What is New About Documenta or:

the Photo Book of Modernism



The exhibition Documenta in Kassel, Germany was initiated in 1955 by professor Arnold Bode with a two-fold function: partly as a “regeneration initiative for a small town that had suffered extensive damage during World War II and partly as an attempt to counter the attack on modern art by the Nazis” (Angela Dimitrakaki, 2003:153). A one-time event in a provincial town in the framework of a bigger national garden festival turned into a large success: the event grew and inspired its initiators to repeat it every four years up to present day.[1]


In his analysis of Documenta, Walter Grasskamp underlines the fact that its first editions should be “understood as an answer to the trauma that resulted from that original antimodernist smear campaign” of National Socialism (1994:165). Following this, it becomes possible to read this ‘One Hundred Day museum’ as an event created on a particular traumatic point of recent German history. This further creates a framework within which it becomes possible to grasp the history of Documenta as a part of post-war cultural memorization. The process of cultural memorization is defined by Mieke Bal as “an activity occurring in the present, in which the past is continuously modified and redescribed” while continuing to shape the future (1999: VI). Within this framework, it becomes possible to see the curators, the main agents of Documenta, as the ones who present themselves as the “masters” of the traumatic past, constructing a synthetic narrative in the form of an exhibition. Nevertheless, this narrative becomes destabilized if, following Bal, we read Documenta’s repetitive form as a continuous restaging of the traumatic past in the particular form of drama: in the form of spectacle.


Following Grasskamp, in the case of Documenta, cultural memorization is linked to the active process of redefinition and reinscription of modernism after being ostracized as ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazis. Therefore, I will focus on the aesthetic and political dimensions of the latest narrative on modernism exhibited as part of Documenta’s 2007 edition. This will further define spectacle as a mechanism of repression, as an attempt to escape the disturbing narrativization of traumatic past. In my analysis, I will focus on particular visual traces (photographs, films) from the Documenta archive, normally considered to be the traces of shifts and changes in the long history of Documenta. Nevertheless, following Stuart Hall, my question will be if the new was indeed new, or just a different form in which to express the same conservative tendencies.[2] 



Accidental Images


In the book dedicated to work and life of professor Arnold Bode, two particular photographs caught my attention (Orzechowski: 1986). On the right side of the page twenty-four, two black-and-white photographs are posted, one below the other. The title under the first reads “Protest action during the press conference at documenta 4, 1968”[3] and shows a large crowd of young people standing around the table with, presumably, journalists and holding a large hand-written poster with the message “Prof. Bode! We, the blind, thank you for this beautiful exhibition.”[4] The second photograph shows five men in suits in their mid-thirties surrounding an older man who gives or takes a book from one of them; the title under reads “documenta 5, 1972. From the left: Peter Iden, Prof. Arnold Bode, Harald Szeemann, Prof. Bazon Brock, Dr. Jean Christophe Armmann, Dr. Ingolf Bauer”.

What initially triggered my attention was the construction of the shift achieved through editing of those photographs in the framework of the book, the construction of the change that apparently happened between those two (cinematic) moments in history. I became interested in this particular ‘cut’ that shows things shifting from a highly dramatic, ‘explosive’ and ‘noisy’ image of an undifferentiated group of men and women to a calm, ‘monumentalized’ group of five men.


At first glance, the first photograph seems to show a crowded press conference where the present group of people addresses their gratitude to professor Bode. Nevertheless, the title under informs us that what we see is the ‘protest action’ which further complicates the story, turning the message into a possibly ironic one. If there was some disturbance in the photograph from 1968, everything seems resolved in the one from 1972. There are no students, there seems to be no protest and there are no ironic messages. At this point, I became interested, in Barthian terms, in the subversion of these photographs, or the possibility to release the “pressure of the unspeakable which wants to be spoken.”  (Barthes, 1980: 19)


            The next place to look for clues was in the official material left behind those two exhibitions in the art library – the examination of their catalogues. I became immediately aware of the difference between the two catalogues that showcased a radical shift that happened in the period between 1968 and 1972. The catalogue from the 1968 was something that we could possibly characterize today as ‘old fashioned’ – it had the same shape as the catalogues of two previous editions of Documenta, in hard cover, divided into two books, with introductory texts by the mayor of Kassel, professor Arnold Bode and several other art history experts, followed by large section of black-and-white images of artworks and the artists. The catalog from the 1972 looks like something that, conceptually, any exhibition maker of today could be proud of: its A4 loose black-and-white pages where gathered into a big orange plastic office folder, the artworks are presented in more than 20 categories and sub-categories with images, accompanying texts and, in the case of some conceptual works, the artworks were included in the catalogue. What was also a novelty was the appearance of the advertisements of commercial art galleries and art magazines in the last part of the catalogue.[5]


Not being able to find almost any satisfying answer to my initial questions about the changes between these two moments nor about the identity of the people from the first picture and the meaning of their message written to professor Bode, I decided to continue my search in other available archives. In an effort to find further clarification, I will next analyze the alternative histories as presented in Jef Cornelis’ documentaries on documenta 4 and 5.



Filming the New: Jef Cornelis’ documentaries of Documenta

In the period between 1963 and 1998, Jef Cornelis was active primarily as director and script writer for the Flemish broadcasting company (VRT) in Belgium. One of the most important aspects of Cornelis’ work is that he did not hide himself behind the camera, presenting his films as objective and essentially ‘true’ to reality. Rather, inspired by certain developments in filmmaking of 1960s, he treated camera as his pen, or camera stylo, as a way to express his opinions on the events he filmed (Brams, Pültau 2003 (1)). He has left behind several documentaries in which the art world is constructed and presented in a particular way, reflecting his deep dissatisfaction with certain manifestations of power.[6] After filming documenta 5, Cornelis stopped filming the ‘art world’.[7]


According to Cornelis, documenta 5 represents an important historical moment after which the things were developed in particular direction: “For me, the fifth Documenta was the decisive moment. The marketing and the spectacle of art hit its first peak there” (Brams, Pültau 2003 (2)). From today’s perspective, his conclusion seems understandable, but in the moment when this event was filmed, this was a unique, solitary voice probably not too many people were aware of. One of the main contributions of documenta 5 in the development within the art system is usually ascribed to institutionalization of one person responsible for the conceptual and organizational aspects of an exhibition. This centralization of power was presented as a progressive development in the situation following incidents of  documenta 4, when the show was endangered by major conflicts in the discussion of what was to be regarded as (modern) art and was officially run by 23 members of ‘comprehensive council’.[8] Nevertheless, in his analysis of one earlier moment of the ‘death of avant-garde’, Konstantin Akinsha reminds us on the rise of the Marxist curators between the years 1927-1932 in Russia. According to him, this was the period when critics became curators. Their main invention was ‘visual installations’: “The curators did not try to implant new art into the dusty museum halls but sought instead to transform the museum into a kind of contemporary art form.” (2000:160) At this point, photo-collages and various ‘non-museum’ objects penetrated the exhibitions, and “in the hands of Marxist curators, artworks became no more then illustrations for their ideologies.” (161)


What differs here is the changed status of the addressee or, in other words, documenta 5 “gave birth to a new model of mediating art: the mediator as hero, sender, and addressee of inspiration at the same time” (Grasskamp: 164). Bringing this discussion to the framework of cultural memorization as proposed by Bal, “traumatic reenactment is tragically solitary. While the subject to whom the event happened lacks the narrative mastery over it that turns her or him into a proper subject, the other crucial presence in this process, the addressee, is also missing.” (X)


Following this, the spectacle of the exhibition as (re)invented by Szeemann as his medium can be read as his solitary narrativization of modern art which seems to hide another moment of German history when avant-garde was buried for the first time: the traumatic moment of ‘degenerate art’ when the exhibition was used as a spectacular medium by the ‘artists’ of the Nazi party. As noticed by Gerd Gemunden, embracing of Westernization in the 1960s and specifically US popular culture, offered itself as an alternative to the Nazi past, or as a way to erase one’s own past through this ‘remembering’ of other people’s memories (1999: 120-133). This is precisely what appears to have happened between those two editions of documenta: all contradictions were resolved and pacified through the construction of one master narrative that embraced commercialization of art as a way to avoid confrontation with one’s own cracked identity.


Back to the Photographs: Where is the punctum?


What the analysis of alternative visual material offered was indeed the additional understanding of the shift that apparently happened between those two editions of Documenta and definitely confirmed the students’ message addressed to professor Bode as ironic one. Nevertheless, following Ronald Barthes’ advices on how to gain access to pictures, we should look for the counternarrative, defined by Rosalind Krauss as “a seemingly aimless set of details that throws the forward drive of diegesis into reverse.” (1990:298) Looking back at the photographs, I asked myself if there was something that still escaped the narrativization, something that sill strikes me, or in Barthian terms, what was the punctum that “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow” and “breaks my studium”? (Barthes, 1980:26)


            On the first photograph, amidst the noisy scene and the students, I spotted one detail on the table, an object without the owner, without the master, and seemingly out of context: a female purse. On the second photo, my attention was caught by an object of exchange, of communication, that seemingly initiated the movement between the two men on the picture: a book for which we cannot define who the sender is and who the receiver. What both of those details, or punctums open up are two different cracks, two different ‘black holes’ in the history of Documenta.


The female purse undoubtedly brings us up to someone who is missing, who is absent from this perfect picture – a woman. It opens up the questions of the total absence or invisibility of women from the narrative of the documenta (early) history. From the other side, the book opens up the questions about tradition and continuity or the means in which the same things are being transferred form one generation to another while presented as a novice. The answers or further complications of those questions, I propose, might be better formulated if we pose them in the framework of the last edition of this manifestation, Documenta 12 that took place in 2007. For the purpose of this text, I will not go into the analysis of the disappearance of women from the Documenta history, but will focus on the new in the recent interpretations of modernism as presented in the last edition of this manifestation.



The Photo Book of Modernism


In his analysis on the representation of modernism in Documenta I, Walter Grasskamp concludes that it was “mutilated, as if someone wanted to make a children’s book out of a pornographic novel” (1994:181) which, for him was not enough to fully defeat the Nazi antimodernist propaganda. According to him, this same practice continued with every next exhibition, hidden behind the flashy glance of a spectacle.[9] One of the strategies professor Bode used at documenta I to rehabilitate modernism were particular photo collages. In them, the artworks of modernism were accompanied by different archeological, ethnological and anthropological photographs of objects and people taken all over the world. The One Hundred Day Museum, based on the concept of an imaginary museum, suppressed the difference between image and reality and “exaggerated the similar” (189). Beside this, the modern art of the twentieth century was shown in a historical perspective, but without the accompanying history: “they relied on the autonomy of the works of art, as if these could assert and legitimate themselves on their own” (170).


            This same technique of collage seems to be used by the curators of documenta 12 as well: the main contingent of contemporary works is juxtaposed with 1960s and 1970s formalism and conceptualism and a selection of Eastern carpets and miniatures going back from the fourteenth century. In the space of the existing museum in Schloss Wilhelmshuhe, several contemporary artists were asked to insert new works into the historical collection. According to one of the critics,


The threads suggested between periods and cultures are decorative rather than serendipitous, and this can have the effect of condescending to the true complexity of context, as though fragments from provenances remote from each other were forced to mimic each other without understanding. (Prince, 2007:21) 


In the space of documenta 12 Bilderbuch, an additional publication to the catalog, we are presented with images of artworks, people and landscapes without names, where every item is there supposed to speak on its own. The photographs are divided into sections named after the centuries in which the exhibition spaces were built. Through this, the differences between the centuries are erased as well and there seem to be no breaks in this perfect continuity from the eighteenth century. The continuity with the previous editions of documenta can perhaps be notices in the changes of the logo for the last edition. The title documenta 12 is accompanied with 12 tally marks. This ancient system of counting was used to add another cut without changing the previous ones. This way, documenta 12 makes all the other editions visible, but claims to be only one in the line. 


            In the recent analysis of the conservative intellectual’s narratives in the literature of the united Germany, Mariatte C. Denman brought about their active promotions of “art as an experience that creates a presence unobstructed by ideological interpretations and social paradigms” (2004: 284).  This reveals an attempt to recover a sense of belonging to the “German cultural community liberated from the burden of both the memory and discourse of the Holocaust” (286). Hence, poetic works fail to represent social reality or engage in political circumstances. Instead, they serve to provide a ground on which German sense of united self will be rebuilt without the intrusion of historical flaws. According to those tendencies, this can be only achieved if the continuity with the times prior to Nazi past is established, and this edition of documenta seems to have exactly this as its final aim.


            Valuable insight on the relationship between modernism and nationalism is given by Preziosi:


Modernism is this the paradoxical status quo of nationalism, existing as a virtual site constituting the edge between the material residues and relics of the past and the adjacent empty space that the future is imagined to be, demanding to be filled. That which is perpetually in between two fictions: its origins in an immemorial past and the destiny of its fulfilled future. (2003:40)


            In the construction of national identity the exclusion of Others plays a crucial role. Using similar tactics, the depolitization of early documenta happened through exclusion of all elements that might disturb the fairy tale of modernism. There were no German-Jewish artists and almost no politically engaged art of the Weimar Republic. According to Grasskamp, “National Socialism had forced the art it protected as well as that it discredited into a political context. The countermeasure of the Documenta consisted in relieving art of any political context and then understanding this as liberation” (1994:178).


       Process of depolitization of documenta 12 happened on another level as well – through the particular choice of the curators. After being informed of the appointment of Mr. Buergel, critic of the distinguished newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung openly hopes that Buergel “will not follow too closely in the footsteps of former Documenta organizers Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor, whose approach was too political. (…) Kassel this dared to make a cautious correction of the path that Documenta has taken since 1997” (Artforum Official Website, International News Digest, 12.08.08, visited December 12, 2007). Therefore, the recuperation after the disturbance of the editions headed by a woman and a non-European curator seems to be one of the imperatives of the selection process of the Austrian couple. From their side, the curators proclaimed ‘the possibility of failure’ of the exhibition as their main modus operandi, using the same rhetorical strategy employed by Szeemann to relativize the impact of their actions. As it seems, they are ready to capitulate in front of the new rules of the game, turning their enterprise into the mere service industry of globalized capital: their chief architectural contribution was the building of a glass structure usually used in (art) fairs.


This development is not a solitary example of cultural politics in post-wall Germany. According to many, this phase of development is marked by the intrusion of private industry and moneyed patrons that resemble American strategies to fund art and culture. They support “city institutions with an eye towards safer, prestige-oriented culture” (Chris Salter, 2004:5); art has a “new “sacrificial lamb” status in a political and economic climate where pressure exists not only to reduce budgets but also to curb cultural practices that challenge the rubric and practices of Empire”(6).


        What is missing in the latest staging of modernism in Kassel is the reflection on the colonial conditions of modernity. Instead, this manifestation seems to have taken the course of behaving like a “multinational corporation” and the dangers of this are yet to be seen.[10] This redefining of Europe as the primary habitus of the modern can be only deconstructed through its disturbance as a center, through new critical biennials and art production in the so-called margins. The valuable lesson on the role of museums and the practice of modernism is given by Preziosi: “The modernist conflation of aesthetics and ethics has historically entailed the kind of social dream work that has resulted in not a few holocausts, and by no means only in Europe” (2003:141) and this is not to be forgot. In the last edition of Documenta, there were no voices of dissent at the opening, nor messages of angry students: the cynical position seems to be integrated into the exhibition itself, leaving open the question of who are the blinds of today.

(Written in 2008. Unpublished manuscript, part of my PhD research)

[1] Until 1972, documenta exhibition was held every four years. After this year, it happens every five years. More on the possible reasons for this change see in: Luchezar Boyadjiev: 2003/2004.

[2] “How to tell the difference between a return of an archaic form of art that bolsters conservative tendencies in the present and a return to a lost model of art made in order to displace customary ways of working? Or, in the register of history, how to tell the difference between a revisionist account written in support of the cultural status quo and a genealogical account that seeks to challenge it?” Hall, Stuart (1994 (5)).

[3] “Protestaktion anläßlich der Presskonferenz zur documenta 4, 1968” in Arnold Bode: Documenta Kassel: Essays; (translated from German by the author).

[4] “PROF. BODE! WIR BLINDEN DANKEN IHNEN FÜR DIESE SCHÖNE AUSSTELUNG” (translated from German by the author).

[5] Noticing the similarity between the catalog from 1972 with the ones we encounter today might lead us to a conclusion that aesthetic innovations and promotion of the commercial sector set by its secretary general Harald Szeemann might be still in operation today.

[6] About his first encounter with Venice Biennial in 1966 he said: “I thought I had landed in parish hall. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the Cardinal of Venice handing out the awards. (…) I think my vision of the art world was already clearly expressed in that film. It is obvious how I feel about the art world – remote, critical, ambiguous – to put it mildly.” (Brams, Pültau 2003 (2)) 

[7] “I dropped out in 1972. That was pretty radical. I still went to exhibitions and stayed in touch with a number of people, but I wasn’t involved anymore. Documenta 5 – 1972 – was in my opinion the beginning of the commercialization and the breakthrough of the mentality of ‘every man for himself’”. Nevertheless, his attempt of a ‘come back’ was reflected a decade later in the documentary on the Paris biennial in 1985 (Het gerucht: Biennale van Parijs) but after this, he made no more record on the exhibitions and exhibition making (Brams, Pültau 2003 (2)).

[8] See more in: Grasskamp, 1994:164.

[9] “Documenta had never succeeded in becoming the recuperative forum for all of modernism, which had been arrested early, destroyed, them only appreciated in highly fragmented form, and therefore really continued to serve as only a prospectus to itself.” (187)

[10] On the new development of museums that have appropriated the practice from multinational corporations and its dangers see more in: Saloni Mathur: 2005.




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