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by Nanne Buurman

The Exhibition as a Washing Machine? Notes on Historiography and (Self-)Purification in documenta’s Εarly Εditions


Preface: From Weapon to Washing Machine
In the introduction to OnCurating issue 33, documenta. Curating the History of the Present,[1] Dorothee Richter and I highlighted the importance of situating the birth of the exhibition series in the social, political, and economic context of Germany during the Cold War, where shortly after the country’s separation into the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and socialist German Democratic Republic (DDR, both states established in 1949), the newly independent FRG was seeking integration into the transatlantic West and gained its independence in 1955, the same year documenta first took place. “In this light,” we wrote, “documenta initiator Arnold Bode’s dedication to primarily expressive modern art and art historian co-curator Werner Haftmann’s promotion of “abstraction as a world language,” a slogan devised for the second documenta [in 1959], may be read as an ideological affiliation of documenta with the [so-called] “free West,” where artistic liberation from naturalist representation was considered as expression of individualism, whereas (socialist) realist art was regarded as “unfree” because it did not cut its ties to extra-artistic reality.”[2] As we shall see in the following, however, the depoliticizing ideology of abstraction that was promoted in the early documenta editions as a sign of artistic autonomy from politics cannot be explained by the exhibition’s function as a “Weapon of the Cold War”[3] alone. Taking  into account the uncanny echoes of Nazi rhetoric permeating the first documenta editions’ catalogues that I started to examine in 2018 for a presentation at the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome, the following text, based on a lecture delivered in Thessaloniki in 2019 and first published in an abridged version in 2020, argues that it also necessary to reflect on the ways in which exhibitions like documenta may serve as “Washing Machines” for (art) history.[4]

Even if some art historians had already questioned the exhibition’s spotless image in recent decades,[5] this has remained largely unnoticed by a wider public until the symposium documenta. Art and Politics, organized by German Historical Museum (DHM) in Berlin on October 15, 2019.[6] The conference eventually triggered broader public discussions in German newspapers and art journals during the winter of 2019/2020 that primarily evolved around the news of the NSDAP membership of documenta co-founder Werner Haftmann. The consequent exhibition in 2021 furthermore revealed that Haftmann had participated in the hunting of partisans in Italy.[7] Thanks to the authority of an institution like the DHM and the hard facts presented there, my linguistic diagnoses could no longer be disavowed, called into question, or excused as mere resonances of thejargon of authenticity” fashionable at time.[8] It became clear that they also needed to be understood in the context of more explicit Nazi entanglements of the documenta founding fathers, whose historiographic, curatorial, and educational practices and ambivalent legacies I am currently investigating in the context of a larger body of work titled documenta as a Haunted Exhibition.[9]

Introduction: Complex Continuities
The first documenta took place in 1955, in the re-erected Museum Fridericianum. After it had been bombed to ruins during the Second World War, the exhibition’s first home and main venue ever since was partially reconstructed with whitewashed brick walls. These white walls would become such a prominent feature of the early shows’ overall design that—together with plastic curtains as wall covers—they define the signature look of the 1950s documenta editions.[10] The ruin-scenario has proven to be the perfect backdrop for a hagiographic master-narrative that celebrates the founding fathers of documenta as creative individuals, who created the exhibition ex-nihilo after World War II.[11] This essay, in contrast, attempts to provide a critical feminist re-reading of documenta’s early history that problematizes such a heroizing historiography by focusing on the exhibition’s socially reproductive (or even reparative) functions as a cultural midwife of the West German, revamped identity.

fig. 1. Ruin of Museum Fridericianum after its bombing 1943, Photographer Unknown


fig. 2. German Rubble Women, Photographer unknown, Source: https://www.br.de/radio/bayern2/sendungen/radiowissen/geschichte/truemmerfrauen-nachkriegszeit-104.html


fig. 3. Rotunda of Museum Fridericianum during the first documenta (1955) with whitewashed brick walls and Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s Kneeling Woman, Photo: Günther Becker, Copyright: documenta archiv.


The beautiful tale of documenta as an arbiter of democracy, whose makers were performing a radical break with the Nazi past, has only recently come under serious scrutiny by scholars calling attention to the complex continuities, both on an ideological and personal level. With this in mind, I ask if the dehistoricizing celebration of the timeless universality of abstraction during the first three documenta exhibitions did not perhaps serve its founders as a means of whitewashing German (art) history, including their own roles in “Third Reich” cultural politics. Based on Irit Rogoff’s elaborations on how constructions of innocent femininity can be deployed to turn the vanquished into victims, and how a feminizing focus on the mundane everyday survival of German civilians has been used to relativize German guilt,[12] I will furthermore discuss to what extent documenta’s depoliticizing domestication of modern/contemporary art was instrumental in forgetting, repressing, or covering the immediate past by focusing on the present, thus “clearing the conscience” of an entire nation.[13] In line with Rogoff’s discussions of the museum as a “funerary site for uncomfortable or inconvenient historical narratives,”[14] I will think about the ways in which documenta contributed to clearing away the dark spots of the Nazi past that was haunting documenta then and keeps haunting it up to today.[15]

Teleology towards Timelessness
In my 2018 talk “Presenting as Presenting,” which was dedicated to the philosophies of history informing different documenta editions,[16] I problematized the reactionary dimensions in the universalizing notions of timelessness of modern abstraction that were evoked by Haftmann and his colleges during the early documentas. The presentation of “abstraction as a world language” conceived of modern non-figurative art as the end point of a teleological development towards abstraction.[17] Although the slogan was coined only for the exhibition’s second edition, the first edition already included a visual curatorial prologue showing photographs of African masks, archaic Greek portraits, pre-Columbian sculptures, and Mesopotamian castings that served to legitimize modern abstraction by providing an argument of transcultural and transhistorical kinship of the arts of all times.[18] (fig. 2) In his book, documenta. Mythos und Wirklichkeit, Kassel-based art historian Harald Kimpel argues that the aim of this presentation (that was lacking any chronological or geographical order) was “dehistoricization by way of history” resulting in a “static notion of art,” rather than “making transparent the historical processes underlying contemporary art.”[19] Artist and designer Arnold Bode’s “ahistorical way of thinking,” according to Kimpel, corresponds with a Nietzschean “meta-historical blurring of the past and the present in a multiplicity of omniscient unchanging types of eternal value and meaning.”[20] This idea of trans-historical validity or timelessness—which Kimpel links to the notion of the Gleichzeitigkeit (i.e., synchronicity) of all cultures, developed by universalist historians like Arnold Toynbee or the right-wing conservative Oswald Spengler[21]—however, was not merely the consequence of an ahistorically minded artist. It was also a deliberate historiographical choice by the art historian Haftmann to present contemporary art in continuity with a specific branch of European prewar modernity.[22] By thus promoting an evolutionary development of art history towards art’s timeless abstraction, the documenta founders were curating a very selective history of the present with many blind spots—for instance, largely factoring out leftist political traditions, realism in general, works by Jewish artists, as well as “non-Western” art, and, with very few exceptions, art made by women.[23]

fig. 4. Photographic prologue at Fridericianum during the first documenta (1955), Photo: Günther Becker, Copyright: documenta archiv


In the introduction to the catalogue of the first documenta (in 1955, dedicated to art of the 20th century), Haftmann, for instance, seemingly apologetically elaborates on the lack of temporal distance to contemporary art and mentions the difficulty of dealing with contemporaneity without historical hindsight.[24] The lack of oversight in the midst of what appears as “chaos” of the present is taken up again in the preface to the catalogue of the second documenta (in 1959, dedicated to art since 1945), where Bode and other members of the exhibition committee stress that the “temporal proximity to the exhibited artworks made the selection more responsible […].”[25] Likewise, Haftmann, picking up on his earlier statements, notes that “even the discipline of history admits that the ordering and mastering of historical visions cannot do without the insights of contemporary thinking and perception.”[26] His response to the challenges contemporaneity poses to control and mastery is creating an essentializing teleological master-narrative in which the “inner necessity”[27] of the development of European modernism since 1890 provides the basis of mastering (and even celebrating) the timeless present, thereby turning the unmasterable fascist past into a blind spot.[28]

Constructing a genealogy of abstraction that is rooted in the history of modernity, but is nevertheless untainted by political power constellations or sociological understandings of art, Haftmann naturalizes it as “evolutionary rather than revolutionary in nature,” stressing that the development of contemporary art “stands with all its roots in a strict continuity” with the insights of the earlier decades of the twentieth century.[29] In preparation for documenta III (1964, dedicated to art of the past five years)—according to Haftmann’s catalogue introduction—there were further (unrealized) plans “to exhibit great historical works and masters as examples erected in a hall of columns in order to liberate modernity from its temporal ties and place it on the fond of art’s timelessness.”[30] The years of the Nazi rule, between 1933-1945, however, are cut out of this continuous teleology towards timelessness, and in the first two documenta catalogues the Nazis are only alluded to as an oddly absent, ungraspable totalitarian force, in passages where Haftmann problematizes political interference with art in general.[31] Thus, he implicitly perpetuates a “horseshoe theory” of art by denouncing realisms on the left and the right sides of the political spectrum as equally totalitarian representations of mass culture that cannot be reconciled with abstraction’s liberal freedoms of individual expression.

Victimizing the Vanquished
Although he does not explicitly mention the so-called Degenerate Art exhibitions (the first and most famous of which took place in Munich in 1937), reading Haftmann’s catalogue introduction,  it seems as if, for him, the main problem with Nazism was not so much its racist and political genocides, but rather specific agendas of its cultural policy—i.e., the political instrumentalization of art and the ostracization of modern abstract tendencies.[32] Warning against the risks of “academization” and “petrification,” in the 1955 catalogue he maintains that contemporary art’s “great freedom” and the “moment that we celebrate as our present,” is not the result of “arbitrary chance” but had to be “bred upward” (heraufgezüchtet) in a “continual development of humankind.”[33] Notably, the German verb heraufzüchten means improving and nobilitating by breeding. The expression resonates with the eugenics and euthanasia-programs by the Nazis whose goal, only a couple of years earlier, had been to “nobilitate” and “purify” the so-called “Aryan race” by killing and “breeding out” everyone deemed unworthy of life. Moreover, Haftmann explicitly calls upon the “German spirit”[34] and repeats the words “German” and “Germany” in a way that leaves little doubt as to the importance he attributes to national identity.[35]

Rather than explicitly referring to the Nazi crimes, he only obliquely mentions a “fit of iconoclasm” as a somewhat unauthored “stepping outside” of the European “development logic” of modern art.[36] Thus avoiding explicit attribution of the iconoclasm to the Nazis, he likens it to a natural catastrophe that interferes with the “natural order” of artistic evolution.[37] Nevertheless, he maintains that the “outlawry” or “ostracization” (Verfemung) could not do much damage to the artists themselves.[38] Instead, according to him, “The damage was rather done to the nation, its understanding of contemporary culture, its passive will to art/culture.”[39] Here, Haftmann explicitly victimizes the German nation whose wounds and losses—he claims—documenta has come to heal by bringing back to light those male heroes of modernity who had gone “underground, painted in wash houses, modelled in ruinous factory halls and nurtured themselves like the lilies of the field.”[40] Besides, once again drawing on naturalizing metaphors of artistic self-sustenance under divine guidance, Haftmann forgets to mention those victims and casualties of Nazism—among them Jewish or leftist artists—who were tortured and killed by Nazis like Haftmann himself, thus conflating two incomparable modes of suffering.[41] In his later writings, he would even go so far to claim that the barren conditions for modern artists in so-called inner emigration during the NS contributed to nobilitating their art, as it forced them to focus on the essential inner truth rather than dealing with contingent realities, thus constructing a quasi-Darwinist version of art history as a “survival of the fittest.”[42]

Haftmann thus not only naturalizes the Nazi regime but also conceptualizes the art(ist)’s response to the regime in biological terms. By foregrounding the reproduction of life over the production of works, he thereby also domesticates the surviving artists by using an imagery that situates them in the mundane and feminized realm of reproductive labor (washing and nurture), in which painting appears like a humble, privatized household activity. These feminized, mundane artistic labors are furthermore situated in a landscape of ruined factories—i.e., prototypical places of male (war) production rendered dysfunctional—thus, allegorically emasculating the artists and—by stressing their impotence—rendering them innocent “like the lilies of the field.” Painting is here portrayed as a domesticated, civilian, yet also heroic, reproductive activity of passive endurance during times of political Berufsverbot (professional ban). Against the backdrop of this makeshift domesticity that is mirrored in the improvised furnishing of the Fridericianum’s ruins, documenta’s highly selective display of formerly ostracized modern art is implicitly conceptualized by Haftmann as a curatorial extension of its earlier, unseen, reproductive functions of nursing the existential “will to art/culture”—presented by him as a basic need from which the German population, including the show’s visitors, was deprived for too long. Thus, the curator presents documenta not just as an instrument of care for the artists, but also “for the spiritual welfare of the nation.”[43]

Since the whole introduction to the first documenta catalogue not only factors out Nazi necropolitics in favor of stressing the biopolitical reproduction of life and the recreation of national cultural identity addressed to the youth and aimed at the future, I believe it is not too far-fetched to argue that, by employing naturalizing and feminizing discourses, Haftmann here activates its discursive function of victimization within what Rogoff calls the “culture of survival,” often located in the “supposedly timeless and ahistorical arena of women’s lives.”[44] Another part of the first documenta’s photo prologue, which staged modern artists as civilized heroes of modernity in black-and-white photos, may also serve as an example of such a domesticating whitewashing of history. (fig. 3) As Walter Grasskamp noted, many of the artists were shown wearing immaculate suits and ties so as to re-establish their respectability by juxtaposing these ideal types of modern citizens with the earlier delegitimatizing representation of their art by the Nazis in the Degenerate Art shows.[45] Showing them as a plurality of individualized civilians, rather than uniformed soldiers, moreover, the artists were exhibited in their “white vests,” even though some of them were not as politically innocent as the curatorial story would have it.[46]

fig. 5. Portraits of modern artists in the photographic prologue at Fridericianum during the first documenta (1955), Photo: Günther Becker, Copyright: documenta archiv


Biopolitics of Biography
The prominent inclusion of artists like Giorgio Morandi or Emil Nolde—artists who have often been cited as examples of the so-called inner emigration, despite their sympathies with Fascism or National Socialism respectively—is just one hint that the history of modern art was in need of active purification in order to appear innocent. In the Cold War context, where incomplete denazification had given way to anti-Communism, Haftmann seems to have been the right person for the job.[47] He, for instance, actively supported Nolde before and after the Second World War. Featuring the artist not just in his 1934 articles in the Nazi art journal Kunst der Nation and the first three documentas (1955, 1959, 1963),[48] Haftmann also wrote a biography in 1958 that factored out the artist’s racism, antisemitism, and Nazi sympathies and portrayed Nolde as a victim of Nazi persecution, due to the inclusion of his works in the Degenerate Art exhibitions.[49] (figs. 4) Perpetuating the myth of the “Unpainted Pictures”—allegedly painted in “inner emigration”—both in the biography and in the picture book Ungemalte Bilder (Unpainted Pictures) that he edited in 1963, the very year in which the second Auschwitz trials (1963-1965) began, Haftmann managed to depict the antisemitic artist, who was one of the first to join the Nazi party and had many admirers among the regime’s higher ranks, as bereaved by the National Socialist professional ban that allegedly prohibited him from painting.[50]

fig. 6. Installation view of Emil Nolde “Die Familie” (1931) during the first documenta (1955) at Fridericianum, Photo: Günther Becker, Copyright: documenta archiv


fig. 7. Emil Nolde: “Die Familie” (1931), scan of catalogue page, Copyright: Nolde Foundation Seebüll.


The book Unpainted Pictures remarkably deals exactly with those years between 1938 and 1945 that the historian had bracketed out of his earlier genealogies of modern/contemporary abstraction. Haftmann’s highly apologetic portrait of Nolde’s withdrawal into his hidden studio closely resonates with and amplifies the scenario of inoperative underground existence, which Haftmann evoked in the first documenta’s catalogue, feminizing the artist’s invisible labors as a culture of mere survival in a private realm beyond historical time.[51] The repeated stressing of the small size of the space and the images he paints there as well as the introversion in the material handling of the paint almost evokes the 19th-century stereotype of women sitting in their lonely chamber, bent over a piece of embroidery, or even Rumpelstiltskin’s imprisoned princess spinning straw into gold. “The more the outer life was reduced to the silent domestic circle, the more the inner life, this ‘real life’ started to shine.”[52]

Moreover, Haftmann repeatedly mentions that Nolde and his wife did not have any children of their own. According to the art historian, the paintings were like their children that the artist “wished to protect like bodily progeny.”[53] This simile suggests a transfer of biological infertility to political impotence and virginity, climaxing in Haftmann’s excuse of Nolde’s early Nazi sympathies as politically naïve.[54] Framing the small formatted “Unpainted Pictures” as embryos of real, large-size paintings,[55] Haftmann links artistic creation with procreation and restrained masculinity, whose realization of full creative potency had to be postponed until the paintings would see public light after the break of the Nazi “ban”/“spell.” Remarkably, Haftmann’s description of Nolde’s artistic work oscillates between a feminizing description of painting as a caring domestic labor of small scale that requires continuous effort and its masculinization as effortless automatic painting “that gave him the masculine pleasure to be and to be at work. Whenever he dressed himself in the king’s coat of his artistry all of his fears and all threats disappeared and he once again became the strong painter, who knew himself in front of a strong work.”[56] Haftmann’s portrait is characterized as a constant shifting between stress on Nolde’s innocent impotence (old age, political naiveté, professional ban, tied hands) and the creative sublimation of unrealized fatherhood or lack of recognition by the Nazis in a heroically stubborn dedication to painting against all odds.

A year after Haftmann’s publication on Nolde’s Unpainted Pictures, a selection of them were shown during documenta III (1964) as the only monographic cabinet in the survey of modern graphic arts at Alte Galerie (today’s Neue Galerie). As Haftmann wrote in the catalogue:

We furnish it just for Nolde, in order to show, in a space of their own, the small late water colors, sketches of never painted pictures, that he made in the dark years of war and ostracization. They are the poignant last word of a great German painter from the darkest times of German history.[57]

In contrast to this celebration of the German painter’s heroic suffering, the Shoah remained the exhibition’s unacknowledged blind spot. Instead of taking issue with Nolde’s antisemitism, Haftmann defended the artist against such charges when they were raised in the catalogue of Nolde’s 1963 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York by claiming that the artist was “by no means antisemitic.”[58]

As late as 1986, Haftmann wrote a study on degenerate art and inner emigration, commissioned by former chancellor Helmut Kohl, in which Haftmann perfected this story by claiming that the artist “was, when the massive attack reached him, the natural-born, the existential anti-fascist.”[59] Thanks to Haftmann’s support, Nolde was generally perceived as one of the prime casualties of Nazi cultural politics by the wider German public, until the 2019 Nolde exhibition Emil Nolde. The Artist during the Third Reich at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof caused Chancellor Angela Merkel to take down the artist’s paintings from the walls in her office. By turning a Nazi like Nolde into a victim, Haftmann managed to create for himself the image of an art historian who tirelessly fought for the rehabilitation of modern artists. His self-staging as a defender of the art that was declared degenerate thus not only whitewashed Nolde’s biography but also his own.

Decorative Debris
documenta, with its official aim to rehabilitate the artists that had been declared “degenerate” by the Nazis (but not those who were persecuted on racial or political grounds), was a good occasion to bury the dark past. It was founded as a satellite to the Federal Garden Exhibition, organized by Bode’s colleague Herman Mattern, another former NSDAP member and member of the documenta organizing committee, who had earlier been responsible for the 1939 Reich Garden Show in Stuttgart. (figs. 5a-c) Covering over the rubble of the city’s bombing with beautiful flowers, the show’s decoration of debris could be read in analogy to documenta’s display of a depoliticized teleology towards abstraction: just as the flower beds on Kassel’s rose hill (a pile of rubble) helped to elegantly camouflage not so honorable military memories of the city’s arms production that were the reason for its bombing,[60] the art show’s blooming fields of color allowed its makers to conceal their former Nazi entanglements behind the thorny blossoms of decorative ornamentation. Haftmann notably compares documenta’s “diversity” of international abstraction at the end of the 1955 catalogue to “a bouquet of flowers, in which each flower keeps its own scent and color while harmonizing within a larger universality.”[61] The ethnopluralist vision of abstraction articulated in this floral metaphor, with its reliance on notions of national character, however, has a more ambivalent genealogy whose problematic historical roots were deliberately cut off in favor of presenting a domestic image of harmony within European unity.[62]

fig. 8. Clearing away war debris from Fridericianum after its bombing in 1943, Photographer unknown.


In his speech during the public program of documenta III in 1964, titled “Über bildende Kunst im Maschinenzeitalter” (On Fine Arts in the Age of Machines), Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch interpreted the declaration of the new painting and sculpture as the “end of art” to be the “war cry of standstill of those whose own mind stands still.”[63] Without explicitly mentioning Haftmann, Bloch here takes issue with the essentializing cliché of subjective interiority, which Haftmann had described just one year earlier in his Ungemalte Bilder (1963) as the prime characteristic of contemporary art, i.e., that it expresses the “inner world of the subject” or “the reality hidden within the human.”[64] Even if art has figurative tendencies, like Nolde’s paintings, according to Haftmann, these contents are “turned into the timeless universality” in the same way that the artist’s entire life is comprised in his work’s formal qualities, thus “standing on the ground of the timeless-anonymous world of art.”[65] Bloch’s observation that—due to the “creative subject’s withdrawal into musical inwardness of the domestic living room”—these “objects appear as inhabitants of their own inner landscape,” or even as “mummified ornaments of our innermost Gestalt,” “which even denaturalizes the outside as an appearance of the inside”[66] sound like a direct response to Haftmann’s depoliticizing and dehistoricizing domestication of contemporary art.

Against the false appeasing appearance of plurality, which “pulverizes the antagonistic,” he calls to mind the ways in which montage was developed out of technological developments and may give rise to a simultaneous perception of “things miles apart,” thus countering Haftmann’s suggestions of “timelessness” with his own deterritorializing understanding of  “Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen” (synchronicity of the non-synchronous).[67] For Bloch, technology and the artistic technique of montage bear the potential to “adequately bring into the frame and on the pedestal our world […] half pile of debris, half figure in becoming.”[68] Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), which happens to depict just such a hybrid fractured figure mediating between earth and sky, life and death, past and present, therefore signals “more than the end of the museal in the culinary cultural perception.”[69] (fig. 5d)

Notably, Bloch’s materialist critique of spiritual ontologies like that of Haftmann in many ways reads like an echo of Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the philosophy of history and on the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). In his “Theses on the Philosophy of the History,” written in 1940 shortly before he committed suicide to escape capture by the Nazis, Benjamin actually refers to Klee’s Angelus Novus (which he owned):

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[70]

With this, we could perform a sort of reverse Benjaminian tiger’s leap into the present of 2007, right into the Rotunda of the Museum Fridericianum during documenta 12. Here, the curators Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack displayed a reproduction of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, with Benjamin’s discussion the “Angel of History” posted besides the image as a wall text.[71]

Whereas the first documenta editions referred back to ancient objects for legitimation of modern art as part of a declaredly timeless and universal tendency towards abstraction, thereby initiating a ritual of forgetting, d12’s display of a copy of an iconic picture by one of the modern masters heavily promoted in the early documenta editions was used to introduce one of the leading questions of the exhibition: “Is Modernity our Antiquity”? This was an invitation to revisit the past to actualize and politicize its gaps in the present of the now—rather than following the likes of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who took part in literally whitewashing the whole legacy of antiquity in the 18th century by spreading the erroneous belief in the whiteness of classical sculpture, thus institutionalizing pure whiteness as a norm that still haunts art history today, as documenta 14’s display in the Neue Galerie reminded visitors in 2017. As this essay has aimed to show, it is as important to revisit and correct the historiography of documenta, especially the myth of its political purity, by shedding light on its socially reproductive and governmental functions.

Postscript: Haunted House
From the perspective of early 2022, is seems even more urgent to address the ambivalent heritage of modernity and its uncanny hauntings today. During the pandemic, we saw a resurgence of antisemitism in the context of naturalizing and essentializing ideas of purity, with anti-vaccination activists (such as “Jana from Kassel”) demonstrating in 2021 in front of the Museum Fridericianum, wearing the yellow star and relativizing the Holocaust by comparing their situation to the persecution of the Jewish people and members of the resistance during the Nazi regime. As the complicity of historical life-reform movements with blood and soil ideologies should have taught us, the contradictions of capitalism cannot be healed by a simple return to purified ideals of nature.[72] Nevertheless, an important documenta figure like Joseph Beuys tried to counter Stadtverwaltung (municipal bureaucracy) with Stadtverwaldung (afforestation of the city) as his 7000 Oaks contribution to documenta 7 (1982) and is currently celebrated as a forerunner of the Fridays for Future movement, despite his biographical and ideological proximities to völkisch (ethno-nationalist) ideologies.[73]

fig. 9. Joseph Beuys planting the first of 7000 Oaks during documenta 7 (1982), Photo: Dieter Schwerdtle, Copyright: documenta archiv


fig. 10. Planting of so-called Hitler Oak during the NS, Photographer Unknown, Source: https://hugenottenrathaus.de/marktplatz-danach


Whilst climate change, pandemics, and the atomic bomb are serious threats to the livelihood not just of humankind but also the entire planet, we should be careful to react to these complex sources of anxiety with wholistic phantasies of healing, identitarian notions of community (such as the reenactment of a Western “we”), or “object-oriented ontologies” as cures to the alienating conditions.[74] Rather than subscribing to fairytales of good and evil or reactionary deployments of the idea of freedom once again, thus reenacting practices of moral self-purification by externalizing responsibilities, it is important to acknowledge the structural continuities of antisemitism, racism, and sexism as well as our own complicities in hosting those ghosts from the past—not just in cultural, epistemological, and economic infrastructures, but also in our own minds and actions.[75] (figs. 6e-f) Here lies another political potential of curating. Instead of turning exhibitions into weapons, washing machines, or hospitals for healing unhealable historical wounds,[76] we need to inhabit art institutions, such as documenta, as haunted houses, never ceasing to deal with the processes of dis/possession that define our histories, thus g/hosting the past and haunting the future.[77]

fig. 11. Installation view of wir alle sind gespenster: haunting infrastructures, Kunstverein at Fridericianum Kassel (2021), Photo: Nanne Buurman


fig. 12. Installation view of g/hosting the past at St. Kunigundis/documenta fifteen (2022), Photo: Nicolas Wefers


Nanne Buurman is an author, editor, and curator working as a researcher and lecturer for documenta and exhibition studies at the Kunsthochschule Kassel, where she has been part of the team building the documenta Institut since 2018. In that capacity, she was involved in founding the Transdisciplinary Research Center for Exhibition Studies TRACES and is currently co-heading
a research group on Nazi continuities at documenta. After graduating from Leipzig University, she was a member of the International Research Training Group InterArt at the Freie Universität Berlin and a visiting scholar at Goldsmiths College in London, supported by a DFG scholarship for her doctoral research on the gendered economies of curating.
Buurman taught as an adjunct lecturer at the universities/art academies of Leipzig, Hildesheim, Bremen, and Frankfurt/Main. She has also realized numerous art education, exhibition, and publication projects, such as Arbeitslose als Avantgarde (the unemployed as an avant-garde), which she organized in the framework of documenta 12 (2007); the curatorial research project dressiert in freiheit: being natural is simply a pose, which she realized with students in Kassel and Leipzig (2019); the Networks of Care program, which she co-curated at nGbK in Berlin (2021); and the exhibition wir alle sind gespenster: haunting infrastructures. Versuchsanordnungen zu NS-Kontinuitäten, which
she curated with members of the dis_continuities research group at Kunst­verein Kassel (2021).
Her research and publications focus on exhibition studies, the politics, economies, and epistemologies of curating, the past and present of documenta, the shifting roles of race, class, and gender in artistic and curatorial practice, as well as the transcultural conditions of cultural production in a global context. She co-edited documenta: Curating the History of the Present (with Dorothee Richter, 2017), Situating Global Art: Temporalities – Topologies – Trajectories (with Sarah Dornhof, Birgit Hopfener, and Barbara Lutz, 2018), Networks of Care. Politics of Preserving and Discarding (with Anna Schäffler and Friederike Schäfer, 2022), and serves as an editor of the research platform documenta studies, which she co-founded with Nora Sternfeld, Carina Herring, and Ina Wudtke in October 2018.


[1] Nanne Buurman and Dorothee Richter, eds., OnCurating 33: documenta. Curating the History of the Present (June 2017), https://www.on-curating.org/issue-33-reader/documenta-curating-the-history-of-the-present.html.

[2] Ibid., introduction, 2.

[3] I adopt this expression from Eva Cockcroft, “Abstract Expressionism as a Weapon of the Cold War,” Art Forum 12, no. 10 (June 1974). See Harald Kimpel: documenta. Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Cologne: DuMont, 1997), 124-139 for the ideological function of documenta as a “bulwark against socialist realism” due to its position close to the inner German border between East and West.

[4] Buurman, “The Exhibition as a Washing Maschine? Some Notes on Historiography, Contemporaneity, and (Self-)Purification in documenta’s Early Editions,” in Stasis: Taking a Stance, ed. Syrago Tsiara (Thessaloniki: MOMus (The Metropolitan Organization of Museums of Visual Art), 2020). The lecture titled “Whitewashing / Freezeframing: Some Notes on Historiography, Contemporaneity, and (Self-)Purification in documenta’s Early Editions” was given at the symposium Stasis #2: Contemporary Art in Historical Terms as part of the Thessaloniki Biennale program. I thank Louisa Avgita for the invitation and the encouragement.

[5] See Karl Hofer, “Zur Situation der bildenden Kunst,” reprinted in Gabriele Schultheiß, “Gegenständlich oder ungegenständlich. Kapitel zur kleinen Waffenkunde, in documenta 55, ed. Simon Großpietch and Kai-Uwe Hemken (Kassel: UP, 2018), 284; Martin Damus, “Ideologiekritische Anmerkungen zur abstrakten Kunst und ihrer Interpretation – Beispiel Kandinski,” in Das Kunstwerk zwischen Wissenschaft und Weltanschauung, ed. Martin Warnke (Güterlsoh: Bertelsmann, 1970), 48-73; Walter Grasskamp, “Degenerate Art and Documenta 1: Modernism Ostracized and Disarmed,” in Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, eds. Irit Rogoff and D. J. Sherman (London: Routledge, 1994), 163-169; Martin Schieder, “Die documenta I (1955),” in Deutsche Erinnerungsorte II, eds. Étienne Francois and Hagen Schulze (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2003), 645.

[6] Julia Friedrich and Bernhard Fulda in particular used the occasion to problematize the idea of documenta as a counter-exhibition to the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibitions. For articles based on the conference presentations in German and English, see the journal Historische Urteilskraft/Historical Judgement 2 (March 2020), published by the DHM.

[7] See findings of Carlo Gentile, page 9 of the exhibition catalogue Documenta. Politik und Kunst, ed. Raphael Gross with Lars Bang Larsen, Dorlis Blume, Alexia Pooth, Julia Voss, and Dorothee Wierling (Munich: Prestel, 2021). For the documenta founders’ NSDAP and SA memberships, see Mirl Redmann, “Das Flüstern der Fußnoten. Zu den NS-Biografien der documenta-Gründer*innen,” in documenta studies 9 (June 2020). For Haftmann’s SA membership, see Vincenca Benedettino, “Werner Haftmann as the Director of the Neue Nationalgallerie in Berlin,” in Actual Problems of Theory and History of Art, Vol. 10, eds. Svetlana V. Maltseva, Ekaterina Yu Staniukovich-Denisova, and Anna V. Zakharova (St. Petersburg: Lomonosov Moscow State University, 2020), 692–702.

[8] According to Theodor W. Adorno, “Language granted [fascism] asylum” when the “jargon of authenticity” became omnipresent after the war, with “formalities of autonomy replacing its contents.” See Adorno, Jargon der Eigentlichkeit. Zur deutschen Ideologie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1964), 9 and 19.

[9] The project also materializes in a number of talks and articles, such as Buurman, “Northern Gothic: Werner Haftmann’s German Lessons, or A Ghost (Hi)Story of Abstraction,” documenta studies 11 (December 2020), https://documenta-studien.de/media/1/documenta_studies__11_nanne_buurman.pdf; Buurman: “d is for democracy? documenta and the Politics of Abstraction between Aryanization and Americanization,” Modos Journal, Revista de história da arte 5, no. 2 (May-August 2021), https://periodicos.sbu.unicamp.br/ojs/index.php/mod/article/view/8665413; Buurman, “documenta’s Chronopolitics of the Contemporary, or Un/Curating Nazi Continuities in Werner Haftmann’s Historiographic Practice,” in Curating the Contemporary in the Art Museum, ed. Kristian Handberg (London: Routledge, forthcoming); Buurman, ”d is for domesticity? Biopolitics of Domesticity in the Early History of documenta,” in Ästhetische Ordnungen des Wohnens. Zu bildlichen Politiken des Wohnens, Häuslichen und Domestischen in Kunst und visueller Kultur der Moderne, eds. Irene Nierhaus and Kathrin Heinz (forthcoming); and Buurman, “Un/heimliche Nachbarschaften in der künstlerischen und kuratorischen Forschung,” in Forum Wissenschaft 4/22: Wissenschaft und Kunst (forthcoming).

[10] Bode’s choice to use the ruin in its raw state, with just a few added brick walls and concrete structures, was inspired by his visit to the Picasso exhibition of 1953, in Milan’s bombed-out Palazzo Reale. See Kimpel, documenta. Mythos und Wirklichkeit, 296-97.

[11] On the “symbolic character“ of the ruin as a provisional exhibition space in the “spiritual vacuum” after Stunde Null, with no museum of modern art existing in Germany, yet, see also Martin Schieder, “Die documenta I (1955),” 639.

[12] Irit Rogoff, “From Ruins to Debris: The Feminization of Fascism in German History Museums,” in Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, 223-249.

[13] For the genealogy of this argument, see the works cited by Grasskamp and Kimpel. For its most recent iteration, see Julia Friedrich’s lecture “Modern Art is the Best Medicine: How documenta helped the West Germans to pass off the wounds they had inflicted upon others as their own—and at the same time to heal them,” Historische Urteilskraft 2 (March 2020): 18-23.

[14] Rogoff, “From Ruins to Debris,” 233.

[15] This sentence was written in 2019, but the current discussions around documenta fifteen are a case in point.

[16] For the program, see https://www.biblhertz.it/2480074/Exhibiting-and-History.pdf, accessed December 22, 2019.

[17] In the introduction to the catalogue of the first documenta, Haftmann argues against seeing abstraction as an “endpoint,” while his arguments—especially in the catalogue to documenta II– describe a “necessary” “path towards abstraction.” See Werner Haftmann, “Einleitung,” in documenta. Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts (Kassel/Munich: Museum Fridericianum, 1955), 15-16 (henceforth dI), and “Malerei nach 1945,” in documenta II. Kunst nach 1945 (Cologne: DuMont, 1959), 14, 15, 18, 20 (henceforth dII). All translations of Haftmann’s texts from German into English are by the author.

[18] See Walter Grasskamp, “Becoming Global: From Eurocentrism to North Atlantic Feedback. documenta as an ‘International Exhibition’ (1955-1972),” in OnCurating 33: documenta. Curating the History of the Present, 101-102.

[19] Kimpel, documenta. Mythos und Wirklichkeit, 263 (translation by the author). See also Walter Grasskamp, Die Unbewältigte Moderne. Kunst und Öffentlichkeit (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1989), 87, where he problematizes the dehistoricizing suggestion of a false continuity of modernity since archaic times. For an English version, see Grasskamp, “‘Degenerate Art’ and Documenta I: Modernism Ostracized and Disarmed,” in Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, 163-196.

[20] Kimpel, documenta. Mythos und Wirklichkeit, 266.

[21] Ibid., 267. Although Spengler was not a follower of Nazism, his Decline of the West (1918/1922) was praised by Benito Mussolini and became a “pioneer work of national socialism,” as it was a best-seller in Germany. See Ernst Cassierer, Der Mythus des Staates. Philosophische Grundlagen politischen Verhaltens (1945) (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1994), 381.

[22] See, for instance, Ludwig Goldschneider, Zeitlose Kunst (Vienna: Phaidon, 1934). This book on “Timeless Art” comprises a collection of “works close to contemporaneity from faraway epochs, 132 photos, collected and commented on by Goldschneider. The subjective collection of photos showing historical works and juxtaposing them with lookalikes from other periods, accompanied by comments on their stylistic contemporaneity with modern art, may have inspired both André Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire (1947-51) and the photographic prologue of the first documenta. For a further historicization of Haftmann’s historiography, see Buurman, “Northern Gothic,” “d is for democracy,” “d is for domesticity?,” and “documenta’s Chronopolitics of the Contemporary.”

[23] In “‘Degenerate Art’ and Documenta I,” Grasskamp called attention to the omission of Jewish artists (like Ludwig Meidner, Otto Freundlich, or Felix Nußbaum) and leftist political tradition (represented by artists such as George Grosz and John Heartfield). See also Grasskamp, “Becoming Global.”

[24] dI, 15-16.

[25] dII, n.p.

[26] Ibid., 14.

[27] dI, 17.

[28] With Haftmann’s memberships in Nazi organizations and activities in NS cultural politics in mind, this does not come as a surprise. He also avoids references to the Nazi art history professor Wilhelm Pinder, whose ideas on generation and geography influenced his writing as a young art historian in the Thirties but also the documenta catalogue introductions in the Fifties, which sometimes sound like echoes from his earlier texts. For a comparison, see Buurman, “documenta’s Chronopolitics of the Contemporary.”

[29] dII,  14, 16.

[30] Werner Haftmann, “Einführung,” in documenta III. Malerei/ Skulptur (Cologne: M. DuMont Schauberg, 1964), xv.

[31] In dI, he speaks of “German totalitarianism” (18) and only in dIII does he mention, for the first and only time, the “Nazi Years” (xvi) explicitly, citing them as a reason why it was difficult to get certain loans.

[32] Given what we have learned about his biography in recent years, this seems to be very likely indeed.

[33] dI, 22-23.

[34] Ibid., 15.

[35] See dI, 16. Whereas Heinz Lemke, in the preceding foreword of the catalogue of the first documenta, speaks about his hopes of raising a “European” or “Occidental” consciousness, dI, 13, nine years later, in the introduction to the painting and sculpture catalogue of documenta III, Haftmann is at pains to stress the “transnational character” of documenta, claiming that “documenta is the only exhibition in the world without national ambitions,” although it becomes clear that “national” here stands for the state and its institutions. See dIII, xvii.

[36] dI, 16. Obscuring agency by excessive use of the passive voice, he also nebulously mentions anonymous “proponents of […] long forgotten positions,” “national, social and ideological doctrines,” and “orders of political clans”  (16-22).

[37] For Haftmann’s suspiciously excessive othering, externalization, demonization, and disembodiment of the Nazi crimes as an overcompensatory exorcism, see Buurman, “Northern Gothic.”

[38] dI, 16.

[39] Ibid., 16-17.

[40] Ibid., 16.

[41] In the dII catalogue, Haftmann calls 1945 a “fateful year” because, after the war, Germany, Italy, and Japan “had to find a new beginning after their almost complete destruction” (dII, 16), thus rhetorically turning the aggressing countries into victims.

[42] See Werner Haftmann, Emil Nolde – Ungemalte Bilder, published by Ada und Emil Nolde Stiftung Seebüll (Cologne: Dumont, 1963).

[43] dI, 18.

[44] See Rogoff, “From Ruins to Debris,” 231 and 247.

[45] See Grasskamp, “‘Degenerate Art’ and documenta.”

[46] The fact that there are very few portraits of women can be read as a double disenfranchisement in the context of a general 1950s backlash to the kitchen. After they had replaced men in public professions during the war, and modern art had been largely privatized, after the war, female artists were nevertheless once again largely excluded from representation.

[47] His article “Woran krankt die östliche Kultur,” in Die Zeit, December 6, 1956, with its call to boycott the Russian invitation to collaborate in the cultural realm (articulated by Ilia Ehrenberg at the sixth general assembly of the Société européenne de Culture in Venice, March 1956) by responding with “deadly silence” as long as the Hungarian question is not solved, for instance, sounds like a sponsored anti-Soviet propaganda piece.

[48] Kunst der Nation advocated for German Expressionism to become the Nazi regime’s official art. See Stefan Germer, “Kunst der Nation. Zu einem Versuch, die Avantgarde zu nationalisieren,” in Kunst auf Befehl 1933-1945, eds. Bazon Brock and Achim Preiß (Munich: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1990), 21-40. Besides contributions by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the journal also featured articles by the later documenta co-curators Will Grohmann, Alfred Hentzen, and Werner Haftmann. Haftmann’s contributions, such as “Geography and our Conscious Art Situation,” “Form and Reality. Excursus on the Unity of Modern Art,” and “Diversity of Modern Art” appeared in 1934, before the journal was closed down in 1935 because Expressionism was no longer considered as compatible with the official ideology. See also Buurman, “Northern Gothic,” “d is for democracy?,” “d is for domesticity?,” and “documenta’s Chronopolitics of the Contemporary.”

[49] Haftmann, Emil Nolde. Kirsten Jüngling cites a letter from Haftmann to the collector Bernhard Sprengel, in which he admits that he deliberately kept silent about Nolde’s Nazi past because Joachim von Lepel, Nolde’s former assistant, estate manager, and first director of the Nolde Foundation, plead with him to omit any reference to that past in his book, so he did. See Kirsten Jüngling, Die Farben sind meine Noten. Emil Nolde Biografie (Berlin: Propyläen, 2013).

[50] For a detailed deconstruction of the myth, see Bernhard Fulda, “Die ‘Ungemalten Bilder’. Genese eines Mythos“ in Emil Nolde. Eine Deutsche Legende. Der Künstler im Nationalsozialismus, eds. Bernhard Fulda, Aya Soika, and  Christian Ring (Munich: Prestel, 2019), 179-217. In the brochure “Emil Nolde 1867-1956. Der Künstler im Nationalsozialismus,” published by the Nolde Foundation in 2019, its director Ring also clarified that these myths were fabricated by Nolde and his apologists. On page 21he insists that Haftmann’s assertion, according to which Nolde “turned away” from the Nazis “once they ‘dropped their masks’” (translation by the author), was definitely false, as Nolde did not turn away until the end of the regime. See also Mario von Lüttichaus, “Emil Nolde. Die Jahre 1930–1945. Tagtägliches Paktieren mit den Zuständlichkeiten,” in Emil Nolde, ed. Rudy Chiappini (Milan, Lugano: Electra, 1994), and Uwe Danker, “Nachdenken über Emil Nolde in der NS Zeit,” in Demokratische Geschichte 14 (2001): 149-188.

[51] Haftmann, Emil Nolde – Ungemalte Bilder, 20-21.

[52] Ibid., 24.

[53] Ibid., 13 and 37.

[54] Ibid., 15.

[55] Ibid., 22.

[56] Ibid., 19.

[57] Haftmann, “Einführung.”

[58] Haftmann, Emil Nolde – Ungemalte Bilder, 16. Trying to justify the artist’s position by pointing to the dominance of Jewish art dealers in Berlin around 1910, Haftmann reproduces antisemitic arguments himself.

[59] Haftmann, Verfemte Kunst. Bildende Künstler der inneren und äußeren Emigration in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus (Cologne: DuMont, 1986), 18.

[60] Writing on Martha Rosler’s Passionate Signals contribution to documenta’s twelfth edition, curator Ruth Noack reminds readers of the reasons for Kassel’s bombardment and takes note of “the correlation [of] the molehills with an eruption of the buried ruins beneath the rose hill way beyond. Unearthed history: propaganda of rebuilding in close proximity to the iron curtain, raids by the Allied forces that flattened the town and the prevalence of the armaments industry now and then.” See documenta 12, eds. Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack (Cologne, Kassel: Taschen, 2007), 294.

[61] dI, 25.

[62] See Buurman, “d is for domesticity?” and Buurman, “documenta’s Chronopolitics of the Contemporary”.

[63] Ernst Bloch, “Über bildende Kunst im Maschinenzeitalter,” lecture at documenta III, 1964, in Ernst Bloch, Literarische Aufsätze, Vol. 16 of  Selected Works (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985), 571 (translation by the author).

[64] Haftmann, Emil Nolde – Ungemalte Bilder, 39.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Bloch, “Über bildende Kunst im Maschinenzeitalter,” 573.

[67] Ibid., 569-572. For Bloch’s notion of the synchronicity of the non-synchronous, see also idem.: “Part II: Non-Contemporaneity and Intoxication,” in Heritage of our Time (1935/1962), trans. Neville and Stephen Plaice (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991). See also Buurman: “documenta’s Chronopolitics of the Contemporary.”

[68] Ibid.

[69] Ibid., 571. He goes on to praise montage (de Chirico and Joyce) as a means to “bring together in close proximity things that are many miles divided” (572). Bloch’s text also strongly resonates with Theodor W. Adorno’s “Valéry Proust Museum” (1955), published in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (London: Neville Spearman, 1967), 175-185.

[70] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” English translation published in Hannah Arendt, ed., Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 257-258.

[71] What was on display here in the perhaps most prominent and historically significant spot of documenta is not an original artwork, but a copy in an IKEA frame. So, like Bode and Haftmann forty-three years earlier, the curators Buergel and Noack once again used reproduction as a sort of historical prologue—thereby explicitly nodding to Benjamin’s insight that the technological reproducibility of artworks increasingly calls into question the originality of art and that “exhibition value” replaces “cult value,” emancipating artworks from their ritualist functions.

[72] In the context of my 2019 curatorial research seminar “Back to the Roots?” at Kunsthochschule Kassel, participants engaged with the parallels between historical life reform practices and today’s slow-and-conscious living trends, such as yoga, detox, and decluttering. The same year that the Bauhaus was founded 100 years earlier, in 1919, a group of women started the Loheland school for Physical Education, Agriculture and Craft to provide other women with a holistic education as gymnastics teachers. Dubbed at the time as the “Amazons’ State in the Rhön,” their program to liberate the body from civilizational corsets by recovering its “natural range of motion” later tempted Ernst Bloch to describe these life reform settlers as a “purification movement” whose unrestricted but nevertheless artful demeanor appeared like being “dressed in freedom.” As a response, we set up the exhibition in freiheit dressiert // being natural is simply a pose as a laboratory to jointly investigate the political ambivalences of back-to-nature movements then and now, including the ambiguous role of Joseph Beuys. Notions of immediacy, transparency, and purity were critically examined by curatorial and artistic means in order to better understand the deployment of “nature” and “naturalness” in the context of neoliberal greenwashing and the (new) right. For the Show and Try Again program at the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Cultures of the Curatorial Master’s Program in Leipzig, the group experimented with a repertoire of Lohelandian body practices through the lens of voguing to reflect on the biopolitical implications of historical modes of subjectivation and their contemporary reenactments.
See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAOrOGIX1RQ and https://showandtryagain.kdk-leipzig.de/nannebuurmanandstudents

[73] It is surely no coincidence that Beuys used oak trees, whose German nationalist iconography includes the Nazi use of oak leaves and the planting of “Hitler Oaks.” See Frank Gieseke and Albert Markert, Flieger, Filz Und Vaterland: Eine Erweiterte Beuys Biografie (Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1996). For his völkisch language, see Joseph Beuys, Sprechen Über Deutschland (Wangen: FIU, 1985). For his connections to right-wing networks and thinking, see Hans Peter Riegel, Beuys – Die Biographie, Vols. 1-4 (2013, extended and updated 2021). These findings still caused controversy in the year of the 100th anniversary of Beuys’ birthday in 2021, where the anniversary program in Kassel and the publication Beuys 100, ed. Volker Schäfer (Kassel: euregioverlag, 2021) turned a blind eye to these aspects.

[74] In my work on dOCUMENTA (13), I have repeatedly discussed how the post-humanist, post-critical, anti-correlationist ideas developed under the heading of “object-oriented ontologies” played a role in the curator’s declaredly non-interventionist performance stands in contradiction to the human-centered, highly curated setting such as documenta. The bracketing out of human agency, questions of epistemology and mediation, I argued, not only caters to curatorial self-purifications and denials of power, but also problematically depoliticizes and re-essentializes the conditions of life on the planet in the Anthropocene. See, for instance, Buurman, “Angels in the White Cube? Rhetorics of Curatorial Innocence at dOCUMENTA (13),” OnCurating 29: Curating in Feminist Thought, eds. Elke Krasny, Lara Perry, and Dorothee Richter (May 2016), https://www.on-curating.org/issue-29-reader/angels-in-the-white-cube-rhetorics-of-curatorial-innocence-at-documenta-13.html#.Yn-QX2DP3lw.

[75] This is also our concern in the  “dis_continuities” research group that I have co-headed at the Kunsthochschule Kassel with Alexis Joachimides since 2020. It is part of the larger project on the potentials of artistic research initiated by the former documenta professor Nora Sternfeld before she left Kassel. See https://kunsthochschulekassel.de/willkommen/news/dis-kontinuitaeten-/-dis-continuities.html. See also the landing page of our website currently still under construction:  https://www.dis-continuities.de/.

[76] See Buurman, “From Prison Ward to Healer: Curatorial Subjectivities in the Context of Gendered Econonomies,” OnCurating 52: Instituting Feminism, eds. Dorothee Richter and Helena Reckitt (November 2021), https://on-curating.org/issue-52-reader/from-prison-guard-to-healer-curatorial-authorships-in-the-context-of-gendered-economie.html#.Yn6QNWDP3lw.

[77] “We are ghosts, too, and together we can haunt the future” were the final words of my article “Northern Gothic: Werner Haftmann’s German Lessons, or a Ghost (Hi)Story of Abstraction.” It inspired the title Wir alle sind Gespenster (We are all Ghosts)/Haunting Infrastructures of the dis_continuities group’s experimental exhibition at Kunstverein Kassel/Museum Fridericianum in December 2021. See https://www.kasselerkunstverein.de/ausstellung/kkvexh/detail/kkv/wir-alle-sind-gespenster. For another joint historiographic experimentation of artists and academics with the hidden heritage, silenced (hi)stories, and unrealized potentials haunting exhibitions such as documenta, see the workshop g/hosting the past that I co-organized with Leah Gordon in the context of the Ghetto Biennale at documenta fifteen: https://documenta-fifteen.de/en/calendar/g-hosting-the-past/.

Go back

Issue 54

documenta fifteen—Aspects of Commoning in Curatorial and Artistic Practices

by Ronald Kolb and Dorothee Richter


by Unchalee Anantawat, Ariane Sutthavong, Lara van Meeteren, Bart Wissink

On the Ideological Flexibility of the Cultural Common(s): The Many Lives of Thailand’s Art Lane

by Anna L. Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena and Feifei Zhou

Feral Atlas and the More-than-Human Anthropocene

In Conversation with Anastasia Baka, Leilani Lynch, and Anna Wälli

Britto Arts Trust: Tayeba Begum Lipi and Mahbubur Rahman

in Conversation with Leilani Lynch and Maria Mumtaz

Gudskul’s Marcellina Putri, Gesyada Siregar, and MG Pringgotono

in Conversation with Sophie Brunner, Marinella-Sofia Gkinko, and Maria Mumtaz

Jatiwangi art Factory (JaF): Ismal Muntaha and Al Ghorie

in Conversation with Rosela del Bosque, Olena Iegorova and Veronica Mari

Más Arte Más Acción: Jonathan Colin, Alejandra Rojas, Rossana Alarcón and Carmenza Rojas

Hajnalka Somogyi, Eszter Lázár, Nikolett Eross, Katalin Székely, Bori Szalai, and Eszter Szakács in Conversation with Anna Konstantinova and Giulia Busetti

A Defibrillator for the Independent Art Scene: OFF-Biennale Budapest

in Conversation with Smadar Samson and Giulia Busetti

Project Art Works: Kate Adams and Patricia Finnegan

An Interview with Morten Goll, Trampoline House in Conversation with Nadine Bajek, Thamy Matarozzi, Alejandra Monteverde, and Anna Wälli

A New Home for Trampoline House

In Conversation with Chiara Borgonovo, Rosela del Bosque, Marina Donina, and Lotte Van Ermengem

Wajukuu Art Project: Shabu Mwangi and Ngugi Waweru

In Conversation with Marina Donina and Regina Tetens

Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik Berlin: Philip Horst (copy)