What 7000 Oaks Have to Do with Art

All You Need to Know about the Documenta Art Show

Ruth Polleit-Riechert, PhD for smart-collectors, April 29, 2017

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 display of modern art which, as such, has not existed for the German public during the National Socialism era. In its first years, documenta was about the abstract art of the 1920s and 1930s, focussing on works by European artists. Later on, it opened up for contemporary art, including works by 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 shows.

So far, two of documenta’s editions have been particularly important in art history: In 1972, the Swiss curator Harald Szeemann equalised 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?

Some of the works exhibited at the various documenta shows 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 documenta 7. With the help of volunteers, over several years, Beuys planted 7,000 oak trees in Kassel, each with an accompanying basalt stone.

How does documenta work?

On behalf of the board of the documenta gGmbH, an international jury appoints an Artistic Director for each exhibition. documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH is a non-profit organisation 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 sales exhibition. Its budget usually comes from the German state, ticket sales, private donations, and corporate sponsorship.

The role of the Artistic Directors is highly important: they conceive the concepts for the respective documenta. 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 Directors and their teams choose up to 200 international artists to participate in the exhibition, giving the artists at least two years to develop their projects. Typically, works are intellectually complex. Most of the time, the names of the participating artists are not made public before the documenta’s opening.

What is unique 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), the 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 the 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 one project for each location.

As a result, more than 160 international artists have been producing art projects on topics such as 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 the Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA), and Beau Dick (1955–2017), a Kwakwaka’wakw artist from the Northwest Coast of Canada, is represented with masks from different series since 1990.

Half of documenta 14’s budget of 37 million euro spent between 2013 and 2018 comes from the German state. The other half will be covered by ticket sales, private donations and corporate sponsorship.

documenta in Athens has opened its doors on April 8 and will continue until July 16th, 2017. documenta in Kassel will be open from 10 June 19th until September 17th, 2017.

Learn about art every week:

Art Historian Ruth Polleit Riechert, PhD, explains everything you need to know about art in smart-collectors’ weekly newsletter “Art A — Z”, which is published every Friday. Sign up for our newsletter here. See also our previous posts about “Street Art” and “Printmaking”. Smart-collectors is a brand-new art lending and selling platform.

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