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by Dorothee Richter

Being Singular/Plural in the Exhibition Context: Curatorial Subjects at documenta 5, dX, D12, d(13)

In my view, each documenta proposes a number of specific paradigmatic models of the subject and of power constellations, which in each case function as an appeal to the visitors. These paradigmatic models of the subject operate in the political sphere: they give us a sense of how we should function as male or female citizens, they propose modes of order, they subtly convey constellations of power—in short, they communicate conceptions of race, class, and gender. In this way, they produce, as it were, a network of relationships in the sphere of culture and politics. In saying this, I am building on discussions of this subject by Walter Grasskamp, Oliver Marchart, and Nanne Buurman. In the following, I will be analysing the effects and contradictions of these paradigmatic models of the subject as “consensus machines”, or as counter-hegemonic, which will involve discussion of the subtle interconnection between affirmation and criticism. The interpretation and dissemination of these models of the subject take place in catalogues and through gestures of self-positioning, but these latter are also discussed in the arts pages, which position and re-interpret them in turn.

Oliver Marchart has, for instance, discussed documentas X, 11 and 12 from the points of view of politicization/depoliticization, the decentring and recentring of the West, the interface between art and theory, and the strategies of mediation.[i] So my approach will be more from the angle of the apparatus of an exhibition, and I fully expect to find contradictory appeals within one and the same documenta. I have to confine myself to very few aspects, namely the verbal and iconographic statements of the visible protagonists, in this case the curators. I will start by very briefly summing up my previously published discussion of documenta 5, and then take a critical look at the constructions of the subject in dX (Catherine David), d12 (Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack), and dOCUMENTA (13) (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev).

Harald Szeemann

Spanic antepedum, altar sub construction, christ and the twelve apostle, ca. 1120 , Barcelona

documenta 5: Harald Szeemann and Politics of Sites

In 2012, I have put forward a detailed argument to the effect that the image of the profession of curator has been based in part on Harald Szeemann’s self-staging.[ii] To summarize briefly: the composition of this photograph, which was widely circulated as a significant snapshot, makes allusion to a large number of pictorial constructions that are already charged with meaning in the Western canon. It stages a hierarchical relationship between artists and curator, with the curator positioned as a god, a man, and a genius: these images seem, as it were, to unite in the establishment of the curator’s new-found authority.

Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Apotheosis of Homer, 1827

In the essay I argued that the Bohemian group surrounding Szeemann can in fact be traced back to an earlier revolt by artists who—as part, or even as precursors, of the student revolt of 1968—mapped out new forms of community, production, and distribution. Happenings, actions, Fluxus, and the Situationists became movements that turned against the art establishment. The established institutions were bypassed; the public was to be involved. Political messages and ideas were presented, even though there was no clearly defined common political stance (not even within a given group). Gender roles and social institutions like marriage were reinterpreted: for example, through the so called FluxDivorce. Editions, newspapers, mail art, and print productions were intended to make art affordable and, through large print runs, accessible to greater numbers of people. Through the provision of “scores” of instructions for use, almost anything could become art: seen in this way, everyday actions and high art merged. That Fluxus performances were invited to Germany (to Wiesbaden) at all was due in part to a desire for the re-education of Germans; anything “American” was seen as something to be encouraged—which is quite amusing, given that the chairman of Fluxus was a young Lithuanian who lived in Germany for a number of years before emigrating with his parents to the United States.

But to return to the special grouping of figures in the photograph of Szeemann and his entourage, which was first noted by Beatrice von Bismarck.[iii] This paradigmatic photograph shows clearly that having a curator with sole responsibility created a new position of power; the originally chaotic and revolutionary activity in the art of the 1960s was once again part of a power-based relationship. In my article, I cited the well-known examples of Daniel Buren and Robert Smithson, but there were numerous other clashes between Szeemann and artists, for instance Klaus Staeck and Gerhard Steidl’s fight for a “political information stand” containing documentation relating to Kassel, including the city’s cultural politics and aiming to show the effects of the documenta on Kassel, the art market and artists, and to reveal openly the organization and structure of documenta.[iv] After some initial skirmishing, Harald Szeemann gave his response: “Dear Klaus Staeck, many thanks for your letter [of 22 February 1972]. I confirm what was said in our telephone conversation, which concluded with a ‘No’ to your stand. Sincerely yours, Harald Szeemann.”[v] Staeck fought back, publishing the exchange of letters and other material to coincide with documenta 5, under the title Befragung der documenta, oder Die Kunst soll schön bleiben (Questioning documenta, or art is supposed to remain beautiful).[vi]

KINO, 2012. © documenta Archive

documenta X: Catherine David, or the Blind Spot in the Eyes of Critics

As has often been noted, documenta X, curated by Catherine David, represented, on many levels, a break with the past, which I would like to characterize briefly. The changed interpretation of what is to be understood by contemporary art was noticeable at the very entrance to the documenta-Halle. Peter Friedl set his stamp on this documenta X, declaring the hall, in neon letters, to be a CINEMA. This in itself indicates that the status of the “exhibition” had become uncertain, as had the status of the visitors as subjects. On the level of the display, the emphasis was no longer entirely on individual pictorial works: instead, the visitor was enveloped in whole “environments”. So, the status of the work was no longer that of a classic, autonomous work of art: it might, for example, be a landscape created out of photo wallpaper, with the appearance of having been digitally produced, by Peter Kogler (See image 5). This, too, situates the visitors: it appeals to them as subjects operating in the digital age, not as subjects of the overview, the central perspective, but as subjects being enclosed in a relatively undefined overall structure. In the central area of the documenta-Halle, the curator dispensed with works of art altogether and set up a bookshop designed by Vito Acconci and a discussion area designed by Franz West. By doing this, she positioned art as part of a social and political discourse that included cultural and art studies. Overall, this pointedly demonstrated the nature of contemporary art as a complex discourse made up of a variety of subject matters, concepts, commentaries, and political contexts.

I would quickly like to add, more or less in passing, that Catherine David appointed Simon Lamunière as curator of the website and facilitated the creation of a Hybrid WorkSpace. For the first time, she acknowledged the digital space as decidedly part of the world, part of culture. The Hybrid WorkSpace was above all a largely uncontrolled space, which is hard to imagine when you think of previous and subsequent battles over access to the documenta exhibition space.[vii] The Hybrid WorkSpace was organized by an entire group of individuals: Eike Becker, Geert Lovink/Pit Schultz, Micz Flor, Thorsten Schilling, Heike Foell, Thomax Kaulmann, and Moniteurs, and was initiated by Catherine David (documenta X), Klaus Biesenbach, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Nancy Spector (Berlin Biennial); the Hybrid WorkSpace group was given the use of a five-room apartment where they could invite guests, make radio broadcasts, communicate with the outside world, and establish contacts with web initiatives and make them accessible.

With regard to content, Catherine David showed—again in complete contrast to the emphasis placed on painting in the preceding documentas—many works from the 1960s that had either fallen into oblivion or not yet attracted attention in the "Western" context. The main themes ranged, as the documenta Archive puts it, “from the debate on post-colonialism (as in Lothar Baumgarten’s Vakuum series, 1978–80, or the documenta documents), various models of urbanism (Aldo van Eyck, Archigram, Archizoom Associati, Rem Koolhaas), and the meaning of the visual image in the media society (exemplified by Marcel Broodthaers’s Section Publicité du Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, 1968), to contemporary web art”.[viii] I am only briefly mentioning all this to make it clear that, in both form and content, the documenta X broke with many previously accepted paradigms of contemporary art.

Documenta hall by Peter Kogler. © documenta Archive

Bookshop designed by Vito Acconci. © documenta Archive

Space for discussions. © documenta Archive

Hybrid Work Space. © documenta Archive

What was therefore more than surprising was that there was relatively little debate about the director’s approach in terms of structure and content, while the press focussed its discussion instead on Catherine David as a person. The documenta X website still refers to this: “Instead of genuinely engaging with the questions raised or with David’s achievement as a curator, the general tendency among art critics was to make continual reference to the exhibition’s ‘over-emphasis on theory’ or ‘intellectualism’ and its alleged ‘lack of sensuousness’.”[ix] Dirk Schwarze discusses the language of the documenta criticism in an article published online:

The fact that for the first time a woman was the artistic director […] tempted commentators into using formulations that were sometimes distasteful:

‘Catherine David has a very narrow head. But there’s an awful lot in it. Catherine David looks as fragile as a fairy. But she has all the charm of a deep-frozen crowbar. Catherine David has an attractive mouth, usually painted with dark red lipstick, but she is never seen to smile. Whether she is really like that, or is artfully staging herself as an arrogant, unapproachable intellectual diva, is hard to tell, given how self-marketing ploys are proliferating at the higher levels of the art world.’ (Martin Jasper, Braunschweiger Zeitung)

[...] ‘There has been much puzzling over the eyes, the physiognomical trademark of the current director, who has sole charge of the documenta. David is said to be unpredictable and snappish, to be a Parisian sphinx; the word ‘merde’ easily crosses the lips of that Snow White face.’ (Roland Gross, Darmstädter Echo) [...] ‘She looks like Snow White – twenty years after the episode with the seven dwarfs. Yesterday the beautiful documenta boss was an object of desire for photographers. [...]’ (Birgit Kölgen, Westfälische Rundschau).[x]

And Schwarze’s survey also includes the following, from Dorothee Müller of the Süddeutsche Zeitung:

‘Sometimes, with Catherine David, you have [...] the feeling that a nun has turned up in a brothel. A nun who, with missionary zeal, wants to convert the scene of vice into one of virtue. The brothel is the art world and an event like the documenta is a part of that world. [...] Large parts of the documenta [...] are totally lacking in sensuousness, and its creator is not so much a high priestess raising art onto an altar as a stern disciplinarian demanding that we perform rigorous religious exercises.’”[xi]

Catherine David

Well, the way she stages herself in photographs, does not support any of those comments. If we try to interpret them as stagings, what we see is the restrained black-and-white uniform of a female curator or professor who, in line with common practice, takes her cue from the classic black-and-white image of a man in a suit, albeit in a slightly freer version. The only claim to status that the photos make is that of an autonomous subject. So what prompted this extreme malice, which strikes us today as so inappropriate? Seen from a feminist point of view, this kind of “criticism” caters to the typical denigration of women. There is no discussion of content: instead the woman is reduced to externals and thereby to her gender role (imposed by a patriarchal society). Viewed in this way, the director of documenta X is primarily a woman who has had the gall to take up such a high-profile public position and additionally refuses to smile.

I suspect that other subtle, unspoken ascriptions also play a part. Walter Grasskamp has pointed out what an important ideological role art exhibitions played after the Second World War: However, with documenta X, the controls were in the hands not only of a woman, but also—the elephant in the room, in my view—of a Jewish woman. Some of the commentaries betray the subtly racist character of their ascriptions when, for instance, they speak of a “high priestess”, or of “Snow White”: they specifically target Catherine David’s dark hair and pale complexion. Vague religious connotations waft through the texts, as we have seen: high priestess, religious exercises, nun. At the same time, implicit reference is made to the myth of the beautiful Jewess—a myth about which Elvira Grözinger has written and which paints Jewish women as seductresses and destroyers, with Snow White a frequent metaphor.[xii]

Ruth Noak, Roger M. Buergel

Ruth Noak, Roger M. Buergel

One can therefore draw the conclusion that the refusal to engage with the themes and formats of documenta X is based on a refusal to acknowledge the leadership role of a woman, and more specifically a Jewish woman. Retrospectively, as it were, the critics deny her the position of a producer of meaning beyond the physical, gender, or “racial” characteristics to which she is implicitly reduced. Thus, the autonomous subject status accorded to Catherine David—caught as she is between her own self-staging and ascriptions from the outside—can be seen to be extremely precarious and fundamentally contested: she is represented as someone who is permitted only with reservations to create meaning at a (Federal) German exhibition venue, even if especially this documenta did make the greatest possible impact on the arts and is in retrospect widely acknowledged as one of the most important ones.[xiii] Okwui Enwezor as a director of non-Western origin and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev as the second female director of a documenta each developed, in the run-up to the event, strategies for avoiding this kind of radical verbal rejection and negation; it would be worth analysing those strategies in detail.

documenta 12: Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, or Scenes from a Marriage

What is striking in both official and less official photographs of the curators—or rather of the director and the curator, Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack—who were partners in private life—is that iconographically they staged themselves very much as a couple (See images 10, 11, 13). Here are several pictures in which their respective clothing is carefully coordinated in both style and colour. They also often relate to each other through the direction of their gazes. Thus, they are clearly presenting themselves as a couple, and not merely reflecting their essentially hierarchical professional relationship. As the man, Buergel, often assumes the more dominant position; he appears larger and looks straight out of the picture, while Noack’s gaze is often turned towards him. For comparison, the curators of the fifth Berlin Biennale, Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic: their clothes show no such striking correlations in style and colour, nor do their postures suggest a hierarchical private relationship. (See image below)

Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic at the fifth Berlin Biennale

Oliver Marchart comments critically on the conscious displaying of the couple relationship between Buergel and Noack:

“D12 [...] is in fact the first major international exhibition to be curated neither by a single individual, nor by two individuals together[...], nor by a team (as with D11), but by a bourgeois nuclear family. In the preface to the catalogue, the only subjects, apart from the authors Buergel und Noack themselves, are their children, Charlotte and Kasimir. A truly innovative form of collective practice in the field of art”, Marchart continues with some sarcasm, “which not only, unfortunately, betokens a new bourgeois respectability—despite the assertion of feminism that distinguished the d12—but also has more far-reaching implications.”[xiv]

The reaction of Christian Kravagna to this shift was similarly critical:

“Enwezor was a curator who unquestionably had more international experience prior to taking on the documenta, yet despite this, or precisely because of it, he chose to operate with a team of six co-curators who brought with them a wide range of knowledge drawn from a variety of artistic and living environments. Buergel and Noack, by contrast, act as a family, which brought about a shift of emphasis from the political to the personal that manifested itself in, among other things, a delight in the discovery of beautiful and interesting objects that one could come across in foreign lands and then present as individual lucky trouvailles.”[xv]

This self-staging of documenta 12 director Buergel and d12 curator Noack not merely as a couple but as a family is reinforced by the added touch that the Roman numeral twelve in the documenta logo is said to have been designed by one of the couple’s children. Even to me, as someone who has repeatedly collaborated with both Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, this narrative of a traditional nuclear family came as a surprise. After all, when I had invited Ruth Noack to take part in a symposium on feminist strategies in contemporary art, she had offered to turn over her place as a speaker to the group “Frauensolidarität/Frauenbeziehungen” (Solidarity between women/relationships between women), as they would present a radical discussion of the connection between form and content. Noack felt a close connection with this Austrian group. At that time (in 1999), Noack, although in a relationship with Buergel, identified herself as a lesbian. In her contribution to the publication resulting from the symposium, she wrote: “As Roland Barthes pointed out, identity that is created by narrative follows an Oedipal structure: ‘If there is no longer a father, why tell stories at all?’”[xvi]

It is not part of my argument to discuss the sexual orientation preferred by Noack or Buergel nor anybody else’s: for one thing, that is their business, and for another I consider the requirement of a clear-cut sexuality and gender attribution on binary lines to be a patriarchal imposition, as has been discussed by Jacqueline Rose in particular in relation to the visual field.[xvii] But I would like to raise as an issue the fact that both Noack and Buergel, when they assumed the direction of the documenta 12, gave their own public image a new interpretation as a conventional narrative. It would have been possible to show a different kind of partnership, one not intrinsically defined as a hierarchy, in which gender roles might be more fluid and both partners could stage themselves as professionals of equal status. Instead, Buergel and Noack conducted their public appearances in an unusual way: while Roger Buergel introduced the programme or particular concepts, Ruth Noack, from among the audience, critiqued or questioned his statements. Perhaps the intention of this publicly performed dissent was to offer an insight into the discourse between the two, but as a spectator one was uncomfortably reminded of scenes from a marriage.

Ruth Noak, Roger M. Buergel

It would be well worth investigating what effects the return to a more conservative approach, which Oliver Marchart identifies at many levels in the documenta 12 directorship, had on the production of the exhibition and the meaning it created. I suspect that there were many contradictions, with messages that were in the end very mixed, some conservative, others extremely progressive. For instance, documenta 12 did feature a higher percentage of female artists than any previous or later one, and altogether gave ample exposure to feminist works. It is possible that Buergel and Noack were attempting a strategic move that misfired, using conservative elements like the staging of a nuclear family and Buergel’s frequently mentioned return to the Romantic and the beautiful in order to smuggle in critical messages.

I am suggesting this apparently far-fetched idea because of the fact that the last exhibition Roger Buergel created before being appointed documenta director was Das Privatleben der Werder Bremen Spieler (The Private Lives of the Werder Bremen Soccer Players) at the Künstlerhaus Bremen, to which, in my role as artistic director of the Künstlerhaus, I had invited him. The title was intended, like an optical illusion, to raise false expectations: the exhibition presented no images of anyone’s private life nor of any soccer player but instead a subtle narrative made up of textual fragments and photographs, some by Buergel himself, some by artists. This was intended to show how he conceives exhibitions through associations as well as through inspiration from theoretical ideas. Perhaps it was this media-reflexive game with unfulfilled expectations and surprisingly critical content that originally suggested the idea of staging a perfect, conservative relationship between a couple. In the execution, the use of this framework may have proved less manageable than expected.

dOCUMENTA (13): Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev as an "Angel in the White Cube"?[xviii]

This is the photograph with which, on 18 September 2009, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev ushered in dOCUMENTA (13) (See image 14). For this, her first appearance, she framed herself with previous documenta directors. From the outset, she staged her authority iconographically; she was letting it be known that, with this conference, the dOCUMENTA (13) had already begun. In this way, she was providing herself with support—from documenta authority figures in general, not merely from individual past directors to whom specifically she, in her position, might be able to look for assistance or inspiration. As we have seen from the example of documenta X, it might be also especially important for a female curator/director of documenta to represent herself in this way. But I would argue that Christov-Bakargiev initiated a conservative change on at last three different levels: On the first level, she interpreted the role of a female curator alongside traditional female role models, on the second level, she obscured all hierarchies inside the documenta organisation, and on the third level, she obscured and confused critique of National Socialism in a politically problematic way.

Jean-Christophe Ammann (for Harald Szeemann), Manfred Schneckenburger, Rudi Fuchs, Catherine David, Jan Hoet, Okwui Enwezor, Roger M. Buergel

The following reading of the first two points of d(13) is heavily indebted to Nanne Buurman's work on this issue of documenta:

“Whereas the preceding documenta 12 (2007)—with its ostentatious mise-en-scène—had shifted the attention away from artist-subjects and contexts of production towards the context of reception, the effects of display on the perception of objects, and the experiences of visitors, d(13)’s display, in contrast, was curbed in favour of centring the attention on the artists as its primary authors. Thus, d(13) countered the reflection of exhibitionary mediality and author-ity, epitomized in d12 by the mirrored entrance hall, by once again re/turning to the model of the white cube.”[xix]

As Buurman observes in her text "Angels in the White Cube. Rhetorics of Curatorial Innocence at dOCUMENTA (13)", CCB often staged herself as a warm-hearted, welcoming hostess, and explicitly opposed the theoreticization of art and of display.[xx] Here is Buurman quoting CCB: “’Art seems to be in danger of being talked to death.’ [CCB] criticized an ‘excess of art criticism and theory’, because [as CCB claims] ‘often these texts are not discussing the artworks themselves but curatorial positions in contemporary art, thereby becoming a meta-artistic discourse’ (2012b: 692)."[xxi] Buurman examines “how the power inherent in the dispositives of showing (once again) became (or was rendered) invisible by verbal and visual rhetorics of innocence" and specifies "the ways in which the political dimension of exhibiting – i.e. ‘the power of display’ and the hierarchization of visitors and exhibits implied in their constellation – was deproblematized."[xxii] Therefore, she links the ways in which CCB presents herself as the model of the self-effacing hostess who always gives precedence to her guests, in this case, the artists.

In fact, as Buurman observes not only in "Angels" but also in her 2016 text "CCB With...Displaying Curatorial Relationality in dOCUMENTA (13)'s The Logbook", talk of hospitality and care was omnipresent at d(13): much space is given to networks and friendships, especially in The Logbook.[xxiii] The topic of curating as care has been taken up by different authors, for example, Elke Krasny in her not yet published PhD on Susan Lacy’s project of networked international dinner parties, “The International Dinner Party. A Curatorial Model, Re-Mapping Affinities, Transnational and Feminist Practices”. Curating as care in this context is an outspoken feminist concept of networking women in the arts.[xxiv] It is Buurman’s merit to draw attention to the fact that the notion of “curating as care” and "curating as networking" sometimes also problematically colludes with the neoliberal deployment of traditional concepts of femininity in post-Fordist societies and their regimes of immaterial and affective labour.[xxv]

As Olga Fernandez and I have argued on more than one occasion, precisely this promise of a kind of authorship that is networked, mobile and international—secondly—turns the position of the curator into a paradigmatic performance of the new post-Fordist model of work.[xxvi] And I agree with Buurman’s analysis that this is affirmed as a performative cultural uttering to position immaterial and affective labour as naturalised. Biopolitical means that, in Foucault’s usage, this technique of power does not deal with single subjects in the way that Althusser’s concept of interpellation was formulated, but that this cultural utterance would instead influence major parts of societies. Immaterial and affective labour are no longer marginal, but can be seen as installed firmly, not only in creative industries but all over in the worldwide financial buissiness and on all levels of management tasks in companies, as Maurizio Lazzarato, Antonio Negri, and Michael Hardt, as well as Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski have pointed out in their discussions on immaterial labour, Empire, and the new spirit of capitalism. The different theoretical approaches have in common that they want to explore how power is reorganised in a global capitalism, in which the state apparatuses have lost their central role. On the other hand, one might argue the ideological state apparatuses have gained immense terrain in influencing people with post-factual imaginary scenarios, such as those one sees in the shocking rise of the right all over the Western world.

Under the cloak of a curatorial non-concept of d(13) that would give priority to the artistic personality,[xxvii] a kind of Facebook persona of the female curator as a networker is celebrated even in the dOCUMENTA (13) catalogue (The Logbook), as Buurman has shown in her detailed analysis "CCB With....".[xxviii] Buurman speaks of a "bio-politicization" of curatorial performance: “What are the (bio)political implications of Christov-Bakargiev’s presentation of herself as a dialogic, caring, enthusiastically committed round-the-clock networker in a context where flexible project-based labour systems, team-working, multi-tasking, flat management and full personal identification with one’s work have become hegemonic ideals?”[xxix] She argues that the comprehensive displaying of the processes of social communication, which were shown in The Logbook in great detail, particularly in the first section of the book, along with the relatively conventional presentation of art in the second section is an affirmative reference to or expression of neoliberal friendship economies.

To expand on Buurman's observations, I would add that the discourse Christov-Bakargiev conducted is reminiscent less of a position informed by theory than of a drawing-room chat, which implies, as I try to show, a historically and politically confused conception of contemporary problems.

Christov-Bakargiev: [...] The philosopher Martin Heidegger said that we know we have to die, but the other animals do not know it. But how does he know that? The twenty-first century is the century of great discoveries—for example, we are only just discovering the language of crows. It is mad to persist in thinking about the other animals in the way you do. Birds form flocks in the sky and fly thousands of miles and communicate with each other. So there are forms of telepathy and a language of animals.

Süddeutsche Zeitung (Kia Vahland): And you claim to understand animals and plants?

Christov-Bakargiev: In a true democracy, in my view, everyone is allowed a voice. The question is not whether we give dogs or strawberries the right to vote, but how a strawberry can assert its political intention. My aim is not to protect animals and plants but to emancipate them. At one time, it used to be said that we had universal suffrage, and yet women did not have the vote. Why did no one see the contradiction there? If the citizen-subject was construed as being only male, then certainly there was universal suffrage.

SZ: Why should dogs be able to vote, like women?

Christov-Bakargiev: Why not? Does the world belong less to dogs than to women?

SZ: Do you see no fundamental difference between a woman and a dog?

Christov-Bakargiev: Absolutely not! There is no basic difference between women and dogs or between men and dogs. Or between dogs and the atoms that make up my bracelet. I think everything has its own culture. The cultural product of the tomato plant is the tomato.[xxx]

The interviewer herself, faced with this random mixture of wild speculations about emancipation, women, animals, agency, and voting rights, seems to be somewhat at a loss for words. These statements could not be further removed from Catherine David’s call for a critical engagement with the political, social, economic, and cultural questions of the globalized present-day world, for a “manifestation culturelle” that would, “in various different ways, facilitate access to an understanding of the state of the world”—explicitly refusing to pander to a “society of spectacle”.[xxxi] Yet, in the contemporary debate there are many lines of enquiry that explore such questions on a firmer theoretical basis, such as, for example, projects by Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, the Anthropocene Issue[xxxii] and Animism,[xxxiii] which consequently were explored in a variety of formats. It would be interesting to compare a work shown at dX, Ein Haus für Schweine und Menschen (A House for Pigs and People), a collaboration between Carsten Höller and Rosemarie Trockel, with works from dOCUMENTA (13) by Pierre Huyghe, Untilled, 2011–12, Alive entities and inanimate things, made and not made. Dimensions and duration variable and Dog Run, to investigate the notions of humans/animals that are put forward.[xxxiv]

Another problem in the positioning of subjectivity through dOCUMENTA (13) is the continuing blurring of authorship. Not only does CCB present herself as a co-author of artistic work, as noted by Buurman,[xxxv] through the obviously participatory nature of the interventions and in how the artwork should be perceived, but CCB also confuses any hierarchies in the organisation of documenta. A good example is that Chus Martínez repeatedly appeared as some sort of co-curator, yet did not explicitly hold that position. On the d(13) website, numerous individuals were listed, including Chus Martínez as a department head, agent, and member of the core group; eight other people were described as agents of the core group, ten more were only agents, there were three personal assistants to CCB, eleven advisors, Dr Christine Litz as project manager, a large number of curatorial assistants, a fairly large group of people responsible for dealing with the press, and then again a head of “Vielleicht Vermittlung und Andere Programme” (Maybe Education and Public Programs)—Julia Moritz.[xxxvi] Julia Moritz answered about this rather confusing structure in an email dated 3 October 2016:

dear dorothee, yes that’s how it was—surreal administration and deliberate confusion as a concept : )chus was co-director alongside ccb, of everything, and called this “head of department” despite it embracing different areas/departments, deliberately absurd—then there were, as always, the four departments: communication, publication, education and exhibition, and I headed the education department, with the flowery title of director of Vielleicht Vermittlung und Andere Programme (Maybe Education and Public Programs), though we “real” heads of departments were happy to forgo that bureaucratic addition [...] best, Julia.[xxxvii]

The fact that the hierarchy is obscured does not cause it to disappear, but makes everything all the more impenetrable and nebulous. As Buurman points out, in The Logbook CCB staged her relationship with Szeemann and his partner as an act of consecration, as indirectly conferring authority on her.[xxxviii] CCB positioned herself in relation to an absent, great Other, one might say.[xxxix] Despite all the parading of a variety of personal relationships and a rather naively presented account of complex issues, she was clearly engaging in power strategy when she announced to Rein Wolfs—as he himself told me—that she would under no circumstances show any artist whose work he had previously exhibited under his directorship in the Fridericianum. The single exception to this was then Matias Faldbakken, whose work was shown off-site at the library.[xl]

As Buurman has noted, CCB’s idea of her documenta non-concept was presented in condensed form in the so-called Brain,[xli] which would imply this small room as a brain and the rest of the exhibition as a body, again an obvious hierarchical positioning. In Die Zeit Hanno Rauterberg described it as follows:

“There are the pastose pictures of vases by the painter Giorgio Morandi, in gold frames. There are stone figures, the Bactrian Princesses, 4,000 years old, from what is now northern Afghanistan. There is also a postcard-sized metal panel with knobs, a switch devised by the computer pioneer Konrad Zuse. And so it goes merrily on, a whole collection of fragile, damaged old things, and as if that were not enough—and lest we should get bored with this exercise in disconnected thinking—he is there, too: Adolf Hitler, both as a photograph and in the form of a fluffy bath towel with the embroidered initials A.H. Right next to it is a perfume bottle that once belonged to Eva Braun. You would only have to open the glass case to be able to smell what Hitler smelled.

View into the “Brain”, documenta (13)

Someone who did precisely this was the photographer Lee Miller, who came to Germany in the 1940s as a war reporter: she did not do it by opening a glass case, she penetrated the Führer’s Munich apartment, had a good look round and finally had a bath; it was the night before Hitler killed himself. Miller photographed herself like that, sitting in the bathtub. That is how we see her now, in the Brain.”[xlii]

I cannot enter into all the interrelationships or narratives suggested by the objects that were put on show in the “Brain”. But Miller’s photographs, occupying this position—the central position in the exhibition’s central building—are fraught with meaning. Miller’s photographs demystify, they show a very commonplace bathroom, and clearly a bathroom that it was easy to commandeer; it is bourgeois and very ordinary. Hitler’s portrait, in a small format, stands on the rim of the bath, propped against the wall, and a typical, neoclassical small sculpture stands on a table on the right. Miller’s appropriation of the bathroom has something anarchical about it, her boots and clothes have been carelessly thrown onto the floor, and the floor in front of the bathtub is dirty. The manner of the appropriation is undramatic. But the photographs are shown together with the towel with the initials A.H. and the perfume bottle, and the demystification is in danger of being turned into its opposite. Is this supposed to show me banality, the banality of evil?[xliii] But what does this signify in the context of the placing of pictures, old statues, stones, and digital replicas of them, all on the same level?

Self-portrait of Lee Miller in the bathroom of Adolf Hitler, documenta (13)

In CCB’s text, “On the Destruction of Art—Conflict and Art, or Trauma and the Art of Healing”, even the title is a jumble of disparate things. She did give a brief analysis of the photograph of Miller, but did not explain the precise curatorial idea—i.e., what exactly the combination of different objects and images and the arrangement of them in the room was supposed to suggest in terms of a narrative or idea[xliv] The question she posed in relation to the objects is in fact what I quote here from an interview:

“These objects [Eva Braun’s perfume bottle and other things] stolen for so many years, are there now. I am always playing games on different levels. And one level is: would the German government ask for restitution? Because as you know, questions of restitution [...] pop up all the time nowadays.”[xlv]

Once again, everything is thrown into the great levelling machine and falls at our feet like vomit: the restitution of artworks and objects that are the property of Jews and are to be returned is equated with Hitler’s bath towel or thermometer. Personal belongings of Jews murdered in the Shoah, which can be seen in Jewish museums or at Yad Vashem, are equated with bath towels or perfume bottles belonging to some Nazis—whom I have no wish to remember as people.

The critical reassessment of National Socialism has involved, and still involves, understanding it structurally, as a social and political system; remembering millions of people who were murdered involves preserving mementos of them, remembering each one individually as a person and telling their personal story. Professional scenographers, such as, for example, Holzer Kobler and their staff, who installed an exhibition at the former concentration camp Buchenwald, have to consider precisely how to present objects owned by the jail guards or by their victims.[xlvi] Thus, the objects owned by guards are deliberately put on a lower level, and they are not presented prominently in any way. Very consciously, meaning is produced through the way things are presented. On the contrary, in the “Brain”, the postmodern gesture to equalize everything is dominant, which concludes in levelling structures, differences, causes, and outcomes, historical situations, economic bases, and superstructures. Here, I agree with Hanno Rauterberg, who aptly comments:

“Less weight is given to logical thinking, thinking in terms of cause and effect. Two paintings by Dalí are forced into juxtaposition with an experimental apparatus for DNA research, for all the world as though the brave new world of breeding humans were just an innocent matter of aesthetics. One might end up thinking that violence, war or the Holocaust are also somehow simply natural events occurring without a cause. If there are no longer any clearly defined subjects, then there is no one who bears responsibility. Animism is very good at letting everyone off the hook.”[xlvii]

I must reiterate that this subject construction ends up in staging the role of a female curator as compatible with conservative connotations, welcoming, naïve, uninformed, not too sharp, taking up power in a hidden way. The discussed gestures position her as a meta-artist, a staging in which the celebrity status as such is one of the most important messages. One could argue that at least partly critical artworks were pacified in their (in some cases) much more radical commentary on contemporary societies.

CCB with Brad Pitt

Translation: Judith Rosenthal


Dorothee Richter is Professor in Contemporary Curating at the University of Reading, UK, and head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS/ MAS Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland; She is co-director with Susanne Clausen of the PhD in Practice in Curating Programme, a cooperation of the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Reading, as well as the publisher of the web journal OnCurating.org; Richter has worked extensively as a curator: she was initiator of Curating Degree Zero Archive, which travelled to 18 venues in Europe; Curator of Kuenstlerhaus Bremen, at which she curated different symposia on feminist issues in contemporary arts and an archive on feminist practices, Materialien/Materials; recently she directed, together with Ronald Kolb, a film on Fluxus: Flux Us Now, Fluxus Explored with a Camera (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 2013, Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Wien, 2014, Kunsthochschule Hamburg 2014, Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen, 2014, Kunstverein Wiesbaden 2014, University of Reading 2013, Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zürich, 2013; Kunsthalle Sao Paolo, 2014; Ostwall Museum Dortmund, 2015, Kibbutz College Tel Aviv, 2015; Universität Lüneburg; 2015; Museum Tinguely in Basel, 2015, Lentos Museum in Linz, 2016), and she is working at the moment on a video archive on curatorial practices together with Ronald Kolb, with 100 interviews of contemporary curators and curatorial groups.

[1] Oliver Marchart, Hegemonie im Kunstfeld, Die documenta Ausstellungen, d10, D12, d11 und die Politik der Bienalisierung, Marius Babias, ed., Walther König, Köln, 2008.

[2] Dorothee Richter, “Artists and Curators as Authors – Competitors, Collaborators, or Teamworkers?”, Beatrice von Bismarck et al., ed., Cultures of the Curatorial, Sternberg Press, Leipzig and Berlin, 2012, pp. 229–250; also published elsewhere.

[3] See Beatrice von Bismarck, “Der Meister der Werke. Daniel Burens Beitrag zur >documenta 5< in Kassel 1972”, Uwe Fleckner, Martin Schieder, Michael F. Zimmermann, eds., Jenseits der Grenzen/Dialog der Avantgarden, DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag, Köln, 2000, pp. 215-229.

[4] Klaus Staeck, Befragung der documenta, oder Die Kunst soll schön bleiben, Steidl, Göttingen, 1972, p. E 10.

[5] Ibid., p. E 14.

[6] Ibid., pp. E 10 – E 16.

[7] See documenta X website, Archiv.documenta, http://www.documenta12.de/archiv/dx/deutsch/frm_info.htm. Accessed 20.03.2017.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Retrospective of documenta: https://www.documenta.de/en/retrospective/documenta#. Accessed 14.12.2016.

[10] See Dirk Schwarze, “Zur Sprache der documenta-Kritik”. http://dirkschwarze.net/category/documenta/page/169/.26 April 2010.) Accessed 26.10.2010.

[11] Schwarze 2010 (see note 10). Accessed 19.09.2016.

[12] Elvira Grözinger, Die schöne Jüdin. Klischees, Mythen und Vorurteile über Juden in der Literatur, Philo, Berlin and Vienna, 2003.

[13] For a detailed analysis, see the shortened English version of the publication from footnote 1, see Oliver Marchart, “Curating Theory (Away), The Case of The Last Three Documenta Shows,” in Institution as Medium, Curating as Institional Critique? Dorothee Richter, Rein Wolfs, eds., OnCurating No. 8, 2011, pp. 4-8.

[14] Oliver Marchart, Hegemonie im Kunstfeld, Die documenta-Ausstellungen dX, D11, d12 und die Politik der Biennalisierung, pp. 63–64.

[15] Christian Kravagna, Texte zur Kunst, No. 67, September 2007, p. 205, quoted here in Marchart, Ibid., p. 64.

[16] Ruth Noack, “Wer ist man, wo endet man, und wo beginnt die oder der andere? Zur Videotrilogie ‘Me/We; Okay; Gray’ von Eija-Liisa Ahtila”, Dorothee Richter, ed., Dialoge und Debatten, ein internationales Symposium zu feministischen Positionen in der zeitgenössischen Kunst, Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nuremberg, 1999, p. 97.

[17]Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, Verso, London and New York, 2010.

[18] I borrow this title from Nanne Buurman, “Angels in the White Cube? Rhetoriken kuratorischer Unschuld bei der dOCUMENTA (13)”, FKW // Zeitschrift für Geschlechterforschung und visuelle Kultur, No. 58, April 2015, pp. 63–74. In the following, I cite from the slightly expanded translation “Angels in the White Cube? Rhetorics of Curatorial Innocence at dOCUMENTA (13)”, OnCurating, No. 29, Mai 2016, pp. 146-160.

[19] Ibid., p. 149.

[20] Ibid., pp. 146, 149, 155-156. See also Nanne Buurman: “CCB With... Displaying Curatorial Relationality in dOCUMENTA (13)‘s The Logbook,” Journal of Curatorial Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, June 2016, pp. 76-99, here: pp. 79 ff, 87, 90/91ff.

[21] Buurman, “Angels in the White Cube,” p. 149.

[22] Ibid., p. 148.

[23] Ibid., pp. 146, 149, 155-156, and Buurman, “CCB With...”, pp. 79 ff, 87, 90ff.

[24] Elke Krasny, The International Dinner Party. A Curatorial Model, Re-Mapping Affinities, Transnational and Feminist Practices, unpublished PhD, University of Reading, 2014.

[25] Buurman, “Angels in the White Cube” and “CCB With....”. See also Buurman “Vom Gefängniswärter zur Heilerin. Kuratorische Autorschaften in vergeschlechtlichten Ökonomien,” Kritische Berichte, No. 4, December 2016, pp. 109-116.

[26] Olga Fernandez, “What is it That Makes ‚Curating‘ so Different, so Appealing?“, Institution as Medium, Curating as Institutional Critique? Part 1, Dorothee Richter, Rein Wolfs, eds. OnCurating No. 8, 2011, p. 40-42. http://www.on-curating.org/issue-8.html#.WHFDNz8VgXk. See also my talk at Kiasma, Helsinki, “Development of curating and mediating contemporary art,” 2011, (not published) and Dorothee Richter, “In conversation with False Hearted Fanny, Feminist Demands on Curating,” in Elke Krasny, ed., Women’s: Museum. Curatorial Politics in Feminism, Education, History, and Art | Frauen: Museum. Politiken des Kuratorischen in Feminismus, Bildung, Geschichte und Kunst, Löcker, Vienna, 2013, p. 75-83; additionally, the concept of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating at Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) is based on this notion from a critical perspective.

[27] See Buurman, “Angels in the White Cube,” pp. 149-152.

[28] For a detailed discussion, also see Buurman, “CCB with…: Displaying Curatorial Relationality in dOCUMENTA (13)’s The Logbook,” pp. 76–99, pp. 86-89.

[29] Ibid., p. 79.

[30] 2012. Kia Vahland. “Documenta-Leiterin Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: Über die politische Intention der Erdbeere.” Interview, Süddeutsche Zeitung. 8 June, Accessed 14.12.2016. http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/documentaleiterin-

[31] documenta X website. Accessed 14.12.2016. http://www.documenta.de/de/retrospective/documenta_x#.

[32] Campus 2014: The Anthropocene Issue, Anthropocene Curriculum, 14–22 November 2014: “The Anthropocene is based on a changing earth system as a complex system. We can also regard the Campus as a complex system. I think we should allow the participants enough freedom to self-organize, because that’s what a complex system does”. Workshops, publications, video recordings, etc., Katrin Klingan, Ashkan Sepahvand, Christoph Rosol, Bernd M. Scherer, eds., Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray (from 2013).

[33] Anselm Franke (curator), Animismus (Animism), Haus der Kulturen der Welt: “How do we distinguish things from beings? The exhibition Animismus examines the way we draw the boundaries between life and non-life on the basis of aesthetic symptoms. The scientific positivism of the modern era was based on a categorical division between nature and culture, between a subjective and an objective world. Animism has become the alternative to that view of ourselves. That is the starting point for this exhibition. With works by around thirty international artists, curator Anselm Franke transforms the Haus der Kulturen der Welt into a self-reflexive anthropological museum of the modern age. Friday, 16 March—Sunday, 6 May 2012.”

[34] See the article by Dorothea von Hantelmann in this issue of OnCurating.

[35] See Buurman, “CCB With...,” esp. pp. 90-94.

[36] For a discussion of the similar crediting of the crew in The Logbook, see also Buurman, “CCB With...,” p. 85.

[37] Julia Moritz in an e-mail to Dorothee Richter of 3 Oct. 2016.

[38] See Buurman “CCB With...,” pp. 91-93.

[39] Ibid., pp. 77, 93, 95. See also Buurman, “Hosting Significant Others. Autobiographies as Exhibitions of Co-Authority,” in Hospitality. Hosting Relations in Exhibitions, Beatrice von Bismarck and Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer, eds., Sternberg Press, New York and Berlin, 2016, pp. 123-148.

[40] Conversation with Rein Wolfs on 7 Oct. 2016, Zurich.

[41] See Buurman “Angels in the White Cube,” pp. 154-155.

[42] Hanno Rauterberg, “Lost in Kassel,” DIE ZEIT, No. 24/2012, 6 June 2012. Accessed 30.09.2016. http://www.zeit.de/2012/24/Kunst-documenta/seite-2.

[43] See Hannah Arendt’s famous and controversial discussion of obedience as a banal way to produce destruction. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil, Viking Press, New York, 1963.

[44] Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “On the Destruction of Art – or Conflict and Art, or Trauma and the Art of Healing,” in 100 Notes—100 Thoughts, No. 40, Hatje Kantz, Ostfildern, 2012, pp. 282–92, here p. 286.

[45] Tobias Haberl, “In Conversation with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev,” in Das Logbuch, The Logbook, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, ed., Hatje Kantz, Ostfildern, 2012, p. 288.

[46] I am grateful for this explanation by Diana Bico, being part of the scenographic team at Holzer/Kobler.

[47] Rauterberg, “Lost in Kassel.”

Go back

Issue 33

the documenta issue

by Nanne Buurman & Dorothee Richter

Editorial: documenta: Curating the History of the Present

by Vesna Madžoski

Ghostly Women, Faithful Sons

by Ayşe Güleç

Learning from Kassel