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The Next Documenta Shouldn’t Be in Kassel

If all goes well, the thirteenth edition of documenta will take place from June 9, 2012, to September 16, 2012.1 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the newly appointed artistic director of documenta 13, might consider reading Oliver Marchart’s latest book, which deals extensively with the last three editions of documenta: Hegemonie im Kunstfeld. Die documenta-Ausstellungen dX, D11, d12 und die Politik der Biennalisierung.2 Marchart’s book can be read as a largely convincing critique of documenta 12 (2007), which was directed by the German art critic Roger M. Buergel and co-curated by his wife, the German art historian Ruth Noack.

In his book Marchart describes museums, biennials, and other large-scale art exhibitions such as the documenta as hegemony machines, functioning not unlike the World’s Fairs that have contributed significantly to the project of nation-building since the mid-nineteenth century. Following the reflections of Antonio Gramsci in Quaderni del carcere, Marchart defines hegemony as a precarious balance between dominant and subaltern forces that, through the networks of society’s institutions (museums, biennials, and large-scale exhibitions), establishes a momentary primacy of certain forces. These forces can always be overturned, depending on shifts in an ongoing “war of position.” The concept of hegemony can be explained as the way in which consensus is produced as a primordial means of securing the dominance of certain forces. Every institution, which may at some moment seem to consolidate dominant bourgeois culture, may at another point be useful for a counter-hegemonic project—one that could eventually establish another hegemony. Following Laclau and Mouffe’s radicalization of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Marchart points out that subjects and subject positions are only the effects of hegemonic discursive formations.3 The progressive and emancipatory potentiality of institutions as discourse producers provides the main reason why they should not be abandoned, as a great many leftists have done out of a belief that institutions as such necessarily consolidate petty bourgeois culture. Marchart strongly argues for such a potentiality, citing the hegemonic shifts in discourse that were successfully produced by Catherine David’s documenta X (which politicized the field of art) and even more so by Okwui Enwezor’s documenta 11 (which de-occidentalized the field of art). Whereas Marchart praises these two editions of documenta, he mercilessly criticizes the last edition for the quadruple shift it tried to operate.

Firstly, according to Marchart, documenta 12 depoliticized whatever political art it showed by taking an aestheticizing approach to art. Secondly, documenta 12 marginalized theoretical contextualization (which was an important characteristic of documenta X, and even more so of documenta 11) by outsourcing the reflection on so-called key questions to a select number of art magazines, whereas the two previous documentas had hosted an extensive discursive program of their own. Thirdly, still according to Marchart, documenta 12 abandoned the de-occidentalization of the documenta, introduced by documenta X and vigorously radicalized by documenta 11, instead withdrawing into Kassel and “re-Kasselizing” and provincializing the exhibition. Fourthly, Marchart claims that the whole mediation program of documenta 11 (to a large extent set up by Marchart himself) had been much more focused on emancipation than the mediation program of documenta 12 could be, given its reactionary character.

When, at the end of 2003, Roger Buergel was designated as the next artistic director of the documenta, he was known as both a critic, writing primarily for the deservedly renowned Austrian art magazine springerin, and as a co-curator (with Ruth Noack) of a series of intriguing exhibitions under the overarching title “Die Regierung” (The Government) (which showed at the Kunstraum of the University in Lüneburg, Secession in Vienna, Witte de With in Rotterdam, MACBA in Barcelona, and Miami Art Central).4 Given the outspoken political character of Buergel’s previous curatorial work, it remains puzzling how it could have arrived at the depoliticization with which Marchart rightly takes issue in Buergel’s documenta 12. One may recall that the exhibition series “Die Regierung” had a previous life as an exhibition organized by Buergel and Noack to coincide with the Expo 2000 in Hannover and bearing the very uncompromising title “Governmentality. Art in Conflict with the International Hyperbourgeoisie and the National Petty Bourgeoisie.” Re-reading in extenso the press release of this little-known exhibition, one wonders even more what may have happened to good old Buergel:

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