Interview with curator Denys Zacharopoulos on Documenta IX: It’s a Documenta of certainties

“The museum is like a voodoo fetish, the artist a sorcerer but also a prisoner”


We asked Denys Zacharopoulos, one of the three assistant curators, under the leadership of Jan Hoet, of Documenta IX, for further enlightenment about the 1992 version of this seminal exhibition, being held at Kassel from 13 June to 20 September.

Mr Zacharopoulos, Documenta IX turns its back on the 1980s. How will this be reflected in the structure of the exhibition?

Since the last exhibition in 1987, there have been enormous political, economic and ideological changes. There has also been a change in art, and the art market. Artists, too, have changed, some of them choosing new areas to investigate. Change has also affected the way we organise and set up exhibitions. One of the distinctive features of “Documenta IX” is the way we selected the 186 artists taking part. Although he has always given strong leadership, Jan Hoet has not acted by divine right but more like a president, encouraging an on-going debate between the exhibition’s four curators. A constructive dialogue of this kind would not have been possible in the 1980s, when such discussion tended to be ideological in character, rather than purely practical, as in this case.

As a result, each artist was chosen for at least four reasons, but with a common denominator: we decided to present individuals operating from an independent position, whose work has a certain degree of complexity and cannot be reduced to one or two key ideas.

The theme of the exhibition is “The artist, the work and the viewer”. Have you already decided on the various locations where this theme is to be explored?

A number of locations will be involved. First, there is the Fridericianum. This building serves as a point of reference, alluding in its monumentality to the idea of art as drama. Then, in contrast, there is the Ottoneum, originally a baroque theatre and now the home of the Natural History museum. Its soothing atmosphere is ideally suited to those artists whose work has the power of illumination, synthesising matter and thought: Spalletti, Mucha, Therrien, Baumgarten. The new Documenta-Halle, backing onto the Friedrichsplatz, now forms an ideal bridge between the other two buildings.

Designed by Jochem Jourdan and Bernhard Müller, it has a sort of central nave, fifty metres long and sixteen wide, with three adjoining rooms. Here, works of different kinds can be shown in spiritual unity, just as in a church a fourteenth-century painting is perfectly compatible with a baroque altar. This building will house works by Mario Merz, Rollof, Panamarenko, Richter, Bustamente, Prince and others.

The museum function of the Neue Galerie will be explored through the work of those artists who deal in the language of art: the museum as a box of wonders is a theme developed by Paolini, Gerhard Merz, Kosuth and Steinbach. In contrast to the museum as a public building, we have found a really “private” venue, a former fur shop opposite the Fridericianum. Here, a single artist—Pistoletto—symbolises the tension between the individual and society.

The museum (in this case the Neue Galerie) is a historical body. Into it, as into a voodoo fetish, artists stick imaginary pins. At the same time, it can be a temple to art: in the tower of the Fridericianum (the tower as metaphor of holiness and imprisonment) we shall be presenting six artists who, in our view, have revolutionised art and won a place in the collective memory: David, Gauguin, Newmann, Giacometti, Beuys, and a living artist whose identity you will discover in due course.

Others featured individually are the young Hamburg artist Wolfgang Strack, who uses the language of comic strips and will be giving his own version of the art of the last thirty years in the Hauptmann-Schule building; and the American Max Neuhaus, who will be exhibiting on the main staircase of the AOK, a building erected in the 1950s and recently listed as being of architectural interest. Neuhaus’s art is dematerialised, consisting of sounds and vibrations, which will pervade the visitor as he surveys the other exhibition buildings from the top of the stairs. For this reason, we see the AOK as the heart of the whole event.

Will there be a recommended itinerary apart from the buildings you have already mentioned?

We have tried to avoid repeating the formula of the ubiquitous open-air sculpture exhibition. We are, nevertheless, proposing a relaxing walk in an “impressionistic” landscape: a series of temporary pavilions will accommodate works in transparent materials bathed in natural daylight. Two of the artists involved are Dan Graham and Isa Genzen.

Are all the artists showing works specially created for “Documenta”?

On the whole, yes, though it is difficult to think of an artist tailoring a picture to the requirements of an exhibition.

Francis Bacon is considered as a somewhat hallowed artist. His presence at an exhibition devoted to the contemporary has taken many people by surprise...

I believe that a “Documenta” exhibition should be based on artists of proven worth, or relatively so. In any case, we maintain that Bacon amply fulfils the criteria of absolute consistency and independence from ideology. In a way, his work is far more contemporary than that of many more recent artists and their experiments.

On this question of proven worth, what criteria did you adopt in choosing the five artists for the historical section housed in the tower of the Fridericianum?

There was no definite concept. But, as Hoet, Baere, Tazzi and I discussed the exhibition, at a certain point it became clear that one of the best ways to talk about art is to let art speak for itself. We remembered that a certain painting by Gauguin posed the question “Who are we? where do we come from? and where are we going?”. Then we thought of David’s “Death of Marat”, because, in my opinion, that painting contains the idea of the artist putting his own life on the line. With Beuys, we chose an artist who shows how it is possible to be creative, even in the absence of objects and forms, by offering a living experience, an active space. We all agreed on Giacometti, because the “Naso” sums up the idea of potential space as a work of art, and that is the basic assumption of “Documenta IX”.

Almost all the practitioners of Arte Povera are represented among the 186 artists selected. They are certainly artists of proven worth, but who came to the fore twenty or so years ago. Is this “recall to arms” a vote of no-confidence in more recent Italian art?

There is one thing I should make clear: “Documenta” is not the Venice Biennale. From the beginning, it set out to counter nationalism in art. It is a fact that, on occasions in the past, officials in certain countries with Nazi, Fascist or Communist regimes have sent works representing the party line to international exhibitions. “Documenta” is not even an attempt to sum up contemporary art, but is an expression of very personal viewpoints. The term Arte Povera was coined to express the idea of artists exercising the greatest possible freedom to explore, not to serve as a definition. Twenty years on, we see how that intention has been pursued in the work of Calzolari, Fabro, Merz, Kounellis, Paolini, Pistoletto and Zorio. And, returning to the question of proven worth, these are all artists with an international reputation. And as for age, Zorio, for example, is not much older than Sandro Chia. I must repeat, it is not the purpose of “Documenta” to choose representatives from different countries: the Italian artists involved certainly cannot be said to represent Italy. But, while we are on the subject, please note that the Italians Bagnoli, Spalleti, Salvadori, Liliana Moro, Mariella Simoni and Trinci are also included, and they have nothing to do with Arte Povera. It was not at all easy to make our selection, and some people are bound to disagree.

It is said that one of the merits of “Documenta” this time round is that, with four much-travelled curators, it is truly international in its scope, and that for the first time it takes account of artists not operating in the great “art capitals”...

I have never been of the opinion that an artist is great simply because he works in New York or Paris. With the intensification of international traffic, it is possible to discover new talent in any part of the world. This is an age of insecurity... It is difficult for artists working at a time of crisis to achieve a rounded representation of reality. Artists nowadays live in all parts of the world and the idea of a “centre” has been superseded. It is truer than ever that art is not only a metropolitan phenomenon.

And yet, “Metropolis”, the exhibition organised last year by Rosenthal and Joachimedes in Berlin, was presented as a prognosis of the coming decade.

What is a prognosis in medical parlance? A number of facts, from which you draw a conclusion, a synthesis. Looked at in this way, “Metropolis” was a good collection of “facts”. As a prognosis, I would say it presented many worthwhile and up-and-coming artists. It was a good exhibition of objects and situations. But it was static, like an old picture, not a living organism. It showed how categorisation by discipline— installations, painting, photography and so on—can still work effectively as a way of organising an exhibition. But, once the prognosis had been made, there was no analysis, no report on the patient’s prospects.

In what ways will “Documenta IX” differ from previous versions and from recent international exhibitions of major importance?

Ever since 1972, each version of “Documenta” has been organised by a different team. The team works for a period of five years, with one eye on the recent past and the other on the immediate future, with the result that a whole decade is given critical consideration. However, the exhibition does not necessarily refer back to the previous event, and there is hardly ever a sense of continuing from where the previous exhibition left off. This is clear if we look back over the years. “Documenta” was born to take stock of a situation that official art had consistently overlooked, in the days when, for instance, Pollock and Giacometti could not yet be found in museums. Therefore “Documenta” was called a hundred-day museum. There is no need for this today, since even young artists have a place in such institutions. Then Harald Szeemann proposed a new approach, allowing for personal mythologies.

In 1982, Rudi Fuchs came up with an accurate analysis of the new avant-garde movements in painting, and in 1987 Manfred Schneckenburger drew our attention to what I would call sociological considerations: art and culture, art and design, and so on. Our aim this time is to free the exhibition from its ball and chain, abolishing any kind of categorisation and seeking a natural relationship between the spectator and art—not a contemplative relationship but an active one— trying to create complicity between the work of art and its beneficiary. We want to organise a living exhibition. We are not just presenting a series of artistic achievements, but seeking to make every possible connection between the works themselves, the space in which they are exhibited, and the senses of the viewer. In answer to your question, then, and with the works not yet in situ, I would say that we have to rely more on sensitivity than on geometry.

186 names for the museum of a hundred days

The list of artists participating in Documenta IX

Marina Abramovic (Yugoslavia/Holland), Absalon (Israel/France), Richard Artschwager (USA), Francis Bacon (Great Britain), Marco Bagnoli (Italy), Nikos Baikas (Greece), Miroslaw Balka (Poland), Matthew Barney (USA), Lothar Baumgarten (Germany), Jean Pierre Bertrand (France), Michael Biberstein (Switzerland/Portugal), Guillaume Bijl (Belgium), Dara Birnbaum (USA), Jonathan Borofsky (USA), Louise Bourgeois (USA/France), Herbert Brandl (Austria), Ricardo Brey (Cuba), Tony Brown (Canada), Marie José Burki (Switzerland), Jean Marc Bustamante (France), Michael Buthe (Germany), Pedro Cabrita Reis (Portugal), Waltercio Caldas (Brazil), Pierpaolo Calzolari (Italy), Ernst Caramelle (Austria), Lawrence Carroll (USA), Saint-Clair Cemin (USA/Brazil), Thomasz Ciecierski (Poland), Tony Clark (Australia), James Coleman (Ireland), Tony Conrad (USA), Patrick Corillon (Belgium), Horia Damian (Rumania), Thierry de Cordier (Belgium), Raoul De Keyser (Belgium), Richard Deacon (Great Britain), Silvie & Chérif Defraoui (Switzerland), Wim Delvoye (Belgium), Eugenio Dittborn (Chile), Helmut Dorner (Germany), Stan Douglas (Canada), Marlène Dumas (Holland/South Africa), Jimmie Durham (USA), Mo Edoga (Nigeria/Germany), Jan Fabre (Belgium), Luciano Fabro (Italy), Belu-Simion Fainaru (Israel), Peter Fend (USA), Rose Finn-Kelcey (Great Britain), Flatz (Austria), Günther Förg (Germany), Fortuyn/O’Brien (Holland), Michel François (Belgium), Erik A Frandsen (Denmark), Vera Frenkel (Canada), Katsura Funakoshi (Japan), Isa Genzken (Germany), Gaylen Gerber (USA), Robert Gober (USA), Dan Graham (USA), Rodney Graham (Canada), Angela Grauerholz (Canada), Michael Gross (Israel), George Hadjimichalis (Greece), David Hammons (USA), Georg Herold (Germany), Gary Hill (USA), Peter Hopkins (USA), Rebecca Horn (Germany), Roni Horn (USA), Geoffrey James (Canada), Olav Christopher Jenssen (Norway), Tim Johnson (Australia), Ilya Kabakov (Russia), Anish Kapoor (Great Britain), Kazuo Katase (Japan/Germany), Tadashi Kawamata (Japan), Mike Kelley (USA), Ellsworth Kelly (USA), Bhupen Khakhar (India), Per Kirkeby (Denmark), Harald Klingelhöller (Germany), Kurt Kocherscheidt (Austria), Peter Kogler (Austria), Vladimir Kokolia (Czechoslovakia), Joseph Kosuth (USA), Jannis Kounellis (Greece/Italy), Mariusz Kruk (Poland), Guillermo Kuitca (Argentina), Jonathan Lasker (USA), Jac Leirner (Brazil), Zoe Leonard (USA), Eugène Leroy (France), Via Lewandowski (Germany), Bernd Lohaus (Belgium), Attila Richard Lukacs (Canada), James Lutes (USA), Ingeborg Lüscher (Switzerland), Marcel Maeyer (Belgium), Brice Marden (USA), Cildo Meireles (Brazil), Ulrich Meister (Germany), Thom Merrick (USA), Gerhard Merz (Germany), Mario Merz (Italy), Marisa Merz (Italy), Meuser (Germany), Jürgen Meyer (Germany), Liliana Moro (Italy), Reinhard Mucha (Germany), Matt Mullican (USA), Juan Muñoz (Spain), Hidetoshi Nagasawa (Japan/Italy), Christa Näher (Germany), Bruce Nauman (USA), Max Neuhaus (USA), Pekka Nevalainen (Finland), Nic Nicosia (USA), Moshe Ninio (Israel), Jussi Niva (Finland), Cady Noland (USA), Manuel Ocampo (Philippines), Tony Oursler (USA), Panamarenko (Belgium), Giulio Paolini (Italy), A.R. Penck (Germany), Adrian Piper (USA), Michelangelo Pistoletto (Italy), Hermann Pitz (Germany), Sigmar Polke (Germany), Stephen Prina (USA), Richard Prince (USA), Martin Puryear (USA), Royden Rabinowitch (Canada), Rober Racine (Canada), Philip Rantzer (Israel), Charles Ray (USA), Martial Raysse (France), José Resende (Brazil), Gerhard Richter (Germany), Ulf Rollof (Sweden), Erika Rothenberg (USA), Susan Rothenberg (USA), Thomas Ruff (Germany), Stephan Runge (Germany), Edward Ruscha (USA), Reiner Ruthenbeck (Germany), Ulrich Rückriem (Germany), Remo Salvadori (Italy), Joe Scanlan (USA), Eran Scharf (Israel), Adrian Schiess (Switzerland), Thomas Schütte (Germany), Maria Serebriakova (Russia), Mariella Simoni (Italy), Susana Solano (Spain), Usmane Sow (Senegal), Ettore Spalletti (Italy), Haim Steinbach (USA), Pat Steir (USA), Wolfgang Strack (Germany), Thomas Struth (Germany), Sugar Janos (Hungary), Yuji Takeoka (Japan/Germany), Robert Therrien (USA), Philippe Thomas (France), Frederic Matys Thursz (USA), Niele Toroni (Switzerland/France), Thanassis Totsikas (Greece), Addo Lodovico Trinci (Italy), James Turrell (USA), Mitja Tusek (Switzerland), Luc Tuymans (Belgium), Micha Ullman (Israel/Germany), Juan Uslé (Spain), Jan Vercruysse (Belgium), Bill Viola (USA), Henk Visch (Holland), James Welling (USA), Franz West (Austria), Rachel Whiteread (Great Britain), Christopher Wool (USA), Yook Geong Byung (Korea), Heimo Zobernig (Austria), Gilberto Zorio (Italy), Constantin Zvezdochotov (Russia)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'David, Bacon and Arte Povera: it’s a Documenta of certainties'