documenta X was an extraordinary event.footnote1 From June to September last year, the exhibition mounted a fearless challenge to today’s general premise and practice of art, and indeed to the entire art and culture industry. The tenth documenta awaits—and deserves—a sea-change in the predominantly negative responses it has received. It may turn out to be a long wait, but the consequences of the 1997 exhibition could turn out to be truly important historically.

documenta was first founded in 1955 in the German city of Kassel, partly to confront Germany’s catastrophic history and partly to recreate the country’s links with the world of modern art, sundered by the Nazis. The exhibition attracted wide attention, and as the city’s post-war reconstruction continued, the quinquennial expanded. By 1972, with documenta V, ‘The Interrogation of Reality’, the 100-day summer exhibitions held near what was then the East German border were challenging the much older Venice Biennale as the world’s most prestigious contemporary art exhibition. As its fame spread, documenta was increasingly absorbed into the mainstream of avant-garde art. Thus documenta eventually became a spectacular arr fest, just like any other, where tourists flock and dealers speculate. If the goal of the first documenta was at least partly documentation and expiation, the aims of later documentas—ix in 1992, for example—were far less definite.

When Catherine David was named as artistic director of documenta X, few knew what was in store. She had been a curator of contemporary art at the Pompidou Centre, and then at the Jeu de Paume. She had taught contemporary art at the École du Louvre, published several books, and organized various exhibitions. Although known among curators and intellectuals, her career had been relatively short. The documenta advisory board’s appointment of a woman born in 1954, a French national who spoke little German, was a bold move. Moreover, David was politically committed, intellectually fierce, and unblinkingly honest. She and her close-knit team moulded documenta X—or ‘dX’ with the ‘d’ always in lower case and, in its logo ever-present in Kassel, crossed out by an orange-red ‘X’—to her convictions about art and politics to a degree that had not been anticipated by other curators and art historians.

The summer of 1997 saw two other large and more conventional exhibitions in Europe: the Venice Biennale and Münster’s Sculpture Projects. There, objects were selected for ‘excellence’, and arranged in national or monographic displays: the idea of art works as pleasurable commodities for the ‘society of the spectacle’ dominated, although there were, of course, those that went against the norms of aesthetic autonomy and sensational appeals to emotion. dX was sharply different. David’s introduction to the exhibition’s Short Guide precisely sets out her aim:

While making no concessions to the commemorative trend, the last documenta of this century can hardly evade the task of elaborating a historical and critical gaze on its own history, on the recent past of the post-war period, and on everything from this now-vanished age that remains in ferment within contemporary art and culture: memory, historical reflection, decolonization and what Wolf Lepenies calls the ‘de-Europeanization’ of the world, but also the complex processes of post-archaic, post-traditional, post-national identification at work in the ‘fractal societies’ (Serge Gruzinski) born from the collapse of communism and the brutal imposition of the laws of the market.footnote2