Documenta14 Reflecting on the past Documentas

Documenta is one of the more important and critically esteemed art exhibitions. The founder of Documenta was Arnold Bode, a curator, painter and academic professor. The first Documenta took place in Kassel in 1955, as a matter of cultural urgency in post-war Germany, aiming to bring Germany back into dialogue with the rest of the world and to connect with the international world of the twentieth-century art. Ian Wallace argued ‘Documenta was part of the recognition of national rootedness and the role of history and tradition in this process; this was its specific ideological role and the status of abstract art was at the center of it’ (Wallace, 1987). It started as part of the Horticultural show of that time and later because of its success became autonomous perpetuating the exhibition of this ‘museum of 100 days’ (Wallace, 1987) every five years. The quinquennial interval of the event was established after the second Documenta, which took place four years later in 1959 after Documenta 1 in 1955. This change was due to in-house problems of Documenta Institution (Documenta, 1959). Since 1959 the exhibition has been organized by a limited liability company Documenta gGmbH[1], which is a non-profit organization, supported and funded by the city of Kassel, the State of Hesse and by the German Cultural Foundation. On behalf of the board of the company, an international jury is assembled to appoint the artistic director for each exhibition.

Arnold Bode led the Documenta until 1968 with the help of Werner Haftmann and other curators/artist historians. Documenta acted as both a survey and a forum for contemporary art. During that time artists and curators started a movement to mobilize more physical interactivity for the viewer, inspiring spectators to move from passive recipients or art objects to more active participants engaging directly with art (Wallace, 1987).

In 1972 Documenta5 was led by a single artistic director with the assigned title Secretary-General. Harald Szeemann introduced the themed exhibition, and instead of making an exhibition with the most important artists from the point of art history knowledge, rather he put forward his perspective of the time. This model became a signature of Documenta (Hantelmann von, 2014). Also, he replaced the concept Museum of the 100 Days with Hundred-Day Event (Documenta, 1972). Since his appointment as a solely responsible artistic-director, a new era started for the curator’s status, which was perceived to be a powerful figure as the single author of an exhibition (O’Neill, 2012).

The following Documentas, of the 1970s, 1980s up until the Documenta10 moved away from the social and political realities and followed a more pluralistic way of exhibitions following the global art market.

In 1997 Documenta10 was led by Catherine David, the first woman in Documenta’s history who challenged the past concept of Documenta by introducing politics and poetics. David’s concept was to have access to the state of the world beyond the society of the spectacle. In addition to the various publications, she introduced ‘100 days -100 Guests’ (Documenta, 1997) to which David invited guests from all regions of the world to talk about various matters. Her intellectual approach to the exhibition examined the political, social, economic and cultural issues of the contemporary globalized world. The Documenta10 concept was based on a critical confrontation with the present and claimed an ethical and political approach. Since David’s time the art exhibitions started to increase the presence of text in art either with various publications or the text was itself an art, which was called ‘textuality’ (Meecham and Sheldon, 2005), an aspect that arguably shows how far contemporary art is linguistically oriented (Meecham and Sheldon, 2005).

In 2002 Documenta11 was led by Okwui Enwezor, the first non-European art director, who addressed at the African continent which helped to give a global perspective on Documenta’s theme. It was the first truly global, postcolonial Documenta exhibition. Documenta11 took place in five places (Lagos, Vienna, Berlin, New Delhi and Kassel) with five different themes. The framework of these various themes was Art is the production of Knowledge. Many of the projects were documentary in nature, which aimed to ‘describe the present location of culture and its interfaces with another complex, global knowledge systems’ (Documenta, 2002). The most noteworthy achievement of Documenta11 was to expose the ‘unspoken hierarchies of attention in the Western exhibition scene’ (Documenta, 2002); foreigners were not any more objects of fascination and exoticism, but they looked by themselves back to the West.

In 2007 Documenta12 was led by a couple, namely Roger Buergel as art director and Ruth Noack as curator. They developed their concept in the framework The Migration of Forms (Documenta, 2007) where they illuminated the limited primary forms of the visual culture that used in different context and different conceptual focuses during the human history. Under three subtitles of their concept including Is Modernity our Antiquity? , they pointed out that ‘contemporary does not mean that the works originated yesterday’ (Documenta, 2007).

In 2012 Documenta13 led Carolyn Christov Bakargiev, the second woman in its history, who took the concept from Documenta11 a step further by having concurrent events outside the city of Kassel such as Kabul, Alexandria/Cairo, and Banff where the exhibitions were different to this in Kassel. Bakargiev did not choose any particular concept as a theme, and despite some critique about the absence of a subject (Basualdo, 2011) it was a blockbuster exhibition with 900.000 visitors mainly in Kassel. This unprecedented visibility of a show with the vast amount of varied artworks was interpreted as its ‘logic is nothing more than that of capitalism in its late-stage’ (Munde, 2015).

Documenta has already become the strongest and the most famous institution of the contemporary art in the world. The reason for its success according to Bernd Leifeld, CEO of Documenta organization, lies in the fact that it reinvents itself every time, along with the person who leads it (Reyman, 2014). Documenta and all the large exhibitions such as biennales make central the issue of interpretation by one individual, star curator since without the element of interpretation and individuality the show lose their ability to communicate and have an impact on a marketing level in the Western capitalist world (Basualdo, 2011).

The Documenta14 concept according to its artistic director (Szymczyk, 2015a) not only referred to the first edition of Documenta but also drew reference and inspiration from Documenta10, an avowedly political event, and Documenta11, which highlighted postcolonial issues. Also, Documenta14 tried to reflect on Documenta12’s concept Is modernity our antiquity?, which interrogated how cultures and societies have modernized and how their modernizing seem to be as different as the rates of transformation, the economic ideas and the social actors that are driving this process of change (Schollhammer, 2007).

[1] In German tax law is a limited liability company, whose earnings for charitable use only (Wikipedia)


Extract from  “Documenta14: Learning From Athens: How to Unlearn What to Expect From A Contemporary Art Exhibition” by Dia Mexi MA Dissertation Jan’ 2018


Reference list

Basualdo, C. (2011)‘The unstable institution’. In: O’Neill, P. ed. Curating Subjects.  London: Open editions: 39-52.

Meecham, P. and Sheldon, J. (2005) Modern art: a critical introduction. 2nd Ed. London: Routledge.

Schöllhammer, G., Buergel, R.M. and Noack, R. (2007) Documenta magazine no.1-3, 2007 reader. Köln: Taschen.

Szymczyk, A. (2015a) 1955-20155 A Documenta Century [Online video] Available from : [Accessed 10 November 2017].

Wallace, I. (1987) The first documenta 1955: The Triumph of Pessimism. University of British Columbia Department of Fine Arts, 26 September 1987. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 10 October 2017].