Is the urge of clarity Documenta 14’s final legacy?

Piero Bisello and Stefano Pirovano

Kassel quinquennial exhibition will close on September 17th. What will it leave behind? Is it really the blueprint for contemporary art exhibitions of the next five years?

The dictionary defines a “blueprint” as something that acts as a plan, model, or template for others. A certain agreement among art worlders and precedent cases in which things worked similarly justify—at least prima facie—the claim that Documenta is the blueprint for contemporary art exhibitions in the five years that follow it. And if one is to make relevant art criticism, it seems also justified to say that an analysis of Documenta is necessary for any platform of art criticism. What follows is an attempt to do just so, right on time before Documenta 14 closes the doors of its later instalment—Kassel—on September 17th. Overall, this analysis will try to give some thoughts on whether this prima facie importance of Documenta 14 for the art world to come has ground. We will see that the answer to this question is as complex as the exhibition, and it largely depends on what one thinks art exhibition should do. Given the scale and inner diversity of the show, the major difficulty of any analysis of Documenta 14 is to treat it as whole. In order to mitigate the problem, we decided to divide this article in three sections, each of which will have a specific theme linked to Documenta 14. Every section will itself be divided by instalment, that is to say the Athens and Kassel parts of the exhibition.

Meeting Expectations and Confronting Biases

Kassel. Never before have we come across so many reviews of a single art show than the Kassel part of Documenta 14. Reading them before seeing the show helped the visit but it planted some biases as well. For example, some commentators complained that the curators didn’t take enough care of the display of artworks and therefore there was no sufficient focus on the artists. After this comment, we expected Documenta Kassel to be the opposite of Macel’s exhibition in this year’s Venice Biennale, that is a highly curated exhibition serving the cause of some specific curatorial claims (Documenta) rather than a quite incoherent selection of artworks that however are given a fair amount of attention (Venice). This was not quite the case. For example, the complex problem of how much explanatory wall text should be provided to the visitor was dealt fairly well, with most wall explanations following a similar scheme: the first few lines to place the artwork in the broader context and the last ones to plainly describe the artwork. Our biggest problem with Documenta 14 before visiting was about the language in which any curatorial message was trying to be delivered through press releases and essays. If some curatorial claims in the exhibition were of political and ethical nature, we found it rather puzzling that they were being sent across in a highly obscure language. Perhaps this problem can be traced back to how much the art world intellectuals are indebted to the typically obscure language of the continental tradition of philosophy, or perhaps clarity is intimidating in an artistic environment such as Documenta. Whatever the reason is, before our trip to Kassel we were afraid that many of the curatorial claims would just be too obscure to follow. This unfortunately turned out to be true. We could discern no clear and specific ethical or political message by the curators in the exhibition, which is a problem if your show aims at political or ethical change as Documenta 14 seemed to do from the start.

Athens. We visited documenta 14 in Athens in occasion of the local art fair, Art Arthina, which at the end of May kindly hosted us in the Greek capital. Or, to put it in another way, the market itself made possible our experience of the main market-free exhibition currently on the art scene; and we should add that Athens’ marketplace scale is much smaller than Doumenta’s 37 million euros budget. Having said so, and in spite of our repulsion for the negative curatorial invitation with which Documenta 14 debuted – “to unlearn what we know” strangely feels as a waste of time – we must admit that rarely we felt as welcomed at an art exhibition as at Documenta. Considering its dimension, the show was rather easy to navigate, very well located, and masterfully displayed in each venue we visted. In particular, we literally fell in love with the effective white sheets of paper describing the works on exhibition. Generally lying on the floor near the piece and kept in the right position by an elegant marble stick bearing the artist’s name, these white papers brilliantly solved the problem of informing the visitor without invading the work’s own visual space as well as the visitor’s one. Available in Greek and English, they were also smartly written, a characteristic that is surprisingly hard to come by at exhibitions of this kind. Details count and including a poet, critic and editor (Quinn Latimer) in the 17-people curatorial team proved to be a rewarding choice.

Documenta 14 and the Market.

Kassel. Despite the lack of clarity in the curators’ ethical claims, we could speculate and say that many curatorial choices in Kassel were driven by a ethical position according to which the art market is seen as intrinsically evil. Unlike what happened at the Venice Biennial, almost no big private gallery produced any of the artwork at Kassel One could come across the typical sponsorship mention “The artist is represented by…” in the wall text, yet in favour of a non-for-profit association: VG Bild-Kunst in the case of Britta Marakatt-Labba’s tapestry at the Documenta Halle. Moreover, aesthetically pleasing and easily marketable works such as the mail art of Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt at the Neue Neue Galerie or the paintings by Nomin Bold at the Ottoneum were not there because of these reasons, but they bore a second-order meaning for which they were selected—for example Wolf-Rehfeldt’s mail art stood for the difficulty of communicating with the other under the conditions of a totalitarian regime such as East Germany in the 1970s. Regardless of whether one thinks that the art market is intrinsically evil or not, what was strange in Kassel was that any claim about the good or evil of the art market were never clearly stated or argued by the curators in any outlets at their disposal, that is wall texts, essays, etc. If clarity and rational argument in favour of an ethical position need not be the first characteristics of an artwork, they are to a much larger extent the job of curators, who are not only there to select the artists but to interpret them and theorising about them, especially if their interest is to send across a specific ethical position.

Athens. We would be willing to bet that all Documenta 14’s artists and curators agree with Joseph Stiglitz when he said that it’s time to get radical on social, political ad economic inequalities. They would likely also agree with their colleague Wade Guyton, who stated that art and art market are two different things. But as a matter of fact, a big part of the art world currently depends on these inequalities and Documenta is part of it even if in Kassel art galleries and dealers are kept away from the war room (not collectors). That is why we think that not even such an enormous cultural event will be able to affect the power of the art-world leading commercial agencies, namely big art fairs and auction houses. They are too big to fail, while Documenta unfortunately isn’t. We just have to hope that honest art people will keep on taking art for what it really is, and not for where it is from. In this regard we may say that having no art gallery credits around helps a lot.

Concluding with ah highlight.

Kassel. In the introduction we asked whether Documenta 14 could be justifiably considered a blueprint for the contemporary art exhibitions to come. In the case of Kassel chapter, the answer depends on whether one thinks that art exhibitions should make ethical claims. If they should—and one has the impression that the curators of Documenta did think they should—this purpose needs to be fulfilled by making ethical claims with clarity, since more clarity means delivering claims more effectively to the other, which is by definition what ethics is concerned with. There is a way in which Documenta in Kassel failed to fulfil this purpose, and therefore it cannot really be taken as what future curators should do if they believe that contemporary art exhibitions have an ethical duty. Moreover, Documenta Kassel suffered from its size. Four days of wandering around multiple venues, each of them filled up with both conceptually and aesthetically complex art projects, was an exhausting experience, even for somebody who is used to this kind of projects. A much fruitful and ethically effective experience would have been possible had the entire Documenta in Kassel been half its size. To summarise all these reflections, we can say that Documenta Kassel lacked clarity and focus to be considered the proper blueprint for the future art world. Nonetheless, this is a judgment about curation rather than the art, which in some cases was exceptional. Our pick among these cases of great art is Naeem Mohaiemen’s film Two Meetings and a Funeral, in which the history of the concept of “third world” is showed through its legacy among younger and older generations in the countries that embraced it. The film is revealing both from a historical and political perspective. Besides, assuming the artist felt the need to give some political statement through this film, by never loosing focus and speaking with sufficient clarity within his artwork, he brilliantly managed to not commit the same mistakes the curators of Documenta Kassel made within their show.

Athens. Four months after our stay in the Greek capital our strongest memories are still related to the Athens Conservatoire, known as the Odeion. It’s the only completed building of a large cultural complex approved by the city council in the early 1950s but never finished. Architect Ioannis Despotopoulos, who won the competition to design the Athens Cultural Center, followed the rationalist standard, yet with a Mediterranean twist; apparently the building was inspired by a guitar neck. Some of the artworks in the exhibition were sort of performance stations, coming alive according to a specific schedule. An example was the Music Room by Nevin Aladag, which was a room that gathered some pieces of furniture with applied strings, bells or percussion. The simple idea behind the installation was that anything around us could be turned into a musical instrument and generate its own sound. Realising that you needed musically educated human beings to make these objects sound like proper musical instruments inversely reflected on a statement made by Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk, who said that the great lesson is that there is no lesson. Perhaps, a better lesson is that it’s getting harder to find honest teachers in the art world.

September 8, 2017