The Aue Pavillon. Temporary Exhibition Structure, Documenta XII. Photo: Shepherd Steiner.
Paintings by Kerry James Marshall installed at Schloss Wilhemshöhe. Photo: Documenta XII.
Form, Formlessness and Curatorial Formalism at Documenta XII
By Shepherd Steiner
In the words of Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, the artistic director and curator of Documenta XII, “The big exhibition has no form.” It is a curious and at first glance contradictory statement, primarily because Documenta XII is nothing if not precisely a meditation on curatorial form and formalism. Coming from this curatorial team of very few words, we should not take this statement for granted: it marks something absolutely crucial in the curatorial approach to Documenta XII, something that must be weighed alongside this exhibition’s obvious refusal to reduce the visual to the verbal. This said, if we lay to rest the merely negative and reduced sense of the critical that is so very common today, the tension between form and formlessness is productive for thinking the project. More than anything the rigor of Documenta XII begs our analysis, for ultimately, it marks a tension and further a productive contradiction that goes to the crux of Buergel’s and Noack's apparently obfuscated curatorial logic. With a negligible amount of textual and theoretical material to go on, we proceed on experience alone. Close reading, by which I mean a rhetorical reading attentive to tropes and tropological systems, will be our means to set the logic in motion. Given the assertion that Documenta “has no form” I find at least three contradictions to consider.
First, in spite of the assertion to the contrary, each new Documenta begs comparison with the last. We compare Buergel’s and Noack’s Documenta XII with Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta XI, and in turn Catherine David’s and Jean Francois Chevrier’s Documenta X. The curatorial propositions of each set up a number of expectations that the next must in some respect respond. So if Documenta XII “has no form” then it is a curious sort of formlessness with which we are dealing. In a sense, it is a formless exhibition that comes with the memory of a kind of form attached, and I think it is safe to say that Buergel and Noack are intentionally plumbing this contradiction. The form of attachment with the past need not be direct or symbolic by any means. (2007 is after all a vastly different moment than 2002 or 1997; it is an unwritten presupposition of Documenta that the state of contemporary art be addressed; and it goes without saying that today more than ever curating is a highly contested field of practice with a spectrum of positions on what to do and how to do it.) It suffices that memory be gently nudged into recognizing differences.
A provisional list of the half-felt forms articulated might proceed thus. 1) The viewer will realize that Documenta XII is a smaller exhibition than Documenta XI, a factor that promotes a slower pace for viewing, a pace which is variously textured and complicated in each venue and within each venue. If one work bleeds into the next in the Aue Pavilion, there is also ample time to view individual works; old works from the collection of Schloss Wilhelmshöhe take up positions beside contemporary painting and video; things pick up speed, slow down and also come to a stop on the various floors of that cabinet of wonders and salmon colored rooms that is the Neue Gallerie; and because the works of any one artist are not grouped together but spaced throughout Documenta XII, one’s path through the Fredericianum, for example, is variously punctuated with what Wordsworth would have called “gentle shocks of mild surprise.”
2) Compared with previous Documenta’s Buergel and Noack appear uninterested in showcasing well established artists; instead their preference lies with lesser-known figures and figures ripe for historical reassessment. There is a sense that the reception of such figures is less subject to interpretative bias and thus more ameliorable to the over-arching design. Where new inclusions to the canon crop up and do not stand up, a myriad of subtle efforts have been made to prop up aesthetic qualities to make for a level playing field.
3) In place of Documenta XI’s politically correct, MoMA centered world-view with pride of place going to the African problem specifically, one finds in Documenta XII an attempt to write a different canon, but still a canon variously impacted by institutional and geographical prejudice, informed by politically oriented thematics (which I treat in a moment), and couched in the most subjective terms. Further, in comparison to Documenta XI where the selection of artists was tangled up in explicit issues, Documenta XII works hard to aestheticize its tracks. The post-colonial problematic is a case in point. For one cannot claim that Documenta XII is less engaged with post-coloniality than Documenta XI, it is just that global questions of power grabbing, the forced migration of peoples and canonical openness, finds expression in what Buergel and Noack call the “transmigration of forms.” In a sense, the naked relationship existing between geo-political power and the world of representation is abstracted from its former unmediated incarnation: a point on which Documenta XII has both lost and gained ground. In any case, the margin is present, and Documenta XII has gone a long way to seamlessly integrate Central and East European art as well as other arts into its narrative.
4) One recognizes Documenta XII to be an essentially textless, image-heavy exhibition, especially in comparison to the centrality of theory to Documenta XI where curatorial inclusions, choices and decision-making were constantly buttressed by recourse to the theoretical. Not Documenta XII where one often feels the palpable traces of aesthetic judgment, subjective choice, and decorative schemes grounded in taste. Related to this, the social function or use-value of art has been stripped back to expose the woody question of art’s autonomy. The extensions of the art field that have accrued around the symbol since very early on in Documenta’s history as interests in architecture, urbanism, and political emancipation, are thus nowhere present.
5) Pushing on other buttons still, it seems clear that Documenta XII extends a previous interest in paradigmatic practices from the recent past into a certifiable emphasis on historical exemplars stretching back to the dim reaches of antiquity. This has at least three consequences: first, the experience of this Documenta feels less squarely positioned in the present, or at least in the political and social debates that now define modernity, and instead frames contemporaneity through the optic of an art historical canon that is built into the exhibition. If in the final analysis this intentional set of historical threads or tropes is a little difficult to gather up and define absolutely, it is undoubtedly the case that they do find their ground in our modernity. Modernity is present, but only insofar as we catch sight of a very select interpretation of modernity hinging upon a metonymic patchwork of theoretical sources that represent Buergel’s and Noack’s purchase on the problem—a grounding that is stripped of its effect because of the palpable presence of narrative continuity in the exhibition.
Building further on points 4 and 5 especially, we should also note that curatorial initiatives that have in the last ten years placed the city and social life squarely within the art field are here excluded from art practice and made instead a natural and simply necessary extension of public relations. For example, the task of bridging the longstanding gap between Kassel’s citizens and the Documenta team, organization, and hundred-day duration is filed under the sub-heading of art education. Theoretical writing and the medium of the art film have similarly been farmed out to a semi-independent magazine project under the direction of Georg Schölhammer and a film program curated by Alexander Howarth. The overall result of this hierarchization of forms is to tighten the definition of the art field in the wake of various pressures to expand it. In effect, Buergel and Noack devalue a number of recent developments, instead opting to open up the category of the contemporary in other ways.
To summarize all of this we can say that recent hermeneutic trends in curating the art field have been eclipsed by a model of curating grounded in poetics. Contemporary art now trails off into the language of the museum rather than the horizon of politics, everyday life and the social. The museum without walls that was the defining experience of Documenta XI here finds walls built around itself as a fence against contemporary history.
All of this is phrased far too baldly, but let it stand for the moment. For it does seem to be the message or the take home point of Documenta XII. The sea-change in curatorial circles it marks reduces down to the fact that curating in the expanded field – something which finds its systematic of meaning against the horizon of history – should now be substituted with a vision of curating in a greatly contracted, linguistic field. If for no other reason than to stall this generational flip-flop in curatorial vision now taking place, let us consider the presuppositions of Documenta XII in more detail. It requires bringing a fairly arcane set of categories back onto the table, but these categories can help us avoid the pitfalls of remaining subject to the reigning logic of the current system of curatorial practice. My questions are simple ones: What exactly are hermeneutics and poetics? What set of discourses do they draw upon? And what if any connections do these relatively obscure designations have for contemporary debates in curating contemporary art?
Well, originally hermeneutics and poetics were two of three methods of teaching the liberal arts of language in the medieval university. The so-called trivium broke language down into grammatical, logical and rhetorical models of language; a separation and hierarchization in whose shadow we remain. Which is why the medieval trivium is useful for thinking about Documenta XII and organizing our thoughts with regard to Buergel and Noack’s curatorial approach. Indeed it should be the central topic of curatorial studies, not to mention art history and criticism. All curatorial projects, art historical and critical methodologies borrow their presuppositions about language from the breakdown proposed by the trivium.
Briefly, hermeneutics is based in the trivium’s logical model of language. As the theory of interpretation, hermeneutics is only concerned with meaning – with conjuring meaning out of nothing. It is dialectical, and always historical, or has a vision of history behind it. Today one can pick and choose among quite a few interpretative horizons to unveil the hidden meaning or horizon of art. Following Paul de Man and Andrzej Warminski – two figures whose work is crucial to the recovery of these categories for contemporary theory – we can say that what is common to all hermeneutic approaches to language is that art is reduced to a horizon of meaning outside itself. (One could include psychoanalytic approaches to art both Freudian and Lacanian; relational approaches to art practice and curating, all political and socially engaged projects of curating -- including models grounded in communicative action -- and of course ontological models of curating that take recourse in Heidegger and claim the ultimate horizon to be the forgetting of the question of the meaning of being – a forgetting that the poets (read artists) name in terms of a history. I mention this because antiquity in Documenta XII functions in part as an ontological problematic: most successfully when it gestures toward the unstable and mutable ground of all interpretation, and least successfully when it literalizes or hypostatizes antiquity as an actual historical condition through the inclusion of art from the antique.)
We call the trivium’s grammatical model of language poetics. It is ahistorical; has scientific pretensions; derives from the Greek word to make; and in contrast to the “what” of hermeneutics is concerned with the “how” of language – by which I mean what makes the literary literary, tragedy tragedy, or in the case of Documenta XII art art. Whereas hermeneutic models of curating try to subsume grammar under meaning, poetic models of curating cannot deal with meaning and turn everything into a grammar or code. Having neatly summarized the spectrum of possible curatorial projects, I think one can begin to see in the very starkest light what is at stake in Documenta XII, say as opposed to Documenta XI. If the latter was a definitively hermeneutic experience, the present Documenta is a poetic, grammatical or formal experience. The instability of these models should be noted: turning them on their head neither improves nor disables things. They simply presuppose different models of language. And of course it should be said that our intentions here are not to map the curatorial methods of Documenta XI and Documenta XII onto the trivium in order to dismiss the one for the other, but merely so as to gain some distance on each, analyze one or the other more carefully, and finally organize our thoughts in order to perform a close reading of the present Documenta.
Here is the crux. Framed by the context of the trivium’s breakdown of language into hermeneutic and grammatical models, a close reading of Documenta XII means a rhetorical reading. In the trivium’s account rhetoric is not a model of language like the other two. All rhetoric can show is that logical and grammatical models of language interrupt or interfere with one another, despite underwriting one another. The decisive point is that underwriting one another both does and does not assume a binary or dialectical relationship with one another. Rhetoric, de Man tells us, is always in an “actively negative relationship” to both. Rhetoric has no space or time of its own. Thus if conventional wisdom would have us map the dialectal tension between poetics and hermeneutics thusly:
Poetics &larr&rarr Hermeneutics
with rhetoric simply falling into the space or temporality between the two, the entirely counter-intuitive (or non-dialectizable) “nature” of rhetoric demands being depicted in this manner:
Poetics &larr &rarr Hermeneutics
with rhetoric standing in place for precisely the lack of tension (or denomination either in spatial or temporal terms) between the two.
One could say that rhetoric ensures that a constative or referential moment of language (whether of the hermeneutic or grammatical variety) is never in intimate contact with its other, but always in a non-dialectizable relationship. Between a constative moment of referential truth and its linguistic negative, a chiasm (><) separates one from the other. Thus, a close reading of Documenta XII would be a reading that neither negatively inverts the choice of grammar for that of hermeneutics, nor positively interprets the exhibition through the grammatical optic provided, but instead focuses on the working or functioning of these tropes as a tropological system, a system set in play and one which we need to move beyond.
Power in its contemporary form functions dialectically, and if we are to begin to get a sense of just how much more serious and complexly systematized the flow of power is at the present juncture, we need to move within and beyond simple negation or inversion – not to mention the generational flip-flopping that now has many more convinced of the autonomy of art than its social or economic ground. In sum, we need to set the curatorial system spinning, identify its axis of symmetry and deconstruct it. We can begin to dismantle the system and make this penultimate move if we attend to a second point of contradiction around which Documenta XII turns.
We are told Documenta XII’s formlessness is bound up in three thematics or leitmotifs that apparently guided initial choices and directions. These “enabling fantasies” are: “Is modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? What is to be done?” No doubt these three questions are played out in a number of ways and on a number of literal and figural levels in the exhibition. They also exist as a sort of ground zero that identifies them as an origin for the project. In this regard it is worth noting that this contemporary threesome constitutes a set of hermeneutic presuppositions gesturing retrospectively toward the past, introspectively towards ontological depths, and prospectively toward the future. To my mind the potentialities mined by these questions represents a masterful application of theory. Yet no matter how loosely these theoretically derived leitmotifs were put to work (extracted from the work of T. J. Clark, Giorgio Agamben and V. I. Lenin, respectively) or indeed how loose and undefined they became over the course of completing the project, they provided the curators with three hermeneutic motors of inquiry, selection, and judgment. In spite of Buergel and Noack’s notorious reluctance to speak frankly and transparently about his curatorial project, there clearly is, or was, a complex logic involved here. The first of two points to recognize here is less that Buergel and Noack are, or were, open to theory—they would not provide us with these theoretical departures if they were not — but that they took these theoretical questions as an initial or original point of departure. The second point to recognize is less that these theoretical departures were cannibalized during the process of making the exhibition, but more importantly that they were subsumed by a final curatorial stroke that presupposes a grammatical model of language which rules the practice of curation or presenting art in a museological setting.
In other words, we would be wise to think of the logic of the exhibition not only in terms of the three leitmotifs, but also in terms of a model of language that built upon and unraveled them—an übercircuitry of sorts that emerged as part of a dialogue between the works selected and the sites and spaces used to show them. In effect, this is an exhibition with two competing logics in play, one performing a first order deconstruction of the other. Depending on whether one approaches the exhibition from the perspective of original intentions or from the experience of the exhibition itself, one may frame Documenta XII either as a hermeneutic model of language parasitizing a grammatical model, or vice versa, a grammatical model of language subsuming a hermeneutic one, as in the diagram below:
Both linguistic hierarchies – each with its own particular master/slave relation – faces the other from across a chiasm: one looking forward to a grammatical conclusion, the other looking backward toward a hermeneutic beginning. This is the very epicenter of the curatorial enterprise; it is an intentional structure, where a commitment to the criticality of the project as a whole is invested. It is where Buergel’s and Noack’s way of working is condensed, and around which the viewers’ attention turns. The strategy is very Deleuzian and Guattarian in its critical emphasis and weighting of metonymic flow: it is curating a la A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. In the end, of course, the grammatical wins out. For who in their right mind can walk through the Aue Pavilion or scan the massive space of the Documentahalle and not come away touched by the curatorial efforts at orchestrating individual pieces into a whole. Unique form can but wither in face of the formless. Metaphors of building and identity formation unravel at the hands of proliferating rhizomes, metonymies of formlessness and synecdoche’s linking part to whole. Against such grammatical echoes, meaning understood as history, economic forces, etc., does not stand a chance. No doubt this productive collision of opposites is a recurrent trope within Buergler and Noack’s curatorial practice. It is what makes this Documenta both pleasurable to look at and a confounding intellectual experience.
But at what cost? Ultimately at the cost of a curatorial formalism: an oddly closed formal system that reasserts the autonomy of art in the wake of a number of Documenta’s that have variously privileged the opposite. And once again I would underscore the fact that the difference between Documenta XI and Documenta XII is not simply the case of generational flipping between opposite ends of the curatorial spectrum as I have tried to show above, but Buergel’s and Noack’s curatorial vision does have its effects. We see the very different works on exhibit as elements of one language that refers only to itself, that finds echoes across mediums, historical epochs, and in vastly different practices.
Apparently we are still a long way off from Deconstruction’s central proposition that the reader (critic or curator) must acknowledge totalization as an apriori fact, and in its place seek out a variable approach to reading singular examples, tropological systems and their remainders therein. Caring about hermeneutic and grammatical economies in the singular, responding to the other of such economies in order to stage an encounter with the other is something very different from framing the artwork as a closed system of language. In this Documenta, singular ontologies and linguistic families are systematized. Intralinguistic questions are a foregone conclusion. An ethical relationship to individual works is blunted or sacrificed for a smooth circuitry and flow of intensities. The transmigration of form captivates the imagination, and viewers can do little to struggle free from this curatorial imaginary. With the master binaries of form and formlessness in place, as well as their hierarchies set to go, the close reading of individual works is not an option. Room for play is dictated by an overpowering curatorial ‘I’: meaning that play is both prescribed in this version of Deleuzian curating, and that the kinds of play possible are limited to formal questions that circulate within the project itself. In a word, criticality in Documenta XII is staged as something necessarily extrinsic to individual works. In fact, the logic of the exhibition supposes that art here is a symptom and proper curating a cure. The identity of each work is therapeutically corrected by the decorative system that frames it. Certainly it can be argued that this systematization is something that further breaks down, say in the case of the Documenta Halle, to a self-contained language of resemblance based in monumental scale, the open classroom on form in the Aue Pavillion, or the concentrated aesthetic experience of the 19th century cabinet of wonders in the Neue Gallerie. But an ethical relation to the artwork is still placed at one remove from the viewer. In today’s monolingual world, the other’s language must be close-at-hand.
On all of these points we are touching on the limits of a Deleuzian criticism. Literalizing metonymic flow, or supposing the interconnections between things inexhaustible is no longer a critical possibility under the current regime of power. Privileging metonymic flow and placing narrative at a premium merely completes the circuitry of contemporary power. Indeed, at its conception liberal democracy already knew well enough that if it was to survive the winds of change, it had to have the ability to deconstruct itself. In only performing a first order deconstruction (i.e., the unraveling of metaphor by metonymy), Buergel and Noack’s curatorial project instances power in the first person. Tropology, in this case identifiable as the penultimate binary hierarchy
posits the figure of a self-sufficient ‘I’. In effect, the tension between form and formlessness around which Documenta XII turns is a metaphor of the self, in this case a curatorial ‘I’ or self that mimetically reproduces the functioning of that ‘I’s critical faculties. The totalizing language of form cannot provide a critical antidote to Documenta XII’s hermeneutic beginnings. Again, difference is erased, singularity loses out to a literalized multitude, and otherness vanishes at the hands of the curatorial Gesamtkunstwerk. Moves to make a self-reflexive exhibition – an exhibition whose three critical premises are necessarily put under pressure – turn the exhibition into a space where works of art (once included for theoretical reasons) become excluded for reasons of curatorial vision and consistency: curatorial logos turns this Documenta into one more idiosyncratic instancing of power. The circuitry animated – a circuitry that operates two dimensionally and is believed to be self-monitoring and perfectly reflexive – in fact blinds one to the art, instead of staging the encounter with the uniqueness and otherness of language. Formal description is not used for opening up language in an intrinsic sense, but rather is put to work in an extrinsic fashion, functioning as a formal dead end.
In Documenta XII curatorial formalism rules the day…What goes in the museum stays in the museum…The golden age of Viennese Kunstgeschichte meets the big exhibition and finds a new (very unformless) form.
Thanks to Anthony Spira (Whitechapel Art Gallery) and Charles Esche (Van Abbe Museum) whose comments on curating were invaluable to this essay, and Andrzej Warminski (University of California, Irvine), who allowed me to attend a number of his classes where questions addressed in this essay were discussed.
Shepherd Steiner currently teaches modern and contemporary art history at the University of Florida.