Gregory Burke

Dec 09 2022

The Curating of Crisis and the Crisis of Curating

On documenta fifteen and the twelfth Berlin Biennale


Photo Credit

Black cloth obscuring Taring Padi, ‘People’s Justice’, 2003. Installation view, documenta fifteen, Kasel 2022 Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Gregory Burke
Dec 09 2022

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RECENTLY, a subject header in my inbox rhetorically asked whether Art Basel could make Paris the world’s art capital again. Not so long ago, suggesting that a five-day art fair could have such a transformative impact would have been preposterous. Instead, the proposal affirmed the current power and centrality of the market to the contemporary artworld. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague museum director in 2017. We discussed the inflation of the art market, particularly at the top end, and how it had defied gravity in the years following the financial crisis. We spoke of how the art market was increasingly focussed on resale profits rather than content and that consequently it was separating from the public or institutional artworld to which we belonged, where discourse and civic responsiveness were foregrounded. In short, the market was no longer being led by art-historical or critical assessment and was, as a result, far less reflective of the curatorial focus of public institutions. Of course, public and commercial agendas are not so neatly partitioned. Yet five years on, the sense of rupture has both grown and complexified. On the one hand, price records continue to be set in an increasingly globalised art market, despite Covid-19 and growing fears of recession. On the other, the institutional artworld is more and more querying its own raison d'être. Recent events such as documenta fifteen and the 12th Berlin Biennale suggest that public facing platforms, such as art museums and large-scale exhibitions, are at a critical juncture. Not only are they questioning market driven agendas, but they are also increasingly confronting dilemmas as to their own purpose, the methodologies they deploy, and who they should represent.

As it turned out, specific events in 2017 predicted, and in certain cases propelled, such developments. Key among them was documenta 14, the 2017 edition of the mammoth review of contemporary art presented every five years in Kassel, Germany. The organizers sought to advocate inclusivity and symbolically delink documenta from the orthodoxies of its past by staging the event not only in Kassel, but also in Athens—a city suffering combined economic and social crises resulting from neoliberal austerity regimes. Athens became an actual and metaphorical backdrop to a project that aimed to rethink and transform art’s social and political agency by drawing on a spirit of decolonial and anti-capitalist resistance. While its approach courted controversy and attracted some criticism, documenta 14 ultimately applied pressure to the public-facing, institutional artworld and signaled a shift that has gained significant momentum in subsequent years. Examples of this shift include the protests that led to Warren Kanders stepping off the Board of the Whitney and the Sackler name being removed from such iconic institutions such as the Met and Tate. Others include the ever-strident calls for inclusion, diversity, and equity across the sector, with their implied critique of the ideological underpinnings of artworld institutions. Then there are the moves to foreground indigenous values, exampled by the landmark indigenous focus of the first Toronto Biennial 2019, led by First Nations and documenta 14 curator Candice Hopkins, and the 22nd Biennale of Sydney 2020, curated by Indigenous artist Brook Andrew. 


Photo Credit

Nathan Pohio, ‘Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun!’, 2015, ceramic ink on PVC, steel, LED, and concrete, image courtesy of Bishop Collection, Canterbury Museum, New Zealand, commissioned by SCAPE Public Art, Christchurch, and coproduced by Creative New Zealand (Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa). Installation view, documenta fourteen, Weinberg-Terrassen, Kassel 2017. Image by Liz Eve, courtesy of the artist.

Recent events such as documenta fifteen and the 12th Berlin Biennale suggest that public facing platforms, such as art museums and large-scale exhibitions, are at a critical juncture.

OF COURSE, exhibitions focusing on indigenous artists and artists from the “global south” have many precedents but, until 2017, few had been organized in the art centres of Europe. With documenta often described as ‘the world’s most prestigious exhibition’, its 14th edition sent ripples around the artworld [1]. Of relevance are the three editions of the Berlin Biennale held since 2017, all of which highlighted the global south. The 2018 edition, We Don’t Need Another Hero, was organized by a team of black curators from Africa and the African diaspora, while the 2020 edition, The Crack Begins Within, was organized by a team of South American curators, the majority of whom were women. Few of the artists they presented were North American or European, with the majority women and many identifying as queer. Ideas of crisis and the legacies of trauma that permeated those editions continue in the 2022 edition, Still Present!, which also includes artists predominantly from colonised nations and their European diasporas, many from North African and Arabic communities. Curated by French Algerian artist Kader Attia, supported by an all-women curatorial team, the exhibition charted interconnections between colonialism, fascism and imperialism, and what the introduction referred to as a resulting ‘state of planetary emergency’ [2]. In proposing a decolonised future, Attia positioned the agency of ‘repair’ as a corrective for the wounds that ‘continue to haunt our societies.’ [3]


Photo Credit

Susan Schuppli in collaboration with Forensic Architecture / Omar Ferwati, Nicholas Masterton, ‘Freezing Deaths & Abandonment Across Canada’ (video still), from the series ‘Cold Cases’, 2021-22, video, colour, sound, 31’55”. Image courtesy of the artist.

Staged across six venues in Berlin, including the former Stasi Headquarters, the exhibition featured works that implicate the logic of capitalism in contemporary global crises, including those of environmental toxicity, racism, body shaming, politically motivated rape and torture, war and oppression, migrant abuse, refugee dehumanization, and the regimes of both disinformation and surveillance. There was an overarching earnestness to the exhibition, with some, such as Emily Watlington in Art in America, lamenting what they perceived as political didacticism [4]. Often the exhibition was unrelenting in a way that risked viewers becoming inured to the horror of the subjects being addressed. In these moments, Attia’s notion of repair was difficult to discern. Some works utilised investigative models that tended to abstract the transgressions they referenced, as in the video installation, ‘Cloud Studies’, 2021, where Forensic Architecture asserted that ‘clouds are both meteorological and political events’ [5]. Their powerful visual presentation detailed instances where the human right to breathe is violated in order to terrorize and effect both control and capital gain. These included tear gas use in Hong Kong, the Israeli State’s use of white phosphorous in Gaza, and the oil industry’s release of toxins that result in high cancer rates for African Americans in Louisiana. Canadian artist Susan Schuppli was more direct in her two videos from the series ‘Cold Cases’, 2021-22. One addressed the discovery of the frozen body of a young First Nations man after he had been picked up by police in downtown Saskatoon, Canada, and dropped in a remote area in sub-zero temperatures; the other showed the related use of temperature weaponization against migrants attempting to enter the US via the Mexican border, who are deliberately held in ice-cold cells. As gruelling as it is to stay and watch works like these, they reveal facts that disavow human dignity and demand humanity’s urgent address.

The exhibition presented many other works that, while also speaking to histories of trauma, contain uplifting aspects. In this sense, they could be seen to engage Attia’s notion of repair. Zuzanna Hertzberg, for instance, who in her installation ‘Mechitza. Individual and Organized Resistance of Women during The Holocaust’, 2019–22, honours, and importantly remembers, Jewish women resistance fighters. Also uplifting was the prominence (both in the exhibition and in public spaces) given to the previously under-recognised Nil Yalter, the 84-year-old Paris-based Turkish artist with her work, ‘Exile is a Hard Job’, 1983/2022. Through posters, statements, and video conversations Yalter chronicles the injustices, deprivations, and silencing of exile communities in Paris and, in so doing, goes some way toward recuperating their dignity through their stories of survival. Several artists deployed their own practice as a palliative, as with Mayuri Chari’s work, ‘I was not created for pleasure’, 2017–22, which featured a grid of vaginas fashioned from cow dung as an act of dissent against India’s patriarchal repression and an ironic rebuke to the banishment of menstruating women from their homes.


Photo Credit

Zuzanna Hertzberg, ‘Mechitza. Individual and Collective Resistance of Women During the Shoah’, installation view / spoken-word performance, 12th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Image courtesy of Z. Hertzberg, Przyjaciele MSN

THE IDEA OF utilising the creative act to both give reprieve to and offer an absurd commentary on the legacies of war was tenderly evoked in ‘1941’, 2021, a short, award-winning film by Asim Abdulaziz. The film presents a series of captivating and poignant vignettes of Yemeni men knitting with red wool in a derelict former Hindu temple. Referencing the contribution American women made for troops in the Second World War, Abdulaziz positions knitting as a distraction from, and psychological antidote to, the trauma resulting from the ongoing war in Yemen. In the video, ‘Les Indes Galantes’, 2017, Clément Cogitore presents an exultant choreography of diasporic African dancers, who utilize a dance form linked to the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King. Their performance emphatically transforms the cultural reading of the dance sequence involving stereotypical tribal performers that Cogitore’s title references, ‘Les Sauvages’ from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 opera. If this work speaks to pernicious histories of misrepresentation, appropriation, and racial violence, it is also emancipatory in its reclamation of the body and its identity. In conjuring feelings of possibility, works like these ultimately empowered the exhibition to offer a poetic, but nonetheless compelling response to crisis.

The curatorial collective that delivered the Biennale represented many cultural backgrounds, and the breadth of research they drew on resulted in an exhibition that was richly imbued and expansive. However, this curatorial diversity did not inoculate the exhibition from controversy. Consternation erupted over the inclusion of ‘Poison Soluble’, 2013, by the veteran French artist and activist, Jean-Jacques Lebel. The work involved a maze of life-size photos of Iraqi detainees sexually abused, tortured, and humiliated by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison. The work lacked curatorial mediation, or the provision of context and, once inside the maze, it was not immediately apparent how to exit, increasing the feeling of revulsion experienced by many. Not least among them were the Biennale’s Iraqi artists and their spokesperson Rijin Sahakian, who penned a letter ‘Beyond Repair: Regarding Torture at the Berlin Biennale’, wherein she denounced the ‘insensitivity to, and devaluation of, lived Iraqi experience’ [6]. Attia and the Biennale team countered by arguing the importance of not forgetting the ‘imperialist crime’ [7]. In response, the Iraqi artists withdrew their work with Sahakian critiquing ‘the asymmetric power this biennial is intent on producing in its discourse and in its curatorial negligence’ [8]. ‘Poison Soluble’ has been shown several times since 2013 without incident, including in a collaborative presentation with Attia at the Palais de Tokyo in 2018. The protest it engendered at the Biennale aligns with a paradigm shift in the art community toward a critique of institutional power and a questioning of curatorial responsibility, particularly with works curatorially positioned to represent the suffering of repressed communities. [9]


Photo Credit

Asim Abdulaziz, ‘1941’ (video still), 2021, video, colour, sound, 5’00”. Installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

In conjuring feelings of possibility, works like these ultimately empowered the exhibition to offer a poetic, but nonetheless compelling response to crisis.

QUESTIONS OF curatorial responsibility, and who has the power to represent, and for whom, were pivotal in the volatile response to documenta fifteen. The critical reaction to this edition was the most polarized for a major art event in recent times, ranging from accusations of antisemitism to disdain for an artist collective from the global south being given the reins, through to enthusiastic support. From the moment the Indonesian artist collective, Ruangrupa, were appointed as artistic directors there were, in the words of Jewish academic Meron Mendel, ‘those who wanted to discredit this documenta’ [10]. He was speaking in relation to the response of documenta management to accusations of antisemitism against the organisation that began well before the opening of the exhibition and continued until its closing. Mendel was likely referring to groups such as the anti-Muslim, Kassel-based group, Alliance Against Antisemitism, who accused Ruangrupa of being antisemitic for signing a group letter calling for an end to Israeli-State violence against Palestinians. The accusation seemed facile, ignoring the complexities of the issues at stake. After all, documenta under Ruangrupa was never going to be an echo chamber for fascist, antisemitic ideology. Yet the accusation played into the hands of those who considered Ruangrupa an inappropriate choice to direct documenta.

Antisemitic accusations may not have gained traction if it were not for a 2021 report in Die Ziet that Werner Haftmann, a co-founder of documenta, was a member of the SA, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing [11]. This was coupled with the revelation in June of antisemitic imagery contained in the indelicate, agit-prop work, ‘People’s Justice’, by Indonesian collective, Taring Padi. It didn’t help that a series of panels, ‘We need to Talk’, organized by documenta in response to the growing accusations, were cancelled. Meron Mendel and Hito Steyerl were among the slated speakers. Ultimately, Mendel resigned as an adviser to documenta, citing managerial incompetence. Steyerl withdrew from the exhibition also, citing a lack of ‘faith in the organization’s ability to mediate and translate complexity’ [12]. Their actions seemed targeted at documenta management, a perception reinforced by the subsequent abrupt resignation of Sabine Schormann the director general of documenta, rather than at Ruangrupa, who appeared disempowered in the unfolding of events.

The fact that the Taring Padi banner containing antisemitic content was exhibited unwittingly by Ruangrupa can be partly attributed to the fact that this documenta was, in effect, not so much an exhibition of artists but of artist collectives. These collectives interacted based on the Indonesian concept ‘lumbung’—which translates as ‘rice barn’—a cooperative model of resource use. They shared the exhibition budget and were delegated much responsibility, including inviting artists and selecting works without, it seems, sufficient checks and balances. As it turned out, this lack of curatorial oversight was a significant failure on the part of both Ruangrupa and the documenta management. Amidst the cacophony of voices that were outraged or felt betrayed by the banner’s inclusion, were those that targeted the lack of curatorial responsibility. In Arts of the Working Class, Mohammad Salemy attacked ‘the show’s disastrous model of curating’ [13, while Jörg Heiser in Art Agenda was among those who identified, not the imagery itself, but its lack of contextualization as the main problem [14]. Heiser referenced not just Taring Padi, but also the ‘Tokyo Reels’ film series by the group, Subversive Film, that included footage entrusted to the group by Masao Adachi, a former member of the Japanese Red Army responsible for a 1972 massacre in Israel at Lod Airport.

I was fascinated by the few films I managed to see, particularly with the Japanese connection described as solidarity relations between Tokyo and Palestine. I gleaned a shared antipathy to the State of Israel, but in the absence of a curatorial text I left acutely wanting to better understand the historical and political context. An advisory committee established many weeks before by documenta to review potentially antisemitic works, bizarrely called for a halt to the screenings during the exhibition’s last days, citing the programme’s ‘hatred of Israel and … glorification of terrorism’ [15]. The committee said it would consider a resumption of screenings if they were contextualised ‘in a way that made clear their propaganda character, clearly identified their anti-Semitic elements and corrected historical misrepresentations' [16]. Ruangrupa denied the allegations, rejected what they described as censorship and decried the ‘eurocentric superiority’ of the report [17]. Many rallied to support their position, including the Finding Committee that selected Ruangrupa, who asserted that ‘the pressures that media and politicians have placed on the entire documenta team have become unbearable’ [18]. While the committee’s call for the screenings to be supported by a greater level of context was not unreasonable, the timing of the report fuelled the sense that Ruangrupa were being unfairly, if not racially, targeted. In the end the screenings continued, albeit without further context provided by documenta.

Amidst the cacophony of voices that were outraged or felt betrayed by the banner’s inclusion, were those that targeted the lack of curatorial responsibility.

FOR THE MOST part, the presentations of the collectives were based on representing their memberships rather than evaluative criteria. Joanna Warsza, the Director of CuratorLab in Sweden, went so far as to suggest that ‘Documenta 15’s thousand collective voices challenged curation and exhibition-making as we know it; the show even advocated for curators “to go home” [19]. To be fair to both Ruangrupa and Warsza, she goes on to correctly attribute the statement ‘Curators Go Home (Parliament)’ to Cuban artist Sandra Ceballos. It was the heading to Ceballos’s text in the space given to INSTAR, a Cuban collective who, according to Ruangrupa, ‘work at the fault lines between artistic practice and activism’ [20]. The text spoke of or to curators, ‘you contaminate spaces with your erudite verdicts.’ Such curatorial mistrust notwithstanding, some of the standout moments for me in Kassel resulted from the work of curators. This included a film series presented under the banner of SAdA [REGROUP], an initiative established by Rijin Sahakian, the spokesperson for the Iraqi artists in the Berlin Biennale. The series involved seven Baghdad-based artists including Sahakian herself and the three artists who withdrew from the Berlin Biennale.


Photo Credit

Sajjad Abbas, ‘I Can See You’ (video still), 2013, video, colour, sound, 5’03”. Image courtesy of the artist

One video, ‘I Can See You’, 2013, by Sajjad Abbas, documented the hanging, on top of a tall building facing the US Embassy in Baghdad, of a massive banner depicting Abbas’s left eye. Before its removal, a version of the banner was tactlessly hung outside the Lebel maze at the Berlin Biennale. The superbly rich and rewarding film series was matchless in giving context to the complex reality these artists face. Another highlight for me were five absorbing tapestries by the Polish-Romani artist, educator, and activist, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, who also represented Poland at the 2022 Venice Biennale. They were presented as part of the group exhibition, curated by the collective OFF-Biennale Budapest, One Day We Shall Celebrate Again: RomaMoMA, which featured Romani artists and aimed to, in part, ‘speak to the endless complexity of contemporary identity formations’ [21].

By and large, though, the event propagated an anti-curatorial aesthetic that was inspired less by institutional critique than by institutional takedown. Witness the crude slogans of foundationClass at KHB that were showcased in the Museum Fridericianum, such as ‘Do you think the art academy is really for everyone?’. Given documenta’s two-day ticket price of $75 this rhetorical statement read as disingenuous. Not least their statements lacked a sophisticated analysis of institutional predicaments and therefore their presentations within the frame of the academy courted contradiction.


Photo Credit

Małgorzata Mirga, ‘Out of Egypt I – VI’ (detail), 2021, fabric, acrylic, 2300 x 3130mm

Such curatorial mistrust notwithstanding, some of the standout moments for me in Kassel resulted from the work of curators

DOCUMENTA FIFTEEN PRESENTED an uneasy mix of positions that were united, not by a thesis, but by the demonstration of an anti-hegemonic and decentered ecosystem based on an alternative economy of collectivity. In doing so, the institutional power structures that underpin curatorial practice and its judgements, and the motives of what is now termed “the curatorial” in academia, were cross-examined. From the modernist-era leftism of Taring Padi with their cartoonish anti-imperialist stereotypes, to the joyous presentation of hospitality, music, puppetry, and the celebration of shared values from the West African group Fondation Festival sur le Niger, there was widespread rejection of the curatorial privileging of institutional control. Historically, curatorial practice drew on legacies of institutional critique in seeking to disrupt museological orthodoxies. Ironically, the practice has been caught in its own crosshairs and now faces a crisis of legitimacy.

I do not see this affirmation of decolonization, coupled with the avowal of community organizing, abating anytime soon, unlike Jason Farago who, in the New York Times, suggests documenta will return to a conservative, market-friendly, and presumably auteur-style of curating for its next edition [22]. I share the view of Anselm Franke, a curator at Berlin’s House of World Cultures. He notes in Monopol that ‘the market, which derives value from speculation, and the art world supported by public funding are drifting apart. The gulf has grown too wide for any single star curator to bridge by power of their charisma’ [23]. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that the collectives, communities, and artistic positions affirmed by Ruangrupa have largely neither been embraced by the art market nor by public institutions. This is more of an issue for the publicly funded artworld, given its validity is framed around ideas of the public good and community engagement. In response, I expect that curators will continue to be questioned on their assumed critical independence, as well as the supposed neutrality of established curatorial models and histories, such as that of documenta and what Bude and Wieland in Die Ziet termed the ‘hidden curriculum’ of its founding [24].


Photo Credit

Fondation Festival sur le Niger, Yaya Coulibaly, ‘The Wall of Puppets’, 2022. Installation view, documenta fifteen, Kassel 2022

I have no doubt that there will be pressure on documenta to ensure the next edition has a system of oversight in place to ensure that works are vetted before going on public view. Similarly, it is likely that further consideration will be given to both the non-neutral local and global contexts within which documenta was founded, and their continuing validity, given international momentum to decolonize and de-globalize. Hopefully, in this process, the opportunity is seized to continue to rethink the documenta model and its relation to diverse identities, community empowerment, local contexts, and the evolving relevance, responsibility, and social agency of curatorial practice.

About the Author

Gregory Burke is a curator, writer and art and museum consultant. He has held many leadership positions in the visual arts, including Director of the Govett-Brewster in Aotearoa and inaugural Director of Remai Modern in Canada. He has a 35-year history of curating, including exhibitions in Aotearoa, Australia, the U.S., Canada, Germany and Italy and has published extensively both in Aotearoa and abroad.


1 As described by the New York Times Sept. 23, 2022. 2 3 Ibid. 4 Emily Watlington, ‘Forensics and Fables: the 12th Berlin Biennale’, Art in America, 26 July 2022. 5 Voiceover in Forensic Architecture, ‘Cloud Studies’, 2021. 6 Rijin Sahakian, ‘Beyond Repair: Regarding Torture at the Berlin Biennale’, Artforum, 29 July 2022. Reprinted: 7 Jasmine Liu, ‘Three Artists Withdraw From Berlin Biennale Over “Commodification” of Iraqi Suffering’, Hyperallergic, 17 August 2022. CID_b5e825366b2b882b458ec33fc202c426&utm_source=hn&utm_term=Iraqi artists withdraw from the Berlin Biennale. 8 Ibid. 9 Most recently, Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie was protested for hanging a banner by artist Shirin Neshat to draw attention to the plight of Iranian women. See CID_6284e2287c2efa960c5f23a307f061fd&utm_source=hn 10 11 Later in January 2022, Die Ziet also broke the antisemitic accusation against Ruangrupa. 12 Alex Greeenberger, ‘Documenta 15 Turmoil Continues as Hito Steyerl Pulls Works and Jewish Organization Leader Quits as Advisory’, ARTnews, 8 July 2022. 13 Mohammad Salemy, ‘Antisemitism is the Least of Documenta Fifteen’s Problems’, Arts of the Working Class, 24 June 2022. 14 Jörg Hesier, ‘”Contested Histories”: On Documenta 15’, Art Agenda, 29 June 2022. 15 Cited in Angelica Villa, ‘Documenta Claims Advisory Panel’s Calls to Halt Film Screening is “Censorship”’, ARTnews, 12 September 2022. 16 Ibid. 17 Ibid. 18 Taylor Dafoe, ‘Art World Heavyweights Come out in Support of Documenta’s Embattled Curators amid Latest Allegations’, Artnet, 15 September 2022. 19 Joana Warsza, ‘The Elephant is Bigger than the Room: Documenta Trouble and Curatorial Responsibility’, Paletten, August 2022. 20 21 From the wall text for the exhibition 22 23 Translated in e-flux Notes, ‘Anselm Franke on the Future of documenta: “We’re witnessing old structures not wanting to die”’, e-flux, 26 September 2022. 24 Maximilíano Durón, ‘New Research Shows That Former Documenta Adviser Was Member of Nazi Paramilitary Organization’, ARTnews, 12 March 2021.

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