How Documenta’s Curators Failed Its Artists

  • Photo by Alexander Forbes.

    Photo by Alexander Forbes.

There is no reliable, all-encompassing definition of the role of a curator, but the internet yields a few: “A keeper or custodian of a museum or other collection” (Google); “One who has the care and superintendence of something; especially one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit.” (Merriam Webster); “A person who selects and often interprets works of art. In addition to selecting works, the curator often is responsible for writing labels, catalog essays, and other content supporting the exhibition” (Wikipedia).

Clearly, the role is open to interpretation and innovation.

A celebrated, progressive curator like documenta 14’s artistic director Adam Szymczyk—who was formerly the chief curator of Kunsthalle Basel—can expect to be given some license in interpreting the role more broadly than most. He might, for example, conceive of his role as a custodian and interpreter of the ideas within a set of works but take agency in placing them together in a way that makes his own, distinct argument.

It is also well within the rights of a curator like Adam Szymczyk to take on custodianship of a major exhibition like documenta and turn it, as he did, into a political statement—making it more of a commentary on curatorial practice and the current, precarious state of our times than it is about art.

He could even take it a step further, I’d argue, and create a show with no artists’ work in it at all. This hypothetical show would probably not be very well received by those schlepping to Kassel (or wherever else he might have located it), but it wouldn’t be a dereliction of duty.

To the extent that a show does include the work of artists, however—and documenta 14 includes over 300 of them—a curator should never privilege their own message and aim, no matter how worthy, over a most basic requirement of curation: to be a respectful custodian for the art that they select for the show, and to the artists who created the work.

Adam Szymczyk—while certainly not the first curator to do so—let artists go unrecognized in pursuit of his larger mission.

During the press conference opening documenta 14 this past Wednesday, Szymczyk said that some of the artists and members of his team were still putting up the final wall labels. I thought it was a slight hyperbole, common at these kinds of events: putting emphasis on just how hard everyone had been working.

But two days into the show, for which there was some four years and over €30 million to prepare, this work was either still ongoing or had been given up on entirely. A large number of pieces throughout documenta 14’s 35 venues did not have wall texts. Those that did have the name of the artist and artwork provided minimal information about the work itself—this, in a show that excitingly included a majority of artists unknown to the art world. When there was context provided, it was often corrected for typos and mistakes by hand.

At the Gottschalk-Halle (which Szymczyk cited as one of the key venues in Kassel’s north to understanding his documenta), visitors would have been without any clue as to which of the works was by which of its artists (Bili Bidjocka; the trio Israel Galván, Niño de Elche, and Pedro G. Romero; ​Bouchra Khalili; and Angelo Plessas) had an attendant not taken the initiative to write out their names and those of their works on a piece of notebook paper.

When, impressed by Athanasios Argianas’s work in the Fridericianum, I turned to the location where a wall label should have hung, my gaze was met by two empty wall-text hangers. The attendant at this location—and at almost all the other locations where artists went unidentified—offered an apology but said that she had also not been provided with information about the work she had been charged to attend.

A very generous visitor might say that this curatorial gambit was meant to mirror the state of truth in our current political and cultural environment in which meaning can shift and disappear with little control possible on the part of the intuitions that once oversaw it. Or they might say that it was an effort to make documenta-goers in Kassel recognize their privilege by mirroring the conditions of a cash-strapped art institution the likes of which Adam Szymczyk, very admirably, helped support in Athens as part of the show.

But, even if those interpretations of the situation were true, it would still be disrespectful to the artists who worked tirelessly to create and install their pieces (in some cases also having to fundraise significant amounts of money in order to do so). Inclusion in a major show like documenta can mark a major leap forward in the critical, institutional, and market reception for these artists. But first, you have to be able to read their names on the wall.


—Alexander Forbes