A “Doing Nothing Garden” where grass grows freely over a pile of waste, an encased letter from artist Kai Althoff declaring why he will not be participating in the exhibition, and Ryan Gander’s invisible artwork, a breeze coming through an empty room. The favored term of the dOCUMENTA (13) is “non-concept.” Accompanied by jargon such as “non-existing existence” and an education program named “Maybe Education,” the term “non-concept” has been subject to both acclaim and criticism. At a Berlin press conference in 2010 the exhibition directors announced that “dOCUMENTA (13) does not follow a single, overall concept but engages in conducting, and choreographing manifold materials, methods, and knowledges.” When the artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is asked to define her concept, she replies that she does not have one. While this may seem radical to some, it has become clear over the duration of the exhibition that a non-concept is still a concept.
While many of the contemporary art world’s concerns are inextricably linked, a production such as the dOCUMENTA (13) is no true laissez-faire curating; there is a definite choreography to what Christov-Bakargiev has called a “frenetic dance.” The frenetic nature of the exhibition is a part of the general organization and framework. Many of the exhibited works were commissioned and in so share the recurring themes such as the focus on destruction and renewal, the incorporation of Afghanistan, or the various works dealing with the tri-fold history of nearby Breitenau.
Beyond the shared sensibility of the work itself, one of the cornerstones to the “non-concept,” is the element of confusion. Here is a subject I can speak to with personal experience as an employee of the Press Center. While not initially clear, it did not take long to realize that the confusion was intentional. The first few weeks surrounding the opening were chaos and the rest has been a type of accustomed confusion, leaving me to suspect the labyrinth to be calculated. When asked by people of the press for more information on the work of Tino Sehgal, I stood a bit helpless. Can’t find him in the guidebook? No, because unfortunately the artist removed himself from it. Performance artist Sehgal wishes for nothing but the personal memory of his work to remain.
In the beginning weeks after continuous complaints of poor signage and even misinformation, I couldn’t help but wonder if this too was part of a ploy to maintain a degree of disorientation. I felt as if somewhere Christov-Bakargiev was scoffing at the idea of visitors attempting to control the way in which they would encounter the art. It must be said that attitude played an important role here- the more open the visitor, the more enjoyable the experience. Artist assistants told me of similar happenings working on-site with the art. As hundreds of thousands of visitors have been pouring into Kassel, lines have been amassing making some performance and interactive works difficult to accommodate. When visitors of Pedro Reyes’ Sanatorium were not able to book appointments, the assistants took the liberty of passing on what they had heard from Christov-Bakargiev: she doesn’t want them to see everything. One can imagine the reception of this response from visitors attempting to see the documenta in a single weekend.
Emerging from and mingling with the concept of “non-concept,” is the appropriate theme of skepticism. Christov-Bakargiev encourages us all to be skeptical of her, the art, the experience at dOCUMENTA(13), as well as to be skeptical of what we think we know. The curator describes approaching one exhibit with particular skepticism. Located in the first floor of the Fridericianum is what she calls “The Brain.” This collection of works contemporary and modern make up, writes Christov-Bakargiev, a “puzzle,” a “riddle,” an “embodied non-concept.” The collection holds works by Sam Durant, Giuseppe Penone, Judith Hopf, and Giorgio Morandi. “The Brain” is a collection of highly diverse objects; collected by artists or collected in our memory, it informs our repertoire and in so the way in which we may view the rest of the exhibit.
While many of the “frenetic” tactics of the artistic director and dOCUMENTA (13) have indeed been approached with skepticism and criticism, it must be said that beautiful things can come from confusion. Without a (good) map, we may stumble upon the sound installation forest of Janet Cardiff and Georges B. Miller, take a detour across Christian Philipp Müller’s Swiss Chard Ferry, or with some flexibility, land an appointment at the Sanatorium of Pedro Reyes. Letting go and embracing the “non-concept”, we may find that getting put off-kilter is the best way to understand contemporary art.