Biennial Exhibitions Germany

Documenta opens to critical acclaim

Curators find "poesy, pleasure and positive surprises"

Goshka Macuga's tapestry "Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not 1", 2012 (Photo: Rebecca Doyle)

The vagueness of Documenta’s pre-exhibition announcements meant that uncertainty reigned as the art world descended on Kassel for the preview of the five-yearly exhibition on 6 and 7 June. But initial responses to the show were positive.

The artistic director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, has drawn together “artistic research” with other disciplines, including the sciences, to explore strongly geopolitical and ecological themes, including four “conditions”: “on stage”; “under siege”; “in a state of hope”; and “on retreat”. The show is sprawling and diverse, with almost 200 artists from across the world ­occupying spaces from the long-established venues, such as the Fridericianum museum and the Documenta-Halle, to the scientific museums, the Ottoneum and Orangerie, and numerous spaces dotted around Kassel—shops, old cinemas, derelict houses. The artists range from leading figures such as Pierre Huyghe to newcomers including the sound artist Tarek Atoui, with a significant number of older artists, such as Etel Adnan, and dead artists ­retrieved from obscurity.

Lars Nittve, the director of the M+ museum in Hong Kong, echoed many in describing Documenta 13 as “a positive surprise”. And, best of all, the curatorial attitude—to the art and to the public—is good and relatively sympathetic.”

Iwona Blazwick, the director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery, is a member of Documenta’s advisory board, but there were revelations even for her. “That’s what’s so exciting about it,” she said. “You can’t say that there is a top 20 of artists any more, it’s no longer a canon.”

Instead of curatorial concepts superseding the art, this was a profoundly visual and sensory exhibition. “It was my kind of show, because it addressed the idea of place and history and it addressed the specificity of the experience,” said Lewis Biggs, the curator of the next Folkestone Triennial in 2014. Philip Tinari, the director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, warmed to the show’s overall tone. “It seems that certain ideas which first appeared in 2002 in Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta have, in the ensuing decade, been processed and stylised, stripped of overt didacticism and imbued with a sense of story and an aesthetic urge,” he said.

The show had a feeling of “exhilaration, pleasure, poesy”, Blazwick said. “You don’t feel that it’s hectoring or finger-­wagging, even though it touches on a lot of difficult issues. It does it with such an emphasis on the aesthetic and on the experience of the spectator.”

The show’s “brain”, according to Christov-Bakargiev, is in a crowded display at the Fridericianum museum, Documenta’s traditional hub, but Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, the Irish curator and critic, suggested that the “soul” of Documenta is “scattered further afield, for the most part: through the [Karlsaue] park, the Neue Galerie, and especially the Hauptbahnhof, which requires and rewards time”.

Indeed, the works most hailed by commentators all lay outside the traditional museum venues: Giuseppe Penone’s Idee di Pietra (Ideas of Stone), 2010, a bronze tree carrying a river stone in its branches in the park; William Kentridge’s cacophonous installation The Refusal of Time, 2012, at the Hauptbahnhof; and two exhibits in Friedrichstrasse—Tino Sehgal’s pitch-black room featuring 18 performers singing a cappella and improvising movement, and Theaster Gates’s occupation and transformation of the derelict Hugenottenhaus next door were widely praised.

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