Issue #41, 2012

dOCUMENTA (13): Confusion Over Discourse. An Overview: on Size and Format
Elena Crippa

dOCUMENTA (13),Kassel, 9 June – 16 September 2012

Visiting the 13th edition of documenta – the large-scale exhibition that every five years takes over the German city of Kassel for 100 days – requires high levels of stamina and excellent map-reading skills. The sites hosting it, although all within reasonable walking distance, are surprisingly numerous. As well as inhabiting traditional institutional venues, such as the Fridericianum, documenta-Halle and Neue Galerie, the exhibition sprawls over a variety of sites, including museums dedicated to non-artistic subjects, a hotel, vacated shops, various sites within the rail station, disused buildings, cinemas, theatres and a WWII bunker. This edition of documenta also takes on the traditional model of the sculpture park, with around 50 monographic pavilions and newly commissioned works scattered throughout Karlsaue Park.

The list of contributors to the event – including artists as well as curators, researchers, intellectuals and scientists – counts over 300 names. As well as a guidebook and a large catalogue, as many as 100 smaller publications were produced prior to the opening of the exhibition. The programme of events includes numerous performances, talks and film screenings. Many of the invited artists and other practitioners have also been co-opted into an on-going educational programme. Lectures and seminars can be booked and attended by the general public, but have a regular audience in the members of The Art Academy Network, developed by dOCUMENTA (13) enrolling students from art schools around Europe. Finally, offshore exhibitions, retreats and conferences are scheduled to take place in Kabul, Bamiyan, Alexandria, Cairo and Alberta.

Institutional venue, park pavilion, unused space, theatre, school, research centre and publishing house: this documenta wears numerous hats, and they are all historically loaded. Yet, they are not object of any considerable degree of critical or empirical revision. Most rooms of the institutional spaces are separate, monographic entities; the beautifully designed pavilions punctuate the natural environment; the educational projects function in the way most exhibitions-cum-art schools have recently been run, at least since the unrealised Manifesta 6; performances and event-based activities take place in theatres and are nearly exclusively satellite to other works by the same artists, but there is no venue whose space was created or adapted for the presentation of time-based work. If dOCUMENTA (13)’s ambitions in terms of scale are not matched by an aspiration to revisit formats of presentation, its central purpose may be found in its stances on content: in the research, selection and presentation of artworks beyond the constraints of a close-fitting framing discourse.

Against Curating?

Around seven years ago, when I was a student at Royal College of Art, London, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev came to give a seminar on monographic exhibitions. She was particularly critical of at least three aspects of contemporary curating. Firstly, she was against the limiting and manipulative academic approach for which art exhibitions are expected to rely on clearly articulated topics, in order to stimulate debate around particular themes. Secondly, she lamented the fact that group exhibitions, as the result of the conception of an individual self, tend to be reductive rather than open up to contrasts and discrepancies. Thirdly, she questioned the value of exhibiting the work of an artist as autonomous, in isolation from the work of his/her peers and society at large. These remarks are useful when attempting to understand Christov-Bakargiev’s approach to exhibition making, particularly in relation to her role as artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13).

Forget Catherine David’s grand historical narrative (documenta 10), Okwui Enwezor’s geo-political frame (11) and Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack’s aesthetic leitmotif on the migration of artistic form (12). Forget the predominant approach to curating shaped by art theory and framed by clearly formulated curatorial statements. dOCUMENTA (13) – with its newly redesigned lettering – is not supported by a concept that can easily be expressed and communicated. During the press conference, Christov-Bakargiev described the event as intentionally uncomfortable and incomplete – a celebration of the state of confusion. In her catalogue essay, embracing the curatorial move towards the performative and participatory, she defines dOCUMENTA (13) as a choreography that values the diverse and that which cannot be unified: it is a sprawling constellation of different places, times, relations to materiality and thought. These views manifest themselves in the way the artistic director has been working since her appointment in late 2008, setting up a large research structure and employing numerous „curatorial agents“. The agents were meant to collaborate by proxy and generate a multiplicity of approaches and exchanges rather than collaborate towards a unison objective. Authorship is undercover, dispersed, shared. Further diversity of approaches was added by a team of advisors, which included, among others, writers, microbiologists, a conservationist and an anthropologist, who have contributed to the education programme, publications and to some of the exhibits.


Fragments towards a History of Embodied Matter

Despite the lack of a clear curatorial concept, Christov-Bakargiev states that dOCUMENTA (13) is „dedicated to artistic research and forms of imagination that explore commitment, matter, things, embodiment, and active life in connection with, yet not subordinated to, theory and epistemological enclosures“.1 The venue that seems to better articulate this programme is the Fridericianum. The show opens with Ryan Gander’s (undercover) homage to Art & Language’s Air Conditioning Show, 1966–1967, which, aiming for the art gallery to be empty and non-descriptive, was in its original intention a critique of the established apparatus and discourse framing the presentation of art. As the opening setting of dOCUMENTA (13), the work takes on its original criticism, but also invites a close and focused engagement with the material history and ideas that artworks embody. Two sets of vitrines interrupt the emptiness of the first, large rooms. One contains hand-written correspondence between Kai Althoff and the artistic director, the artist explaining his personal motivations for withdrawing his participation from the exhibition. Another vitrine showcases three small, welded sculpture by Julio González, alongside a photograph of the way in which they were displayed in 1959, on the occasion of documenta 2.

On the back of the first galleries, in the rotunda, these first fragments of personal and institutional histories open to The Brain, where small scale ancient and contemporary objects and their fragmented histories are densely displayed. Among them are a small selection of Giorgio Morandi’s paintings; a collection of seated female statuettes produced in Central Asia four to five centuries ago; Judith Hopf’s version of traditional tribal masks made with polystyrene product packaging; a self-portrait by Lee Miller and a selection of bath items that she took from Hitler’s apartment when she visited it as a journalist, soon after the dictator’s suicide. Here a number of recurring topics begins to appear: ethnographic approach, archaeological find, the archive, material memory, personal historical account, catastrophe, ecology. Despite not being stated, these topics are developed in the other venues in fairly clear themes. The Ottoneum is dedicated to works relating to natural sciences and issues of ecology; numerous works in the Neue Galerie address issues of social unrest and revolution; while documenta-Halle deals with the production and circulation of images and includes a majority of paintings and drawings.

The ethnographic approach is taken on by a number of artists. In the Fridericianum, Kader Attia presents a disturbing conflation of the notion of repairing, bringing together mended African artefacts and documentations of plastic surgeries performed on European soldiers disfigured during World War I. Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolás Goldberg present the documentation of their unrealised project to transport El Chaco, the second largest meteorite in the world, from the North of Argentina to Kassel. As Hal Foster has already remarked in the mid 1990s, the one of the artist as ethnographer is a highly problematic practice. It tends to efface issues of power and authority in the relationship between the artist and the other, while „the projects stray from collaboration to self-fashioning“.2 This well-rehearsed critique can be extended to that of the curator-ethnographer. As it was the case with ethnographic surrealism, the practice is of fragmentation and juxtaposition of cultural values. It favours the unexpected over the familiar and avoids making sense of differences through processes of naming and analysis.3 Yet, the presentation offragments of different histories, practices and artefacts from other cultures, disciplines and geographies, in the absence of a framing discourse, fails to address the fact that these differences do not just pertain to the realm of aesthetics, nor are isolated narratives, but touch upon issues of power and agency.

A number of works can be discussed in relation to the theme of catastrophe. Michael Rakowitz’s What Dust Will Rise?, 2012, is a beautiful display and poetic celebration of the remnants of cultural artefacts that were destroyed during World War II bombings (ancient books burned in a fire in the Fridericianum) or during the more recent destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, ordained by the Taliban government. Adrián Villar Rojas’ work, Return the World, 2012, is installed in one of the more tucked away and discrete sites: the Weinberg terraces. His monumental and yet fragile sculptures stand like relics of a civilisation which may have been, or as a monitor to that which we may not be able to witness. Pierre Huyghe’s Live Things and Inanimate Things, Made and not Made, 2012, is an installation dispersed over a clearing in the middle of the park. Including piles of left over stone tiles and bricks, dumps of sand and soil, the statue of a reclining woman whose head is completely covered by a beehive and a pile of broken up pieces of asphalt, the work mixes apocalyptic and surrealist references: it is a strangely saddening stage of unfulfilled promises.

Numerous are the poetic and emotionally charged works. In the Fridericianum, Llyn Foulkes’s paintings, carefully reworked over long periods of time incorporating various found materials, are truly mesmerising. They depict moments of private and social silent desperation – the loss of faith in the American cultural and political project, and the desperate solitude of unspoken traumas. At the Neue Galerie, Maria Martins’ bronze casts of organic and anthropomorphic figures from the 1940s are like sensual, delicate and uncomfortable beings, seemingly pulled and shaped by drives and repulsions. Not far, a group of Emily Carr’s paintings from the late 1920s and early 1930s depicts sculpture and totemic figures produced in remote native villages along the Pacific Northwest Coast, which the artist had been visiting for decades and whose life she put much effort to record and preserve. The close-ups of sculptures and natural settings transmit a deep sense of awe, where the closeness of an intense gaze is only possible in conjunction with the distancing effect achieved with the particular angles adopted in the representations. Andrea Büttner’s installation, Little Sisters: Luna Park Ostia, 2012, transmits a similar mix of togetherness and apartness. In an installation comprising a video, wall murals, woodcuts, a slide show, a glass painting and sculpture, we glance into the peripatetic life of a group of monks working in amusement parks and circuses – a meditation on the human capacity to live simply and in harmony with one another; and to be other in this world.

Many more disparate works touched and inspired me. In Manon de Boer’s One, Two, Many (2012), three short films alternate on two opposing screens, plunging visitors in a physical and dynamic experience. The collective space of viewing is brought into the work while the activity of hearing is made palpable, emphasising the physical experience of the vibrating voice. Walid Raad’s lecture-performance, structured around his multifaceted installation, is the latest manifestation of his on-going project Scratching on Things I Could Disavow. The complex narrative starts as a piece of thorough research on the latest developments of the Arab art world. Yet, it slowly leads to mysterious and metaphysical developments, with the discovery of the evacuation of artistic forms and properties from the corrupting and corrosive art world. Finally, Akram Zaatari’s 16mm film The End of Time, 2012, is a simple and compelling choreography of the capricious phases that circularly turn one’s falling in love into a failing in love.



Despite the memory of many interesting works, I have been unable to shake off a sense of unfulfillment. I kept asking myself whether Christov-Bakargiev, in her opposition to the reading of historical conditions through art, has been fighting an enemy that does not exist. The tasks of a historian writing a historical account, a curator selecting an exhibition or an artist making an artwork are inevitably reductive and totalising activities. Yet, as Peter Osborne has pointed out, there are very different ways of totalising, both in theory and practice, and it is on the subject of the „how“ that an interesting and productive debate can begin.4 It is honourable to want to foster an experience of artworks in their individuality, but is this the task that a large-scale exhibition should posit itself, or something that can much more meaningfully and effectively be pursued in more intimate environments, in small to medium scale exhibitions? Is it not the task of an event of the scale and ambition of documenta the one of attempting to make sense of historical and contemporary ways of making and discussing art? Are visitors’ imagination and criticality really so easily thwarted by curators’ conceptual frameworks? And is it really possible or desirable to avoid the expression of a subjective self in the making of an exhibition? If we renounce the task of writing history – or simply of writing and sharing the curatorial concepts shaping the selection process part of an exhibition – we renounce to state why, in our present time, it is important to look at particular artworks and address particular issues. The risks are those of being forgotten quickly and, more importantly, of curbing rather than stimulating debate among the public at large. Moreover, relinquishing the tasks of contextualising and exposing the cultural, socio-economic and political relations that characterise the objects of a selection, one is inevitably in danger of perpetuating the imperialistic attitude that continues to shape international exchanges.



1. ‑Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev „The dance was very frantic, lively, rattling, clanging, rolling, contorted, and lasted for a long time“, in The Book of Books, volume 1/3 of the dOCUMENTA (13) catalogue, Ostfildern, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012, pp. 30–45 (p. 31).

2. ‑Hal Foster, „The Artist as Ethnographer“, in The Return of the Real, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 1999, p. 197.

3. ‑James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, Cambridge, MA, and London, England, Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 117–122.

4. ‑Peter Osborne, „Modernity is a Qualitative, Not a Chronological, Category“ , p. 83 (accessed 28 June 2012). An earlier version of this essay was presented to a symposium on ’Postmodernism and the Re-reading of Modernity’ at the University of Essex in July 1990. A slightly different version appeared in Postmodernism and the Rereading of Modernity, ed. by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret Iverson, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1992.