Unlearning in Kassel:
Partial Impressions of documenta 14
By Tanya Augsburg
Documenta 14 is an incredibly ambitious curatorial experiment of enormous proportions. Touted as the most important art exhibition in the world, documenta 14 cost 34 million euros (over $36 million), around half paid by public funds with the rest paid by sponsors and documenta itself. Its exorbitant cost is expected to pay for itself: according to a documenta 14 press release dated July 27, 2017, “On Saturday, July 29, 2017, which marks the halfway point of the exhibition period in Kassel, documenta 14 will have attracted some 445,000 visitors, seventeen percent more than the last documenta at the same point.”
 “Beyond Artistic Freedom,” documenta 14 News, July 27, 2017, accessed August 8, 2017, http://www.documenta14.de/en/news/24306/beyond-artistic-freedom.
 Hili Perlson, “The Tao of Szymczyk: documenta 14 Curator Says to Understand His Show, Forget Everything You Know,” Artnet News, April 6, 2017, accessed August 8, 2017, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/adam-szymczyk-press-conference-documenta-14-916991.
 Jeni Fulton, “How documenta 14 Failed Everyone but Its Curators,” Sleek Magazine, July 3, 2017, accessed August 6, 2017, http://www.sleek-mag.com/2017/07/03/documenta-14-kassel/.
 Deutsche Presse Agentur, “Documenta Is to Be `Experience without Expectations,’" Monopol, March 11, 2017, accessed August 8, 2017,
 See for example, Adam Szymcyk, “The Indelible Presence of the Gurlitt Estate: Adam Szymczyk in Conversation with Alexander Alberro, Maria Eichhorn, and Hans Haacke,” South as a State of Mind #6 [documenta 14 #1], Fall/Winter 2015, accessed August 2, 2017, http://www.documenta14.de/en/south/59_the_indelible_presence_of_the_gurlitt_estate_adam_szymczyk_in_conversation_with_alexander_alberro_maria_eichhorn_and_hans_haacke.
For the first time the quinquennial exhibition is being shared (or perhaps more accurately, divided) between two locations: Kassel, Germany, the site of documenta’s 13 previous iterations, and Athens, Greece. Over 160 living artists have been commissioned to create and present (or perform) works in one or both of these cities during the 163 days of documenta 14. To complicate things further, the two exhibitions are not running simultaneously as documenta launched first in Athens on April 8, 2017 before opening approximately two months later in Kassel on June 10, 2017. The primary reason for this dual venture is evident with documenta 14’s title, "Learning from Athens," which opens up many potential thematic avenues given Germany’s long traditions of Greek-inspired classicism, its recent economic stronghold over Greece, and its ongoing conflicts with Greece’s policies regarding refugees and migrants.
It has been widely reported that during the opening day press conference in Athens, documenta 14 Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk confounded the audience when he suggesting that they should “unlearn what you know” and that “the great lesson is that there are no lessons.” One critic who was in the audience compared Szmczyk’s demeanor to that of a zen master. Another noted similarities between Szmczyk’s words to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous tautology from his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “It is either raining or not raining.” Having minored in Classics in college, I note resonances between Szmczyk’s riddles and those of the ancient Greek oracle of Delphi. Case in point: in advance of the opening in Athens Szmczyk told the German press agency, while defending his decision not to publish the list of participating artists in advance: “In my opinion, an exhibition should be an experience, without great programmed expectations.”
Perhaps Szmczyk was counting on his audience to be unfamiliar with aesthetic theory, because it goes without saying that the act of viewing art is at the very least an aesthetic experience that implies certain expectations. Such enigmatic pronouncements could be an attempt to mask the disorganization that was all too apparent to see months later in Kassel. Then again, maybe the unwieldy website, confusing maps, hastily handwritten art labels, missing artist attributions, and less-than-informative documenta 14: Daybook consisting of creative artist biographies (available for sale instead of an exhibition catalogue) were part of a programmatic strategy to unsettle, if not to frustrate, documenta 14 visitors with the aim of instilling in them feelings of instability and disorientation. Indeed, “unsettling” might be a more apt synonym for “unlearning” rather than the obvious “forgetting.”
The problem with such curatorial strategies is that they are disingenuous. To appreciate documenta 14 fully, the visitor needs to have learned a few things beforehand, such as documenta’s history given that its founder Arnold Bode envisioned the first documenta in 1955 to reclaim and restore modern art’s rightful place in Germany after it was banned under the Nazis and disrupted by World War II. Moreover, Szmczyk presumed the visitor’s knowledge of what he has called the “Gurlitt case,” which made international news headlines in 2012 but has had special significance in Germany. The Gurlitt case, which I had heard of but had also “unlearned” or forgotten, refers to the police seizure of approximately 1500 artworks found in the homes of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of art dealers who had secretly amassed their own private collection of Nazi-looted art. Szmczyk’s failed attempts to exhibit the Gurlitt estate, which Cornelius bequeathed to the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland upon his death in 2014, is crucial bit of information for the visitor to keep in mind when visiting documenta 14. As a first-time visitor I was scarcely aware of documenta’s history, let alone of the vital importance of the Gurlitt case for Szmczk’s curation, and it was indeed from a state of relative ignorance as opposed to unlearning that I experienced the exhibition.
My art tour commenced at the Torwache, twin 19th-century edifices on opposite sides of a busy street that appear as a quasi-city gate. Both are enveloped in quilts of ragged jute sacks that make up Ibrahim Mahama’s installation, Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030 (2016–2017). From a distance they appear as formidable postcolonial rebukes of Cristo’s shiny wraps, bringing to the surface the hidden and untold histories of colonial labor and slavery that made European cultural achievements possible. Up close hints of untold narratives of trade and collective labor can be discerned with visible stitches, stencils, and writing.
Inside Torwache South on the first floor are two bookcases that make up choreographers Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet’s installation Library (2017). I recognized many of the books on the shelves as important scholarly works within the interdisciplinary field of performance studies. The accompanying artist statement reveals that the artists selected those books published since 2005 that do not mention them, calling attention to their omission or erasure from official histories of performance and dance. The displayed books thus function as visible symbols of (academic) power that dictates who gets accepted to the canon and who ends up in the dustbins of history. But do they really? From my vantage point as a performance scholar this book installation comes across as an arrogant self-vindication by the artists stemming from a sense of narcissistic injury rather than a rightful restoration or revision of academic scholarship. The self-serving aims of Library furthermore appear incredibly solipsistic given its proximity to the exhibit of the architectural model, drawings, photographs, and prints for Oskar Hansen’s 1957 Design for a Monument to the Victims of Fascism in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Walking along a major Kassel thoroughfare for several blocks quickly led me to the centrally located Friedrichsplatz. There, in the middle of the public plaza, one cannot help but gaze in awe of documenta 14’s majestic centerpiece, Martha Minujín’s spectacular Parthenon of Books (1983/2017). Constructed out of metal scaffolding, its columns display banned books individually packaged in plastic and held in place by what appears to be industrial-strength Saran Wrap. Although Minujín first installed this work in 1983 in Buenos Aires in response to Argentina’s previous regime’s censorship, The Parthenon of Books gains new contexts on the site where Nazis burned books in 1933. Minujín resurrects her earlier replica of the Athenian Parthenon in its exact dimensions. Onlookers can climb up steps and walk around inside the structure. Inside they can engage in impromptu treasure hunts to find familiar books, all of which purportedly were all donated as part of the work’s participatory aims. I saw numerous German editions of 50 Shades of Grey, 1984, Gulliver’s Travels, Harry Potter, and Sigmund Freud’s writings; I also came across an old German translation of Shakespeare’s plays. Encased and suspended in impenetrable plastic, each book when scrutinized closely is reduced to its cover image. When viewed further way, the books range from appearing collectively as colorful mosaic during daylight to opaque rectangles at night.
Without question The Parthenon of Books is an utterly amazing, monumental work. The celebration of banned books nevertheless omits their unique contexts—the particular ideas and expressions deemed unacceptable. So while The Parthenon of Books raises awareness about censorship, visitors are left to find out on their own exactly why. Unlike the kinds of spectacle found in popular culture, The Parthenon of Books leaves visitors wanting to know more and encourages their mass participation (indeed, the artist has a long history of creating mass-participation projects).
Each donated book has been catalogued and will be offered to the public after The Parthenon of Books is taken down when the exhibition closes. Nevertheless, The Parthenon of Books is not without contradictions. While it is easy to marvel over how the clear plastic as a medium enables countless light effects depending on the time of day and weather, reconciling one’s aesthetic pleasures with one’s environmentalist concerns about the use of so much plastic is “clearly” much more challenging.
Additional text-based and book-related public art works can be viewed at Friedrichsplatz, most notably Hans Haacke’s five rainbow polyglot text banners, Wir (alle) sind das Volk—We (all) are the people (2003/2017), which were also made into posters hung throughout both Athens and Kassel. I walked past the Fridericianum (the first museum in continental Europe) to see the combination of borrowed aluminum and recast brass letters that make up Banu Cennetoğlu’s text installation BEINGSAFEISSCARY, above the museum’s portico. Officially, the slogan was “borrowed” from graffiti seen on a wall at the National Technical University in Athens. To put it more bluntly, Cennetoğlu, who is an internationally known artist, appropriated and remediated street art by an unknown local Athenian artist for documenta 14. On the day of the opening, visitors witnessed first hand how BEINGSAFECANBEREALLYSCARY when they saw gun-toting snipers ready to shoot above the slogan on the Fridericianum’s roof, photos of which can be easily found online.
Also at Friedrichsplatz a few steps from the Documenta Halle is Iraqi-born and former refugee Hiwa K’s When We Were Exhaling Images (2017), an installation of 20 stacked ceramic pipes with their interiors turned into living environments—apparently inspired by Hiwa K’s own biography as he resorted to find shelter in drain pipes near Patras, Greece, when he first arrived there in 1988. It was often repeated while I was in Kassel that Hiwa K, who refurbished the pipes with the help of students, intended that the environments be used as Airbnb rentals, but the city of Kassel nixed the idea, citing safety concerns. One pipe was curiously filled with books, calling attention to documenta 14’s paradoxical themes of learning/unlearning/experiencing. Are we to learn new ways of living from resourceful but dispossessed refugees? Are these model living environments supposed to be utopian fantasies? Dystopic nightmares? Or, are they collectively a cynical commentary about rampant urban gentrification? Inspired by the actual experiences of refugees, the installation nevertheless glosses over the harshness of the conditions in which they must endure in order to survive. While the work succeeds to raise awareness of the plight of refugees, it also raises questions. Are refugees in Greece still living in such conditions? How do books and learning fit in their lives as they struggle to survive? What steps can each of us take to help improve shelters for refugees? When We Were Exhaling Images presents the social injustices involving makeshift sewer pipe shelters as a bit too appealing, without any sense of irony. They look ready for an Ikea catalogue when they are inspired by actual shelters created by refugees under terrible circumstances.
A more no-holds-barred portrayal of the plight of refugees can be seen a several blocks away in Karlskirche, a Lutheran church, as part of another multi-city exhibition Luther and the Avant-Garde. There, in the upstairs choir loft German artist Thomas Kilpper with Massimo Ricciardo display Inventories of Escape, a collection of found objects 2014-2017, consisting of actual objects, many in various stages of disintegration, that were left behind by refugees and migrants in boats abandoned on Sicilian shores. I found myself close to tears while viewing the carefully arranged display, which included personal effects such as photographs, passports, and written notes. My parents themselves were once refugees from Eastern Europe, so the sense of irreplaceable personal loss was palpable.
The following day I spent three hours rushing to see all that is exhibited at the Neue Galerie, which is where Szymczyk’s curatorial plans were most actualized. There, the display of historical texts serves to make visible many of documenta 14’s themes ranging from the interrogations of the history of German philhellenism to restitutions of the histories of injustice and oppression. The first edition of Johann Joachim Winkelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (History of the Art of Antiquity) (1764) is displayed near paintings of the Athenian Acropolis by documenta founder Arnold Bode, Hitler’s favorite painter, Alexander Kalderach, and Louis Gurlitt, the great-grandfather of Nazi-looted art hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt.
A 1742 edition of the French Code Noir, a legal decree passed by Louis XIV in 1685 to regulate colonialism and slavery within the French empire, is also displayed along with several racist works featuring moors, mulattos, Jews, and gypsies by Ludwig Emil Grimm, one half of Kassel’s favorite duo, the Grimm brothers. Strategies for unlearning the legacies of colonialism and racism are perhaps best illustrated at the Neue Galerie with by Pélagie Gbaguidi’s pedagogical installation, The Missing Link. Dicolonisation Education by Mrs Smiling Stone (2017), which includes school desks, photographs, broken ceramics, toys, notebooks, and children’s art drawn on hung paper sheets created as part of a workshop collaboration with local school children and their teacher. Gbaguidi’s installation at the Neue Galerie was rare glimpse of the transformative and emancipatory power of critical pedagogy based on Paolo Freire’s pioneering work, a ray of hope amidst all the displays of oppression and injustice.
Maria Eichhorn’s Rose Valland Institute (2017) takes center stage at Neue Galerie with its various forms of documentation of Nazi looting of Jewish furniture and books. Her monolithic bookcase installation reaching the ceiling, Unlawfully Acquired Books from Jewish Ownership, contains library books from Berlin that were confiscated from their rightful Jewish owners by the Nazis. Books are yet again displayed to be gazed upon only—but as powerful evidence of German past injustices and current initiatives such as Eichhorn’s provenance research to remedy them. In a side room Auction Records 1935–42, Berlin are projected on an entire wall. To be fair, Eichhorn’s project does include the small Library and Reading Room complete with benches to facilitate reading. But from what I observed visitors used the benches to check their smart phones, leaving me with the impression that in this current epoch of post-literacy we are fetishizing books because we are reading them less and less—if at all.
Eichhorn’s entire independent project is as breathtaking as it is eye-opening. Nevertheless, it didn’t make as strong of an impression on me as it could have had I known how important the theme of restitution was for documenta 14. Instead, I pondered why the curatorial threads of sexual liberation and positive body politics evident in the exhibited works of the artist couple Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens as well as those by Lorenza Böttner, seemed truncated at the Neue Galerie. I spent some time in the room where Sprinkle and Stephen’s artwork, videos, and artifacts, which included Sprinkle’s doctoral dissertation, were displayed. I was not the only one drawn to their work: I noted that the room was crowded when I first arrived, and it was even more crowded when I returned for a second look. As for Böttner, her art and accompanying curatorial documentation were complete showstoppers. Born male, as a young child Böttner lost both her arms in an accident, went to school in Kassel, and became a visual and performance artist before dying of AIDS in 1994. It doesn’t take much to assume that the curator of Public Programs, the eminent theorist of sex and gender non-conformity, Paul B. Preciado was the curatorial force behind the inclusion of Sprinkle, Stephens, and Böttner in documenta 14. I left the Neue Galerie fatigued yet still wanting to see more art selected by Preciado.
In contrast to the spectacular central venues of documenta 14, from all reports and reviews I have heard and read, most of the more probing political works were delegated to exhibition spaces in the northern outskirts of Kassel, which is where many immigrants and newcomers currently reside. Truth be told, I left Kassel with an incomplete impression of documenta 14. That being said, I departed with an overriding sense of exteriority, surfaces, and resurfacing or “covering over” in order to present difficult and challenging ideas without causing too much offense or demanding calls for action—despite any claims to the contrary. There are sweeping gestures and preoccupations of books-as-evidence while some structural omissions such as missing signs, attributions, and information are less immediately evident but perhaps more telling. With few exceptions, onlookers can leave Kassel feeling “refreshed” having been intellectually stimulated and dazzled by all the ideas and images offered at documenta 14 without feeling too much of an obligation to participate in the difficult and uncertain labor necessary for actual social change.
Ibrahim Mahama, Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030, 2016–2017,
various materials, Torwache, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Tanya Augsburg
Ibrahim Mahama, Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030, 2016–2017,
various materials, Torwache, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Tanya Augsburg
Annie Vigier & Franck Apertet (les gens d’Uterpan), Library, 2017–, wooden bookcases and books,
installation view, Torwache, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke
Detail of Annie Vigier & Franck Apertet (les gens d’Uterpan), Library, 2017–,wooden bookcases and books, installation view, Torwache, Kassel, documenta 14,photo: Tanya Augsburg
Marta Minujín, The Parthenon of Books, 2017,steel, books, and plastic sheeting, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Tanya Augsburg
Hans Haacke, Wir (alle) sind das Volk—We (all) are the people, 2003/2007, five banners, installation view, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel © Hans Haacke/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, documenta14, photo: Mathias Völzke
Banu Cennetoğlu, BEINGSAFEISSCARY, 2017, various materials, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, documenta 14,
photo: Roman März
Hiwa K, When We Were Exhaling Images, 2017, various materials, in Zusammenarbeit mit PD022, dem Diplomstudiengang Produktdesign, Prof. Jakob Gebert, Kunsthochschule Kassel, Installationsansicht, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke
Detail of Hiwa K, When We Were Exhaling Images, 2017, various materials, in Zusammenarbeit mit PD022, dem Diplomstudiengang Produktdesign, Prof. Jakob Gebert, Kunsthochschule Kassel, Installationsansicht, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Tanya Augsburg
Johann Joachim Winkelmann, Geschichte der Kunst de Alterthums (History of the Art of Antiquity), 1764, installation view, Neue Galerie,
photo: Tanya Augsburg
Pélagie Gbaguidi, The Missing Link. Dicolonisation Education by Mrs Smiling Stone, 2017, various materials, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke
Maria Eichhorn, Unlawfully Acquired Books from Jewish Ownership, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14, © Maria Eichhorn/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, photo: Mathias Völzke
Maria Eichorn, Library and Reading Room, thematic reference library, Rose Valland Institute, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Tanya Augsburg
Exhibition room, Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, sculptures, photographs, videos, magazines, ephemera, and archival materials, 1973–2017, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14,
photo: Tanya Augsburg
Detail of Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, sculptures, photographs, videos, magazines, ephemera, and archival materials, 1973–2017, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Tanya Augsburg
Tanya Augsburg is a performance scholar, critic, and curator who can be occasionally persuaded to perform. She teaches at San Francisco State University, where she is currently Associate Professor of Humanities and Liberal Studies.