PRINT May 2007

International News

Jennifer Allen talks with the curators of Documenta 12

SINCE ITS INAUGURATION in 1955 in Kassel, Documenta has become perhaps the most highly anticipated linchpin of the art-world calendar, arriving every five years to provide an assessment of the international field of contemporary art. But in the case of Documenta’s twelfth iteration, expectation has turned to something like intrigue: Less than two months before its June 16 opening, the show remains shrouded in mystery. You may have heard about the three questions that artistic director Roger M. Buergel unveiled as curatorial leifmotifs in 2005: “Is modernity our antiquity?”; “What is bare life?”; and “What is to be done?” Perhaps you also know about an enormous plastic pavilion designed by French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal to house installations in Kassel’s Karlsaue park. And then there are the pedagogical experiments that Buergel and his cocurator, art historian Ruth Noack, have made public thus far: Some tours of the show will be guided by art “mediators,” others by local teenagers; and visitors can congregate in scattered areas called “Circles of Enlightenment,” whose contemplative atmosphere is meant to encourage discussion among audiences.

But what art will provide the topic for their conversations? Information has been sparse, apart from the news that one-third of the work projected to be on view is not contemporary. In fact, the oldest piece in the show—an anonymous Persian drawing—dates back to the fourteenth century, reflecting Buergel and Noack’s belief that the exhibition cannot be realized only with art “made yesterday.” The complete list of artists won’t be unveiled until one week before the opening; among the few names released so far are Saâdane Afif, Ricardo Basbaum, Sheela Gowda, Imogen Stidworthy, Ai Weiwei, Artur Zmijewski, and, surprise, Catalan chef (and specialist in molecular gastronomy) Ferran Adrià.

Central to Buergel and Noack’s conception of Documenta 12 is the forging of a local and international network to undertake projects and discussions driven by their three questions. In Kassel, the curators formed the Documenta 12 Beirat, a council of about forty local experts in fields like urban planning, education, and politics that began meeting regularly last year. Then there is the magazine project, an initiative spearheaded by Georg Schöllhammer of the Austrian quarterly Springerin, that gathered editors and writers from more than ninety art and cultural journals at workshops in locales including São Paulo, Johannesburg, New Delhi, and Hong Kong. (The results of the participants’ efforts will be compiled in Documenta 12 Magazine, a three-volume “journal of journals” available on the exhibition’s website.)

Seeking some elucidation of the concepts underpinning this complex enterprise, I spent an afternoon with Buergel and Noack in late March. As the discussion progressed, the pair’s catchphrases—“the migration of form,” “the exhibition as medium,” and “the failure of public space in modernity”—seemed to accrue implication and possibility, suggesting that an intense experience, rich in both political and aesthetic associations, lies ahead.

JENNIFER ALLEN: To begin with the leitmotifs—why did you choose those three particular questions?

RUTH NOACK: Well, these questions really came from our looking at contemporary art. Artists are adapting and criticizing styles of modernism; they are interested in the subject of bare life, not only in terms of war but of illness and health; and their specialist practices inevitably point to the question of how to bridge the gap between art and the general public’s understanding, which makes education a key subject. It’s important to remember that Documenta’s 650,000 visitors will not all come from the art world. Some will have never seen a contemporary art show before and may never see one again, informing themselves about the state of art only through this one exhibition. So you can’t just put work out there without explaining anything; at the same time, you don’t want to be overly didactic, because then everyone’s eyes are just glued to the wall texts. We thought that these three questions were universal and suggestive enough that visitors could find their own ways in.

ROGER M. BUERGEL: The questions also become more substantial when you consider how they relate to one another. But that said, it’s important to emphasize that these are, indeed, questions—meaning that Documenta 12 is not about presenting a set of finished ideas. Rather, we’re trying to involve people in a composition of ideas, and in a way that reflects on the exhibition as a medium. We contacted artists and magazine editors and asked what they’re reading; we went into Kassel and spoke with people who could transpose the show’s questions into local formats—schools, social work, architecture—so it wouldn’t matter whether the “answers” were art or not. What matters is that the exhibition can provide a medium with which to highlight certain things, like social work, that might seem totally unsexy from the standpoint of local politics yet can be politically relevant in a broader sense given the aura and energy of Documenta.

JA: When you first began your conversations with people in Kassel, what were their reactions?

RN: They weren’t so interested in contemporary art. Rather, they spoke about the fragmentation of Kassel. The majority of people viewed this question through the prism of crime—what we should do about prostitution, youth gangs, and so on. But when considering that people here are not really communicating with one another, one can also point to the fact that fifty-three different languages are spoken in Kassel. We learned that 10 percent of the population is Russian—actually, ethnic Germans whose ancestors immigrated to Russia centuries ago—most of whom speak only Russian and so are completely isolated. This awareness of the community, in fact, influenced our decisions about where to put public sculpture: We discovered that on weekends many of these people go to a park near a castle, Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, where most other people from Kassel never go, let alone Documenta visitors. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the city, and the Russians typically show their kids around, pointing out the statues and architecture as representations of culture. So we decided to put artworks there. We’ll have work in the castle itself, and there will be outdoor sculptures by John McCracken, for instance, and Alan Sekula.

RB: It’s important not to invent something in the style of a Hirschhorn monument—not to have our own little political theater. That’s why we worked with the Schlachthof, a cultural center that has been in Kassel for twenty years and will be there long after we’re gone. In turn, our relationship with the Schlachthof was part of a broader initiative, our advisory council, the Beirat. Coordinated by Ays ̧e Güleç, who is responsible for education and counseling at the Schlachthof and who is also speaker of the Beirat, many independent initiatives emerged—for example, a Salon des Refusés for unemployed workers.

RN: Many of the Beirat’s members seemed to feel that the three questions offered ways to frame Kassel’s problems in a slightly different way—to talk not about crime, for example, but about the very processes of modernity in this city.

RB: Take the practical example of water. The Beirat came up with the idea of having Russian and Turkish youths find out about Kassel’s water infrastructure, its sources and distribution systems. From there they looked at larger issues—privatization, cross-border leasing, enormous dams that flood whole valleys so that towns and cultural artifacts disappear. The polemical implication is that we have to be able to universalize topics; we have to be able to create a language in which to discuss topics beyond belief systems or established sets of values; and we have to be able to use the exhibition space as a forum for something like unconditional discourse.

RN: But in this context “exhibition space” doesn’t necessarily mean the space in which you’re displaying art. This is really important: The idea isn’t to bring social work into the exhibition, to perform social work; you can’t just take something out of the city and put it into Documenta. And as it turns out, the local people who’ve been working with us for two years aren’t interested in bringing their project into the exhibition. I mean, they’ll be holding discussions and meetings during the show, and they’re interested in creating a place where they can talk to people coming to see Documenta—but they want to get this public to move beyond the confines of the exhibition and into the city.

JA: In terms of influences from beyond the city, what kind of perspective arose through the magazine project?

RB: There were many perspectives here, because we turned to a highly diverse network consisting of strong individuals—many of them artists, because a lot of these magazines are artist-edited. But in each case we profited from a kind of local knowledge, since such magazines—even if they’re precarious, having no connection to the advertising industry, gallery system, or other institutional network—can be cultural centers of incredibly sophisticated debates. Even if the magazine doesn’t come out four times a year, it might involve a circle of people with something in common. This proved important to our research, because if you go to areas where you have no privileged expertise or experience, you’re entering a power network you cannot read. One of our general rules was not to go everywhere on the planet, but to go at least two or three times to the places we did visit. The magazine project helped us access local knowledge in this regard.

RN: After all, when you travel as a curator, you often discover things strictly on the basis of language. I spent four days in Bangkok, for example, and I was presented with lots of work—but only by artists who spoke English. In other words, people present curators with what they think curators want to see or promote, but they don’t always present what they really think is important within their culture. Magazines, on the other hand, usually operate in their own languages. Through them, you can find out about positions that maybe are quite important in a particular country, but that aren’t thought to be important internationally.

RB: On the other hand, sometimes they don’t see connections that we can—say, that a group of Thai artists in the late ’60s arrived, for some reason, at aesthetic forms similar to those of a theater group in Russia. Such idiosyncratic connections are different from those you make traveling just through curatorial circles, I think.

JA: So you want to make these kinds of connections visible?

RB: No, not necessarily. It’s important that the connections are there, though.

RN: We’re not aiming at an all-encompassing didacticism or a paranoid image of a world where everything is totally connected.

JA: You seem to be trying to replace the normal “trade routes” of curators, of the market, and even of biennials with a different type of world map—one with a strong contextualization through artistic movements, encounters, ruptures.

RB: We really try to emphasize trade routes other than the established ones, because people in different localities around the world are not necessarily looking to New York, London, or Johannesburg, so much as to local traditions.

JA: And does this notion of idiosyncratic connections also relate to your idea of the “migration of form,” which seems to have to do with encounters of different traditions, and in particular the way these encounters occur across time? The oldest piece you’ve selected for Documenta goes back to the fourteenth century.

RB: It’s an anonymous Persian drawing that shows how draftsmen in that place and at that time were assimilating or appropriating Chinese forms. So you have a Persian drawing with Chinese elements—but there’s absolutely no dialogue between those forms. The artists didn’t try to arrive at a synthesis, so there’s a kind of radicality there. The work has the character of what we later learned to call montage.

JA: And what are you going to show with that?

RB: It’s going in a section where we’ll show works with a shared material sensibility—fragile pieces that allow you to experience materiality as something related to death.

RN: One of the things you will see in the exhibition is that there’s not just a single principle of connection. Sometimes it’s a quite formal connection, sometimes it’s in subject matter or an attribute—like what Roger called fragility—or else a certain relationship to history. Of course, that means it might be difficult for audiences to grasp the various connections.

RB: But what you can do is involve people in thinking about and enjoying complexity.

JA: So by “migration of form” you mean that there are means of transport between works—a color, historical period, or perhaps the fact that two artists met?

RB: More often than not, though, it’s about formal correspondence. It’s perhaps also correct, in some sense, to say I’m talking about the classical dichotomy between form and substance, and classical formal properties: surface appearance; color; temperature; persistence versus fragility. But I think we’ve moved beyond that distinction, because in this original definition, from antiquity, form is conceived as something stable or fixed. Even if it’s seen as something with an evolution, it’s not seen as something with an internal dynamic. Whereas it might be possible to look at artworks from a Deleuzian perspective, viewing them as things that communicate their internal process to the viewer—the way they’re made or the way they want to be experienced.

JA: Maybe we should talk about these kinds of correspondences in terms of a single gallery’s installation. For example, there’s a room in Documenta Halle where I understand you’ll have a number of recent works by Cosima von Bonin: the “stuffed animal” sculptures; the “tower” sculptures, which are like very austere white rectilinear observation platforms; the fabric “Rorschach” paintings. And then there’s Peter Friedl’s new work Zoo Story [2007], which turns out to be a sad story. And what else?

RB: We have this blue wall—which makes for a strong visual impact even while suggesting infinity—on which we are displaying an Iranian garden carpet. It’s like a window in the wall, creating a connection to both the outside world and to the origin of abstraction. In this context, the Cosima von Bonin works resemble an ironic grammar of historical form—it’s not as deadly serious as Sol LeWitt, but some elements do have the character of LeWitt’s sculpture—wherein she covers her modernist ambition with these kinds of playful, often regressive forms. With those big stuffed dogs, for example. The Friedl piece is an actual stuffed giraffe that the artist found in a zoo in the West Bank. The animal had died during an Israeli attack and the zookeeper had embalmed it. I mean, the giraffe is an attempt to make a connection.

JA: How would you describe that connection?

RB: Between this animal and that animal. It’s a radical challenge to our thinking about the human being and the rest of the living world, in terms of both power relations and symbolic value. But it’s also an effort to take seriously the attempt of Pop artists to use pop culture politically. This is, as you know, a big issue in Germany among such figures as Diedrich Diederichsen and the circle around Texte zur Kunst, which comes out of an unproved argument that art can effectively be politicized. And what’s interesting about von Bonin is that she is a strong member of this group, but her work is also more fragile than, say, Kippenberger’s. Her work is much more playful.

JA: What else will be in this room?

RN: Abdoulaye Konaté, who’s from Mali, has a series called “Gris Gris pour Israel et Palestine.”

RB: They’re basically textile paintings using the symbols of the Israeli and Palestinian flags—actually, for the latter, not the official flag of the nation but rather the keffiyeh, the scarf, the symbol of Palestinian resistance against Israel. He brings these together and tries to project a kind of material geography, where you maybe learn to see two symbols together. The fact that this artist is from Mali underscores how important this conflict is in the entire Muslim world.

RN: And, of course, thirty years ago the Palestinian scarf was worn extensively by German left-wing youth, so they are well known in an everyday kind of way. So you have this popular everyday-life connection.

JA: And how might this reflect back on the Iranian carpet you mentioned?

RB: The relationships are quite strong visually and ask us to overcome certain notions of abstraction—to consider abstraction in relation to Pop references. Because Pop is always, or so it seems, a simplification.

JA: So you’re dealing with geopolitics while making an argument about Pop and abstraction?

RB: And an argument about the distinction between applied and autonomous art. The carpet is applied art. It’s normally not thought of as art—and neither is taxidermy.

JA: Did your interest in these kinds of dialogues influence your choice of sites or your thinking about the architecture of the venues? Catherine David used a renovated train station, the Kulturbahnhof, for Documenta 10, and Okwui Enwezor used the Binding Brewery for Documenta 11. But you seem to have avoided sites with this kind of industrial history. In addition to the traditional venues of the Fridericianum and Documenta Halle, you’ll be showing artworks at the Neue Galerie and the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, which hasn’t been a Documenta venue before. So you could say these sites reflect the history of different art collections and their publics—the universal museum for science and art, the hall for expo-like events, the gallery for pure aesthetic enjoyment, and the royal Kunstkammer. And then there’s the “Crystal Palace,” the pavilion you’re having built, which is basically a giant plastic greenhouse. . . . Could you talk about your strategies for these exhibition spaces?

RB: Kassel is really too small for an exhibition like Documenta, so with every new edition you face the problem of space. We thought it was important to have an architecture that would provide a sphere for contemplation—we call them the “Circles of Enlightenment”—for our concept of an enlightened pedagogy and also space for a kind of seminal situation, where the architecture is not closed off from the actual viewing experiences but is integrated. There’s an important symmetry between the spaces and the artworks.

RN: What I like is that the buildings we’re using function differently because, as you say, they come from periods when ideas about art exhibitions were very different. We actually had this idea that the Fridericianum would be our white cube, because it’s a building of the Enlightenment; the Neue Galerie would be our black box, where we could put all our videos and projections; and the Schloss would be our jewelry case, with precious pieces. But we also like having a building that signals the contemporary, which is what the pavilion does—though, ironically, a lot of what will be shown there is not new. We conceived of the pavilion as a basic skin for the artworks. We have light and climate control, a roof and walls, but other than that we have not planned a display. Rather, we place the art first, and then think of ways to hold it up. And safeguard it. Sadly, we’ve had to install more walls than expected, but the display still does away with the white cube.

RB: In terms of the exhibition’s speculation about modernity, the pavilion is a proposition about public space—and, more specifically, its failure. It puts forward the possibility of an exhibition that could be in an emphatic sense a public space, in the sense of something like a collective making of meaning. To enable this process to happen—well, this will be a big question mark. The same is true of our leitmotifs, because you don’t know if people are ready to engage. We can make a proposition, but they have to make a decision to embrace it.

RN: But these ideas were worked out only after we had hashed out our own arguments and placed the artworks in the pavilion several times, using models. Only then did we even start thinking about the pavilion in relation to the idea that public space has fractured or . . .

RB: To the idea of the shattered white cube.

RN: And just this morning we moved some of the works around yet again. This drives our technicians crazy, but we don’t like compromises, so they have to adapt.

RB: They like it very much.

RN: Well, no, they don’t like it. But though the pavilion might be a shattered white cube, it’s also a potential new public space, and this morning, while working with the artist Monika Baer on questions of display, we came up with new ideas. This represents something important to realize about our curatorial concepts: There are the questions and the leitmotifs and the theory, but then there is the substance of the works themselves. Rather than illustrating a premeditated point, any real engagement with the artists and their works will change what one does or how one sees the world.

RB: Theory means looking.

JA: Etymologically, you mean.

RN: Right. So working with the artists, the artworks, and the display in this way is essential. You know, sometimes you have enlightening thoughts just through doing. Even by moving furniture.

Documenta 12 runs from June 16–Sept. 23.

Jennifer Allen is a critic based in Berlin.