dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel

by Jonathan Beer, August 2012

dOCUMENTA’s best product is not art, but belief: in the integrity of art, its creation and the cultural foundations that support the process. The hundred-day exhibition is different from the increasing number of art fairs that have come to demarcate each passing art season. Not only does it stand independently in its length and occurrence (dOCUMENTA occurs every five years) but in the steadfast dedication to its prescribed mission of developing a “holistic and non-logocentric vision that is skeptical of the persisting belief in economic growth.”

The first dOCUMENTA exhibition was organized by Arnold Bode in 1955, part of the Bundesgartenschau (Federal Horticultural Show) in Kassel, in an attempt to establish Germany as a participant in the modern art world and simultaneously eradicate “the cultural darkness of Nazism.” It featured many artists who had a major influence on modern art including Picasso, Umberto Boccioni and Robert Delaunay. Subsequent dOCUMENTAs have focused on contemporary art from around the world.

The current iteration of dOCUMENTA (13) was spearheaded by Italian-American director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The city of Kassel still hosts the event, commonly called the “museum of one hundred days” and the nearly three hundred artworks (many of which are site specific) are installed in a mixture of indoor and outdoor spaces including the famous Fridericianum Museum, the Documenta Halle, the Neue Galerie and Karlsaue Park. This year it is organized around four conditions that artists and thinkers find when acting in the present  “being on stage / under siege / in a state of hope / on retreat.” Even without this knowledge, the curatorial agenda becomes clear with each additional encounter around the city.

The exhibition is global in scope. The multitude of works seems to address every conceivable subject from quantum physics to political corruption, and come in every available medium. Painting is shown next to interactive works, video next to sculpture. The artists develop and create their works over a two-year period, resulting in projects that are insightful and intellectually complex. There is a pervasive optimism that springs from work given enough time to develop–interacting with a piece that was allowed to mature in both technical and conceptual respects over a two-year period is an inspiring experience not often felt in the momentary context of a standard gallery visit.

Canadian-born artist Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass is one such work. The 124-foot, double-sided, three-dimensional assemblage occupies an entire corridor of the Neue Galerie’s second floor. As you make your way along the first side of the work, you see that the intricate pieces are actually paper shadow puppets, over 16,000 in total, cut from issues of LIFE magazine spanning five decades (1935 – 1985). Formidable in both size and construction, Farmer’s piece is engrossing; the cut paper puppets are arranged to create interactions that reassemble history in an imagistic experience comparable to a Google image search. Yet unlike its electronic counterpoint, the artist’s work encourages remembrance. The many monochrome and color images invite an emotional tour of history, and remind us how ideas and experiences in the world are realized through photography. Despite the simple, low-tech solution, Farmer achieves great heights in terms of response; a line to view his installation was ever present. Farmer’s piece was one of many that left a deep impression after visiting dOCUMENTA, and on a larger scale the event affirmed a few points that are perhaps easily forgotten in the broader art world. Even if the reminder only comes once every five years, it is an essential one. For artists—emerging artists especially—dOCUMENTA reminds us that good artwork takes time and dedication, and requires the same from the institutions that support it. For over fifty years the cooperation of so many people has led to an experience that slows the commercial undercurrent of the art world and encourages the simple yet awe-inspiring ability of art to provide previously unknown perspectives.

Documenta (13)
9 June–16 September, 2012

Correction: September 1, 2012
An earlier version of this essay misstated the length of Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass. Its length is 124 feet, not 50.