Making my way around steamy Athens this past June, I began to wonder: Does it really make sense for me to review this year’s Documenta? Sure, it’s arguably the world’s most important recurrent art exhibition, which means, yes, of course it’s worth seeing and writing about. But then I began to wonder whether, these days, the world’s most important recurrent art exhibition really is such a meaningful thing after all.
Documenta began in 1955 in Kassel, near what was then the eastern edge of West Germany. The historically important town—home to many of the Hessian mercenaries employed by George III against the insurgent Americans, and whose housewives supplied the Brothers Grimm with their Kinder- und Hausmärchen—had been flattened by Allied bombing and rebuilt practically from scratch. Modest beginnings: Documenta was originally no more than an afterthought to an itinerant biennial horticulture show that happened to be taking place in Kassel that year; but thanks to the seriousness and ambition of its founder, the artist and art historian Arnold Bode, it became significant in helping Germany come to terms with the art of the prewar era—updating it on the European modernism the Nazis had condemned as degenerate. But as the show returned at irregular four- or five-year intervals, its orientation became more contemporary. Since 1972, it has settled into a regular five-year timetable.
Documenta’s great years must have been the 1970s and ’80s. A turning point was the fifth edition, in 1972, when its director was the now-legendary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, who corralled everything from crowd-pleasing photorealism to abstruse conceptual works with great success. Documenta was no longer playing catch-up; it was the flagship of the moment. Additionally, thanks to the booming—and aesthetically adventurous—German art market made possible by the postwar Wirtschaftswunder (economic recovery) and its synchronicity with a period of intense artistic ebullience internationally, Documenta became, above all, the occasion on which innovative new art could burst into public view on a European scale.
By the time I saw my first Documenta—number 10, in 1997, under the direction of Catherine David—the show’s function was changing. David’s heavily didactic approach seemed to downgrade the idea of aesthetic experience; as if taking the exhibition name literally, she put the accent on a documentary or anthropological treatment.
Five years later, I missed Documenta 11, but by all accounts that year’s director, Okwui Enwezor—the first (and so far only) non-European in charge of the show—managed to make some kind of magic out of a documentarian impulse not unlike David’s. He did this, in large part, by opening the show up, to a greater extent than ever before, to art from far beyond Documenta’s old European/North American axis. Enwezor’s exhibition was, as the art historians Charles Green and Anthony Gardner have written, “a fundamental and ambitious redefinition of the structure and meaning of art institutions according to a decolonized and, by now, globalized model of art.” He did this not only through the exhibition itself, but through five preparatory forums, or “Platforms,” around the world—in Berlin, Vienna, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos—dispersing the project in time as well as space and raising the stakes for big international exhibitions, which now had to be impossibly world-encompassing.