KASSEL — “I don’t have a concept,” said documenta 13 artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to those gathered to kick off the year’s most anticipated exhibition. While that may be the case, what Christov-Bakargiev does have is a lot of thoughts. “I want to give a lecture,” she continued, later laughing, “This is serious you know; this is documenta.”
The curator’s 30-minute opening remarks spanned from Adorno and aesthetic autonomy to neurology, and from the desires of meteorites to the digital roots of rifts between rich and poor, causing some actually to cry out for her to end. (One outspoken woman burst out, “This is very un-polite. People from all over the world have come to listen to you!” as the artistic director skipped through vast portions of her opening essay.) Despite the commotion, four abstract curatorial themes or narratives became clear in the opening speech: the stage of subjecthood; besiegement by others; hope, optimism, and anticipation; and the state of retreat.
As for the all-important artist list, it is nearly 300 strong. Participants for the most part hail from a visual arts background — as one would expect at a big art show — however, philosophers and social and cultural theorists such as Judith Butler, Andrea Cavalletti, Donna Harraway, and Christoph Menke dot the list, as well as more obscure figures such as Suely Rolnik, listed as an “Unconscious analyst.” Demographically, the list is extremely gender-balanced in comparison to many international art exhibitions. A great number of artists who figured in Christov-Bakargiev’s 2008 Sydney Biennale such as Janet Cardiff & George Burges Miller, and various Arte Povera artists — a specially of this curator — such as Giuseppe Penone and Alighiero Boetti also make the trip to Kassel.
As Christov-Bakargiev’s own feminist background suggests, issues of women’s rights figure heavily in the exhibition. However, other tenets also prove important, such as questions of location — highlighted by the co-existence documenta 13’s four cities: This year, the show is also launching exhibitions in Kabul and Bamiyan in Afganistan, Alexandria and Cairo in Egypt, and Banff in Canada. “Located in an apparent simultaneity of places and times, they acquire meaning only through their interrelations,” Christov-Bakargiev explained to the crowd.
She also stated that she wished to point to non-human artistic and political motivations, addressing at length her failure to bring the El Chaco Meteorite to Kassel from its age-old seat in Argentina, a curatorial gambit that was announced last January. “Does [El Chaco] have any rights and how could it express them…would it have enjoyed a short trip to an art exhibition?” she asked.
Finally, it’s worth noting that this year, writing and storytelling both figure prominently in the exhibition, via a writing residency titled, “Chorality. On Retreat.”
As was predicted, within the city of Kassel itself, locations have multiplied in comparison to past documentas. Beside the Fridericianum, the documenta-Halle, and the Neue Galerie, the exhibition spans nine further locations, including the Karlsaue Park where Tacita Dean has created an installation in a small house. Now the race to see it all in three short days begins.