Why the Art World Descends on a Small German City Once Every Five Years
Earlier this week, the international art world once again descended on Kassel, Germany, for this year’s edition of Documenta, a recurring art exhibition that holds considerable influence for artists, curators, dealers, critics, and more. Curated by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, the offerings are set to be offbeat and experimental, and what exactly the exhibition holds is still unfolding.
But what is Documenta, and why does the art world care about it so much? Below is a guide to one of the world’s most storied art exhibitions, its many controversies, and the many oddities that have come with it.
What, exactly, is Documenta?
Most in the art world would say it’s one of the most important recurring exhibitions held anywhere. Staged once every five years in Kassel, Germany, it is held in high esteem among artists, curators, and art historians, though less so, perhaps, among collectors and dealers, since its offerings tend to skew more academic and less market-friendly than what appears at the Venice Biennale in Italy.
Often, the spirit that guides Documenta is imbued with a kind of weirdness that is lacking in other, more buttoned-up biennials. It’s also often cloaked in mystery, with its artist list often dropped just days before the show opens.
The curators that are chosen to helm Documenta typically work in an experimental vein, with unconventional exhibition structures and an emphasis on conceptual art in more recent editions. In the past decade, Documenta’s curators have also taken a global focus, making it part of their remit to look beyond Europe for their artist lists.
So, what makes Documenta so important, anyway?
The answer to this one will vary a lot, depending on the person, but almost everyone will agree that Documenta is a forward-thinking show that influences curators and historians.
The first few editions of Documenta are credited with having boosted the international profile of movements like Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Conceptualism. Catherine David’s Documenta X, from 1997, is fondly remembered for hosting digital art projects on its website before that sort of thing was the norm at biennials. Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11, from 2002, initiated a turn toward a globalist purview that is still being felt in the art world. Adam Szymczyk’s Documenta 14, from 2017, placed a crucial focus on Indigenous art that has rippled out to other biennials in the years since.
In addition to pushing international biennials in new directions, Documenta has a tendency to bring new figures into the canon. As a result, artists whose work previously wasn’t well-known to the international art world can get larger attention and begin to appear in museums.
Kassel is a schlep. Is the trip worth it?
Yes. Documenta is an enormous show, with 32 venues planned for the 2022 edition, including the Fridericianum, the biggest museum in Kassel and one of the oldest institutions in Europe. And in a way, it could be worse: Documenta 14, held in 2017, was spread across both Kassel and Athens, making it difficult to see the whole show. And 2012’s Documenta 13, organized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, included portions in Kabul, Afghanistan; Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt; and Banff, Canada.
The good news is that once every decade, the Venice Biennale and Documenta align. Because the pandemic forced the postponement of the Venice Biennale for a year, that show and Documenta are taking place concurrently once again. All of this is not to mention that the 2022 Berlin Biennale has also lined up with Documenta and the Biennale this year.
Who gets to curate Documenta?
Almost every edition has been helmed by one person who was picked by a selection committee. That person then picks other curators to serve on a team that ultimately helps organize the show. Although the artistic director of each edition tends to get the most attention, spots on the curatorial team are also coveted posts, and obtaining one can be a career-making achievement. In 2014, the Art Newspaper reported that the artistic director receives around 100,000 euros a year.
For a long time, Documenta was the province of white Europeans, many of whom were men, and so it was considered groundbreaking when, in 1997, Catherine David became the first woman to oversee an edition of the show. The next edition, in 2002, was helmed by Okwui Enwezor, who remains the only Black curator, and the only African-born one, to organize an edition of Documenta.
The 2022 edition was curated by ruangrupa, an Indonesian collective, which is the first artists’ group to organize an edition of Documenta. (It is not the first time Documenta has been organized by multiple people, however—that would be 1968’s, when a 24-person council split up the leadership.) Ruangrupa is also the sole group or person from Asia to curate Documenta. As of 2022, there has never been a Latin American, Latinx, or Indigenous artistic director of Documenta.
Who gets to be in Documenta?
There’s no set mandate for who gets to be in Documenta, which is left to the discretion of the artistic director. Where Documenta differs from most other biennials like it is that most chosen artists are relatively lesser-known in Europe. That doesn’t always mean they’re in the early stages in their careers, however. Many dead artists have been shown at Documenta years after their passing, and some participants are late-career artists who go on to achieve greater recognition as a result of showing there. Generally, artists are given two years to craft their Documenta projects.
Who funds Documenta?
The German taxpayers’ money essentially helps mount the country’s most important art exhibition. Budgets for each edition vary significantly, though the 2022 one was given €42 million (the equivalent of $51 million when it was initially announced), the largest amount ever set aside for a Documenta show to date.
Why is Documenta held in Kassel?
Kassel is no Venice, and for those outside Germany, it can seem a bit of a mystery as to why the art world would flock there for a quinquennial. Ultimately, it all comes down to history. Documenta was founded by the art historian Arnold Bode, who was a Kassel resident, and he planned the first edition to coincide with the Bundesgartenschau, a roving biennial devoted to landscaping that is known, among other things, for its rich displays of flowers. In 1955, the year of the first Documenta, the Bundesgartenschau was held in Kassel.
How did the first Documenta come about?
The first Documenta, from 1955, was staged a mere decade after World War II, which had left Germany in shambles. The specter of Nazism continued to haunt the nation, and at the time, the last major exhibition of modern art was “Degenerate Art,” a show staged by the Nazi Party that intended to cast the avant-garde as politically backward and potentially detrimental to German society. Seeking to help Germany rehabilitate itself, Bode sought to organize an exhibition that would “reveal the roots of contemporary art in all areas,” as he once put it.
The resulting 168-artist show elevated the modern art that had at one point been scorned in Germany, staking a claim for the continued relevance of figures like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, and more. Almost all of the artists were white men, although women like Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Paula Modersohn-Becker were included. (The gender and racial imbalance persisted for many years, and once prompted the collective the Guerrilla Girls to ask in 1987 why that year’s Documenta was 95 percent white and 83 percent male.) Bode’s first Documenta was a hit, with 130,000 people visiting the show in 100 days.
Documenta 2, in 1959, was even bigger, with 339 artists and 1,770 works. Since then, the show has continued to grow in scale—and attendance numbers, too, have continued to mount.
What else should I know about Documenta’s history?
There has been a good deal of recent scholarship surrounding Documenta and the hidden politics contained within the show. The most explosive revelation to result from that research was news that art historian Werner Haftmann, an adviser who consulted with Bode on the first few editions, was a member of the SA, the Nazi paramilitary wing. A 2021 exhibition about Documenta’s history at the German Historical Museum in Berlin asserted that other initial advisers also bore out Nazi connections.
That show also explored the role that Documenta played in shaping global politics, most notably through the elevation of American-led movements such as Abstract Expressionism in editions like Documenta 2. The following edition also involved an organization that received funding from the CIA. Lars Bang Larsen, the show’s curator, told Artnet News that, in its early years, “Documenta was part of a geopolitical battle and a cultural battle.”
Are there other controversies surrounding Documenta that I need to be aware of?
Yes, perhaps too many to count, since each edition comes with its own ado or two (or three, or four, or even more, sometimes). Documenta 14, for example, faced allegations from all sides that its organizers had severely mismanaged funding. (The curators denied this.) Documenta 15, the current one, is currently in the midst of controversy over the inclusion of a Palestinian collective, which some Jewish groups have construed as being anti-Semitic. (The curators have also denied that.)
The Venice Biennale has the Golden Lion. Does Documenta give out its own prize?
Documenta awards the Arnold Bode Prize, although it comes with far less clout (though more money) than the Golden Lion. Technically given out by the city of Kassel, the prize comes with just 10,000 euros. (There is no monetary award for the Golden Lion.) It is awarded biannually and during every Documenta edition, with past winners including Hans Haacke, Olu Oguibe, and Gerhard Richter.
Is the art at Documenta for sale?
Documenta is not a selling exhibition, so the work cannot be bought in the traditional sense by approaching a representative for Documenta, as one would for a gallery at a fair like Art Basel. Still, Art Basel’s opening often overlaps with—or occurs close to—Documenta’s, which means dealers will try to use the momentum gained from participation in that show to hawk works at the fair.
How much does it cost to attend Documenta?
In 2022, a full-price single-day adult ticket cost a relatively affordable 27 euros ($28). That ticket includes access to local transportation, which comes in handy when you’re trying to access dozens of venues. But Documenta is too big to see in full in one day, and so the show also offers a two-day option at 45 euros ($47).
A Stunning Exhibition in an Athens Park Sets A New Standard for Digital Art
When it comes to creating exhibitions, there are two categories that are particularly difficult to pull off: the digital exhibition, laden with technical productions and sub-par display options, and the exhibition in the public space, which means jumping bureaucratic hurdles while being attentive to a myriad of community stakeholders.
In an incredibly ambitious move, the Onassis Foundation in Athens has staged “Plásmata: Bodies, Dreams, and Data” a digital exhibition in Pedion tou Areos, or Ares’ Battlefield, an old military training ground since converted into one of the city’s largest parks..
“And you know, it was like a battle,” Afroditi Panagiotakou, the Director of Culture at the Onassis Foundation, told ARTnews. Reclining on a couch at the Onassis offices, wearing a mesh disco suit and platform heels, Panagiotakou discussed the challenge of orchestrating the massive public undertaking.
“When it comes to the things that we do in our own venue, we really have zero concern on whether we’re going to be liked or not,” she said. “But when we go to the public space, there should be none of this confidence. You have to find the tricky balance between: how am I going to present worthy, challenging works, and also respect the fact that I’m acting in a public space.”
This question seems to sum up Panagiotakou’s personality, which contains both an assertive sense of her tastes and values, while being deeply aware of her duties. Aside from her civic ethos, Onassis’s cultural funding is second to none in Greece and represents a huge responsibility for all involved.
A Unique Foundation
Eva and Franco Mattes, The Bots, 2021
Photo : Courtesy Onassis
The Foundation was founded by Aristotle Socrates Onassis, a Greek shipping magnate and husband to Jackie Kennedy after JFK’s assassination. After the death of his son Alexander in 1974, Onassis directed a whopping 40% of the profits from his shipping company – even today, one of the world’s largest oil and petroleum transporters – to the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation, dedicated specifically to supporting cultural works and activations.
Panagiotakou and her colleagues at Onassis have a great burden, one which the public is constantly commenting on.
“For our 10th anniversary we are compiling a book called Onassis Would Be Rolling in His Grave,” said Panagiotakou. “People tell us this all the time.”
Greece’s conservatives often brand the Foundation as a shelter for “perverts” – i.e. LGBT community, anti-racists, and all the categories of people opposed to them. The “Onassis would be rolling in his grave,” feedback came at times like when the Foundation projected the face of Zak Kostopoulos on the side of their building, a trans activist who was beaten to death, practically in broad daylight.
Yet, the programming at Onassis does not fall so easily along one side of the culture war, at least as we understand it in the US. Frankenstein – The Lost Paradise, for example, a new play by the controversial writer Lena Kitsopoulou, was introduced to me a tad nervously by a staff member as, “Not politically correct…at all.”
When it came to “Plásmata”, the goal was not to be provocative.
“We are guests of the park and the public. That space is not ours,” Panagiotakou said..
To prepare, Onassis’ staff spoke with everyone from people living in apartments around the park down to the kiosk and restaurant owners nearby.
“Everybody. I think that is why it was so welcomed,” said Panagiotakou.“No one has destroyed anything. Yet.”
It's All in the Details
Refik Anadol, Quantum Memories–Probability (2021)
Photo : Courtesy Onassis
“Plásmata” opens with Quantum Memories–Probability (2021), a gentle yet monumental work by Refik Anadol, a Turkish-American new media artist.
As trance-like music pulses gently, colored waves of particles shift and crash like froth against the confines of a digitally-rendered white cube. In the sunny glow of the early evening, there is no glare or grating shining light. The animation, made using artificial intelligence, a quantum computer, and millions of public domain images of nature, is simply there. So far as 3D-rendered animation goes, it has a familiar vibe, something one might come across on Instagram. People stand there, entranced, take photos of it and of each other. It is a safe work, executed with incredible quality.
If the rest of the exhibition had looked like this, however, “Plásmata” would have been a disappointment. But the remaining 24 works are a show of not just the diversity of what digital art can be, but a new standard by which we might judge what it means to have an “immersive” exhibition. Cheap projections on drywall this is not.
The exhibition’s success lies its keen sense of detail for technical production and how each work interacts.
“Every work has been configured, re-designed, for the public space,” Prodromos Tsiavos, Onassis’s Head of Digital Development, told ARTnews..
Not only were the works re-sized and weather-proofed (when applicable) and accompanied with specially composed soundtracks (which do an excellent job of not overlapping), there is a massive team at the park dedicated to monitoring for glitches or crashes.
Each work is accompanied by a personal doyen who is there to explain the work to inquisitive attendees. All of these attendants communicate with Tsiavos, Panagiotakou and other staff members via group-chat to flag malfunctions and provide suggestions based on audience responses.
The Form of Digital Art
Works that contain technical components are high-maintenance. At a basic level, many exhibitions of digital work lack the level of care needed to properly present works at their best. Onassis has the standards and the funding to provide the intense stewardship these works require. Better yet, screen-based works were freed from the ugly confines of the typical TV or computer monitor that dominates in many digital exhibitions.
“We’ve seen so much of it during the pandemic, why should we see screens again?” said Tsiavos. “We spent a lot of time testing LED screens so that the digital art wouldn’t just be about the screen.”
When seeing works like طلعت، Moon-faced (2021) by Morehshin Allahyari, an AI-generated work that explores the genderless, poetic description of ‘moon-faced’ and depictions of beauty in Persian portraiture, it is less that there is a screen in front of the audience but a crystal clear apparition. In this sense, Tsiavos’s comment really hits home. It’s as if the work has been freed from its screen-context, its screen-confines, though of course, it is a screen that is displaying this work.
As certain new media works are shunted to the side in favor of pieces that live well online (i.e. don’t have to be experienced in person or which photograph well, at least), Elliot Woods, one half of the artistic duo Kimchi and Chips, commented that he would have liked to see a greater range of non-screen based works. “If not now, when?” Woods asked.
But “Plásmata” did have a nice selection that showed the variety of forms that technologically-driven art can take. The video work Eclipse (2019) by Tony Oursler was projected onto trees, FRANK (2016) by Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm was mainly auditory, and consisted of a suspended microphone and hidden speakers, Another Moon (2021), by Kimchi and Chips, projected beams of light into the sky to render, aptly, another moon.
While these kinds of technical considerations make up a great part of how an audience experiences digital art,, it is the content that provokes the most thought and dialogue. But including challenging work in a public space is a sensitive art.
Dries Verhoeven, Happiness, 2016
Photo : Courtesy Onassis
Take Happiness (2019) by Dries Verhoeven, for example. Confined in what looks like a miniature public bathroom and outfitted with the green cross symbol of pharmacies, is a robot who tells audiences how to take illicit drugs and how great they make you feel.
“For some people, sex is connected to shame and self-consciousness,” explains the robot. “Crystal meth can take these [feelings] away.”
Though her silicone face prompts the typical distress of the uncanny valley, she is stunningly emotive when she tips her head back in pleasure, her eyes squinting in the orgasmic relief of the heroin whose effects she is modeling.
“If we placed Happiness in the beginning of the exhibition, that would be an issue,” said Panagiotakou. “We thought a lot about where to place each artwork. So we decided to build a kind of adventure where you meet different kinds of information or feelings at the right times, so when they arrive, you’re ready for it.”
There is something hypnotic about the way one travels through the park. By the time one sees a work like Happiness, there’s no sense of shock, or abruptness. And these more provocative works, of which there are very few, are shifted physically out of easy sight.
Frederik Heyman’s Virtual Embalming (2020), which contains some nudity, was enclosed in an area surrounded by trees and brush, quite literally off the beaten path.
The scale of the works also increase in size as one moves through the exhibition, excepting, of course, Anadol’s first work. “Plásmata” climaxes with a jaw-dropping work the size of a small building. Divided (2022) by SpY appears, all at once, a giant glowing red sphere split in two pieces, surrounded by an intricate network of scaffolding. People mill about it, dwarfed, children running beneath their feet. It is awesome in that original sense, yet a restive place in which to come down from the winding artistic journey that is “Plásmata”. To have experienced “Plásmata” is to genuinely feel one occupies the future, a place in which technology is not draining, banal, or evil – for once.
Public Improvement or Gentrification?
Matthew Niederhauser, Elie Zananiri, John Fitzgerald, Polymorphic, 2022
Photo : Courtesy Onassis
That this park was full to the brim with people is not something many could have imagined even just a few years ago.
During the financial crisis Greece has endured in recent years, the park gained a reputation as a place where addicts lounged and mugging persisted. Additionally, there was a demographic shift as more immigrants moved to the neighborhood.
When Onassis premiered the first iteration of this public, digital exhibition in Pedion tou Areos, the team wasn’t sure if they’d be able to convince the public to come. Tsiavos described that first show, “You and AI,” as a “test run.” While people were hesitant, the show ended up being a success and helped change public opinion of the park.
When asked if he had considered that these exhibitions might contribute to gentrification in the city, Tsiavos said that he wasn’t concerned. “Of course, gentrification is a huge conversation as rent prices are rising,” Tsiavos said.” But in the case of Pedion tou Areos, It is not that one group is replacing another, but that there are just many more people coming to the park.”
This change began during the pandemic when Athenians spent more time outside to combat the isolation and drudgery of COVID-19 lockdowns. The improvements in employment rates also affected the makeup of the park, Tsiavos claimed. Regardless of their effect on this process, which isn’t to be discounted, Tsiavos said Onassis is doing all that it can to encourage the local community to visit the exhibition. They will begin rolling out guided tours in Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi in the coming month.
Installation view at Plasmata.
Photo : Courtesy Onassis
It is the pride of the Onassis team that they can be a big part of improving the Athenian quality of life, whether that means donating playgrounds or creating accessible paths at the Acropolis. But there’s no doubt that this is a power that has to be wielded carefully, with the utmost effort.
“There were so many times when we said, ‘Oh, maybe we shouldn’t do this next year, but this should be something that only happens every couple of years,” said Panagiotakou.
“But now that it’s finally here, and we’ve settled the issues, we’re always there, even when we’re not supposed to be working. It’s an incredible feeling, and now it’s impossible to imagine that we wouldn’t do it again, soon.”