The German art exhibition documenta is polarized between twilight and celebrity, public indifference and extravagant specialist attention. “The most important exhibition of contemporary art,” “the art world’s equivalent of the Olympics,” “the crème de la crème of contemporary art shows”—to cite only a few of the journalistic commonplaces—documenta touches down every five years in the quiet German industrial town of Kassel, and has made a name for itself as the most political and theoretical of art’s calendar of mega-shows.
This year, for the first time in its half-century, documenta branched out from its historic home in Kassel to Athens, extending the exhibition across some forty Athens venues for the first half of the summer, and some thirty more in Kassel for the second half, all showing under the name “Learning from Athens.” To visit Kassel, as I did in early June, was to be struck by documenta’s absolute centrality. Venues stretched from north to south; the city was thronged with tourists; commercial patios ringed the central square, with the neo-classical Fridericianum, documenta’s original venue and the oldest public museum in Europe, to one side, shops and beer vendors to another. To visit Athens was to take in different air. Documenta was barely noticeable, with the city taking glancing notice.
Glancing, but also disdainful. The announcement of the fourteenth edition of documenta’s dual-siting met immediate controversy. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis struck the original note in 2015, in a violent aside that never ceased to shadow the exhibition: “It’s a gimmick by which to exploit the tragedy in Athens in order to massage the consciences of some people from documenta. It’s like rich Americans taking a tour in a poor African country, doing a safari, going on a humanitarian tourism crusade.” Documenta’s project, he added in a later interview, was “neo-colonial” and “extractive,” pretending to distribute resources across the eurozone—documenta is funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the State of Hesse, and the City of Kassel, to the tune of $40 million—it in fact relied on a thinning Greek cultural infrastructure, winning rare sponsorships and taking over public museums, for free or “ludicrously small” amounts.
Varoufakis’s concerns soon met a polyphonic chorus of critique. Half a year prior to the exhibition’s opening in Athens, the curators (the Polish Adam Szymczyk and the Spanish Paul B. Preciado) unveiled a program to ease documenta into its Athenian context. The result, taking place across ten days in September 2016, was “34 Exercises of Freedom,” the first leg of an extensive schedule of public lectures, screenings, and performances, dubbed The Parliament of Bodies, that continued once documenta’s exhibition opened in Athens in April. Purportedly a novel political form in its own right, The Parliament of Bodies declared itself “neither a conference nor an exhibition,” but rather an open-ended counter-political realm for practicing freedom. From its self-introduction: “There is a space. There are some bodies. There are some voices. But what does it mean to be together, here, now?”
The curators had, of course, noticed the decline of parliamentary democracy, with its traditional parties in crisis. Their public program sought to open a space for those left unrepresented. The introductory event featured a ceremony of the Kawakwaka’wakw, a Canadian indigenous group, in which Antonio Negri and the Sami activist Niillas Somby were blanketed and prayed for and a song was sung cleansing the room of bad energies. Subsequent events included a lecture by Negri on freedom; an ecosexual “wet dreams water ritual” led by Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens; a talk by Naeem Mohaeimen on the entwined history of black radicalism in the States and political movements in the Muslim Third World; a film on the role of queer and trans activists in Istanbul’s 2013 Gezi Park protests; and an extended series on torture and dictatorship, looking to the Greek junta in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but also to Argentina and Brazil. The variety of subjects disconcerted some: it appeared to displace the focus on Greece’s debt and EU-imposed austerity, and its frontline position as border and entrance point for Syrian refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa—the reasons for documenta’s dual-siting.
Controversy also attached itself to the choice of venue. Housed at the Athens Municipality Arts Center in Parko Eleftherias (Freedom Park), the Parliament installed itself in the old site of the US-backed anti-communist junta’s military police headquarters, with torture facilities, since repurposed as the Museum of Anti-Dictatorial and Democratic Resistance, situated behind. Documenta’s curators invited the Greek architect Andreas Angelidakis to renovate the white cube of the Arts Center; he threw thick black curtains over the windows and filled the space with soft, moveable foam cushions costumed as concrete ruins—the ruins of democracy, designed so attendees could rearrange them as they wished. The right viewed the events program as a dogmatic portrait of the junta’s rule; the left as ruin-porn, or, in the words of the theorist and architect Stavros Stavrides, a “pastiche approach that potentially neutralizes any radical discourse.”
All this before the exhibition opened. Attention in Athens, hostile or otherwise, soon dropped off, but as April drew nearer it assumed a more sustained presence in the city’s marginalia. By the time I had arrived in Athens in late June, anti-documenta posters and graffiti papered city walls and museum entrances. A stencil series signed by “the natives” was plastered on the walls of the Athens School of Fine Art; on a building in Omonia Square; to the side of the National Museum of Contemporary Art; in front of the Conservatoire. “Dear Documenta,” read one: “I refuse to exoticize myself to increase your cultural capital.” “Dear Documenta,” went another: “It must be nice to critique capitalism etc. with a 38 million euro budget.” Another offered a questionnaire. “Documenta is like: A) The World’s Fair B) The Eurogroup C) The Eurovision D) All of the Above.” Around the corner from the Benaki Museum, a message was scrawled across an abandoned car, a detournement of documenta’s title, “Learning from Athens,” spun to “Yearning for Athens.” “Crapumenta,” “Learning from Capitalism,” and “Earning from Athens” all showed up repeatedly. A local activist art group, Artists Against Evictions, issued an open letter to documenta’s visitors in April, reproaching the exhibition for its intimacy with the Mayor and Athens’s city government and its failure to address ongoing raids on autonomous refugee squats, urging visitors to ditch the museums and instead learn from the city and its activists. Tensions over fair pay for museum staff and art workers—the art world’s “reserve army of the imagination,” in Hito Steyerl’s phrase—boiled over briefly into direct conflict, before being resolved by the mediation of Szymczyk, the lead curator.
In late May, an activist intervention disrupted an artwork. Spanish artist Roger Bernat’s project, “The Place of the Thing,” involved circulating a copy of an ancient Athenian limestone table through Athens as part of an elaborate mock funeral, before finally shipping the stone to Kassel for its burial. An LGBTQIA refugee rights group, having agreed to take part in the procession, received the stone and kidnapped it. They filmed a video of themselves pounding on it like a drum and dancing through the streets as if at a carnival, with satirical subtitles attached. “Your stone may have been deported to Turkey, after appealing twice. Your stone may be on a flight to Sweden with its new 2,000 Euro fake passport. Your stone may be driven to suicide in Moria detention center desperate for freedom. . . . Your stone may be selling its body to strangers in Pedion Tou Areos. Your stone may be legally recognized as a refugee but sleeping on the street.” Bernat responded in kind. The kidnapping, he said, was exactly “the kind of action around the stone we’re wishing to feature on its trip to Kassel.” The activists told Bernat he would never get his stone back and gave their action its own name: #rockumenta 14.
A tempest of small-time subversions, amid a vaster Athenian backdrop of indifference. It was hard not to feel a frisson of glee, observing each minor obstruction, each new encounter of anti-documenta street art, fragmented through the city like advertising, or some faint cubist silhouette. On the surface the hostility hardly needed explanation: Little appears more decadent than contemporary art. The banality with which its perceived elitism is registered is evident nowhere more than in the casual appending of “world” to “art,” an other-planetary implication indicating less heady conceptualism, or closed circuit of self-reference, as much as the self-referentiality of wealth. The idea of relocating one of contemporary art’s most important exhibitions to a peripheral city wracked by shock privatizations, slashed pensions, and burgeoning detention centers is one properly responded to with kidnappings and graffiti, if nothing else.
Art’s biggest event, but also its most serious, documenta has always presented itself as something separate, more anti-Basel than Basel—in curator Adam Szymczyk’s phrase, the art world’s “conscience.” Started in 1955 by the German artist and curator Arnold Bode, documenta began with a historical mission. Kassel, a military-industrial center on the eastern edge of West Germany, had been nearly destroyed in the war; a slow process of rebuilding and historical reckoning took hold. Among the forces that needed to be reckoned with was artistic modernism. During the Third Reich, it had vanished or found itself hung for public ridicule, as in the emblematic 1937 Degenerate Art show; meanwhile, throughout the rest of Europe, to say nothing of the Americas, it matured. Bode, a figure in the long German tradition of thinking his country historically backwards (“The German observer is not standing at the head of the stream,” Walter Benjamin deadpanned), planned his 1955 exhibition as a way of flinging open the shutters and letting in the drafts of the continent, with the first documenta providing a vast retrospective of modernism’s many currents. Intended as a one-off but buoyed up by its success, documenta eventually standardized itself as a quinquennial show, branching out from its historical motives to a new role as the premier barometer for the postwar avant-garde.
Art’s globalized festivals and mega-shows are only now starting to be historicized, and so any periodization of documenta remains fraught. Still, a schema can be suggested, gleaned from documenta’s self-archival process, available for all on its website, that describes not just the story of documenta but the dominant shape of postwar art. Abstraction reigned in documenta’s first three renditions (“Art has become abstract” was the then-illuminating 1959 slogan); Pop Art first appeared in 1968, an exhibition marred by protests, in rhythm with the year; and in 1972 Harold Szeeman took over curation from Arnold Bode, shifting the paradigm from abstraction to performance, the conceptual, and Happenings. Postmodernism, a suffusion of media displays and “detourned” corporate logos, established the mood more or less unabated from 1977—with the exception of the more conventional documenta 7, in 1982—until French curator Catherine David’s exhibition in 1997.
In recent memory, two shows—David’s documenta X, and Okwui Enwezor’s 2002 documenta 11—stand out for resuscitating an exhibition that had at times dipped, during the postmodern years, into the banality of the era’s standard modes. The last of the 20th century and the first curated by a woman, David’s show was austerely and defiantly political. She organized a series of 100 lectures (Edward Said, Etienne Balibar, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Saskia Sassen, Mike Davis, Rem Koolhaas, Wole Soyinka, among others), broadening documenta, for the first time, from an art exhibition to a festival of ideas, while inaugurating a new political mode, peeling away traces of media spectacle and adjusting the balance between art, text, and documentation, as well as between museum and city. (Depending on your view, documenta X was refreshingly or notoriously dense, and renowned for how much took place outside museum walls.) Enwezor’s documenta 11 followed in David’s footsteps, emphasizing the documentary over the aesthetic, but added its own distinct upheaval. Under the leadership of documenta’s first non-European curator, documenta 11 went global, attempting a critique of capitalist globalism that nevertheless articulated itself through a dispersal of contexts: Walid Raad’s Lebanon, documented by his fictional collective, The Atlas Group; Georges Adéagbo’s Francophone West Africa, shown through newspaper clippings, odd books, photographs; or the elaborate military drills of the Indian-Pakistan border, filmed by Amar Kanwar.
The shape of postwar art, then, but also a reaction to it—this is the story of documenta. Looking over its history one sees, beyond a mere succession of schools, a more perennial dialectic between art as political versus art as autonomous. But the opposition can be deceptive. What stands out most starkly about documenta is the way the autonomous is mixed up in the political, and the political in the autonomous—something apparent in its original postwar moment, with political propaganda rejected in favor of modernist abstraction, but also in its later editions, in its revulsions against art as commercial spectacle. In this sense, even documenta’s most bracing political displays often elaborated their critiques within the self-scrutinizing purview of the art object itself: conceptual art as a way to elude commodification, starting in 1972; attacks on the conquests of the image by corporate advertising culture from Hans Haacke and others, in 1987; or the dismissal of oil painting as too easily absorbed into the world of commodities, in David’s documenta X. In a move characteristic of postwar art, the political animus was most often directed inward, toward the corrupted or liberated status of the artwork, rather than outward, toward a representation of the world. But it was with this inward gaze that documenta, and through it the postwar avant-garde, voiced most clearly the outlines of its political project: anti-commodity, anti-spectacle, anti-propaganda.
Anti-, anti-, anti- . . . the limits of the project aren’t hard to note. Yet overshadowing these limits is how the project itself, still championed by artists and curators, and elaborated at length throughout documenta 14, no longer maintains popular legitimacy, and for a reason separate from a recognition of its limitations: not that it doesn’t go far enough, or fails to elaborate any positive vision of its own, but that it’s a project carried out in bad faith, mere dressing for something at its essence commercial. The art world’s rotten core—this was the takeaway from documenta’s reception in Athens, both on the streets and in the press. Reading coverage of documenta 14, it became easy to forget that there ever was a political project. (The New York Times seemed to find one—“Documenta 14: Using Art as Their Witness” —but this only confirmed suspicions that the exhibition was full of shit.) More compellingly, the critic Robert Assaye laid out the case for documenta in a recent essay in The White Review—a rare defense of an exhibition tarnished less by definitive dismissals than a steady current of scoffs and whispers, online and off.
For Assaye, documenta 14’s value was that the exhibition’s very existence yoked together the contradictions and imbalances between Greece and Germany, and thus made it possible for those tensions to be continually on display. The exhibition itself, he argues, is quiet, avoiding spectacle in favor of difficult, patient reflection. Arguments that documenta represents an unconscionably corrupt art world, or that it is yet another carnival of capital, part Eurovision and part World’s Fair, would do better to contrast it against contemporary art’s more ubiquitous forms. As his example, Assaye chose the opening of a new Damien Hirst show at a private museum in Venice, for which the “Red Hot Chili Peppers played the after party.” The exhibition’s premise, Assaye writes, is that
a team of divers has recovered sunken treasure from a galleon loaded with statuary. These include a marble statue of a mouse with a grafted ear clambering over a colossal foot, dressed up as a relic from antiquity, and Rihanna cast as an Egyptian goddess. It is, let’s be frank, a piece of shit. . . . The idiocy of the work, and those with the money to buy it, might at another time be laughed off. But the notion of presenting a show that has as its premise a Mediterranean shipwreck during a migrant crisis that has left thousands in the sea is appalling.
“Documenta,” he finishes, “exists to counteract these commercially motivated tendencies towards a stupidity which amounts, when the reckoning comes, to complicity.”
Money and idiocy to one side, documenta to the other. The schema provides a useful reminder of the perhaps overblown, but not spurious exceptionalism of documenta’s position. But what happens in such a frame to the exhibition’s critics, many of whom attack from the left? They fade into the show’s furniture, a side of curated debate occasioned by documenta. As for their specific critiques, “Documenta 14 is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t involve itself more directly in the politics of Athens.” The conclusion is dispiriting, and doubtless correct; documenta is art’s most important event, and it will, as a result, be subject to criticism, not all of it useful. But nevertheless it seems evasive. For anyone who believes art has something to contribute to a leftist political project, an argument should be made in two directions. First, that there remain openings for meaningful political art—art that isn’t just critical but substantive. And second, that in no way has today’s critical art, a field purportedly led by documenta, exhausted or fulfilled this political potential. Criticisms of documenta’s institutional behavior, the way it comports itself, the presumptions underlying its presence in Athens: all have been well-aired, and none should be dismissed. Meanwhile a parallel attack from the left might be useful, directed less at the institution’s sociology than the art’s content and aesthetics. What was documenta 14’s ideological outlook?
Perhaps more than any of its predecessors, documenta 14 was a return to its origins. There is almost always, with documenta, a degree of that: World War II hangs heavy in Kassel, with art venues repurposed from military-industrial sites and so on. But documenta 14 enacted its return with particular energy. An early room in Kassel’s Neue Galerie contextualized the original 1955 documenta. Abstract works by Arnold Bode hung across from a portrait of the curator by Gerhard Richter, blurred in signature style. Marshall Plan propaganda posters covered one wall, and in the center a glass case presented pamphlets on German postwar social democracy next to a copy of Richard Wright’s report on the Non-Aligned Movement’s founding conference in Bandung. This last inclusion derived from a 2014 panel discussion, “1955–2055: A Documenta Century,” featuring documenta curators past and present (Adam Szymczyk, Catherine David, Okwui Enwezor, moderated by the indefatigable Hans Ulrich Obrist) at Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum. Enwezor drew a parallel between documenta’s historical mission and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Both documenta and the NAM began in 1955; both sought clean historical breaks, one with Nazism, the other with a bipolar Cold War world. For Enwezor, both represent a “third way,” autonomous space, an “outside,” whether political or aesthetic, of domineering global logics. It was this vision of the exhibition’s origins that documenta 14 endorsed. The endorsement was curious, however. The original German exhibition aligned itself in its early iterations not with anything as radical as the NAM but with the cultural achievements of the American Century: Pop Art and the same abstract expressionism supported by the CIA and toured around the globe by the State Department.
Nevertheless this third-way vision of a blend of politics and artistic autonomy—of politics through autonomy—received a reprisal at documenta 14. Such a return was evident on a surface level through the wealth of abstract, often anti-dictatorial works on display at Kassel’s Neue Galerie and Athens’s Conservatoire and National Museum of Contemporary Art: Soviet avant-gardes, Polish modernists, Cuban dissidents, lesser-known contemporary masters, such as the Vienna-born, Guatemala-based Elisabeth Wild. But the vision had been applied more deeply to new formal practices, consonant with a new historical moment. The front page of documenta’s newspaper, the first issue published after the exhibition opened in Kassel, made the intention clear, defending the original documenta’s vision of culture—a way to “resolve the social conflict then simmering under the surface of a brittle postwar consensus by turning it to face the mirror of art, of Kultur”—before suggesting the possibility of a historical parallel. Perhaps today, too, the curators ventured, the “’subjectively constructed realm’” of culture might be the way “of ‘resolving’ social conflict in our crisis-ridden contemporary society.” Culture here becomes not part of a political project, but its replacement: its own independent field of social resolution, or perhaps (as the curators qualified) productive social conflict. The fogginess of the hope—open-ended and idealist enough to have imagined a fundamental symmetry between documenta and the NAM—clouded over the exhibition too, where a kind of floating, indeterminate ideology reigned, exuding its own keywords: “learning,” “participation,” “spirituality,” “process,” “freedom.”
“The move of documenta to Athens, in order to unlearn what we know, and not give its people lessons,” Szymczyk writes in his introductory essay in The documenta 14 Reader, “is meant to open up a space of possibility.” By learning from artists, he adds,
we can imagine a symmetrical situation of the encounter of equals, and not an asymmetrical power relationship between the sovereign and the subalterns. Artists . . . can teach us that we must first become strangers to ourselves, and thus undergo a decreation (per Simone Weil) instead of sustaining overproduction.
In pursuing this “symmetrical situation of the encounter of equals,” the exhibition arranged a number of participatory projects. First, however, a space had to be cleared for learning and unlearning, creating and decreating, a blank slate for tension and resolution. Artist group Postcommodity’s installation Blind/Curtain prepared viewers entering Kassel’s Neue Galerie for such a transformation. Speakers placed neared the entrance emitted pink noise, a “gift and a blessing” that “acts as a threshold for audiences to cleanse themselves of the outside world and prepare their hearts, minds, and spirits to engage with the transformative experience of documenta 14,” while simultaneously being “aware of itself as a node of power—it determines space—a border.”
Other projects delineated similar thresholds. French choreographers Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet designed an empty stage as the site of their Scène à l’italienne, a low, wide space for viewers to walk on, with wall text explaining that the “history of the stage reflects that of the representation of power” and that their project, a leveling response to this history, is “a way of ‘staging’ the event to provide a physical experience to the people who walk along,” one “dedicated to ephemeral and spontaneous situations.” Likewise dedicating itself to ephemera and spontaneity was Social Dissonance, a “durational concert” realized in Athens and Kassel by a group of Greek artists that ran for an hour during each night of documenta’s 168 days. Visitors entered a spare, airy room, with a couple of instructors inside; a museum guard locked the door; things were quiet; you laid on the ground for a while, practicing a kind of meditation, before being asked to read the concert score:
The audience is your instrument, play it in order to practically understand how we are generally instrumentalized.
Prepare the audience with concepts, questions, and movements as a way to explore the dissonance that exist between the individual narcissism that capitalism promotes and our social capacity, between how we conceive ourselves as free individuals with agency and the way we are socially determined by capitalist relations, technology, and ideology.
Reflect on the I/We relation while defining social dissonance.
Help the collective subject to emerge.
On the evening I participated, a balmy night at the Conservatoire in Athens, we tried and failed to Skype with the audience in Kassel (bad connection), and then went around the room explaining whether we felt dissonance. Later, during a long silence, I asked a question. What had the previous sessions of the durational concert been like? An instructor quickly shut me down: Why did I want to escape the present?
The links and incongruities between Kassel and Athens became a frequent conceptual trope, in both participatory and “process-oriented” works. Cameroonian artist Bili Bidjocka’s Chess Society convened an audience-aggregated interactive chess game between the two cities, in which two vast chess boards, one in Kassel and one in Athens, registered participants’ suggestions and then decided, at the end of each day, which move to make based on the most popular suggestion in each location. Projected above the board was the score, while online one could follow user comments in a chat room, meant as a way for observers to advise participants on possible chess moves but more frequently a venue for more ambitious exchanges: “How do you guys feel about dokumenta?” “Hello, the documenta is great.” “Really disappointing edition of Dokumenta.”
A project similarly strung between Kassel and Athens was Indian performance artist Nikhil Chopra’s Drawing a Line through Landscape, a “durational performance” in which Chopra and a team of collaborators set out with a tent, art materials, and a few provisions on a journey from Athens to Kassel. They painted along the way on the walls of their tent, a project filmed and shown on small televisions at Kassel’s KulturBahnhof, a defunct underground train station. The tent itself was also on display, along with a mural Chopra painted on the station’s wall. While on the journey, the team “occupied” the squares of cities and villages, setting up their mobile studio in sites across Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia, and collaborating with local artists to “serenade the cities and towns . . . much as a lover does.” The project amounted to a grand artistic reenactment of contemporary migration. “Ultimately,” the wall text read, “the zigzagging route is not simply a South-North or East-West binary movement but rather the reflection of a complex microcosm of dispersed selfhood, abandonment, economic austerity, and territorial violence in today’s Europe.”
Projects like Chopra’s existed within the bounds of the conceptual, and were subject to the form’s limits: the second-hand representation of an event whose value lay in immediate experience. This proved to be a leitmotif at documenta 14, a way of escaping spectacle or the petrification of the art work by choosing merely to gesture at an artistic experience that happened elsewhere, to represent it as text or fragment. Older conceptual artists, such as the Polish Krzysztof Niemczyk, famous for flashing his ass in public, or the American anarchist Christopher D’Arcangelo, famous for chaining himself to MoMA’s front door, received retrospectives. Sixties-era Happenings—feverish, trance-like countercultural art performances—were represented through photos, outlines, bits of notation.
One saw many “processes”: music and dance scores, loose sketches of potential performances, drafts of workshop exercises, nearly all emphasizing improvisation, spiritual collective experience, open-ended social engagement. An extensive overview of Greek composer Jani Christou’s work included an adaptation of Epicycle (1968), a participatory project lasting “days, weeks, months, or years.” A musical performance in which anyone is free to participate, Epicycle instructs each participant to choose a distinct sound, “only just audible,” and continue to perform it without transition “in a climate of total impassivity.” Participants must “dissociate themselves from all other events.” One is free to enter and exit at will. The work’s indeterminacy met its logical extension in a performance choreographed by Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet, Geography-Athens, in which one didn’t quite know if the performance was happening. “The presence or absence of the performers inside follows a rhythm that is not made public, and is only perceptible through the use of sound and vibrations caused by the dancers’ movement.”
The same open-ended principles characterized works that broke out of the museum, hesitating between activism and conceptual art. London-based artist Rasheed Araeen organized Shamiyaana—Food for Thought: Thought for Change, an event distancing itself from ordinary classifications. Neither an art piece nor a soup kitchen, the project installed itself in Athens’s Kotzia Square, setting up tables and serving free meals to a first-come-first-serve audience, with tickets placed aside for first-time participants. The goal, reminiscent of Rikrit Tiravanija’s famous work of relational aesthetics pad thai (1990), was to bring people together over a meal. Each night a queue of homeless people would be first in line, and each night some received places, and some didn’t, as determined by the number of visitors coming from the less punctual art crowd, usually attending for the first time. Araeen’s work was one of several public projects. For German artist Maria Eichhorn’s Building as unowned property, Eichhorn bought an abandoned building in a once-bourgeois district of Athens, one of many properties left vacant by the austerity years, and then worked through the legal system to convert it into an unowned property, a sort of hazily classified public monument beyond market circulation or state utility. Eichhorn’s legal documents and project description were displayed at the National Museum of Contemporary Art; the project’s purpose, a legal paper announced, was “the reflection of the abandonment of the buildings of the city of Athens.”
This type of public intervention, in turn, gave way to instances of entrepreneurial ambition. Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga’s Carved to Flow, a work encompassing “performance, installation, and enterprise,” explored “the networked geographies, traditions, histories, and people that go into making a product.” Nkanga designed her own soap recipe, blending butters and oils from three continents in a small repurposed factory in Athens and then selling bars of the soap, named O8 Black Stone, outside venues in Kassel. “Centered on the idea of an artwork that is also a product,” the project sought to establish its own circular economy, elaborated through documenta 14’s internal networks and meant to bond together the product’s various material phases. Art as commodity, but with a human face: at once cosmopolitan and local, transparent and baffling.
The above works, indicative but not exhaustive of documenta 14’s range, all represent contemporary vogues: participatory art, archival art, activist art, performance, relational aesthetics, a spiritual fascination with the lifeworld of objects. Surveying them, it wouldn’t take a strict Lukácsian to observe a recurrent theme: the absence of content. Obscurity of purpose; immediacy of experience; the foregrounding of a nameless parallel space, shorn of concrete social orientation: these qualities enveloped huge swathes of the exhibition. In a paradoxical turn, the greater the formal emphasis on participation, egalitarian engagement, and the banishment of hierarchy, the less political commitment, or the articulation of a clearly defined viewpoint, appeared possible. It’s a turn that has been noted before, most magisterially by Claire Bishop in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012). One foregrounds a “symmetrical situation of the encounter of equals,” only to wind up with incoherence and a teleology of open-endedness. Social relations were skated over, as projects like Social Dissonance melded more or less anonymous participants into spontaneous collectives. Artists tacked on political motives as loose premises or ex post facto revelations, unintegrated into any aesthetic whole.
Even many of the more apparently content-heavy, politically-saturated pieces bore marks of the same pattern. The most spectacular work on display, in the Debordian sense of the word, was Argentine artist Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books. An enormous, built-to-size replica of the Parthenon, made of metal tubes cloaked in a façade of 25,000 once-banned books, Minujín’s installation was originally erected in Buenos Aires in 1983. It was the year of the toppling of Argentina’s US-backed junta; the books in question were taken from locked military cellars, finally liberated. Now the project received a reprise on the lawn of the main square in Kassel, and one could see Rosa Luxemburg next to Twilight, Goethe next to Fifty Shades of Gray. Illumined impressively at night, the project had nevertheless lost its historical significance, repackaged as a superficial nod to Athens.
Two final works, French filmmaker Michael Auder’s The Course of Empire and Spanish artist Daniel García Andújar’s The Disasters of War/Trojan Horse, provided deeper, twinned views of documenta 14’s political imagination. Auder’s video installation, a fourteen-channel gallery of iPhone images playing at the near end of Kassel’s underground train station, presented a spectacle of totalized disaster. Viewers gazed back and forth between a rushing tide flooding a city; the dim lantern-hues of Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, flickering through a relay of close-ups; a dead fish; a wolf hunting rabbits; fishermen gutting their haul at industrial scale; shots of Putin; porn stills; shots of Trump; either a visage unrecognizable, or Steve Bannon; ancient Greek urns; modern war footage; commodities broker-turned-artist Jeff Koons and his ex-wife, Italian politician and porn star Ilona Staller, posing for their explicit photographic series Made in Heaven; Greek statues; a thread of the New York Times’s online reader commentary, in response to an article on the genocide perpetrated by Germany against the Herero in 1904 in what is now Namibia; and excerpts on the conditions of trans-Atlantic slaves from Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the Years 1799-1804. It was history as seen by an updated version of Benjamin’s Angel, its tragic vantage inflected by banal spectacle. It wasn’t incoherence that the video installation conveyed, as much as the wish to overwhelm, montage deprived of its oppositional quality and exaggerated into a vacuum of historical perspective. The failure to offer a frame—“to show the process of a problem,” as Cuban “imperfect cinema” director Julio García Espinosa used to say—was what made Auder’s work symptomatic of documenta 14’s political output.
García Andújar’s The Disasters of War/Trojan Horse shared some of the same traits, and added its own. The work’s Kassel installation began with a succession of pictures framed side by side: Goya’s shadowy war-time etchings, the Nazi flag flapping over the Parthenon, Trump’s Time cover, a litany of keywords (“Anarchism/Anti-Semitism/Apartheid . . . Magna Carta/Marxism/Meritocracy”), data on tax evasion, on US torture, on ineffectual attempts at de-Nazification, a close-up of Goya’s The Third of May 1808, pictures of protestors, sketches of stadiums . . . In the room’s center stood a statue, or “anti-monument” that had traveled “hidden inside a trojan horse” from Athens to Kassel; it featured figures designed “with the aid of a software working with an aleatory combination of body types and then materially constructed by El Taller de Manolo Martín, a team of traditional craftsmen who produce Valencia’s Fallas puppets in Spain.” These puppets, burned on a bonfire in a pagan ritual every June 23rd, gave García Andújar the idea for his work’s final flourish. His statue—a geometry of box-crates enclosing the software-designed models, each gesturing in despair, or classical repose, or triumphant defiance, in order to reflect on “the politics of war”—was burned on the night of June 23rd “as part of a pagan celebration of releasing what is no longer needed and preserving what should remain.” Culture could be the way “of ‘resolving’ social conflict in our crisis-ridden contemporary society,” the curators suggested, underscoring their belief in documenta’s essential continuity. As works like The Disasters of War/Trojan Horse show, such visions of autonomous cultural resolution can only run into the cul-de-sac of mystical communions of ritual, the construction of worlds operating through motions of their own.
At documenta one saw bookshelves filled with specialist canons on dance and performance, tables full of Athens-related literature, displays encasing the covers of books on the Biafran War, videos of panels on Argentine Happenings, letters from London musical avant-gardes, and so on. The default mode was undigested information. But at least this mode offered content—if cold, disengaged, self-defensive, presented as topic or keyword rather than representation or judgment.
“It seems to me there is not only the possibility but the necessity of the resumption of the realist project today,” Raymond Williams told the editors of the New Left Review in 1979. From elsewhere in the same interview series, Williams offered this attempt at a definition of what he meant by “realism”: “the project of a drama attached to history, society, and secularity.” Brecht, in his essay “Popularity and Realism,” an attack on Lukácsian aesthetics which went unpublished in his lifetime, likewise tried his hand: “Realistic means: discovering the causal complexes of society / unmasking the prevailing view of things as the view of those who are in power / writing from the standpoint of the class which offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties in which human society is caught up / emphasizing the element of development / making possible the concrete, and making possible abstraction from it.” And in documenta 14, it was this “realism”—clear and unmistakably committed—that showed alternate possibilities.
One could catch a glimpse of it, in odd corners: Naeem Mohaeimen’s excellent three-channel documentary, Two Meetings and a Funeral, charting the rise and fall of the Non-Aligned Movement, from New York, to Algeria, to Bangladesh, with Marxist historian Vijay Prashad as guide; the retrospective of the great Chinese documentary filmmaker Wang Bing, his oeuvre capturing at epic length the life and variety of China’s working and “superfluous” classes, perhaps the closest figure we have to a 21st-century Engels; or Tshibumba Kanda Matulu’s 101 Works (1973–74), an episodic set of popular-style paintings chronicling Congolese history, from pre-colonial times to Mobutu’s demise.
Still, only a few works of present-day engagement or committed aesthetics, amid museum after museum of participation, of score or notation, of object-based or conceptual reference, of game or ritual or parallel world, all mysteriously flying under the banner of political art. In the absence of realism, the subjects most conspicuously in need of interrogation—Greek debt and the EU’s austerity regime—vanished from the show. “We don’t want to illustrate the crisis,” Szymczyk wrote. “We believe that the real image of this crisis doesn’t exist and it perhaps should not be imposed. We just try to exist in this state of crisis, every single day—in Germany and in Greece.” The hints of morality and relativism make impossible the conditions for a left political aesthetics: declaring a position, representing it, condensing it into an aesthetic vision.