On day two of the press preview of this year’s edition of documenta in Kassel I lost my temper. It was cold, intermittent showers pelted Kassel’s already unedifying city centre, and I was sick of being lectured to. I was standing in front of an installation consisting of two bookcases with dance titles in the Neue Wache. The piece, I learned from one of the few wall texts I encountered during my three day visit, was called “Library”, by the artists Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet (les gens d’Uterpan). What these titles had in common, the text told me, was that they, since 2005, had “failed to mention the work of the artists”. Apparently “by putting on display the conventions that critics and connoisseurs establish, Library questions the relationship between history and art. Library also highlights the limits of text in describing living practices of dance and performance, which are inevitably subject to distortions, gaps, and compromises when committed to written language.”
documenta 14’s curatorial strategy is a meaningless pair of tautologies akin to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous phrase “It is either raining or it is not raining.”
Ordinarily I would have bypassed this egregious art speak with nothing more than an eye roll. (Quick analysis: Connoisseurs are not academics per definition, and these were academic texts. Critics no longer establish anything aside from the death of criticism, and of course dance isn’t reducible to language, but this is hardly controversial. What is the point of this work, then? Nothing. How does it add to the discourse in any meaningful way? Not at all, especially since Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson effectively unpicked canon formation back in 1977. So does that mean that my Ikea Billy bookcases and their contents could be said to perform a similar action on art reception since 1770? Probably.)
But this time, something inside me snapped. Was it the four hour press conference we’d been subject to on the opening day, with the total absence of any information provided by any of the curators on either artists, sense, or orientation for the exhibition, but with a 40 minute atonal piece for solo violin? Or was it the meaningless curatorial statement “Documenta 14: learning from Athens”?
What does this learning consist of, one may legitimately enquire, given that the Athens arm of the exhibition has been on display for 8 weeks at that point? According to the curators, “learning is unlearning”. Furthermore “Athens could be anywhere,” as curator Adam Szymczyk elaborated. This is a fine curatorial strategy to avoid standing for anything, refusing any claim or argument: a meaningless pair of tautologies akin to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous phrase “It is either raining or it is not raining.”
This non-statement was hammered home at every single juncture encountered: the guide (“Daybook”) which refuses anything so banal as a contents page, or any discernible order – artists are assigned “days” in a non-alphabetic sequence, so any attempt to find an explanation of well, anything, is met by a pained flick-through search. Similarly the exhibition organisation – wall texts were absent or hastily written in biro, there was no sense, no orientation as to why which artworks were ordered, artists names were missing, the graphic design of the map misleading… I could go on. There was a near total lack of useful information – the post-truth art exhibition indeed.
Very little could be established as a fact, very little ascertained about art or artists, the curators eschewing such banal things as artists’ biographies. The procession of artworks, spaces and arguments was as jumbled as a child’s toy box. The exhibition seems to have been conceived in celebratory maximalist gusto: “oh yes, lets have five curators! And 199 artists!! And 70 venues in two cities! And an “encounter point” for lunch with Athenian normies! And a radio station! And a Parthenon made of books wrapped in cling film!” with very little consideration of how these languages, spaces, mediums or narratives might fit together, or illuminate each other, beyond chocolate box identitarianism.
This inconsistency was most visible in Kassel’s Documenta Halle, which read as a parody of the old ethnographic museums the exhibition purported to be critiquing. A badly photocopied score of British avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew’s piece The Great Learning – an ironic comment? – kicked off the exhibition upstairs. Beau Dick’s Kwakwaka’wakw masks abutted work by Igo Diarra and La Medina, who’d created a display of records and promotional material of the Malian musician Ali Farka Touré. Nearby, Mexican artist and musician Guillermo Galindo had repurposed pieces from two shipwrecked refugee boats that had washed up on the island of Lesbos as musical instruments. Vigier and Apertet reappeared here, constructing a stage with a decline. Rounding off the large hall was a tapestry by Saami artist Britta Marakatt-Labba. Aboubakar Fofana had hung sheets dyed with varieties of the Indigo plant from the ceiling and installed Indigo seedlings below.
When the political or ethical imperatives override artistic claims, the art itself suffers
As my father, a former member of Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, commented: “I don’t understand why a display of musical scores like this appeals to the documenta curators. It’s as if worshipping the score would make it part of you, transcendent and immanent.” It is precisely this auratic worship, however, that the curators demand: affect over an analytical approach to the work. While analysis doesn’t preclude emotion, by not providing sufficient information, the curators bar the visitors from having a reasoned relationship to the artists and their work on display.
The artworld of today is post-conceptual. It is generally assumed that all artworks have conceptual elements, and therefore rely on chains of explanation that either supervene upon or have equal status to the work itself. Hence, refusing commentary not only disservices the viewer, but the artwork itself, which invariably becomes imbued with whatever narrative the curators wish to impose on it. This leads to a hollowing-out of the artwork, which then serves as a mere decorative footnote to the curatorial claim, rather than an autonomous object in and of itself. In documenta’s case, the narrative amounts to little more than weak versions of post-colonial narratives and identitarian claims, weak theory packaged as Orwell’s fictional language Newspeak. Thus, the exhibition isn’t an exhibition, but an assemblage of objects, where affect and sentimentality is valid over cogent engagement (of course there are artworks that escape this fate by their sheer power, but many don’t).
It has been said that the curators’ disdain for explanatory wall texts and a central theme was a strategy to avoid the narrative being sucked up by the market in the guise of symbolic capital. However, I have yet to see the type of work on display at documenta 14 – the vitrines, the archive as art, the installations – taking over at Art Basel, which remains wedded to the media most collectors prefer buying: painting and sculpture. Also, why is it so distasteful to accept that artists might have to make a living from their work?
In sum, what was there to learn from Athens? That coining neologisms is not the same as generating new ideas – instead, it is an empty exercise in obfuscation, albeit an obfuscation costing €37.5 million. Parsing curatorial strategy as a tautology results in an exhibition that does not result in new model or ways of showing art but does a disservice to all whose (underpaid) labour it employs; artists, curators, visitors and critics. When the political or ethical imperatives override artistic claims, the art itself suffers.
Finally, it results in an exhibition where the art on view is not treated as art, but as footnotes to an assemblage of post-colonial narratives. When ethics overrides aesthetics as a matter curatorial strategy, the works on display cease to function, in many cases, as artworks. Documenta 14, therefore, ceases to be an exhibition, it is a collection of more or less interesting objects, whose relationship to another remains shrouded in nebulous, half-baked statements. The discourse has eaten its own children. Come back, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, you and your talking strawberries are much missed.