All about Adam: a profile of Documenta’s activist director

Adam Szymczyk’s decision to open Documenta 14 in Athens is just the latest bold gesture from a curator unafraid of controversy and fêted by artists

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Adam Szymczyk, the Polish curator who is Documenta 14’s artistic director, introduced this year’s edition with a powerful statement: “We aim to question the supremacist, white and male, nationalist, colonialist way of being and thinking that continues to construct and dominate the world order.” The inequalities in the art world have been centuries in the making, but in the past ten years the signs of a rebalance have become more visible. Documenta has long been at the vanguard of the expansion of the artistic canon, but this general trend seems to have now reached its apogee with Szymczyk’s exhibition, which in April opened for the first time in Documenta’s 60-year history at a second site, Athens, before opening in its usual home, Kassel in Germany, this month.

This year’s edition has what is likely to be the highest-ever proportion of female artists (around 40%), a long list of overlooked older and dead artists and numerous works by indigenous artists. The decision to stage part of the show in Athens marks a shift away from the traditional Documenta model, but also from well-trodden art centres of the world.

The Foksal connection Szymczyk was born in 1970 in the central Polish city of Piotrkow Trybunalski and studied art history at Warsaw University. In the 1990s, he joined Foksal Gallery, a non-commercial gallery founded in 1966 by a group of critics and artists including Edward Krasinski and Henryk Stazewski. The gallery was built on a strong theoretical foundation that challenged the institutional hierarchies of the gallery system. Anda Rottenberg, a freelance curator and the former director of Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, says: “Everything that Adam is now showing in the big shows he’s involved in, like Documenta, is somehow based on the tradition elaborated in the Foksal Gallery in the 1960s and 1970s.” 

In 1997, Szymczyk—along with the gallery’s director Wieslaw Borowski and the curators Andrzej Przywara and Joanna Mytkowska—co-founded Foksal Gallery Foundation, which became an independent entity in 2001. Since then, Foksal Gallery Foundation has been integral in launching the careers of famous Polish artists such as Pawel Althamer, Wilhelm Sasnal, Artur Zmijewski and Monika Sosnowska. Szymczyk was always “trying to find something new, something that wasn’t obvious”, Rottenberg says. “The mainstream was already described and defined, so it was far less interesting to him.”

Szymczyk’s willingness to take on controversial subjects was signalled by an exhibition he organised in 2000 at the Zacheta museum of Piotr Uklanski’s photographs of actors playing Nazi characters. The show quickly became notorious when the film actor Daniel Olbrychski, a famous figure in Poland, attacked the images with a sword. A huge public outcry ensued and the exhibition was shut down. But “with every scandal also comes a name”, says Rottenberg, who was Zacheta’s director at the time, and both Uklanski and Szymczyk gained considerable fame.

Szymczyk was 33 in 2003 when he became the director of the Kunsthalle Basel, a mid-sized exhibition space located—thanks to Art Basel and the preponderance of Swiss collectors based in the city—at the heart of the international art scene. The appointment committee was looking for somebody “out of the box” who could bring new life to the 130-year-old institution, says Peter Handschin, the former president of the Basler Kunstvereien, which oversees the Kunsthalle. Szymczyk had come to the institution’s attention as the director of the Foksal Gallery Foundation, which for years had taken part in the city’s Liste art fair. 

The first few years were difficult, Handschin admits. Fluent in Polish and English, German was a struggle at times. “When people criticised him for not being a very good communicator, they were forgetting that he was speaking in his third language.” (The Art Newspaper has been on the receiving end of this frustrating lack of communication: Szymczyk has declined several interview requests.) But by the time Szymczyk presented his proposal for Documenta in 2013, he is said to have done so entirely in German and was unanimously selected for the role of artistic director. “He’s exceptionally bright,” Handschin says. 

Artistic licence Szymczyk has a knack for working with artists. “Whenever I spoke to someone who was exhibiting with him, they were completely inspired by him, they felt as though they were speaking to another artist. I always told him that he was the most artistic of all the curators I knew—he didn’t really like that,” Handschin recalls. The Berlin-based artist Daniel Knorr, who first worked with Szymczyk at the fifth Berlin Bienniale in 2008 and whose works feature in Documenta 14, says: “I like to take risks in finding new ideas, as does Adam. He likes to find new ways of working. He is a curator I would like to always have around, he is a friend and we share so many ideas and thoughts that we constantly develop.” The artist Nairy Baghramian, who exhibited at the Kunsthalle with Szymczyk and is now also showing works in Documenta, agrees: “Already in past exhibition projects that we realised together, it seemed like we shared a common discourse. It has created space for me to think freely and to arrive at something new.”

Over the course of his decade-long tenure at the museum, Szymczyk has shown an eye for emerging talent. Danh Vo, for example, was barely known when he showed at the Kunsthalle Basel. “He offered young artists a platform, not to make them famous, but because he believed that showing their art was worthwhile because he was convinced of its quality,” Handschin says. He also brought older artists such as the late US conceptual artist Lee Lozano to a wider audience. “[Szymczyk] was truly without borders,” Handschin says. “It didn’t matter to him where you came from or who you were. He was very open-minded and did things without prejudice.”

Old-school ethics More than a decade in the same town as Art Basel seems to have done little to warm Szymczyk’s heart to the art market. He writes in the Documenta catalogue that artistic production must be “reimagined beyond its application as the currency of the art market”, a notion reflected in the many artists in the show with no major gallery representation. Rottenberg says that, to resist the “immense pressure” from galleries and the market, a biennial director requires a “very strong personality”. Szymczyk is “fiercely independent”, she says. “Nowadays, the distinction between the commercial and the non-commercial isn’t as clear-cut, but he still has these kinds of old-school ethics.”

In Athens, Szymczyk has included around 13 living artists from Greece in the exhibition, but has faced criticism by some for failing to engage deeply with the local art scene. Szymczyk responded to the criticism by telling German media that the exhibition “was never meant to be a representation of the Athenian art scene […] that would be too narrow for this Documenta.” However, even among his critics, Szymczyk has been praised for handing over the central venue of Documenta in Kassel, the Fridericianum, to the cash-strapped National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens, which in turn serves as the main site of the Greek part of the show. He is also credited for helping to reinvigorate Athens's public venues, many of which have floundered since the economic crisis. Much of the money to pay for this has come from Documenta’s own fundraising efforts: the €18.5m ($20.7m) German taxpayers’ money that makes up around half the total budget was, according to sources, mostly earmarked for the Kassel part of the show. In the end, Szymczyk’s most political gesture was opening Documenta in Athens. As he hopes to rebalance the artistic canon, he has redistributed some of Documenta’s financial and institutional power from the richest country in the European Union to one of the poorest. 

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