Sixty Shades of Gray

Kate Sutton at a symposium celebrating sixty years of Documenta

Left: Curator Laura Zheng Ning and Documenta 10 artistic director Catherine David with artist Wang Jianwei. (Photo: Kate Sutton) Right: Swiss Institute Rome artistic director Salvatore Lacagnina and Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk. (Photo: Holger Jenss)

THE JOY-TO-ANXIETY RATIO around birthdays tends to be parabolic, with celebration less fraught the closer you are to either end of the spectrum—very young or very old. When you’re somewhere in the middle, however, there may be more to commemorate in theory, but in practice it feels like there’s just a whole lot more you hope no one brings up.

So it was with Documenta, which celebrated its sixtieth birthday on Sunday with an all-day, Kassel-wide festival mixing in a chamber orchestra; a panel discussion with founder Arnold Bode’s daughter, E. R. Nele; tours of past commissions by artists such as Walter De Maria, Giuseppe Penone, and Hito Steyerl; and an outdoor screening of Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost (1988), a favorite of Documenta 14’s artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, who quixotically pitched the event as “an invitation to get lost together, alone.”

The notion of isolation within a community could have just as well applied to the egos at play during the weekend’s centerpiece, the symposium “Expanding Thought Collectives: documenta 1997–2017,” which convened six of the quinquennial’s artistic directors (Catherine David, Okwui Enwezor, Ruth Noack, Roger M. Buergel, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and Szymczyk) in the pressure-cooker of an under-air-conditioned Documenta Halle for two days of PowerPoints, Q&A catfights, and ever more tenuous metaphors for the exhibition’s “modality” and/or “potentiality.” The program’s logo inadvertently foregrounded some of these tensions by covering the title in black-and-white vertical stripes, as if the “60 Years of Documenta” were imprisoned in its own legacy. Noack put it more bluntly: “It’s terrific, but it will destroy your life.”

Thursday night, early birds braved the fierce heat to hit the Fridericianum for a retrospective of Marcel Broodthaers put together by the museum’s director, Susanne Pfeffer. The show stretched through all three floors of the building, whose Neoclassical grandeur offered the perfect setting for institution-rumbling installations like The Museum of Modern Art: Department of Eagles.“It’s very generous,” curator Kasper König said to approving nods. “Pfeffer really has a feel for Broodthaers.” Around 8 PM, the sweat-spotted crowd shifted to the backyard for the first of many sausage-based buffets. Too hot to eat, I slipped into conversation with Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden director Johan Holten, artist Susanne M. Winterling, and n.b.k. curator Sophie Goltz, before following curators Candice Hopkins and Natasha Ginwala to a picnic table with Documenta 14 team members Hendrik Folkerts and Sepake Angiama. “Is this the Documenta table?” I asked. “In Kassel, they’re all Documenta tables,” Folkerts laughed.

Left: Documenta 14's Sepake Angiama, Vier5's Marco Fiedler, and Documenta 14's Hendrik Folkerts. Right: Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden director Johan Holten, Fridericianum director Susanne Pfeffer, and publisher Franz König. (Photos: Kate Sutton)

By 9:30 AM the next morning, the already steamy Documenta Halle was packed with aspiring symposium-goers (after receiving more than eight hundred RSVPs, the organizers resorted to an uncomfortably literal green slip/pink slip system for determining who could get a seat.) The program launched with the German Federal Cultural Foundation’s Hortensia Völckers, who briefly registered her disappointment with Germany’s stance on Greece, before introducing moderator Dorothea von Hantelmann, the first ever Documenta visiting professor at the Kunsthochschule Kassel, and Oliver Marchart, whose keynote set the framework for the rest of the speakers: namely, that David’s Documenta 10 (1997) and Enwezor’s Documenta 11 (2002) marked a profound shift in how exhibitions operate, both on the ground and discursively.

David didn’t always think so. “I remember a few days before the opening, talking with Hortensia and wondering, what if we’ve made a grosse Scheisse—a big shit?” She was quick to explain the lack of artists from the Middle East (she feared tokenism) and the fact that the Chinese artists didn’t make her catalogue. She also recounted how she had originally intended to hold the exhibition in Tehran, only to be reprimanded with “Ms. David, you have a contract for making the exhibition in Kassel.” Having exorcised those lingering demons, David pivoted the panel toward “modernities without museums,” using China as a case study. After a few words from artist Wang Jianwei (who genially prefaced his talk with “Please excuse me if my presentation makes you a little sleepy—I am a conceptual artist”), artist, curator, and now dealer Lu Jie walked the audience through the Long March Project, which David had spun as a kind of substitute for a museum of modern art.

With that, Christov-Bakargiev leapt up: “It’s not true. There is a museum of modern art in China. It’s called NAMOC. I gave a lecture there last year and it’s a fabulous institution.” She then vouched for her own authority in the matter, as a longtime supporter of Long March Project “from the 1990s, if not earlier” (truly vanguard given that LMP, while conceived in 1998, wasn’t realized until 2002). Lu graciously clarified: “We don’t have a MoMA.” “But who wants MoMA?!” Christov-Bakargiev fired back.

Anyone who might have dozed off during Wang’s presentation was awake now. Symposium staffers may as well have been auditioning for Sophie’s Choice as they surveyed the hands rocketing up around the room. A mic went to Enwezor. “I don’t want to join the fray, as it were . . . ,” he began, then shifted the debate toward the “production and acquisition of discursive authority” that allows institutions like MoMA to “provincialize and allocate modernity.” Art historian Griselda Pollock countered that this authority was being misused to “rediscover” rather than “to point the finger at what rendered these things invisible in the first place.”

Left: Writer and editor Philipp Ekardt with art historian David Joselit. (Photo: Kate Sutton) Right: Documenta 11 artistic director Okwui Enwezor. (Photo: Holger Jenss)

At this moment, art historian David Joselit took the mic in the museum’s defense: “I know it’s fashionable to bash MoMA right now, but I want to be clear that the museum was founded by three women, whose contributions are not honored by feminists because it’s not ‘art’ but ‘institution building.’ ” (To which Christov-Bakargiev replied, “It’s the least feminist thing to list women as participating in institutions. Margaret Thatcher was also a woman.”) Joselit was careful to highlight the expansiveness of MoMA’s early vision, referring to Alfred Barr’s maps. “Yes, MoMA has led in a certain kind of canon building, but to caricature MoMA in this way is to isolate responsibility for this canon.” It was back to Enwezor, who insisted that it was not a caricature, but rather an acknowledgment of the museum’s “selective recollections”: “Institutions are like organisms. They develop. They have bad habits. They shed those habits, then they acquire new ones.” The curator recalled a recent visit to MoMA’s permanent collection, where a Beauford Delaney now hangs in proximity to Picasso and Dubuffet. “I looked at the acquisition date and saw it was from 2012. This tells us about the institutional self-construction, as it covers up its tracks in order to be able to reinhabit itself.”

While Enwezor seemed to have eased the conversation down from its ledge, König, who until this point had been quietly making postcard collages at his seat, was not there to be soothed. “MoMA acts like the Vatican and the Kremlin all in one!” he bellowed. “The real problem is that the museum has gone corporate. What’s going on in Greece and Germany is also a fucking corporate machine. It doesn’t deal with emotions or real people.” As if the very mention of Greece had tripped a wire, von Hantelmann abruptly cut off further questions, directing the last word to David, who glumly summarized: “It’s not about morality. It’s about cultural policies and politics. We can’t think it changes the world to have one Pakistani artist in an exhibition.”

With that, the symposium broke for lunch, giving audience members an hour to recover from the Q&A whiplash. “We have a word for this in German,” a member of the Documenta team shared quietly on our way out of the Halle. “Elefantenrennen. An elephant race.” I grinned, assuming she meant a clash-of-the-Titans scenario. Looking it up later, I found it is actually applied to the frustrating experience of two slow-moving trucks trying to overtake each other on the highway, blocking all other traffic.

Left: Art historian Griselda Pollock. Right: Artist Tino Sehgal with Documenta 13 artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. (Photos: Kate Sutton)

Another sausage buffet down, symposium-goers returned with the dewy glow of Käse sandwiches trapped in a Bahnhof display case. The stifling heat gradually liquefied all decorum. Across the aisle, I watched an old woman in a blue paisley housedress and flesh-colored slippers lean over to scold Documenta 14 curator Dieter Roelstraete—easily double her height—for distracting her as he fanned himself with his program. Over the next two and a half hours, the entire audience would melt into a sea of McGuyveresque fanning devices and Rorschach sweat spots, as on stage, the Enwezor-led Documenta 11 panel roped Raqs Media Collective’s Shuddhabrata Sengupta, cultural theorist Nikos Papastergiadis, and Documenta 11 cocurator Sarat Maharaj into a meditation on “Globalization from Below.” As Pollock had observed, “When we think of globalization, we keep fabricating a center”—namely, the English language. Enwezor and his colleagues argued that the “Post-Gutenberg pidginization” of the “Anglosphere”—“who is the true native speaker of English these days?”—should be fertile ground for generating new meanings. (Case in point: the flurry of mental imagery conjured when one speaker’s cadenced pronunciation of “peripheral” had us contemplating “what it means to be Perry Farrell in this day and age.”) As the presentations concluded, Enwezor forestalled any Q&A fireworks, announcing, “I’d like to borrow one of my friend and colleague Hans Ulrich’s favorite terms: coffee break. Shall we have one?”

The next morning, serendipity saw Kassel host a Self-Help Health Fair. All down the Friedrichsplatz, white tents were set up with CPR dolls and pamphlets on prostate examinations and how to self-diagnose your borderline personality disorder. That day’s symposium had a slightly trickier objective, covering the contested terrain of Documentas 12–14. The first panel was spiked from the start with some nondecaf confessions from Noack, who with Buergel had organized Documenta 12 in 1997. “This exhibition is only to be had at great personal cost. Some people end up with professional currency; some without health insurance. Discursive hegemony is not the same thing as institutional security.”

The curator also cleared up some misconceptions around what Pollock described as the “much-maligned” Documenta 12. (Indeed, while audience members shared fond remembrances of the exhibition in question, guest panelists spoke of liking it with the pronounced controversy courting of someone professing their preference for post–Voodoo Lounge Rolling Stones.) Noack pointed to the need to think of the Documenta exhibitions in terms of contemporaneity, not genealogy. “When you’re making an exhibition in 2007, some things are not as possible as when you are making it in 2002, or 2012.” Noack argued that Documenta 12 should be thought of not as a reactionary return to form but rather as the logical, progressive continuation of the fissures triggered by David’s and Enwezor’s thinking, questioning, “How can works from different parts of the world be displayed on equal footing?”

Left: Documenta 14's Dieter Roelstraete. Right: Documenta 14's Pierre Bal-Blanc and art historian Claire Bishop. (Photos: Kate Sutton)

For his response, Joselit challenged the usage of words like visibility and surplus as automatic positives. Characterizing large-scale exhibitions as “sadistic on a certain level,” he discussed the need to quickly scan works of art, not just as a defense mechanism but as a mode of perception that allows you to identify where you’d like to zoom in. During the Q&A, Sengupta synthesized Noack’s and Joselit’s points via the business practice known as “flags of convenience,” in which naval ships of one nation register under a different national identity to ensure easy passage. “I think contemporary art gives too much importance to these flags sometimes, so that in these large exhibitions, the artist actually ends up enjoying a certain privacy.”

Privacy was of no concern for Christov-Bakargiev, who prefaced her hour-long ramble with the disclaimer that she can’t be expected to express herself linearly, as she thinks “ecologically,” followed by a live reading of her e-mail correspondence with planned panelist Karen Barad, who was unable to attend for personal reasons. The email focused mainly on encouraging Barad to speak at the curator’s upcoming Istanbul Biennial, promising logistics, lodging, and a fee of 800 euros, “or $1000.” “I felt guilty writing that, because I think it’s less,” she interjected.

Over the lunch break, an art historian had gleefully painted the Documenta psychodrama playing out on stage: “You have Catherine, the grand dame grandmother who can say whatever she wants. Okwui, the high-performing power dad. Carolyn, the crazy aunt . . . ” Christov-Bakargiev inhabited this role just as gleefully, peppering her presentation with outrageous insinuations, such as the idea that Documenta may be responsible for artist Mariam Ghani’s father’s becoming president of Afghanistan. (“We can’t say for sure, of course, but we did spend every day at his house when we were there.”) Audience tolerance faded as her talk soared well past the twenty-minute mark. After brushing off the first cues to curb her presentation, Christov-Bakargiev bristled at more aggressive attempts. When scrolling through a set of slides of Pierre Huyghe’s commission, she feistily snapped, “Because it seems we have no time to speak of Pierre, we will know nothing of Pierre. He speaks of no-knowledge zones, so that’s probably what he’d like anyway.”

Left: Long March Space's Lu Jie. Right: Curator Sarat Maharaj and art historian Dorothea von Hantelmann. (Photos: Kate Sutton)

Fellow panelists and Documenta 13 alums Tino Sehgal and Kristina Buch aimed for speed, while Pollock opted for a scripted conversation, which she handed to Christov-Bakargiev to read, essentially giving her own interview. “You had a wonderful project in 2007. Can you tell us more about that?” the curator read haltingly, and—having rediscovered the notion of time—repeatedly checked her watch, as Pollock expounded on speculative intersections among Charlotte Salomon, Hannah Arendt, and Donna Haraway.

When it was time for questions, the first came from Sehgal, who was “curious about the binary Griselda had presented.” “It’s called a dialectic,” Pollock corrected, prompting Christov-Bakargiev to jump in on her behalf: “Tino, we need to remember that Griselda has been writing for forty years. That means something. She’s speaking in the 1960s and ’70s manner of speaking.” (“I never thought I would ever feel sorry for Tino,” my companion whistled.) Once more, it was von Hantelmann to the rescue, announcing that she would allow just one more question from an elderly gentleman—later identified as Broodthaer’s former patron Isi Fiszman—who, having spent the better part of the conference shuffling in and out of seats in a bid to sit closer to König, asked, “Yes, you used the word matrixial. I just wanted to know if either Carolyn or Griselda have kids, and if not, what they know about motherhood?”

“2015, everybody . . . ” art historian Claire Bishop sighed.

Left: n.b.k. curator Sophie Goltz with Documenta 14's Henriette Gallus. Right: Curators Candice Hopkins, Monika Szewczyk, and Natasha Ginwala. (Photos: Kate Sutton)

Her comment made me realize how little contact the symposium had with the outside world. By setting the date range of 1997–2017, we could take Documenta’s prominence for granted, without having to contemplate its origins within the process of Germany’s postwar restructuring—a topic that had been bounced around liberal news outlets in response to the country’s tough public stance on Greece. (Though not only Greece. See also the video circulating of Angela Merkel’s cringe-inducing attempt to explain to a fourteen-year-old Palestinian girl facing deportation why her aspirations ranked lower than her classmates’.)

Hopes were high that the final presentation on Documenta 14, which now boasts a team twenty-nine strong, with offices in both Athens and Kassel, might change this. If the crowd had visibly thinned for Christov-Bakargiev’s aria, it was back to full capacity, with pink-slipped audience members squatting wherever there was space. When Szymczyk took the stage, however, it wasn’t for grandstanding. He spoke only as the narrator of a collaborative concert by artist Hiwa K and flamenco performer Carmen Amor. The artist, a trained flamenco guitarist, interspersed gripping vocal performances by Amor with autobiographical vignettes and films, referencing his journey on foot from his native town of Sulaimaniyya, Iraq, through Turkey and into Europe. When the performance ended, all three figures walked off stage.

For the first time all weekend, everyone was speechless.

Left: Carmen Amor, Adam Szymczyk, and artist Hiwa K. (Photo: Holger Jenss) Right: Curator Kasper König. (Photo: Kate Sutton)