“I DO CARE ABOUT DOCUMENTA 12" (JAN CHRISTENSEN)"If you clench your fist, there is nothing in your hand
But if you open your hand, there is the entire universe in it" (Heman Chong)
I spent a weekend in Kassel, Germany. I had several reasons to do so, some of them personal, some professional – all of them had something to do with art. I had great hopes for documenta 12. There are several reasons why. I think one of them was the hopeless romantic idea about the great exhibition setting a standard for each "generation". D11 so this in 2002 for the arts, but back then I was too "young". I had just made a clean break from the young art scene in Oslo, I had moved to what was for me a remote city with what I perceived to be a very conservative attitude towards the production of art (in that time painting was for me the high castle of conservativeness in art. I have since moderated my concepts, and I moved back to Norway and Skien), but the city I am talking about was Leipzig.
I am also sure that most documentas have had a major impact, but this is mere speculation. I had hoped that this documenta would set a standard of how I, we, all of us would discuss and produce art in the coming years. My expectations for documenta were as a producer / contemplator / mediator of contemporary art as well as on the behalf of those of us that actually are artists themselves. Needles to say – and I knew this beforehand – I was let down. Buergel and Noack seem to have failed miserably. In this text I will not discuss or describe works seen in the documenta exhibition, rather I am interested in starting a debate on how and why documenta 12 is, in my eyes, such a magnificent failure.
Documenta Halle, Friedrichanium, the newly built Auer Pavilion, Neue Galerie, Schachthof, the museum in Willhelmshöhe – all main art venues in Kassel for this edition of documenta, not to mention some outdoor projects. 113 artists with in total xxx of works of art. The choice of Roger M. Buergel as the next curator of documenta in December 2003 was a bold one. Buergel, although having received a prize for his curatorial project from the manila collection was an "insider tip" that few had heard about. Now, in the history of documenta, selecting a generally unknown curator is nothing new. Both of Buergel's immediate predecessors (Enwesor and David) were relatively unknown when they were selected (some have argued that Enwesor had a strong track record before he was selected. This is in my eyes only partially correct since for example his large exhibition 'Razors Edge' at the BildeMuseum in Sweden was realized in 1999 – after he had accepted the offer of being the artistic director of d11). I think also the selection committee's choice of Buergel over both Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Charles Esche (who sources of mine confirmed were both invited to apply for the position) shows this. I cannot really account for Jan Hout, as I have no clear image of his track record before d9, but I have a distinct feeling that he became known through that exhibition. If the documenta had a tradition of having well known curators, Harald Szeemann would not be alone as curator star before his 1972 documenta, he would have been sided by Kasper König and his alike. This, in my opinion, is not the case.
But this is not what I want to discuss in this text. I very critical towards documenta 12. I found art that I liked and that I was sympathetic to but I could not find the clear curatorial voice that I expected to find. However, I could see the curatorial imprint in the way works of art were displayed (from the new Auer pavilion, through the choice to have many two dimensional works of art not framed but put behind a glass (or plexi-glass) with only four 90degree nails mounting them to the wall, to rumours about curatorial wishes of how to display specific pieces of art over the artists wishes). We had the three leitmotivs; Is modernity our antiquity?, What is bare life? and What is to be done? but I was very hard pressed to find them in the show. They were not visible in the way I thought they should be in a big exhibition like this one. Documenta has traditionally (very much in the x and the 11th edition, but also earlier) been a keeper of art in the public space. Despite the rice field, despite what I would call the flower field, despite the "radio" on tram nr. 3, there was not really art in the public space program this time. I did find this strange coming from an artistic director that is so obsessed with both the flaneur (passanten) term of Beudlaire and Benjamin as well as the history of documenta.
Why could I not find the things I was looking for? why was it not possible for me to be impressed by the choice of art and artists in accordance with the leitmotivs that Buergel and Noack had chosen? Now, apart from d11, I have never seen a big, large scale, international biennale. I have seen a lot of art, I have seen many large scale international shows. I have seen some curatorial achievements that have shaped my opinions on how to do large scale shows, but I haven't seen Venice, I have never been to Istanbul, New York etc. to see those biennials that we all talk about. I have however seen my fair share of art fairs. I was in Basel for the first time in June this year, and then I ran through the fair in order to talk to 5 specific galleries and to meet some artists. I have seen 3-4 Artforum Berlins, 3 Art Cologne, one time I was in Madrid. Although that does not cover all the fairs that we have worldwide right now. I have fine tuned the flaneur way of looking at art; going through the vast halls, scanning, stopping if anything catches my eye and even coming back if it is needed and necessary. In doing so I never think "concept" – art fairs are just not curated shows in that sense of the word.
I do however look for strong works of art. My eyes, although not as trained as those that have decades of experience to draw from, have a clear idea about what might be good, always thinking about context that a given piece or even an artist might fit into. I also seem to have an eye for how rooms are gestalt-ed and how pieces of art are responding to each other, how they might "talk" together and respond to other pieces in the same room and context.
On the third day of roaming through documenta (that was, after all, what the artistic director wants us to do), I took my "large scale curated show" glasses off and put my "art fair" glasses on. I did not even try to figure the pieces into a complete whole but rather, with cruel cynicism, to separate pieces into the category of "good" and "bad". I did nothing less then ignore the exhibition. I was shocked.
Before I move on I have to say that I am sympathetic to parts of the d12 project. Documenta magazine, led by Georg Schöllhammer, has made a solid impression on me. Instead of functioning as a unpaid board of reference, they took the three questions and used them as a starting point for another type of debate then what I saw in the exhibition of d12. I have to say that since one of the editors, Cosmin Costinas, is not only a friend of mine, but also one of my co-authors of the science fiction novel PHILIP, I cannot claim to be 100% objective (but on the other hand, we have never discussed the documenta magazine project).
The second I have only partly read and the third I have only started today. But still. The independence of the magazine, the selection of text, the solid structure of getting an overview of almost 100 theoretical based art magazines from around the world, it all makes a positive impression on me. Also the artists they have chosen to be in the documenta magazine project seem to be solid. Not to mention that Schöllhammer have decided to do exactly the opposite of Buergel & Noack; although very young, he has built up a group of editors helping him in his assignment to produce the magazine.
But back to the case study of documenta 12 and my gaze. Have my going commercial, selling art, visiting art fairs destroyed my gaze? Have I turned cynical and cruel to any exhibition that does not have a selection of "great" artists? Looking at the list of artists, it is very different than the one I see when I look through the Art Basel catalogue or the "Cream" or "Art Now" books. I know some of the names of the very unknown photographs because I have studied photography, but all in all the list is anything but a top of the pops list. Did this make me suspicious, did this make me negative towards documenta before I saw it? (Of course I do not need to mention that I have read my fair deal of very messy critiques of documenta (Süd-deutsche Zeitung, everything that Artnet has published, Guardian, kunstkritikk.no, Billedkunst, Aftenposten, Leipziger Volkszeitung, Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, TagesZeitung etc.) and none of them, as I recall, hailed it. Most hated it. So I am not alone in not being impressed by what the documenta team has produced in the three and a half years since they were appointed.
Have I lost my innocence, or is documenta just bad? My dear friend and co-D21 initiator, Regine Ehleiter has spent more time studying the documenta than most people I know. She claims that she can see many of the leitmotivs in the exhibition, and that the passanten / passers-by way that Buergel wants us to look at the documenta at least in part might be visible in the exhibition. But she also points out some very crucial curatorial flaws. She states that three quarters of the artists that Buergel and Noack have used in earlier exhibitions are to be seen in this show. Also that there is a very clear over-representation of artists from German speaking countries, many of them with connections to Vienna (and as someone was so kind to point out to me at a dinner during the bootleg opening: there are no Swiss artists in the show). This is strange as I recall both Buergel and Noack talking about how modernity is represented differently in different parts of the world, and that this was something they would like to take a closer look at.
Ok, to sum this bloody text up, I am not alone in disliking documenta (an artist I know, Gabriela Vainsencher, spent two days in desperate search of meaning in the chaos, and she is now making a series of drawings titled I don't care about documenta 12). I hope she succeeds more then I did.
Leif Magne Tangen, Skien