Documenta 13: The Plan is No Plan at All

The Staatstheater in Kassel, Germany, one of the venues for  Documenta
For visual artists, Documenta represents the Olympics of contemporary art exhibition. Taking place once every five years in the German town of Kassel, the 100 day event has been organized on twelve separate occasions and maintains a long and dynamic history stretching back to the mid 1950’s. Back then, German architect, painter, teacher and curator Arnold Bode organized the first Documenta, featuring an exhibition of modern art works that had been unavailable to German audiences as a result of the Nazi party’s “Entartete Kunst” campaign that had categorized and banned virtually all modern art from Germany as “degenerate” and dangerous.  Over the years, the focus of exhibition has turned almost exclusively to contemporary art and maintained a tradition of open dialogue and discussion which foregrounds questions concerning art's relationship to the political, social, and economic dimensions of the modern world.

Okwui Enwezor, curator of Documenta 11
In the past several weeks, I have been paying closer attention as information has started to emerge related to Documenta 13, which will run from June 9-September 16, 2012. For the past several Documentas, the naming of the lead curator and overall theme of the exhibition has become a much anticipated part of the event. This has especially been the case since Documenta 11 in 2002 when Nigerian-born American critic and curator Okwui Enwezor attempted to push the conceptual boundaries of the often Eurocentric exhibition and introduce important themes concerning globalization, the divisions between the rich and the poor of the world, and the important debate about what the global art community's responsibility is to directly engage with the social and political problems of our time. I was fortunate enough to see and hear Enwezor speak when I was a graduate student at UBC around that time, and have continued to follow his important writings and talks about what he now defines as the tensions between the world of art production and the politics of disaggregation (see YouTube clip below).

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev,
curator of Documenta 13
For Documenta 13, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, a curator and writer in Rome, Turin and New York, was named to the position late in 2008. She is currently the Chief Curator at the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin and was the Artistic Director for the 16th Sydney Biennale (2008). Christov-Bakargiev has also organized exhibitions as an independent curator in several different countries. But not much has been discussed publicly about the direction of Documenta 13 until this past October 29th, when at a press conference in Berlin, the Documenta organizers finally announced the complete curatorial team and process for the first time. In an interesting and quite radical move, Documenta 13 will not follow any one single curatorial concept, but will rather engage in what the organizers describe as "conducting, and choreographing manifold materials, methods, and knowledges." Weighing in on the announcement, Christov-Bakargiev focused on the important connection of the art world to the socially networked and digitally mediated universe we increasingly inhabit: "In an art world dominated by the curatorial, to act without a predefined curatorial plan offers a possibility to both repeat the network of connectivity of the digital age, while also reflecting on its shortcomings and implications from a critical viewpoint."

I am quite fascinated how all of this will unfold and have pasted below the complete statement from the official Documenta 13 website about the core questions to be addressed in 2012:

The official visual identity of Documenta 13 is being managed
by the Italian graphic design company Leftloft. 
What is dOCUMENTA (13) about?

Questions of personal and collective emancipation through art emerge in the process of making dOCUMENTA (13) by thinking through a number of composite ontologies that generate paradoxical conditions of contemporary life and artistic production. These include: 

  • participation and withdrawal as simultaneous modes of existence today;
  • embodiment and disembodiment, and their mutual dependency;
  • rootedness and homelessness, as a dual condition of subjecthood;
  • proximity and distance, and their relativity;
  • collapse and recovery, occurring simultaneously as well as in succession;
  • the flood of uncontrolled information and the contemporaneous obsession with control and organization;
  • translation and untranslatability, and their negotiation;
  • inclusion and exclusion, and their connectedness;
  • access and inaccessibility, and their co-existence;
  • the obsolescence of a Eurocentric notion of art and the paradoxical emergence of practices related to that same notion in the world at large today;
  • human life and other forms of life facing multi-species entangled  histories;
  • advanced science/technology and its alliance with ancient traditions;
  • tangible and intangible heritage and their interconnectedness with contemporary culture;
  • the specificity of being an artist and the non-specificity of artistic practice.
Exploring this set of composite ontologies and considerations, the exhibition will be held in various locations and places, and will include new works by more than 100 artists from around the world.

I have also embedded two lectures below. The first is given by Okwui Enwezor at Parsons New School of Design just two weeks ago in New York, and the second an address by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to graduate students in the California College of the Arts this time last year. Both lectures are dense and very involving, yet it is interesting to note the points of comparison and contrast in their discussions and individual approach to the issues facing contemporary artists.