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Looking forward to Documenta 13

My second summer in
one year is ending and this Uruguayan beach town has gone from sleepy to
dormant. I have been waking up early though because of a fruit tree in
the back of the house, a tree overloaded with sweet figs that are
bringing the full spectrum of local birds. Prominent among them are the
small green parrots that seem to be drunk on ripe fruit soon after
sunrise. I notice nuances such as the fact that the only parrot who
“talks” around here is the one caged in a neighbor’s yard. He whistles,
imitates other birds, and has developed a good vocabulary. The free
birds remain uncivilized.

This brings up documenta 13.  I am looking forward
to the next edition of the Big Kahuna of periodic international art
meets, despite—because—the double whammy of being the 13th edition of the show
and of taking place in the year 2012, which we all know marks another
end of the world. The End of the World is just a backdrop for what is
ripening into a great exhibit. First, it is documenta. You may be
uninterested in this type of show or militantly protesting its
complacence, but there is no denying that documenta matters. At least,
it hasn’t failed to challenge me. Second, documenta has been
theoretically grounded since its inauguration in 1955. That first
edition was also utopian while seeking to contravene the Third Reich’s
cultural politics
. Political engagement was already that direct for documenta. (Biennials were and some still are rooted in
Olympics-of-the-Arts models.) Finally, the five-year period between
editions is not gratuitous. The long in-between periods give plenty of
preparation time – and abundant funding – so 13 is already in the works
with great energy. Six months ago, I trekked to a rainy and cold Torino,
Italia, for the first conference leading to documenta 13. Yes, my notes
are from last September but they are still leading news because documenta won’t open until more than two years from now. This is the
summary I wrote on the train going up the Dolomites out of Verona:

The stated impetus of
this two-day conference was to look back at past editions of documenta
for lessons learned. All living Artistic Directors of
documenta were in
attendance and gave presentations on their exhibits. Arnold Bode, who
passed away in 1977, directly or indirectly managed the first four documenta. The first two speakers covered his work. Documenta 5 was
reviewed by his “Work-Group” curator. Presenters were asked to cover two
topics, firstly, to give a contemporary sense of their documenta;
secondly, cover what they would have, in retrospect, done differently
having seen the world (d)evolve.

Each of the two conference days was
capped by a roundtable with the speakers from the day and one or two
past documenta artists. In the words of the newly appointed documenta
director, “documenta
13 is being developed from an archeological perspective, according to
which every cultural project that moves forward must be grounded on a
backwards gaze, in an ecological relationship to the past. How was the
present imagined in the second half of the 20th century and what was
considered urgent at each successive edition of the exhibition?” (From the application
form for the conference.)

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (documenta 13
director) & the seven white men engaged in a discussion at the end
of day one. From the left: Rudi Fuchs (7), Heiner Georgsdorf (spoke
about Arnold Bode), Manfred Schneckenburger (6 + 8), Michelangelo
Pistoletto, Jean-Christophe Ammann (5), Nedko Solakov (artist from documenta 12), and Walter Grasskamp (reviewed first four documenta).

Closing panel at the end of day two: Okwui
Enwezor (11), Liliana Moro (artist from documenta IX), Carolyn
Christov-Bakargiev (13), Jan Hoet (IX), Roger M. Buergel (XII), and
Catherine David (X).

The presentations were expectedly worthwhile.
Videos of the talks and discussions are available on line at the
conference site
. The attention of and,
at times, the surprise of directors listening to their peers was a
strong indication of the revealing nature of the talks. There were the
obvious accolades, but also honest criticism. For instance, Jan Hoet
(documenta IX) speaking to Roger Buergel, the last documenta (XII)
director, “Roger,
you gave us a litany of dogmas that we can find in books and are
impossible to apply to what we consider real art.”

Rather than digging
into my notes on past documenta, I’d like to transcribe my first
impressions of its new director. That’s what many in the audience were
after, no doubt. The museum director to my right who bragged about
attending every documenta since 1968 didn’t come here for documenta
history. He whispered, “documenta 0 was in Dresden.” If first impressions are a measure of
love to come—they are not – I am planning on being around Kassel in 2012
for some of what should be 100 exciting documenta days. Carolyn
was witty, non-defensive and personable. The first
quality is present to an excess among former directors, the other two
are rarer. It is a tough job. Jan Hoet (IX) referred to three years of
youth boxing as excellent preparation for the job. Ms. Carolyn
Christov-Bakargiev seemed to have talked or made eye contact with
everyone in the conference. She should be able to surround herself with
talented curators and motivate them into channeling challenging art into
Kassel. I enjoyed her timely remarks while moderating the conference
out of intellectual frigidity. Witness “My dog has a culture,” “Bad English can be
poetic (refuting
Rudi Fuchs),” “Maybe we should move documenta from Kassel (the attending town’s
“Lord Mayor” sweats),” “History is hysterical.” She spoke fluently
in English (she was Senior Curator at P.S.1 between 1999 and 2001 and,
yes, she was born in New Jersey) and Italian (she is currently the Chief
Curator at the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art where the
conference took place) and intervened in French and German. Carolyn’s
closing to the first conference day was “I don’t know what history is.”

Poetics was beaten to paper pulp. Some
directors even read poetry. Jean-Christophe Ammann swung early on,
“Education and enlightenment don’t have anything to do with poetry. I’m
fed up with enlightenment.” Okwui Enwezor warmed up saying “I started my
professional career as a poet.” Later he showed Yeats’ “The Second
” in bullet points. Carolyn paraphrased a couple of lines from
William Blake, and then she Googled the poem and read it off her phone in
what took almost ten minutes. In the call for conference participation,
the director had stated that she was “…personally committed to the
illogical, the playful and the poetic, to the celebration of works of
art, as well as to the participation and singular experience of those
who attend an event like documenta”.  On the second day, her closing remarks
revealed her working method. She spent about thirty minutes mussing over
a single photograph, the one above from documenta 2, 1959, which she
found in the archives. She weaved a rhizome of facts, narrations and
reactions to the photo while abundantly quoting Barthes. One of the
first exhibitions she curated was simply called, “On taking a normal situation and
retranslating it into overlapping and multiple readings of conditions
past and present” (Antwerp, 1993). “I have enacted the method in this talk,” she said to a
conference attendee who had missed the point of her speech and asked
what her approach to managing documenta would be. When someone else
insisted on knowing what was so important about the photo, she said

I was greatly
impressed by Carolyn’s feminine leadership style. Before I go on a limb
speaking of women going about ruling positions, I will quote the press
release announcing her appointment, “Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev sei eine
echte Power-Frau.” [Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is a real Power-Woman].
We can assume she will form a strong team, hold more preparatory
conferences (keep going South!), and apply the “enacted method” to the
selection of artists and projects. Documenta 13 is cooking to be
Deleuzian. This echte Power-Frau is posed to deliver one of those
significant documenta… Will she? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe we parrots
cannot hear the other birds on the tree and beyond because of our own
parroting. Significance is not possible in an age of indifference.

Maurizio Catelan, “Novecento,” 1997. Castello
di Rivoli collection

All photos and video by Jorge Misium except
the documenta 2 photo © documenta Archives

Jorge Misium is a
spider. Constructing Interconnections. Observing from a corner having
come to terms with the fact that he must kill.

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