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Artists Affiliated with Documenta Speak Out Against the Exhibition Becoming a “Commercial Enterprise”

Artists Hans Haacke, Sanja Ivekovic, Walid Raad, Annette Messager, and many other have been vocal about their objections to changes at the world’s foremost art quinquennial.

Hans Haacke, “Wir (alle) sind das Volk—We (all) are the people” (2003/2017), exhibited at National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14, (© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, photo by Mathias Völzke)

Over 200 artists and curators have signed an open letter calling for the restructure of Documenta’s supervisory structure, which, they claim, have reduced the German contemporary art exhibition to a “commercial enterprise.” Published on GoPetition, the letter outlines five measures to protect Documenta’s future artistic, curatorial, and political autonomy. They range from a specific proposal to reorganize the current board to a broad call to decolonize all art and educational institutions.

“The supervisory board … technocratically reduced documenta to a commercial enterprise,” the letter reads. “The current structure of documenta has shown itself to be unsuitable to the current political moment, lacking understanding of the larger significance of documenta, and the new concerns of contemporary art audiences around the world.”

Signatories include Hans Haacke, Sanja Ivekovic, Amar Kanwar, Walid Raad, Annette Messager, Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anastas, and many others involved in past editions of Documenta — as far back as the Documenta 5, which occurred in 1972. The letter is the third penned by Documenta participants in the last four months. Documenta 14 artists also defended the vision of the exhibition in letters from December 1 and September 15, which arrived on the heels of news that the 14th edition left its organizers facing a €5.44 million (previously reported by German newspaper HNA as €7 million) (~$8.3 million) deficit.

Responding to narratives in the media, the September letter sharply noted that “casting a false shadow of criticism and scandal over documenta 14 does a disservice to the work that the artistic director and his team have put into this exhibition.”

Read the most recent statement, in full, below: 

As participants in, and visitors to, various editions of the international art exhibition documenta X, 11, 12, (13) and 14, we have been deeply worried by the public conflict between the board of supervisors of documenta gGmbH, and those who built and participated in documenta 14. This ongoing conflict endangers the future autonomy of documenta as a radical exhibition, pushing it toward the same profit-above-everything motive that has corroded the political potential and emancipatory possibility of contemporary arts. We are compelled to write to propose an improved structure for documenta that does not prioritize revenue above all other priorities, and defends its’ future artistic and curatorial autonomy and progressive political mission.

 

Documenta 14 (Adam Szymczyk), building on the work of the previous four editions of documenta X (Catherine David), documenta 11 (Okwui Enwezor), documenta 12 (Roger Buergel / Ruth Noack), and dOCUMENTA (13) (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev), expanded non-western perspectives in contemporary culture, maintained distance from the commercial art market, and proposed new political geographies by having two equal size exhibitions in Athens and Kassel. However, recent public statements [see links at end] suggest that the history and mission of documenta is not fully appreciated, and therefore not adequately defended, by the current board of supervisors.

 

Documenta was founded in 1955 on the remains of the city of Kassel that was one of the first sites of Nazi violence in 1933 and 1938 — it was an exhibition whose mission, as imagined by founder Arnold Bode, was to encourage conversations in the contemporary arts that can oppose the spectres of nationalism, fascism and contemporary neo-nazism. The current board, comprising of elected officials (from SPD, CDU, GRÜNE, LINKE, and Independent) have remained silent while the far-right nationalist party AfD has called documenta 14 public artwork “entstellte Kunst,” evoking the Nazi term “degenerate art,” and sued the curatorial and management team, and the former Lord Mayor of Kassel who chaired the board for previous 14 years, in an act of intimidation.

 

The supervisory board ignored the voices of dissent from the representatives of Kulturstiftung des Bundes (Federal Foundation for Culture) in the board, and technocratically reduced documenta to a commercial enterprise. The current structure of documenta has shown itself to be unsuitable to the current political moment, lacking understanding of the larger significance of documenta, and the new concerns of contemporary art audiences around the world.

 

We therefore ask for the following:


  1. Reaffirm a commitment in the structure of documenta, and implement specific steps toward, an end to eurocentrism, re-orienting towards the global south, decolonizing all arts and educational institutions, and opposition to war industry, institutional racism, and resurgent fascism.
  2. A new supervisory structure should be designed for documenta, where elected public officials are joined by representatives of Contemporary Culture, Education, and International museum visitors.
  3. No pre-existing conditions should be set to prevent the inclusion of other geographic sites outside Germany. Experimentation with the form and format of the exhibition must remain one of the essential freedoms of documenta.
  4. Documenta should fully fund the development of the documenta archive, documenta institute, the public art program and organize these institutions based on the trajectory set by documenta X, 11, 12, (13) and 14 that contributed to profound changes that impacted understanding of art in our age.​
  5. The non-profit status of documenta gGmbH should be maintained.

[Related Links]

  1. September letter by documenta 14 artists: On the emancipatory possibility of decentered exhibitions

https://www.artforum.com/news/id=71159

  1. December letter by documenta 14 artists: Defending the Radical Vision of documenta 14

https://www.artforum.com/news/id=72702

  1. Statement by documenta 14 curatorial team

https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/statement-by-the-artistic-director-and-curatorial-team-of-documenta-14/7013

  1. Interview with Artistic Director

http://derstandard.at/2000065409032/Adam-Szymczyk-Es-ist-wie-ein-Gangsterfilm-wie-ein-Drehbuch

  1. Commentary on forced departure of CEO

http://kassel-zeitung.de/cms1/index.php?/archives/17369-Annette-Kulenkampff-verlaesst-die-documenta.html

  1. Documenta 14 as radical exhibition

http://www.kunstkritikk.com/kommentar/we-need-to-reclaim-the-narrative-of-documenta-14-as-a-radical-exhibition/

  1. View from the global south

https://www.contemporaryhum.com/seeing-d14-from-the-other-south

  1. Curators pledge to fight neo-fascism

http://www.artnews.com/2017/06/07/documenta-14-opens-in-kassel-with-fiery-combative-press-conference-as-curators-pledge-to-fight-neo-fascism/

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