"It will be beautiful, it will be beautiful," is the stubbornly repeated, vague incantation of Roger Buergel, artistic director of the forthcoming Documenta 12, scheduled to open in June 2007.
In a series of not-exactly-illuminating lectures and discussions, Buergel has given the impression that Documenta 12 will be characterized by an all-too-total return to the local, in distinct contrast to the global wanderlust that characterized Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11, five years ago. Instead, Buergel plans "locations that are not institutionally formatted." Accompanying his meandering presentations with a slideshow featuring extremely out-of-focus images of obscure exhibition locales, solitary corners, urban borders and fallow areas, Buergel conjures in the mind’s eye a Documenta of peripheral spaces sparingly accented by discreet artworks. At most.
Buergel balanced this attenuated idea, however, with the prospect of a "sensual" encounter between audience and artworks. "Be open to surprise," he said, tantalizing his listeners as he added to their general perplexity. The question also remains open as to what role Documenta 12 co-curator Ruth Noack, Buergel’s partner in both work and real life, might actually play in the exhibition’s creative process. The art historian -- who has realized several exhibition projects in the past few years in partnership with Buergel (notably "The Government" in Luneburg, Barcelona, Miami, Vienna and Rotterdam) -- has been nearly invisible as a Documenta curator in recent months.
For this reason, the first official Documenta 12 press conference was highly anticipated, even though it was held more than a year prior to the actual event. The first surprise was the presentation of a new Documenta logo, which is adorned with sign for the number 12 done in scribbled hatchmarks, as well as with the name of the city, Kassel, and the dates of the show, 6/16-9/23/2007. These changes were invoked, mysteriously, as signs of a temporally defined "operative space" rather than a "commercial trademark."
Buergel and Noack reiterated their three topical themes for the show: "Is the modern our antiquity?"; "What is our mere life?"; and "Education: what to do?" The last question gained a more tangible form through Ayse Gülec, Documenta’s director of education and consultant to Kassel’s Schlachthof cultural center, who supervises projects on multiculturalism, and appeared at the podium as representative of Documenta 12’s "local discussion forum." This forum, which currently consists of 45 people from local institutions, has been functioning for Documenta 12 as a kind of gateway to real life -- or, perhaps, one should say "mere life."
According to Noack, this initiative brings the show closer to the on-the-ground reality in Kassel, and at the same time allows the local situation to stand in for comparable global structures and issues. So Kassel represents an interface and connection point between proximity and distance, here and there. The curatorial mission embraces nonwestern contexts but contextualizes in a small town in central Germany.
In addition to Buergel and Noack, the press conference included two artists from the show -- though only ones whose names begin with either "A" or "Z." Surprise and confusion greeted the audio track by Polish artist Artur Zmijewski (letter "Z" of the Documenta artist alphabet). Zmijewski presented a Bach cantata performed by a mezzo-soprano, accompanied by a deaf choir. It was an oddly intense experience that questioned and canceled high cultural norms, as it provided, pace Buergel, a unique kind of beauty.
The letter "A" in the artist alphabet is represented by Ferran Adrià, the artistically active cook and culinary artist, who is, according to Buergel "the most famous chef in the world." Adrià’s presentation was a cryptic slideshow that offered up such unusual specialties as algae brittle or chocolate with wasabi -- not as culinary exhibits but rather as painterly compositions. How these creations, which are both avant-garde and quite familiar (who can really be surprised by food?), might actually be presented to the Documenta 12 audience is still unclear -- in a café?
According to Buergel, the presentation was solely an "appetizer," to continue with the gastronomical metaphor.
Noack hastened to assure us that Documenta 12 would not exclusively feature little-known artists, and that the Fridericianum museum building remains at Documenta’s core, so we need not fear an exhaustive trip through peripheral locations.
The list of participating artists is far from being made final, according to the curators. Yet, Documenta 12’s first official press event has given reason to hope that the coming iteration may actually have some surprises to offer and may even include some beauty and sensuality -- albeit perhaps in a different way than normally connected with the terms.
BELINDA GRACE GARDNER is a Hamburg-based art writer.