Trying to breach the defensive and teaching art. He saw Documenta as a PR wall of Germany’s biggest contemporary art show feels like an impossible task.
Efforts to arrange an interview with the artistic director of Documenta 14, Adam Szymczyk, go nowhere. The Polish curator, I’m told, is reticent about talking to the media in the run-up to the 100-day art event. Szymczyk has been busy cultivating an aura of mystery around this sprawling show, which comes round every ve years, ever since he took the helm in 2013. There is no advance list of artists. Details of the venues are incomplete. Emails to the press team go unanswered until eventually I get a brief reply saying that the curatorial team is “simply too busy to take any call or offer any comment.”
This, of course, is all part of the game. It’s this type of studied indifference that has made Documenta one of the most anticipated, and at times confusing, entries on the international art calendar since it began in 1955.
Dubbed the “100-day museum,” Documenta was founded by Kassel native Arnold Bode in the aftermath of World War II. His hope was to restore cultural life in the city—the centre of which had been attened by Allied bombs in 1943—and to reconnect his country with the rest of the world through art.
An architect, painter, designer and curator, Bode was banned by the Nazis from making chance to bring back the “degenerate” art that had been either shunned or destroyed by the Nazis, but he also wanted to confront audiences with notions of creativity from the countries that had been their enemies.
The exhibition began as a way to provoke and experiment and it has continued to do so for six decades—in the process helping to shape the cultural identity of Kassel, located on the Fulda River in central Germany.
“Since its inception, Documenta has emerged as a grand spectacle that sets
Kassel as well as the art world in motion,” says Nora Sternfeld, who teaches curating and mediating art at Aalto University in Helsinki and was recently named Documenta Professor at the University of Kassel’s art and design school. “It’s a temporary intervention, yet it has acquired a certain continuity throughout its 60-odd years: the continuity of change. Each edition reinvents itself, shedding a completely new light on its history and its future.”
The rst exhibition drew 130,000 visitors and showed works by some of the most in uential artists and movements of the early 20th century—including Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso and Umberto Boccioni—but also the works of many German artists that had not been seen for years.
Two decades on, in 1977, the sixth edition as a more political exhibition exploring the relationships between high and low art, activism and performance, and featuring experimental lms, photography and sculptures as well as artworks from East Germany.
By the time the next show came around in 1982, the concept had broadened to large outdoor installations with a simple focus: “the beauty of art.”
The 10th show in 1997 was perhaps one of the most intellectual editions, curated by a woman for the rst time and addressing social, political, economic and cultural issues. It was a great success, with visitor numbers reaching some 630,000.
Show number 13, 10 years later, went the opposite direction, with a concerted effort to appeal to the masses that exasperated critics. Held across ve venues, the huge exhibition included Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale—a reference to Kassel as the hometown of the Brothers Grimm. The performance piece saw the Beijing artist bring 1,001 ordinary Chinese, and 1,001 chairs, to the event. The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith described the 2007 Documenta as “alternately inspiring—almost visionary— and insufferable, innovative and predictable, meticulous and sentimentally precious.”
She continued: “I would not have missed this seething, shape-shifting extravaganza for the world, and I’d rather not see its like again—at least not on this dwar ng, imperious, self- cancelling scale.”
But for Documenta Professor Nora Sternfeld, the curators have been doing exactly what
they should be doing. “Documenta sits within the conventions of contemporary exhibition- making while simultaneously exceeding these conventions with each edition,” she says. “It expands the boundaries of what can be said, shown and seen.” Which brings us to this year’s edition, being held for the rst time in two locations: Kassel and Athens.
“Learning from Athens” opened in the Greek capital in April and runs until July 16. Meanwhile the German event began on June 10 and continues until September 17, under the same title. The work of some 160 artists will be shown in the two cities, across several venues, with
the idea of creating a dialogue and continuum between the works and countries.
Although curatorial team member Monika Szewczyk had some advice for the media at the Athens opening (don’t go looking for “red
hreads” between the two shows) the same themes appear in Kassel. Many of the works touch on values, identity and migration—themes that were to be expected considering the two countries involved and their roles within the European Union.
But how these themes are expressed is where things get interesting. In Athens, Malian artist Aboubakar Fofana addresses the perils of migration in Africa Blessing (2017), which saw him release into an orchard 54 lambs that have been dyed different shades of indigo— they represent each of the 54 African countries. American visual artist Pope.L, meanwhile, has embedded fragmented, whispered narratives at multiple locations in the city for his Whispering Campaign (2016–17), inspired by post-truth politics.
Kassel’s centrepiece is The Parthenon of Books, by Argentine conceptual artist Marta Minujin. It is a life-size model of the Greek Parthenon, made of metal scaffolding and thousands of banned books from around the world: Friedrichsplatz, where the model is located, is where the Nazis burned some 2,000 books on May 19, 1933 during the so-called Campaign against the Un-German Spirit.
Other pieces, from Kurdish-Iraqi artist Hiwa K.’s When We Were Exhaling Images (2017)—a series of ceramic pipes inspired by his ight from Iraq in the 1990s and subsequent homelessness—to Mexican Antonio Vega Macotela’s The Mill of Blood (2017), a reproduction of the minting machines powered by the slaves of Spanish colonizers in South America, offer re ections on poverty and the global economy.
As with every Documenta, the critical reception has been mixed. At home, the critics fear for the coherence of the show given the second location, and there are concerns that visitors might skip Kassel and go to Athens instead. In Greece, there are complaints that local artists have been overlooked, while some see the exhibition as German cultural imperialism and a bid to exploit Greece’s economic and refugee woes for “misery tourism.”
But this sort of controversy is just part of the show. That’s because Documenta, according to Sternfeld, is far more than an exhibition. “The show can be approached as an intervention, a positioning, an assembly, a discourse, and research,” she says. “Different responses to it are just part of its nature.”