Last Year: 14
ArtReview is not in the habit of placing a curator at the top of the Power 100 for creating one influential exhibition. In 11 years of listmaking, we have taken the logical position that the influence of biennials, triennials, quinquennials and all the rest of them comes on like a very strong wave that recedes just as fast as the next one arrives. So what’s different about Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta 13? Aside from being critically lauded and unusually popular – there were an extra 110,000 visitors this year, in comparison to 2007 – how is it more than another big show? A really big show, in fact, that no one could ever hope to see, spanning, as it did, the cities of Kabul, Banff and Alexandria/Cairo after sprawling over Kassel more than ever before, and encompassing screenings, performances, talks, essays, books and disciplines that extend far beyond the field of art. Bearing all this in mind, then, just what was it that made this year’s Documenta so different, so appealing? And what makes its curator, well, so powerful?
Building on her past work, which includes an influential spell as chief curator at Castello di Rivoli and director of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, Christov-Bakargiev earns her place at the top of this list not particularly because of any ‘temperature taking’ roundup of current practice or list of the world’s most important artists, but rather for an approach that attempted something deeper and philosophically unusual – a premise that was both nowhere and everywhere, mainly because it encompassed a set of theories based on the interconnectedness of space, time, objects, animals, things, history and people, and considered artists, and everything else, as ‘agents’ within all this. There was a tight approximation of the exhibition’s thesis, if it could be called such a thing, in Documenta’s ‘brain’ – a set of elements, ranging from small ornaments thousands of years old to new works by artists – that, in the curator’s words, marked ‘contradictory conditions and committed positions of being in and with the world’. Outside of this, however, it would seem that the exhibition was allowed to emerge through the work of the artists, not through an overarching vision from the curator. In this way, Christov-Bakargiev manages to coax something into existence that was both interconnected and separate: a hybrid set of various, singular creatures with some shared strands of DNA. Within this she also managed to remain faithful to Documenta’s origins, built on the rubble of war, by persistently encouraging an engagement with conflicts past and present – most prominently the Second World War and the war in Afghanistan.
Impressive work, and there’s no doubt that Christov-Bakargiev has the ear of the artworld, where she has created a large, engaged conversation. Does this mean the exhibition was a ‘game-changer’? Documenta 13 certainly seemed to relieve the pressure on big exhibitions of this type to cover all the particular concerns of now from right across the globe, or to gesture at some generalised power of art. It was far more ambitious than this. Documenta 13 allowed artists to speak for themselves through their work, and to make their own sets of rules. And by pitting artists with and against quantum physicists, military historians, biologists, economists and activists, Christov-Bakargiev and her team treated art as strong enough to hold its own in furthering debates, building meaning and extending thought, addressing the world not from an ivory tower, but from being in the world. In this way it made art itself seem more important, more vital and more powerful.