"Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs, he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on him and they still give him much trouble at times." Sigmund Freud
This summer, when asked by friends if I was going to Documenta (13 / XIII), and I felt like I should have been able to say –
Yes, a bunch of us just got tickets to Berlin and we’re going to drive down to Kassel!
In case you’re not familiar with it, Documenta is the Ur-Frieze, the Proto-Armory, the ancestor of all art fairs as we know them today. Documenta, or rather, dOCUMENTA (inverted capitalization, because everyone is an artist), was begun in 1955 by the artist and curator Arnold Bode in order to move German art away from the previous two decades of nationalist symbolism.
Like the ‘Great Exhibition‘ at the Crystal Palace in 1851, all fairs originally began as industry-sponsored showcases of technology and shopping. Even dOCUMENTA started as part of the Bundesgartenschau (Federal Horticultural Show) which took place in Kassel at that time. Imagine Frieze London 2012, but as a single tent, at the outskirts of the Chelsea Flower Show. I just found it remarkable that all modern exhibitions come from the same roots, as public prosthetics for technology.
It doesn’t happen every year, let alone every two or three – it is a Quintennial, occurring once every five years. So this is the sixty-fifth year of it. This extended time frame allows it some freedom from the commercial concerns of more market-driven fairs – which shall remain nameless. It also does give it an air of being some sort of Fine Art pilgrimage for art students and art lovers to absorb the spirit of previous artists there, such as Joseph Beuys (#7).
The very slowness of its life cycle means that the exhibition is insulated from the rapidly changing nature of technology. dOCUMENTA (12) occurred in 2007. To put that into perspective, the iPhone version 1.0 came out in the same year. Obama was elected in 2008. Perhaps to bring it up-to-date, dOCUMENTA (13) director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev chose a theme of ‘Collapse and Recovery.’
Since I didn’t end up going, I lived vicariously by reading about it, in places such as this excellent article by T. J. Demos. As he describes, both individuals and institutions are caught in a conflict between the recurring themes of utopianism and the unstoppable rise of global development and subsequent collapse. More on that later.