Exhibiting Exhibiting

documenta 12 as a Meta-Exhibition

  • Nanne Buurman (Autor/in)


Since the so-called ‘curatorial turn’ in the 1990s, curators are discussed as new paradigmatic authors in the art field. Discussions about curatorial authorship first gained momentum in the late 1960s, when curating was no longer merely regarded as a museological backstage profession but increasingly also meant organizing exhibitions and conceiving of other art events on a freelance basis. The topos of the curator as a meta-artist was popularized by Daniel Buren in his critique of Harald Szeemann’s auctorial stance at documenta 5, in which he complained that individual artworks were reduced to the status of mere dots of color in a curatorial Gesamtkunstwerk. It has since been used time and again by critics who felt that curators were willfully misusing exhibitions as their own works of art, thereby illegitimately interfering with artists’ intentions. As a practice that implies selecting and commissioning artworks to put them in relation with one another and with the surrounding material and social contexts, curating, however, always necessarily implies creating complex multidimensional constellations - even if this meta-mediality is repressed in the ‘White Cube’ (Brian O’Doherty). My contribution considers documenta 12 (2007) as a critical intervention into the ways in which authorship is generally constructed as an individual agency. Resembling the move from ‘Work to Frame’ (Craig Owens) that has been performed by various waves of artistic institutional critique, artistic director Roger M. Buergel and chief curator Ruth Noack produced a show which shifted the focus away from artists and curators as sole authors and instead exhibited the exhibition as a medium in which different agencies contribute to decentered processes of meaning-making. To demonstrate how documenta 12 called attention to the ways in which exhibitions shape perception and produce narratives, this text provides a close reading of the exhibition’s design, architecture, labeling, publications and public programming. It discusses how by radically breaking with the convention of the White Cube, documenta 12 (re)appropriated a variety of methodologies and strategies that have formerly been used by artists such as Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, Gerwald Rockenschaub, and Louise Lawler in their exposure of the ‘powers of display’ (Mary Anne Staniszewski). As an exhibition of the exhibition, documenta 12 has to be considered in terms that go beyond the notion of the ‘hyperimage’ in so far as it took into account not only the intentional combination of images by collectors, art historians and artists that Felix Thürlemann adresses in his book but also provided meta-medial reflections of exhibitions as complex infrastructural constellations and social spaces. Thus, documenta 12 called into question the very notion of individual authorship that is a focal point of Thürlemann’s discussion of the hyperimage.