Documenta is widely regarded as the most important international exhibition of contemporary art, and its twelfth edition opens in Kassel this June. The project was initiated in 1955 by the artist and educator Arnold Bode (1900-77), who, in the period following the Nazi dictatorship, sought to create an exhibition that would reconcile German public life with international modernity, and confront it with its own failed Enlightenment. Allied bombing had decimated the urban fabric of Kassel, and Bode’s first edition of Documenta, held in conjunction with the Federal Horticultural Show (Bundesgartenschau), was installed in the war-damaged Fredericianum, a neoclassical 18th-century museum. Subsequent editions have been housed there, in the 19th-century Neue Galerie and in the Documenta Halle (built in 1992), with works in other venues and site-specific locations around the city.
Since 1955, Documenta has taken place approximately every five years with a continually changing directorship. In contrast to the clearly articulated transnational, interdisciplinary and transgenerational concerns of its 2002 edition, directed by the Nigerian critic and curator Okwui Enwezor, Documenta 12 “knows no programmatic statement,” in the words of its artistic director, the German exhibition organiser Roger Buergel. In the run-up to the opening of Documenta 12, Buergel has chosen instead to focus attention on the creation of ‘new spaces for art’: the reconfiguring of the Fredericianum and the Neue Galerie, and the introduction of new venues, including the freshly commissioned 9,500-square-metre Aue Pavilion, a temporary structure designed by French architects Lacaton and Vassal. Speculation about the list of artists—which in the recent tradition of the even will not be released until days before the opening—has been diverted toward the creation of a magazine project, in which an international networks of 90 publications devoted to art, culture and theory they have been invited to respond to three leitmotifs, articulated as questions, evoking the writings of TJ Clark, Giorgio Agamben, Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Vladimir Lenin: Is modernity our antiquity? Life: What is bare life? [i.e., what is life when it is stripped, like a prisoner in Guantánamo, to a state of “mere being”?] Education: What is to be done?
This conversation with Buergel and Documenta 12’s curator, the art historian Ruth Noack, took place in Kassel in April 2007, during the exhibition’s installation.
Clare Carolin: In your statements about the architecture and display methods adopted for Documenta 12, you have made a series of clear references to Bode’s first Documenta of 1955. Why is this?
Roger Buergel: Since the reconstruction of the buildings that went hand in hand with the first Documenta, there has been a great deal of damage, particularly to the Fredericianum, so we are correcting these mistakes. But the first Documenta is just one reference among several. If you compare photographs of it to the way the buildings look now, there are few obvious similarities. A colour scheme for example would have been an anathema for Bode because he was a modernist, and in all three spaces we have disbanded with the white cube. In the Fredericianum we have maximised hanging space by taking out false walls that were 30 or 40 years old and we’ve created a new wall system derived from experiments with dynamic space that were developed by Lina Bo Bardi in Brazil in the fifties. This is not Bode and it has nothing to do with nostalgia, but nevertheless, there is a certain quality in the way we have conceived the space and installed the art, a bareness or crudeness that characterized the first Documenta, that we have repicated in our installation. It’s pretty rough, and it emphasizes an element of disintegration, or an undefined relationship between subject and object. This architectural quality is rarely exploited and might be useful in defamiliarizing contemporary art, especially in those instances where it has become mainstream.
Ruth Noack: we are very interested in the relationships of perception; what happens to people when they are looking at art, and what happens to art when it is being looked at. We want to tie this psychoanalytic aspect to aesthetic experience on the one hand, and political action on the other.
Carolin: Do you see parallels between the fifties and now?
Buergel: Only in a relative, speculative sense. The basic question is: Was the first Documenta more than just a show? Did it succeed in creating a public space that was sustained through the selection of artworks and the way they were displayed? Clearly, in 1955, showing the degenerate artists, and relating it to this existential image of the lonely male artist—Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, whose work was shown in the lobby of Documenta 1 as a kind of grammatical statement—was a political move. In the case of Documenta 12, we must ask if an exhibition can succeed in overcoming a sense of fragmentation in a given society without creating a false sense of community, as in the case of the identitarian shows like Made in Germany or La Force de l’Art, which come up in reference to our project this year. Is an exhibition capable of extending the notion of a public, and of viewership, by including a potentially global audience through particular ways of displaying things in relation to one another?
Carolin: By ‘global’ do you mean an international, or a socially comprehensive audience?
Buergel: I mean a trans-national audience. In Europe, and Germany in particular, there are groups of second-generation migrants who are a part of mainstream culture, but who have a very strong sense of identity and heritage, and a totally different set of cultural references. The kindo f homogeneity that existed under the welfare state in Europe in the fifties and sixties is now a thing of the past. That has not been taken into account by art institutions, and addressing this new audience interests me. It is one of the reasons why we are working with an extended global network of editorial boards in the magazine project, and why the local council here in Kassel is not simply represented on our board, but participating in the making of the exhibition.
Carolin: The work the magazines have produced in response to the leitmotifs will be displayed in the Documenta Halle, but how will the leitmotifs be reflected in the exhibition itself?
Noack: To do an exhibition like Documenta means that you have a lot of power to redefine the terms, so it’s important to take a dialectical approach, because the work of finding categories in which to talk about the exhibition, as well as its effects and the situation in the world, must be done collectively. I perceive Roger’s strategy as a process of constantly refining, and redefining, in order to open up a space in which the exhibition can happen. We always refer to the leitmotifs as our enabling fantasies, in that they exists before the exhibition to provide a ground on which to address those who are involved (the artists), and those who are interested (the media). But this doesn’t mean the leitmotifs will completely define the exhibition. Its all talk before the exhibition is materially existent, and I think a lot will shift once it opens and we have reactions from the public. We keep saying that we are doing an exhibition in order to discover, rather than illustrate, something; it’s not about representation, it’s about production.
Carolin: You’re suggesting that the public produces meaning as part of the show?
Noack: Exactly. An exhibition is the sum of the works, plus the public. Our educators believe this to the extent that they are actually interested in the knowledge of specific factions of the public; they are actively going in search of these groups and inviting them to participate in the educational process, in guided tours and so on.
Carolin: How will these findings be documented?
Noack: All the educators are monitoring, recording and reflecting, and they are interested in later analysing their findings academically. But I would not fetishize Documentation too much because none of this is fixed, it’s something ephemeral that needs to be enacted by a public; I’m thinking about what the little instances of conversation in the exhibition spaces might be, and what people will carry away with them. I don’t think of this as an individualised process because Documenta has always profited from a very specific public, and although experts constitute just a tiny percentage of it, this predominantly lay audience does not just passively consume, it’s active in wanting to be informed and educated, and this is a treasure.
The experts and the mainstream media trashed the last Documenta but the lay audience really appreciated being able to see work from all over the planet, together in one spot. They weren’t concerned which galleries represented the artists, or whether the work was displayed in the same way as European art. They were simply appreciative of the fact that the show was post-colonialist and they turned the mood of Documenta 11 around in a way that was quite beautiful. Aside from the question of whether it was a well-curated show or not, it was made productive by the public. After that, certain things just weren’t possible any more. Curators couldn’t make a so-called international show that only included work from Paris, London and New York, without everyone being aware that they were excluding certain aspects. This may be a banal basis for evaluation, but the mood of the public really produced a change.
Carolin: The architects have been quoted as saying that the most important thing about the Aue Pavilion is that it will disappear after the exhibition and you’ve stated elsewhere that they architecture of any given period is an articulation of its zeitgeist. Could you relate the significance of the Aue Pavilion’s ephemerality to the ideologies embodied in the other buildings?
Buergel: All the buildings are invested with a distinct notion of what a public means, and in a more general sense, of what aesthetic education means. The Fredericianum was built upon a very bizarre dialectic of the 18th century Enlightenment because its construction was financed by the sale of the sons of the local peasants as mercenaries, or better slaves, to the United States during the War of Independence. The Neue Galerie was founded in 1871, the year in which the German Reich was founded and Germans helped the French Government to crush the Paris Commune. You can easily see the controlling implication this building has for an audience. The structure of the space is schizophrenic, with these intimate salons where it’s impossible to look at the works of art in groups; the public is conceived as elite individuals, bourgeois connoisseurs. Of course if you understand a building like this you can use it; for example to stage the return of the repressed. In fact, this is where we will be showing work that deals with the colonial legacies of the 19th century. Finally, you have the Documenta Halle dating from the 1990s, which is designed for discourse; an architectural frame for emptiness with something of the same sense of schizophrenia found in the Neue Galerie.
Noack: The Documenta Halle operates with an idea of a public that is anthropometric, a given, because here the possibility of meeting and having a discussion is made to appear obvious and normal. The kinds of exclusions that are evident in the design of the Neue Galerie seem not to be present, but in fact they are just not dealt with. These exclusions still occur in society, and many institutions, for example the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, operate with this ideal of democracy and inclusion represented by the architecture and the policies around them, which actually cover up the fact that not everyone is participating, or even feels able to enter a space like this. One of the initial ideas we had with the Aue Pavilion was to create as many ways as possible of looking into the building from the outside, so that people who might other wise feel intimidated would be able to look in, and hopefully feel enticed to enter.
Carolin: Is this consistent with the display strategy used in the building’s interior?
Buergel: In essence there are three approaches there. First, the more Heideggerian mode in which the space is defined by the artwork itself; there are no walls unless they are specifically required by the artworks, in these cases they get a basic support which shows them in their singularity, but also allows strong correspondences to be made between things that don’t share any common ground, except that of the exhibition. From this zone you pass into an area with a deconstructed grid-like structure, that looks like an art fair gone mad. The space has been opened to suggest a kind of liberty, and wandering around it you never know what will come next—not in terms of art, but simply in terms of the space—so you get this multifaceted view, because from most points you can see more than one work, or axis. In the final section you have an exploded white cube.
Noack: None of this arose from a theoretical conception into which we fitted the art; we began with the works that fed off each other well, and from there we came up with these spatial models.
Carolin: How does this relate to the concept you have termed ‘the migration of form’?
Buergel: The three display modes are intended to emphasise that installation is not an innocent business. By situating the art within them, we are trying to overcome the notion of display as a common denominator of political identity, because there are strong preconceived ideas about what African art looks like and how it should be displayed, or Indian art, or art from New York. By integrating spatial display modes and focusing on the migration of form, our intention is to simultaneously show aesthetic trade routes: how forms are actually connected, or how their trajectories intersect at certain points. For example how something like Suprematism is exported by artists in exile, or how whole systems of thought, such as psychoanalysis, are exported to Latin America where they meet with an African heritage brought over by the slave trade, and then create new hybrids that appear totally modernist, although its not an orthodox, Moscow style of Modernism.
Noack: It’s important to point out that form does not simply migrate from European centres towards places that we as Europeans might perceive as marginal. Historically, some of the strongest routes along which form has migrated have been ancient trade routes, such as the Silk Road. In the Middle Ages, the centres associated with it, especially Persia, had a profound influence on European culture, even though subsequently their economies were completely destroyed. We also want to counter the misconception that socially engaged political art originated in European metropolitan centres. In reality, groups like Tucuman Art in Argentina invented a form of happening—combining social work with art—ten or twenty years before this became current in Europe. When one looks at these developments globally, the view one has of the art from one’s own country changes radically. Five years ago, when it was about inclusion, this would have been impossible, because it’s also about looking at oneself in a different way, but we now know it’s a complete illusion that we are still in the centre of anything.
Carolin: Is this why you are abandoning the white cube?
Noack: Yes. The white cube is a concept that completely alienates art that is not made for it. If you want to get a situation where you can adequately compare formal criteria, you have to find a display basis for that. This kind of work is only just beginning, it’s not something that two curators can do alone; it must be done by the whole art community. It’s one of the reasons why we have introduced light and color into our installation, and this is producing an interesting situation, where some artists can immediately see the point, and others have real difficulties adjusting to the fact that their work that their work is not just next to another work, but is reinterpreted through wall color in a way that they are fundamentally uncomfortable with.
Buergel: There is still this big myth of the shoebox. Artists think that a white space exclusively for their own work is free from ideology.
Carolin: Free from ideology, or visual pollution?
Buergel: The categories are wrong. If you can afford it, you can live in a gated community where you solve security problems, but it will always be obvious that these have simply been relegated elsewhere. I think that this also holds true for the white cube, and needs solving. It would be cynical, or careless curating, to simply expose work that you like, or identify with, to some arbitrary communication. The point is, that by creating moments of connectedness, or possible connections, you arrive at a different level, where not only does the singular artwork show itself in more depth, but where you also create an atmosphere or a situation in which the exhibition involves the viewer in its compositional unfolding, and sustains them as they move through it, because they are engaged ad activated by identifying common agendas.
Carolin: So the spatial composition of the exhibition has emerged from the artworks themselves, does this also hold true for the leitmotifs?
Buergel: The idea was never to ask artists to illustrate the leitmotifs, but rather to correspond with them; and these categories, or questions, were not conceived in a neutral space, but emerged directly from looking at art. As a conceptual framework, they are both incredibly loose, and very precise, especially in their interconnectedness; modernity and education for example, or education and bare life. Take the word of Jo Spence; it’s obvious to think about it in terms of both education and bare life, and to connect the two. At the same time you can also relate it to self-education and specific artistic practices associated with that, and then you can really open it up. I think of the leitmotifs as ampli-signifiers; they create a horizon of possibility, but are simultaneously vague enough not to imprison anyone. We’re also finding things that have nothing to do with the leitmotifs are emerging, and this is significant because, in a way, an exhibition must perform its own undoing, if not it would be totally limited.
Carolin: So the tension that comes into play when dealing individual artists is less pronounced in reconciling their work with the theoretical foundations of the exhibition, and more to do with their spatial articulation?
Buergel: It’s far more difficult to deal with artists in terms of space because of this shoebox model that is so closely tied to the biennial system where where artists are invited to produce in a very short space of time and, as a result, on often ends up with a poorly produced version of a compromised idea. The reason artists opt for the shoebox—and at this point I agree with you—is because it is the only way to control what is done, given that most exhibitions, and biennials in particular, are produced very carelessly; too quickly and with insufficient staff and resources. Documenta has the advantage of taking place only once every five years, which is just as well, because gaining artists’ confidence, convincing them to work in a different mode, and getting them to think about what it means to take part in a group exhibition, takes time and effort.
Carolin: It’s a tradition of Documenta that the participating artists’ names are not released until the opening, or shortly before it.
Buergel: The artists are free to do what they like with their participation; they can hold a press conference at Tate Modern every morning if they want to, but for me the focus on the list of artists is totally superficial because the exhibition is about the works. We often actually curate against the public’s perception of a particular artist by showing something that is totally relevant to their production, but never identified with it. That is also the reason why we are waved goodbye to the one artist, oen work principle; so we have under 100 artists, but over 400 works.
Carolin: For Documenta 12 you have decided for the first time to include the Wilhemsohe Castle and Park as venues. I have visited Kassel on the occasion of previous Documentas, but until now was unaware that these places even existed. The castle is located on the same axis as the Aue Park were the Aue Pavilion is situated, and this creates a clear axis of orientation through the city, and the exhibition, as well as a kind of mental map.
Buergel: There were two reasons for using the Wilhemsohe; one was pragmatic, because we are going to show a lot of historical works which have to go there for conservation reasons; second, because it made more sense to me to ignore the city and concentrate instead on creating a certain atmosphere where you can take things in. Kassel is this grey something, and then you have these interfaces, with the Aue and the Wilhelmsohe Castle at opposite ends. It was obvious to me that we should bracket the exhibition by working with those two centres, rather than than engage with this discourse about urbanism.
Carolin: The discourse around urbanism was important in informing previous recent Documentas, Catherine David’s in particular. Why turna way from it in the midst of a global building boom?
Buergel: Because I’m fed up with it; it generates nothing that interests me. I can’t stand architecture any longer because the difference between investors’ architecture and advanced architecture has totally collapsed; Rem Koolhaas’ show at MoMA last year being a good example. A concentration on mental possibilities is needed because it’s obvious that the structuring of urban space starts with architecture, but it no longer makes sense for this to take precedence over other categories. If an artist wants to focus on urban phenomena they are free to do so and I would never interfere with this kind of work. But I would emphasise a totally different model of an exhibition, like the one that we are doing here, where all those questions about relationships and public experience are taken up, by they are not exclusively limited to making a close reference to any existing phenomena.
Carolin: What do you want the legacy of Documenta 12 to be?
Buergel: If it manages to shake people up, and to convey a sense of art as more than just an industry, then I would be perfectly happy. But if the exhibition really works, it will be taken away from us. People will make it theirs and we won’t be able to control it any longer.
Clare Carolin is a freelance writer and curator based in London.