Two curators of documenta 14 on its mission and form

A conversation in with Hendrik Folkerts and Dieter Roelstraete in Kassel

Sergej Timofejev

10 June saw the opening of this year’s key contemporary art show ‒ documenta 14 ‒ in Kassel. Its roots dating back to the mid-1950s, the documenta exhibition is held every five years. Always a huge multi-genre show, traditionally it also defines the range of subject matters and course of development for the next few years in the global art world. The previous edition took place in 2012, and in 2013 the post of the artistic director of the next exhibition was offered to the Polish curator Adam Szymczyk, previously successfully holding the position of the director of Kunsthalle Basel and prior to that known as an active contributor to the wave of Polish ‘critical art’.

What Szymczyk brought to the office was a concept that fundamentally changed the very character of the art event: the documenta of 2017 is simultaneously running in two European cities ‒ alongside documenta’s native Kassel, it is also held in Athens, the capital of Greece, a country currently experiencing some economically and politically turbulent times.

The Parthenon of Books. A project by the Argentine artist Marta Minujín at documenta 14 in Kassel

The Athens version of the show, featuring works by 160 artists exhibited at 40 different venues, including city squares, cinemas, universities and libraries, opened on 8 April and will run in this city through 16 July. As for the Kassel ‘museum of 100 days’, as documenta is sometimes referred to, it will now be on view through 17 September, presented at some 30 different venues that are mostly located in the city centre. What is the relationship between the two versions of the same project and what are the specific characteristics of the Kassel section of documenta 14? We had the opportunity to ask these questions to two of the curators from Adam Szymczyk’s team, both playing key roles in the Kassel exhibition ‒ the sophisticated and positive-minded Hendrik Folkerts (before documenta ‒ Curator of Performance, Film and Discursive Programs at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam) and the energetic and critical Dieter Roelstraete (trained as philosopher, before documenta – Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and prior to that ‒ curator at MuHKA, the Antwerp Museum of Contemporary Art).

We met with Hendrik Folkerts at the impressive building of Kassel Neue Hauptpost; built in 1975, it has lost some of its original significance due to the increasing digitalisation of postal operations. Two of its floors have now been handed over to the so-called Neue Neue Galerie (a sort of extension or ‘descendant’ of another regular documenta venue, the Neue Galerie) as exhibition space. The conversation with Dieter Roelstraete took place at the entrance to another building, also partially taken over by documenta ‒ the Ottoneum Museum of Natural History. And so…

Spatial shift and body politics. A conversation with Hendrik Folkerts

Hendrik Folkerts at the entrance to the Neue Neue Galerie space

I find it an interesting coincidence that we are standing in front of the hall of the Neue Neue Galerie currently housing a multi-channel video work by Artur Żmijewski that was filmed in Russia. Literally three days ago, his exhibition opened in Riga; I interviewed him, but he said he did not really want to comment on what he was going to show here at documenta 14 while the installation was still under construction…

Yes, we received his work a couple of days ago. On this floor of the Neue Neue Galerie, the display opens with the subject of the body (the live installation by Maria Hassabi and her team of dancers, choreographed through a movement that is so decelerated that it seems almost imperceptible to the spectator’s eye) and transitions into different works around mobility and immobility, architectures of emptiness and minute, barely noticeable displacements. In Zmijewski’s work, this notion of body distribution is continued in his film that shows war veterans reconfiguring their bodies (that is missing limbs) to perform such every-day actions as physical exercise or walking through the city.

Fragment of Realism, a multi-channel video installation by Artur Żmijewski (2017)

The body seems to have become one of the main subjects of this edition of documenta.

Yes, and that includes The Parliament of Bodies, a programme of public events and discussions, curated by Paul B. Preciado, and the various emphases on performance. Usually, a performance is considered an event that you have to sit down for and focus to take in everything that is going on in front of you. Here we have the actual exhibition itself moving between and situated in the two cities – Athens and Kassel. It is a displacement in time and space, running (in total) for over 160 days. Moreover, many of the artists represented at this edition of documenta are interested in the human body or have chosen performance as the medium for their art – like the Maria Hassabi, who is pushing the boundaries of performance art, bringing it together with the traditions of sculpture and installation. At the same time, in her work and in Żmijewski’s work, the represented body becomes an interface to the politics of the body – of how the queer body, the disabled body is regarded in society. After all, it is through the body that we are defined, identified by society as political beings.

Fragments from Staging, a performance by Maria Hassabi and her team, at the building of Kassel Hauptpost

In a sense, the body is a certain, more or less intelligible, universal language, a system of meanings and hierarchies.

Of course, certainly if you have a ‘different’ body or if you somehow classify yourself differently... It’s like in the 1970s feminism, where the body was perceived as a political object and subject at the same time. Yes, it can be a political battle field, but it can also be what the society insists on classifying you through. And it is easier for the society if that is something fixed, something static. But it could easily also be something variable, something fluctuating, something free.

This interest in the body and its social dynamics is, to an extent, something that pushes to reconsider the meaning of certain plays on words, like ‘political movement’, ‘art movement’ ‒ to give them back their physical meaning.

Yes, all of these things are already contained in language. And for me it feels very natural to approach the mounting of an exhibition from the point of view of performance art ‒ because that is my background. On the other hand, speaking of a painting or a sculpture ‒ there is also a certain performative element there, because there is an interaction between the artist and the viewer, and the involvement of the viewer changes the character and properties of the work. documenta 14 is certainly a massive exercise to review exhibition-making through this perspective.

Amar Kanwar. Letter 5 (Such a Morning). 2017. Six-channel video projection on sheets of handmade paper, silent.

You also mentioned the dynamics between Athens and Kassel. I am very interested in the relationship between the two exhibitions. Do they mirror each other or...

It is not so much mirroring rather one exhibition across two cities, featuring works by some 160 artists that present their work in both Athens and Kassel – except they show different works or different versions of the same work in each of the cities. It all depends on how they perceive the context of each of the two cities. It is like a film with two radically different endings that essentially changes the whole narrative ‒ which prompts you as a viewer to not only focus on the time and space that you currently occupy as you view the exhibition in one of the cities but also be aware of the fact that something is taking place simultaneously in another space, in another city ‒ that everything is dually structured here. And it involves a certain aspect of ‘loss’, because you cannot be simultaneously in two different cities at once. Both these coordinate axes ‒ the shift, relocation, displacement and the temporality ‒ are key to the mechanism of documenta 14.

Jannis Kounellis. Untitled. 1993. Part of the exhibition of Greek contemporary art from the collection of EMST museum of contemporary art in Athens presented at the Kassel Fridericianum

A viewer in front of Speaking of Pictures (2017), a video work by Prinz Gholam

You mentioned two endings of the same film. In your opinion, what is the ending or the message of the Kassel part of documenta like? Can it be put into words?

Speaking of the current documenta and also the previous editions ‒ it always proposes a certain methodology, a method for future work. In the case of documenta 14, it is the shift in space and time and the affinity with performative practices we discussed earlier. And it may sound a bit esoteric, but documenta proposes a methodology that continues, that does not stop with the end of the exhibition and that will for quite some time carry on influencing the things that I do or that someone who took part in it or just visited it does. In that sense, we can only guess as to what exactly will go out into the world and remain there from what we see here.

Moreover, this methodology, these models refer not only to the question of how to make art or how to mount exhibitions but also ‒ how we are all going to live together, which was a matter much discussed at the documenta press conference in Kassel. These are all fundamental questions; however, if you look at the contemporary world, it will be quite hard to find the answers there. And our exhibition is full of all sorts of proposals regarding this subject, and it features a great number of artists who are genuinely involved in searching for these answers...

‘Exhibition within an exhibition’ and looted art. A conversation with Dieter Roelstraete

Dieter Roelstraete speaking at the press conference on the opening of documenta 14 in Kassel

How would you, from your point of view, characterise the Athens and Kassel parts of documenta 14? For instance, how would you describe them as two individuals, two personalities?

As two personalities... Interesting. They could probably be twins ‒ identical ones. Let’s say, two boys or two girls. Although the context is different, of course. Athens is a city of four million in the middle of an absolutely horrific economic crisis. Kassel is a city with a population of 200 thousand, representing one of the most affluent European nations. The exhibitions in both cities involve the same artists; some of the works appear in both cities, but the context is very different.

In front of Night Sky (2014–2017) by Vija Celmins at the Neue Galerie

Here, in Kassel, for instance, there are quite a few works that offer their interpretation of various places and ideas linked with Greece and Athens ‒ not to mention the extensive show of Greek contemporary art at the Fridericianum. Does the exhibition in Athens feature similar kind of works, speaking about Kassel in a complex multilevel way?

Of course, there are just as many works like that in Athens. On the whole, the emphasis is more on the ‘live’ programme in Athens; there are more large-scale performances presented there. Areas like music are also very important for documenta 14 ‒ and there is more music in Athens. In Kassel, on the other hand, there is a stronger representation of history ‒ for instance, at the Neue Galerie space, for which I am personally mostly responsible as a curator.

Among other things, it has to do with the fact that this is the first time ever that documenta has come to Athens; it would not have made sense for its Athens incarnation to reflect on its own past. Now, Kassel is a different story altogether. Due to the fact that the project is executed with intermissions of five years, it is always necessary to revisit the previous editions to some extent ‒ to establish where exactly we were previously and where we are right now. And how do we relate to the roots and the original concept of the project that was born in the mid-1950s, during the era of European reconstruction, the Marshall Plan and the climax of the Cold War.
The previous edition of documenta was visited by almost 900 thousand people, and that is an enormous viewership ‒ perhaps the largest viewership of any art project ever; however, the largest part of the audience consisted of Germans themselves. In Germany, documenta is perceived as a Venice Biennale of their own, as an extremely significant national event. And it was important to explain why we are now partially letting it out of our hands, so to speak, and having part of it take place in Athens. And that is why part of the Neue Galerie show deals with the history of the long-time German ‘obsession’ with Greece. It is a sort of sketching in of the background to this decision.

Drawings by the Polish artist Andrzej Wróblewski from the series dedicated to the reaction of the Polish public to the news of Stalin’s death (1953) at the Neue Galerie

Did you curate the part of exhibition housed at Palais Bellevue, next door to the Neue Galerie?

All curators do, of course, share responsibility for what happens ‒ what is presented to the public. Nevertheless, in Kassel it was the two of us, Hendrik Folkerts and I, who were responsible for the general direction of the exhibition ‒ for the whole thing together making sense. So, yes, I was involved with the Palais Bellevue show, among other things.

From what I saw there, I liked the work by Eva Stefani ‒ and it was about the Acropolis of Athens ‒ I liked this blend of personal and universal history, this corporeality presented through retro-erotic and retro-politic footage.  What would your comment be on her work?

The particular wing of the building houses a sort of ‘exhibition within an exhibition’, and it is something that is fundamentally important for documenta: there are lots of ‘exhibitions within exhibitions’ here. We deliberately turned away from a dream of a panoramic vision; we do not believe in that: who can view everything at once? No-one. It is a kind of totalitarian dream. That is why we have these ‘islands of meaning’ scattered all over the place. And Eva Stefani is showing a series of works speaking of monuments and the critique of monuments mostly from the point of view of female artists. It is a wonderful work in which there is joy and there is a sort of libidinous charge. Because we live in dark times these days, and an exhibition mounted in 2017 should also have some darkness ‒ sadly. Otherwise, it would be almost like lying. At the same time, it cannot also be all darkness. We need some sort of light as well. And in my eyes, that is exactly what Eva Stefani is doing.

Eva Stefani. Acropolis. 2002–2004

But her works are also once again a special interest in the body and corporeality, which is what we discussed with your colleague Hendrik Folkerts...

Yes, I think this edition of documenta is steeped in awareness of the fact that we live in our bodies. Because it is something that is sometimes prone to being forgotten in the art world ‒ the fact that we are beings with physical bodies that need to eat, sleep or make love. And so forth. The documenta public programme entitled The Parliament of Bodies was mostly curated by Paul B. Preciado, a transgender activist who, of course, has his own ambivalent relationship with the ways in which bodies are viewed and formatted by the society. And it was his contribution as a curator that the works by

Lorenza Böttner – a transgender artist, born as Ernst Lorenz Böttner, who lost both arms as a result of childhood accident and taught herself to draw and paint with her mouth and feet ‒ are featured at the exhibition. These works are shown at the Neue Galerie next to the objects by Alina Szapocznikow, a sculptor for whom her own tumours became a source of artistic inspiration. The body, its fragility, its susceptibility to diseases and transformations ‒ these are all important moments here.

Fragment of the display dedicated to Lorenza Böttner

Another subject, significant for documenta, was highlighted for me by the early-1900s painting by the German artist Max Liebermann on view at the Neue Galerie...

Yes, the theme is looted art. The subject was brought up as a result of a decision made by Adam Szymczyk, Artistic Director of documenta, in 2013 when he was chosen for this post. After all, it did happen almost simultaneously with the discovery of a collection of looted art in the flat of an 80-year old man named Cornelius Gurlitt in Munich. Almost 1500 works by top artists, from Picasso to Dürer, previously thought to be lost, were found there, including some paintings by Max Liebermann. The elderly man turned out to be the son of a prominent art dealer of the Nazi era, Hildebrand Gurlitt, who sold countless works of art, mostly confiscated from their Jewish owners. What Adam wanted was to make it the key subject of documenta 14 and show the whole collection in Kassel. Sadly, it turned out to be impossible for political reasons; we were not allowed to work with this material due to the fact that it is deemed extremely politically sensitive. Nevertheless, we decided that we cannot disregard the questions raised by this discovery, and that is why the current show at the Neue Galerie features a series of projects focusing on the subjects of restitution, looted art and so forth. The shade of Gurlitt is very much present here.

However, the story of looted art is not just about the era of the Second World War. It is also the story of colonial conquests when so much art left the place of its birth. If you visit the British Museum, the museums of Paris and Brussels, and the Hermitage… Of course, the Rembrandts and the Rubenses ‒ they were all purchased by various princes and counts. But what about, say, African art? Were these things really all honestly bought from their makers? Quite possibly not. And that is why the question of who owns what and the role of museums in the whole confused landscape is so important for documenta 14.

Karl Leyhausen. Portrait of Peggy Sinclair. 1931

Understood. I also wanted to say a special thank you for the portrait of Peggy Sinclair, the first love of Samuel Beckett, at the Neue Galerie. The painting and the story of its creator Karl Leyhausen (a prominent figure of the 1920s Kassel Secession), who took his own life in 1931 ‒ not because of personal disappointment in life but sensing the inevitable onset of barbaric times ‒ moved me immensely.

Yes, the future Nobel Prize winner was a frequent guest in Kassel at the time. As a visitor from Latvia, you will probably be also interested in the documenta exhibition at the Brothers Grimm Museum (Grimmwelt Kassel), featuring, among other things, various archive documents and film footage about your compatriot Asja Lācis, assistant to Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin’s girlfriend. We were assisted in mounting the display by curator Andris Brinkmanis.

Yes, I have already seen the exhibition ‒ including the huge poster in Latvian regarding a debate in early November 1925 on the ‘workers’ theatre’ at the Riga Central Trade Unions’ Club headed by Asja Lācis at 67 Brīvības Street… Well then, thank you for your time and may we all enjoy a successful 100 days of documenta 14, now here in Kassel as well!