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Documenta's direction

Interview: Sabine Oelze / seNovember 26, 2013

Polish curator Adam Szymczyk will be the artistic director of the Documenta 14 in Kassel. Documenta professor Dorothea von Hantelmann explains what that means for the world's most famous contempory art festival.

Portrait of Dorothea von Hantelmann
Image: Universität Kassel

A couple of years ago, The New York Times called him a rock star among curators of contemporary art. Between 1997 and 2003, Adam Szymczyk was the curator of the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw, Poland. Over the past 10 years, he has worked with many contemporary artists on publications and exhibitions. In 2008, he was a co-curator of the Biennale in Berlin. Now, a commission of eight headed by Susanne Gaensheimer, director of the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt's museum of modern art, decided unanimously on Szymczyk.

DW spoke with Berlin-based art historian and Documenta professor Dorothea von Hantelmann.

DW: How would you assess the decision to name Adam Szymczyk Documenta's next curator?

Dorothea von Hantelmann: The special thing with the decision-making process is that the candidates are chosen on the basis of the concepts they've submitted. I can't say how the decision came about.

Directing the Documenta is a difficult task when you consider that, in contrast to other blockbuster exhibitions or biennials, you have to represent the "state of the art." You should show what's relevant in the world of art, but also today's developments in thought. You need radical formats and also courage to experiment.

A portrait of Adam Szymczyk at the announcement that he would nead the next Documenta in 2014 (Photo: Uwe Zucchi)
Adam Szymczyk will shape Documenta 14 with his creativityImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Adam Szymczyk has already worked for a long time as a curator. What are his main achievements to date?

He led the Berlin Biennale in 2008; he is the curator of the Kunsthalle Basel. He stands for good, but rather conventional exhibitions. Personally, I would have wished for more courage and a more experimental approach. But perhaps Szymczyk also has that in mind; I still don't know the concept he submitted.

What sort of a role has Eastern European art played so far in the history of Documenta?

It hasn't played an especially large role so far. To look at it from this position, the decision is understandable. It's the first time a candidate from Eastern Europe has been chosen. I find that to be an interesting combination. I can see that these artists, which haven't had much presence before, could gain a larger forum through Documenta.

Arnold Bode was the founder and driving force behind Documenta, leading the contemporary art festival three times. How have the challenges involved changed from 1955 to 2017?

Firstly, Documenta has become a global exhibition. Already in Bode's lifetime [1900-1977] and the first three Documenta exhibitions, it became apparent that it was not enough to show art that would traditionally be accepted into a museum. It was about making an exhibition which represented the present and not the old masters, which were already being shown in museums. That was already the challenge of Documenta at the time: to present young artwork which is not yet canonized and, at the same time, to derive a thematic thread out of it.

Harald Szeemann took the helm in 1972 and represented a change of generations at the Documenta 5.

The big new challenge comes from the global perspective. With Documenta 10, the global dimension came into the picture and even more considerably with Documenta 11. It's not enough anymore to look from Europe outwards. This is the task every Documenta director must tackle.

Giuseppe Penone: "Idee di Pietra" mit documenta-Visitors to Documenta 13, held in 2013 (Photo: DW/Jochen Kürten)
The festivals are known for showcasing the unexpected; pictured is Documenta 13Image: DW

And another thing: It's not enough to look just at visual art. People expect more from Documenta. It must not only take on important questions of the present, it must also present its themes in a way that is accessible for 800,000 visitors. That's not easy.

There have been different directors that have opened up specific perceptions of art. Manfred Schneckenburg was the first to involve the media, Okwui Enwezor took a look at the African continent. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev interlocked art and life. When did the head of Documenta begin to select his or her own submitted concepts?

That began with Harald Szeemann and his Documenta 5. He was the first to suggest a themed exhibition. He did not want to show an exhibition with the most important artists from the position of the art history knowledge of the present age.

In contrast, he wanted to put forward his perspective of the time. With that, the curator was pushed into the center. That's what Harald Szeemann stands for with his "d5." That has become a signature of Documenta - it has a continuing administrative structure, but every new leader starts at zero. Documenta reinvents itself every time, along with the person who leads it. It is fixed in the rules that there is only one authorship and that is the authorship of the artistic director.

Documenta 13 had branches in Afghanistan and Egypt. Does it still make sense to keep it located in Kassel?

Of course it makes sense! Hardly anyone saw the exhibitions in Kabul or Cairo. It has become that Documenta is the exhibition that is held in Kassel. I think that is very important. Documenta comes from a historical connection. That gives it consistency - for example, the idea that it takes place only every five years. That is important to retain the character of the exhibition. You can't arbitrarily change that.

An Afghan man visits the Documenta Exhibition in Bagh-e Babur in Kabul on June 26, 2012 (Photo: MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/GettyImages)
The Documenta exhibition in Kabul in 2012Image: AFP/Getty Images

There were 860,000 visitors who saw Documenta 13 - a record number. To what extent is Documenta first and foremost a show for the public, or an event?

After the Second World War, Kassel had 70,000 inhabitants and 130,000 visitors came to the first Documenta. So the first Documenta was already a gigantic success with the public and developed a new type of cultural tourism that had not existed before.

Of course you have to consider this development within a larger context: Cultural activities were expanding enormously, with countless biennials and art museums. Documenta was part of this wave. One can surely criticize this development. But as an art academic I must say, I think it's great when so many people are interested in art.

This year, Dorothea von Hantelmann was appointed the first Documenta professor at the University of Kassel's School of Art and Design. Born in Hamburg, the 43-year-old formerly worked at the Freie Universtität in Berlin and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Documenta 14 will be held in Kassel from June to September 2017.