The Documenta in Kassel: One of the world′s most important art shows | Arts | DW | 16.09.2015

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The Documenta in Kassel: One of the world's most important art shows

It documents the latest trends in the art world and is a lab for artistic experimentation. The art show Documenta attracts an international audience to Kassel. Here's why the event cannot be overlooked.

The Documenta has written art history - both in Germany and abroad. It all began shortly after World War II had come to an end, in the provincial central German town of Kassel. Painter and art professor Arnold Bode had the idea to present art that had been forbidden by the Nazis in an international exhibition. It was a courageous endeavor in post-war Germany. The audience would be confronted with works from countries that had recently been their enemies: Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgian, the US.

The rise of American Pop Art

In the early 1950s, people were hungry for freedom of expression. The first Documenta, which began on July 15, 1955, drew 130,000 visitors from Germany and abroad. Impressive large-scale sculptures by British artist Henry Moore and mobiles by Alexander Calder were on display along with daring, abstract art by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Fritz Winter. Many German artists who had disappeared for years, either because they'd been prohibited from working or because they'd fled the Nazi regime, exhibited their works in Kassel for the first time again.

The entry fee was cheap at the first Documenta - just 1.50 marks - and a visit to the labyrinthian art parcour was affordable for guests who otherwise didn't have the extra cash for a museum visit. The reconstruction of Kassel's Museum Fridericianum wasn't quite finished, but it still served as a partially improvised exhibition hall for 148 artists.

Arnold Bode was encouraged by the positive international response and planned the next Documenta for 1959, together with art historian Werner Haftmann. The latter brought in large-format paintings from American artists - which led to a certain amount of tension. There wasn't enough space for them and the European artists felt underrepresented. As a result, a second building, the Orangerie, was incorporated into the exhibition space.

The event started showing more and more international works. American Pop Art was in and Bode increasingly invited artists from overseas. At Documenta 3 in 1964, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Allen Jones presented some of their Pop Art icons for the first time in Kassel. But they remained outsiders and it wasn't until Documenta 4 that Pop Art really took over - above all with Andy Warhol's "Marilyn."

Honey pumps and guillotines

1968 marks a turning point for Documenta. Arnold Bode resigned and, for the first time, a committee selected the artists to be exhibited. Spectacular events and provocative performance art dominated the show. The opening was accompanied by hefty public protests because certain types of art weren't represented. It wasn't until Documenta 5 in 1972, curated by Harald Szeemann, that the event became more settled, showing Fluxus art and conceptional works, including Joseph Beuys.

From 1977 Documenta took place every five years instead of every four, drawing out the anticipation between each show. Manfred Schneckenburger, artistic director of Documenta 6, presented political art and Joseph Beuys' political sculptures. His "Honey Pump in the Workplace," an enormous installation that saw fat and honey pumped through an intricate network of tubes, was seen by 343,000 visitors who held mixed opinions.

Laser art was juxtaposed with traditional sculptures and, for the first time, works from East Germany were on display. Richard Serra's giant steel sculpture "Terminal" raised eyebrows, and photography was included in the Documenta canon for the first time.

The two Documentas in the 80s headed outdoors. At the seventh show in 1982, Kassel received two landmarks with American artist Claes Oldenburg's 12-meter-tall pick axe installation and Joseph Beuys' "7,000 oaks" project, in which as many trees were planted in the city together with basalt posts.

For Documenta 8, Manfred Schneckenburger had to jump in again as artistic director since the leadership team were in disagreement. Performance and video art by Nam June Paik, Marie-Jo Lafontaine and Fabrizio Plessi were highlighted along with outdoor sculptures in the surrounding garden areas. Guillotines by Scottish artist Ian Hamilton drew attention, and children were told to stay away from the artistic death machine. In 1992, Belgian director Jan Hoet was accused of creating an "art circus" and the more-than 1,000 artworks on show pushed up expenses to seven figures.

Documenta goes to Greece

The first woman to head Documenta evoked headlines and criticism with show number 10. Catherine David aimed to give a platform to political criticism, and the political discussion series "100 days - 100 guests" drew global attention. Okwui Enwezor, head of the following show, was a guest in the series. David showed works by prestigious artists, but also introduced a film program. The visitor count rose to 630,000.

David's successors expanded on her success. Okwui Enzewor of Nigeria invited 118 artists and solidified Documenta's reputation as a world expo of contemporary art. Along with Western works, he also sought out art from Africa, Asia and Latin America for the 2002 show. In 2007, Austrian director Roger Martin brought in works that were hundreds of years old. But the most popular artist that year was Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, who broke the visitor record with his performance piece "Fairytale," which brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel to participate in the show as guests.

In 2012, Carolyn Christov-Bakariev expanded Documenta 13 by showing works by 300 selected artists outside of Kassel - in Kabul, Cairo and Banff, Canada. Many of the works were created on location and not transported to the three cities.

The next Documenta is scheduled for 2017, under the direction of Adam Szymczyk. The show will take place for the first time in both Kassel and Athens.

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