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by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

On the Documenta 14 in Athens

Kettly Noël: Zombification, 2017, installation and performance,  © Mathias Roelcke

Kettly Noël: Zombification, 2017, installation and performance, © Mathias Roelcke

The public, it seems, is as enthusiastic as ever about contemporary art. Curated mass events and the masses they draw bespeak the ongoing appeal of the art world. But what does the public expect when it travels, yet again, to Venice, Kassel, Münster (and this time Athens as well)? Is this readiness a sign that contemporary art is accessible “to all”? Or that it’s in a position to address far-reaching issues of society and politics while at the same time guaranteeing pleasurable time out from the daily routine? Today, in an age when people encounter one another in the form of social media profiles, we might ask wherein the charm of physical proximity to contemporary art lies.

In the following, the art historian Sabeth Buchmann and the curator Ilse Lafer analyse the documenta 14 from this perspective and shed light on why the aim of transcending traditional conceptions of the relationship between centre and periphery in the art context is an important one.

As we know, every documenta produces its own discursive vocabulary. In the case of the d 14, which took Greece’s economic and humanitarian crisis as its point of departure, it adopted the Biennale-typical rhetoric [1] of a “world-mapping”. This was not intended, however, in the sense of “utopian divagations” [2] revolving around a new global order, an approach quite common in the international exhibition scene. Rather, the title Learning from Athens/(working title) – which refers (presumably not by coincidence) to Learning from Las Vegas, a classic work of post-modern urban planning – was meant to signify an endeavour “to introduce and develop possibilities for a different, more inclusive world” [3] from the point of view of a critical stance on hegemony. Already this circumstance alone conveys a sense of the ambiguity of the curatorial approach. After all, the division of the d 14 into two venues in two cities mirrors the ambition to endow hegemonial institutions such as the documenta with a new perspective. To a greater extent than the comparable undertakings of its predecessors (for example the temporary stationing of the d 13 in Kabul and the platforms of the d 11), the d 14 had its programmatic starting point not in Kassel but in an emblematic European capital that stands for ailing national economies within the framework of a neoliberal, EU-imposed politics of austerity.

If we take into account the fact that the documenta is a German cultural institution exemplary of the American project to re-educate post-war Western Germany, while also, by virtue of its staging in Kassel –a city located on the onetime inner-German border –, serving as a reference to the so-called reunification, the shift of perspectives proposed by Adam Szymczyk seems to make sense. As can be surmised from the handwritten memo “working title”, this exercise in “learning from unlearning” was geared towards the imponderables of a geopolitical relocation of the documenta as an institution embedded in old/new hegemonial politics. According to Paul B. Preciado, one of the co-curators, the d 14’s institution-critical stance consequentially laid claim to a “delinking from normative ways of thinking, specialized ways of thinking, in order to be open to something that can happen that is unknown” [4] . Yet the problematic aspects of such an endeavour are evident in precisely these words. As the widely voiced accusation of neo-colonial orientalization showed, this argumentation inevitably boomeranged: Athens as the venue of a curatorial adventure that, naturally, was not capable of solving the city’s problems but, quite to the contrary, threatened to exoticize that city.

In our eyes, however, such weighty objections should not serve indiscriminately to condemn the approach – meanwhile widespread in curatorial circles – of countering the global network manager type with the experiment of the collective process [5] . Within this context, the reference to the principle of the “continuum” developed by the Greek composer Jani Christou is symptomatic. (The d 14 team had Christou’s work Epicycle [1968] performed at its press conference.) According to Szymczyk, this was symbolic of a “score of activities that may occur over an undefined period of time, engaging different actors and their contributions without a prescribed scenario” [6] . This indicates a curatorial attempt to identify with Christou’s “voluntary abdication” of institutionalized role hierarchies: “Since there has been such an abdication, I must accept all the negative aspects of this action, i.e. loose form, no form, repetition, non-sense, lack of synthesis, abolition of the sense of ‘climax’, neutralization of musical ‘impact’, and so on and so forth. […] It is a dangerous game, I know […]” [7] .

Martha Minujín, The Parthenon of Books, © Roman Maerz

Martha Minujín, The Parthenon of Books, © Roman Maerz

And indeed, in view of the highly professionalized, hierarchically organized and neoliberal management of culture, the suggestion of an open-ended exhibition event that unites all involved in the departure from well-practised ways of thinking did not appear exactly harmless because, structurally speaking, it was entirely unfeasible. At the same time, however, the d 14 team deserves credit for opening the exhibition *form* to a more manifold new perspectivization of non-hegemonial works and practices within the framework of an institution that generally serves as a reservoir for so-called “signature works”. In fact, with its focus on hegemony-critical queer and postcolonial studies, radical theories of democracy and aesthetic event philosophy, the d 14 was entirely consistent with the documenta’s globalization-oriented agendas of the kind that got underway meanwhile twenty years ago with the d X (Politics–Poetics) and echoed in concepts of decolonialization (d 11) and the migration of form (d 12). Yet the formula of ‘conceptlessness’ intoned by the d 13 director – comparatively the most successful in the media because of its seeming innocuousness – is also distantly discernible in the slogan “learning from unlearning” with its institution-critical allusions.

Unlike Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s so-called Brain, however, which reduced the suggestion of unconditional curatorial selection to absurdity, the d 14 seemed to us to be founded in the claim – by all means worthy of discussion – to a contra-normative perception of heterogeneous exhibition objects. In contradistinction to criticism to the effect that the high art perspective (formerly) considered Western justifies a differentiation between ostensibly “good” art and ethnic folklore identified by indigenous contributions, we acknowledge the “multitudinous traditions of resistance” [8] assembled by the d 14 team as an instance of a critical stance on hegemony. This doesn’t mean that obvious contradictions – for example the romantic idea of artefacts seemingly untouched by the contemporary art world – should be ignored. Yet neither should the presence of idiosyncratic work languages go unmentioned, languages that implicitly or explicitly address the institutionally internalized (hetero)normative power of the market and the media. Cases in point were Terre Thaemlitz’s audio-video loop Interstices (2001–03), an attack on the “faith in ‘aesthetics’ as an exemplary model of civility and education” [9] composed as an electroacoustic negation of commercialized queerness, or Moyra Davey’s Portrait/Landscape installation, consisting of 70 C-print collages folded up and sent to the d 14 staff as letters, or her digital video of 2017 called Wedding Loop, a palimpsest-like tableau of photographic/filmic images, text quotations, autobiographical notes and voiceover montages, some found and some produced by the artist herself, a work testifying to the medially fragmented overlapping of private, public, artistic and institutional (re)production. Apart from the literalist actions by artists such as Marta Minujin or Daniel Knorr or works like Piotr Uklański’s “preaching-to-the-converted” Nazi criticism, the d 14 was conspicuous by virtue of its dispensation (for the most part) with “to-point-at” gestures (Mieke Bal). What appears to us to be decisive is the paracuratorial claim [10] to an anti-hegemonial orchestration of art-historical narrations – according to Szymczyk a “searching for footnotes” [11] –, which, on the level of the exhibition’s structure, created surprising cross-connections, for example between the scores and archival documents of Cornelius Cardew and the post-realistic-abstract large-scale formats by the Albanian painter Edi Hila. Even if this occasionally led to a kind of morphological short-circuiting, as in the case of the adjacency of Stanley Whitney’s vivid colour grids to the Sami flags, it also opened up perspectives on historical resonances between political practices, diagrammatic depiction systems and geometric-abstract pictorial languages, as manifest, for instance, in the neighbouring Composition (Afterimage) (1948–49) by Władysław Strzemiński.

Another aspect of this paracuratorial logic was the substantial dissolution of the customary distinction between the exhibition and its ‘by-products’, while at the same time conceding the accompanying discussion and lecture series, television, film and radio programmes, performances, publications – among them the South as a State of Mind [12] documenta magazines of which three issues have hitherto been published, the documenta Reader and the Daybook – a status equal to that of the exhibition parkour, with which it was (chrono)logically interwoven. That and the manner in which the respective presentation formats were distributed throughout the city and the media lent them a decentralizing dynamic. Also in keeping with this approach was the replacement of pre-established ‘guide lines’ distinguishing between major and side arenas with a rhizomatic compound of practices based on the history of antiauthoritarian projects and movements. Christou’s concept of the “continuum”, for example, corresponded with Oskar Hansen’s principle of the open form; Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed with Deschooling Society by Pauline Oliveros and Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra [13] .

documenta 14 opening press conference, 6 April 2017, Megaron, Athens, © Stathis Mamalakis

documenta 14 opening press conference, 6 April 2017, Megaron, Athens, © Stathis Mamalakis

The idea of loose form that came to light in various ways on the level of the work presentations was distinguished by a quality that would prove to reside first and foremost in the artists’ self-perception as co-players. Characteristically, it functioned in those places where sound- and workshop-based work forms reinforced the dialectic of reception-aesthetical and collective practices. At the School of Fine Arts (ASFA) – one of the d 14’s primary exhibition venues in Athens –, this was manifest, for example, in the carefully prepared documentation of the Anna and Lawrence Halprin workshops that were of such decisive importance for the American dance, music, and art avant-gardes, Alan Sekula’s School is a Factory (1987–90) and Bouchra Khalili’s The Tempest Society, a film produced in 2017 after the manner of a historical theatre project and featuring the narratives of migrant performers along with a composition of individual and choral voices in the style of Pasolini’s model of the Greek tragedy. Comparable passages of openly rhythmized contact points and counterpoints were also to be encountered in the Conservatoire (Odeion), for instance in the form of Hiwa K’s cinematic-phenomenological exploration of Turkish and Greek refugee routes, Eva Stefani’s film essay on urban milieus in Athens, Nevin Aladağ’s hybrids of traditional bourgeois musical instruments and refugee boats, and Ulrich Wüst’s conceptual fanfold entitled Flatland, consisting of 179 black-and-white photos documenting the transformation of the former East Germany.

The continually recurring work forms at various exhibition venues in conjunction with the reflection on their respective functions and histories – for example the “occupation” of the Athens Municipality Arts Center at Parko Eleftherias by the Parliament of Bodies, the ASFA’s emphasis on educational experiments, or the focus on scores, notations, musical recitals and performances at the Athens conservatory – were presumably what made it possible and easy to take the hegemony-critical de-/re-institutionalization of the works presented seriously.

The concept’s weaknesses revealed themselves above all in the presentation at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) which, by virtue of a rather last-minute arrangement, was the d 14’s main venue in Athens. Context-sensitive independents such as the works oscillating between painting, sculpture and drawing by Nairy Baghramian, Ashley Scheirl and Alina Szapocznikow made a somewhat forlorn impression in the issue-overfraught enfilades. It can be assumed that precisely this circumstance led to the above-addressed exoticization of ethnographically charged works and artefacts such as Beau Dick’s masks. In all those places where the curating itself drowned out the lucid resonances of artists like Christou, Cardew or Oliveros on account of all-too-voluntaristic improvisation, thought patterns presumed to be obsolete once again made themselves felt in all the more stereotypical a manner.

From today’s perspective, more than three months after our visit to Athens, what preponderates is the memory of an exhibition whose fulfilled ambitions – but also those that met with (self-incurred) failure – provide reasons and arguments for the necessity of continued work on the (still-unfinished) criticism of hegemony.


Now, three years later, the translation of this text into English has brought back to mind our deliberations – published at the time in German in Texte zur Kunst – on what we consider to be the successes and failures of the d 14. And it has become clearer to us than before that the double exhibition sought to implement what the three previous documentas had already prescribed as ineluctable conditions: the transcultural perspectivization of the global art scene and the associated geocultural repositioning of the show. This made the systematic overload of the institution and its protagonists inevitable, a circumstance that, in our opinion, should have been a programmatic element of the neoliberalism-reflexive institutional criticism to which the directors of the d 14 laid claim. At the same time, it must have been clear to the responsible local politicians and the exhibition’s supervisory board that a double production of the documenta would incur at least double the costs. Seen in this light, the attacks (particularly on Adam Szymczyk) citing the massive additional expenditures appear as one-sided as the dismissal of then chief executive Annette Kulenkampff appears unjustified. The responsibility seems to us to be far more systemic in nature, and it would do injustice to the d 14’s qualities to remember it only from the perspective of the mud-slinging that came about in its wake.

Translation from German by Judith Rosenthal.
This text was first published in: Sabeth Buchmann/ Ilse Lafer, “Aus Fehlern lernen. Über die Documenta 14 in Athen,” Texte zur Kunst, # 107, September 2017, p 157–162

Sabeth Buchmann (Berlin/ Vienna) is art historian and critic, Berlin/ Vienna, Professor of the History of Modern and Postmodern Art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. With Helmut Draxler, Clemens Krümmel, and Susanne Leeb she co-edits of PoLYpen. a series on art criticism and political theory, published by b_books, Berlin; since 1998 she is board member of the Berlin based magazine Texte zur Kunst. Her publications include (selection): co-ed. with Ilse Lafer and Constanze Ruhm of Putting Rehearsals to the Test. Practices of Rehearsal in Fine Arts, Film. Theater, Theory, and Politics, Berlin/ Wien 2016, co-ed. with Rike Frank of Textile Theorien der Moderne. Alois Riegl in der Kunstkritik  (Berlin 2015), co-author with Max Jorge Hinderer of Hélio Oiticica, Neville D'Almeida and others: Block-Experiments in Cosmococa,  London 2013, co-ed. with Helmut Draxler and Stephan Geene  of Film Avantgarde Biopolitik, Vienna 2009, Denken gegen das Denken. Produktion – Technologie – Subjektivität bei Sol LeWitt, Yvonne Rainer und Hélio Oiticica, Berlin 2007 (revised doctoral thesis); co-ed. of Art After Conceptual Art (Cambridge/ Mass./ Cologne 2006).

Ilse Lafer (Leipzig/ Vienna) is a curator and has been directing the HGB Gallery in Leipzig since 2018. Before that she worked for eight years as curator for the Generali Foundation in Vienna. From 2014 to 2018 she lectured at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, among other institutions. She has (co-)produced numerous monographic and thematic exhibitions, most recently 1937-2017: Von Entarteter Kunst zu Entstellter Kunst, together with Adam Szymczyk for HGB-Galerie, Leipzig, 2019/20, and Doing Deculturalization for Museion in Bolzano, 2019. Her publications include (selection): Deculturalize (will be published in July 2020), Putting Rehearsals to the Test. Practices of Rehearsal in Fine Arts, Film. Theater, Theory, and Politics, (co-ed. with Sabeth Buchmann and Constanze Ruhm, Berlin/ Vienna 2016), Ulrike Grossarth. Where I made of matter, I would colour, (co-edited with Sabine Folie, Berlin/ Vienna 2014), Counterproduction I-III, print-on-demand-publication (co-edited with Diana Baldon, Vienna 2012), unExhibit, (co-edited with Sabine Folie, Nurnberg/Vienna 2011), Behind the Forth Wall. Fictitious Lives – Lived Fictions, Nurnberg/Vienna, 2010.


1 Compare the programmatic titles of Daniel Birnbaum’s “Making Worlds” and Okwui Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures” biennials.

2 Quoted from: Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk, “Editors’ Letter”, in: South as a State of Mind, issue 6 [Documenta 14 #1], Fall/Winter 2015: http://www.documenta14.de/de/south/12_editorial (accessed 2 May 2020).

3 Ibid.

4 “Exposed to the Unknown: Paul B. Preciado and Georgia Sagri: Paul B. Preciado and Georgia Sagri in Conversation”, in: Conversations Mousse 58, see: http://moussemagazine.it/paul-b-preciado-georgia-sagri-exposed-to-the-unknown-documenta-14-2017/ (accessed 2 May 2020).

5 See for example Jean-Paul Martinon, “Theses in the Philosophy of Curating”, in: idem, The Curatorial: A Philosophy of Curating, London: Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 25–33.

6 Adam Szymczyk, “14: Iterability and Otherness: Learning and Working from Athens”, in: Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk (eds.), The documenta 14 Reader, Munich et al.: Prestel Verlag, 2017, p. 34.

7 Jani Christou, “Epicycle 1968: Abstract from a letter dated 30 December 1968”, see: http://www.janichristou.com/commentaries/commentaries.html (accessed 10 July 2017) [Ich konnte nicht auf die Seite zugreifen.].

8 Quoted from: Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk, “Editors’ Letter”, in: South as a State of Mind, issue 8 [Documenta 14 #3], Fall/Winter 2016: https://www.documenta14.de/en/south/886_editors_letter (accessed 2 May 2020).

9 Dean Inkster on Terre Thaemlitz, in: Documenta 14: Daybook, Munich et al. : Prestel, 2017, n. p. (31 May); also available at: https://www.documenta14.de/en/artists/ 1944/terre-thaemlitz (accessed 2 May 2020).

10 Paul O’Neill provides a definition of the “paracuratorial” that is of interest in the context of the d 14 and, after the manner of Gérard Genette’s “paratexts”, encompasses all discursive formats that accompany and expand an exhibition and steer its reception: “The Curatorial Constellation and the Paracuratorial Paradox” (see: https://fdocuments.net/document/paul-oneill-the-curatorial-constellation.html, accessed 5 May 2020). In contrast to the logic that distinguishes between the “curatorial” and the “paracuratorial”, between primary and secondary curatorial work – a logic generally conceived as binary and at the same time hierarchical in nature –, O’Neill argues in favour of a concept of the “curatorial” that includes paracuratorial practices: “Paracuratorial practices are part of this constellation, but could also be considered a type of practice that responds to certain irreconcilable conditions of production. They attach themselves to, intervene in, or rub up against these conditions. They might occur at the points at which the main event is critiqued from within, or when the restrictive scenarios into which art and curatorial labor are forced or sidestepped in some way. They employ a host-and-uninvited-guest tactic of coordination and invention, enabling parasitic curatorial labor to coexist alongside, or in confrontation with, preexisting cultural forms, originating scenarios, or prescribed exhibition contexts.”

11 “Insights into Curatorial Practice Vol 3”, Adam Szymczyk in conversation with Okwui Enwezor, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q153cSyZ0c8 (accessed 2 May 2020).

12 In keeping with paracuratorial logic, Szymczyk described South magazine as a “temporary documenta 14 station of the eponymous magazine founded in Athens in 2012”. The hitherto published thematic issues of South (the last issue is forthcoming in the autumn of 2017) on concepts such as “displacement and dispossession, silence and masks, language or hunger, violence and offering” have accordingly not so much served as guidelines for the show’s conception, but were conceived of as part of the development process. See: Szymczyk, “14: Iterability and Otherness: Learning and Working from Athens” [see note 6], p. 37.

13 See ibid and http://www.documenta14.de/de/venues/868/athener-konservatorium-odeion (accessed 5 May 2020).

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Issue 46 / June 2020

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