields, including literature, renewable-energy research and biology. A flurry of opening activities June 6–10 will be followed by an intensive programme June 10–15. Students from the Art Academies Network – including GradCAM Dublin, Slade School of Fine Art, Oslo Academy of Art and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Milan – will be involved in artist projects while the Kassel locals will become ‘Worldly Companions’ giving thematic dTOURS through the exhibition.  dOCUMENTA (13) – dedicated to artistic research through ‘The Maybe Education and Public Programmes’ – may turn into an open academy. ‘The museum of 100 days’ may become a museum of hundreds of events: not only in Kassel but also Kabul, Cairo and the Banff Centre, Alberta. ‘The present is a palimpsest,’ says Christov-Bakargiev. ‘It has always been so. De-synchronizing is important, but I would say de-synchrony in the present. Things do not occur simultaneously, and we cannot be at different times in different places in the advanced digital age.’ Faced with a de-synchronized present, will one spectator be able to take the entire exhibition in? Okwui Enwezor argues here that the subjectivity of the curator ended with his documenta 11; perhaps dOCUMENTA (13) will put an end to the unique subjectivity of the spectator.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

All archaeologists are interested in the present and in the future, as are all historians. Like anyone who studies history, I try to understand certain patterns, certain ways and modes of thinking, and to address certain problems by comparing how we do things today with all we have done in the past; so, I think an archaeological perspective is simultaneously a perspective on the future. The other reason for organizing the d documenta conference was that the past is not only the past: the past is also the present.

Rudi Fuchs and Jean-Christophe Ammann (who worked with Harald Szeemann) came, and they had a particular interest in poetry, which was something I hadn’t thought about at all. They were interested in the poetic voice and the non-discursive, which does not mean only a kind of reactionary male heroic expressionism – that’s not right. It also means a space for the unsaid, the unlearning; for the poetic language where the body speaks together with words; where words are not yet full of epistemological closures. And those words are part of the body: like Judith Butler says, a word comes out of your body and you don’t know if it gets to the other body. That is something which Szeemann and Fuchs understood. So, that was a surprise to me. I also learned of the generosity of my predecessors, of the generosity between the people there, and with me. I appreciated all of the things that were said.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev was the chief curator at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea from 2002 to 2008 and director for 2009. Her many curatorial positions include the artistic directorship for the 16th Biennale of Sydney Revolutions – Forms that Turn in 2008.

Roger M. Buergel

Exhibitions have an interesting afterlife: you see the show, but the works only really start to make sense to you after seven years or so. In psychoanalytic terms, it’s easy to explain, because your unconscious memories are always on the lookout for perceptions they can connect to in order to reappear. I think that same logic applies to an exhibition – especially an exhibition you cannot master because it is, by definition, too large to see in its entirety. The possible moves for documenta are inexhaustible.

I believe the key to documenta’s survival is always to contradict the status quo. And the status quo changes. What you have now are impoverished public institutions and a global bourgeoisie that is forming its own class through private foundations where people collect more or less the same things. This phenomenon makes it important to reintroduce the educational feel of public institutions and also a critical stance beyond the self-complacency of the self-declared left. But how to do it? I’m curious to see what  dOCUMENTA (13) brings, but there’s also no need to imagine the solution. We should be patient.

Roger M. Buergel worked with the curator Ruth Noack on documenta 12. He is the director of Garden of Learning, which runs from 22 September to 24 November in Busan, and the founding director of Zurich’s Johann Jacobs Museum, which will open in spring 2013.

Okwui Enwezor

I wanted to deterritorialize documenta. It was not enough to simply theorize itinerancy or migrancy: I wanted to make documenta an itinerant proposition. Putting documenta on the road – with the Platforms leading up to the final Platform of the exhibition in Kassel – was very important to me. My intuition told me that when you have interactions with a growing, changing public, then details – the language, historical perspective and circuits of knowledge that contribute to what should result in a rich dialogue – will be different in each place because of its unique back-story.

I would contest the notion that documenta 11 was engaged in identity politics; I think it was engaged in looking at the complex web woven by modernity. For me, it was important to have no illusions about the kind of triumphant narrative that we’ve accepted as the outcome of modernity. When you compartmentalize, you can view the European and the Caribbean as two different ways of being in the world. But we wanted to look at the deep entanglement between European history and the histories of other peoples, which is a much larger and not necessarily abstract historical process. I don’t know if I’d do documenta differently today. There’s always something different one can do. But I was in my 30s when I started, and being a bit younger made me less self-conscious: documenta was a shot of adrenalin, and I went with it. Being older now, I would deliberate more and maybe would not come to the same conclusions.

When I took on the position of artistic director, I said very clearly that I saw the history of documenta as divided into three periods. The first period, from 1955 to 1968, which I termed the Arnold Bode years, was about the restitution of cultural life in Kassel, the shift of the centre of the art world from Paris to New York and the reintroduction of Germany into an international conversation. The second period – which I saw as starting with Harald Szeemann in 1972 and ending with Catherine David in 1997 – was about the subjectivity of the curator. And I thought that the third period began with my directorship in 2002 – not out of chutzpah, but because so much had changed as we moved into the new millennium. Regardless of who curated documenta 11, it was important to address the fact that the art world could be much bigger, and should be populated not only by people who call themselves artists and by what is called art. But now, time has moved on, the world has evolved, and the challenges faced by  dOCUMENTA (13) are completely new.

Every artistic director of documenta rises to the occasion, one way or another. I am confident that Carolyn’s exhibition will be singular, and perhaps for some a little idiosyncratic, but undoubtedly very interesting. Her work on the Sydney Biennial, which is the biggest exhibition I’ve seen her do, leads me to think that she has a very powerful critical and visual intelligence. I loved the way in which, for instance, she used the sensuality of the work to unravel its more complex core. Since Carolyn is closely involved in working with artists, she has a grasp on the larger historical understanding of artistic practice from different places. I think she will be able to mould these ideas into her exhibition. I’m looking forward to it. That’s what makes documenta so mysterious and fantastic: it gives us all an opportunity to dream. I can’t believe it’s been nearly 15 years since I was called to the table and told, ‘Let’s get going.’

Okwui Enwezor is the director of Munich‘s Haus der Kunst and artistic director of La Triennale: Intense Proximity which runs until 26 August in Paris.

Jan Hoet & Bart de Baere

As the São Paulo biennial is to Latin America so documenta is to Europe: the absolute beacon for contemporary art. Indeed, it is even more than that, for not only is documenta symbolic of a society’s re-engagement with art after enduring the horror of World War II, its installation in a public rather than a commercial space clearly disengages it from the art market, which had at that point begun its triumphant rise to prominence. In order to reclaim a sense of independent criticality, one of the first decisions we made – somewhat radically – was to exclude the gallerists, since that meant we could focus on listening to the artists and developing a relationship with them built on trust. We also wanted to reconfigure the event’s public setting by creating an open space that offered a diver­sity of presentation modes, which allowed viewers to experience a broad range of emotions and responses to social and cultural contents as well as to nature, light and spectacle. Taking as our starting point the artist’s studio – rather than the finished exhibition in which the works would ultimately be shown – we aimed to cultivate the audience’s physical reactions to art as a means of discovering internal logics that might allow for change without loss of self.

There were a lot of things Documenta IX was not. It did not dress itself up in gestures of political correctness, nor take a consistent critical art-historical stance. Even worse, it was in no way theoretically sound. But then, that was not its ambition. Basing an exhibition on theory can have the effect of turning the art works into the illustration of a project, whereas we believe that the project should be an outcome of the art works. For Documenta IX, we made the conscious decision to rely on our intuition. While such an approach has its limits – since intuition must by necessity draw upon past experience and a capacity for observation – it nonetheless has the great advantage of ensuring that the exhibition, whatever shape it ultimately takes, is rooted in genuinely held convictions, and that the readings it offers are not tactical but sympathetic, and subsequently more likely to endure.

Often, the most successful aspects of an exhibition go unnoticed because they change our approach in such a fundamental way that it is impossible to recall how things were before this new reality. Until Documenta IX, the people of Kassel had been largely hostile towards the event; since then, they have embraced it. This may seem a minor achievement within the broader perspective of world events, but it is significant when one considers that they are its financial backers. It’s strange to reflect on this past that was then our present. We are truly delighted that documenta didn’t fall apart like the São Paulo biennial, that it was spared the commercialization which was looming at the time and which effectively overtook the Venice Biennale. Fortunately, documenta remains a forum for reflecting on art and for recalibrating its place in society. The serious consideration given to artistic proposals since we were at the helm remains remarkably close to what we envisioned. Subsequent documentas would position themselves more on theoretical, sociological, political or academic platforms in line with a temporal objectivity. Catherine David played about with a number of witty references to Documenta IX; Okwui Enwezor and his team aimed to open up documenta to the wider world, which was great; Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack sought to install the virtuosity of the studiolo. These documentas were each very different, but all of them aimed at meaning and didn’t forget art. It seems that documenta, at least, is one relatively secure institution. We look forward to the next one.

Jan Hoet founded Ghent‘s S.M.A.K., which he directed 1975–2001, and MARTa Herford, which he directed 2001–08. Bart de Baere is the director of the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Antwerp.

Rudi Fuchs

I think every documenta should follow Arnold Bode’s original concept: to document. To look back at what happened in art in the past five years with the idea of change. Every documenta should find something new. After I directed documenta 7, Hans Eichel, then mayor of Kassel, asked me to direct the next one, since mine was a success. But it would have been presumptuous for me to do it again since things can change so much in five years. Each documenta should be different.

I have seen and liked every documenta since mine. Yet in some – like Catherine David’s in 1997 and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s this year – the directors don’t stick to documenting and reviewing. They don’t allow the public to interpret what it sees. They frame the art with their own interpretations and make the exhibition very speculative, like any other show. When I curated documenta, there were only three similar events: the Paris, Venice and São Paulo biennials. Now there are so many biennials, documenta must distinguish itself by being old-fashioned and tough and by letting the art do its job. Since documenta takes place in the same buildings, directing it is like directing a play in the same theatre over and over again: creating a new performance of art, so to speak, each time.
documenta 7 saw the resurgence of European art. For the first time, there were as many European artists as American ones. This European trend became, to quote a cynical American critic, ‘a romantic thing’ – but romance was part of those years. Despite globalization, not much has changed. Art remains the same, apart from photography and new media. Cell phones let you take pictures all the time so art has become very mobile. Yet the essential act of making art – the artist’s individual performance, being surprising and seductive – has not changed much.

At the 2009 conference, Carolyn said she was going to tell stories. I was telling stories too but in a different way. She’s a serious lady, who will do what all previous directors have done: make something precise because Kassel has the great advantage of being a provincial town. I know from working in Eindhoven that people let you be in a provincial town; they don’t bother you, and they’re not bothered about fashion, politics or much else. It’s been the same in Kassel since 1955. That provincial outlook, even a certain humility, would be impossible in New York, Los Angeles or Milan because these cities are obsessed by fashion, which is the greatest threat to art.

The directors should avoid fashionable ideas. That’s what I tried to do at a time when it would have been logical to make an international, Americanized exhibition like documenta 6. But being so unfashionable was easier in a town like Kassel, which was regarded as the end of the world. There’s even a German saying ‘Ab nach Kassel!’ which implies that the city is the back of beyond. But now Kassel is more in touch with the Berlin scene, and that has the potential to change everything. New art keeps emerging all the time. It’s fantastic that imagination is always more surprising than whatever smart ideas curators can come up with in order to explain those amazing fantasies. So, good luck and keep awake! That is my motto.

Among his many directorial positions, Rudi Fuchs headed Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum from 1993 to 2003. He is a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam.

Manfred Schneckenburger

In 1977, documenta 6 drew conclusions one last time from the results – and non-results – of previous documentas. Harald Szeemann’s documenta 5 of 1972 was able to create the exhibition from an open, largely unknown scene. Five years later, things weren’t so easy, but we did highlight a shift in sculpture towards the horizontal. Although this was already known to an extent in America, it had not yet arrived in Europe, especially not in Germany: Sculpture that called on the viewer to walk long distances. A new experience of space. A new paradigm.

We also decided to review definitions of media. Unlike in the past, we thought in terms of media, not in terms of genres. Whereas talk of genre always also involved paragons and rivalry between the arts, and thus distinctions in term of content, media were defined simply in terms of their specific modus operandi. Painting was a genre, drawing was a genre, but now they were joined by video and photography. By this time, painting had become analytical: painting about painting. Photography was not yet considered art, and neither was video, which was commonly confused with television. Visitors to documenta 6 could view these media in all their artistic potential, emancipated and on an equal footing. We even examined books as a medium. This was a totally different approach, reviewed and brought up to date for 1977. This media concept was the legacy of documenta 6 for future documentas. It preserved something of the spirit of the historical review that was the main focus of the first documenta in 1955: catching up on the lost years of 1933 to 1945 when contemporary art had no longer been visible in Germany.

In 1987, documenta 8 had no such chance to perform a review, nor could it present a new art form or paradigm. The exhibition had to be based on a special view of art. This involved, for example, our omission of the Neo-Expressionist ‘Neue Wilde’, who played a major role in documenta 7. Instead, we tried to use a new social engagement in art as our selection criteria. Usable art, social design, whatever addressed itself to people and expanded the social dimension was to be our yardstick. Hence the subtitle, The Social Dimension of Art. In terms of content, this ranged from the furnishings of the Orangerie where design was exhibited, via ‘models’ inhabiting a border zone between art, architecture and design, through to the big human themes of Apocalypse and The End of Utopia at the Fridericianum, as reflected in the work of Anselm Kiefer, Robert Morris and Joseph Beuys.

In my view, it is not the task of the documenta to historically ‘explain’ contemporary art by including ‘old’ works. Contemporary art should remain open and pose questions that have not yet been answered by art history. Anything else would be art history – from the point of view of the present. I think that, by definition, the job of the documenta is still to give an overview of contemporary art. documenta must be unconditionally contemporary. It must find out and show what has been relevant and important over the past half-decade. It must filter a genuinely contemporary set of issues out of the open delta into which art has been flowing for many years, thus in fact defining what contemporary art actually is.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Manfred Schneckenburger is an author, curator and art historian. He was the director of Kunsthalle Köln as well as a professor and rector at the Kunstakademie Münster until 2005.

Main image: Fridericianum, Kassel, the main venue for dOCUMENTA (13). Courtesy: documenta; photograph: Nils Klinger

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.