Why Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev's Documenta May Be the Most Important Exhibition of the 21st Century

Documenta (13)
(© Nils Klinger)

In a small room far from the main galleries on the second floor of the Fridericianum, the 18th-century museum that serves as the central exhibition space of Documenta, a wall label advertises a weekly seminar to be held there titled “What Is Thinking?” The philosophical breadth of that question, and its unhurried, meditative air, is a mirror of curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s brilliant, eccentric, path-breaking approach to Documenta, founded in 1955. And buried within that question is a still more radical inquiry that turns the curating of objects inside out, as if the noonday sun suddenly revealed the fundamental, living strangeness of all things. The question she asks at the heart of the heart of her exhibition is not who thinks, but what thinks.

An example: Just inside the entrance of the Fridericianum is a big gallery, and being that Documenta happens every five years, the expectations are also big as visitors enter the museum, ready for the colossus of the contemporary art world to muscularly unfurl its opening displays. Instead, like a speck marking this cavernous white space is a small vitrine along the left wall with three diminutive bronze figures from the 1930s by Julio González, an accompanying photograph, and, it seems to the eye, nothing else. But the other presence in the space and throughout the whole ground floor is an insistent whirling of air — just wind, like something ineffable murmuring its independent being: Ryan Gander’s elaborately titled “Airflow-velocity study for I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull),” 2012. On the other side of the main hall, an identical space holds nothing but a standing vitrine with a long, handwritten letter inside it by the artist Kai Althoff, explaining why he couldn’t participate in Documenta. Behind this vast gallery, a smaller one is left bare, filled only with wind.

This introductory scattering of text, conventional artworks, and an invisible felt presence form a bold and gnomic index of what’s to come as the exhibition unfolds: a very lofty form of entertainment, cerebrally seriocomic, pressing at formlessness, openness, and the constraints of gravity, giving equal voice to the hand that makes and air, simply air. Christov-Bakargiev states in her exhibition essay about curating and connectedness in the digital age, “When an artwork is looked at closely, it becomes, as in meditation, an ever more abstract exercise, a thinking and imagining while thinking, until the phenomenology of that viscous experience allows the mind to merge with matter, and slowly, possibly, to see the world not from the point of view of the discerning subject, the detached subject, but from within so-called objects and outward.”

Her Documenta, which included the curatorial work of Chus Martinez and a team of about 20 curatorial “agents,” is so large, and consistently curated at such a high level, that it is impossible to even briefly review the most compelling pieces. Of course, there are works of lesser and greater accomplishment, but the overall quality of exceptional art is remarkable. There are nearly 200 artists and others participating, and a budget of more than 25 million euros to match Christov-Bakargiev’s ambitions and afford the commissioning of scores of new works from around the world. They occupy several buildings and spaces around Kassel, including more than 40 pieces that dot the city’s huge Karlsaue Park. The ancillary events over the 100 days of the exhibition run from film series to conferences, lectures, workshops, and performances about time and clocks, Sarwahi cooking (delicious!), cosmopolitanism, anger, the writings of Lydia Davis, information in quantum states, the lives of objects, Theodore Adorno’s musicology, conviviality, the environment, the Jewish National Library, Dora Garcia’s talk-show-formatted discussion of the psychiatrist R. D. Laing, and dozens of other events that in their entirety form a makeshift university for the traveling mind. Satellite exhibitions and events were curated in Kabul, Afghanistan; Banff, Canada; and Cairo, Egypt. One hundred little volumes written by artists and specialists in a gamut of fields were produced, a portable library for the future.

The notion of our attention adrift in the deluge of the global data stream is an obvious trouble and wonderment to Christov-Bakargiev — to which she has contributed with her teeming enterprise. How to log in the body and intellect in the most profound sense of consuming and distilling the world around us, when the era of the Internet and its metastasizing limb, social media, have so radically dispersed our concentration? How to find one’s bearings, she asks, with a compass marking the directional poles of hope, violence, meditation, and spectacle? This same period of radical dispersion has seen the “sociologization” of art hold increasingly extravagant prominence, certainly since Nicolas Bourriaud’s theorizing about socially oriented work in his 1998 book Relational Aesthetics. It has been rare to find in the last few years any major thematic exhibition or major artistic practice among artists below the age of 40 whose work was not seen from the vantage of a social, that is to say centrifugal, worldview, rather than a centripetal one interpreted as an insular meditation on the self.

What Christov-Bakargiev offers the art world at Documenta is a next stage of thinking. Over the past decade there has been another development that stands in direct counterpoint to the etherealizing of data intrinsic to the Web, while finding the story of the social through things. The study of material culture and a small group of philosophers coolly called “thing theorists,” among them Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman, have been broadening the anthropocentric focus of the sociologues to query the play of the object world in which the human is a single actor among all objects, while the ecological crisis has added a dimension of urgency to the acknowledgment of the life of the nonhuman. In this Documenta, we see a fundamental turn in this direction on a very grand scale. This new objectism takes into account a voluminous repertoire of tools for signification: empirical data machines; the expressive arts of sculpture, photography, painting, filmmaking, and literature; systems analysis; whole narratives and fragmented ones; and the measurement of time through various means, calling attention to both its presence and its suspension or eradication.

Christov-Bakargiev proposes that things, not just humans, speak; things feel, are violated, and voice their wills. Signification itself is under a poetic pressure to allow its own dissolution, while it is also provoked to assert itself as an obdurate and un-relinquishing material positivity that is declined like tenses of a language, with the hovering interconnectedness of past, present, future, and conditional states. What this means is that the openness of signification embraces action, meaningfulness, and what she repeatedly calls the emplaced condition of things to assert not a universality of monolithic meanings, but meaning as contingent and sui generis, local and global, and consequently multiple overlapping meanings touching human and nonhuman actors alike. History and the manifestations of hands, voices, marking, making, the illicit, the legible, and the violence that renders illegibility are not segregated but elliptically entered into a scheme of continual presence and negotiation. Precisely this sense of density after the spareness of those opening galleries comes into play in the ground and first floor rotundas at the back of the Fridericianum, which contain what the curator calls “the Brain” — two curved rooms that serve as the ideational nerve center of the show. They house ancient stone figurines; Surrealist objects; photographs of and by Man Ray’s lover, Lee Miller, in Hitler’s last apartment; paintings of vessels by Giorgio Morandi (and the vessels themselves); a contemporary sculpture by Sam Durant carved with the phrase “Ideas spring from deeds and not the other way around”; and a Vandy Rattana photograph of a crater filled with water in a verdant Cambodian field, created by American bomb runs during the Vietnam War. These are among a packed array of other works that, as the curator writes, “indicate not a history, not an archive, but a set of elements that mark contradictory conditions and committed positions of being in and with the world.”

Though Christov-Bakargiev defers here and elsewhere from stating any explicit structure for her overarching curatorial design, what she describes and so brilliantly achieves is an exchange of knowledges in which all her individual things enact the speech of networks, as she so frequently invokes digital culture. This is not necessarily meant in terms of linguistic exchange but in feeling, in atmosphere, in imagistic suggestion and reference, in palpable presence as well as in language. Suites of rooms lay out intuitively linked narratives about natural and manmade systems of organization and measurement, such as Mark Lombardi’s hand-drawn charts of figures in the global economy from the 1990s, a German priest’s typology of apples drawn during the first half of the 20th century, Anton Zeilinger’s glistening machines that track quantum particles, and a brutal bricolage of tribal objects and photographs of mutilated people by Kader Attia that is a coup de thêatre. Christov-Bakargiev’s assembled things are nodes linked in variously discursive hubs that pool and distribute meaning, which is the fundamental structure of any network. Her network operates principally on a protocol of association, allowing the broadest communication among her diverse agents of exchange — work talking to work across disciplines, theories, time, and the spaces of galleries, buildings, and the Karlsaue Park, whose dozens of installations are all, in one way or another, about living together, species with species, human and nonhuman in the pan-biology of an organic commons.

Her cloud of meanings is a repudiation of any single narrative of the artist’s purpose, for example the exclusive role of the artist as a political worker that plagues the blinkered exhibition Artur Zmijewski assembled for this year’s Berlin Biennale. But as I’ve already said, the radical turn of the perspective she lays out goes far beyond the notion of a human center to the order of things or even that order as humanly conceived is concentric with the agency of other entities. Through contiguity, the works included in Christov-Bakargiev’s streaming network hint at a vastly greater map of experience, of subject and object braided in ways beyond words and the rational empiricism that is the birthright of the West’s factory of knowledge from the time of the Enlightenment to the present.

Regarding a meteorite that she failed to bring to Kassel for its inclusion in the show, Christov-Bakargiev wonders in her exhibition essay whether the meteorite “would have wished to go on this journey? Does it have any rights?... Can it ask to be buried again?” In this, she is asking about the individual agency of things, and therefore of things that fall within the purview of art, and therefore what constitutes the artifice of a thing and what is its sovereign, autonomous life, and therefore how can we become alert enough to sense these things in their constitutive strangeness, and whether that apprehension of strangeness can lead us to an enhanced though always incomplete comprehension of “being in and with the world.” When she asks about the meteorite’s consciousness, she is invoking the thing theorists and their predecessors, such as the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, who stated that “just as there is an I-John Doe, there is also an I-red, an I-water, and an I-star... Everything, from a point of view within itself, is an ‘I.’” These questions and ideas lurk behind the most influential art practice of the 20th century, Marcel Duchamp’s, such that his readymades and their liberation of an object’s identity (the urinal or the hat rack or the typewriter cover, and so forth) can be seen now as a step toward a further emancipation of objects, with the potential of their own internal lives more fully acknowledged. In this surprising way, Christov-Bakargiev suggests that the readymade has reached a finality, a fixed ancestral role as a precedent for an expanded creative inquiry into the nature and use of things — and of our usefulness to them.

In all its complexity, Documenta (13) takes as its subject what it is to be human and what it is to experience through our humanity a sensitivity to things other than ourselves, and that those things may be observing us — as if the colonization of the museum space goes both ways as a zone of study. In any case, in some instances the distinction between human and non-human becomes dazzlingly fine, almost illegible. Wael Shawky’s use of marionettes in his beautiful films, the “Cabaret Crusades,” 2010 and ongoing, objectifies human figures so fully and intersperses them continually with talking animals in human dress such that every agent in his spectacular chronicles becomes a specimen of otherness. As Christov-Bakargiev envisions it, the configuration of knowledge is at once the social domain of historical time and a loosening of time, of time shooting inward and dissolving in the individual thingness of things. This seamless fluidity proposes an achronological encyclopedia of material being illuminated internally by unseen vitalities, by the essences of matter’s forms. In making this proposition, she argues seductively for each of us to imagine a vast plane of being on which these objects float in a network of endlessly entangled relations, while they nonetheless hover singularly in the amniotic sac of their own becoming so that chaos and order, autonomy and community, and rootlessness and obligation are simultaneous terms of their identities. No exhibition of this size and philosophical ambition could have been imagined without the plain fact of it appearing in front of us as testimony to such complex, richly invested thoughts. The capaciousness of her thinking (social, political, historical, material, spiritual, economic, literary, scientific, technological, and philosophical) and the immense range of remarkable works she has chosen that bear out her ideas offer a finely gauged intellectual tolerance that maps the topology of a multitude of inquiries to follow; a massively, poetically enlarged geography that renews the curatorial field. This is the most important exhibition to date of the 21st century.

Documenta is on view in Kassel, Germany through September 16. To see works from Documenta, click the slide show.

This article will appear in the October issue of Modern Painters magazine