Avant-garde art on show as ′documenta′ returns | Arts | DW | 30.05.2012
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Avant-garde art on show as 'documenta' returns

The art show 'documenta' was established in 1955 to attract tourists to Kassel. Since then, the five-yearly exhibition has shown the most important trends in contemporary art. But it all began with flowers.

Ten years after the end of the Second World War, geraniums and primroses were blooming in Kassel. The Federal Horticultural Show aimed to bring a little color to the bombed-out northern Hessian town. Back then though, visitors to Kassel were able to view more than just the latest trends in garden design. The Federal Horticultural Show was accompanied by an art exhibition: the first 'documenta.'

That this would become a landmark project in the history of art was not immediately evident. A few sculptures were planned for the first exhibition with the simple idea of complimenting the garden show. But then, artist Arnold Bode founded an association, raised 379,000 Deutsch Marks (worth approximately 189,500 euros or $235,000 at today's exchange rate) and exhibited 670 artworks.

Dealing with the past

The first Documenta was curated by Arnold Bode who exhibited 670 artworks in 1955

The first documenta was curated by Arnold Bode who exhibited 670 artworks in 1955

"documenta 1 was a look back at art before the Second World War," remembered Manfred Schneckenburger, the only German to have twice been selected as chief curator of the international art exhibition. "It was a summary of what the Germans were unable to see for many years, because of what the Nazi's categorized as 'degenerate art'."

Arnold Bode, himself an artist who was forbidden from practicing during the Third Reich, was responsible for rehabilitating the avant-garde art ostracized by the National Socialists in the war damaged Museum Fridericianum: Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Oskar Schlemmer, Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and many other highly esteemed artists were represented.

documenta identified itself as an international exhibition but paid special attention to German art. "It was a retrospective look to the future, that had not yet arrived in the present," explained Schneckenburger.

From periphery to center

1955 marked an economic new beginning for Kassel. The idea of establishing a great art exhibition in a provincial town had a lot to do with the special situation Kassel found itself in. The economic wonder seemed to have passed Kassel by. Unemployment was high. Eighty percent of buildings and town infrastructure lay in ruins, destroyed in the Second World War. In addition, the Iron Curtain had pushed the central German town to the periphery.

Arnold Bode managed to create a sensation. From the idea of promoting a city through art, he developed a concept that has turned Kassel into an art-world focus every five years since. Bode has been responsible for the selection of exhibits four times in total.

Milestone: documenta 5

American artist James Lee Byars before the Museum Fridericianumat at Documenta 5

American artist James Lee Byars stands before the Museum Fridericianumat at documenta 5

For the first time, a different curator took charge of the selection. "In 1972, Swiss-national Harald Szeeman set the scene for contemporary art with all its problems and contradictions," said Manfred Schneckenburger, who still remembers the anarchic architecture exhibition. It was the first time that the exhibition had a theme: "Inquiry into Reality – Today's Imagery." Joseph Beuys' "Office of the Organization for Direct Democracy by Popular Vote," in which he discussed with visitors the question of the direct implementation and realization of democracy for 100 days, drew a lot of attention at the exhibition.

"Calling German Names" was the name of James Lee Byars' now legendary art action. From the portico on top of the Museum Fredericianum, Byars shouted German names at random through a golden megaphone. Action art and Conceptual art by other American art stars were given a forum at "d5" (Eds. documenta 5). He ensured that contemporary art would become a permanent fixture in Kassel.

Manfred Schneckenburger, pictured here at Documenta 6, curated Documenta 6 and 8

Manfred Schneckenburger, pictured here at documenta 6

Every documenta tries to reinvent itself. Manfred Schneckenburger's sixth edition in 1977 was characterized as "Media documenta," because it focused on photo and video art. "It not only mapped previous developments in photo and video art, but secured photography and multi-media art's place in the art world." Schneckenburger was also the first curator to display art from the German Democratic Republic.

Another famous action, this time at documenta 7, was the planting of 7000 oak trees by Joseph Beuys. "City Forestation Instead of City Administration" was the title of his contribution which was only completed five years later, namely at documenta 8, curated once again by Manfred Schneckenburger. "The 'd8' was more traditional. It dealt with the previous five years with individual retrospectives," he explained. That Schneckenburger and his predecessors should place the focus of documenta on European art had not only to do with Cold War. "Back then there was no Internet, it was not possible to gather information from all over."

Global not local

It was not until 2002 when the selection of artworks at documenta focused on art from outside of Europe. The artistic director of documenta11, Okwui Enwezor, was born in Nigeria and grew up in the USA. He examined the consequences of colonialism in Asia, Africa and Latin America. He opened satellite platforms in order to draw art out of Kassel to places such as Lagos, New Delhi and Vienna.

For documenta (13), due to open June 9, 2012, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has spread the radar even further. Artists from 50 countries are participating in the exhibition. Works will be exhibited in places as far afield as the Australian desert and the North Pole.

A lot has changed between 1955 and 2012. Commerce and event culture now have a firm grip on the art industry. Nevertheless, Manfred Schneckenburger is still convinced of documenta's international influence. "As long as documenta can still get people excited about contemporary art, it has not only achieved its own aims, but it has also demonstrated its position as the world's most important art exhibition."

Author: Jochen Kürten / hw
Editor: Jessie Wingard

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