Initial Skepticism Turns to Exuberance for dOCUMENTA (13)
Enlarge image Man walking to the sky. (© picture alliance / Robert B. Fis) Early on, there was no exuberant praise for dOCUMENTA (13); in fact quite the opposite. Critics have been harsh and even mocking of the legendary quinquennial art exhibition, which has been held since 1960 and is now one of the world’s foremost art events. This edition’s artistic director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, has in particular been the subject of reactions ranging from skepticism to outright criticism: most of the interest focused on the quirky statements and commentary by the Italian-American curator, who has even suggested giving a vote to animals and plants in judging the exhibition. But no sooner was the world’s most important showcase for contemporary art opened, then the tide turned. This weekend marks the halfway point for the 100-day exhibition, and critics can barely contain themselves with laudatory compliments for the show.
“This is one of the best documenta exhibitions of all time,” says art historian Michael Diers, a professor at the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg and the Humboldt University of Berlin, in an interview with the dapd news agency. “The majority of the work is brilliant, there are very few flops,” said his colleague Anne-Marie Bonnet from the University of Bonn. “I've rarely been so excited about a show like this,” added Antje Stahl, a critic for Monopol art magazine.
Christov-Bakargiev is not only well read and eloquent, but also extremely extravagant – which also contributed to documenta being described as “ultra-contemporary” prior to its opening. Since then, however, sentiment among experts is that she has in no way showed herself to be the exhibition’s protagonist: “The curator of the exhibition has taken a backseat to the exhibition itself,” said Stahl. “There are wall texts, but the art does not disappear behind curatorial concepts.” Previously mocked works like butterfly gardens and dog runs are also fading into side commentary.
“There is no such thing as art that does not open horizons,” said Diers, who has seen every documenta since 1972 – adding that this year’s collection manages to address varied audiences from the intelligentsia to the average citizen. “The main themes allow visitors to open them up and constantly let themselves be captured by the discovery of what is new – like in a scavenger hunt,” says Stahl. Bonnet, who has visited each Kassel exhibition since 1977, describes this year’s exhibition as a succession of “moments of experience” that “art touches and points to in the world.” Diers adds to the praise, noting that the “art is not coordinated by force, not imposed, but rather brought to speak.”
Christov-Bakargiev flirted with the idea of having no concept at all – but rather bringing the very definition of art into the discussion. In that, critics say she appears to have succeeded. Bonnet explains that she has “never so intensely discussed art, what art does, and what I want from the arts, as I have done during this documenta.” Her praise extends to not just art as experience, but the artistic form as an expression of the human experience: “You see art again, in a manner where it is not about achieving certain prices at auction, but rather about grappling with it what it means today to be an artist, to be human.”
Organizers of the documenta exhibition have not yet released visitor figures, but by the time it comes to an end on September 16, around 750,000 people are expected – as many as attended documenta12 in 2007.