It was founded by artist, teacher and curator Arnold Bode in 1955 as part of the Bundesgartenschau (Federal Horticultural Show) which took place in Kassel at that time. This first documenta was – in contrast to most expectations – a considerable success as it featured most of the artists which are generally considered to have had a significant influence on modern art, e.g. Picasso or Kandinsky.
The more recent documentas feature art from all continents; nonetheless most of it is site-specific.
The documenta is perceived to be one of the world's most important art exhibitions, only comparable to the "Biennale di Venezia".
Can the masses appreciate modern art? The documenta art extravaganza in Kassel is betting they can.
For the first time ever, organizers are doing everything they can to help locals to understand the art – and art-lovers to understand the locals.
Can art be explained? documenta thinks it can.
■ A ship made out of gas canisters.
■ Rows of wooden chairs.
■ Three orange computer screens.
■ Self-strumming guitars.
What do these things mean?
And why are they all housed in a giant, corrugated-plastic shack?
Many contemporary art exhibitions are perplexing.
And this year's documenta, which runs from June 16.th to September 23.rd, doesn't break the mould. Except for one major exception: unlike the others that have preceded it, documenta 12 has a deliberate educational component.
The event is determined to allow non-experts entry into the hermetic realm of contemporary art.
Through educational programming, guided tours, community outreach programs, three magazines, and, they claim, the art itself, organizers of this year's documenta aim to enlighten rather than confuse.
"Education at this documenta is not a service or tool," Ruth Noack, documenta 12's curator, told Spiegel Online. "It is, instead, an integral part of the exhibition."
This is a radical move for documenta, which has often been seen by Kasselers in its 52-year history as an elitist ship that docks in the city every five years for 100 days and then departs – leaving little in its wake aside from millions in city-wide income.
The next 100 days, though, are supposed to be different.
In order to achieve its educational, egalitarian ends, documenta 12 has enlisted the help of a multitude of tour guides (or "mediators") – an idea from the show's artistic director, Roger M. Buergel, Noack's moustachioed, articulate husband. And they're not solely in the form of starving German college students. High school students will be a part of it, as will younger children. Additionally, people from across the globe, including from South Africa and Australia, will take part thanks to help from the Goethe Institute.
"For me it's been a great experience," says Till Maciejewski, an athletic-built 10.th-grader who has been working on his tour since October. "It's more about discussions with people than about art questions," he says, "and I get to talk about the art that I think is interesting, like Juan Davila," a Chilean artist whose work from the 1970s features pornography, bestiality, and other social taboos. "Because my aunt and uncle are also artists, there's family pride to be helping out at documenta."
Indeed. documenta, at a total cost of €19 million, includes over 500 works of art by 113 artists and occupies five buildings, one of which, the Aue-Pavillion, was constructed solely for the exhibit over a sprawling 10,000 square meters/107,640 square feet. As students became increasingly involved in tackling this behemoth, their status in school – and self-confidence – changed, too.
"The notion that art can never entirely be explained," documenta's artistic director writes, "is exactly where art's power lies." It's a powerful sentiment, and the educators and activists involved are anxious to see what occurs in the next 100 days, to see if art's power can truly conquer modernity's load-bearing walls of economic, cultural, and social segregation.
After those 100 days, however, who knows?
Asked if she thought documenta's efforts at inclusion, outreach, and education would succeed in future renditions of the show, civic leader Güleç leaned forward and smirked, "What do you think?"
I've spent one of the most wonderful months of my life in this medium-sized German town.
One of its main attractions is an 18.th century palace/castle called "Wilhelmshöhe" and its surrounding beautiful park, where for the first time ever documenta 12 will also be housed.
Besides other promotional videos (cf. YouTube, of course), I think you'd like to take a look at the exhibition's official website (German & English) – just click here.