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

By Ulrike Knöfel

The 13th Documenta art exhibition starts this weekend in Kassel. Some one million visitors are expected, and 180 artists will have works on display. The brightest star, though, is curator Carolyin Christov-Bakargiev.

The second-most brutal art object at this year's Documenta will quickly develop into a visitor favorite. It stands in the idyllic Karlsaue Park, at the end of an avenue of trees and in front of a lake. The giant structure, made of pale wood, resembles a jungle gym and has an elevated platform. Visitors can relax on the platform, enjoy the view and perhaps even forget about the art for a moment. An ice-cream vendor has set up his stall in front of the piece, but that's just by chance.

It isn't immediately evident that the structure is in fact supposed to be a scaffold, and that it's constructed of replicas of gallows -- like those that were used in the United States in 1863 to execute 38 Dakota Indians, or the one with which Saddam Hussein was put to death in Iraq in 2006.

The death-penalty piece, by 50-year-old American artist Sam Durant, is simple and misleading, a magnificent work of art. One that will likely be more difficult to endure is a video projection by Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué, 44, which documents the murder of regime opponents in Syria. Some of the images are from the cell phones of people who were shot to death.

Opposition members filmed the shooters, and some were even filming in the moment at which they themselves were being fired at. The images found their way to YouTube, and from there to Mroué. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the artist printed out a few images from his videos and turned them into a flip book -- an absurd gimmick.

The 13th Documenta starts this weekend. And its director, American art historian and curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, seeks to emphasize that it will not be a grim experience. "This Documenta is full of hope, even optimism," she says. Her assessment is reflected in the sculpture garden for people and dogs, and in the aesthetically perfect wave, which an artist has moving in and out of a minimalist basin, generated by an artificially produced miniature tsunami.

The Condition of the World

On a large scale, however, it would trigger a catastrophe. And one artist's plan to have the Earth's atmosphere declared a world heritage site is evidence of hope -- but her proposal, of course, was rejected.

There is, in short, much at stake at Documenta 13. It's about the condition of the world, which is never great, as well as the condition of art, and about how it all fits together. This show is an evocation of art. The power to solve and heal the conflicts and traumas of the world is ascribed to art and art alone. This Documenta, more than all of its predecessors, has a tendency to exaggerate its own importance -- and, of course, that of the people behind it.

Even the manner in which the works are staged says a lot. Each of the works is given a lot of space, as if each object also had to be provided with additional room for its aura. Some presentations seem solemn. In addition to the usual exhibition sites, the Kunsthalle Fridericianum museum, the Documenta Hall, the Orangery and the main train station, wooden buildings resembling modern chapels have been built among the trees in Karlsaue Park.

Sitting in her office, Director Christov-Bakargiev offers us tea. Her Maltese dog is lying in the corner. Outside, Kassel is being transformed into the world's most important art fair. She talks about Michel Foucault and Andy Warhol, and she says that she doesn't use Apple products because she doesn't like the company's politics.

It's her Documenta that is taking shape outside, an expression of her curatorial self-confidence and her moral sense of mission, and an impression of her views and her worldview. After the opening ceremony on Saturday, people won't be talking as much about art being political as about art that stands for a certain position. And that position is Christov-Bakargiev's.

The Subjectivity of the Curator

Her list includes 188 artists, and some 160 works were newly produced, that is, ordered by Christov-Bakargiev. Some works would probably look different without her influence, or at least her suggestions. She asks about the conditions under which art is created today. She used catchphrases like "under siege" or "in a state of hope," but she also talks about the feeling that is imposed upon the artists, of having to operate on a stage -- especially in Kassel. But what about her own role, the role of the exhibition's organizer?

Curators are the real stars of the art business. They are no longer merely the people who make sure that the artists they have chosen deliver on time.

The number of comprehensive exhibitions of contemporary art is increasing. And Documenta, which takes place in Kassel once every five years, is the prototype of the dominant form of art presentation: One shows as many works as possible, 100 or even 200, and the unifying aspect is that these works are in keeping with the curator's taste and correspond to his or her theories. Subjectivity in art has long been the subjectivity of the curator. The curator is the visionary, the avant-garde.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is 54. Her father was a doctor from Bulgaria and her mother an Italian archeologist. She was born in the United States, studied literature and art history in Italy and has worked as a journalist. She has been a curator in New York and Turin. As director of the Biennale of Sydney, she increased attendance by 38 percent, to 436,000, and now she aims to attract a record of more than a million art fans to Kassel. If she succeeds, it will be 250,000 more than the record number who attended the 2007 show curated by Roger Buergel. She mentions the target of a million visitors at the beginning of the conversation, without a hint of modesty.

Even More Grotesque

Much of what will be part of the artistic motif in Kassel can be derived from her biography. Her mother gathered together opponents of the Vietnam War in the Washington area. Her father fled from his native Bulgaria. The commitment of the individual, and the forced rootlessness of many people who live in the knowledge of having to be in one place while wanting to be in another, are important issues for Christov-Bakargiev.

Christov-Bakargiev refers to people like the native Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê, 44, as diaspora artists. In the late 1970s, his family fled to Thailand and then the United States, where he began living as a teenager. He later returned to Vietnam and founded an art center. In Kassel, he will exhibit drawings by old Vietcong war artists, not propaganda pieces created for the public, but private sketches: soldiers making music; men reading, writing and bathing; women in civilian clothing holding rifles in their hands. But because these everyday scenes are incompatible with war, they make it seem even more grotesque; the drawings themselves become memorials.

They are not the only memorials. Michael Rakowitz, 38, is an American with Iraqi-Jewish roots. A few months ago, he began teaching stone sculpture to local students. He taught them in Bamian, in the valley where, in 2001, the Taliban blew up world-famous, 1,500-year-old Buddha statues.

Ironically, it was there, in Afghanistan, that they used the stone from Bamian to recreate what had been destroyed in Germany. They made sculptures of books, or least in the shape of books, that were destroyed by fire in 1941, when bombs hit the library at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel.

Rakowitz had seen old photos showing children as they tried to save some of the books. He was deeply moved by the images, he says. Now he has brought some of the books back to the Fridericianum, or at least their facsimiles in stone. They can't be read, but they illustrate the loss of culture through war.

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