Still powerful: Documenta 13

14th June 2012

As far as developing a particular niche goes, the organisers behind Documenta, a major exhibition of modern and contemporary art, have certainly distinguished themselves from other notable counterparts.

Taking place in Kassel, Germany, Documenta, now in its thirteenth manifestation, happens every five years, which in itself is extraordinary, especially in a day and age characterised by a mood of extreme visibility.

What this significant passage of time between shows reveals is a subtle poise that articulates its fearlessness, an unwillingness to be part of the crowd. It's not deliberate in the sense that it's a calculated statement, a rejection of the current milieu so to speak; it is simply what they've been doing since 1955.

Furthermore, for added individuality, the exhibition lasts a monstrous 100 days, which is tantamount to a sort of museum-like permanency on the cultural calendar, fascinatingly individualistic and praiseworthy.

Documenta is nothing short of spectacular, a vanguard in the art world, operating according to its own ideas and utterly breathtaking. 2012 continues in this spirit, scoring its theme around capitalism, the dominating and enduring economic system that has taken an ideological blow with the financial crisis of 2008 and the abject orthodoxy of today.

As such, much of the work at Documenta 13, which is directed by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, is driven by "a holistic and non-logocentric vision that is sceptical of the persisting belief in economic growth".

Who better than Ms Christov-Bakargiev to make this happen, for she is certainly a formidable force, described by Silke Lautenschlaeger, minister of Social Affairs in the state of Hesse in Germany as a "real power woman". Or, for hyperbole, a god-like figure, if you happen to be Blake Gopnik, art and design writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

"You wouldn’t know it from looking," he elaborates. "Born in New Jersey in 1957, she seems normal and cheerful enough, with a big head of curls and a distracted manner. But as artistic director of the latest Documenta, the world’s most important art exhibition, she has managed to build a whole universe."

Aggrandisement aside, Mr Gopnik is right about one thing: Documenta 13 is certainly voluminous. It filters through the foundations of Kassel, physically, metaphorically, "located in an apparent simultaneity of places and times".

Like modern life, both physical – to be alive, to work, to suffer, to see, to feel, to love – and synthetic – the digital world in which we experience life as though it were real – Documenta 13 is a panorama of the accessible, the wacky, the mundane, the brilliant and the complex. Take for example Pierre Huyghe's Spanish greyhound by the name of Human pottering about, diverging from insignificance because one of its front legs is painted in a warm pink.

Or what about Geoffrey Farmer's overwhelming Leaves of Grass, described as a hallway-long work of art that has been produced from five decades' worth of Life Magazine cut-outs.

"Making sense of the world, let alone art or even yourself, is an unending process. We are bound to miss our step," writes a clearly enamoured Adrian Searle in the Guardian.

"Curating is essentially a matter of choices, the juxtaposition of work against work, artist against artist, place against place. The best exhibitions generate their own kind of sense. Christov-Bakargiev's skills are largely intuitive. She's feeling her way, as must we. She doesn't tell us what to think and has made a generous, full-blooded Documenta that touches many nerves."

He gets it. Documenta exists as a reminder that had history gone down a much darker path with Adolf Hitler triumphing during the Second World War, precipitating the so-called Thousand Year Reich, life as we know it would not have existed. History would have died and in its place would have been a dystopia that would have been unthinkable.

It is why its first exhibition was dedicated entirely to Entartete Kunst, works that the Nazis had categorised as being degenerative art. And it's the reason behind the etymology of its name, deliberately invented, brought to life to express this unease of a world without art, which the Nazis had, in effect, managed to create. Documenta, in its record of art every half-decade, is a declaration of freedom and triumph.

"Again and again, the Documenta has shattered the world of art, whether in poor post-war times when people thirsted for art, whether in rebellious years of revolution, whether in the light-hearted era at the end of the 20th century or whether at the turn of the century dominated by globalisation," wrote Michael Glassmeier and Karin Stengel in 50 Years of Documenta, 1955-2005.

"The history of the Documenta is a history of defeats, of doubts, of scandals and, at the same time, of renewal, of discovery and of artistic creativity. Above all, however, it has always been a history of success."

Documenta 13 runs until September 16th 2012.

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