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PRINT February 2004

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Documenta 12 curator Roger M. Buergel

AMID ALL THE FRENZIED speculation surrounding the selection of the next Documenta curator, Roger M. Buergel probably didn’t top many lists of potential candidates. Although known and respected throughout much of the German-speaking art world, he only began to organize relatively sizable exhibitions within the past four years. Moderate recognition in the United States came in late 2002, when the Menil Collection in Houston named Buergel the first recipient of its Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement. Yet his lack of renown in the States, coupled with the award’s newness, made it a little-remarked event. Still, with Catherine David on the Menil jury, close observers may have noticed the stars aligning in Buergel’s favor. The endorsement of a former Documenta curator was just one of several factors ultimately recommending Buergel for the director’s post.

Born in 1962 in Berlin but long based in Vienna, Buergel studied painting, philosophy, and economics, worked as a private secretary to Actionist Hermann Nitsch, and has taught visual theory for the past three years at the Universität Lüneburg in Germany. This mixture of scholarly and studio-based work makes him a model successor to David and Okwui Enwezor, not straying too far from their theoretical bent while simultaneously signaling a break. If the two previous Documentas were frequently criticized for placing too little emphasis on optical stimulation, Buergel has already raised hope in certain quarters by claiming that aesthetic reflection will be one of his key priorities. He has been quoted in the press as saying that it is a mistake to consider art “a repair business for removing misery and injustice from the world.” As the German critic and art historian Sabeth Buchmann puts it, Buergel is expected to present “less political discourse in exchange for art with a capital A.”

Buchmann’s prediction is music to the ears of many who felt that the pleasure factor was sorely lacking in 1997 and 2002, but Buergel’s track record indicates that he is not likely to give prominence to more traditionally “sensual” media such as painting. He has organized several significant exhibitions since 2000, each of which would actually seem to place him more firmly in the camp of David and Enwezor than in that of a Rudi Fuchs, whose 1982 Documenta 7 championed painterly expressionism and a romantic conception of art’s autonomy. Buergel, too, is deeply concerned with the question of artistic autonomy, as evidenced by his frequent writings and statements on the subject, yet his approach to the issue differs dramatically from Fuchs’s idealist position. In reference to his 2000 exhibition “Dinge, die wir nicht verstehen” (Things We Don’t Understand) at Vienna’s Generali Foundation, Buergel remarks, “We conceived of aesthetic autonomy as an effect on the spectator rather than being a property of the artwork.”

For Buergel, this shift in emphasis from the inherent uniqueness of the individual artwork to the spectator’s experience has important political consequences. As he explained in a recent lecture, the realm of aesthetics operates at a productive remove from the everyday world of social crises and political machinations and thus has the capacity to offer alternatives to the “dominant fiction.” This theme is explored in Buergel’s biggest undertaking to date, an exhibition ominously titled “Die Regierung” (The Government), which opened recently in Lüneburg and travels to Barcelona, Rotterdam, and Vienna over the next year, transforming itself as it makes the rounds. The show emerges from his research into Foucault’s notion of la gouvernementalité, a theory that examines, among other things, spaces where extragovernmental processes of self-organization can flourish. Here it is crucial to point out that Buergel’s partner, the art historian Ruth Noack, served as the cocurator of this exhibition and several of his other important projects. This spirit of collaboration has been a leitmotif of their overall practice and will surely inform the conception of Documenta 12, about which Buergel says, “The main idea is to work closely with aesthetic grassroots initiatives: independent spaces in Zagreb, Dakar, San Sebastián, Istanbul, Beirut, Riga, and so on, apart from the classical trade routes.”

While early reaction among German-language journalists and critics registered surprise, the broad consensus seems to be that Buergel is the right person for the job. The shows he has produced have not been especially large in scale, but they’ve been big in scope, functioning like miniature templates for the megaspectacle of Documenta. His alleged opposition to the role of the curator-as-diva must have made him additionally attractive to the selection committee; the Berliner Zeitung cited him as saying he wants to resist the “neurotic fixation on the curator as a person.” Susanne Ghez, a member of the selection committee and of Enwezor’s curatorial team, remarks, “You often come away from committee meetings feeling frustrated, but in this case there was no compromise. The decision was unanimous.” Above all, it would appear that Buergel’s optimistic faith in art’s powers of societal persuasion, combined with a respect for its tactile side, helped land him the position. If he succeeds in satisfying both factions—the Apollonians and the Dionysians, so to speak—it will be a monumental achievement.

Berlin-based critic Gregory Williams is a regular reviewer for Artforum.