The world’s most important contemporary art show, Germany’s Documenta, turns 60 and this week’s celebrations include concerts, exhibitions and a touch of controversy too.
The exhibition takes place every five years and its presentation of the latest developments in contemporary art draws visitors from across the globe to Kassel, a large central German town.
The show retains its power to shock, not only with the art it presents but its changing format too. The next Documenta in 2017 will be hosted in Kassel and Athens, a city where all things German are not particularly popular at the moment.
When Polish curator Adam Szymczyk announced last year that the Documenta would open and partially take place in Greece’s capital, an outcry broke out in the exhibition’s home town.
“The move to Athens could make the Documenta more relevant and necessary.”
The twin locations would mean competition for Kassel, people said. Also, given the currently tense relations between Greece and Germany, what could the title “Learning from Athens” mean?
These questions are being revisited in light of the Greek crisis, in which Germany is pushing for more austerity in Greece in return for further handouts, and because of the show’s important milestone. This week, to mark the first Documenta which opened in July 1955, people in Kassel are going to concerts, performances and viewing works by Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers.
It is unclear – traditionally a closely guarded secret – what works will be on show in 2017. All that is known so far is that the exhibition will open in Athens in April and show as many works as those on display in Kassel, where the co-exhibition will open in June. Then twin exhibitions will last all summer.
The decision to include Athens was widely questioned. Some journalists writing in the German media said the show’s directors were trying too hard to come up with original formats; others called the move a “pitiful gesture of solidarity.”
Annette Kulenkampff, the Documenta’s chief executive, was unfazed. “This is an exhibition that has managed to mobilize the masses for over 60 years,” she told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “But it does so without being ingratiating; it always seeks to feature difficult subjects.”
Some observers argued that the Documenta’s idea was a good one. Dakis Joannou, a major Greek collector of European and American contemporary art, said the show has to distinguish itself from the numerous other art events that take place worldwide.
“The move to Athens could make the Documenta more relevant and necessary, firstly by redefining its mission after almost 30 years since German re-unification and secondly, by showing works in a place where there is an active art scene,” he said.
The art in the upcoming Documenta may be more political than usual and some Greek art professionals believe that the upcoming show could be a chance to bridge the tense atmosphere between Greece and the European Union.
“The economic crisis has had serious negative effects on the European Union,” said Dimitris Daskalopoulos, a Greek entrepreneur and chairman of NEON, an organization for culture and development in Athens.
“It has led to re-fragmentation, the recurrence of nationalism, an increase in Euro-negativism and the alienation of its citizens, who are worried that Europe’s promise of increasing prosperity and social benefits is being jeopardized by fiscal discipline and emphasis on austerity and structural reforms.”
The show’s ongoing political bent was in evidence recently: Just before the Greek referendum, Mr. Szymczyk told Die Zeit newspaper that he wanted the show to change people’s views of Greece.
Visiting Athens, the curator said: “People are in a kind of state of shock and traumatized. This trauma has lasted for years and blocks their ability to react. I haven’t seen either enthusiasm or panic, but rather introspection, worry and even shame. ”
Mr. Szymczyk lamented the fact that people are quick to judge the Greeks, and said he himself “aimed to leave the position of power, of authority, as far as possible and assume the position of weakness in order to exercise solidarity and learn from it.”
Ms. Kulenkampff said, “Mr. Szymczyk has touched on a very important topic which is clear from the reactions that his proposal has provoked so far.”
The Documenta has always sought to provoke; the first exhibition, in 1955, was created by professor Arnold Bode who wanted to present art that had been banned by the Nazis.
Originally the show took place every four years and was initially one part of Germany’s biennial horticulture show.
Since its inception, the Documenta has been known for pushing the boundaries of the art world and for using the city of Kassel as an exhibition space, from its parks to its pubs and clubs.
In what might be seen as a nod to the show’s early roots, the Documenta in 1982 featured 7,000 oaks. That year, Joseph Beuys, one of Germany’s seminal artists, planted the oaks all over Kassel with the help of thousands of volunteers. The project aimed to question the lack of ecological concern in the city during the 1980s.
The Documenta faces stiff competition on the international stage; with more than 220 recurring international art shows worldwide, the exhibition from Kassel undoubtedly has rivals. But of those, even the most famous, the Venice Biennale, managed to attract only 470,000 visitors in 2012, compared to 860,000 art fans who attended the Documenta in 2012 during its 100 days.
The show’s finances are solid and a strong economic factor for the city of Kassel; the most recent Documenta generated a profit of €1.45 million ($1.6 million).
Alongside the economic benefits, it is a sure bet that the coming show will offer much to explore, too.
Video: Documenta 13.
Sarah Mewes is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org