Power of the Curator: What the 13th Documenta Wants You to See

By Ulrike Knöfel

Part 2: The Desire to Do Everything Right

Rakowitz is best known in the United States for his "Enemy Kitchen" project, in which he uses Iraqi recipes to cook food in schools and universities, and at exhibitions. Most recently, he rented a truck for Enemy Kitchen, in which Iraq War veterans help him prepare the food. He could probably support himself as a foodie by now, he says with a chuckle.

Among the Documenta artists, aesthetics are subordinate to good causes. This isn't necessarily detrimental. Contemporary art can be sculpted from stone and displayed in old-fashioned glass cabinets, as in the case of Rakowitz, as anachronistic as it may seem. Art can be created at a stove, or it can consist of found objects or drawings that the artist doesn't create himself but, instead, collects from former Vietcong soldiers. It can also avail itself of videos on YouTube.

The artist Tino Sehgal hired dancers who will react to the movements of visitors, and yet he calls these performances sculptures. Sehgal, 35, is among the participants who have been considered stars of the art world for some time. Nowadays more than ever before, artists are suppliers of ideas, instigators and choreographers, approaching the methods and example of the curator. This Documenta had been announced as a show without a concept or theme, but with a motto: "Collapse and Recovery."

To start things off, Christov-Bakargiev took many of her artists to a monastery complex near Kassel. The Breitenau Monastery was converted into a reformatory for beggars and prostitutes in the 19th century and, late,r the Nazis used it as a concentration camp. In 1952, a few years before the first, breathtakingly contemporary Documenta, it became a correctional facility for girls. In a radio broadcast in the late 1960s, a journalist named Ulrike Meinhof, the co-founder of the militant Red Army Faction, sharply criticized conditions at the facility. This commitment to girls who were exposed to violence was part of what led to Meinhof's political radicalization.

It's a place of subjugation, exclusion and extermination. The establishment of a psychiatric institution in the former monastery, in 1974, was meant to be a new beginning.

Excessive and Clumsy

Christov-Bakargiev says that she isn't directing a show with prisons as its subject, but that by getting to know Breitenau, one can learn a lot about her Documenta. Perhaps Breitenau is even the center, the surprisingly somber heart of this show. German video artist Clemens von Wedemeyer created a video triptych about Breitenau for Documenta and, in doing so, produced a work about German history.

Christov-Bakargiev has thought of everything and everyone. Her Documenta is intellectual enough for the intellectual, sufficiently feminist for the feminists, appealing to the masses, emotional and sometimes astonishingly naïve. It's even animal-loving and generally holistic. The food will be organic, and the paper for the catalogs will be environmentally friendly. She has invited established artists like William Kentridge, Pierre Huyghe and Rosemarie Trockel, and artists who are true discoveries. One of the latter is Egyptian artist Anna Boghiguian, who is 65 and is exhibiting both an installation and expressive, autobiographical drawings. Some are almost abstract, while others are hazy. Words like "nationalism" appear in her art, as do photos of trips all over the world. Boghiguian's work is art in the traditional sense, art that is created because the artist can do nothing else.

Everything is balanced. The fact that some works are weaker than others, and that a landscape made of scrap metal, composed by Italian artist Lara Favaretto, is as imposing and threatening as it is eye-catching, is the smaller problem.

The larger problem is that this Documenta is so determined to do everything right. When that happens, the spark doesn't always ignite a fire.

Sometimes details are critical to creating a mood. All of Germany has just witnessed the curator tangling with a nearby congregation because it had installed a sculpture on its church tower in conjunction with an exhibition of its own. But Christov-Bakargiev was afraid that the work would be viewed as part of Documenta. Her demand that the sculpture be removed seemed excessive and clumsy.

And now that church tower is attracting even more attention.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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