In 1955, when the architect, artist and teacher Arnold Bode mounted an art show at the Fridericianum Museum in the West German city of Kassel featuring, for the first time in the post-war German history, the art of Picasso, Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, all deemed 'degenerates' by Hitler, he could hardly have been fully aware of laying the foundation stone of an exhibition that was destined to become a point of reference for the European and global art scene - a weatherglass identifying the latest trends of contemporary art twice a decade; it is, after all, no coincidence that an extended translation of its title is 'a desire to document modern art'. While the first days of the Venice Biennale mean an endless 'dolce vita' every night and Art Basel is reminiscent of a glamorous casino, the description that fits documenta best of all is 'an intellectual fitness centre'.
Today, every single person you may encounter in any street of this boring German town is equipped to fill you in on the subject of the '100 day museum' as it is frequently referred to (a hundred days is exactly how long a documenta exhibition is running), including the '7000 oak-tree' project brought to life in Kassel in 1982 by the legendary Joseph Beuys during the documenta VII with the help of an army of volunteers: Beuys planted 7000 oak-trees, placing a basalt stone by the foot of each of them.
The first person of the Kassel documenta is referred to as a director, not a curator; each and every one of them has left an imprint in the history of the show. Alongside Arnold Bode who was responsible for the first five exhibitions, they include a number of other legendary figures; the iconic late Harald Szeeman, the youngest artistic director of the Kassel documenta who passed away in 2005, is one of them. It was in 2002 that the director of the documenta was not a representative of a European country: it was the Nigerian Okwui Enwezor who changed the spelling of the exhibition, substituting the lowercase 'd' in 'documenta' with a capital 'D' in an attempt to raise the self-esteem of the show. He is reported to have said of the Kassel Documenta that it was the world's most significant exhibition.
9 June 2012 will see Documenta XIII open its doors to the public; the director of the most current edition of the show is the Italian American art historian, writer and curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev who has been described by Bloomberg as 'a real power woman'. Incidentally, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has made a point of emphasising the significance of the Okwui Enwezor Documentas. As for the mass media, the age-old discussion of whether the excessive desire to build the platform of the exhibition on the backbone of political, ethnic and social conflicts (a perennial question in the context of the Kassel Documenta) does not demote art to a secondary role. Incidentally, it was Enwezor who once said that a curator's job was not cultivating taste but increasing knowledge - not of art but of the world in which the art had been created. Meanwhile, according to the media, there is no longer any art to be found at the currently running Berlin Biennial. What is this year's Documenta going to be like - a question preoccupying the art world once every five years.
Image: 208,000,000 years ago
By PIERRE HUYGHE
Keywords: Kassel, exhibition