by Mark Van Proyen
From its inception in 1955 up until 1997, Documenta was always a self-conscious Cold War institution, locating itself in a city that had been bombed into oblivion in 1943, and that was well-within walking distance to the frontier between East and West Germany prior to 1989. It is located in the middle of what was once called The Fulda Gap, which indicated a likely zone of attack if eastern block armored divisions were to make a move into western Europe. In those early days, the exhibition’s focus was on parsing the ways that the seemingly intractable distinctions between “east” and “west” might be illuminated and overcome by the high profile exhibition of forward-thinking artistic activity. This mission has been subjected to multiple interpretations, ranging from the proclamation that it functioned as a kind of advanced, next-level propaganda for neoliberal ascendancy (early on, it was partially funded by the CIA), to the countervailing postulation that its interest in seizing the moment of advanced, state-supported art was an act of sophisticated sabotaging of the rule of “free” market capitalism. But the key point-of-purpose was that an intellectually ambitious international art exposition could transcend both nationalism and entrenched ideology, and in so doing seize ownership of a mythologized future. This notion reached a high point in Harald Szeeman’s legendary Documenta V (1972), which took into account the 1968 protests that swept across Europe. It did so by featuring artists associated with movements such as Fluxus, Conceptualism, Post Minimalism and Arte Povera, all in an attempt to revive the idea of a historical avant-garde so as to have it be returned to the Europe from which it previously departed for American shores. Indeed, Szeeman’s exhibition was a major game changer when game changing was all the rage, and in terms of look, feel and purpose, it is still upheld as a model for lofty curatorial ambitions, so much so that it became and remains as a kind of art world fetish that still influences the programing at contemporary arts institutions around the world.
Obviously, the Cold War has been over for a quarter century, and Kassel now enjoys a comfortable prosperity. Until very recently, the assumption has been that the ideological values of a pan-capitalist neo-liberalism had triumphed around the world, leaving the original Documenta thesis in something of a lurch. This was made particularly evident in Catherine David’s 1997 iteration of the event, which reflected the moment’s technophilia with a rather giddy celebration of the triumph of networks and those who would administer them. But since that time, jihadist antagonism, the meteoric rise of the economies in China (and more recently India) have put that assumption into serious doubt, as have the recent exacerbations of global wealth inequality, rising neo-fascist political movements, sovereign debt time bombs, unsustainable population growth and the early effects of impending climate disaster. The Trump/Brexit phenomena should be understood as being amplifications of these problems rather than as responses to them, advancing early and fearful bets that the logic of economic cleansing, exclusion and eventual extermination will win out over the logics of “inevitable” revolution, be they political, artistic or otherwise. In the artworld, we have seen the Trump/Brexit phenomenon manifested and implicitly valorized by a turn toward an extravagant and frivolous Pop/Rococo esthetics, as is exemplified indicated by the work of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and their financially enhanced kin of Zombie Abstractionists. It is now very difficult seeing the work of those artists as being anything other than extravagant and frivolous estheticizations of the Trump/Brexit position, parading under the premature notion that we have fulfilled Hegel’s prophecy of an end of history that has rendered ideological struggle obsolete. According to the likes of Daniel Bell and Francis Fukayama, this began taking place around 1950, coming into full fruition soon after 1994. The short take-away from this perspective is that, under the sign of neo-liberal pan capitalism, everything is relativized except for the rule of money, which is the only constant (even though money is a function of fluctuating credit markets).
Documenta has always been a neo-historicist project that updates and redefines itself twice a decade, reframing the continuities and discontinuities that bind the recent past and foreseeable future in previously unimagined ways. Part of how this is accomplished lies in the way that every Documenta exhibition also transforms and repurposes the very idea of Documenta as a forward thinking, intellectually ambitious project with globally comprehensive ambitions. It always reveals itself as a vast panoramic snapshot of its own re-historicized now-ness that also locates previous iterations of the event in their own respective realms of then-ness.
One thing is for sure. The logic of revolution now seems more remote than it has been since the 1970s, and if is to have any chance of being materialized on a meaningful scale, it will have to come from the underserved margins of the neoliberal empire, rather than from its traditional centers of consolidated wealth. This is exactly where Documenta 14 looks for signs of artistic life. In so doing, it follows a precedent set by Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 (2002) as well as the Venice Biennial exhibition that he organized two years ago titled All of the Worlds’ Futures. As was the case with those exhibitions, one can quibble about the efficacy of Documenta 14’s individual components, or one can even complain about its fixed idea about alternative space art being intrinsically revolutionary (those days are long gone). One can even be exasperated by its upholding of a Chinese-menu notion of curation that fills out pre-ordained sub-categories of “diverse” artistic production that literally becomes too overwhelming to allow the viewer to actually see much of anything. But all of those misgivings are subsumed into the compelling character of Documenta 14’s north/south thesis, which postulates a new New Historicism as an updated counter to an alleged post-historicism that has turned out to be nothing more than a globally-scaled rise of the money changers, amplified by the credit leverage made possible by low interest rates. In our new world, banks have replaced tanks as the engines of global conflict, and during the past decade, Athens has become ground zero where the damage done by them can be seen to be real and palpable, and more significantly, European, showing that the global banking system has no compunction when it comes to making a sorry example of a member state of the European Union.
Thus the lesson of Athens reveals that the east/west divide may no longer be sufficient as the governing metaphor of our geopolitical times, but a north/south ideological divide is beginning to loom ever larger, especially when we realize that places like south Chicago, east Los Angeles or east London can be instructively included in the southern category of Szymczyk’s Documenta 14 thesis. In other words, Documenta 14’s tale of two cities can be taken as representing a larger global divide between the idea of a prosperous and exploitive “north” and a disadvantaged and exploited “south.” On one had, we have “southern” Athens, which is the capitol of a country that has been squeezed and pilloried by a global financial system led by German banks, and then we have “northern” Kassel, a comfortable mid-sized city that can be said to be a tertiary beneficiary of the high interest rates that the Greek government must pay to service its unsustainable debt. The lesson? Just as wealth can be used to create more wealth, so too does debt-spiral induced poverty create more poverty. This illustrates the new master/slave dynamics of the global economy, where the term south now designates a Moody’s rating “south” of B-, rather than any discernable point on a compass.
Returning to the point that Szymczyk’s exhibition falls into the trap of presupposing that kunsthalle/alternative space art somehow continues to be an index of esthetic radicality, we might examine why one might think that such is the case. It is understandable given the state-supported funding structure of Documenta, which caps and curtails private fundraising, and the hidden peddling of influences that always comes with it. Certainly, this allows other voices to come to the fore, and it some of those voices are given previously unimaginable opportunities to posit heterodox and politically-charged deviations from artworld busine$$-as-usual. But this expansive approach also has limitations. One is that the song of risk-oriented radicality often times gets lost in the chorus of inclusion, dulling what ever point that it might make. Szymczyk’s Documenta 14 can be faulted on that point, and for this reason it invites another question, which is whether or not (and how) inclusion-for-the-sake-of inclusion might in-and-of-itself be understood as a radical position in its own right. Certainly, this is a question that invites complex answers, partly owing to the fact that no matter how inclusive any exhibition might be, some subject position somewhere will remain unrepresented. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the question of “included into what?” and “for what reasons?”
After all, simply by re-racking the billiard balls of spectacle in the direction of the many rather than the few presumes that the power of sheer aggregation can successfully compete with the intrusion of high finance into the realm of the esthetic. Doing so may be an exercise in wishful thinking, and as such, might conceal other factors. In other words, we might ask what is truly gained when the position of the art star is morphed in the direction of the curatorial superstar? On one hand, we can note that the budget of Documenta 14 was reportedly something along the lines of 33 million euros, and we might wonder what kind of payola might hide in that budget’s line items for production costs and consulting fees. But on the other hand, we can look at the way that a single collateral exhibition at the 57th Venice Biennial more-or-less hijacked the whole affair, that being Damien Hirst’s Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which was also ensconced in two large venues. Hirst’s exhibition contained hundreds of mock-artifacts that were supposedly recovered from a ship that sank in the Indian Ocean hundreds of years ago, and it even went so far as to include a fancily produced mockumentaty film showing the recovery efforts. Many of those objects were gargantuan figurative sculptures cast in bronze that sported Baroque, Greco-Roman and Surrealist attributes, some partially covered by fake signs of undersea marine life encrusted on their surfaces. These works finalized the blurring of the boundaries between “sculpture” and “collectable production design,” while the rest of the exhibition was all fake archeological bling, a very long and very ostentatious way to go for a gag. But the gag was a good one, especially in our era of fake news uber alles. Nothing is unbelievable now, unless it all is, and this seemed to be Hirst’s wicked point, which cast his project on an even higher register of otiose pretense than the one achieved by Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle of fifteen years ago.
Of course, there was big-time financing behind Hirst’s project, and it was reported that all of the larger works contained therein were pre-sold for princely sums, thereby raising the bar for sheer audacity in art marketing, or to use more precisely Warholean terminology, the art of art marketing. But given that this scale of operation is what now defines success in the market-oriented art world, one could reasonably ask the question “what is an average rank-and-file artist to do?” Answer: get your work included in lots of curatorial projects, and hope that your work stands out enough to rise above their constraining parameters. But this advice in no way fully resolves the larger dilemma, which is best described as formulating a forward- thinking response to the countervailing influences exerted by two root paranoias. On one hand, you have the reasonable fear that money will define all artistic priorities and you counter that fear with an adherence to official policies designed keep that from happening. Or on the other hand, you have the fear that official policy will define all artistic priorities and you invest in the idea that the operations of the market will protect you it (“money talks and administrative bullshit walks!”). Obviously, for any artist to give him or herself over to one or the other of these positions is to take the first step in the direction of academicized irrelevance, but no one should underestimate just how difficult it is for any artist to accomplish a body of work that fulfills the mandate for any third alternative. For that matter, no one should underestimate just how difficult it is for any curator to find artists who are accomplishing such things.
Overall, Szymczyk’s exhibition actually did a pretty good job of identifying and highlighting the work of such artists, but faced with the intractability of the paranoias mentioned above, it also got lost in positing a kind of “all of the above” answer, not so much as a way of evading the questions prompted by them as it was an attempt to reveal just how complicated their implications can be. The politics of the exhibition do not fully address the nagging possibility that all of its rethinking of the geopolitics of art is really little more than a recruitment program that invites loyal opponents to gain entrance into the artworld’s class of professionalized pseudo-subversives who can be tricked into having their truth-speaking function in quiet service to the very power structures that they propose to challenge. Also, it falls prey to one of the persistent criticisms of every Documenta exhibition: that it is only fully understandable to the globe-trotting European curatorial elite in ways designed to spectacularize an anti-spectacle vision of recent artistic production (not to the mention the career prospects of those who organize such exhibitions). But the counter-complaint to these misgivings wins out simply by indexing the fact that seriousness and sophistication are no longer what they once were in the artworld or in any other world, despite the fact that the social-media-amplified audience for such extravaganzi has grown exponentially in recent years. For a very long time, large curated mega-exhibitions such as Documenta have been faulted for subordinating and diluting the work of individual artists into larger, over-arching thematic structures, in effect casting those artists as the makers of particular gargoyles that are mere components to the expansive conceptual cathedrals designed by their curatorial architects. This may be a good or a not so good thing, depending on one’s point of view.
Nonetheless, despite these misgivings, it remains clear that Documenta 14’s picture of the artistic truth-to-power ratio is, for the moment both an accurate and challenging one. That is because it contains an abundance of work that moves in less predictable directions, and in so doing often brings new and sometimes surprising energies to the table. A great many of these artists will benefit from the massive exposure that their work gets in Documenta, and some of these artists will go on to have the kind of careers that will include solo museum presentations. In many subtle ways, these works put paid to the ascendant idea that curation itself is on the decline because of the new democratization of artistic participation, which chafes against exclusionary regimes in favor of embracing a myriad of idiosyncratic and personalistic approaches. But at the same time, the ensemble experience of Documenta 14 also rejects the notion that the market is the sole arbitrator of artistic value, emphasizing the fact that its vast array of artistic propositions and creative gestures are embedded in far-flung circumstances and contestations. In so doing, it convened an imaginary parliament of diverse practices that should lead artists and other interested parties to re-consider the deep morality of their professional affiliations both within and beyond their own realms of local operation.
Szymczyk’s Documenta 14 does much more than rehearse the post-colonial discourses of two decades ago, and the reason for this is that it restages and updates that discourse along new and updated fault lines that extend a familiar geneologies into the fraught and contentious present. We might remember that the old colonialism first begat the anti-colonialism that was called “national liberation,” which in turn begat neo-colonialist puppet governments, which then begat post-colonial cultural reactions and the untenable fantasy that the term globalism might actually signify a new spread of national liberation narratives. But that notion only succeeded in
Every Documenta since 1972 has been uniquely and adamantly resistant to any glib encapsulation. Each demands that it be engaged on its own complex, labyrinthine and thoroughly articulated set of terms. In other words, this is the last place in the world of contemporary art where top-ten lists and chatty click-bait gossiptary can be said to have much relevance, which, needless to say, pisses off the people whose stock-in-trade is the manufacture of such things.
inviting the meta-colonialism of global sovereign debt servitude that re-casts nation states as mere sites of enforcement and resource distribution undertaken under the sign of actual or potential “austerity.” Greece and Venezuela are the two countries that were most visibly transformed in this new scenario, both held up as vivid examples of the bad things that happen to nation states when they turn on their paymaster bond holders. In this regard, the “Learning from Athens” theme of Documenta 14 invites the grim contemplation of a recent disciplinary lesson about who really runs the global show. By using the spectacle of a mass aggregation of artistic bodies and artistic gestures, the exhibition heralds the arrival of a new post-post colonialism. The only question that remains is who will pay its bills.
When I am cornered by inquiries about my thoughts on the five iterations of Documenta that I have seen since 1997, I usually cut to the chase and declare my partiality to dOCUMENTA (13), organized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in 2012. Because that exhibition was keynoted by subtlety, sophistication and understatement, I still think that there might be a case made to support this opinion, if it were not made moot by several larger and more relevant recognitions. One is that every Documenta since 1972 has been uniquely and adamantly resistant to any glib encapsulation, and another is that each demands that it be engaged on its own complex, labyrinthine and thoroughly articulated set of terms. In other words, this is the last place in the world of contemporary art where top-ten lists and chatty click-bait gossiptary can be said to have much relevance, which, needless to say, pisses off the people whose stock-in-trade is the manufacture of such things. This explains the bitchy tenor of the early reviews that came out about the exhibition. It was once erroneously said that exhibitions such as Documenta or the Venice Biennale were the places where works of art go to audition for their places in art history, but in the past quarter-century, Documenta has eschewed this role in favor of doing something different and far more ambitious, namely, a complex questioning and re-scripting of what the very idea of art history could be taken to mean in their respective moments. By no measure has Documenta ever been an anti-historicist project. On the contrary, its has always been a neo-historicist project that updates and redefines itself twice a decade, reframing the continuities and discontinuities that bind the recent past and foreseeable future in previously unimagined ways. Part of how this is accomplished lies in the way that every Documenta exhibition also transforms and repurposes the very idea of Documenta as a forward thinking, intellectually ambitious project with globally comprehensive ambitions. It always reveals itself as a vast panoramic snapshot of its own re-historicized now-ness that also locates previous iterations of the event in their own respective realms of then-ness.
Since 1972, Documenta has always highlighted an ambitious discursive component. Historically, it was usually manifested in the 100 days lecture series, where intellectual luminaries would come to Kassel to hold forth in Documenta Hall every night of the exhibition’s 100 day duration. Instead of continuing that tradition, Szymczyk decided to redirect resources toward other discursive projects. Under his direction, Documenta has put out six issues of a publication titled South as a State of Mind, each elaborating the ways that the north/south thesis can be said to replace the east/west thesis that governed Documenta exhibitions held during the Cold War period. In homage to the peripatetic tradition of Greek philosophy, he as also instituted a long series of discursive events called The Parliament of Bodies. These are intended to meet at and sally forth from one of the Documenta venues and form themselves into roving, interactive bands of persons engaged in site-specific philosophization. Some of the records of these explorations have found their way into the pages of South as a State of Mind, and others will find an eventual home in the Documenta archive as well as on the Internet.
Even though Szymczyk has doubled down on his north/south thesis pertaining to recent geopolitical cultural divisions, it bears mentioning that Documenta 14 was poorly received in Athens. The word on the Athenian street was that the exhibition was just another heavy-handed exercise in Germany’s subjugation of their nation, this time by adding cultural insult to economic injury. This might seem like an odd response, considering that the exhibition included more artists hailing from Greece than any other single nation (and only one from China!). But hard times have made Greece a bitter and mistrustful nation. One political figure used the dismissive phrase “crisis tourism,” to disparage the project; but giving Athens such a prominent place on the map of international contemporary art tourism may not be such a bad thing for Greece or for the artists who call that country their home. Indeed, the location of part of Documenta in Athens may signal that the worst of the Greek financial crisis is now officially over, meaning that the country is now open to the kind of gentrification that comes with the growth of a thriving arts scene. This is because visitors to Documenta in Athens are likely to discover that that city has an abundance of museums and affordable space, which are the two key ingredients that all nascent art centers thrive on, and its location at the intersection between “north and south” seems more than a little bit similar to Kassel and Berlin’s position straddling the “east and west,” of two decades ago. If, in ten years time, Athens becomes the next Berlin, Szymczyk’s Documenta 14 will not doubt be credited as priming the pump.
This potential benefit took center stage in the Kassel portion of the exhibition. Marta Minujín’s Partenón de Libros was already mentioned in Part 1 of this report, but the major curveball that foregrounded the “Learning from Athens” theme of Documenta 14 was the giving over of the Fridericianum to an exhibition of works culled from the permanent collection of the Athens Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST). Ever since the first Documenta exhibition in 1955, the Fridericianum has served as the original and central venue for all of the 13 subsequent iterations of the event. It is arguably the oldest public museum in the world, so for Szymczyk to give it over to the EMST comes off like a pretty grand gesture that might be significant for a variety of reasons. The exhibition at the Fridericianum was curated by EMST Director Katerina Koskina and was titled Antidoron, which is a Greek term that signifies the return of a gift. It contained the work of about 95 artists, not counting the small presentation of Hans Haacke photographs taken when the artist was a student, employed as a preparator for Documenta II in 1959, all featuring the interior of that very same building, and a few featuring (ta da!) Arnold Bode. Antidoron reveals itself to be an expansive collection of works, including many excellent examples made by American artists with Greek surnames, such as Janine Antoni, Lynda Benglis, Jannis Kounellis, Joseph Kosuth and Lucas Samaras. It also has impressive works by Greek, or Greek-born artists such as Stephen Antonakos, Chryssa, and Takis as well as a long roster of other works by mostly Greek artists who are younger and less well known. These include installations such as George Lappas’ Abacus (1983), which activated a room with a huge counting mechanism made out of shiny metal, and Stelios Fatakis who
Stelios Fatakis, Fortunately, Absurdity is Lost (but they have hoped for so much more, 2014, acrylic on MDF, 3 x 5.3m, Fridericianum, Kassel, Documenta 14/caption]created a long, mural-sized history painting that portrayed the 20th century version of the struggle for democracy in Greece, realized in a style that looked like a perfect hybrid of social realism and Byzantine allegory, complete with gilding.
Indeed, from the point of view of artworld conventions, the work presented in Antidoran was immanently respectable, and its post-minimalist vision of what should be included in a “serious” collection of contemporary art looked almost as if it was shipped in from central casting, or circa-1978 Soho. But we may want to look at why the works in the Frdericianum looked that way, and part of the answer lies in the fact that most of them could be viewed as stylistic proxies for other works that were featured in the pre-1997 iterations of Documenta. In some cases, for example, the neon works by Stephan Antonakos (at left) and Chryssa, or in the swooping sheet of sonically activated metal by Takis, the works could and arguably should have been included in one of those earlier exhibitions, while many other works seem like derivative throwbacks to the post-1972 Documenta esthetic (i.e. lots of work that could be called “post-minimalist”). Whether by accident or intent, Antidoran found itself in the position of being a foil for all of the other aspects of Documenta 14, the place where less-than-fully initiated viewers could go to partake of a now-nostalgic caricature of “the Documenta experience.” Such viewers could do this before or in lieu of contending with Szymczyk’s re-scripting of the role that Documenta 14 proposes to play in relation to the ways that we understand the art of our time.
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Documenta 14 in Athens closed July 16. The exhibition in Kassel, Germany continues through September 17, 2017.
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.