ESSAYS Mousse 34

Documenta Stationery [1]

by Julian Myers


Joseph Beuys and Douglas Davis at documenta 6, 1977. As published in From Europe: Art Contemporary 9. Vol. 3 No. 1, 1977. Courtesy: Nancy Frank and La Mamelle Inc., San Francisco. Photo: Nancy FrankJoseph Beuys and Douglas Davis at documenta 6, 1977. As published in From Europe: Art Contemporary 9. Vol. 3 No. 1, 1977. Courtesy: Nancy Frank and La Mamelle Inc., San Francisco. Photo: Nancy Frank


How was documenta born, and how has it evolved? From the “100-day museum” of its founder Arnold Bode to the “archive in motion”—the oxymoronic definition of 2007—Julian Myers retraces the history of this very particular institution, created as a moral and cultural recompense in postwar Germany—an attempt to reconnect the threads of modern art persecuted by Nazism. In particular, Myers concentrates on some of the most radical editions of documenta over the last forty years, including those curated by Harald Szeemann, Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor.


Launched in 1955 by the artist, critic and designer Arnold Bode with the Society for Occidental Art of Kassel, the documenta exhibition was initially a complex gesture of mending and expiation. More than an “overview” of the contemporary art of the moment, the first edition set out to juxtapose European postwar abstraction—the avant-garde trend at the timewith the historical works of the pre-Nazi era.

In certain critical writings these works have been indicated as icons of modern art (Expressionists, Fauves, Cubists and so on) disparaged by the Nazis in the most spectacular way in the major exhibition on Degenerate Art in 1937. From this standpoint, documenta was supposed to be a way of apologizing for the phobic offenses perpetrated by the Nazis against art and life. According to other studies, on the other hand, almost all those artists (and Bode himself, last but not least) had shown their works at the Orangerie of Kassel in a series of shows prior to the Nazi rise to power: this outlook interprets the first editions not as a way of apologizing for German misdeeds, of promoting a renewed attitude of internationalism and open-mindedness, but as a revitalizing return to the modern expressions of pre-Nazi Germany—especially the ideals of Jugendstil and the Bauhaus, where Bode had eagerly found nourishment at the time[2]. Installed among the ruins of the Fridericianum Museum, “the truth of the present” (to quote from the first documenta catalogue)[3] was shown through its reconnection with the past of the avant-garde that had been brutally cut short by Fascism.

This complex historical position—the investigation of contemporary art through the use of past models of internationalist modernism—sets documenta apart from the myriad of biennials and periodic exhibitions it has nevertheless helped to inspire. In effect, the most interesting recent editions subject the ever-present art of the present to a yardstick based on the past of the exhibition. The present condition claimed by the definition “the one-hundred-day museum” chosen by Bode for the event coexists with a description of the show as an “archive in motion”—the oxymoronic title with which documenta presented its own history in 2007[4].
To further define this curious temporal condition: joined by the art historian Werner Haftmann as the “theoretical brain” of this retrospective avant-garde[5], Bode went on to direct the three successive editions of documenta (Annette Tietenberg has convincingly explained how the book by Haftmann Painting in the Twentieth Century, published in 1954, represented a key model for the project of historical engineering of the first edition)[6]. Christoph Lange chooses an ambiguous way of classifying this cycle of exhibitions, noticing a “detemporalization” and citing the apocalyptic vision of Haftmann of a modern avant-garde deprived, at this point, of any future projection: “The artist is on the front line, faced by a dark, chaotic field, without traces and form, in which he must venture with the ‘antennae’ of his own medium and on which he must seek to impose order with his arguments, to active transform it into pure presence”[7]. But this disoriented avant-gardism would not last: Haftmann withdrew halfway through the planning of the 1968 edition, leaving the work of selection up to a committee that made a breakthrough with respect to the temporal strangeness of the first three editions, opting for a more conventional “review” of contemporary art.

The next editions of documenta addressed the need to index the present under the guidance of always different directors. With the aim of Questioning Reality—Image Worlds Today, Harald Szeemann “outlined a trajectory of mimesis” that, like the editions marked by the influence of Haftmann, was well-equipped on a historical level (with the presence, for example, of works by Adolf Wölfli, an exponent of Art Brut who died in 1930)[8]; nevertheless, the 1972 edition is remembered above all for the involvement in its “structured chaos” of Minimalism, Conceptual Art and Fluxus. In like manner, the exhibition of 1977 curated by Manfred Schneckenberger presented a radical “overview” featuring the unprecedented inclusion of video, performance art and new media. The contribution of these two curators influenced the future of the event, cutting off its link with a universalizing but weakened—due to lack of future—vision of a modern bent. This did not prevent the two curators, however, from becoming the targets of harsh criticism for their radical approach. As the historian Walter Grasskamp points out, they paid a price, namely the substantial impossibility of finding work in the years to come[9]. Szeemann liked to say that documenta had been “the end of a career.”

While recent editions—especially documenta 10, 11 and, it would appear, the next one, number 13—have made a growing commitment to focus on the history of the event, this diachronic orientation has been accompanied by spatial expansion. The watershed edition curated by Catherine David in 1997 placed its contents in the framework of what she defined as “retroperspectives”—in explicit reference to the past-present dynamics mentioned above, while organizing the selection of the works around turning points of postwar life. But although she called into play the idea of “limits,” David also pursued an incredible scattering of content and of the spatial logic of the exhibition. The event seemed both crowded and empty, with frequent displacements of certain aspects outside the exhibition site, or in the non-site of cyberspace; the curator also (through the Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant and Gayatri Spivak, among others) embraced the logic of otherness and diaspora, offering a “multiplicity of spaces and a platform extended to discussion and debate, in Kassel and elsewhere…”[10]. Okwui Enwezor then formalized and expanded this dispersive logic in the 2002 edition, with multiple “platforms” set up in Vienna, Berlin, New Delhi, St. Lucia and Lagos. The universalist vision of Bode and Haftmann has been productively relativized with these exhibitions, in favor of a position that recognized (or, more precisely, attempted to reproduce) heterogeneities and a contemporary “global” existence.


Louise Lawler, Documenta 7: A Story. Kassel, West Germany, 1982. Courtesy: the artist Louise Lawler, Documenta 7: A Story. Kassel, West Germany, 1982. Courtesy: the artist


How can we sum up an exhibition that is both now and in the past, and that (in its recent manifestations) is neither here nor there? How can we stop this “archive in motion” in order to study it? The artist Morgan Fisher has suggested that the very uniqueness of the exhibition, set up under the authorship and image of a single curator or director, has become irritating and arbitrary, though the exhibition itself seems to spread into other places and eras[11].

Perhaps I can hypothesize an ideal resolution in the terms of a “dialectical image” (to cite a central methodology of Walter Benjamin)[12], that might solidify some of the elusive generalizations outlined above. A photograph of an old newspaper clipping offers a complex comparison. A first figure occupies the right part of the image: a man seen from behind, hands at his sides, clinging garments almost indistinct in the dark image. Facing him there is another man or his virtual image, in the rectangular frame of a TV screen. We can recognize the hat and vest of the German artist Joseph Beuys (heroic cult figure of German art and veteran of many of the editions of the event). A caption tells us something more, informing us that the other man is the artist Douglas Davis, and that the occasion is the opening of the sixth edition of documenta, in 1977 at Kassel, Germany; Davis, Beuys and Nam June Paik participated in the performance The Last Nine Minutes, one of the first five performances to be broadcast live via satellite for an international audience.

Other actors appear on this singular stage: a hand enters from the left edge of the image (what is it indicating?); a spotlight aims a beam (at what?) from the floor; and behind Davis, we see part of the profile of another person, wearing headphones, in the frame of a painting hanging on the wall. We can even see a glare on Beuys’s cheek—perhaps the flash from the camera of Nancy Frank, reflecting on a monitor. But we continuously return to the figures that are the fulcrum of all this movement: the two artists, Beuys and Davis, who through the mediations and multiple proximities of the broadcast and the exhibition—with Davis at the center as the melancholy subject that observes and is at the same time observed, produces and at the same time consumes. Here the “present condition” of the exhibition can be sensed in the midst of the telegraphic refraction in multiple places, experiences, audiences, moments, none of which has absolute knowledge or legitimacy. Instead, we are looking at the assertion of a sort of direct communication (between Beuys and Davis, Davis and Frank, and then, decades later, Frank’s camera and our eyes)—a communication that is in any case obsessed by the spectral image of the mass audience represented (though in negative form) through this complex tangle of transmissions and mediations.

The photograph was used to illustrate an interview conducted by Peter Frank published by the magazine from San Francisco, Art Contemporary. “You have just concluded the satellite broadcast for documenta—with Beuys and Paik,” Frank begins, and then goes on:

Millions of viewers have watched your performance, live and later, on different continents. Doesn’t the enormity of this event—as spectacle, or as a phenomenon of international audience obscure its message?

And Davis responds:

Only if you imagine that the spectator has seen it as part of the masses, as non-humans. I don’t think that is what happened. And my attempt was to reach the spectator, him or her, not millions of people. That figure is a myth, anyway. There is only one mind, two or three at the most, at the other end of the screen.[13]

Of course the photograph embodies these themes with equal force: the single viewer to whom the apparatus (the broadcast, the exhibition) might be addressed, through different mediations; and the spectre of the “non-human” pursued by projects of this scale and this ambition. To evoke this figure, in any case, means rephrasing the question: for whom does documenta stage its revolutions of time and space? (The institution likes to emphasize the numbers of its constantly growing audience, true, but what do these numbers explain exactly? Why should we be informed about them?) Maybe we could think about borrowing a particular suggestion or “action” from Davis, who continues his conversation with Franks as follows:

PF: You refer to the end of your aktion, when you ask the viewer—the world—to break the television screen and let you pass to the other side. Do you think anyone did it?

DD: I’ll never know. There are too many cities and languages involved. The day after, in Kassel, a woman told me that the previous evening she had broken her television—please, come and fix it, she said[14].


[1] I’ve borrowed this title from Louise Lawler, who though she was not officially invited to documenta VII, created stationery that reproduced the invitation sent to the artists by the director Rudi Fuchs. See the description of the work by Douglas Crimp in On The Museum’s Ruins, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1993, pp. 239-241.
[2] See Dirk Schwarze, “Arnold Bode und der Impuls zur documenta,” in Arnold Bode: Leben + Werk (1900-1977), Staatliche Museen Kassel, Neue Galerie, Kassel 2000. With thanks to Gary Schwartz who from his blog The Schwartzlist pointed me to this source. See the post of 2007 “284 Being Where?” [].
[3] See Gesellschaft für Abendländische Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts, ed. documenta: Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts, Kassel 1955, p. 13 (note 6).
[4] Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel (ed.), Archive In Motion: 50 Years Documenta 1955-2005, Steidl, Göttingen, p. 21.
[5] Christoph Lange, “The Spirit of documenta,” in Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel (ed.), Archive In Motion, p. 21.
[6] Annette Tietenberg, “An Imaginary Documenta, or The Art Historian Werner Haftmann as an Image Producer,” Archive In Motion, pp. 35-45.
[7] Lange, ibid.
[8] See the interview conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Harald Szeemann in A Brief History of Curating, JRP | Ringier & Les presses du réel, Zurich and Dijon 2008, p. 91.
[9] Walter Grasskamp, “For Example, documenta, or, How Is Art History Produced?” in Reesa Greenberg, Bruce Ferguson and Sandy Nairne (ed.), Thinking About Exhibitions, Routledge, London and New York 1996, p. 56.
[10] Catherine David, “Introduction,” in Cornelia Barth & Jutta Buness (ed.), Documenta X: Short Guide, documenta and Museum Fridericianum, Kassel 1997, p. 11.
[11] Morgan Fisher, “Documenta, a Show of Shows,” in Jens Hoffmann (ed.), The Next Documenta Should be Curated by an Artist, Revolver in collaboration with e-flux, Frankfurt am Main 2004, pp. 34-37.
[12] See Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1989—in particular the chapter “Natural History: Fossil,” pp. 58-77.
[13] Douglas Davis and Peter Frank, “Interview, July 1977,” Art Contemporary, Volume 3, Issue 9 (1), 1977: 46. Reprinted in Liz Glass, Susannah Magers & Julian Myers (ed.), Give Them The Picture: An Anthology of La Mamelle and ART COM, 1975-1984, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco 2011, pp. 52-64.
[14] Ibid.


Originally published on Mousse 34 (Summer 2012)

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