‘Our Times Are Harsh’: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev Comes to the Defense of documenta 14

The follow-up to her game-changing exhibition has received mixed reviews.

Then German President Joachim Gauck speaks with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (R) during the opening of the dOCUMENTA (13) on June 9, 2012 in Kassel, central Germany. Photo: Boris Roessler/AFP/GettyImages.

Since it opened in Athens back in April, and in its traditional home in Kassel two months later, there have been many reactions to the 14th edition of documenta. Following the critical and financial success of its predecessor in 2012, everyone has an opinion on how the much-anticipated quinquennial has fared under the helm of Polish artistic director Adam Szymczyk and team.

This year’s edition of the preeminent exhibition, titled “Learning from Athens,” has faced some vitriolic criticism for its deliberately alienating air of organized confusion, with some alleging outright negligence and others finding its highly political messages obvious.

Of course, there was a lot to live up to after Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s game-changing dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012. (Yes, she even changed the exhibition’s corporate identity for that edition.) artnet News caught up with the famed curator, now director of Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art and GAM in Turin, to get her thoughts on the follow-up to her ambitious show.

This year’s documenta has received mixed reviews, especially compared to your groundbreaking exhibition in 2012. What did you make of it?

I enjoyed it. I’m not just saying this to be diplomatic, because a lot of people have asked me this question expecting me to say, “Oh, it’s not my cup of tea,” but actually, I like lots of different kinds of tea! The last thing that I would want is to go see a documenta that would look like something I would do.

What were the highlights of the 14th edition for you?

Adam built a very good team and, thanks to them, he did a lot of really interesting things. I found it very challenging and very radical, and, in that radicalism, I would like to cite Candice Hopkins, Dieter Roelstraete, Monika Szewczyk, and Hendrik Folkerts. Candice Hopkins is a First Nation contemporary art curator from Canada, and I have known her for years. I almost invited her to be one of the agents of dOCUMENTA (13), actually, but she was so young at the time I couldn’t do it, so I worked very closely with Chus Martinez and a bunch of other people.

I think that Candice lies behind bringing in so much contemporary work done by indigenous artists like the Samí artists and so on who aren’t really, according to contemporary art history, within the line of contemporary art work. I had already touched it a little bit in my documenta with the aboriginal artist Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, but it was just a touch, and Adam took it further, going very far in questioning whether the contemporary art field even needs to be there in the sense that there’s so much other cultural practice and creative work that doesn’t fit into our notion of what is art.

What did you think of the choice to have a second location in Athens?

The choice of Athens is interesting but, to me, less original because I had done the documenta in Kabul, Alexandria, and Banff, as well as Kassel. In Kabul there were 40,000 visitors and 25 artists from William Kentridge to Walid Raad, to Mario García Torres, and it was a great moment because it was like the first major art moment in postwar Afghanistan. So, I don’t find the notion that it’s not all happening in Kassel particularly challenging.

Although it’s worth noting that it didn’t really start with me either, because Okwui Enwezor had done documenta with platforms all over the world, and I believe Catherine David had proposed not doing the whole exhibition in Kassel, but the board declined. What I mean by this is that each successive director builds on what the others have done and so we’re all grateful to our predecessors. The fact that it is also in Athens isn’t the innovative aspect—the innovative aspect, curatorially, is how he works with his team, and who the artists are, and what works were brought in, and that was pretty radical because it was extremely harsh in an era which is extremely harsh. Our times are harsh.

If you had been in charge of documenta this year, how would you have done it differently?

I sometimes ask myself, “What would I have done, had I done the documenta in 2017 and not 2012?” The world has changed. Palmyra has blown up and the world is made up of these extremes; there’s even a president in the United States who does politics through Twitter! The world we live in is unbelievable, so I would have posed very different questions. One of the questions I posed [in 2012] was the kind of ecological crisis, the question of the Anthropocene and how to deal with that, but I think I would have probably done a documenta that was also a little bit harsh in a way.


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