Vertiginous doubt

In 1955, architect Arnold Bode made an unlikely intervention in a local horticultural show. Pinning giant white curtains across the bombed-out shell of Kassel’s neoclassical Fridericianum, one of Germany’s oldest museums, he displayed inside works by artists – Picasso, Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – unseen in the country since Hitler had banned them as degenerate. At a stroke, Bode reconnected Germany to the cultural mainstream, built a Cold War bridge – Kassel is close to the former east/west border, so young artists from the east such as Gerhard Richter could visit – and launched an international exhibition, Documenta, that continues to run twice a decade. Among today’s glitzy homogenised biennales and fairs, does Documenta still have a special voice?

In a lovely allusion to that initial flowershow, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s first act when appointed director of Documenta 13, opening next month, was to plant a tree in Kassel’s central Auepark – a sapling rooted around a bronze cast of a tree bearing a giant boulder by the arte povera sculptor Giuseppe Penone. Two years later, “Ideas of Stone” is growing vigorously, lifting the boulder – the burden of the past? – as it soars towards the future.

Meanwhile, in the Fridericianum library, physicist Anton Zeilinger will establish a quantum teleportation terminal connecting to another across town, positioned alongside enormous diagrams of crime, conspiracy and corporate networks; these pencil works, resembling airline charts, were made by Mark Lombardi, an obscure American artist who committed suicide in 2000.

“It’s basically investigative journalism. I’m not in the same world as the art business world,” declares Christov-Bakargiev when we meet in London. She is there to lecture on Alighiero Boetti, a close friend, during Tate’s retrospective. An ebullient Italian-American redhead, Christov-Bakargiev, 54, has a scholarly background in arte povera. She cut her curating teeth at contemporary venues PS1 in New York and Castello di Rivoli in Turin, and has invited 180 “participants” – she avoids the word “artist” – to Kassel.

“My point is that it’s not an art exhibition. The best thing that art can do is not to give certainty but to give uncertainty and questions – a vertiginous doubt about what art can be. I believe that art is a form of research, that it has a big relationship with society. Documenta came out of the will to reconnect international relationships. Now we’re all on email but we are not connected. There’s a global precariousness.”

In response, Documenta’s first workshops have already taken place – in Afghanistan. Christov-Bakargiev travelled there with artists including Francis Alys and Mario Garcia Torres. Although the trip was partly “my homage to Alighiero” – Boetti lived and worked in Afghanistan – her interest is in “this place that has experienced such severe destruction. Blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas – that wouldn’t have happened without the digital age, without CNN and Al Jazeera and the media. The image was important – there’s an increase in the destruction of the materiality of art in the digital age.”

Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

Every Documenta bears the stamp of its director yet is shaped by past Documentas. Christov-Bakargiev believes that “there should be no European modernist idea of art – it’s important to enter into an era of comparative modernism”, and pays tribute to the first non-European director, Okwui Enwezor. His 2002 Documenta, she says, “defined the documentary as an art form, canonised it as acceptable”.

Prominent at Kassel, therefore, will be a range of archival artists: distinguished Palestinian Emily Jacir; Chinese Song Dong; Northern Irish Willie Doherty; and lesser-known figures such as Akram Zaatari, the founder of the Arab Image Foundation who has photographs of daily Beirut life. His project, however, will be based on destroying his images. Along with academics and writers, many artists have also contributed to the series of 100 cross-disciplinary Documenta “Notebooks” published over the past year.

Can art really work to political ends, or do aesthetic contexts neutralise the provocative gesture? Germany is a recent testing ground – Berlin’s seventh biennale was savaged in the national press for not showing any art and, instead, inviting Occupy movement members to pitch their tents in the KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

Christov-Bakargiev’s best choices – William Kentridge’s lyrical drawings, Boetti’s “Mappa” – tread far more nuanced lines between art and politics. I admire, too, the visibility she offers to important activists such as Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi, and to older women artists – 87-year-old Lebanese painter Etel Adnan, for example, has her first show.

But Christov-Bakargiev is also fluent in the nonsense language of biennale-speak. “I’m attempting to find zones of freedom in what is normally called knowledge capitalism ... The experiment is more important than the end result, the best artworks come out of the conviction that it doesn’t matter if there isn’t anything there when you finish. We may end up in an utter disaster in one month’s time!”

This is a bold statement from someone who has spent four years building a single exhibition. She must, surely, have a framing concept? “I started with the idea that I wouldn’t have a concept,” she flashes back. But eventually she admits to “four guiding principles, the attitudes artists have when they make work, divided into points of view relevant to our socio-economic position today”. They are: being under siege; in retreat; on stage (“we’re all on Facebook”); and “in a state of hope. You don’t make a lot of art when you’re in a state of hope, like Malevich was [during the Russian Revolution]. I’m having trouble getting Egyptian artists on the phone because they are so much in a state of hope. It’s a very magical moment, when you stop painting and apply what you know to building the world.”

Documenta was founded during the Cold War, which developed from the catastrophe when ideals such as Malevich’s were tragically co-opted into political rhetoric. Sixty years on, we are witnessing a very different relationship between artists and revolutionary movements in, say, Tahrir Square. Win or lose, Documenta remains a uniquely earnest, high-minded attempt to document the unravelling of the modernist dream.

Documenta, Kassel, June 9-September 16,

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