It is easy to forget today, with the country firmly returned to its status as faltering Europe’s banker, how impoverished Germany, as well as much of the rest of Europe, was in the years following the Second World War. That situation had only partially changed by 1955, when the Kassel art professor Arnold Bode organized the first documenta exhibition. Bode had been a minor expressionist painter and lecturer in Berlin, but was banned from working when the Nazis rose to power in 1933. Initially slated as a side event to a big biannual garden show, documenta was conceived of as a recuperation of modernism in the visual arts—a vindication of the artists included in the infamous Nazi “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich in 1937—and featured painters such as Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Hung in Kassel’s stately Fridericianum, the first documenta was a surprising success, bringing in some 130,000 visitors.
documenta was launched in a culturally insignificant city in Germany’s gloomy mitte, at a time when the art world’s centre of gravity had decisively moved to New York City, and when access to contemporary art was limited. When Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock appeared in documenta II in 1959, and Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in documenta III in 1964, it was in all likelihood the first time most German viewers had been exposed to those artists. By contrast, the new dOCUMENTA (13), which is led by the American-born curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and opened to the public in Kassel on June 9, comes at a moment when the globalization of the art world is so extreme that this fact itself has become troubling. There are too many biennials and triennials to keep track of; a diverse roster of artists from everywhere regularly appears in the myriad of venues for contemporary art around the world; information about and images of contemporary art are readily available in glossy magazines and online; and a coterie of highly successful artists and curators migrates freely from international capital to international capital. By the time Christov-Bakargiev was appointed artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13) in December 2008, it was becoming increasingly unclear what purpose such massive art events serve, and the fairly new phenomenon of the celebrity curator had become suspicious, to say the least.
I visited Christov-Bakargiev at her home, a short walk from the lovely market in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, during a narrow window of time when she wasn’t at work in Kassel or travelling to places like Kabul. Romans were still reeling from this year’s unusually bitter winter; 15 centimetres of snow had paralyzed the city less than a week earlier, and blackened mounds of it still littered the cobblestone streets and piazzas. Fortunately, the weather had broken, the sunlight was warm and clean on the buildings’ chalky orange facades and a breeze rustled in Rome’s famous tall pines. Christov-Bakargiev lives on an intimate piazza not far from the Tiber, and to get to her flat one has to trudge up four floors on a wide, smooth stone staircase, passing interior balconies with their potted palms and lemon trees and flowers. I was greeted by a small, fluffy, yapping dog, and met with the curator in a sitting room that doubles as a cluttered office, a high window overlooking the piazza below.
At 54, Christov-Bakargiev has a wild mop of curly hair and a soft oval face; when I spoke with her, she was cozied up in a chair, barefoot and with a turquoise shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She is a very busy woman—she runs an organization with more than 50 employees and a budget of 23 million euros—and getting an appointment with her involves running a gauntlet of communications directors, press officers and personal assistants, as though one were dealing not with an art event but with a multinational corporation. In person, however, she is warm and even a little flaky, like an aging hippie. She is not inclined to speak in definitive statements or soundbites; her natural mode of conversation is free-associative and reflective. She likes collaboration and brainstorming and dialogue, ranging liberally across a few thousand years of artists and poets and philosophers. She likes dogs, too, and hers quickly hopped up on my lap and started licking.
Christov-Bakargiev was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey, in 1957, to a Bulgarian father and an Italian mother. “My father had to flee Bulgaria at the end of the Second World War,” she told me. “He ended up in Turin and studied medicine at the university, where he met my mother. At that time, there was this law in Italy that only Italian citizens could practice medicine in Italy—you could get a medical degree in Italy but couldn’t actually work there—so my parents immigrated to the United States. I believe the fact that my father was a refugee has had a big impact on how I think: my whole way of thinking is about opening up spaces for the propositional.” After finishing high school at a lycée in Washington, DC, she went to Italy to study at the university in Pisa, and upon graduating moved to Rome and began working as an art critic for daily newspapers.
Christov-Bakargiev spent the better part of the 1980s and 1990s as an independent curator and critic. She curated (and wrote the monograph for) the first major international touring exhibition of the work of the South African artist William Kentridge, and also published a book on the Arte Povera movement. Her first break in terms of working at art institutions came with her appointment as senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, New York, in 1999. “I think Alanna Heiss gave me the job because I was an outsider, and she likes outsiders,” Christov-Bakargiev said. “One of the first things I did was organize the ‘Greater New York’ exhibition, which we pretty much thought up on the spot without a whole lot of planning. I did more than 100 studio visits for that show!” After her successful stint at PS1, which included curating a 2001 survey of the work of the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, she became the chief curator at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, where she worked until 2009. The fact that she was on the radar for the artistic director position at dOCUMENTA (13) is probably due to her artistic direction of the 16th Biennale of Sydney, which was entitled “Revolutions—Forms That Turn.”
“So, one day, I was sitting in my flat in New York—I bought it because I decided that I never wanted to feel like a tourist in New York,” Christov-Bakargiev told me, “when I got a call from someone with a German accent who asked me whether I wanted to be a candidate for the directorship of dOCUMENTA (13). This was right about the time someone phoned Sarah Palin pretending to be Nicolas Sarkozy and she believed it, and I didn’t want to be duped like that! So I told the person—he turned out to be the CEO of documenta—to write me an official email, and two weeks later I told them, ‘yes, I would like to be a candidate.’” Naturally, the board members were considering numerous candidates from around the world, and the vetting process was rigorous. Central to the selection were three essays the candidates were asked to write, in response to three questions: “What is your methodology?” “What is documenta for?” and “What is necessary?”
“The hardest question for me to answer was the one on methodology,” Christov-Bakargiev admitted. “In my experience, the best artists don’t really know or understand what they are doing. I tried to think about my relationship with artists as a kind of displaced Eros, about finding a place that is a fruitful contradiction and creates some kind of intensity.” As for what documenta is for, she is passionate. “documenta has from the beginning been an optimistic repositioning of art as a form of transnational connectivity,” she said. “I acknowledge the Cold War issues that were there in documenta in the 1950s and 1960s, but it’s not enough to just say ‘we’re free.’ It has to be more important than that—through art, we can construct an alternative world.” She added, “big temporary exhibitions like documenta may be obsolete from certain points of view, but I think it can offer a moment when art can function as a transitional object of sorts. With all the fear and trauma of our times, we need transitional objects—Donald Winnicott, influenced by Melanie Klein, describes them as things that help us when the mother’s breast is withdrawn—and I think that’s a good description of one of the roles contemporary art can play.”
What is necessary? “That’s a bad question,” she said. “The real question is: ‘what is to be done?’”
Christov-Bakargiev started doing what was to be done soon after being appointed. “One of the first things I did was I went into the archives of documenta and basically closed the door; my mother was an archeologist, and I sort of think that way,” she said. “Then I brought together all of the previous artistic directors of documenta who were still alive. Catherine David was there, as was Jan Hoet and Okwui Enwezor. I think it was the first time any of them was in the same room together. Each of them gave a lecture on their documenta to the seminar—it was all about rethinking the past of documenta.”
Her next move was to put together a group of what she calls “core agents,” which includes Ayreen Anastas, Rene Gabri, Marta Kuzma, Raimundas Malasauskas, Chus Martínez, Kitty Scott and Andrea Viliani. “I hate the term ‘curator,’ just like I hate the term ‘exhibition’—exhibitions are a modern construct, and I prefer a term like ‘apparition’ because it implies something ghostly, a way of making the past present,” she said. “So I decided to call them ‘agents.’ At any rate, it wasn’t an advisory committee; it was really just a bunch of people I asked to get together and think about documenta. So we got together and took a long train ride from Turin to Kassel. I brought a lot of wine and we talked a lot. I wanted to think about all of the possible connections, all of the ways of choreographing it. It was part of the preparation of documenta, but it was part of documenta as well.”
As recently as Jan Hoet’s documenta IX in 1992, the event was still essentially a survey of the state of contemporary art—documenta IX prominently featured artists of the moment like Robert Gober, Gary Hill, Rebecca Horn and Matthew Barney. Enwezor’s documenta 11 in 2002, on the other hand, marked a turning point. He embraced a wide range of artists from around the globe, notably from Africa, and also incorporated four international conferences as an integral part of the exhibition. Art, for Enwezor, is a mode of both investigation and conversation that lies at the intersection of history, ideas and the material conditions of the postcolonial world—which is perhaps why his documenta was heavy on video and themes relating to documentary and the archive. Following Enwezor, and Roger M. Buergel’s low-key, morally serious documenta 12, the spirit of Christov-Bakargiev’s exhibition is one of inquiry and rumination, and unlike the previous two instalments, it is less ideologically charged and more irreducibly specific and local. “I’m interested in unfreezing ideas and debates,” she told me. “The exhibition is organized around our relationship to the world, and the reason is that we are living in troubled times. The exhibition addresses four questions: ‘What do you do when you are under siege?’ ‘How do you act when you are in a state of hope?’ ‘How do you act when you are onstage?’ And, ‘What do you do when you are on retreat?’”
The idea of “retreat” is especially important to Christov-Bakargiev. Inspired by Monte Verità, the early-20th-century socialist community in Ascona, Switzerland, that attracted a variety of artists and intellectuals like Carl Jung, Hugo Ball, Isadora Duncan, Paul Klee and Rudolf von Laban (“Monte Verità was a proto-hippie thing, but a lot of great things happened there,” she remarked), she has set the heart of the Kassel section of dOCUMENTA (13) in the park that stretches out from the Orangerie (there will also be exhibitions in Banff, Cairo, Alexandria and Kabul). “This will be the documenta in the art park, but since most of the artists I like don’t do work outdoors, I had to ask myself what they like to do. We had a green-energy company build little houses for the park that play on Grimms’ fairy tales—the Grimm brothers lived in Kassel—and there will be sculptures and new works by Shinro Ahtake, a film by Mika Taanila and projects by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and many others. It’s mostly about making connections and sharing knowledge, about creating transitional spaces.” She continued, “there is also a Chinese restaurant at the end of the park and it’s going to be a writers’ retreat—there will be various novelists writing there. They don’t really have to do anything; they just have to be there from ten a.m. to eight p.m.”
The Kabul portion of dOCUMENTA (13) has been of particular concern—Christov-Bakargiev and some of the core group agents have already participated in preliminary lectures, seminars and workshops there. She wanted to bring documenta to Kabul for a number of reasons: to understand how art can participate in the process of healing and recovery, because of the role Afghanistan has played in the West’s anxiety about its own identity (at least since the Soviet invasion in 1979), and also because Afghanistan has always been a transitional space between East and West, a permanent and ambiguous border region where empires have foundered, from Alexander the Great to the present. “There will be 20 artists in Kabul, including Francis Alÿs, Tacita Dean, Goshka Macuga, Mariam Ghani and Khadim Ali,” she said. “Mario Garcia Torres had been looking for One Hotel, founded in the 1970s by Alighiero Boetti, who was a personal friend of mine. It struck me that there was a connection between the ruins of Europe and the ruins of Kabul, so I took a bunch of people there to look for Boetti’s hotel—we didn’t go with any security, so everyone had to sign a waiver. We found the hotel and we’re going to have a number of events there. And we’re not working out of context, either; we’re working with local Afghan artists and with Rahraw Omarzad and the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan.”
During a visit Christov-Bakargiev made to the Banff Centre in 2009, Kitty Scott, director of visual arts at Banff and one of dOCUMENTA (13)’s core agents, convinced her of the importance of working in Banff. “I told her I wanted to work in a natural setting—in other words, I wanted to get away not only from pollution but also from the overarching effects of the art market on curatorial work,” Scott told me in an email. “The centre offered a kind of escape from that. Here, the focus is on experimentation rather than production.” The result was an artists’ retreat called “The Retreat: A Position of dOCUMENTA (13),” and the premiere of a video collaboration between the First Nations artists Brian Jungen and Duane Linklater entitled Modest Livelihood (2012).
Christov-Bakargiev is vehement, and perhaps a little defensive, about the enduring relevance of documenta, a view surely bolstered by the record-breaking crowds at documenta 12, which had some 750,000 visitors. “Look, documenta may seem like it’s obsolete in the globalized art world, but most people don’t get to see most of this work in person,” she said. “It may still be only a partial view, but when I travel to events around the world, there are only a few people who go to most of the events—at this point, some collectors even buy online.” Many people won’t be able experience all or even most of dOCUMENTA (13)—a sprawling event with more than 150 artists that spans four continents—but that doesn’t bother Christov-Bakargiev; what is important to her is what occurs on the ground, not the size of the audience or the publicity the event generates. “I’ve been careful about releasing things to the press,” she said. “I don’t want too much visibility; I don’t want the media to overwhelm things. It’s ultimately about the people we are working with. I’d like to decrease the amount of mediation between the art and the audience. I wanted to use the resources of documenta to make certain things happen.”
Bolstered by the publication of a series of notebooks under the title 100 Notes—100 Thoughts (documenta always runs for exactly 100 days) written by prominent thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, Susan Buck-Morss, Etel Adnan and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, dOCUMENTA (13) is less cerebral than it is speculative, a web of interconnected conversations and experiments that, as Christov-Bakargiev likes to say, “open up spaces for the propositional.”
The ongoing economic and political crisis in the European Union is hardly comparable to the ruins Rossellini filmed in Berlin, or the loss of faith in institutions and history that gave rise both to the events of May 1968 and the work of Boetti and Italy’s Arte Povera movement. However, our era faces a defining crisis that ancient Rome and Athens would have understood as a moral one. Our ruins are largely invisible, yet they are haunted by questions of the human role we play. What kind of creatures are we? How are we supposed to relate to the world? How are we supposed to live?
“I think we’re entering into a period of extremely depressing events,” Christov-Bakargiev told me. “We’re in a period of ‘cognitive capitalism,’ and if the powers that be control our cognitive products, we have a choice either to go on strike or to find ways of thinking and knowledge, of entering into a process of unlearning that goes back to ancient skepticism. I am primarily a skeptic in the way Sextus Empiricus, who wrote down the thoughts of Pyrrho, was—he went to Persia with Alexander the Great, he had experiences of other cultures, and for that reason he knew that he couldn’t be dogmatic about anything.” Soon, she had to turn to other pressing issues, other appointments, but Christov-Bakargiev continued talking even as I headed out into an afternoon that, anywhere else, would have seemed like full spring. “I think one of the big issues now is how to think of ourselves as not the primary agents in the world,” she said, keeping her little dog from skittering out the door. “We have to find a way of conceiving of ourselves as not the only beings with agency, as not the only ones who have priority, as being just one among many.” dOCUMENTA (13)’s higher aim is, perhaps, to start that process of “unlearning,” and to begin reimagining our relationship to the world.
To see more work from dOCUMENTA (13), visit canadianart.ca/documenta13