in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 07
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Issue 104

Documenta 12 2007

Every five years, documenta – nicknamed ‘the 100 day museum’ – takes over the German city of Kassel. This year, under the leadership of Artistic Director Roger M. Buergel and curator Ruth Noack, it promises once again to pose as many questions as it hopes to answer

in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 07

Like a triple-headed sphinx, this year’s ‘documenta 12’, scheduled to open in mid-June, poses three questions; epic leitmotifs that may, in the words of the press release, ‘correspond, overlap or disintegrate – like a musical score’, and which, though not exactly riddles, aren’t easy to answer simply. They are: Is modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? What is to be done? Believing that we hold exhibitions in order to ‘find something out’1 artistic director Roger M. Buergel and curator Ruth Noack aren’t looking for definitive responses to these questions, but rather a multitude of possible interpretations. Their globe-trotting research and the involvement of artists and other thinkers from numerous far-flung locations will again reflect the idea of ‘documenta’ as a mega-exhibition for the masses, with unique global reach and responsibility.

First, however, a confession: since visiting the relatively small but infinitely zealous ‘documenta 12’ team in Kassel at the beginning of winter, knowing and respecting that their preparations still needed to be cloaked in secrecy and handled discretely so as not to compromise their delicate and complicated negotiations, I have been obsessed with numbers. This can be partly explained because, at first, it seemed as though numbers were all they thought it was appropriate for me to know at this stage. In truth, however, the event has already been the subject of considerable debate thanks to the ‘documenta 12 magazines’ project, coordinated by Georg Schöllhammer (editor of Austrian art magazine Springerin), for which over 80 periodicals in 27 languages have been invited to consider the exhibition’s three leitmotifs. Their responses will be compiled in three publications: the first, on the modernity question, is scheduled to come out in January. Perhaps my preoccupation with numbers all started with their three questions. Like ‘three coins in a fountain’ they are meant to make waves in the global think-tank, and these discursive waves are meant to rebound on each other without getting turgid.

And there are so many more documenta numbers. As the name affirms, this will be the exhibition’s 12th incarnation since it was founded in 1955 by art professor Arnold Bode as an adjunct to a garden show. The artist and graphic designer Martha Stutteregger, who created the logo for this year’s exhibition – a simple but effective device in which the name and date of the event is set in bold above a ‘handwritten’ five-bar gate tally totalling 12 – noted at last year’s February press conference that she had chosen it because, when dealing with documenta, ‘the number is important’. (Incidentally, the tally was written by Buergel himself: not exactly a signature, it’s nonetheless a personalized mark – a precise, modest kind of counting which, in contrast to a decorative flourish or fancy lettering, sends out a particular message.) Other numbers have a kind of dizzying effect. For instance, 650,000 visitors attended Okwui Enwezor’s ‘documenta 11’, and this time the organizers hope ‘the same amount plus one’ will come.2 And they probably will, making for a veritable contemporary art stampede, with everything that entails logistically (yet more numbers). And, like a recurring art dream (or nightmare) operating in ten-year cycles, it coincides once again with three other major art world events: the Venice Biennale, Art Basel and Muenster Sculpture Project. Together, this constellation, which for art professionals of all kinds has become almost compulsory, is an exhausting international marathon. The usual blurb goes that the art pilgrims attending documenta – which locals are hugely proud of – transform its Central German host city of Kassel into a ‘world city’, even though its small population already boasts a compliment of Russian-German, Kurdish and Turkish migrants (along with, as my numerically attuned brain can’t fail to note, cruelly high inner city unemployment rates of around 20 percent).

Documenta also has the nickname ‘the 100 day museum’ and, appropriately enough, the plan is apparently to invite around 100 or so artists to participate. However, as Catrin Seefranz, Director of Communications, informed me when we met in November 2006, ‘there is and will be no official list published of artists participating in “documenta 12” prior to the opening’. So it is not clear how many continents or ethnicities or cities will be represented – or not; Noack has been quoted in the press as declaring, ‘we are not UNESCO’.3 Numbers though will probably be similar to those of ‘documenta 11’, which involved around 120 artists, rather than those of ‘documenta 6’ in 1977, which included nearly 500; the organizers hope to allow some of the artists to present more than one artwork, in a bid to lend depth to the exhibition. Finally, one particularly important number gives a shorthand indication of the scale of the undertaking: the official budget is around 19 million Euros, plus ‘some’, Seefranz informed me, for ambitious new educational and architectural components. Half comes from the various tiers of government and the other half mostly from private and corporate sponsors, ticket sales and merchandising. Raising money is no small task, and one made more difficult this time because two main sponsors – Volkswagen, whose business focus is moving, and DB (German National Railways), whose trains were once emblazoned with a documenta logo, but who now prefer to sponsor Berlin’s football team – have jumped this particular cultural flagship. Last year there was some talk in the press about a missing few million, but apparently, with the help of a new ‘documenta-Initiativkreis’ (documenta Initiative Circle) – boasting amongst its 140 members people such as Arend Oetker, Uli Sigg, Sylvie Liska and Christian Jacobs – it seems to have subsided.

So, with our solid numerical grounding in place, let us now attempt to address some more obvious questions about ‘documenta 12’, such as: What can be expected of it? What will its unique features be? What might be shown? Although there is still some time to go, and things can always change, Buergel and Noack have made their methods, thought processes and intentions pretty clear. And along the way a few names and works have been mentioned, including star chef Ferran Adrià, British artist Imogen Stidworthy and Polish videomaker Artur Zmijewski, who in 2002 conducted a Bach cantata in Leipzig performed by a choir of hearing-impaired people. In the past, the two curators have been responsible for exhibitions such as ‘Things we don’t understand’ at the Generali Foundation in 2000 and ‘The Government – Elysian Spheres of Action’ – a touring show that travelled, amongst other places, to Witte de With and Secession between 2003 and 2005. In lectures and press conferences Buergel and Noack have also stated that ‘documenta 12’ is about putting art and the viewer’s experience first, about creating the conditions where art can function as intended, and in a way that the viewers (who are not all the same, and not necessarily experts) can understand and have the kind of aesthetic experience that only art can offer. Simple and profound, this intention shouldn’t be understood as reactionary, or as an obfuscation of global socio-political responsibilities. During my visit to the ‘documenta 12’ office, for instance, I was treated to an explanation from a research assistant about how aesthetics and ethics relate to each other, and how it is in ethics that questions of politics beyond the formations of the nation states and identities is thinkable.

Another persistent theme is the mediation of art. As Buergel stated in his talk, ‘Migration of Forms’, delivered at the Centre Pompidou in October 2006: ‘Mediation is the area in which institutions show their true colours; it is the ethos of mediation that makes the difference between a posture of pure consumption and an emancipatory program. And this is how exhibitions differ – or do not differ – from Disneyland, discotheques and Louis Vuitton.’ Mediation will be given a thorough overhaul at ‘documenta 12’, which will involve the shelving of the notion of ‘tour guides’ in favour of trained mediators, including the group ‘Die Welt bewohnen’ (Inhabiting the World) – a posse of 70 or so local 13 to 19 year olds. Other key sentiments expressed in Buergel’s lecture included his intention that the exhibition should be thought of as a medium in and of itself, and that the curatorial exploration of the leitmotifs can be understood in terms of the ‘migration of forms’. Put simply, unless I have misunderstood, this involves tracing and connecting historical lines and global threads in an anti-orthodox way, identifying ‘formal trans-local correspondences’ between works that normally aren’t connected, and allowing for a different sense of context and connectedness across cultures, generations and histories. To demonstrate his thinking, Buergel cited examples such as Sheela Gowda’s installation of red cord, And Tell Him of My Pain (1998/2001), and the geometry of Nasreen Mohamedi’s exquisite drawings from the 1950s, establishing a web of cultural political global relations whose roots are centuries old.

If all goes to plan, these ideas will be rather spectacularly reflected in a display that, as Buergel noted in his essay ‘The Origins’ in the catalogue 50 jahre/years documenta 1955-2005 (2005), is set to take its discursive lead from the very first documenta. The innovative, crowning achievement will be the construction of a 10,000-metre-square temporary pavilion – ‘a skin and a framework’ as the ‘documenta 12’ team described it to me on my visit – on the lawns of the Karlsaue Park. This hi-tech, polymer crystal palace for the future, designed by architects Lacaton & Vassal, will be the main venue, while the original site, the Fridericianum – dating from 1779 and thus the first public museum on the European continent, left in ruins after the World War II bombardment – will undergo alterations to open all of its windows again and remove internal partition walls. Kassel’s Neue Galerie, whose historic collection is currently being restructured, will become a darkened chain of rooms where sound and video works will subtly interrelate with one another as the visitor passes through. And if that weren’t enough, high up on the hill in the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, the city’s museum of old masters and antiquities, will be a display of historic textiles and painted miniatures, which should be understood, the team told me, as cultural ‘bridges’ or ‘impulses’. Visitors will be guided from venue to venue by quirky signage commissioned from French graphic designers Vier5. Buergel has decreed not only that he will not use abandoned, post-industrial venues but that he will change the traditional approach to ‘public art’. For him, public space is cerebral, so there are no plans for any projects like Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks, 1982-5), which involved the planting of 700 trees during ‘documenta 7’.4 Instead he has invited Brazilian artist Ricardo Basbaum to contribute with his project Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? (ongoing since 1994). The project involves the manufacture of metal objects, which are assigned worldwide to various custodians, who must then document their experiences with and relationship to these absurdly useless items. The unlikely results can be viewed virtually at and will also be on display in the exhibition. For his collaboration with ‘documenta 12’, Basbaum had 20 objects produced by apprentices who usually paint tanks at Kassel’s Thyssen-Krupp factory. The choice of such a project reflects Buergel’s commitment to involving Kassel locals, something which is also evinced by the establishment of an Advisory Board composed of 40 or so local ‘multipliers in their fields’, as the team describe them, including teachers, architects and representatives of social initiatives and cultural centres. Talking of Basbaum’s project, one of the ‘documenta 12’ team remarked how it shows that ‘people want art in their lives’ and perhaps, in a way, that sums up the deep-seated belief that underpins all their plans.

Dominic Eichler is an artist, writer and musician living in Berlin.

1?‘documenta 12’ Press Release 2006,
2?Schwäbische Zeitung:
4?In the event, a mixture of tree types was planted
to avoid altering the local vegetation too radically.