Earlier this year, Documenta, the once-every-five-years exhibition in Kassel, Germany, that ranks among the world’s most important art festivals, hinted that international travel restrictions might make it impossible to hold the exhibition as planned. But in a press conference in Kassel today, the Supervisory Board of Documenta announced that it would indeed go forward with its planned dates of June 18–September 25, 2022.
In a statement, Christian Geselle, Kassel’s mayor and the chairman of the Supervisory Board, said, “After careful consideration of the opportunities and risks, the Supervisory Board has come to the conclusion that staging documenta fifteen in 2022 is important, even under possible continuing restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in these still uncertain times. In particular, the curatorial concept of ruangrupa offers opportunities to respond to current events and to question the familiar.”
During the press conference, Ade Darmawan, a member of the artist collective ruangrupa, which is serving as the artistic director of Documenta 15, said, “The idea of postponing is about [thinking] that one day in time we can go back to normal, but this won’t be happening. I think we know already that there’s a lot of uncertainty and new normalities, new ways of doing things. We should react to that—we should live with it and move forward with Documenta 15.”
Had it postponed, Documenta would have hardly been the only recurring art exhibition to delay an edition because of the pandemic—others, including the Venice Biennale, the Bienal de São Paulo, and the Whitney Biennial announced plans to do so last year. The Berlin Biennale and the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea have managed to mount abbreviated versions of their latest editions in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
The Venice Biennale, which exceeds both of those biennials in scope and scale, is currently set to open next April. It will likely be a test of whether the art world has recovered enough to host so grand an event. Typically, the exhibition convenes artists, curators, dealers, and more from all corners of the world in one place, but with travel restrictions and vaccine rollouts still in flux, and with the threat of variants still looming, doubt remains about how the event will be staged.
In at least one respect, the forthcoming edition of Documenta will be a first. Ruangrupa, a nine-person artist collective based in Indonesia, was chosen to curate the exhibition; never before had a collective been asked to organize it.
“We need to think [about] Documenta in a new way, and we believe that ruangrupa are going to bring this new ideas into Documenta,” Sabine Schormann, the new general director of Documenta, said during the press conference.
During the press conference, Darmawan said that the majority of the research for the exhibition is complete and that ruangrupa has already selected around 50 artists to participate. The full participating artist list is expected to be released in September.
A major concern for the exhibition is its budget. Documenta 14, in 2017, ran over its allotted €37 million (nearly $50 million), causing a deficit of €7 million ($8.4 million). Documenta’s budget is traditionally financed equally between governmental money (the city of Kassel, state of Hesse, and federal government) and ticket and merchandise sales as well as sponsors.
“The shareholders, the City of Kassel and the State of Hesse are prepared to compensate for possible additional costs or reduced revenues incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Geselle said. Those additional costs are expected to include increased cleaning of venues and Covid-19 testing.
Among the other questions addressed during the press conference were if there would be restrictions on the number of visitors allowed to the various venues that host Documenta throughout Kassel and if they were expecting fewer visitors because of international travel restrictions. In 2017, 891,500 people visited the Kassel portion of Documenta 14; that iteration was also held in Athens, which saw 339,000 visitors.
“I would like to let visitors from Kassel and around the world know that we are looking forward to their visit,” Geselle said in his statement. “More important than aiming for new attendance records, the goal is to send a signal of hope emanating from culture.”