We Need to Reclaim the Narrative of Documenta 14 as a Radical Exhibition

Documental 14 is about to go down in history as an exhibition whose weak realization was outmatched only by its lack of financial and administrative direction.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Historja (detail), 2003–2007.

Reports over the past weeks of Documenta 14’s expected deficit of up to €7 million cast a dismal shadow over what has been called the world’s most important art exhibition. Furthermore, this shadow seemingly confirms the abundant criticism of this year’s edition, which has been described as vague, irresponsible, arrogant, unprofessional and even cryptic. At best, chief curator Adam Szymczyk and his team have been given pats on the back for their good intentions.

In other words, the budget deficit appears to prove what we were already supposed to know about Documenta 14 – with the added distinction that what critics have perceived as a lack of artistic direction will now likely result in considerable financial consequences for Documenta as an institution. There is no doubt about the gravity of the situation. Most people will agree, however, that no certain conclusions can be drawn before the independent audit report is made public in November. At that time it will also be possible to engage in discussion less sensationalistic than what is presently the case. Nevertheless, by that time it might be too late for Documenta 14, which seems about to go down in history as an exhibition whose weak realization was outmatched only by its lacking financial and administrative planning and direction.

Therefore it is important to recall a completely different narrative, one that has been largely overshadowed since April, when the first part of the exhibition opened in Athens. It is a story about an exhibition whose objective was to build on the anti-fascist legacy of Arnold Bode’s first Documenta in 1955, while developing the postcolonial analysis of contemporary art that was so convincingly conveyed by Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002. It is a story about an exhibition that, while not without its flaws, managed in a situation where art is under extreme pressure from commercial and political interests to be more radical, experimental and critical of the market than its most recent predecessors.

Frans Josef Petersson. Illustration: Jenz Koudahl.

Above all, what makes this narrative different from the one dominating the media is that, viewed from this perspective, Documenta 14 appears not at all obscure, irresponsible and arrogant but, conversely, as an exhibition that is exceptionally clear about assuming responsibility for contemporary art’s political condition while maintaining a surprisingly open and critical position towards its own historical mission. How?

Let’s begin with what Documenta 14 was not. The exhibition included nothing of the following: spectacular, newly commissioned work that quenches the art market’s thirst for new and entertaining practices; didactic art commensurate with the radical art world’s demand for predictable political statements; a classical contemporary art that appeases the art world’s conservative faction (such as Skulpturprojekte Münster); or hot new theories that attract art’s in-crowd, or those that aspire to be part of it. Anyone looking for the above would have every reason to feel disappointment. And yet the greatest deceit is probably that Documenta 14 did not even attempt to point out a possible way forward for contemporary art as we know it. It was neither documentary video installations, new formalism nor speculative realism that would deliver us. Instead, the message was radical, in the fundamental sense of the word: we have to unlearn what we know and venture to put our own experience at stake in encountering the exhibition. 

What Szymczyk’s exhibition conveyed is that the neoliberal epoch that began with the regimes of Thatcher and Reagan, and which intensified after the fall of the Berlin wall, not only coincides with the epoch of contemporary art, but also that this epoch is now at an end. It is history. Contemporary art must thus be thought anew if it is to claim contemporaneity. We must therefore turn our preconceived notions on their head: up shall be down, south shall be north, poor shall be rich, the marginalized shall be placed at the center. From this up-side-down position, the history of the Nordic countries can be told from a Sami perspective, and North American art be shown through traditional, indigenous techniques for wood sculpting. And in the middle of the very sanctuary of post-war art, Fridericianum, we see not the latest, most elegant and expensive works but a poor, provincial – yet not necessarily less valuable! – collection borrowed from the EMST Museum, Documenta’s partner institution in Athens.

One could hardly conceive of a more effective way of representing the notion that we – the Documenta audience – must overturn hierarchies and decolonize our gaze, than inaugurating the exhibition in Athens, while later moving EMST’s collection of largely Greek post-war art to Kassel. The message was so clear it could hardly be mistaken. Consequently, reactionary responses quickly ensued. In Frieze magazine, critic Jennifer Higgie’s assertion that she wasn’t going to unlearn anything because “some of the stuff I know isn’t so bad” was followed by Jörg Heiser’s patronizing dismissal of EMST’s collection as “merely mediocre”.

What such critique misses is that the notion of “learning from Athens”, the title of this year’s Documenta, presupposes a readiness to surpass the childish demand that art adjust itself to our own financial, cultural and political conditions. Documenta 14 sought to recast perspectives and break with the notion of a universal subject at the center of the exhibition. An important aspect of this is the ambition to show artists from different backgrounds on their own terms, something which was hardly noted by critics. One of the few articles I have read that takes this matter seriously was, symptomaticaly, not published in an art magazine, but by Kultwatch, a net publication with an explicitly “decolonized, class conscious and feminist” perspective on contemporary culture. The authors Shiva Anoshirvani, Estella Burga, Macarena Dusant and Paula Urbano express surprise over the fact that so few reviewers have discussed what Documenta 14 could mean for the practice of decolonizing art, since the exhibition, as they note, presented to such a large extent non-majority artists without making them picturesque or exotic features.

Considering how often non-European art and minority artists are included in large exhibitions on the condition that they address their own marginalization, it is truly odd how few critics have reflected on the ways Documenta 14 worked to show artists from different backgrounds on common prerequisites. It is surprising, as well, that so few have drawn attention to the possible effects of the exhibition in its adopted city of Athens. Critics often lament that the temporary nature of biennials means that they seldom have any lasting effect where they take place. But one of the main points of the exchange with EMST was that facilities that had long stood empty can, through Documenta, now be used to exhibit the collection that was premiered at Fridericianum.

Of course objections can be made against the exhibition and, as for EMST, it is unclear as yet whether there will be financing to secure its continued operation. Still, it is remarkable how forcefully the story of Documenta 14’s weak execution has gained public traction. I have hardly found any reviews that tried to articulate a more nuanced or favourable reading of what Szymczyk and his team sought to achieve. Additionally, this reception is marked by an inconsistency, where Documenta 14 on the one hand is said to collapse under Europe’s historical guilt and, on the other, is described as irresponsible, careless, arrogant and so on. Surely, one either assumes too much or not enough responsibility? Documenta 14 appears to have done few things right, according to its critics. How can we understand this?

Obviously there are strong political interests in Germany that have not looked kindly on the decision to move half the exhibition to Athens. It is just as clear that conservative forces in the art world willingly turn a blind eye on Documenta 14’s message; after all, it was an exhibition that wanted to radically rethink the conditions of contemporary art. Neither does one have to be paranoid to see a correlation between how Documenta 14 presented a possibility for postcolonial subjects to make their voices heard, and the largely negative reception among European majority critics. American critic Ben Davies reminds us that the historical moment when one started to speak of the death of painting was precisely the time when women and minority groups began to assert themselves as painters, and observes that a similar logic might be at work when it comes to contemporary art biennials today. 

It is for this very reason that, in order to safeguard Documenta 14’s legacy, we need narratives other than the ones currently being sedimented in the media. If it is important that any financial irregularities are brought to light, it is not primarily because those responsible must be held accountable. Rather, it is more important to discuss what kind of financial model would be tenable for Documenta and similar institutions. As Annette Kulenkampff, the CEO of Documenta GmbH, points out, the exhibition generates hundreds of millions in revenue for the region, as well as media attention and a cultural goodwill whose worth can hardly be measured in financial terms. And yet, in the preparatory stages the director is forced to assume a deficit, since the exhibition is expected to pay for half of the expenses itself through ticket sales and sponsor proceeds. It is obvious that this is a problematic order for an exhibition of Documenta’s magnitude and artistic ambition.

Many critics have repeated that this year’s Documenta was indecisive, vague and sketchy, but why would this be a problem? As the late John Berger argued, it is while drawing, not in the finished painting or sculpture, that artists make their true discoveries. “A line”, writes Berger, “is important not really because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see”. Documenta 14 did not offer a finished conclusion about the art to come, but it did draw lines that allow us to think art in new ways. I consider this a much more interesting and urgent narrative than the one based on short-sighted objections that is currently prevailing in the media. Not least, it is crucial that large international exhibitions can continue to be as experimental and searching as Documenta 14 allowed itself to be.

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