All you need to know about art show documenta

documenta is an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in the city of Kassel, Germany. It was founded by artist, teacher and curator Arnold Bode (1900–1977) in 1955 as part of the Bundesgartenschau (Federal Horticultural Show).

The exhibition was meant to be a documentation of modern art which was not available for the German public during the National Socialism era. In its first years, documenta was about abstract art of the 1920s and 1930s, concentrated on works from European artists. Later on, it opened up for contemporary art, including also work from American, African and Asian artists.

documenta has become the biggest of the international art world’s exhibitions — typically with more than 200 artists and a great number of exhibition sites. It ranks among the world’s most highly regarded art exhibitions.

Two of documenta’s 14 editions have been particularly important in art history so far: In 1972, the Swiss curator Harald Szeemann equalized the classical genres “painting” and “sculpture” with upcoming “conceptional art” and “happenings”. And in 2002, director Okwui Enwezor from Nigeria created a global art exhibition in which art from Europe was no longer central.

Which works are famous?

Joseph Beuys, “7000 Oaks”, 1982–1987.

Some of the works exhibited at various documenta are on display in museums in Kassel. Other have made an impact on the city’s appearance — such as, for instance, “7000 Eichen” (“7000 Oaks”) by Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) and “Man walking to the sky” (1992) by Jonathan Borofsky (b. 1942). Beuys’ project “7000 Oaks” was first publicly presented in 1982 at the documenta 7. With the help of volunteers, Beuys planted 7,000 oak trees over several years in Kassel, each with an accompanying basalt stone.

How does documenta work?

On behalf of the board of documenta gGmbH, an international jury appoints the Artistic Director for each exhibition. documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH is a non-profit organization run by the City of Kassel, the State of Hesse and the German Federal Cultural Foundation.

Every documenta is limited to 100 days, which is why it is often referred to as the “museum of 100 days”. Documenta is not a selling exhibition. Its budget usually comes partly from the German state, ticket sales, private donations and corporate sponsorship.

The role of the Artistic Director is highly important: documenta’s concepts are formed by him. The exhibition is traditionally not only a forum for current trends in contemporary art but also sets new exhibition standards and pushes the international discourse about art in new directions. It is not unusual that the issues addressed by documenta are highly political.

The Artistic Director and his team choose up to 200 international artists to take part in the exhibition. The artists have at least two years left to develop their projects. Typically, works are often intellectually complex. Most of the time, the names of the participating artists are not made public before documenta’s opening.

What is special about this year’s documenta 14?

In 2017, for the first time in its history, documenta will be split between two cities: Kassel and Athens, Greece. This decision was made by artistic Director Adam Szymczyk (b. 1970 in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland) and former Director of Kunsthalle Basel. He has given the two-city-exhibition the title “Documenta 14: Learning From Athens.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Szymczyk said, that he wanted the exhibition to make Germany look at Greece differently: “A cultural enterprise of this magnitude has power to influence politics.” He has invited participating artists to create artworks in the context of the relationship between Kassel and Athens and to develop a work for each location.

As a result, more than 160 international artists have been producing art projects on topics like value, identity and migration. The American painter Stanley Whitney (b. 1946), for example, has created the painting “Gift to Athena”, Australian artist Gordon Hookey (b. 1961) has painted a mural at Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA), and Beau Dick (1955–2017), a Kwakwaka’wakw Northwest Coast artist from Canada, is represented with masks from different series since 1990.

Stanley Whitney, “Gift to Athena”, 2016.
Gordon Hookey, “Solidarity”, Mural at Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA), 2017.
Beau Dick, “Masks”, 1990–2017. Foto: dpa

Half of documenta 14’s budget of 37 million euro spent between 2013 and 2018 comes from the German state. The other half is planned to come in from ticket sales, private donations and corporate sponsorship.

documenta in Athens has opened on April 8 and will last until July 16th, 2017. documenta in Kassel will run from 10 June 19th until September 17th, 2017.

Learn about art:

Art Historian Ruth Polleit Riechert, PhD, explains everything you need to know about art in our newsletter “Art A — Z”. Sign up for it here:

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