Why Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta May Be the Most Important Exhibition of the 21st Century

by Steven Henry Madoff at artinfo

In a small room far from the main galleries on the second floor of the Fridericianum, the 18th-century museum that serves as the central exhibition space of Documenta, a wall label advertises a weekly seminar to be held there titled “What Is Thinking?” The philosophical breadth of that question, and its unhurried, meditative air, is a mirror of curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s brilliant, eccentric, path-breaking approach to Documenta, founded in 1955. And buried within that question is a still more radical inquiry that turns the curating of objects inside out, as if the noonday sun suddenly revealed the fundamental, living strangeness of all things. The question she asks at the heart of the heart of her exhibition is not who thinks, but what thinks.

An example: Just inside the entrance of the Fridericianum is a big gallery, and being that Documenta happens every five years, the expectations are also big as visitors enter the museum, ready for the colossus of the contemporary art world to muscularly unfurl its opening displays. Instead, like a speck marking this cavernous white space is a small vitrine along the left wall with three diminutive bronze figures from the 1930s by Julio González, an accompanying photograph, and, it seems to the eye, nothing else. But the other presence in the space and throughout the whole ground floor is an insistent whirling of air — just wind, like something ineffable murmuring its independent being: Ryan Gander’s elaborately titled “Airflow-velocity study for I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull),” 2012. On the other side of the main hall, an identical space holds nothing but a standing vitrine with a long, handwritten letter inside it by the artist Kai Althoff, explaining why he couldn’t participate in Documenta. Behind this vast gallery, a smaller one is left bare, filled only with wind.

This introductory scattering of text, conventional artworks, and an invisible felt presence form a bold and gnomic index of what’s to come as the exhibition unfolds: a very lofty form of entertainment, cerebrally seriocomic, pressing at formlessness, openness, and the constraints of gravity, giving equal voice to the hand that makes and air, simply air. Christov-Bakargiev states in her exhibition essay about curating and connectedness in the digital age, “When an artwork is looked at closely, it becomes, as in meditation, an ever more abstract exercise, a thinking and imagining while thinking, until the phenomenology of that viscous experience allows the mind to merge with matter, and slowly, possibly, to see the world not from the point of view of the discerning subject, the detached subject, but from within so-called objects and outward.”

Her Documenta, which included the curatorial work of Chus Martinez and a team of about 20 curatorial “agents,” is so large, and consistently curated at such a high level, that it is impossible to even briefly review the most compelling pieces. Of course, there are works of lesser and greater accomplishment, but the overall quality of exceptional art is remarkable. There are nearly 200 artists and others participating, and a budget of more than 25 million euros to match Christov-Bakargiev’s ambitions and afford the commissioning of scores of new works from around the world. They occupy several buildings and spaces around Kassel, including more than 40 pieces that dot the city’s huge Karlsaue Park. The ancillary events over the 100 days of the exhibition run from film series to conferences, lectures, workshops, and performances about time and clocks, Sarwahi cooking (delicious!), cosmopolitanism, anger, the writings of Lydia Davis, information in quantum states, the lives of objects, Theodore Adorno’s musicology, conviviality, the environment, the Jewish National Library, Dora Garcia’s talk-show-formatted discussion of the psychiatrist R. D. Laing, and dozens of other events that in their entirety form a makeshift university for the traveling mind. Satellite exhibitions and events were curated in Kabul, Afghanistan; Banff, Canada; and Cairo, Egypt. One hundred little volumes written by artists and specialists in a gamut of fields were produced, a portable library for the future.

continue at artinfo

Thomas Büsch

Filmmaker, Founding Member and Secretary General of diyalog, promotion of cultural exchange with Turkey. Since 2012 he is also project manager of InEnArt.

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