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documenta 13

February 7, 2012

Every four years, Kassel is transformed into a global art capital during the documenta contemporary art fair. The event may be a little ways off, but preparations are now in high gear.

Gearing up for documenta (13)Image: picture alliance / dpa

Kassel, in the northern part of the German state of Hesse, will open its doors to art lovers from around the world on June 9, when documenta (13) kicks off. It's one of the largest shows of contemporary art in the world. But until that happens, there's plenty to be done.

Christine Litz, documenta (13) project manager, is kneeling down next to an apple tree in Kassel's main park in the drizzling rain. "It still has to grow a bit," says the 44-year-old, smiling. Planted just a few weeks ago by this year's documenta artist director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the tree is little more than a tentative twig supported by a large wooden stake.

It's just one of the preparations for this park, or Parkaue as it's called here, which will be a main venue for documenta this summer, and will be transformed into a kind of outdoor museum.

Around the world in a day

American Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev wants to catch visitors to documenta (13) off guard. To that end, the artistic director traveled to 50 different countries and all the world's continents to ultimately ask 158 artists to present a work at the show. Most of the artists will be creating their works on site in Kassel.

Right now, Christov-Bakargiev is once again on the road to meet up with the participating artists and promote the exhibition.

The exact list of participants is, however, a well-guarded secret. Code jargon is even used when talking about some of the artists, and abbreviations are found in office file names rather than proper names, says project manager Litz. But, she does say that artistic director Christov-Bakargiev has a very broad view of art.

Penone and Durham are the only names of artists that have been revealed to the public. American artist Jimmie Durham has likewise planted an apple tree in Kassel's park, along with Christov-Bakargiev. It's an Arkansas black apple tree, and reminded Dunham of his childhood.

Christov-Bakargiev's apple tree is named after Catholic priest Korbinian Aigner, who was deported to the Dachau concentration camp during the Nazi period. There, he bred four different types of apple trees; the one he christened "KZ3" (KZ is the German abbreviation for concentration camp) was later renamed "Korbinian." The project is reminiscent of the whopping 7,000 oaks artist Joseph Beuys - a hero of post-war modernity - had planted at documenta back in 1982.

Those who see trees as a symbol of life and art will be well-equipped for documenta (13). After all, the Korbinian apple tree and the Arkansas black apple won't be the only green documenta artworks: Italian artist Guissepe Penone has created a sculpture of a hazelnut tree in whose cut-back branches sits a three-ton boulder.

Gardeners, car mechanics as guides

Connecting various disciplines, especially old and future-oriented knowledge, but also theory and practice, has played a major role at this year's documenta, says 30-year-old Julia Moritz, director of the documenta education department. What that all translates to can be seen in the name of the guided tour program: "Detours." Some 160 art experts, students, pupils, but also math professors, psychologists, translators, gardeners and even a car mechanic will guide the expected 700,000 visitors through the documenta exhibition, and are asked to enter into dialogue with them on these "walks." That sounds both down-to-earth and free-spirited at the same time.

Two criteria were central to Moritz in determining who would be documenta (13) guides - one, that they were based in Kassel and, two, that not only art experts, but people with an entirely different view on art would participate. The response was enormous, with over 700 applicants. One who was selected is an 86-year-old retiree who still has vivid memories of the very first documenta in 1955, run by Arnold Bode.

Passion is key, says Moritz, with "mental flexibility" and "enthusiasm" being two other criteria that are essential for the job. The companions, as the guides are called, are trained in rhetoric and are permitted (and expected) to see how the artworks are created on site. They will follow a highly organized schedule for the 100-day exhibition.

Calm before the storm

Fifty-year-old Australian Terry Harding and 28-year-old Henriette Gallus will ensure that as many people as possible hear about documenta (13) as of June 9. Such a huge media event is a premiere for the two documenta (13) spokespeople. Still, despite 15,000 journalists expected to attend the event, they don't appear nervous. They say they're pleased to be able to participate in writing art history, despite all the commotion and rushed preparation period.

What the Korbinian apple tree will mean in it all will be revealed after the opening of documenta (13) in June.

Authors: Sabine Oelze / Laura Döing / als
Editor: Kate Bowen

Penone's artwork revealed in 2010: a sculpture of dead tree with a boulder sitting in its branches
Penone's work was already unveiled back in 2010Image: picture-alliance/dpa
View of flat fields of park to be turned into outdoor museum
A park as a documenta (13) playgroundImage: DW/Sabine Oelze
Jimmie Durham is one artist who's been revealed as a documenta participant
Jimmie Durham is a documenta participating artistImage: Nils Klinger