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Jane Taylor writes an insider’s account of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s dOCUMENTA (13)

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s favourite line is the oblique.
dOCUMENTA (13) does not set out with a theoretical claim about ‘Where we are now and How we can interpret our world historical moment’ through attention to the aesthetic. Rather, the event is defined, loosely, by a provocative rubric from the curator: “The dance was very frenetic, roaring, clashing, ringing, twisting, rolling, and lasted (for) a long time.” There is something almost ethnographic in the distancing effect of that description. Whose dance is described here? From what position does this interpreter speak? Is it our species looking at itself, or is it a hypothetical “anthropologist from Mars” trying to interpret the frenzied, salacious, willful energies of earth beings as we sense the end of our age? It is left to the viewer to interpret that question, as one amongst many raised by the exhibition.

In its simultaneous aesthetic, intellectual and political engagements dOCUMENTA (13) coaxes us back to looking, and to attending. It turns us toward regard: ‘regard’ in the fullest sense of that word. It summons up observation, care, judgment, affection, holding. This scrupulous intellectual and aesthetic competence has marked Christov-Bakargiev’s career. One of my earliest experiences of her sensibility was some fifteen years ago, when she walked me through an exhibition of Arte Povera works in a show at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. The Arte Povera artists had been the focus of her early career, and they inform and impel much of her aesthetics and practice. It is instructive to bear this early career in mind when exploring the nuances of dOCUMENTA (13). She wanted particularly to draw my attention to the context of the show – that ‘Haus der Kunst’ in Munich. The museum had been established by the Nazis in order to house an exhibition of so-called ‘degenerate art’ (entartete kunst), and she was acutely aware of the resonance given to the exhibition by that context.

I cite this episode because of its significance for dOCUMENTA (13) and the history of Documenta. Originally conceived by art professor Arnold Bode in 1955, the first exhibition was not intended as a cutting-edge exploration of the contemporary. Rather, it had a frankly archival purpose. It was Bode’s intention to bring to German attention that body of works associated as the ‘Entartete Kunst/Degenerate Art’ that had been reviled and proscribed by the Nazis. Goebbels in fact confiscated some 16 000 works considered ‘degenerate’; and an exhibition of some 650 paintings, prints, sculptures and drawings was opened in 1937 in Hitler’s prized ‘Haus der Kunst’ in Munich, as an object lesson in what kinds of cultural expression would not be tolerated by the Nazi regime. In the main, these were modernist works that did not celebrate Teutonic notions of racial purity and cultural hegemony. In seeking to ridicule the works selected, the curators hung paintings askew, with ironic didactic notes on the walls intended to provoke revulsion and contempt.

It is thus within Documenta’s original brief in 1955, that regard be given to the archival as well as to modernity. Christov-Bakargiev has taken up this challenge. dOCUMENTA (13) has, at its centre, a smallish, tightly curated exhibition, affectionately referred to as ‘The Brain’. Here we see Christov-Bakargiev thinking aloud, as it were, and it is one of the most subtle and instructive of the many subtle and instructive installations. What becomes apparent here is the artfulness of a disciplined and attentive aesthetic sensibility as it engages with the complexities of the human endeavour. Startling amongst the works on display are the photos of model/photojournalist Lee Miller posing naked in Hitler’s bathtub. Miller (Man Ray’s lover) had taken up the role of photojournalist during World War II, and had been on hand to photograph the liberation of Paris, of Buchenwald and Dachau. She was photographed in Hitler’s apartment by David E. Scherman on 30 April 1945, the day she visited Dachau, and the day that Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide.

Walid Raad, Scratching on Things I could Disavow, 2007–, mixed media. Courtesy Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut–Hamburg, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London. Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Wiener Festwochen and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, Kunstenfestivaldesarts and Les Halles, Brussels, Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin, Le CENTQUATRE and CNAP and Festival d’Automne a Paris, Paris, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Alongside the photographs are several items from the bathroom also on display – Hitler’s monogrammed bath towel, an art nouveau figurine, a flagon of perfume and Eva Braun’s powder compact were taken from the room by Miller after she had photographed them in situ. The force of that interaction between photographic image and material artefact is both chilling and thrilling. Another interface between image and object that has an entirely distinct affective meaning is a collection of simple, elegant vases from the home of Morandi that are on display alongside his paintings of these vases. Here the installation makes rigour and playfulness conjoin.

Read more in the current issue of Art South Africa magazine (11.1), in stores now.

Jane Taylor

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