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Week 66: 16th – 22nd December
My return to a focus on material was timely, as this week was the first in a series of Leverhulme institutes by visiting professor Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, which was all about matter. Professor Christov-Bakargiev was named the most influential person in the artworld in 2012 by Art Review’s Power Top 100, and has held prestigious posts including Artistic Director of the 16th Biennale of Sydney in 2008, as well as working as a Senior Curator at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York from 1991-2001.

The focus of the Leverhulme seminars and institutes centred on themes which emerged as part of her most recent appointment, that of Director of documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany. The topics addressed included: art as research, ethics of curatorial studies and practice, and the relations between temporality, space and embodiment.

The history of documenta
The documenta festival takes place every 5 years, with a 4 year research and preparation period culminating in a 100 day arts festival. Beginning in 1955, after a period of post-War re-evaluation, Kassel staged the festival in an attempt to “reconcile German public life with international modernity and also confront it with its own failed Enlightenment”. Since the fifth documenta in (1972), each festival has been directed by a different curator to produce a whole new idea of how international art links can be developed.

The first exhibitions in 1955 were an attempt to re-present and redress previous claims made by the Nazis about Modernist art as ‘degenerate’. Led by Arnold Bode and Werner Haftmann, the festival was dubbed the ‘Museum of 100 days’ which still serves as inspiration for curators to this day. Throughout the history of documenta, themes have included the questioning of reality through images, the ‘Neuen Wilden’ and the historical and social dimensions of art.

The Leverhulme Institute
The Leverhulme series began with an evening lecture exploring a virtual journey through the psychological map of curatorial practice behind documenta 13. In an article on the Walker Art Center website, Christov-Bakargiev is quoted as stating that “documenta (13) is dedicated to artistic research and forms of imagination that explore commitment, matter, things, embodiment, and active living in connection with, yet not subordinated to, theory”, leading to her exploration of such diverse practices as quantum physics, activism, and philosophy, in the context of art research.

Christov-Bakargiev’s vision was to create a festival that was intentionally unharmonic. Despite the fact that the 2012 documenta was spread across 4 different countries simultaneously, participants were not encouraged to feel in sync with other venues and cities, to add to their sense of displacedness.* Exploring both physical and psychological geography, the themes of Siege, Hope, Retreat, and Stage metaphorically represented the four physical locations of the festival: Afghanistan (Kabul and Bamiyan), Egypt (Cairo), Canada (Banff) and Germany (Kassel), respectively. However, the connections between these places and states were intended to continually shift throughout the exhibition, disrupting audiences perceptions of each location.

A look into the Brain of documenta (13)
documenta (13) was categorised by its constant deferring (différance) of the meanings between locations and objects. Through reference materials such as the 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts that underpinned the making of the exhibition, audiences were passed between thought and process. Central to this was the hub of the Kassel exhibition, entitled the ‘Brain’. Consisting of an archive of objects, artworks and documents, presented with equal value, each artefact referenced another work in the city, acting as a sort of key and creating further complex meanings and associations.

This complexity was highlighted in the guide book for the ‘Brain’, the specially commissioned artwork ‘For when all that was read… so as not to be unknown’ created by Judith Barry. Consisting of a printed poster that could be folded and constructed into a 3D modular origami model by the reader, the work existed as a both a document of the exhibition and an artist book. Producing the guide in this non-linear fashion also aimed to convey the central theme of the festival, one of shifting hierarchies and perspectives.

*Paradoxically, this could also be a factor in increasing site-specific-responsiveness, not only by practitioners but also audiences.

Further reading:
A brief history of documenta: http://www.universes-in-universe.de/car/documenta/e-hist.htm
Fionn Meade, Reenchanted, Object-oriented essay