Documenta 13: Europe's Most Important Contemporary Art Exhibition Has Roots in the Aftermath of Nazi Germany

The 13th Documenta, the most important exhibition of contemporary art in Europe, if not the world, opened on June 6 in Kassel, Germany. This year’s artistic director, American-Italian Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, is the second woman ever to curate Documenta. The behemoth exhibition features hundreds of artists, lasts 100 days, and happens only every five years, allowing a depth and breadth unseen in other large format international exhibitions like Biennales or the annual slew of commercial art fairs, whose content is driven by market pressures.

The German exhibition has a unique history. Unlike the contemporary offspring of 19th century World Fairs—Biennales—in which nations compete to show the best of their art or technology, the Documenta was founded in the spirit of healing the wounds of war. Kassel native Arnold Bode (1900-1977) started Documenta in 1955 to reintroduce West Germany to the world’s cultural conversation. Piggybacking on an annual federal horticultural show, the goal of the first Documenta was to exhibit art that had been dubbed “degenerate” in the Nazi era, but the exhibition soon grew to encompass art from all over the world. Funded largely by governments, public foundations (and now ticket sales), Documenta has a determinedly non-commercial and educational bent. At the last Documenta, there were over 750,000 visitors, testifying to the event's cultural importance.

In a time when the humanities and the arts are under pressure to show their utility in today’s society, it is all the more interesting to see that Documenta’s roots are grounded in an attempt to overcome the violence of nationalism. Perhaps in a nod to its origins, Christov-Bakargiev included hundreds of postcard-sized apple paintings of Bavarian pastor Korbinian Aigner, who was imprisoned in Dachau and Sachsenhausen for his anti-Nazi sermons. In addition to painting, Aigner tended a garden in prison, and there he even bred new varieties of apples, for each year of his internment. 


Documenta 13 is idiosyncratic in several ways. Christov-Bakargiev has repeatedly claimed that Documenta 13 has “no concept,” and opted for what she calls a “holistic,” trans-disciplinary approach. She chose artworks not only from the visual arts, but also from fields such as literature, biology, and renewable energy research. The environment figures largely in this year’s exhibition. Featured  is a rejected plea to make earth’s atmosphere a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as  Ryan Gander’s breeze installation -- literally the air flowing through several rooms. This year’s Documenta will see the highest percentage of women artists participating; over a third are women, largely unknown or early in their artistic careers. Christov-Bakargiev recently argued for the emancipation of animals and plants from anthropocentric “speciesism,” and at this year’s Documenta there is a living dog artwork named “Human,” by Pierre Huyghe, a sculpture park for dogs (Brian Jungen’s “Dog Run”), and a butterfly garden.


It might be easy to dismiss Documenta as another insular, navel-gazing affair in which the question “what is art, anyway?” gets tossed around. However, by taking its history into account, Documenta takes on a serious social function.