News Details

A Lesson from Curator: an Intensive Exploration into “the Myth of documenta”


Organisers: Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, Freie Universität School of Culture and Media Administration, Berlin
Hosts: Central Academy of Fine Arts Institute of Arts Administration and Education, CAFA Art Museum 
Co-organiser: Songari-Dachin Contemporary Art Centre, Beijing
Specially Patrons: documenta Archiv, Kassel
Curator: Klaus Siebenhaar, Yu Ding  
Duration: 1 March - 31 March 2017
Venue: Gallery 2B, CAFA Art Museum

In the afternoon of March 2, Professor Klaus Siebenhaar, Curator of the exhibition “the Myth of documenta — Arnold Bode and his Heirs”, presented two professional tours for the audience. From the origin of documenta, to how the curatorial team incorporated the past 13 documenta into one exhibition, Prof. Siebenhaar’s tour detailedly presented “this exhibition of exhibition”. 


Since the publication of Friedrich Schiller’s "On the Aesthetic Education of Man" (1795), aesthetic experience and pure aesthetic game has been considered as a way of individual’s self-realisation and self-liberation. From the aspect of cultural and educational public institutions, such as museums, theatres, musical halls and schools, and of individual artists and educators, people have been thinking about art’s aesthetic influence on culture and education of human society for over 200 years. However, art education had not become a crucial part of the cultural domain until the recent 50 years. In spite of the fact that museums have started to fulfil the education function by labels, catalogues and exhibition tour since the nineteenth century, not until the 1960s, after a series of art, cultural and social revolutions, that education in art, museum, theatre and music have established their authority in accordance institutes. 

documenta is not established by governmental authority. Rather, it’s raised by an individual, which is Arnold Bode, the founder of documenta. According to Prof. Siebenhaar, the establishment was related to the historical background. It was presented in the first five photos at the entrance of the CAFAM exhibition. In 1955, Germany was in a period of bare recovery,  just gone through the trauma of the Second World War and the reign of Nazi. It was a time when the young knew nothing about modern art in the West. Arnold Bode wanted to bring modern art back to the country, especially to the the young generation. Meanwhile, an opportunity coincided with Bode’s idea: the 1955 Bundesgartenschau, an exhibition combining colours, lives and hopes to the wounded Germany, was held in Kassel. Bode applied documenta as a parallel exhibition of Bundesgartenschau, and therefore got the founding for documenta. 



As the first public museum on the European continent, Fridericianum, a museum damaged in the war and had just been repaired, was the best venue for documenta. But at that time, Bode had not expected the future of documenta. From this photo, no number was noted after the title. 



Prof. Siebenhaar noted Bode as a well-rounded man — the artist, product designer, graphic designer, art teacher, curator and project developer. He was a modernist who knew traditions well, and a passionate messenger of ideals and visions. 



This is a recreated scene of Arnold Bode’s studio. We can tell from the photo that Bode was not a tall man, but a stylish one. He liked Gauloises tobacco and Citroën DS-20, stayed passionate about art, and he assisted artists. His life was closely bounded with art. The furniture in his living room, which suggested the great influence of Bauhaus, was designed by himself. Bode’s paintings were also presented in the exhibition. He had learnt painting in Paris in his early days. 

Then followed the first three documenta.



As the art officer of the first three documenta, Arnold Bode unfolded his great talent and inclination on art. He chose individual spaces to present pre-war modern art, including Chagall, Picasso and Klee. These photos show the inner layout of Fridericianum with a simple Bauhaus style. The style had aroused considerable controversy at the time, since no now would hang a painting in this way. Arnold Bode not only designed the space of the exhibition, but also the visual design of logos and posters. Visitors of these three very first exhibitions had commented that they were put into a magical space, where they had felt a strong sense of holy, as if visiting a ritual in a church. 



Since the second documenta, Arnold Bode had started to use the outdoor space, where he presented sculptures. From the historical records, it can be told that the forms of presented works were still simple, which were only paintings and sculptures. Installations, new media and videos had not been included until the second section of the exhibition. Bode wanted to put sculptures in the outdoor, so that they could connect with the nature, while also had a certain cover. Therefore the white wall was put behind of sculptures, which was very similar to what art fairs are doing today. 



Prof. Siebenhaar emphasised that Bode came from the old modern world and looked into the new contemporary world. He led the visitors to experience the sharp contrast between the two world. On one side, there’s the typically modern simple white-cube space, while on the other side, waits the second section — “Transformation” — which showed the history of 4. documenta, documenta 5 and 6 (1968-1977). The audience now enters into a new world of contemporary art, where art goes out of museum and expands in a manner of explosion to all kinds of places, such as factories and outdoors. Everything can be art. And documenta began to present more forms of art, including installations and laser lights. 



The core of the second section can also be used to explain the core of what today recognises as "contemporary art". The digital interaction prevailing today was also emerged around this time. In the 60s and 70s, the transformation of art has already started, which continues into today. And one of the core values of transformation was to go against the elder generation radically. In 1968, young artists began to protest against Arnold Bode. In the same year, La Biennale di Venezia was criticised by the younger generation, too. From that time, Arnold Bode gradually stepped out of the public vision of documenta. 

documenta 5 was a era-defining one, because it inaugurated the concept of individual curator. Harald Szeemann, Curator of documenta 5, claimed that a curator was also an artist, who used the artists in the exhibition as his media to constitute a piece of work. It was also the first documenta that Prof. Siebenhaar visited, where he was impressed with the youthful and passionate people there.



When the tour entered into the “Fashion” section, Prof. Siebenhaar mentioned that people could also pay attention to the styles of different eras from these historical photos. 



documenta 6 was called a “media docuemnta” for its broad content of multi-media art, lights show and performance arts. This piece of work is an ironic comment on the Western traditional way of looking. The Western tradition is accustomed to linear perspective, which assumes a frame and a vanishing point, while the Chinese tradition prefers oblique perspective. 



The opening ceremony of this year’s documenta was presented as a one-hour talkshow by Joseph Beuys, and live coverage was provided on the television. It was also the first time Nam June Paik made his entry into documenta. Original video documents are presented in the CAFAM exhibition. 



Therefrom, the audience was brought to a post-modern art space. The 1980s was called the “golden age” of Western society, when the economy was fully recovered from the War and when people’s life was affluent and enriched. Therefore, this section contains many colours and the atmosphere is light. Serious and esoteric theories were not the mainstream of the age. People might reflect a little upon the history and the present, but they wouldn’t take it seriously. 

The most representative one of all is DOCUMENTA IX (1992), curated by Jan Hoet, a charming big-star curator in the history. In the picture, he is performing hitting a punchbag. Before his curating career, Hoet was a box-player. It may be the most interesting and the most popular documenta in the history. The audience enjoyed their visits, and Jan Hoet was very fond of communicating with the public in the scene. 



The next section starts from documenta X curated by Catherine David. She was the first female curator in the history of documenta. Since then, documenta has entered into an age of new discourse. It became more academic, or in other words, the “textual” presentation of academy became more important than the visual presentation. The transformation reflected that curators began to consider the exhibition and reflect upon the reality in a more elite and more intellectual manner. It was also around the time when post-colonise, gender politics, feminism and other later influential theories were proposed. 



Another evidence of globalisation was that, after 1992, the portion of different nationalities of artists saw great changes.  This chart indicates the later globalised trend in the art world. The red represents artists from Europe, which used to take a large percent, while later African, Australian and Asian artists gradually joins. But since 1992, the portions of Europe and North America is reducing, while artists from other regions is adding up, which includes artists from China, too. 



Both of the recent two documenta were comprehensive retrospective exhibitions featuring art projects and theories in the past thirty to forty years. Specifically, dOCUMENTA (13) was curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, a strong and intelligent female curator, who named the exhibition a “ecological feminism” documenta. For her love to the nature and dogs, she designed 50 cabins on the parkland to exhibit art projects. The idea of cabin was originated from the cabins in the suburbs of Berlin. In order to flee from the boredom of urban lives, Berlin citizens can rent these cabins in the weekend and experience the pleasure of planting and resting in their “rural villas”. Carolyn played with people’s yearning and imagination for the nature and wanted people to enjoy art as to enjoy walking their dogs in the rural weekend. Also, images of dogs were scattered in the park. It turned out that this way of interference was warmly welcomed by the citizen. 



On the last wall of the CAFAM exhibition are documents about artists from China who have participated documenta. The curatorial team from China and Germany have gathered a great amount of documents and design the exhibition’s path based on their research. We expect the audience to get a deep learning about documenta from it. 



Introduction to Professor Klaus Siebenhaar:

Head of School of Culture and Media Administration, Freie Universität, Berlin
Curator of “the Myth of documenta — Arnold Bode and his Heirs”

Edited by Geng Jinghua, Bi Haiyan
Materials by Wu Jing, Lu Xi
Photos by Dong Huiping, Wang Yuqi, Li Biao, Wu Jing
Translated by Hu Tong