This year, documenta 14 features a massive sculptural bookwork by Marta Minujín titled The Parthenon of Banned Books (El Partenón de libros prohibitos) (fig. 1). The Argentinian artist’s replica of the famous Greek monument was originally erected in 1983 in Buenos Aires after the collapse of Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship. Composed of 25,000 books bearing titles censored by the junta, Minujín’s book monument represented a powerful rebuke of this regime’s practice of violent repression and censorship by placing these banned books back into public view and circulation (five days after the monument opened, the books became available to individuals and public institutions). In an interview, Minujín describes the work as a “mass participation artwork” with local libraries and cultural institutions donating books for the enterprise.[i] For the reconstruction of this work in Kassel, the artist launched a call to the public to donate 100,000 formerly or currently banned books[ii] and, like the earlier iteration of this work in Buenos Aires, the donated books collected for the monument will subsequently be redistributed into the public realm when its display on the Friedrichsplatz draws to a close. The Friedrichsplatz was deliberately chosen as the site for Minujín’s sculpture because of its highly charged history, including events associated with books. In 1933, for instance, this same public square was the site of a book burning orchestrated by the Nazis as a part of their effort to eradicate books deemed to be “against the German spirit” (fig. 2). Moreover, this site happens to be located in front of the city’s Landesbibliothek, once housed in the Fridericianum Museum, a structure that was decimated during World War II from Allied bombing raids in 1941, resulting in the loss of over 350,000 books. The Landesbibliothek was also at one time overseen by the brothers Grimm, scholars and librarians central to Kassel’s cultural identity and prestige.
The present essay examines how books—as art objects, as powerful cultural symbols, and as curatorial tools—have been showcased in previous documenta exhibitions and what they can tell us about the expanded social fabric of book culture as well as exhibition practices and strategies of display. From large sculptural bookworks such as Minujín’s, to modest scale artists’ books, as well as consciously designed catalogues, or found, altered, and destroyed books, to books that have been translated into stone, photography, tree bark, and digital media, the book has emerged in diverse forms during critical moments in documenta’s history. The aim here is not to provide a comprehensive history of “documenta and the book,” but rather to highlight a few critical moments to ask how they reveal significant shifts in curatorial practice and exhibition strategies within documenta’s own history.
The First documenta: Rehabilitating the Narrative of Modern Art
Much like Minujín’s Parthenon of Banned Books was a response to censorship and violent loss, the first documenta staged in 1955 was conceived by its founder, Arnold Bode, as a means to recover a cultural legacy that had been brutally purged or censored by the Third Reich as well as literally decimated by Allied bombing. It was not just the Fridericianum Museum that had been damaged by the end of the Second World War; the city of Kassel itself was 85% destroyed and was still in a state of semi-ruin as Bode began to lay the groundwork for the first documenta exhibition.
As has been established in the extensive literature on the history of documenta, Bode’s curatorial and design choices were shaped by modernist principles that privileged abstraction as well as notions of universality and cultural health.[iii] For this task, Bode partnered with art historian Werner Haftmann, who had just published his influential book Painting in the Twentieth Century, which also served as a blueprint for the exhibition's catalogue. Together they engineered the first three documenta exhibitions, with Bode as chief designer and organizer and Haftmann as “chief ideologist.”[iv] Like the narrative thread in Haftmann’s book, the first documenta, as Ian Wallace demonstrates, represented a conscious effort to “rehabilitate” modernist art, particularly abstract art and the Expressionist tradition from “the slur of ‘degeneracy’ conferred by the Nazis.”[v]
Although subsequent documenta exhibitions headed by Bode-Haftmann sought to expand the narrative of modernist abstraction to include more recent developments, cracks began to appear in their organizational scheme. Unable or unwilling to accommodate movements or individuals that defied their narrative, documenta proved to many observers to be out of step with the contemporary art world.[vi] In particular, many artists and critics openly criticized documenta’s narrow embrace of media—painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts—at the expense of experimental and mixed media works that included ephemera, environmental works, video, film, happenings, or performance.
documenta 5: The Artist’s Book, the Catalogue, and the “Dirty” Book
Curated by Harald Szeemann, documenta 5 (1972) has been extensively analyzed and is widely considered to be among the most influential, albeit controversial, exhibitions of the post-war era.[vii] What has not been discussed, however, is that this was the first documenta exhibition to feature artists’ books in a meaningful way. Although scholars and critics have typically identified documenta 6 as a foundational moment in documenta’s engagement with artists’ books,[viii] it is actually documenta 5 where we first see a surprising number of artists producing and implementing books as a part of their practice. Hubertus Gojowczyk, a former pupil of Dieter Roth (himself a prolific maker of artists’ books), for example, displayed twenty-three books at documenta 5, cementing his reputation as a sculptor of compelling biblio-objects, and it marked his first showing at documenta. In addition, some of the leading figures in experimental artists’ books in the conceptualist vein, including Hanne Darboven, Stanley Brouwn, Michael Harvey, John Baldessari, Lawrence Weiner, among others, were featured in documenta 5 for the first time.[ix] Christian Boltanski also had his first documenta showing that year, with his Album de Photos de la Famille D. placed within a discursive setting of objects and documents. And Fluxus artist Ben Vautier’s first time exhibiting at documenta included his intermedial “Écritures” as a part of his performance-residency for documenta 5. Moreover, Edward Ruscha, now widely recognized as a pioneer in the history of artists’ books, was represented with fourteen books at documenta 5, and Szeemann tapped the artist to design the cover for the exhibition catalogue (fig. 3), which tapped the artist to design the exhibition poster and catalogue cover. In form, materials, and motif, this catalogue signaled to audiences that documenta 5, or “d5” as it became known, would represent a radical departure from the first four documenta exhibitions.
When Szeemann was tapped to become the director of documenta 5, he had already established his reputation as a curator who upended conventional curatorial frameworks with such notable exhibitions such as Happening and Fluxus (1970) and especially Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form (1969). Like these earlier exhibitions, documenta 5 featured objects, environments, and “actions” that did not fit traditional genre or media categories such as performance, film, video, installation, as well as multiples, including artists’ books. Moreover, as Lucia Pesapane explains, Szeemann chose to exhibit “objects that did not belong to the realm of art, creating a mixture of ordinary objects and fetish items that belonged to popular, political, or kitsch culture, as well as to religious and outsider art.”[x] Visitors to d5 were therefore presented with quotidian items such as postage stamps, Swiss currency notes, comic books, advertisements, popular magazine covers, playing cards, posters, and works of science fiction. Such a broad embrace of non-elitist imagery and non-precious materials provided not only a more inclusive context for artists’ books, but it also made possible an expanded view of artists’ books that would include books conceived as inexpensive multiples, produced with accessible materials and technologies. As such, the notion of the rarefied signed and limited edition of the livre d’artiste from the pre-war era, produced by artists such as Bonnard, Matisse, or Picasso gave way to more conceptually based artists’ books that explored the experience of reading or the nature of language, narrative, or time. Moreover, in many cases, the use of ordinary materials allowed visitors to handle the books and control the viewing-reading experience.
In keeping with his expanded view of what kinds of works would be included in d5, Szeemann was equally concerned with how to organize artworks in the exhibition spaces. In particular, he was determined to move away from the practice of displaying static objects organized around the concept of national schools, as was customary for the Venice Biennale, or of what he called the “reign of styles”[xi] that he believed characterized earlier incarnations of documenta. More broadly, however, he wanted to replace what he perceived to be a “scheme of master-pupil relationships” with a “horizontal field of associations, influences, affinities, speculations.”[xii] d5 would therefore attempt to bypass conventional art historical labels or styles with a more fluid model of broad thematic categories.[xiii]
Significantly, Szeemann channeled many of these curatorial concepts for the d5 exhibition into the design of the catalogue itself. As a doctoral student in art history conducting research on the origins of the modern illustrated book, Szeemann had gained valuable insight into the early avant-garde’s use of books and print media to advance social and aesthetic agendas.[xiv] Moreover, when he later assumed positions as museum director and curator, he was known to take a hands-on role in the design of catalogues and related promotional materials for exhibitions such as When Attitudes Become Form. As in the catalogue for this earlier exhibition, the d5 catalogue is not a bound codex with a fixed structure, but rather a notebook filled with pages with two-hole punches that fit into metal rings (fig. 4). Such a structure implied that the catalogue, and perhaps the curatorial enterprise itself, was a work in progress and seemed to correspond, at least in part, to many of the exhibition spaces of d5, which some observers at the time described as “raw” and “unpolished.”[xv] More importantly, however, the loose-leaf arrangement of the d5 catalogue allowed the user-reader of this catalogue, in principle anyhow, to rearrange the contents or to add new material. The artist Claes Oldenburg, for example, describes how he issued a small catalogue corresponding to his Maus Museum on display at d5 that was intended to be incorporated into the larger exhibition catalogue: “As you can see it has wire rings so that it can be inserted but it was printed too late to be included.”[xvi]
Oldenburg’s comments highlight one of the many challenges that compromised d5’s principle of the customizable catalogue, because in the end it simply contained too much material. It was divided into twenty-five sections that corresponded to different thematic sections of the exhibition as well as supplementary information on d5 events and a bibliography. However, in consulting multiple copies of this catalogue, the last six sections are empty including the sections labeled “nachher,” (afterward) where owners could ostensibly add their own materials such as press clippings, images, and notes.[xvii] Many reviewers of the exhibition mentioned the catalogue’s imposing size as well as its conspicuous design, some noting that it constituted a statement or work of art in its own right.[xviii] In this sense, the d5 catalogue was perhaps more successful as an expressive vehicle for Szeemann than as a practical tool for visitors of the exhibition.
From a graphic design standpoint, the d5 catalogue reflected a conscientious break from the design of the earlier documenta catalogues, which all bore the stamp of Bauhaus modernist design with its emphasis on grid-like order and a universalist typeface (fig. 5). Although Kassel-based graphic designer, Professor Karl-Oskar Blase, himself a product of modernist training, is listed in the catalogue credits as the d5 designer, Szeemann is listed in the catalogue credits as overseeing the catalogue’s “Gestaltung” (a broad term that can encompass everything from general presentation to design).[xix] Indeed, as mentioned earlier, it was Szeemann who reached out to Ruscha to contribute an image for the catalogue’s cover. The artist had already been exploring insect motifs at the time, and he rendered them in a hyper-illusionistic manner with sharp shadows, enhancing their sense of movement.[xx] As organic matter in motion, the ants on the d5 cover (which disperse onto the backside as well) fundamentally destabilize the solidity of the pure letter and number forms of the Bauhaus-inspired logos from earlier documenta catalogues. Moreover, the bright red-orange color used for the d5 cover provided yet another point of contrast, as it openly departs from the modernist color repertoire of primary colors and black and white.
Based on correspondence between Szeemann and Ruscha, we learn that it was the artist who suggested the use of a “very shiny” or “plastic” material for the catalogue cover.[xxi] The decision to embrace the brightly colored plastic is certainly in keeping with the exhibition’s embrace of the pop art aesthetic, as well as post-minimalism’s explorations into industrial materials including plastic. More importantly, however, the strategic design choices of the d5 catalogue suggest that Szeemann was aware of how an ordinary object such as a book could be used as an experimental tool to upend conventional functions and forms of the codex, not to mention an exhibition catalogue.
Ruscha, whose own books were prominently featured in d5, certainly understood his books as serving this kind of critical function. “I liked the idea that my books would disorient,” he writes, “and it seemed to happen that people would look at them, and the books would look very familiar, yet they were like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I felt that they were very powerful statements, maybe the most powerful things I’ve done.”[xxii] Ruscha conveyed such “powerful statements” and “disorienting” effects in his books through the use of low-key materials and minimalist means. In keeping with d5’s embrace of popular and commercial art forms, his books eschewed what Ruscha described as “the nuances of the hand-made and crafted limited edition book.”[xxiii] His book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), for instance, was issued in 1,000 copies (and 5,000 in a second printing in 1971), and it featured two continuous strips of deadpan photographs of commercial storefronts along the well-known street in Hollywood. Glamour, or any hint of narrative or “mood,” as Ruscha described it, was drained out.[xxiv] In its utter ordinariness, the book becomes a radical statement.
By 1972, Ruscha had produced fourteen books, all of which were on view at d5. Significantly, evidence suggests that at least some were displayed in such a way that viewers could handle them (fig. 6). Thus, despite the low-key content of his books, the artist placed value in the experiential dimension that could be afforded by his books. Interviews with the artist reveal that he was often particular about the way his books were exhibited because he understood how display could enhance or detract from the viewer-reader’s experience.[xxv] Moreover, he described his books as “bits of sculpture,” [xxvi] suggesting a physical presence that could be viewed from more than one side and ideally, exhibited free from the wall so they could be held.
Ruscha’s books were displayed in a section of d5 labeled “Idee” (Idea) on the second floor of the Fridericianum Museum. It is here, in the building that formerly housed Kassel’s Landesbibliothek, where most of the artists’ books were exhibited. Co-curated by Klaus Honnef and the noted gallerist of conceptual art, Konrad Fischer, the gallery space featured books by Lawrence Weiner, John Baldessari, and Michael Harvey, as well as a host of other projects or portfolios with text and image by artists such as Stanley Brouwn, Victor Burgin, Douglas Huebler, Allen Ruppersberg, and others. In a nearby room, Hanne Darboven’s 1972 eighty-six page 1. Buch/ 42. Buch methodically marked the passage of time with the succession of each page framed in neat rows on the wall.
The group Art & Language occupied a separate room on this floor, where the members set up a “Reading Room” with metal cabinets whose contents could be accessed by visitors of the exhibition (fig. 7). Although not a book properly speaking, this piece prioritized participatory reading and open access, as visitors could open and close drawers to peruse their contents to generate meaning.[xxvii] Similarly, photographs from other areas of the “Idee” section show d5 visitors handling books displayed on tables (fig. 8), implying that books are not rarified objects, but rather a medium that is accessible and free to be handled. For Lawrence Weiner, the value of “universal availability,” as he termed it, was critical to the display of his book.[xxviii] Moreover, such availability could be achieved with modest means. For the occasion of d5, he published Ein Elementarbuch (A Primer), a soft-cover eighty-four page book, measuring 14.6 x 10.5 cm and displayed in the “Idee” section.[xxix] When asked during an interview if he was satisfied with “his situation” at d5, he replied in the affirmative, adding, “I made a book. The book is there so that people can see it. They can pick it up and take it out. […] And people, especially working class people, can come in and look at it. They really can see what’s relevant to them or not.”[xxx]
Although several of the books at d5, such as Darboven’s and Baldessari’s were displayed in vitrines or framed on a wall,[xxxi] the increased presence of books at the exhibition aligned with the curatorial ambitions to transform the museum from a static entity that enshrines singular auratic objects to a site where visitors were in part responsible for creating their own experience. In addition to the artists’ books and Art & Language’s participatory “Reading Room” in the “Idee” section of the exhibition, visitors entering the Fridericianum Museum encountered Hans Haacke’s documenta-Besucherprofil that gathered sociological “profiles” from the visitors directly, thereby producing, in Haacke’s words, “a collective self-portrait in a participatory and self-reflective process.”[xxxii] Moreover, the publisher and bookseller Walther König installed books in a library format in alignment with the “concept of d5” in the “Information” section of the exhibition, encouraging visitors to roam through his fully functioning bookshop and peruse the books at will.[xxxiii] Located just in front of Joseph Beuys’ Büro des Organisation für direckte Demokratie with the artist on-site engaging with d5 participants, the bookshop-library received a steady stream of visitors. Beuys himself frequently visited the shop and discouraged the bookseller from replacing the smudged display copies of books, stating “the dirtier the better.”[xxxiv] As such, these “dirty” books served as testaments preserving the traces of user participation and engagement.
Szeemann once referred to documenta 5 as not simply a “producer” of an exhibition, but also as a “publisher and librarian.”[xxxv] Such roles were, of course, partly realized with the bookstore (which became an increasing presence with every documenta exhibition after d5[xxxvi]) as well as with the accessible display of books and texts in the exhibition spaces. Certainly, however, the self-conscious design of the exhibition catalogue represented an extension of this ideal. Although it failed in terms of making it a user-friendly document, the d5 catalogue definitively altered the course of documenta history in terms of curatorial branding. It goes without saying that each subsequent documenta catalogue has had a unique design that in some way marks the curatorial themes or conceits of the director. Moreover, publishing has become a major documenta enterprise in and of itself and has expanded to include multi-volume readers, magazines, notebooks, and most recently, with dOCUMENTA (13), a massive three-volume catalogue, one of which is titled The Book of Books and comprises nearly 1,000 pages.
documenta 6: From “Concept” Books to the “Metamorphosis” of Books
True to form, the catalogue for the documenta 6 exhibition (1977) had a distinctive character of its own. Rather than attempting to encompass the entirety of the curatorial enterprise into a single volume, the organizers, under the directorship of Manfred Schneckenburger, decided to divide the catalogue into three separate volumes, which could be housed in a slipcase when not in use. The elegant black and white tomes of the catalogue, with its stylized typography, sets itself apart from the d5 catalogue not only in design but its content, as explained by Schneckenburger:
This time, in contrast to the last catalogue, we are not trying to offer monuments to the artists, with its long list of exhibits and biographical references in two columns, but, where necessary, to analyze every work […] In other words, we are actually trying to see the catalogue as an instrument for mediating between the work and the audience.[xxxvii]
Such mediation had pragmatic applications as well, since the audience could carry selective portions of the catalogue while examining the different exhibition spaces of documenta 6.
Above all, however, the exhibition spaces and the catalogue of documenta 6 were rigorously structured around the concept of “media.” Looking back at his curatorial framework for documenta 6, Schneckenburger explained:
Unlike in the past, we thought in terms of media, not in terms of genres. Whereas talk of genre always also involved paragons and rivalry between the arts, and thus distinctions in terms of content, media were defined simply in terms of their specific modus operandi. […] Visitors to documenta 6 could view these media in all their artistic potential, emancipated and on an equal footing. We even examined books as a medium.[xxxviii]
As such, the exhibition embraced a broad spectrum of art ranging from painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, and performance as well as artists’ books, drawings, and “utopian design.” More importantly, however, the aim of this separate but equal arrangement of medium was to provide analysis of each medium “in order to recognize,” as he and Lothar Romain articulated in a joint statement, “the character of each form of presentation and communication.”[xxxix] Moreover, such an endeavor would be carried out critically rather than descriptively because of their acute awareness of the “sudden shift” from media “fascination” (that characterized the 1960s) to media “uneasiness.”[xl]
It is within this context that documenta 6 devoted an entire section of the exhibition to books as well as an essay examining the book as a medium by Rolf Dittmar (whose formidable artists’ book collection is now housed in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin). Herein lies one of the biggest distinctions between books at documenta 5 and documenta 6. Whereas d5 was perhaps the first documenta to include artists’ books in an innovative manner and to transform the catalogue itself into an artwork, Szeemann and the co-curators of the “Idee” section seemed to consider artists’ books as a natural extension of artists’ varied output that included mixed media and inexpensive editioned multiples as well as explorations into language. Books also fit into the d5’s overall embrace of the democratic potentials of art and of the idea, if only partially realized, of engaged spectatorship. Yet, there was no specific discussion devoted to artists’ books by Szeemann or the curators of the “Idee” section where most of the books appeared.[xli]
Such an oversight is perhaps not surprising since in 1972, critical assessment of artists’ books had not yet fully taken root. Although many of the artists who exhibited at d5, including Ruscha, Weiner, Darboven, and Brouwn, had been engaged with making books for several years and were featured in exhibitions organized by curators and artists associated with d5 such as Konrad Fischer (for his gallery in Düsseldorf), Johannes Cladders (for the Mönchengladbach Museum), Seth Siegelaub (for his publishing projects/exhibitions in New York), or Joseph Kosuth (for the Lannis Gallery, and later Lannis Museum in New York), basic critical terms and concepts to distinguish experimental “artists’ books” from the deluxe tradition of the livre d’artiste, or the broader concept of “multiple” had not been fully developed. In other words, despite long-ranging experimental engagement with books (that reaches even further back to Futurist, Surrealist, and the Fluxus movements), the critical literature on the subject simply lagged behind.[xlii] Significantly, however, the interval between 1972 and 1977 proved to be a remarkably prolific time period for the artist’s book. Acknowledging this development, Dittmar built on this momentum for documenta 6, and included well over 200 books by dozens of different artists and installed them in exhibition spaces in the Neue Galerie.
In the accompanying essay that appeared in the third volume of the catalogue, Dittmar begins by taking stock of the prolific rise of artists’ books in the previous few years, and cites influential exhibitions in Milan, London, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. as evidence that the “Book as Art Work” had become an independent category unto itself.[xliii] As such, he characterized documenta 6 as an “attempt” to document this phenomenon. Significantly, Dittmar decided to divide this part of the exhibition into two categories, labeled “Metamorphosen des Buches” and “Konzept-Bücher” (The Metamorphosis of Books and Concept or Conceptual Books). In the “Concept” section were books by familiar names that had been included in the “Idee” section of d5: Stanley Brouwn, Daniel Buren, Hanne Darboven, and Lawrence Weiner. In the much larger “Metamorphosis of Books” section, Dittmar presented such established book artists such as Dieter Roth (fourteen books) or poet-artist-critic Marcel Broodthaers (six books) along with artists such as Anselm Kiefer and John Latham, who received their first showing at documenta 6 in the section dedicated to the display of books. The sisters Barbara and Gabriele Schmidt-Heins, who had just shown work in the exhibition Buchwerke (Bookworks) in Bremerhaven the previous year, installed a remarkably prescient library containing dozens of their minimalist tomes. Moreover, the curator devised a sub-section titled “Objektkataloge” (Object Catalogues) that featured the Kassettenkataloge (catalogues in a box) issued by the Mönchengladbach museum in the late 1960s and early 1970s for artists like Marcel Broodthaers, Carl André, and Joseph Beuys, along with earlier examples of the “book in a box” principle by Marcel Duchamp and others. Dittmar also acknowledge the publishing projects involving multiple artists such as Fluxus 1, 1964 (George Maciunas and associates), Décollage 5 (1966), and de-collage (1969) (Wolf Vostell and others).
Noting the incredible variety of books being produced by artists, Dittmar concludes that the “only common denominator seems to be, that the artist questions the book as a medium that disseminates information.”[xliv] The books on view, then, were devoted to exploring and subverting conventional norms of the book. While both the “concept” and the “metamorphosed” book carry out such explorations, it is the latter category that received far more attention at documenta 6—the catalogue lists four times as many “metamorphosed” books on display than “concept” books. And despite Dittmar’s celebration of reading as a “personal action” that shapes meaning through the decisions of individual readers, the majority of the books on view at documenta 6 constituted what Garrett Stewart has described as “prevented reading on display.”[xlv] From cut, torn, or carved books (Michael Badura, Steven Cortright, Helfried Hagenberg, Jürgen Brodwolf), burned books (Bernard Aubertin, Hubertus Gojowczyk), books chained or bound shut (László Lakner, Konrad Balder Schaüfflen) to those that were covered in rubber, plastic, plaster, concrete, or mud (Alice Kochs, Milan Knizak, Dieter Krieg, John Latham, Dieter Roth, Timm Ulrichs, Wolf Vostell, Erwin Wortelkamp) or books that contained blocked or obscured text (Marcel Broodthaers, Gerhard Rühm, Martin Schwarz), a conventional reading was negated. While one could argue that materiality and spatiality among other haptic factors can contribute to “reading” a book, Dittmar points to additional challenges that interfere. Crucially, the challenge centers on the issue of display. “[D]irect access to the visitor of the exhibition,” he notes, “is prevented by the glass of the vitrine.”[xlvi] In fact, most of the books for documenta 6 were placed behind glass. As numerous photographs from the exhibition attest, visitors of documenta 6 were obliged either to hover above display cases or look through double-sided vitrines onto the book objects (figs. 9 and 10). There were of course exceptions, such as Franz Erhard Walther’s Stoffbuch 2 (Material Book 2), a massive quilt-like book displayed on the museum floor that allowed spectators to manipulate the twenty-nine blank cloth pages, or literally wrap their recumbent bodies in these pages, as if in bed (fig. 11).[xlvii]
In his essay, Dittmar raises an additional factor that fundamentally undermines viewers’ access to the books on display. The majority of the books featured at documenta 6, he notes, were produced as unique objects rather than multiples.[xlviii] Several of these works, such as Jiří Kolář’s Wunschbuch (Wish Book) were posed on pedestals like static sculptural objects to be looked at but not touched. Like Kolář’s work, many of the unique books were in fact livres détournés, books that deviate from their original function or form in order to interrogate the limits of the book. Dittmar refers to such books as “experiments” and states that the objective of documenta 6 is not to “provide answers, rather it documents questions. Questions, which the artist has asked of the book medium, and questions, which the book as medium asks us.”[xlix]
Thus, despite the incredible number and variety of books on display at documenta 6, the crucial task of “media reflection” bypassed analysis regarding “emerging trends” of the book sector.[l] Given the media “uneasiness” signaled by Schneckenburger and Romain in their statements about documenta 6,[li] Dittmar’s essay suggests the artistic explorations into the medium of the book reached an end point. These books are treated like ossified artifacts, and viewers are simply witnesses to their self-reflexive or negated status. Nevertheless, by dedicating an entire section to books, what documenta 6 did achieve was to document the consolidation of the book as a medium in art. Moreover, by designating two distinct categories of books as art—the “concept book” and the “the metamorphosis of the book”—Dittmar acknowledged the book not only as a multiple, but also, in the hands of some artists, as a singular object. It is this latter category, as one reviewer stated, where documenta 6 “was an unwitting success.”[lii]
Perhaps the most lasting contribution of the book section in documenta 6 is to be found in the sculptural bookwork by Hubertus Gojowczyk called Door to the Library (Tür zu Bibliothek) (fig. 12). Composed of books and mortar, this work was installed in the stairwell of the Neue Galerie for documenta 6, as if integrated into the architectural structure of the museum. Significantly, the Neue Galerie, like the Fridericianum Museum, had sustained major damage during the war, and had only been rehabilitated in 1976, a year before the opening of documenta 6. Moreover, while the great majority of books at documenta 6 were displayed in the newly renovated Neue Galerie, Gojowczyk’s book sculpture enjoyed the distinction of becoming the very first acquisition by the Neue Galerie of a work made in connection with a documenta exhibition. After additional renovations to the Neue Galerie in 2011, the work has been relocated, but it remains on permanent display, serving as reminder of the extensive representation of books at documenta 6.
dOCUMENTA (13): Trauma, Cultural Memory, and the Book
Thirty-five years after the accession of the Gojowczyk piece, the Neue Galerie purchased another sculptural bookwork for their permanent collection. Titled What Dust Will Rise (fig. 13), it was produced by Michael Rakowitz on commission for dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012.[liii] For this work, the artist collaborated with Afghani and Italian stone carvers to fashion stunning travertine replicas of select books that once belonged to the firebombed Landesbibliothek of Kassel, whose charred remains were also on view in Rakowitz’s installation in surrounding vitrines. Such remains included the so-called halskrause (neck ruffle), a 17th-century prayer book whose pages curled from the excessive heat from the 1941 bombing (fig. 14). Displayed in the Fridericianum Museum, What Dust Will Rise openly recognized the exhibition site as a place of trauma, and his book-themed installation bore witness to this trauma as well as the widespread instances of cultural destruction across the globe. The glass cases and table surfaces in the display served as translucent pages in a multi-layered illustrated text wherein the artist’s drawings and notes recounted some of these events, including the Allied bombing of 1941 that devastated the library of the Fridericianum, the Nazi looting of libraries throughout Europe, the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of the monumental Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, the destruction of the World Trade Towers in the same year, as well as a host of similar atrocities committed across time and national boundaries.
Like a palimpsest, Rakowitz’s display of books at dOCUMENTA (13) reveals that beneath each cycle of dissolution and restoration lie the traces of earlier transgressions and reparations. For example, juxtaposed with the carved replica of the aforementioned halskrause, Rakowitz includes a passage from the Frankfurter Zeitung from the same year that the Landesbibliothek was destroyed, reporting that Nazi troops burned a Talmudic library in Poland. Like Minujín’s Parthenon of Forbidden Books displayed at this year’s documenta 14, What Dust Will Rise reminds viewers that the Fridericianum and the adjacent Friedrichsplatz were sites that simultaneously endured and initiated acts of biblioclasm.
Another telling narrative cycle woven through Rakowitz’s bookwork pertains to the history of documenta itself and the curatorial frameworks that have defined each exhibition since its inception. The chief curator of dOCUMENTA (13), Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, took Bode’s identification of documenta as a restorative gesture for post-war society even further by organizing a series of documenta events in Afghanistan, a nation still in the midst of war. Rakowitz was one of several artists invited by Christov-Bakargiev to come to Afghanistan, and he carried out part of his project using local travertine quarries in Bamiyan. Knowing that he could never re-carve these monumental Buddhas or recover the damaged books from the Fridericianum’s Landesbibliotek or the thousands of books and artifacts lost, stolen, damaged, or destroyed in conflict, he realized that he could reintroduce the skills of stone carving to the region (which had dwindled due to the extreme iconoclasm of the Taliban). Rakowitz therefore conducted a stone carving workshop with local participants in a monastery cave close to the niche where one of the Buddhas once stood. [liv] The results of this workshop, along with one of Rakowitz’s carved books, were displayed in Kabul for the dOCUMENTA (13) exhibition held in the summer of 2012.[lv] Meanwhile, the remaining books were displayed back in Kassel within the larger discursive framework and objects described above.
Significantly, Rakowitz’s book-themed work was far from an isolated example at dOCUMENTA (13). Throughout the exhibition, books in varied form and materials were on full display, and these books consistently served to invoke themes of memory and trauma, as well as the tensions regarding the powers that regulate classification and custodianship of cultural heritage, themes central to Christov-Bakargiev's curatorial agenda.[lvi] Amar Kanwar’s installation The Sovereign Forest, for example, highlighted the often deadly struggle to preserve the resource-rich lands in East India. Produced with handmade pages of native banana fiber and silkscreened text, these books served as surfaces upon which the artist projected digital images. Paul Chan’s work inncompleteset, installed in an off-site location, featured the torn off covers of 600 eclectic books, many of them art history textbooks or monographs on famous artists such as Cézanne or Van Gogh, as well as popular trade and reference books, which he used as "canvases" for paintings. Running parallel with his activities as an e-book publisher, Chan investigates books as a shared cultural space and questions their relationship to our bodies. “When books are burned,” he asks, “why is it natural to assume that people are next?”[lvii] Matias Faldbakken produced two installations with books at dOCUMENTA (13), one in the City Hall library, and the other in Kassel’s Youth Library. Here, Faldbakken disrupted the taxonomic order of the library by spilling the books onto the floor, creating a chaotic scene (fig. 15). Mark Dion’s work at dOCUMENTA (13) was also staged within a library, in this case the Schildbach Xylotheque, or wood library, located in the Ottoneum, Kassel’s natural history museum. Founded in the 18th century by Kassel-based naturalist Carl Schildbach, this library consists of wooden book-boxes made with the bark and flora of diverse tree specimens from the region. Not only did Dion redesign the display of these books, placing them in a beautifully crafted hexagon-shaped shelved room, he also produced six new book-boxes to extend the global range of the library by including specimens from the five continents omitted in Schildbach’s original collection (fig. 16). The sixth book was devoted to the native German oak, a symbolic nod to Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks (7000 Eichen) produced for documenta 7 in 1982.
Although not all the book-themed projects were commissioned specifically for dOCUMENTA (13), we learn that all of the artist-participants visited Kassel and nearby Breitenau (a Benedictine Monastery that once served as a labor camp) prior to the exhibition and that Christov-Bakargiev encouraged the artists to engage with the city’s history, cultural spaces, and institutions.[lviii] Moreover, the curator commissioned an ambitious range of books in order to initiate discussions on subjects that aligned with the framework of dOCUMENTA (13). Called 100 Notes-100 Thoughts, these booklets included a wide range of authors with texts by György Lukács on the sociology of art, Melanie Klein on identification, Christov-Bakargiev’s “thoughts” on trauma and healing, as well as books commissioned from artists such as Etel Adnan, Ida Applebroog, Dinh Q. Lê, Lawrence Weiner, and Mathias Falbakken, among others. In sum, the collection sought to establish a network of ideas, a mobile library where, as Christov-Bakargiev notes, “the archive and the artist book [sic], collapse and recovery all come together here.”[lix]
Christov-Bakargiev was largely responsible for selecting the authors for the 100 Notes-100 Thoughts series and, in some instances, she paired individuals to work together—as was the case for the fourth book in the series by artist Emily Jacir and political philosopher Susan Buck-Morss. I wish to conclude my analysis by examining this booklet, along with Jacir’s work Ex Libris exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13), because they not only expand upon the theme of books and trauma, but they also reflect the artist’s research process in preparation for dOCUMENTA (13).
Like the other artist participants invited by Christov-Bakargiev to dOCUMENTA (13), Jacir visited Breitenau as well as other sites in Kassel including the Murhard Library, where she learned about the severely damaged books once housed in the Fridericianum. In the notebook, she includes photographs from the various sites she visited along with hand scrawled notes, including:
-in 1939 when war was declared, they put 22 manuscripts into bank safes for safekeeping
-after the bombing in 41 they hid books in stables and castles
-books are not Flammable—it's the wooden shelves
And beneath a photograph of the halskrause, the same damaged prayer book that also figured in Rakowitz’s work, she writes:
-80% of the books were destroyed
-60-80 bombs hit the main building
Not one bomb hit the tower.[lx]
Ex Libris was in fact installed in that tower, known locally as the “Zwehrenturm.” It is the one area of the Fridericianum that, as Jacir notes, miraculously survived the Allied bombing raid of Kassel. Acknowledging the charged history of biblioclasm, the artist filled the exhibition space with photographs to commemorate 30,000 books looted from Palestinian homes and institutions in 1948, many of which are currently housed in the Jewish National Library in West Jerusalem where she photographed them.[lxi] Taken with an ordinary mobile phone camera, these photographs were enlarged and mounted on thin panels that lined the museum walls in neat rows as if on bookshelves (fig. 17). Significantly, Jacir simultaneously issued a book bearing the same title, so that the photographs would continue to circulate beyond the dates of the exhibition. Moreover, in this same book, she incorporated her research on Kassel and the region as charged sites through which books have circulated or were met with tragic fates.[lxii]
Jacir’s photographs present spectators with close-up views of such details as bookplates, personalized dedications, library stamps, as well as marginal doodles, tears, stains, puckered labels, or scraps of paper left behind in the folds (fig. 18). By focusing on the personal histories and idiosyncratic markings of these looted books, Jacir stakes a claim for the original owners, hence the title. Crucially, this claim was extended to the public terrain outside the museum walls through the use of commercial billboards. In strategic locations throughout Kassel, she translated handwritten dedications found inside the looted Palestinian books and broadcast them in German, English, and Arabic. These once personal missives now called out to anybody on the busy public sites in Kassel, including the city train station, the Zwehrenturm itself (located beside a major roadway), and the Murhard Library (fig. 19). With the dispersion of Ex Libris across multiple sites and media (that extend to her two ancillary publications linked to the project), the spectator engages with the work in multiple contexts.
Jacir and her co-author Buck-Morss remind us that books are by nature migratory objects that often flow between different owners and institutions, willingly or by force: “Books move and thrive in diaspora, scholarship flourishes through cosmopolitan exchange. Texts and artifacts follow the lines of pilgrimages, troops and trade.”[lxiii] Indeed, through Jacir’s research in preparation for dOCUMENTA (13), she discovered that the most extensive book restitution project took place near Kassel at the Offenbach Archival Depot. Established shortly after the war, thousands of books looted by the Nazis were processed at this site with the aim of restoring them to their original owners. [lxiv] Jacir therefore addresses not only the looting of Palestinian books but, like Rakowitz, she also invokes complex multi-layered narratives about theft, destruction, and control of cultural property across time and geographic regions, including Kassel. As such, we come to understand books not only through their textual content, but also through their accumulated histories (and tragedies) embedded in their materials, the marks of their owners, and the spaces in which they are exhibited.
Adam Szymczyk and his curatorial team for documenta 14 seem to embrace the potency of such associations with the placement of Minujín’s biblio-sculpture in the Friedrichsplatz.[lxv] The classical edifice of The Parthenon of Banned Books not only engages with the neoclassical structure of the Fridericianum and its fraught history of biblioclasm, it clearly references the city of Athens, the home of the original Parthenon and the host of documenta 14 events and artworks, not to mention a palimpsestic site with its own layered history of trauma and loss. For this reason, it is significant that Minujín’s work served as an early public announcement to bolster interest and public participation in documenta 14. What remains to be seen, as I write this essay prior to the opening of the exhibition, is what kind of role books will play in shaping visitors’ experience or reflecting curatorial themes.
Anna Sigrídur Arnar is Professor of Art History in the School of Art, Minnesota State University Moorhead (USA). Her publications include The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, The Artist’s Book, and the Transformation of Print Culture, University of Chicago Press, 2011, which won the Robert Motherwell Book Award in 2012 from the Dedalus Foundation. More recently, she has published an essay in Sabine Folie’s catalogue +Que 20 Ans Après for the Generali Foundation, Vienna (Sternberg, 2015), and an article in esse. Arts + Opinions (Montréal) for a special issue on the “library/bibliothèque” (January 2017). Her current project is titled “‘Reading’ Books at Perennial Exhibitions of Global Contemporary Art.”
[ii] The occasion of the Frankfurter Buchmesse, held in October of 2016, was used to solicit donations for the work. http://documenta14.de/the_parthenon_of_books/donate/en. Accessed 12.01.2017.
[vi] For documenta history, see Dieter Westecker, et al., documenta –Documente, 1955-1968, Georg Wenderoth Verlag, Kassel, 1972; and Glasmeier and Stengel, eds., 50 Jahre/ Years documenta, 1955-2005, 2 vols.
[vii] Bruce Altschuler, for example, has included it in his survey of influential exhibitions in Biennials and Beyond—Exhibitions that Made Art History 1962-2002, Phaidon, 2014, London, pp. 157-74. An extensive bibliography of the critical reception of the exhibition is included in Roland Nachtigäller et al, Wiedervorlage d5: Eine Befragung des Archivs zur Documenta 1972, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2001. Exhibition catalogue.
[viii] See, for example, Steven Klima’s characterization of documenta 6 as “notorious” and that it was the first documenta to include artists’ books, Artists’ Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature, Granary Books, New York, 1998, pp. 8 and 45. See also Thomas Vogler, “When a Book is not a Book,” Books as Objects, Comus Gallery, Portland, OR., 1993. Exhibition catalogue. Annelie Lütgens writes that “credit must go to documenta 6 for establishing a section that featured artists’ books,” in “A Re-Presentation of documenta 6,” in Michael Glasmeier and Karen Stengel, eds., Archive in Motion, p. 278.
[xiv] As a student in art history in Paris, Szeemann conducted research on Alfred Jarry and the illustrated books of the Nabis, focusing on the socio-cultural context including experimental theatre and publishing. Szeemann never completed the thesis, but a draft of it is preserved in his archive at the Getty Research Institute.
[xviii] Barbara Rose quips that the “Monstrous super-document” represented the “only great work of art in the show,” “Document of an Age,” New York Magazine, August 14, 1972. The documenta Archiv possesses a hilarious flyer mocking the increased heft of each documenta catalogue, the d5 supposedly weighing in at six kilos compared to trim 450 grams of the first catalogue. dA-AA-Mp. 38. Critic Nigel Gosling complains that the d5 catalogue was as big as “two London telephone directories,” Nigel Gosling, 1972. “Crystal balls in Kassel.” The Observer, July 2.
[xix] I thank graphic designer João Doria for this observation, http://blogs.walkerart.org/design/2012/12/03/catalog-and-archive-two-szeemann-designs. Accessed 01.29.2017.
[xxi] In a letter dated April 29, 1972 Ruscha wrote to Szeemann stating “The catalog cover with my design would look extremely well if it were either very shiny or plastic coated.” The letter is reproduced in Tobia Bezzola and Roman Kurzmeyer, eds., Harald Szeemann. with by through because towards despite. Catalogue of All Exhibitions, 1957-2005, Edition Voldemeer, Zürich, 2007, p. 317.
[xxvii] In a documentary film about d5, Joseph Kosuth, who exhibited with Art + Language, discusses how the group’s reading room allowed several viewers to read simultaneously whereas a conventional codex could only be read by one person at a time. documenta 5: A film by Jef Cornelis, Argos/ JRP Ringier/Le Magasin, Brussels/Zürich/Grenoble, 2012.
[xxix] The cover of this book shared the same red-orange hue as the d5 catalogue.
[xxxi] Klaus Honnef explained that some of the books at d5 belonged to Konrad Fisher’s private collection and was therefore displayed in vitrines. Honnef, personal email correspondence with the author, February 13, 2017. Artist Michael Harvey explains, “If I remember correctly, I had two books in Documenta 5. One—white papers— 1968-71, 71 loose pages in a box, was displayed on a table with other books. The second, DETECTIVE, not yet in book form, was displayed on the wall like drawings.” Email exchange with author, March 22, 2017.
[xxxii] Hans Haacke, “Lessons Learned,” Tate Papers, no. 12, Landmark Exhibitions issue, Autumn, 2009, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/12/lessons-learned. Accessed 03.21.2017.
[xxxiii] The bookseller’s contribution-installation to d5 is listed as “Buchhandlung Walther König, Bucherangebot in Form einer Bibliothek zum Konzept d5,” Nachtigäller et al., Wiederforlage d5, p. 234. Some participants, including Claes Oldenburg, considered the bookstore as an integral to d5; see Reaves, “Claes Oldenburg, An Interview,” p. 39.
[xxxiv] Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klass, “Interview with Walther and Franz König,” April 18, 2012, http://www.hatjecantz.de/walther-and-franz-koenig-5164-1.html. Accessed 03.21.2017.
[xxxviii] See Schneckenburger’s retrospective assessment of documenta 6 and 8 in Jennifer Allen, “documenta—Looking Back and Ahead,” Frieze, May 21, 2012. https://frieze.com/article/documenta-%E2%80%93%C2%A0looking-back-and-ahead. Accessed 02.12.2017.
[xlii] For a concise discussion of the critical language with respect to artists’ books, see Johanna Drucker, “The Artist’s Book as Idea and Form,” in The Century of Artists’ Books, Granary Books, New York, 1995, pp. 1-20. Writing on books since 1972, Clive Phillpot’s critical writings have been assembled in Booktrek. Selected Essays on Artists’ Books since 1972, Distributed Art Publisher, New York, 2014. For a more European focus, see Deborah Wye, Eye on Europe: Prints, Books & Multiples, 1960 to Now, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006. Exhibition Catalogue; and Sigrid Schade and Anne Thurmann-Jajes, Artist’s Publications. Ein Genre und seine Erschlieszung, Salon Verlag, Cologne, 2009.
[xliii] Rolf Dittmar, “Metamorphosen des Buches,” in documenta 6, vol. 3, Kassel, Paul Dierichs, 1977, pp. 296-99. The influential exhibitions cited by Dittmar include those curated by Daniela Palazzoli at L’Uomo e l’Arte in Milan (1972), Germano Celant at the Nigel Greenwood Gallery in London (1972), Diane P. Vanderlip at Moore College in Philadelphia (1973), Martin Atwood at the Arts Council of Great Britain (1976), and the Fredrick Gallery in Washington D.C. in 1976.
[xlix] “Es ist nicht Sinn dieser Ausstellung, Lösungen anzubieten, sondern Fragen zu dokumentieren. Fragen, die der Künstler dem Medium Buch gestellt hat, und Fragen, die das Buch als Medium uns stellt. In diesem Sinne sind die gezeigten Exponate als Experimente zu verstehen.” Ibid, p. 299.
[l] “Der ‘documenta 6’ geht es vornehmlich um eine Dokumentation der grundlegenden Fragestellungen. Sie muss schon aus räumlichen Gründen darauf verzichten, die sich abzeichnenden Auswirkungen des Medienreflexion auf dem Buchsektor darzustellen.” Ibid.
[lii] D.E. Steward, “Fridericiana,” Chicago Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, Summer, 1979, p 61. Critic David Shapiro concurs, noting that documenta 6’s selection of books were “rigorous” and “beautifully proposed and executed,” and adds that “With the book-as-sculpture Documenta has a certain success,” “A View of Kassel,” Artforum, September 1977, p. 62.
[lv] One of Rakowitz’s books was displayed in the Queen’s Palace in Kabul. For pictures of his work as well as those by participants in his stone carving workshop, see “An Exhibition Opens in Kabul,” in The Logbook. dOCUMENTA (13) catalogue 2/3, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2012, pp. 250 and 253.
[lix] “Interview with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev,” Hatje Cantz Magazine, June 5, 2012. www.hatjecantz.de/carolyn-christov-bakargiev-5197-1.html. Accessed 03.28.2017.
[lxi] Jacir’s work was initially inspired by scholar Gish Amit’s research; see “Ownerless Objects. The Story of the Books Palestinans Left Behind in 1948,” Jerusalem Quarterly. Institute of Jerusalem Studies 33, Winter 2008, pp. 7-20.
[lxiv] The state of Hesse, to which Kassel belongs, was part of the American Zone of Occupation, and the Depot was run by the Officers from the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives. Emily Jacir, Ex Libris, p. 9.