Positive Misinterpretation – documenta 14

This year’s fourteenth edition of documenta took place in two very different geopolitical areas –in Kassel, Germany, as usual, but also in Athens. The Greek capital, however, was not a mere satellite, as was the case with Kabul and Alexandria in the last edition, but a full-bodied equal half of the event. In both cities, throughout the 163 days, a number of small and large exhibitions, performances, lectures and debates were presented in the Bodies of Parliament programme, the Every Time A Ear Di Soun radio broadcast and on Greek public television.

One of the goals of documenta 14, stated under the leadership of Adam Szymczyk and his challenge “to unlearn what we know”, is to unlearn to think and to act from the position of sovereignty framed by nationalism, colonialism, capitalism, and the heteronormative world view typical for the geopolitical concepts of the West and global North. At the same time, the exhibition also tried to overcome the geographically limitative dichotomy of the North and South, emphasizing – for example by engaging communities with the colonial experience within Europe (Joar Nango) – the fact that every place has its North and South and vice versa. Thus, documenta 14 dealt with the complex issue of the relation to others, especially those who are oppressed or beyond our attention and memory. This shows that despite the questionable character of such a gesture in the context and within the institution of such a format, this year’s edition was a political experiment and a catalyst for debates on the abovementioned topics.

As the working title Learning from Athens (where “from” should be read in both meanings of the word) already suggests, learning was a significant moment in documenta. In this sense, the exhibited works were often presented as illustrations and notes to the overall curatorial concept or included works inspired by the documentary tradition (Ben Russel, Ahlam Shibli), works functioning as a form of evidence of oppression (Edi Hill, Tshibumba Kanda-Matula), or those beyond classical art forms (Research Architecture). The exhibition also presented works emphasizing their artistic autonomy, which could be read primarily as messages about the power of and the necessity to create art even in the context of traumatic experiences (Elizabeth Wild, Katrin Ladik). 

Learning was then developed mainly in the aneducation programme that initiated and provided a wide range of activities on the border between art and education, emphasizing the moment of collective participation. The most visible activity was the Chorus, whose members offered guided tours to groups of visitors at their own discretion, engaging them in active debates on the presented works and the form of the guided tour itself. The expectations of the active participation of visitors were symptomatic of the whole event, and strongly resonated in Athens, where visitors were left without extensive descriptive texts and clear explanations. In the context of this year’s edition of documenta, what we could understand as imperfection – the deliberate vagueness and ambiguity – should be seen mainly as a strategy, opening up the space for productive misinterpretation. Although this kind of work with art creations may seem questionable, it is eventually appreciated due to the efforts to engage visitors and initiate debates on the presented topics in a wider community, whose attention documenta 14 so strongly attracts and where it can establish them.

One can certainly have doubts about the success of such an experiment, but it is important to remember that failure is its integral part (as we can read in one of the introductory texts by Paul B. Preciado), and it becomes potentially productive, like the aforementioned misunderstanding. In this sense, Adam Szymczyk uses his concept to question the meaning, form and role of this format in contemporary society, a question that the artistic director of documenta 15 will have to take into account.

Jan Kolský

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