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by Oliver Marchart

Curating Theory (Away) the Case of the Last Three Documenta Shows

Anyone analyzing the art field will find himself witnessing constant shifts of canon which are none other than hegemonic shifts – i.e. shifts in consensus as to what is say able and seeable at a given point in time. The institutions of the dominant bourgeois culture – museums, collections, exhibitions, etc. – are powerful instruments of hegemony production,as is demonstrated, for example, by the documenta. Whereas Catherine David’s dX and the D11 by Okwui Enwezor and his co-curators had carried the process of counter-canonization and hegemonic shifts forward using appropriated institutional means of the machine itself, a number of these progressive shifts were reversed again by the documenta12 under the direction of Roger Buergel.

These shifts of canon can be retraced along several fault lines: they can be referred to as axes of politics, of the post-colonial constellation, of theory and of education. dX andD11 brought about such multiple radicalization of the strategies of exhibition-making in the form of increased politicization, decentralization of the West, uncompromising theorization,and targeted attention to mediation work. In the field of cultural hegemony, however, no territorial gain is ever permanent, and indeed, the d12 reversed these territorial gains at anumber of crucial points. What is more, it is to be feared that the next documenta will carry this reversal further. I have discussed this entire complex of canon shifts – along with thebackground of their analysis in hegemonic theory – in greater detail in my book Hegemonie im Kunstfeld (Cologne: König, 2008). Naturally, it would exceed the scope of thispublication to repeat that entire discussion. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to publish an English translation of the chapter which goes into the shifts of canon which came about in the curatorial handling of theory during the last three documenta shows.

The Art Theory Interface

"Think with the senses, feel with the mind", was the motto Robert Storr chose for the 52nd Biennale of 2007 – a motto which picked up where the previous biennials had left offand could thus have applied to Buergel’s d12 as well. In this conception of art as primarily a matter of "sensory experience", we not only find a return of the arch-bourgeoisconception of art as a means of edification. Such mottos also testify to a certain anti-intellectualism typical of the art field. Whereas the dX and the D11 were branded by the critics as being hyper-intellectual, at the d12 anti-intellectualism sprouted new buds. The cognitive exploration of theory is apparently not supposed to get in the way of the "aesthetic experience". As early as the dX, for example, Thomas Wagner had declared in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung: "Here, however, catharsis can only be attained by those who are prepared to read Foucault and Lacan and who, moreover, are willing to adopt the interpretation the chief ideologists of the documenta X untiringly ram down their throats. Critical thinking that arrives at conclusionsdifferent from these is proscribed to the same degree as artistic works which do not fit into the prepared mould, which dictates heterogeneity, political relevance and an anti-commercialdemeanour."1 We ask ourselves what art Thomas Wagner is advocating here when he claims that David demanded heterogeneity, political relevance and an anti-commercial demeanour surely not homogeneous, politically irrelevant and purely commercial art? To say nothing of the fact that the resentment targeting well-known French theorists here can also apply to other forms of theory. The same FAZ critic later described the D11 as a "travelling advanced seminar in which a small troop of experts politically correctly tutor everyone who wasn’t paying attention when 'cultural studies' was on the curriculum, or who simply refuse to submit to this omnipresent paradigm’s claim to power."2 The concern, therefore, is not so much with the question as to which theory is seeping into the art field; theory in and of itself is already suspect because, in the art field – to return to Storr’s motto – you have to use your senses to think, while entrusting feeling and sensation to the mind.

A symptomatological reading of such critiques, however, would detect strong signs of hegemonic shift, to which conservative critics respond with a feeling of unease and a certain helplessness, concealed behind aggression. Here the anti-hegemonic forces are accused of having long beenomnipotent (while the accusers portray themselves as being ostracized and persecuted). The critic cited above, for example, claimed that, with his approach, Enwezor was following "the present-day mainstream, purely and simply. And the only art he considers contemporaneous is that which lends itself to being interlinked with topics circulating in certain milieus and their debates".3 He goes on to say that "the outcome is a new form of hegemony."4 It never ceases to be amazing how precisely these mainstream discussions – even where they do nothing but reproduce the organic ideology of the art field – pick up on hegemonic shifts and, in this case, even use the correct vocabulary to denote them.5 The problem, however, is that the D11 did not represent a new form of hegemony, but rather gave expression to a break in the hegemonic formation of the dominating culture, while at the same time continuing unerringly to work on the shift of that formation.


documenta X, 100 days - 100 guests lectures/events documenta - Halle, 1997. Photo: Ryszard Kasiewicz / © documenta Archiv


This break – or one of the breaks – was very evident on the theory axis. Naturally, the documenta exhibitions were never entirely void of theory, even if someone like Rudi Fuchs made a great effort to purify the documenta of all theory (as well as politics). Even Haftmann’s Occidentalist conception of a universal language of the West is a kind oftheory. And of course the D11 did not represent the first integration of theory and scholarship into the art field; after all, the "accompanying symposium" has meanwhile becomea ubiquitous element in the exhibition context. Nevertheless, the D11 was more strongly discourse-oriented than all other comparable events in the art field, even more strongly than Catherine David’s "theory documenta".

To prove that claim, however, we must first understand what constituted the measures by which David heightened the emphasis on theory.

Three formats were used: a series of magazines, a series of daily lectures, and a theoretical publication accompanying the exhibition. The magazine series, entitled documents, was concerned among other things with issues of identity in the age of "mondialization". As a kind of preparatory instruction, it anticipated the actual dX exhibition, providing insight into David’s documenta philosophy and manner of working, which was based on the montage concept. This "cinematic" concept created the documenta virtually as though at an editing table: "Like the film medium, the documenta is to be conceived as a slow and patient montage job: on the basis of a relatively rough script, individual sequences are processed, the final montage ultimately emerging from an internal logic."6 The publication of these working papers in advance was intended as a means of recording the documenta’s collage process as it evolved. Once the exhibition got underway, a similar forum for theory – more intense than virtually anything that had preceded it – unfolded in the 100 Days – 100 Guests7 programme. Finally, on more than eight hundred pages, the accompanying book Politics/Poetics extended the montage principle to cover the entire post-warperiod. According to the editors, the book represented the endeavour "to stake out a political context for the interpretation of artistic activity at the end of the twentieth century".8The assembled material was not conceived of "as encyclopaedic, but rather is a polemic reading of historical and cultural interrelationships: certain lines of aesthetic production and political aspirations are pursued which are capable of serving in the necessary contemporary debate as an instrument of productive analysis".9 Within this framework, the post-war period was accentuated by four significant dates: 1945 as the year of the founding of Europe’s post-war democracies, 1967 as the one in which the wave of protests and anti- imperialist struggles in the "third world" began to rise, 1978 as that in which the restructuring and flexibilization of global capitalism got underway, and 1989 as that marking the end of really existing Socialism. Materials of a wide range of genres and formats were assembled in keeping with the cinematic principle of the montage, and the result was a product resembling a large video clip.10 This theoretical/journalistic stream of consciousness was interrupted at certain key points – for example 1967 and 1978 – by "picture books" produced by dX artists.

In comparison and contrast to the D11 approach, this genre-transcending montage principle is fraught with a number of decisive strategic disadvantages, as seen, for example, in its treatment of theory. In addition to various original texts (and interviews conducted specifically for this purpose) appearing integrally, the accompanying book contains above all a myriad of theoretical "sound bites" – or "theory bites" – ranging in length from one paragraph to several pages. Theoretical texts by such authors as Edouard Glissant, Jürgen Habermas, Edward Said, Claude Lefort or James Clifford were included only in excerpt form, thus essentially being subordinated to the underlying logic of the art field, while their own specific logic – that of theoreticalknowledge production – was not accepted as such. At best, these text fragments can be understood as extended footnotes referring the reader to the integral works. Some what less benevolently, they could be measured against the yardstick of their purely iconic quality, which corresponds to the logic of the art field in that the symbolic impact of the famous theorist’s name has always tended to outshine what the theory was actually saying.11

The D11 took an entirely different approach in its treatment of theory. It granted the specific format of scholarly or theoretical knowledge production its own birthright and integrallyprinted the texts by the authors invited to the symposia. The results of the first four platforms were not collaged, but published in their entirety in four clearly structuredtheory/discussion volumes. What led to this decision is presumably the fact that the chief aim the

D11 had set itself was to offer a set of diagnostic tools. Despite a certain voluntarist bias, the instruments of theory do not work if they are arbitrarily disassembled – to saynothing of being literally smashed to bits. When that is the case, they have a warped impact, or none at all.

The D11, on the contrary, was conceived as an instrument of cognition which accepted various forms of knowledge production – philosophical, scholarly, artistic – in their heterogeneity. The apparently rigid segregation of the first four platforms from the fifth was therefore in no way illogical.12 It testified to a recognition of the fact that an exhibition in Kassel was not capable of the same accomplishments as a political convention in New Delhi or one on the theory of democracy in Vienna or Berlin. Yet precisely such events were all to be integral parts of a single project – the D11.

The first four platforms accordingly offered lecture, conference and workshop formats in which various aspects of the post-colonial constellation could be investigated and debated. In this context, various perspectives – general as well as specialized – were taken. We can cite the Vienna/BerlinDemocracy Unrealized platform as an example. This platform hosted guests from such areas as philosophy, political theory, legal theory, economics, cultural studies, post-colonial studiesand art theory – among them Stuart Hall, Bikhu Parek, Immanuel Wallerstein, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Enrique Dussel, Homi Bhabha, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

At the same time, activist and artistic-activist praxes, for example kein mensch ist illegal, Arquitectos Sin Fronteras, the Roma gypsy activist Sean Nazerali or the U.S. American humanrights advocate Mark Potok, were also given a forum. In Vienna, in conjunction with the immediately preceding protests against the participation of the right-wing Freedom Party ofAustria in that country’s government, the decision was made to invite the anti- right-wing Demokratische Offensive group.13

These meetings can accordingly only be referred to as theory platforms if the term theory is very broadly defined. Actually, platforms 1–4 were to be understood less as traditional theory events than as platforms for political debate and controversy over a certain pre-established theme and in various media, among others that of scholarship and theory. The fact that the classical formats of the lecture, the symposium and, finally, the symposium publication were chosen to this end, was brought about in my opinion by the fact that an avant-gardist breaking of institutional moulds was not a key aspect of the D11 strategy (as it had been in the first Szeemann concept or, as an unintentional parody of the latter, at the 50th Biennale’s Utopia Station), but rather institutional decentralization. Just as the exhibition platform deliberately granted the individual artworks their own space, the theory platforms granted their guests a certain degree of respect (to use an old-fashioned word) – namely respect for the specific nature of knowledge formation each of them represented. Indeed, the recognition of heterogeneity and specific individual characteristicsand qualities – whether the specificity of the artworks or the specific thematic competence of the guests from the area of scholarship and theory – was a major distinguishing factor of the D11. The adherence to "classical" formats, for example the relatively classical design of the Kassel exhibition or the classical symposium structure, should therefore not be misunderstood as a simple affirmation of institutional conventions. On the contrary, the classical institutional form was used deliberately to furnish the content-related shift ofcanon with symbolic legitimacy.

The likewise necessary deconstruction of institutional form, on the other hand, was not achieved by breaking through institutional boundaries with a huge "happening" (which would have led only to the sensationalization of the documenta and, ultimately, to a devaluation of the non-Western works included in it), but by deterritorializing the institution temporally, spatially and thematically.14


documenta X, 100 days - 100 guests lectures/events documenta - Halle, 1997. Photo: RyszardKasiewicz / © documenta Archiv


On the theory axis, the d12 – for its part – provided a good example of what I call the strategy of transformism in the art field. A transformist strategy, does not roundly rejectcertain anti-hegemonic shifts, but transforms them in such a way as to no longer stand in the way of a hegemonic consensus – which we had also termed the "organic ideology" ofthe art field. Despite the anti-intellectualism of an artistic director who was looking for "aesthetic experience", who prized immediacy, wanted to rehabilitate "beauty", and put out a so-called "picture book" without any text whatsoever, after dX and the D11, no curator could afford to stage a documenta without at least a minimal degree of the intellectual/theoretical in its approach. Certain leitmotifs were decided on, of which many – such as the decline of the middle classes – were quickly rejected again. What remained until the end were three questions of a markedly vague nature: Ismodernity our antiquity? What is bare life? and What is to be done?

To the extent that the process of responding to these questions was to take place in the medium of theory, an international magazine consortium – linked with the preceding D11 and at the same time not linked with it – was entrusted with that process. The idea itself – of forming a trans- national network of magazines in the art/theory/politics nexus – was undoubtedly the most interesting to come out of the d12, and it carried the philosophy of the D11 forward, though this continuation was not openly acknowledged. In its realization, however, the project proved problematical, since it legitimized the wholesale "outsourcing" of theory –indeed, of intellectuality. The interconnections the D11 had set out to create between art, theory and politics were stunted, and the theoretical preoccupation with political issues was assigned to sub-contractors all over the world. They were put in charge of text, theory and programme production which theartistic director and curator were either unwilling or unable to handle. The director’s team was relieved of the work of furnishing its vague leitmotifs with contents that wentbeyond mere associations and analogies. They had thus succeeded in involving intellectuals from all over the world to compensate for the lack of intelligence at the site of the exhibition, without having to provide anything at all – money, resources, etc. – in return, even if they had been able to, which they weren’t. It is accordingly no wonder that many of the participating magazines were reminded of neo-liberal outsourcing models and ultimately felt they had been given the run-around.15 The result was three documenta magazine editions which made an honest endeavour to squeeze something relevant and meaningful out of the curators’ ambiguous ideas, and nevertheless ended up merely supplying the intellectual fig leaf for a thoroughly anti-intellectual exhibition.


documenta X, 100 days - 100 guests lectures/events documenta-Halle, 1997. Photo: Ryszard Kasiewicz / © documenta


Archiv documenta 12, book table, documenta-Halle, 2007. Photo: Ryszard Kasiewicz / © documenta Archiv


The anti-intellectualism of the d12 was also manifest in another peculiarity. For behind all the talk about form and beauty, a more fundamental discourse seemed to be shaping thed12: the return of the esoteric. Esoteric in the Buergelesque sense is exemplified by Poul Gernes’s psychedelic decorative art of the 1960s or John McCracken’s Mandala paintings of the early 1970s, as well as by the latter’s metaphysical sculptures. Here art was returning to its roots in religion or, more specifically, neo-heathenism. As Buergel explained:

"With his mandalas, which were all produced in the autumn following the ‘summer of love’, McCracken was assuring himself of the spiritual source of artistic creativity. With their three axes of symmetry, mandalas are representative of concepts of holism, but they are not just images which invite you to smoke pot and be amazed at them, but alsoforms of ancient religious practice, for example in Tibetan Buddhism: painting as meditation. Enough has been said about the currents of the anti-Vietnam movement. These esoteric movements, however, from the French Symbolists to anthroposophy, were always also a facet of modern abstraction. They allude to the re-enchantment of a world thoroughly disenchanted, thanks to the capitalist rationality of the industrialrevolution."16

The last sentence reveals that Buergel would like to see esotericism as a form of anti-rational "critique", with which he affiliates himself curatorially with his exhibition. The quotation is therefore not to be understood as a description of esotericism in modern art in general, or of the mandala paintings in particular, but also as Buergel’s and Noack’s "own programme". It is as though the documenta provided Buergel with a stage for fantasizing about holism (thus the mere associations, since in a holistic universe everything is connected to everything else), about "ancient forms" (thus the many pre-modern exhibition objects), about magic andthe quasi-religious "re-enchantment" of the world (thus the return of the mandala [John McCracken] and, as Robert Fleck pointed out, the cross [Churchill Madikida] at the d12) – all dipped in a regressive discussion about the "beautiful." What ultimately betrays itself behind Buergel’s formalism and aestheticism is a spiritualist and esoteric irrationality which permits himto shake off every text, every true criticism and every instance of politics in the art field. In the end, the transformations which were to be brought about by the d12 in the hegemonic structure of the art field aided by strategies of decontextualization, formalization and aestheticization (not to forget spiritualization) – add up to a project of curatorial anti-enlightenment.


Since 2006 Oliver Marchart is Professor at the Universtiy of Luzern, 2001-2002 he was Scientific Advisor and Head of the Education Project of documenta 11. He lectured at different universities (University of Vienna, University of Innsbruck, Art Academies, Essex Summer School, University of Basel). Fellowships: Research Fellow at the Centre for Theoretical Studies, University of Essex (1995); Junior Fellow at the International ResearchCenter for Cultural Studies in Vienna (1997-1998); Fellow at the ColumbiaUniversity Institute at Reid Hall and the École des Hautes Études en SciencesSociales, Paris (2005).



1 Thomas Wagner, Licht im Schacht von Babel (Berlin: Merve, 2007), 92.

2 Ibid., p. 122.

3 Ibid., p. 125.

4 Ibid., p. 126.

5 The blithe use of the term "ideology" may be confusing. Let us define ideology here as all praxes and discourses which  repudiate the power-based, contingent, and nevertheless  (or for that very reason) in the broadest sense political structuring of the space of society, thus at the same time denying their own positions within and perspectives on that space.

6 Catherine David, "Editorial", in: documenta GmbH, documenta X documents 1 (Ostfildern: Cantz, 1996), p. 1.

7 A further module of the dX as a space gradually developing and taking shape over the course of the hundred days was the hybrid workspace in the Orangerie.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Explained as follows: "To do justice to the complex relationships between specific art practices and socio-political situations which are both local and global at once, the form favoured for this book is that of the montage, which permits a productive confrontation between literature and journalistic essays, artworks and documentary photographs, and between critical commentaries on specific historical, philosophical or social themes." Politics/Poetics (see note 8), p25.

11 With regard to the very different strategic handling of theory cultivated by the dX and the D11, Amina Haase got to the heart of the matter in Kunstforum, when she wrote: "David’s theoretical tendencies may have paved the way for Enwezor’s platforms 1 to 4, but it is almost as if the D11’s platform 5 turned all of the dX-based theories topsy turvy. Five years ago, the philosophers and theorists – primarily of French origin, from Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze to Levi Strauss [sic!] and Godard plus Marx and Freud – remained on paper, as theory suppliers, so to speak. Now, art is revealing itself as a concrete extension of ideas – also the  ideas of very different thinkers, for example Frantz Fanon, Antonio Gramsci, Guy Debord, Giorgio Agamben, Henri Bergson, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri." Amina Haase, "Keine Zukunft ohne Vergangenheit", in Kunstforum 161, August – October 2002, p. 60.

12 While it is true that a few isolated workshops were offered over the course of the documenta summer for example with Fareed Armaly, Walid Ra’ad, Joan Jonas and Andreja Kuluncic – as well as discussions with Okwui Enwezor and a few individual artists, the D11 theory programme was constituted primarily by  the first four platforms.

13 All of these contributions are to be found in Okwui Enwezor et al. (eds.), Demokratie als unvollendeter Prozeß. Documenta11_ Plattform1 (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2002).

14 The comparison with other exhibition strategies is also worthwhile in terms of how they handled theory. With the 49th Biennale, for example, Szeemann had  no   intention of concerning himself with theory. Theory, rather, like everything else, was universalized into something common to all mankind: it became "thought". That didn’t mean that there were philosophers there, "thinking" in public, but rather "thought" – again like everything else – was exhibited in objectified  form: At a central location, Szeemann staged what he referred  to  as  the "platform of thought". He assembled a number of sculptures, secular and religious, of different periods and regions of the world, and placed them around Rodin’s Thinker. Once again, Szeemann’s plateau inadvertently became a "plateau of exoticism" on which the objects from faraway places circled around the  figure of the European "thinker".

15 See Kati and Beat Weber, "Die Akte  documenta", in malmoe 38, 2008.

16 documenta 12 Katalog (Cologne: Taschen, 2007), 88.


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