What is art? German fair tests limits

Fri Jun 8, 2012 12:24pm EDT
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By Sarah Marsh and Tanya Wood

KASSEL, Germany (Reuters) - Stroll through a park in the sleepy German town of Kassel this summer and you can explore fairytale cottages brimming with bizarre objects, hear the sounds of the Brazilian jungle and enter the set of a West African theatrical performance.

This is just one of the venues of "documenta", one of the world's biggest and most ambitious contemporary art fairs, which takes place every five years and which opens on Saturday.

This year's fair is the 13th documenta since its founding in 1955 by an artist banned by the Nazis and showcases the work of participants from some 56 countries, including Britain's Tacita Dean and South Africa's William Kentridge.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the festival's artistic director, said she wants to broaden documenta's focus from the visual arts to culture at large, ranging from quantum physics to historical artefacts.

A U.S.-born Italian-Bulgarian art historian with a distinctive mop of tightly curled golden hair, she dislikes categories and has frustrated some by providing no over-arching concept for the exhibition, preferring a "holistic" approach.

"Documenta is dedicated to artistic research and forms of imagination that explore commitment, matter, things, embodiment," said Christov-Bakargiev, during an academic lecture she gave instead of the traditional opening news conference.

One key theme that she said had emerged, however, was that of collapse and recovery, appropriate for a show created to revive both the visual arts in Germany and the city of Kassel, which was devastated during World War Two.

Originally modest in size, documenta's budget is now around 25 million euros, and artworks are shown throughout the city in parks, museums, cinemas, and the train station, "like an exploded museum", according to Christov-Bakargiev.   Continued...

The artwork "Scaffold, 2012" by artist Sam Durant is seen at the dOCUMENTA (13) art exhibition in Kassel June 6, 2012. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski