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Public space in Kassel differs from that of other cities by virtue of the presence of outstanding outdoor objects from past documenta exhibitions. The exhibition series has made programmatic use of its urban environment through the step-by-step occupation of new settings. Every documenta since 1977 has featured site-specific works of art conceived as interventions into or commentaries on their urban context. In search of opportunities for greater social impact, art reacts to an increasing extent to its socially defined environment as a means of gaining new credibility beyond the boundaries of the exhibition context.
Although all outdoor objects were originally planned as temporary exhibits, sixteen prominent installations have been permanently preserved in Kassel over the years: bequests or purchases of objects from documenta 6 (1977), documenta 7 (1982), DOCUMENTA IX (1992), documenta X (1997) and dOCUMENTA (13) (2012). Prior to d(13), their retention in the city was not the result of a systematic acquisition policy, but depended instead on the engagement of the people of Kassel and the efforts of artists and sponsors. The City of Kassel has assumed ownership of and responsibility for eleven of the sixteen outdoor documenta objects, including 700 Oaks. These outdoor objects differ in terms of dimensions and material composition as well as underlying artistic intentions. In any event, however, they represent important stages in the history of the world art exhibition and serve as examples of contemporary artistic approaches to urban and rural space at specific points in time.
Given their public impact, these installations are a constant focus of public interest. Their creation and acquisition are always subject to critical commentary by local citizens. Their often controversial responses also reflect the changing arguments advanced in the discussion on art in public space.
In 1955, the Kassel painter and designer Arnold Bode organized an extensive survey exhibition of 20th-century European art at the Museum Fridericianum – the first documenta. Ten years after the end of the Second World War, the event was closely associated with objectives of national importance, including, among others, the rehabilitation of artists formerly defamed as degenerate and the restoration of Germany’s status as a nation of culture. The sensational success of the first documenta paved the way for a second edition four years later, a show that made an active contribution to the ongoing debate on abstract art.
Since then, documenta has evolved into the world’s most important series of contemporary art exhibitions. Initially presented every four years, it is now hosted at five-year intervals. As a medium for information about recent trends in the international art scene, it has, over the course of its history, documented and attempted to assess every phase in the development of Western – and later global – approaches to an understanding of art. In addition to the current status of artistic production, each documenta also reflects the state of the theoretical discourse on art. And with its scenographic inventions at the various venues, it has set standards for the methods employed in the presentation of art.
documenta is committed to the mission of presenting global currents in contemporary art and serving as the most important stage for the art of the world. Yet each documenta exhibition is a unique event, as both conceptual and organizational matters are entrusted to a different artistic director (selected by an international commission) and have been every five years since 1972. Although the artistic directors receive organizational support from a non-profit limited liability company (gGmbH), they are guaranteed total artistic freedom – and are thus free to choose their own focal points within the canon of contemporary culture. Thus documenta does not represent a standard of objectivity, but stands instead for artistic reflection and discussion of societal changes on the basis of individual concepts.