“Because the population is so small, Lebanon actually has the highest density of artists in the whole of Documenta,” says Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, her chirpy declaration serving to explain why she’s in Beirut some 45 days before the opening of a large-scale exhibition in a small German town, on which she’s been working for the better part of five years.
Now in its 13th edition, Documenta has become one of the most important among the big, messy, ostensibly non-commercial events that periodically pull together the global sprawl of the contemporary art world. It is in many ways the challenging avant-garde answer to the mainstream, crowd-pleasing strains of the Venice Biennale.
Scheduled to occur every five years in the summer for 100 days, Documenta also runs on a legacy of reconstruction and rehabilitation. It was established in 1955, in the aftermath of World War II, to take up the difficult task of re-tethering cultural life in Germany to that of the rest of Europe and the world.
“It is devised with our young generation in mind,” art historian Werner Haftmann said of the first edition, “and the artists, poets and thinkers they follow, so that they may recognize what foundations have been laid for them, what inheritance they must nurture and what inheritance must be overcome.”
As such – and in terms of addressing the troublesome matrix of art, trauma, politics and history – there is an obvious affinity between the experience of Beirut and the purpose of this event in the distant, largely unremarkable and, from a Levantine perspective, totally unknown town of Kassel, with a population of not even 200,000. (Beirut may be a village, as they say, but it’s at least a million strong.)
On Tuesday evening at Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace, Christov-Bakargiev and two of her colleagues, curator Chus Mart?nez and art historian Salah Hasan, are presenting a set of publications that have been produced in the run-up to Documenta’s opening in early June. It will be the ninth and final event of its kind to be staged in cities around the world.
“I thought it was important to end on an understanding of the body in a place that has gone through a lot in terms of the traumatic and in terms of collapse,” says Christov-Bakargiev. “I’m not announcing a theme or a concept for this edition of Documenta” – as artistic director of the event, she has been careful not to drape her work on any kind of curatorial conceit – “but this is one of the threads.
“I’ve been traveling around the world to places where traumatic and post-traumatic consequences have occurred,” Christov-Bakargiev continues. “But the main point is that there are so many great artists in Beirut. I love coming to Beirut.”
The official list of artists participating in Documenta 13 will not be announced until the day of the preview, on June 6, but among the Beirutis almost certainly included in the exhibition are Walid Raad, Rabih Mroué and Akram Zaatari, among others, along with Emily Jacir and Hasan Khan who, while not from here, are currently in Beirut teaching at Ashkal Alwan.
If those names sound like the usual suspects, then consider the participation of the poet, playwright and painter Etel Adnan. She’s no stranger to the art world, of course, but Christov-Bakargiev is using the time and space of Documenta to give her a de facto retrospective that is much deserved and long-overdue.
The 87-year-old artist will be represented by 87 paintings, two tapestries, an accordion-style artist’s book and Adnan’s first film, a nearly silent mediation on sunsets and situations of urbanity, Christov-Bakargiev says, that is composed entirely of evocative Super-8 film fragments.
Adnan is also one of the key participants in Documenta who made a book for the “100 Notes, 100 Thoughts” project. This series of small, affordable, un-precious publications in color-blocked covers functions as both a prelude to the exhibition and an exercise in outreach.
For people who have no chance – and possibly no interest – in attending the event, the books have the potential to bring the ideas of Documenta to the world beyond Kassel.
According to Mart?nez, as the process of putting the books together began, “we started making lists, which is a very curatorial thing to do.”
She also started asking potential contributors to the series: “What are you reading? Can I see your notes?” Facsimiles of what they gave her, along with essays and conversations, are the bulk of the “100 Notes, 100 Thoughts” project. The emphasis lies on texts that are unsure of themselves, as Mart?nez puts it, and on texts that are unfinished, vulnerable, more intimate than an argument that has reached its endpoint or a criticism that has been made complete.
Adnan’s title, “The Cost for Love We Are Not Willing to Pay,” is also related to another one of Christov-Bakargiev’s conceptual threads – the idea that feminism in the 21st century has broadened its scope to include ecology and the environment. Among the subjects of love that Adnan addresses in her book is the love, or lack thereof, for plants, animals and the things we share the world with but did not build ourselves.
“I think very much in terms of the politics of form,” says Christov-Bakargiev. “Etel’s paintings are small, on the scale of domestic items, but they are also celebrations of color and autonomy ... Her extraordinary writings speak of the drama of being in another country or caught in a conflict – as a woman but also just as a person who has moments of epiphany and wisdom in the midst of violence.”
The number of visitors attending Documenta has risen steadily with every edition. The last exhibition, in 2007, attracted nearly 750,000. The predictions this year are that Documenta will break the 1 million mark.
Still, how would Christov-Bakargiev explain the event to a young person in Beirut who has never left his or her city?
“Documenta is one of the most extraordinary things the 20th century did or invented in terms of the art system,” she says. “It is a moment of intense aggregation of people from all over the world. It’s not the same as going to an art fair, no matter how good it is. Documenta is built slowly.”
After a pause, she adds: “It’s kind of like the Woodstock of art. It’s a ritual. It is celebrated because it has a history.”
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Salah Hasan and Chus Mart?nez are presenting the
Documenta 13 series “100 Notes, 100 Thoughts” on Tuesday, 8 p.m., at Ashkal Alwan in Jisr al-Wati. For more information, please call 01-423-879 or see www.ashkalwan.org.