Art Books

“I can imagine you (reading these words) into being”: The documenta 14 Reader

Courtesy of Rosa Maria Rühling

Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk
The documenta 14 Reader
(Prestel, 2017)

At one point in his introduction to The documenta 14 Reader, curator Adam Szymczyk refers briefly to Artaud’s “theater and its double.” Since Documenta’s most recent iteration wraps up its showing this month in both Athens and Kassel, his off-hand allusion most likely privileges the “double” in the phrase. However, it is also worth reading Artaud’s introduction and essay “The Theater and the Plague” to understand Artaud’s importance to Szymczyk’s project. There, one finds a deep connection between Artaud’s acerbic attack on “disinterested [European] theater” and Szymczyk’s curatorial mission. Both seek to lance the abscesses of European culture (a notion which Artaud called “first of all a protest” in his essay) and produce from the pus and pain art that witnesses and, at its best, protests. Where and how Szymczyk’s double-headed Documenta is successful at this is a judgment up to those who have travelled to both Athens and Kassel. For the rest of us, we turn to reviews and the exhibition’s “catalogue”—The documenta 14 Reader. Fortunately for us, editors Szymczyk and Quinn Latimer take seriously the import of such a publication. It is not an exaggeration to regard this book as a curatorial project in its own right and a performative double to the exhibition.

Courtesy of Rosa Maria Rühling

Parallel to Artaud’s call for a theater that rejects the metaphysics of dialogue, Szymczyk and Latimer do not just compile a list of readings in this volume. Instead they combine three styles, or genres, of critical writing and thinking. One layer includes over 20 reprints and excerpts of heady and eclectic contemporary and historical, theoretical, literary, and poetic texts which do not coalesce into a unity but rather fracture into dialogue where personal experience and fictional acuity are as necessary as theoretical rigor. Mahmoud Darwish’s raging poem “To the Reader” (1964) opens the volume, followed by Sylvère Lotringer’s searing autobiographical text “Étant Donnés,” (2017) where he recounts his search for “the man who gave me his name.” Later in the volume, “Exile,” an excerpt from Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s 2011 African Philosophy as Art: Senghor, Bergson and the Idea of Negritude and Documenta’s organizer of public programs Paul C. Preciado’s, “My Body Doesn’t Exist,” (2017) document the complexity of types of oppression, along with Antonio Negri’s autobiographical statement “Exercises of Freedom” (read in Athens on September 14, 2016). W. E. B. Dubois’s poignant 1952 address presented at the Jewish Life magazine event, “Tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters,” recounts how traveling to Warsaw led to his very reconsideration of the ultimate truth of the “color line.” But art, fiction, and critical theory bump and butt against one another in the inclusion of an excerpt from Gustave Flaubert’s “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (1874) along with canonical works by the experimental electronic art pioneer Pauline Oliveros, “The Inner-Outer Sound Matrix” (2007) and “Environmental Dialogue” (1975), as well as sociologist Tony Bennett’s reprint and reconsideration of his landmark essay, “The Exhibitionary Complex” (1988). And while the volume closes with Jacques Derrida’s and Anne Dufourmantelle’s singularly relevant, “Of Hospitality” (2000), these texts represent only a partial list.

Several essays relate directly to the present, particularly to Greece’s recent economic and political history, among them Yannis Hamilakis’s “Some Debts Can Never Be Repaid: The Archaeo-politics of the Crisis,” (2016) and Maria Boletsi’s rich linguistic analysis, “From the Subject of the Crisis to the Subject in Crisis: Middle Voice on Greek Walls” (2016). Boletsi’s essay examines the Greek word baaaniZomai (vasanizomai) for which there is no accurate English translation; “I am in torment” is the closest rendering into English. “Vasanizomai” began to appear on city walls as graffiti soon after the 2009 debt crisis. In Boletsi’s virtuoso analysis, one can’t help but recognize vasanizomai as the term of the moment for what she notes is its “ambiguity, precarious agency, and [a] bracketing of the cause of the action...” There is, as well, Latimer’s moving, meditative “Signs, Sounds, Metals, Fires, or An Economy of Her Reader,” (2017) in which she responds to Adrienne Rich’s syncretic poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” (1971) with the lines:

I am not in America, but I know it hurts to burn. Manuscripts don’t burn—I’ve learned that—and I cannot touch you, reader, but I can imagine you (reading these words) into being.

I can imagine you (reading these words) into being is exactly what happens when we confront the address of the Reader’s second layer of documents, organized around the twin themes of “Empire” and “Decoloniality.” Here is where Szymczyk’s utopian desire that Documenta 14 be “owned” by all takes on flesh, as we read for ourselves the contradictory brutality of the 1685 French Code Noir put into law at Versailles; the extensive power exercised over the lives of the Australian Aborginal people by the cynically named “Aboriginal Protection Act” of 1869, or the false consciousness of American capitalism’s seemingly benevolent and reparative ego as outlined in the Marshall Plan. But, and here is why the Reader is not just a litany of critical texts, one can also read the 1994 indigenous Zapatista (EZLN) Women’s Revolutionary Law a set of ten laws granting rights to women (regarding marriage, children, work, health, education, political and military participation) and protecting them from violence, or the 1987 Sami Act that enabled the Sami people of Norway “to safeguard and develop their language, culture, and way of life.” It is this double vision, cast between texts that enshrine the deprivation and the conferral of human rights, that makes the Documenta 14 Reader such a welcome and responsive case of witness.

Courtesy of Rosa Maria Rühling

Yet, it is in the third section of material, comprised of seven folios of themed images and captions, where one finds the beauty and heart of the volume. Folio 1 asks: “What color is hunger? What color paper?” Folio 4 seems to whisper in reply, “Among the scattered shadows and traces of the revolution.” Each folio is an eccentric mini visual essay in which such images as Tina Modotti’s photographs of wheat are placed in proximity with Zainul Abedin’s series “Famine Sketches” (1943), or in which Léon Gaucheral’s “Athens Transformed into a Gothic City of Flanders” (after a miniature from the 15th century) is juxtaposed with “View of Athens” by Jacob Spon (1676) and Christos Papoulias’s sketch “The Erechtheion Museum of the Acropolis (1990-91).” Other combinations are more overtly critical, such as the image of a Yaxwiwe’ (Peace Dance) Headress (ca. 1922) from the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations tribes, a few pages before we confront anthropologist Franz Boas, bare-chested and squatting within a hoop, symbolically representing his emergence from the mouth of the Kwakwaka ‘ wakw cannibal spirit. There are also moments like Lucius Burckhardt’s awkward and funny amateur sketch “The Invention of Landscape” (n.d.), whose caption says he is the inventor of “strollogy,” an experimental pedagogy created “to refocus attention on the experiential and perceptual aspects of what we call landscape.”

It is not only the poetic and unusual selection of images but the extended captions, as well, that make these folios such a pleasure to flip through. Take for instance Portrait of Peggy Sinclair by Karl Leyhusen (1931). Peggy Sinclair left Kassel in 1928 to visit her cousins in Dublin. One of these was Samuel Beckett, with whom she had a brief affair that lead Beckett to visit Kassel several times between 1928 and 1932. Sinclair died of tuberculosis at age 22 and, “Shortly thereafter, her family left faltering finances and the growing anti-Semitism in Germany to return to Dublin, which they had originally left because of anti-Jewish sentiment.” It is a tiny, easy to miss moment, and yet, it perfectly reflects the mandate of ownership (as in the taking of responsibility) and historical reckoning (what Holland Cotter refers to as “witnessing”1) that Szymczyk’s sprawling “theater and its double” of an exhibition seeks to instill. In other words, Kassel and Athens become twin synechdoches for the economic, ethical, and racist crises raging across Europe, where no problem is easily attributed to any one group or cause. In this sense, The documenta 14 Reader is a model of responsibility to readers, to scholarship, and to the possibility of what art can do. It is, of course, the record of an exhibition, but it is also a textual apparatus affirming that art has no business today other than to challenge and to testify to the ways we live within, and resist, empire.


Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE is the Senior Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.