– Spring/Summer 2018

Witnessing the Prosecution

Anthony Gardner

Maria Eichhorn, Unlawfully Acquired Books from Jewish Ownership, 2017, installation, dimensions variable. Installation view, Neue Galerie Kassel, documenta 14, 2017. Photograph: Mathias Völzke. Courtesy the artist and Mathias

Who says Kassel is boring? In 1972, Joseph Beuys drew Harald Szeemann’s documenta 5 to a close — and with it the Office for Direct Democracy (1972), Beuys’s renowned space for political debate and deliberation with Kassel audiences — with a celebrated, carnivalesque face-off in a boxing ring. Forty-five years and nine documentas later, Kassel finally played host to another boxing match, though this time not a playful shadow-punch between artists in the presence of the über-curator. Beuys the teacher duked it out with local art student and upstart Abraham David Christian, the former fighting for ‘direct democracy by referendum’, the latter for ‘representative democracy’ (the teacher won on points). Now the fight is for documenta’s very future.

As the overstretched string of curators and ‘chorus’ educators, advisors and assistants, led by artistic director Adam Szymczyk, readied themselves for documenta 14’s withdrawal, and the columns of contraband texts came down from Marta Minujín’s reconstructed The Parthenon of Books (1983/2017) in Kassel’s central Friedrichsplatz, Kassel’s local newspaper delivered a bombshell.1 The Hessische Niedersächsische Allgemeine announced that documenta’s parent company, documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH, was approximately seven million euros in deficit. This was, apparently, the result of

  1. Minujín’s Kassel work restaged her 1983 public sculpture in Buenos Aires, in which approximately 25,000 books banned by Argentina’s military government were presented in a one-to-one modular replica of the Parthenon in Athens.

  2. She stepped down a year in advance of her contract ending.

  3. See Florian Hagemann, Frank Thonicke and Horst Seidenfaden, ‘Finanz-Fiasko: documenta 14 in Athen verschlang über 7 Millionen Euro’, Hessische Niedersächsische Allgemeine, 13 September 2017, available at https://www.hna.de/kultur/documenta/documenta-14-in-athen-verschlang- ueber-sieben-millionen-euro-8676880.html (last accessed on 24 September 2017). Note that budget increases were called for in advance of the deficit.

  4. This and other quotations from the curatorial team’s letter can be found on e-flux conversations [online forum], 14 September 2017, ‘Statement by the Artistic Director and Curatorial Team of documenta 14’, available at https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/statement-by-the-artistic-director- and-curatorial-team-of-documenta-14/7013 (last accessed on 24 September 2017).

  5. Ibid.

  6. For the participants’s rejoinder see e-flux conversations, 15 September 2017, ‘A Statement by the Artists of documenta 14’, available at https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/a-statement-by-the- artists-of-documenta-14/7031 (last accessed on 24 September 2017).

  7. Ibid.

  8. The country has undertaken waves of austerity measures dictated since 2009 by the German-
    led troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

  9. Adam Szymczyk, ‘Iterability and Otherness – Learning and Working from Athens’, in The
    documenta 14 Reader
    (ed. Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk), Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2017, p.21.

  10. Ibid., pp.21–23. Note especially Szymczyk’s point about ‘debt as political measure’, p.22.

  11. Walter Grasskamp remains, as always, the authority on these matters of documenta’s history.
    See his ‘Becoming Global: From Eurocentrism to North Atlantic Feedback – documenta as an
    “International Exhibition” (1955–1972)’, On Curating, no.33, June 2017, pp.97–108.

  12. Although, as Chin-tao Wu has convincingly shown, the fact that most of the artists in Documenta11 were based in the North Atlantic, even if not born there, meant that that exhibition at least was not quite the corrective it seemed to be. See Chin-tao Wu, ‘Biennials without Borders’, New Left Review, no.57, May/June 2009, pp.107–15.

  13. These events often took place in newly independent countries affiliated with what would, after 1961, be called the Non-Aligned Movement. See chapters 1–3 of Anthony Gardner and Charles Green, Biennials, Triennials, and documenta: The Exhibitions that Created Contemporary Art, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016.

  14. Launched by Marcos Grigorian in 1958, opened to artists based elsewhere in Asia by 1966.

  15. Started by Mulk Raj Anand in 1968.

  16. This was one of the fallouts after the September 11 attacks facing Documenta11 as, in Okwui Enwezor’s words, a ‘black box’ offering records of panic amid trauma. See his ‘The Black Box’, Documenta11_Platform 5: Exhibition (exh. cat.), Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002, pp. 42–55.

  17. Evident in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s sprawling dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012.

  18. See Szymczyk’s comments in, among many other places, his ‘Iterability and Otherness’, op. cit., p.21 and the Kassel press conference, 7 June 2017, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBmjI_oSagk (last accessed on 10 February 2017).

  19. Stavros Stavrides, ‘What is to be Learned? On Athens and documenta 14 So Far’, Afterall, no.43, Spring/Summer 2017, pp.64–69.

  20. A. Szymczyk, ‘Iterability and Otherness’, op. cit., p.33.

  21. This was a subject informing many of the contributions in Kassel and Athens but perhaps none more potently than Mounira Al Solh’s canopy in the Museum of Islamic Art, Benaki Museum. See her Sperveri (2017) the inviting sanctuary of the tent filled with carefully embroidered letters about the treacherous westward passages from Syria, some humorous, some harrowing.

  22. For instance, the grand tours of Winckelmann in the eighteenth century or Arnold Bode in the twentieth, as Kassel’s Neue Galerie emphasised, as well as its descendants: the neoclassical architec- ture through which the Friedericianum, the Orangerie and various other buildings frank Kassel’s survival through the War.

  23. Stuart Hall, ‘Democracy, Globalization and Difference’, in Democracy Unrealized: Documenta11_ Platform 1, op. cit., p. 21.

  24. Wendy Brown, ‘Neo-liberalism and the End of Neoliberal Democracy’, Theory & Event, vol.7, no.1, 2003, available at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/48659 (last accessed on 26 September 2017).

  25. Or for that matter, any hang of the collection of EMST (National Museum of Contemporary Art), Athens's unopened museum of contemporary art, within the Fridericianum could articulate the latter’s hospitality.

  26. ‘The Indelible Presence of the Gurlitt Estate: Adam Szymczyk in Conversation with Alexander Alberro, Maria Eichhorn, and Hans Haacke’, in South as a State of Mind: documenta 14 #1, no.6, Fall/ Winter 2015, p.96.

  27. It’s been there before, especially after the financial and artistic furores surrounding Szeemann’s tour-de-force, as expensive as it was expansive.

  28. Gene Ray, ‘Writing the Ecocide-Genocide Knot: Indigenous Knowledge and Critical Theory in the Endgame’, South as a State of Mind: documenta 14 #3, no.8, Fall/Winter 2016, pp.117–36; and G. Ray, ‘Resisting Extinction: Standing Rock, Eco-Genocide and Survival’, ibid., no.9, Fall/Winter 2017 available at http://www.documenta14.de/en/south/25218_resisting_extinction_standing_
    rock_eco_genocide_and_survival (last accessed on 27 September 2017).

  29. A. Szymczyk, ‘Iterability and Otherness’, op.cit., p.27.