Documenta, held every five years in the central German city of Kassel, is the art world’s equivalent of the Olympics. While its scale may be rivalled by Venice, its quinquennial timetable and large budget allow curators time to develop an elaborate vision, and it has often been used to test the temperature of contemporary art production. Some previous editions have been influential in changing the direction of the art world—for instance, Catherine David’s documenta 10 and Okwui Enwezor’s documenta 11 (to use the official typography) did much to push it towards documentary and a greater engagement with politics.
The unusual situation and history of documenta has haunted many of its editions, including the latest. Kassel is a small industrial city set in the hilly and forested countryside of north Hesse. During the Second World War it produced planes and tanks, and it is still a production centre for Germany’s main battle tank—a fact that has not escaped Kassel’s Occupy protesters. The city was repeatedly bombed by the raf and extensively damaged, with thousands killed and many more made homeless. As in so many German cities, its modern centre is the product of that destruction, and its few older buildings were those considered worth restoring from ruin. documenta, founded in 1955, was from the beginning seen as a reparation of the damage done by Nazi cultural wrecking, and its first edition showed works of classical modernism which had, of course, been condemned as ‘degenerate’. They were exhibited in what remains the main venue of documenta, the Fridericianum, which then still bore the marks of war damage.
The latest exhibition, documenta (13), is a vastly ambitious attempt to influence the course of art and culture as a whole. Its Artistic Director, the American curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, had previously directed the 2008 Sydney Biennale. Using a frame of reference that takes in phenomenology, quantum theory, feminist thinking and psychoanalysis, she has explained that she wants to push the centre of human cultural concerns away from subject–object oppositions towards a perspective that would include the viewpoints of all entities, organic and inorganic. If matter has an intricate connection with information, at least at the quantum level, then all entities may be said to communicate and even to have will. In recounting a failed attempt to have the world’s heaviest meteorite shipped across the world for display at documenta, Christov-Bakargiev is led to ask, not just what she wanted or what the rock’s custodians—the indigenous Moqoit people in Argentina—wanted, but what it wanted:
Thinking of this type is used to prop up a series of gestures towards radical positions: environmental, activist, participatory, anti-war, minority. In all this, it is paramount that there be no ‘closure’, no settling and no agreement: rather a dissonant dance of beings and objects in which all perspectives are acknowledged in an ‘anti-logocentric’ frame.
Documenta’s five-year gestation period has often involved complex intellectual engagements. Enwezor’s edition, for example, had seminars dotting the globe and involving hundreds of peripatetic and local participants. These discussions produced four volumes of essays on subjects such as truth and reconciliation, the current state of democracy and the African city.footnote2 Christov-Bakargiev’s documenta has produced no less than 100 mini-books that have been collected into a gargantuan volume for the show itself—The Book of Books—and has staged events not only in Kassel but in Cairo, Alexandria, Banff (Alberta) and nato-occupied Kabul.footnote3 As with previous documentas, only invited participants can judge the process by which this is brought about.