00 featured image of Klaus Siebenhaar

Founded in 1955, documenta has been held 13 times in the last 62 years. On March 1, 2017, as the exhibition systematically researches the 60 years of developmental history, “The Myth of documenta — Arnold Bode and His Heirs” opened in CAFA Art Museum. The exhibition was co-hosted by the Central Academy of Fine Arts and Freie Universität Berlin, Yu Ding, Dean of Institute of Arts Administration and Education at CAFA and Klaus Siebenhaar, Director of Dept. of Philosophy and Humanities Institute for Arts and Media Management, Freie Universität Berlin serve as curators. It features about 300 works and documents about the documenta, including the artistic creation, conceptual manuscripts and furniture design by Arnold Bode, the founder of the documenta, as well as the original manuscripts, drafts and some of the precious originals by the previous art directors of the documenta and key artists, to feature a clear “context” of the documenta as well as the observation and intervention on life and society in different historical and cultural periods.

It can be called a documenta exhibition of documenta exhibitions, German curator Klaus Siebenhaar proposed that exhibition spaces were dedicated to create a field of research, through this exhibition it not only researched the art development process of the 20th century, but also prompted the changes of the documenta in the process of art development, part of the show was about the public response, so that, the art of education or public enlightenment was also one of the clues hidden in the exhibition so it was a show about the history of art, history of exhibition and history of artistic reception.

Interview Time: March 2nd, 2017
Interview Venue: CAFA Art Museum
Interviewer and Editor: Sue Wang
Transcription and Translation: Wang Jiaxi

CAFA ART INFO: Mr. Arnold Bode was the initiator and original director of documenta; he has organized four documenta exhibitions (from documenta 1 to documenta 4). What do you think of the role that artistic directors have played in documenta exhibitions as indicated in the title “Arnold Bode and His Heirs?” What’s your curatorial concept in such an exhibition about these documenta exhibitions?

Klaus Siebenhaar: In the history of documenta, every documenta was, in a special way, new. Therefore, there is continual innovation, changes, and whatever. But from the basic elements, every documenta’s the same, that means, every documenta, from 1 to 13, to 14, there’s the one and only chief curator or artistic director. Therefore, it’s onthe surface, one man’s or one woman’s show, nowhere else in the world, do you have such an independent, chief curator, yeah? It’s only his or her will that makes a selection of artists and concepts and whatever, and no one is allowed to interfere, no government, no one, no media, no one, absolutely free, yeah? Therefore, there’s a strong connection between the one and only artistic leader and independence and freedom. This is one aspect. Arnold Bode was once the one and only, he was everything. He had the idea, the vision, he realized and curated four times his documenta. But at the very beginning there was another truth, you have the one and only, but the one and only is nothing without the team. Therefore this is a dialectic of independent, free one and only curator and his or her team, and these teams, from the very beginning, from Bode to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, were very different people with different mind sets, experts, scientists, whatever you want, women, men, different tastes. But in the end, the chief curator, this is important for me, personally, must decide. For me, you need freedom to develop the arts, but producing art is not a question of a polymer or democratic process, artists cannot be a democrat or a politician, not ever, he must be full of his obsessions, it’s the same with the curators. Today, in such a big world, global world, you need teams. Therefore, it’s the dialectic of the one and only and the team, the one and only must be a team player, or he or she will fail. This is one aspect. The other question about the curatorial concept of this exhibition,  is really a challenge, to make an exhibition about 13, world-class, big, huge exhibitions, we really reflected on this over a long time, how can we do it, not borrowing ‘this is documenta 1, this is documenta 2’ like on a line. Today our mission was to give orientation, in the jungle of modernity, all the styles and different artists, in the jungle of global art world, to give orientation, this is the first time for this to. The second is to present the context, the political context, the social context, the aesthetic context, the cultural context, as a comparison not one by one, but the bigger picture. Therefore, to make classes, our  four chapters to be clustered in different documentas in the line, from 1 to 13, but we create different spaces, this is the second keyword. Our idea, after discussing together with Yu Ding and the Chinese team, come on, let’s focus on the spaces for the arts and the spaces the art products. Therefore, it was very important for us, to show, for example, the first big chapter, Bode’s spaces, very innovative, very creative in design, the directing of spaces, very Bauhaus styled, very functional. But, the end, Bode created a new type of museum space, all the people I know have originally seen the space and said the same, it’s like a church, you are looking at, you are admiring, you are overwhelmed, irritated, it’s a magic atmosphere. There are the Bode’s spaces, they are typical for the 50s, early 60s, and then came the western cultural revolution, of art fluxes, whatever you want, the explosion of art, from now on everything could be art.

That installation environment has not only paintings but sculptures. Therefore it’s totally different spaces from chapter 1 to 2, from the church to the playground,  two kinds of vibrancy,  you have  to look for your own orientation, there’s no one explaining it you, it causes irritation, shocking, full of art. And for most people in those days, it was not art, yeah? For ordinary people. The art is going outside their traditional spaces where they don’t want to be, or they are too big for museums, they are for open air or factories. This is our concept, it’s space based. We hope that the Chinese audience, because we had a special designer of graphics, that the Chinese audience will find a method for orientation. I always say you can hurry round an exhibition in 20 minutes or 50 minutes but you can have this 50 minutes feeling in different spaces, of the changes, the transformation process of art, to give Chinese audiences today, a sense of orientation as to where it’s come from. All my discussions here in China, I feel that especially the young people, lack historical knowledge, where it comes from, why we have a global art world today, and why less is really new. When you walk through chapter 2 , the transformation process of the revolutionary 60s and early 70s between pop and punk, there’s everything possible today, things happen we now call performances, media art, all media, landscape art, all you want. Therefore, today is nothing new, but it’s good to know that things were new in those days. You’ve seen lots of photographs during my guided tours, look at the people in the photographs, their fashion, look at their habits, how they look the art pieces, how they walk around, look at their dress code. In the 1950s they all went to documenta like every kind of museum, with a tie, nice clothes, it was ‘special’, like going to the theater, opera house, or concert hall. The 60s and 70s are like today, it’s a leisure activity, long, short, whatever you want, nothing special, it’s part of daily life. These are the main ideas of our concept. When you go through the exhibition, in the last chapter, the only little bit that is new is, that today all the big exhibitions, not only the documenta, are all done by curators who feel like scientists. They all have a discourse, global discourse, post-feminism, post-colonial everything big, and we need texts. Today some of the exhibitions are really text-driven, you see it in the catalogues or the end of brochures, scientists from every kind of discipline, writing to produce all the theories of the world, and the political theorist, social theorist. For me, a little bit critical, my personal opinion, art is vanishing behind all theses discourse, we are now a little bit at a crossroad. We have to ask what function must art have, is it part of the political discourse? Or do we need the re-autonomy of art? to define the differece between art and life, to have maybe a real freedom, Adorno said this, the only real freedom could be the autonomy of art. The rest is ideology it’s whatever. This is what old German minds said, from Schiller to Adorno, the only freedom you can have is in the art, then in the art you can realize yourself. This is what I hope Chinese audiences, or some of them, will reflect on, like us. Because this is the other experience, we need 60 years of development, you have to do it in 10 years or 15 years, this is for me the shocking experience in China. Therefore you need orientation, this is really my vision for the exhibition, look where it comes from, see the context, why we had the western influence, had our culture revolution.

CAFA ART INFO: How do you understand the keyword “German Spirit” as Professor Yu Ding mentioned at the press conference that documenta exhibitions have conveyed to visitors? (He understood it as rationalism and freedom) What do you see that is new and unique in this exhibition?

Klaus Siebenhaar: It’s nice to have this question, because I was very impressed by Yu Ding’s text, he’s the Chinese curator, I’ve never heard this before, about the connection between Martin Luther and Arnold Bode, and maybe Max, this is ‘Whoa! What’s that!’, and so interesting because it’s the Chinese mind set on Germany, it’s not only Yu Ding’s personal approach, but he reflected on the Chinese image of Germans. documenta is a world exhibition, today with artists from all over the world, global art, but maybe the documenta, from it’s foundation, it’s typical German. Because of the destruction of the war, Martin Luther, the reformer of the church, once said, if the world is going down tomorrow, you have to plant your apple tree today, this was the spirit of Arnold Bode too, he was a fighter, he was a great fighter, and he was part of the so called ‘lost generation’, two world wars, one dictatorship, when he was young it was World War I,  when he was a young man there was economic crisis of the 20s, and unstable democracy, when he begins his career it was the dictatorship of the Nazis and he couldn’t work, he was not allowed to work. Then it’s the second brutal war in history, he was 55, when he realized his third, in the documenta, he was an old man, you can see it in the exhibition, the short film of 68, the protestors coming, the young wild things, Bode is 68, he was born in the 1900s, this old man so full of ideas of humanity, aesthetics was confronted with a very brutal, young wild group, criticizing him, saying ‘Go away, old man, you’re from the past’, these are so many things from the German constellation, I totally agree with Yu Ding, it’s all about freedom. Germany has never hada long period of  freedom, it had an empire, Caesar, the first emperor, then 12 years of democracy, then Hitler, when Bode started, 10 years freedom, in ruins. Therefore, we Germans are always dreaming of freedom, when you look at our anthem, it is about freedom too, the text of the anthem is from the 19th century, the revolutionaries, fighting against the king but always failing, we never have a revolution, only the silent revolution from 1989, the reunification, but never a revolution, the Germans always failed, they failed in 1918, they failed in 1948, they had no revolution during the French revolution, besides our neighbors, no, nothing. Therefore, freedom and the dream of freedom is typically German, it wasn’t the mind set of Arnold Bode. The documenta general manager and director Mrs. Kulenkampff was very impressed with the text of Yu Ding, and she said to me ‘Oh I asserted to Adam Szymczyk, this will be very interesting for him.’ Adam Szymczyk is the chief curator of the next documenta. Therefore this is a really special text, I’m very proud of this, because it’s a documenta about our relationship too, we started 8 and a half years ago, our collaboration, it was a growing partnership and friendship, this documenta exhibition is an exhibition that resulted from this. Therefore I was very lucky, and very impressed with this text by Yu Ding.

CAFA ART INFO: Would you like to talk about the cooperation between documenta in Kassel and the Central Academy of Fine Arts (abbr. CAFA)? What’s the most interesting part? And what’s the most difficult part in the process of implementation? The Mayor of Kassel has mentioned that 90% of the exhibits had left Germany for the first time and were being showcased in China. What do you think has contributed to the Myth of documenta in the past 6 decades?

Klaus Siebenhaar: We started in 2012, after documenta 13, with all the Chinese public art exhibitions, it was the first official contact between the CAFA team, my university team and the city of Kassel, those days the old documenta director and general manager were against us, he always panicked, ‘Oh they will hurt our brand, nothing should be before or after the documenta, no one is allowed to do it, it wasn’t so comfortable. The first step was the partnership between the mayor and the city of Kassel. And another important aspect, the people of Kassel love the Chinese art pieces, still today some of them say ‘Oh that’s more attractive than the crazy documenta!’, a lot of  normal people said that. So it was a huge success for over 6 months. After the last director retired, the new female Mrs. Kulenkampff took the position, she’s more open-minded, she sees the options, the possibilities for cooperation, the most important Asian academy of fine arts, this is CAFA, CAFA is a brand, President Fan Di’an was one of the three curators, Yu Ding and me, yesterday and this morning when Fan Di’an came to say goodbye to the mayor, they couldn’t be normal friends, but there’s a very emotional approach, more than respect, from both sides. I’ve learned in China that a personal relationship is the basis of everything, if you have common experiences, common success, if you trust each other, then everything’s possible, without this, nothing. This is the story behind it. I’m very optimistic a real working cooperation will be established between the CAFA and documenta organization and Archive in the next few years, the next step is to present a concept, the Kassel guests will be very impressed with the multi-media and mutual lab, it could be the core of the documenta research center. We must repeat it, this is the first museum based exhibition about documenta and the history of documenta, the first time this has happened. Before all we have is a travelling show, a very small one, the museum show about the history was never before presented. And in the museum of Arata Isozaki, he was a documenta artist in 1987, the documenta is, in a special way, coming home to the documenta artist’s house, this museum. Therefore, it’s a wonderful story, we have to talk about this story very often. It’s a unique story, and a strong base for this fruitful, productive relationship. The other aspect is the memory of documenta, the Archive has never been presented, not in Kassel, nowhere. They lend a lot of material for many exhibitions and about artists and whatever, 90% of the objects were from the Archive, therefore it is a presentation of the memory of documenta, of the Archive for the first time. So many stories. This is again a great Chinese and German cooperation, we had all our roles andour parts to play in this big game.

CAFA ART INFO: The fourth part of this exhibition is themed as Global Discourse, which has become an important topic among discussions on the arena of international exhibitions; would you like to talk about the unique context and development of documenta as a gradually enriched global discourse? As we know documenta 14 will be held in Athens and Kassel, would you like to talk about your understanding of this key transformation of documenta in the 21st century?

Klaus Siebenhaar: The myth of documenta is based on its founding process, the documenta was a result of the catastrophe in 20th century, therefore every documenta, directly or indirectly, has a connection with world history, to the situation, political, social situation in the world. This is not the Venice biannual, because documenta is based on ruins, it’s like the DNA of the documenta, the war, and the dictatorship, and the opposite of this, freedom, rebuilding, reconstruction. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the chief curator of the last documenta, had a wonderful sense of this, her documenta was based on ‘destruction and reconstruction’, therefore, you see, every documenta’s chief curator is connected to this, it’s part of the rules. The other part of the rules is the projection on documenta, over says, it’s like the Olympic games, you have no other cultural event with such an expectation, everyone is waiting, after 5 years, we see the next documenta, this is the state of the art. We are living in a time when you have no authorities anymore, or only a few authorities, everyone saying I have the internet, I could see everything, don’t need critics or journalists any more, because my opinion is the same as the professional opinion. But documenta is one of the few authorities in the cultural world, looking for the state of the art you have to go to documenta. This is part of the rules. And the other aspect, it is rare to have a single man or woman decide everything, it’s a strange dialect of radical subjectivism and objective expectation on what it says to the art. We have so many paradoxes, like China. You have the one and only city, Kassel is part of the rules, a small city, in the middle of Germany, never connected to modern or contemporary art, you have to find us Dutch paintings outside the Netherlands. In Kassel it’s rich with art pieces, but only traditional art. For Arnold Bode, Kassel was his hometown, he had a feeling, maybe such a big vision is not possible in New York or Berlin, or the Venice Biennale, there’s the biannual or not, anyway, Venice is Venice. But Kassel is the documenta city, and I know this from my youth, when the documenta is coming for 100days, there’s a total transformation of the whole city, it’s a totally different atmosphere, people’s behavior changes, including the Kassel people who will never go to documenta, but they are a part of the whole show, and most of them walk through the park seeing some of the public installations, they are mixed with visitors, the city became very very international for 100 days, a mix of local and global, hyper local and global. At documenta we will find essays ‘why Kassel’, therefore the people of Kassel were not amused when they hear it’s starting the first time in Athens, they say ‘this is our documenta, the documenta is Kassel, you can’t start in Athens, why Athens’, and in Greece with the finanical and political situation, what could we learn from Athens? when claiming there is learning from Athens, people were laughing, they said this to the mayor, the mayor was under pressure, they say ‘come on, forbid this, you can’t allow it to happen’, the mayor said ‘I’m not allowing, the chief curator can say anything, because he’s independent’, this is part of the rules, the regulations. You see this is a special relationship with the city, with the biannual, people of Venice say ‘Okay’, it’s important for the rest of world but not for the city, you have this tour to Venice without the biennale, if you ever go to Venice biennale, you see hundreds, thousands of tours, only a few people in the biannual, much less than Kassel, Kassel is the city of documenta, people living with the documenta, it’s a unique consolation, no other cultural event is so connected with one city. Next documenta we are heading to Athens, you know, every documenta  is a secret, Adam Szymczyk is like a nutshell, he’s closed, we hear some rumors, gossip, lots of people saying this will be the first documenta with only a few European artists, the shrinking of Europe, the rising of African, Asian artists, I think this documenta will be very political, it will be a documenta about freedom and dictatorship, about the bad global impact on poor country’s economy, the confrontation of south and north, the rich North, that means Europe, and the poor south, means Africa, Greece, I heard exclusively from the documenta’s chief manager there will not be any more learning from Athens, the new style is an act from Athens, this is different, that means, my speculation thinks it will be a totally different, anti-Euro–centralism perspective on the world and including the art work, action from Athens means a southern perspective about looking at the world and art, there will be responsibilities for the rich north, it will be about debts, about Greece’s situation, the role of Greece inside Europe, as an example for the south. It’s all my speculation, but I can add all the information, I think it will be like this. This is really an experiment, different art pieces but the same artists, in Kassel and Athens. But the reality is the exhibition is Kassel, because 85% of the budget is for Kassel, only 15% for Athens. You will see, Athens is a city of a million people, 10 or 12 times bigger than Kassel, it’s totally different to have an exhibition in a city with a million people and a small city, maybe the Athen’s documenta will be more about travelling, and people inside the art world of Greece, it could be stimulation, as a stage open to the world, or a forum for protesting, we will see. But it will be very special, and it’s different from the past, even if you have so called ‘platforms’ in other cities before, Kabul, Vietnam, 5 platforms, the 5th is documenta exhibition in Kassel. CCB’s 13th documenta starting in Kabul, you had so called ‘outlets’, but to double the documenta in two cities, this is new, let’s wait and see.

CAFA ART INFO: Last but not least, there’s going to be Research Center on documenta established at CAFA. Would you talk to us about this concept? What kind of research would it provide and how would Chinese art researchers benefit from this institute? 

Klaus Siebenhaar: About the research center, this is really another experiment, we discussed it yesterday, we will do it, there will be an official cooperation, both sides said ‘let’s think very reflectively, very clear, let’s have a discussion’, what will be the options, what will be the so called win-win situation, what will be important for CAFA, CAFA representing China, and maybe Asia, what will be important for the Archive, and the new documenta institute which will be built next year, next year we have 100 years of CAFA, it’s a fruitful moment, absolutely the right moment, this exhibition as the stimulator, it’s the first platform, the lab inside CAFA, the documenta’s multimedia lab could be the second platform, therefore it will be very interesting in the next two years, maybe we can have it next year, we will start it, absolutely, we will do it, it’s clear from both sides. Sometimes you need a little bit time. By the end of this year I will be a CAFA professor, after I retire from Berlin, I will establish a CAFA-Berlin, the first branch of the Chinese university abroad, and the CAFA-Berlin will be the bridge to documenta, building a real working platform, not only for documenta, big media. Fan Di’an, Yu Ding and Iare very very project-driven, but very academic too, we want to establish a real work floor, not a fake, haha, there are so many fakes across the world of today, we want to really establish a sustainable institution, this is important for both sides.

Related posts: