This Variation: Recollecting documenta’s position in Kassel’s poses

Today I left behind the sun of the South in Malaga, and traveled North, to the rain of Kassel. At the same time, I also felt like I was leaving behind that other city of the South, with which this German city has (so generously) shared this year’s documenta exhibition, and it would be part of the challenge being here in the North to somehow recollect the lessons that I had learned last month in Athens. (Here the Platonic theory of anamnesis may turn out to be relevant). On arriving, I checked into my room on the third floor of the Days Inn Hessenland, which was called the Grand City Hotel Hessenland five years ago when Enrique Vila-Matas stayed here (on the second floor), with his balcony overlooking the Bode-Saal where the dark moves of Tino Seghal’s This Variation were taking place. (I will tell you about the view from my balcony in a future post).

I put on my raincoat and headed to the Fridericianum, the focal point of so many documentas past, since its first manifestation in 1955. Speaking in the rotunda, where last time there was housed the so-called ‘brain’ of dOCUMENTA (13), as part of The Parliament of Bodies public events series, was the philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman. His topic was “Empancipating the Eyes of History” – a compelling summary of years of work analysing images, specifically the way an image, breaking free from the imposition of the pose, can provoke a position, that is an expression of resistance and the seed of an uprising against political and cultural oppression. In the Q&A, when asked if the themes of his talk were somehow responding to the fact that the creative director of documenta 14, Adam Szymczyk had made his position pretty clear and politically-focused in his text for The documenta Reader (“14: Iterability and Otherness – Learning and Working from Athens”), Didi-Huberman replied that he had only just arrived and knew nothing of the current documenta. Sure, he would spend some time looking around tomorrow, but even if you asked him about his impressions tomorrow night, he still may not be able to offer anything substantial.

I followed up this question by asking if this approach of speaking at documenta and then seeing some of the exhibition happened five years ago, when he spoke on Andre Malraux’s imaginary museum at the opening conference of dOCUMENTA (13). He replied by admitting that he had completely forgotten about his previous visit and that he put it down to the overwhelming scale of such a mega exhibition. I found his reply intriguing, not only because it put into perspective the idea that documenta is a memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience (as it was for Enrique Vila-Matas, at least according to his novel The Illogic of Kassel)but also because  this is not the first time that he has used this paricular example of forgetting as a way of making a crucial point about the past, memory and monuments. I recall reading somewhere that, during a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, he was made to feel uneasy by how the former camp barracks had been turned into some version of the Venice Biennale, with its national pavilions. The site had been forgotten to turn it into a place of commemoration, where visual artifacts such as photographs, clothes and even bones were positioned to give a staged authenticity to overwhelming loss and cultural trauma. I forget the exact context in his talk tonight in which he used the term anamnesis, but perhaps it was something equating the use of the term in this same piece of earlier writing. As he was walking through the ruins of Birkenau, Didi-Huberman recalled Walter Benjamin’s brief text of 1932: “Excavation and Memory”, specifically the following passage:

He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatter earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil.

Didi-Huberman gleaned two vital things from Benjamin’s analogy. First that the art of memory cannot be reducible to an inventory of excavated visible objects – and here he included images, which should not be, in spite of his work the ordering of images by Warburg and Malraux, pinned to a board and studied like a dead butterfly. Second, archaeology is, and I think this is a more or less direct quotation, “not only a technique to explore the past, it is also, and above all, an anamnesis to understand the present”. Here anamnesis, which in a diluted Platonic sense would mean the process whereby you recollect the true form of the past, not in and of itself, as a lost ideal, but as a means of understanding its relation to and pertinence for the present. In terms of the image, perhaps Didi-Huberman was inspired by Roland Barthes who saw in the photograph an anamnesis that does not signify but makes present. And what does the image make present? Well, the butterfly, alive and, most importantly, free.

In his talk tonight, Didi-Huberman discussed a different way to articulate this distinction between an archaeology as an inventory of the past and as an emancipatory process of anamnesis.He did this by elucidating his ideas about the ‘eye of history’, which, rather than merely a sensory phenomenon, was bound up with time, experience and memory, and, especially, how we take positions within them. His most telling example was from his early work on Charcot and his hysteria patients. Focusing our attention on one photograph of a patient, mid-fit, brought outside (to get better light!), Didi-Huberman showed how the movement of her foot, a blur at the front centre of the photograph, was her way of saying ‘No’ and resisting her use as a demarcating one of the inventory of poses made by the female sufferers of the so-called disease. This moving foot offers a trace of this patient’s position.

In terms of Didi-Huberman’s own forgetting of documenta, perhaps this was his position. The mega exhibition, while, sure he’ll come along and give a talk, is not the place where he will find those artworks, those moments, about which he will spend his time and attention, making his own emancipatory gestures in articulating his own position about images. Of course, the reason I am writing about this on Minus Plato, is by way of forming my own position, and in doing so in this post, in showing how it differs from that of Didi-Huberman. To be clear, I am not, even as a Classicist, leaning towards documenta 14, with its split between the Classicizing Kassel and the Classical Athens, as being somehow closer to my own position. For me, the pose and the position, are both present in documentas past and present. How can they not be? For all the themes and ideas at the heart of each exhibition, there are still standardizing and normalizing gestures that have to be rolled out for this to be a contemporary art exhibition in the first place. (e.g. exit through the giftshop). Then there are the poses of Kassel as the Documenta City, a new artistic director, a new vision, each year bigger and better etc.  My position, then, is found squarely in the variation between documenta 14 and its immediate predecessor dOCUMENTA (13). While I missed the latter, one reason I am here for former is to somehow make up for lost time. Ever since I first read about dOCUMENTA (13) I have been obsessed with it – the idea of collapse and recovery, the sheer scope and intellectual adventurousness of it, not to mention their expansive publication program, including The Book of Books. This obsession was then stoked further by reading Vila-Matas’ The Illogic of Kassel. It was no wonder that, in preparation for my visit on the flight from Malaga, instead of reading The documenta Reader, I was busy leafing through the recent issue of the journal On Curating which is devoted to documenta as an exhibition through the ages, focusing my attention on the assessments that discussed dOCUMENTA (13). I was especially drawn to two essays about the books and dOCUMENTA (13): Anna Sigrídur Arnar’s ‘Books at Documenta’ and Nanne Buurman’s ‘CCB with … Displaying Curatorial Relationality in dOCUMENTA (13)’s The Logbook’. While the former essay contextualized the role of books as art and as curatorial tool across previous documentas, ending with the pertinent case of dOCUMENTA (13); the latter essay focused on how in The Logbook the artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev basically created an autobiographical text, including her role in the publications, as a kind of Malraux amid his imaginary museum. I even enjoyed more critical analyses of the last documenta, such as Ayse Güleç’s essay ‘Learning from Kassel’ about how the 13th edition failed to follow through on the rich and involved art mediation and local advisory board initiatives of documenta 12 that brought local knowledge and participants into the planning and discussion of the exhibition.

Yet reading about (the books) of dOCUMENTA (13) has become transformed by the approach taken to ideas of memory, forgetting and displacement by documenta 14’s shift to Athens. It was documenta 14 and my experience in Athens as a Classicist that made me want to recover dOCUMENTA (13) (and its theme ‘Collapse-Recovery’) by revisiting its sites, digging into them and turning over the soil, to see if there are even the slightness traces of its ruins? In my three days in Kassel, this is precisely what I intend to do. While in Athens I divided my time between visiting documenta 14 and ancient sites, teasing out thematic continuities and tensions between them, here I will be tracking over the sites of dOCUMENTA (13), both those that have been re-sown by documenta 14 and also those that have been left fallow. My aim, however, is not to simplistically equate the traces of documentas past with the classical past of Athens. Szymczyk, later in his essay, makes but then resists the analogy between Athens’ ancient sites and the sites of past documentas in Kassel (“as documenta is historically bound to Kassel, has become a token of the city’s pride, and remains, like classical antiquity in Greece, a main selling point in the city’s marketing…documenta does not exist in the strong sense of the word.”). Instead, it is vital for my interest in documenta as a Classicist to examine the way ‘learning from Athens’ can manifest itself in a way that travels beyond the present exhibition. In short, what you will be getting from me over these next few days is a tentative answer to the question: what could the Kassel of dOCUMENTA (13) have learned from the Athens of documenta 14? And what about vice versa? Sure, it may be easier for documenta 14 to forge its position by forgetting dOCUMENTA (13), to avoid the same sites etc, but surely one of the significant legacies of documenta 14 must be an anamnesis or recollection of its past as a means of understanding the present? In short, if we are to discover the positions, in the sense that Didi-Huberman used of images, of the mega exhibitions dOCUMENTA (13) and documenta 14, we have to be able to separate them from their status as mere mega exhibitions (i.e. the poses of Kassel), to show how together they can make the emancipatory gesture that we need today. This gesture is what learning from Athens is all about and so we need to think about what it means for there to be no documenta without Athens.

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