After years of planning, the final details of Documenta 14—the quinquennial art exhibition that began in April in Athens, Greece, and now continues on here in Kassel, Germany—were revealed to reporters this morning at the Kongress Palais during a press conference that stretched to nearly three hours. Documenta’s organizers needed the entire run time to introduce the exhibition and explain its combative attitude toward a number of issues affecting identity, immigration, and the act of curation itself.
As the audience filled the expansive theater, free jazz filled the room until it was cut as the curators walked on stage, each sitting on chairs facing the audience and staring forward. Eventually, artistic director Adam Syzmczyk got up to whisper in the ear of communications director Henriette Gallus and the proceedings began. Curator-at-large Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, the Berlin-based, Cameroon-born director of SAVVY Contemporary, kicked things off by quoting a poem about cutting up a passport in a hotel and eating it. In his fiery sermon, Bonaventure decried the United States’ recent decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and made reference its proposed Muslim travel ban as well as its assault on the free press.
As he spoke, he referred to this crisis of government in the West as “a celebration of ignorance of knowledge,” “the privilege of celebrating frivolity,” and “a performance of uncertainty as certainty.”
Next, public programs curator Paul Preciado went on to discuss transgender issues and ways that, as a part of a curatorial team intent on smashing the prevailing mode of the institution, they were able to create an approach to curation that bypasses an obsolete system that would rather put someone transgender on view than let a transgender curator conceive a show.
“Maybe I could be a subject at the Naturkundemuseum,” Preciado said, referring to the natural history museum here in Kassel and how such a museum might regard a trans person. “Many of the artists of this exhibition—themselves, their bodies, their languages, their tradition, their art practices—could have been the subject of vitrines. We have been given agency to destroy the vitrines where those considered less than human were exhibited . . . and become artists and curators. The colonial, the white supremacist, and the heteronormative—they created the modern museum.”
Perhaps when Szymczyk proposed this Documenta—in a different context in 2013—the whole presentation could have been a celebration of how what might be the world’s most important art exhibition has beaten back the museum created by the colonial, white-supremacist, and heteronormative. Instead, after Brexit and the U.S. presidential elections, it’s a street fight against nationalist forces and an existential struggle to even have the freedom to show at all.
“Neo-fascist discourses have at [their] center nationalist identity and white heterosexual power,” Preciado said.
Though Documenta also has sponsors to thank, and so Documenta and Museum Fridericianum-gGmbH CEO Annette Kulenkamff came on to thank supporters such as Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen. And while Szymczyk has made a conscious effort to stay outside the art market and show artists with no gallery representation, all the galleries who sell work by artists in Documenta are listed in the back of the main manual. That list includes Gagosian Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Pace Gallery, White Cube, Marian Goodman—the world’s mega-galleries haven’t been blacklisted, exactly.
It’s no surprise that the curators are passionate about spreading the in-house gospel of the Documenta they’ve devoted their last few years to, but even the German bureaucrats came to the show’s full-throated defense. Bertram Hilgen, Lord Mayor of Kassel, said, “We currently see that the great and peaceful project of European unity is under threat,” he said. “Documenta [has] embodied a bit of hope.”
Boris Rhein, Hessian minister of higher education, research, and the arts, said that he would not only be content if the show is found to be offensive—it actually has to be offensive for it to have an impact.
This segued into a performance by the Syrian musician Ali Moraly, who had fled from his home country during the ongoing civil war. He had performed a violin work during the opening in Athens, directly referencing the role Greece has played in the migratory process of Syrian refugees from the Middle East through the Hellenic world and toward the West.
Here, in Germany, he performed a number of works, all the names taken from the poet Paul Celan’s work Death Fugue, an ode to his parents, who died in the Holocaust.
(He was interrupted by a phone going off and someone’s Siri responding audibly to an inquiry.)
By this time, the proceedings had been going on for well over an hour and, with more than five speakers left, the crowd was getting a little restless. Lydia Koniordou, the Greek minister of culture and sports, somewhat clumsily quoted Bob Dylan, explaining the global crises afflicting Europe by saying, “The times they are a-changin.’ ” Curator Dieter Roelstraete concluded an extended bit about how some historical anniversaries relate to Documenta by saying “perhaps these are just coincidences that the modern curatoriat gets so excited about.” Curator Hendrik Folkerts discussed hyperlocal border identities, namely that of Kassel’s Nordstadt neighborhood, on the north side of town, where immigrants have been moving into empty weapons manufacturing plants after they went into disuse following the war.
“The future of Kassel is woven in the Nordstadt, and it’s more heterogenous and full of life,” Folkerts said. “It was also part of the city that was home of the industrial military complex that’s defined much of the city’s history. Reusing such sites of production as a site for exhibition is an act of repurposing—of redistribution, if you will—transforming its function.”
After curator Candice Hopkins and curatorial advisor Natasha Ginwalla spoke, it was time for Szymczyk, who doesn’t often talk to the press, to step to the podium.
“It was a excruciatingly difficult and, at the same time, beautiful journey,” he said. “We have to dispose with our preconceptions and some of our hopes before we can start at all.”
Then there was an question-and-answer session, even after the marathon of a press conference.
“How important is it for you that the artworks look good in an aesthetic sense?” asked one attendee.
“If you think of aesthetics as more akin to cosmetics, as a pretty thing, I suppose this can be useful sometimes, but we’re more interested in the texture and the structure,” Szymczyk responded.
Then the same woman asked about the the differences between Documenta and Art Basel in Switzerland—the world’s most important art bazaar in the city where Szymczyk spent 11 years as the director of the Kunsthalle Basel, trying his best to avoid any whiff of the market.
“Next week is the opening of Art Basel,” the woman said—”how much will the artworks in Documenta have in common with the ones at Basel?”
Szymczyk laughed: “I hope a lot!”