It’s officially one day away, but it’s already begun. The Arts and Culture section of the newspapers fill up with generalizations, rants and retrospectives, as critics and journalists hover around the site, waiting for tiny revelations of content to blog and tweet their speculations. They’ll have 100 days to observe and analyse the scores of exhibitions in Kassel, though even then, the culmination of five years in the making will seem like the mere blink of an eye.
Enlarge image (© dpa picture alliance) Nothing gets people talking more than mystery. Yet it’s not as if documenta has been held behind closed doors. It's more like the proverbial door has been cracked open, with enough light to see practically nothing. Unlike previous documentas, the list of artists has been available on its website for some time. And to be clear, as Head Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has been quoted numerous times in the press and as is stated on the documenta (13) website, there is "no concept."
One can guess about themes: the four “conditions” listed on the festival’s enigmatic website in which “people find themselves acting in the present;” the official subheading "Crisis and Recovery;" the curriculum vitae of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the daughter of Bulgarian-Italian parents born in the United States, former Artistic Director of the Sydney Biennial and Senior Curator at MoMA P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center.
The bottom line clear to everyone is that documenta displays art from around the world- art from today, contemporary, present. Things that concern us, worry us, excite us, make us think: these will be things you find at Documenta, in whatever form they have taken. There were 130,000 visitors to post-war Kassel at the first documenta in 1955, pieced together by Kassel native Arnold Bode as a secondary exhibition to the Bundesgartenschau, the biennial national horticultural show. With 188 participants and about 160 works, one million visitors are expected to attend this year’s festival.
In the end, it's not so much the secrecy that interests us, but the activities of its many participants. The German Consulate New York interviewed four of them over the course of the past few months, uncovering some interesting work along the way. By getting to know them, we get a small peek into documenta (13)- or what it promises to offer: anything and everything, but surely something for everyone.
Enlarge image (© dpa picture alliance)
And lest we forget: there is no concept.
We spoke with Boris Groys, philosopher and professor at New York University, as well as Senior Research Fellow at Karlsruhe; Adam Kleinman, writer and curator; Mariam Ghani, artist, filmmaker and writer: and Leeza Ahmady, independent curator and educator, all of whom are based in New York.
Click on the links to the right to see clips from our interviews!
Leeza Ahmady, Boris Groys, Mariam Ghani, and Adam Kleinman
There was unanimous agreement among the participants that documenta’s strength is in the ability of artists to develop their own concept, changing, deleting and expanding in the years leading up to the actual exhibition. “For a biennial, a curatorial team has about a year to prepare, but the documenta team has 3 or 4,” says Kleinman. “The context changes, practices develop…it’s much more project-based.” documenta also encompasses something much greater than the 100 days of exhibition: side-projects, lectures, conversations and the like take place under its auspices, as if documenta were more a state of mind than an event.
Whether artists, agents, lecturers or otherwise, they appreciate the depth of documenta as much as its scope, emphasizing the value of research in the artistic process. “The idea that archaeology, history, philosophy, science, politics, nature- every aspect of life is what artists work with," is key to documenta’s raison d’etre, says Ahmady. On the ongoing listing of thoughts and essays and other happenings in the time running up to the exhibition, says Kleinman: “[documenta] recognizes that as curators, we all have an active life in the world. And it shows what we’re thinking about and what is concerning us.”
And, as the name implies, it traces the process as a form of art just as much as the product itself. "Curatorial work is not just the aesthetics and form, but meaning, significance. The final exhibition is always so abstract. Everything you've done to make that happen is in your notebook and in your head,” says Ahmady. Particularly for artists and others who have a research-based practice, like Ghani, not only does the time frame of documenta allow for this “incubation period,” but this period itself becomes part of the show.
This concept of tracing the process and being able to catch a glimpse of the participants’ interests has developed into the “100 Notes/100 Thoughts” notebook series, to which Ahmady, Ghani and Groys have contributed, highlighting their own projects and research ideas. The series was made available prior to the opening of the festival, and can be found on the documenta website.
“From its beginning, documenta was a curatorial statement,” says Groys. The curatorial vision to expose the world to contemporary art- and restore a war-torn Germany- remains a thread 13 festivals later in what has become the premier contemporary art festival in the world. While documenta seems to incorporate art and ideas from the farthest reaches of the world and the imagination, it disregards the distance of both, instead uncovering crucial “connections,” in its broadest sense. Built from the preoccupations of its participants, it is a rounded reflection on society of the present day. “It’s a kind of cultural litmus test,” says Kleinman.
Find the artists and related topics on the documenta website. We wish you luck in navigating it. documenta (13)
"Curatorial work has a strong educational aspect," says Leeza Ahmady. As founder of Ahmady Arts, Ahmady works as an independent curator based in New York, focused on art and artists from Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan.
She joins documenta (13) as an agent, and she will hold conversations with participating artists Barmak Akram, Sopheap Pich, Masood Kamandy, Khadim Ali, and Mariam Ghani about their projects during the first days of the exhibition in Kassel.
While conducting research in Afghanistan, Head Curator Christov-Bakariev noted the similarity of Kabul to a post-WWII Kassel, recalls Ahmady, as a city where there was a "need for a positive transformation" and "a unanimous decision to change from being a war zone city that supplied weapons during the war to one…that supplied art." Christov-Bakariev enlisted the curatorial expertise of Ahmady and others to investigate this transformation and illuminate Kabul as "not a place of war and trauma, but actually a space where there are really amazing things happening."
Now, the city of Kabul forms a pillar of the documenta itself, with events held in parallel with the exhibition in Kassel. It also led to a major initiative of workshops, discussions and exhibition sponsored by the Goethe-Institut in Afghanistan earlier this year between international and selected Afghan artists, a large-scale project with local institutions organized and carried out by Ahmady and a team from documenta (13).
At documenta, says Ahmady, the recognition that “there is not just one part of the world that is contributing to society and to contemporaneity” echoes strongly with her mandate as a curator. As director of Asian Contemporary Art Week, Ahmady has shifted the overwhelming proportion of art represented by Chinese, Japanese or Korean art towards a more balanced presentation with art from Central Asia. Ahmady not only has broadened the perspective of ACAW, but challenges the very construction of its premise. “Is there such a thing as Asian art?" she asks.
As curator of exhibitions such as "The Taste of Others," an educational and curatorial program in New York to connect artists from Central Asia to those from other parts of the world; "Contemporaneity" at the Second International Biennial of Arts in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan; and "The Silk Code" at an Asia Society New York exhibit in Kazakhstan, the core of Ahmady's work is about "complicating notions;" that is, rejecting the tendency to understand the world in neatly-packaged categories. By "highlighting the complexities and the layering of realities that artists actually highlight in their work," says Ahmady, she encourages the observer to re-evaluate the way she views the art, its artists and where its artists come from. "If they really want to know something, they have to be invested in going much deeper.”
"To a certain degree, curators will work with what they are familiar with," says Ahmady, but nevertheless, the Afghanistan focus of documenta (13)- in addition to the contributions of artists living and working in Central Asia- was the product of an "organic process" born of its curatorial approach; that is, not to single out artists for the region they come from, or to dismiss them as part of a category or movement. "It doesn't matter if they're from there or just happen to be there," says Ahmady. Artists from Central Asia will be presented "not in isolation, but right in the center, alongside the rest of the art community."
100 Notes/100 Thoughts: Vyacheslav Akhunov: Modes of Contemporaneity
One of the artists whose work will be displayed at documenta is Vyacheslav Akhunov, whom Ahmady came to know through her work on the "Contemporaneity" exhibit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 2004. The artist, who had displayed paintings, revealed a series of notebooks to her only years later in New York, inspiring Ahmady to work on a compilation of the works
Once 100 Notes/100 Thoughts series was conceptualized, Ahmady had her object: the notebook “Modes of Contemporaneity” contextualizes Akhunov in his Soviet time and space while recognizing the "universally relevant" in his notebooks; that is, "to breach constrictions, both external and internal, whether imposed by intellectual, cultural, or ideological norms or even by his own subconscious.” Listen to the interview to hear more about Leeza Ahmady on Vyacheslav Akhunov.
See more about Leeza Ahmady and Ahmady Arts: Ahmady Arts
Philosopher Boris Groys, Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU and Senior Research Fellow at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, has curated several international festivals. Now on board as a philosopher at documenta (13), he will present lectures and participate in seminars such as "On Conviviality: A Seminar on Living Together," alongside Carolyn Christov-Bakariev and others, using philosopher Ivan Illich's "Tools for Conviviality" (1973) as a basis for discussion.
Groys is well-known for his coinage of the term "Moscow Conceptualism," and has authored many books, such as The Total Art of Stalin and Art Power. Groys was born in East Berlin, though he returned to Russia as a child in 1950. Groys pursued studies in Mathematical Logic and Structural Linguistics, an area of study he describes as "largely an attempt to bring avant-garde American philosophy into the Soviet Union,” in Leningrad, later teaching in Moscow.
His studies of mathematics and "structural linguistics" were first and foremost an opportunity to work in a field that was "not heavily ideologically infected," says Groys. His relationship with art was, to an extent, based on formal analysis, but on the other, it was part of a greater "search for a dissident autonomous position in Soviet society.”He took up the challenge of writing and publishing on circles of artists in the Soviet Union, eventually relocating to West Germany and earning a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Münster.
Despite his background in both Soviet and Western European philosophical and artistic traditions, says Groys, "I wouldn't say I'm interested in explaining something to someone. Basically, I'm interested in explaining it to myself. I see something, I like it- I ask myself why. I publish this explanation. I don't have a feeling of any kind of mission."
Groys' work, combining both the intellectual and the artistic, reflects an overarching attitude of documenta that it is not just the aesthetics, but the motivation, the process, and fragments thereof that are worth looking at.
Google: Words Beyond Grammar
In his 100 Notes/100 Thoughts contribution, Groys takes on nothing less than the search engine to examine the way in which we have developed our communication and memory skills as human beings over time. Taking a longue-duree approach to 20th century history and the relatively recent rise of the Internet, he argues that Google has taken on the traditional role of philosophy and religion.
In “Google: Words Beyond Grammar," Groys compares current developments in communication via the internet and "the emancipation of words from grammar" to that of the turn of the 20th century, to industrialization of manual labor and the rise of the avant garde.
"Writers always believe they're immune to changes in society," says Groys. "It would be an interesting shock for Marx to see the production of texts, seen as a kind of privileged activity,now proletarianized." In keeping with this theme, Groys has written extensively on the industrialization of "mental work" which he sees as analogous, for example, to the decline of handicrafts in the previous turn of the century.
With Google, a "memory machine," language is divorced from meaning, says Groys, as it facilitates a kind of dialgoue through an “enumeration of opinions and what other people think.” This type of communication with “zero sense and zero meaning” is a "typical strategy of our time," says Groys.
Read more about Boris Groys: Boris Groys
“All cities are laboratories, but Manhattan is a particular laboratory,” says Adam Kleinman, Agent for Public Programming at Documenta. A regular contributing writer to art magazines such as Frieze and Texte zur Kunst, as well as an experienced curator for public programming in New York, Kleinman takes a multidisciplinary, multi-sided approach to curation. He also is former Curator for Public Programming at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, behind such projects as “Access Restricted” and “LentSpace,” where he created actual spaces for dialogue and engagement of New York’s inhabitants, with both an aesthetic and functional component.
In addition to, or perhaps as an integral part of, his artistic interests, Kleinman’s vision as a curator is greatly affected by his understanding of the city’s history and the long-term processes endemic to the place. In describing the history of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Kleinman also describes the history of New York over the past decades; in particular, the use of “cultural branding” as a selling point for business and tourism.
In light of LMCC’s founding as the arts council solely to serve the Twin Towers plaza- which he describes as part of the latter process- the organization was forced to redefine its mandate in a post-9/11 New York. With the LMCC responsible for arts programming for all of Lower Manhattan (south of Chambers Street), Kleinman turned this question into an opportunity to involve the neighborhood’s residents in its redefinition.
Kleinman began “testing out how people conceived of the area,” asking for concrete suggestions on how things could improve in Lower Manhattan. It resulted in the “Access Restricted” series, the first of which ran in 2005 and is continued by LMCC today. Kleinman found and secured access to buildings downtown that were “infrastructurally related” to a relevant topic, such as economists speaking in the major banks on Wall Street, talking about "what really happens” behind the walls of these buildings most New Yorkers never see.
Kleinman didn’t just work with beautiful architecture; he also worked where there is no architecture at all: at a temporarily unused construction space at the crossing of Canal Street and Sixth Avenue in Tribeca. Project LentSpace, the product of future skyscraper property “lent” for temporary use for the public, was under Kleinman’s curatorial direction. Enlisting the help of Interboro Partners, Brooklyn-based architecture firm, Kleinman pushed to “blur the distinction between art and architecture” with movable thresholds and boundaries, box-tree nurseries, and sculptures made of raw materials like steel, wood and chain-link, all reflecting the “materiality of temporariness,” as he stated in an interview with Art Review.
Prior to the project's commencement, Kleinman conducted a study: the total of fenced open spaces currently not in use or waiting for construction in New York covers an area about the size of Central Park. While Kleinman has since stepped down from LMCC and the future of the space remains in question, he made the unused 40,000 sq. ft. of space into a noteworthy experiment in "making a park where we weren't supposed to make a park."
Meanwhile, Kleinman joins his international counterparts - art critics, philosophers, historians, economists – for lectures, discussions and conferences on a host of topics related beyond the traditional confines of art. Find the specifics on lectures and discussions with Adam Kleinman on the Documenta website- something he could not yet reveal in his interview (see right).
Read up on Adam Kleinman: Adam Kleinman
Mariam Ghani was born in New York, a Brooklyn-based artist who examines "places, spaces and moments where social and political structures take on visible and tangible forms," through a research-based approach. With an MFA in Photography, Video and Related Media, Ghani is an artist, curator and instructor at NYU, Parsons, Cooper Union, and the Center for Contemporary Arts in Afghanistan.
The latter reveals her more recent investigations into Afghanistan, where she has conducted extensive research and ongoing projects as both a personal and artistic discovery of the country her parents relocated to in 2002. Her involvement as an artist at documenta (13), besides talks and discussions in Kassel and Kabul, includes her contribution to the 100 Notes/100 Thoughts series "Afghanistan: A Lexicon," written in collaboration with her father, Ashraf Ghani, as well a video installation featuring parallel footage of the ruined Dar-ul Aman Palace in Kabul and the restored Museum Fridericianum in Kassel called "A Brief History of Collapses."
The point of departure for Mariam Ghani's involvement in documenta is a trip through the north of Afghanistan joined by Head Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakariev and other artists and agents, where she exchanged ideas on projects and developed concepts for the exhibitions she will display in Kassel. Since then, Ghani has also become involved in other aspects of Documenta, including its Maybe Education series and the composition of "Afghanistan: A Lexicon."
Considering the relatively short period of her engagement with Afghanistan, Ghani's trajectory as an artist and as part of the Afghan Diaspora shows the intensity with which she engaged her subject. In the process, says Ghani, she also came from a "more estranged position to a more familiar one” with Afghanistan, building up networks, expanding on ideas, and becoming involved in the activities of artists and educators in the country. Ghani observes and documents the transformations happening within Afghanistan through such projects as "Kabul: Partial Reconstructions," an interactive, collaborative and local-international project that built on myriad forms of "documentation" of post-conflict Kabul from 2002-2004.
Ghani's work is strongly built on a strong research foundation, including historical, media, and other official archives. Some of this work is visible in "Afghanistan: A Lexicon," which Ghani says "is parallel to my performative practice. There isn't always the opportunity to publish that." The Lexicon, written together with her father, Ashraf Ghani tells a "nonlinear history" of Afghanistan, focusing primarily on the reign of King Amanullah (1919-1929), whose attempts at reform culminated in such projects as Dar ul-Aman Palace, which now lies in ruins. Ghani takes a look at this "space of exception" to trace a ”speculative history” of the country and its periods of conflict and renewal.
Taking from state archives, mainly images sourced from a series of almanacs from the 1930s-1990s, she analyzes these statistical yearbooks to examine "how the state viewed itself." She also uses images from a Williams College archive, featuring a collection from the royal Amanullah family, and combines these sources with photographs by photojournalists embedded with the Mujahadeen (by the United States), "images without contextual information" that she was "able to misuse in a number of interesting ways."
Ghani's "history," while speculative, non-linear, and entirely iconoclastic, has appealed to policy experts, historians, and other specialists in fields otherwise searching for "hard facts." Perhaps they are drawn to the processes behind the images and the words they represent- what Ghani calls "the messy trailing bits around the edges of history. That's what really interests me."
Read more about Mariam Ghani and her work: Mariam Ghani