Wandering Through Documenta

Wandering Through Documenta

Do big, world-scale art exhibitions have any use today?


Making my way around steamy Athens this past June, I began to wonder: Does it really make sense for me to review this year’s Documenta? Sure, it’s arguably the world’s most important recurrent art exhibition, which means, yes, of course it’s worth seeing and writing about. But then I began to wonder whether, these days, the world’s most important recurrent art exhibition really is such a meaningful thing after all.

Documenta began in 1955 in Kassel, near what was then the eastern edge of West Germany. The historically important town—home to many of the Hessian mercenaries employed by George III against the insurgent Americans, and whose housewives supplied the Brothers Grimm with their Kinder- und Hausmärchen—had been flattened by Allied bombing and rebuilt practically from scratch. Modest beginnings: Documenta was originally no more than an afterthought to an itinerant biennial horticulture show that happened to be taking place in Kassel that year; but thanks to the seriousness and ambition of its founder, the artist and art historian Arnold Bode, it became significant in helping Germany come to terms with the art of the prewar era—updating it on the European modernism the Nazis had condemned as degenerate. But as the show returned at irregular four- or five-year intervals, its orientation became more contemporary. Since 1972, it has settled into a regular five-year timetable.

Documenta’s great years must have been the 1970s and ’80s. A turning point was the fifth edition, in 1972, when its director was the now-legendary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, who corralled everything from crowd-pleasing photorealism to abstruse conceptual works with great success. Documenta was no longer playing catch-up; it was the flagship of the moment. Additionally, thanks to the booming—and aesthetically adventurous—German art market made possible by the postwar Wirtschaftswunder (economic recovery) and its synchronicity with a period of intense artistic ebullience internationally, Documenta became, above all, the occasion on which innovative new art could burst into public view on a European scale.

By the time I saw my first Documenta—number 10, in 1997, under the direction of Catherine David—the show’s function was changing. David’s heavily didactic approach seemed to downgrade the idea of aesthetic experience; as if taking the exhibition name literally, she put the accent on a documentary or anthropological treatment.

Five years later, I missed Documenta 11, but by all accounts that year’s director, Okwui Enwezor—the first (and so far only) non-European in charge of the show—managed to make some kind of magic out of a documentarian impulse not unlike David’s. He did this, in large part, by opening the show up, to a greater extent than ever before, to art from far beyond Documenta’s old European/North American axis. Enwezor’s exhibition was, as the art historians Charles Green and Anthony Gardner have written, “a fundamental and ambitious redefinition of the structure and meaning of art institutions according to a decolonized and, by now, globalized model of art.” He did this not only through the exhibition itself, but through five preparatory forums, or “Platforms,” around the world—in Berlin, Vienna, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos—dispersing the project in time as well as space and raising the stakes for big international exhibitions, which now had to be impossibly world-encompassing.

The problem is, no one has really been able to raise the stakes again since then—at least not at Documenta. The director of this year’s edition, Adam Szymczyk, the Polish curator who was previously director of the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland, took the next logical step after Enwezor’s multiple “platforms” (a model followed, without the name, by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev for her Documenta 13 five years ago) and engineered a sort of mitosis, or cellular division, of the show, splitting it into two separate and self-contained parts, each featuring most of the same artists as the other—one in Athens (April 8–July 16) and one in Kassel (June 10–September 17)—with the overall title “Learning From Athens.”

Given the recent bitter relations between Germany and Greece, this decision was bound to be controversial in both countries, which was presumably the point. The local head of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party lamented “letting Athens take our Documenta away from us.”

In Athens, complaints were even louder. Already in 2015, Greece’s ex-finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was voicing concern that the coming exhibition would amount to something “like crisis tourism. It’s a gimmick by which to exploit the tragedy in Greece in order to massage the consciences of some people from Documenta.” When the show opened, Varoufakis denounced it even more vehemently, claiming that, on a material level, “Documenta did bring some resources from Germany but, overall, it has been an extractive process. Documenta took a great deal more from Athens—from both its private and public sector—than it gave. Adding the veneer of a left-wing narrative against neoliberalism to a purely extractive neocolonial project that’s framed as a gift to Greece is adding insult to injury.”

Just as in the debt crisis, Germans and Greeks both saw themselves as being fleeced by the other. As for any critical edge to the exhibition’s content, according to Varoufakis, it was completely missing. “Coming to Athens to talk about ‘neoliberal powers that wish to destroy Europe’ is to miss the point spectacularly,” he said. “When Documenta comes here and talks about neoliberalism with no mention of Deutsche Bank, Société Générale, the awful Troika process, the Eurogroup, etc., it is choosing to be irrelevant.”

I’ll take Varoufakis’s account of the material effects of Documenta on the Athens art scene and its already weak support system at face value. But Szymczyk does launch a j’accuse in his essay for the Documenta “Reader,” decrying “international financial institutions in unison with European Union leaders” for “the economic violence enacted, as it seems, almost experimentally upon the population of Greece”. And when Varoufakis suggests that an art exhibition should be doing the job of an economic or political journalist or a scholar like himself—conveying a specific critique of how Europe’s financial institutions crushed his country and tamed the government of which he’d once been a part—I scratch my head. Is that really what art is for? Although such category errors have become common, they’re no less regrettable.

But some of Varoufakis’s other charges, pitched at a more nuanced level, need to be taken seriously. When Szymczyk writes, “In Athens, the actual hardship of daily life is mixed with the humiliating stigma of ‘crisis’ imprinted on the communal body in a well-known, pseudo-compassionate, moralizing and in its essence neocolonial and neoliberal formula,” he lays himself open to question. Somehow “neocolonial” and “neoliberal” are always supposed to describe the other guy, but someone’s got to be left holding the bag, and good intentions aren’t enough—politically or artistically. In fact, this Documenta was all too representative of the kind of art one often finds in big international exhibitions these days: “pseudo-compassionate” and “moralizing.” Some of the works were clearly meant to lampoon Europe’s guilty conscience, but the irony easily backfires. In Kassel, for instance, I declined to sample Sufferhead Original (Kassel Edition), “a Craft Beer inspired by the experience of African immigrants living in Europe”—the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh’s project for the exhibition. I didn’t have to sip the brew for it to leave me with a bad taste, even aside from the fact that it was selling for eight euros a bottle where other beers cost three. I didn’t feel like paying to drink away a guilt trip. Nor did Hans Haacke’s banner Wir (alle) sind das VolkWe (all) are the people (2003/2017), with its reassuringly banal legend, succeed in settling my doubts.

Still, I don’t claim the ability to make any clear and reliable distinction between a genuine compassion and one that’s merely “pseudo.” Nor do I know how to measure the relation between the authenticity of an artist’s feelings about an issue and those of any given member of the public. Perhaps a pseudo-compassion on the part of an artist will arouse a true compassion on the part of a viewer—or vice versa. Bouchra Khalili describes her video The Tempest Society (2017), which shows an earnest, passionate, at times platitudinous discussion about social issues relevant to Athens (that is, just about any issue imaginable) as “not a documentary or a fiction,” though it is patently staged, “but a hypothesis.” But if the hypothesis is that we should all, as she says, “call together for equality, civic belonging, and solidarity,” then I have to admit that I don’t feel very enlightened, merely assuaged. And the artist’s gift for conjuring visual authority with minimal means—in this case, basically a series of talking heads—has been wasted.

My real problem with Documenta 14 isn’t its possible relation to neocolonialism, which may be significant but hard to assess. What bugged me was that every curatorial “move” seemed so damned familiar. The new style of global exhibition-making that began tentatively with David’s Documenta, in 1997, and asserted itself more forcefully with Enwezor’s, in 2002, has by now been repeated in innumerable biennials and triennials worldwide. It has hardened into a formula. The recipe goes something like this: Put the accent on the documentary side of art without entirely neglecting its imaginative or formal core (what Khalili refers to as “fiction”), while framing the curatorial project in terms of what the artist Liam Gillick—a veteran of Documenta X and many biennials—has described as “an ethical demand that exceeds what is being produced by artists and posits new models in advance of art being made today.” It is this perception that art is inadequate on its own that has given rise to the by-now-standard Documenta/biennial tactics of mixing art with folklore and anthropological research; of exhibiting musical and choreographic scores, architectural plans, literary manuscripts, and all sorts of archives and collectibles as if they were drawings, paintings, or sculptures. Sometimes the artist is called on as an intermediary: for instance in Kassel, where Igo Diarra and La Medina presented a compendium of memorabilia of the great Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Touré. But at other times this collecting and archiving can be done directly by the curators, as in another part of the Kassel edition, where various materials relating to the Brothers Grimm, the Nazi-era art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, and other aspects of local and national history were displayed without much explanation. These are all tactics for evoking an idea of art beyond what today’s artists can express through their works.

One upshot of this “ethical demand” is that the actual installation of the art—its placement, juxtaposition, and lighting—becomes a perfunctory affair, since the objects function more as clues to a curatorial intention than as polyvalent, self-justifying creations. This indifferent presentation was often a problem here. One result was that many of the best works were sidelined. For instance, Gauri Gill’s exquisite photographs from rural Rajasthan, on display at the Epigraphic Museum in Athens, were hung high above shelves of antique stone fragments—an atmospheric but arbitrary juxtaposition that made it nearly impossible to appreciate the photographs’ fine details. Apostolos Georgiou’s paintings at the Megaron concert hall couldn’t be hung on its walls at all but had to be leaned against them, and under lighting conditions that could not have been less sympathetic—a regrettable way of presenting one of Greece’s outstanding living painters in his hometown.

This all sounds very sour, I suppose. I could have written a very different review, spending paragraph upon paragraph describing all the wonderful pieces I discovered by artists previously unknown to me, or of whom I’d known little: the wonderfully inventive paintings of the Senegalese artist El Hadji Sy, for instance, or the more sober ones by the Albanian Edi Hila; the collages (which, if I understand correctly, are also sound scores) of Katalin Ladik, from Serbia; the woven-vine masks by the Cambodian Khvay Samnang (and the three-channel video he made of a dancer performing with them). I could have mentioned my gratitude for the fact that, in a handful of days in Athens and Kassel, I saw more work by contemporary Sami artists than I’d seen in my whole life until then. I could have written a whole essay just on the remarkable 1963 film by Forough Farrokhzad (1935–1967), The House Is Black, a poetic documentary about an Iranian leper colony. And as for the many artists in the show whose work I’ve long admired, I would have started by pointing out that the grandest, most forthright statement in the entire Documenta was embodied in the serried colors of Stanley Whitney’s abstract paintings. And yet I couldn’t quite follow my inclination to enjoy Documenta’s high points and let the rest pass, because what stays with me is a show that’s less than the sum of its parts.

Szymczyk’s Documenta has been constructed according to the same idea that motivated, for example, Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director of the 2013 Venice Biennale: to create an exhibition, one with numerous sites for viewing the art, that “blurs the line between professional artists and amateurs, insiders and outsiders, reuniting artworks with other forms of figurative expression—both to release art from the prison of its supposed autonomy, and to remind us of its capacity to express a vision of the world.”

The presupposition is that art must efface the distinction between itself and everything else in order to “express a vision of the world.” The more I see of these big exhibitions, however, the more I begin to suspect that the opposite could be true: that it’s by way of the differences that art posits, the distance it takes from everyday life—artificial though the differences and distance may be—that art unfolds its visions. There’s been a genuine value to the last two decades’ curatorial efforts to blur the lines between art and all the activities that are adjacent to it, but it’s a measure of the success of those efforts that such strategies now offer diminishing returns. It’s time to try something different: to redraw the lines, to redefine the boundaries, to attempt a new and speculative demarcation between art and other forms of expression. I can’t help thinking of Mario Merz’s 1968 Giap’s Igloo, with its neon inscription taken from the Vietcong General Võ Nguyên Giáp: “If the enemy masses his forces he loses ground, if he scatters he loses strength.” The art of the great international exhibitions has lost more strength than the ground it’s gained is worth; now it needs to concentrate.

Wandering through Athens, looking for the various sites—and despite finding interesting works throughout—I could only wonder: Do these big exhibitions have any further use today? Having brought the (self-appointed) art world face-to-face with its own smallness with respect to the vast and seemingly unmappable range and quantity of the world’s art and, if I may put it this way, near-art—whether made today or newly resurrected from the oblivion to which Eurocentric habits of mind had seemingly consigned it—might it not be that Documenta and similar shows have fulfilled their ultimate purpose? If so, then shouldn’t these world-scale exhibitions be quietly allowed to disappear?

No wonder the best thing at the Kassel Documenta wasn’t really part of Documenta at all. Despite Varoufakis’s jeremiad, whatever the German juggernaut took from Athens, it bore at least one significant gift: completion of the renovation of the former brewery that for years had been slated to house the until-now-homeless EMST, the National Museum of Modern Art of Athens. After serving as one of the main Documenta sites, it will reopen in the fall with the museum’s own collection, already decades in the making. But that’s not all: As part of the deal, Documenta gave up what is usually its primary venue, the Fridericianum, which is one of Europe’s oldest public museums, for an exhibition of works from the EMST collection—primarily works by Greek artists, but also by many artists from elsewhere. Documenta’s great gift to Greece—and to Germany—was showing this work, most of it barely known abroad, to an international public for the first time.

The Greek works of the 1970s, in particular, many of which represent a more politically and socially pointed variant on an idiom of found-object assemblage similar in sensibility to Italian Arte Povera, share an aesthetic as well as a range of references common to much of the more recent work seen throughout the Documenta proper—though expressed in a far more rigorous and authentic manner. In this context, I’ll cite a couple of standout works, previously unknown to me—Vlassis Caniaris’s installation Hopscotch (1974), and Eight Suitcases With Rubbish From the Beach (1972) by Alexis Akrithakis—while also mentioning that a more recent, two-channel video installation in the collection by the Turkish artist Köken Ergun, I, Soldier (2005), outshone anything else in that medium on view in Kassel or Athens.

The tragedy is that this gift to Greece—and, more important, this gift from Greece to the world—wasn’t properly received. Even Artforum correspondent Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, normally a most perspicacious critic, got it absolutely backward, declaring the presentation of the EMST collection “a disaster” and imagining that the inclusion in it of non-Greek artists was merely intended “to legitimize it”—as if, say, the Tate Modern or New York’s MoMA show French or German art in order to legitimize their British or American holdings. Unfortunately, Wilson-Goldie’s incomprehension was echoed in the informal responses of other art-world insiders I spoke to, though far from unanimously. What I’d tell Wilson-Goldie and my other skeptical friends is that they’d better look again. And if it’s too late to do so in Kassel, well, all the more reason to visit Athens when EMST reopens and see for themselves what formally powerful art that answers to its times—and therefore to ours—really looks like.

It was the change of place, I think, that allowed me to see Documenta and shows like it as obsolete. Like Marcel Duchamp’s gesture of displaying a snow shovel in his studio, this simple displacement prompted me to see the show differently. But strange thing: Later, when I saw the Kassel part of Documenta—when I saw the crowds of German families thronging the exhibition on a Saturday—I realized that, at least where there’s a nonspecialist public willing to take art seriously, such shows are not soon going to lose their value entirely. Where people are willing to think about what art is or isn’t, can or might be, those who claim to know have a responsibility to make their case. Germany, where every little town seems to have a locally funded Kunstverein or Kunsthalle, is still one of those places. Szymczyk is right: There’s a lot to be learned from Athens. But there’s still something to be learned from Kassel, too.

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