“The East” at documenta and the major exhibition as event and institution

Dorothee Wierling | 18 July 2021

In her talk, given on 16 June 2021 at the opening of “documenta. Politics and Art”, co-curator Prof Dr Dorothee Wierling discussed two themes of our current exhibition, namely the attitude of documenta towards “the East” and the social-historical aspect of the international art show.

The West as a political and cultural construct in the context of the Cold War would be unimaginable without its “other”, “the East”. In a European context, the term had stood for backwardness and cultural inferiority since the 19th century – and by equating communism with Stalinism during the early years of the Cold War, it acquired a political dimension as well. In the 1950s, the theory of totalitarianism saw communism and National Socialism as two sides of the same coin, which provided the West with the means to differentiate itself from “the East” while at the same time distancing itself from National Socialism. This made it easier for West Germans to avoid having to own up to this part of their past on a tangible or personal level.

The earliest documenta exhibitions mirrored this attitude. (Werner Haftmann in fact decried both “Socialist Realism” and the artistic products of National Socialism as non-art – in contrast to abstraction, which he hailed as the embodiment of Western freedom.) The exhibition upheld the exclusion of East German art, even as East German artists themselves began criticizing Walter Ulbricht’s dogmatic art policies in the 1960s. In the West, antagonism turned to ignorance and eventually collective amnesia – a situation that survived the fall of the Wall.

Alexia Pooth, who curated the room devoted to “the East”, decided on a deliberate shift in perspective. For instance, she has chosen to display a letter which Gerhard Richter sent from documenta 2 to a friend in Dresden in 1959. One year before leaving the GDR, Richter was still disgusted with Western capitalism and Western art – an expression, as he explained in an interview with us, of his deep ambivalence towards both East and West Germany.

Only once did documenta open its doors to East German art, in 1977 at documenta 6, at the height of the thawing of diplomatic ties between the two German states. The artworks on display showed how far these “state-sponsored artists” had moved away from “Socialist Realism”. Dominating the entirety of Wolfgang Mattheuer’s Horizont from 1970 is a dark, empty hillside with a surrealist ensemble in the foreground, showing an enormous newspaper, a human ear, and a bureaucrat – with a dossier, a telephone, and a tangle of cables – next to a sleeping man whose mouth is expelling paper – either undigested or inedible. Along the top edge, we see miniscule people in colourful attire walking towards a bright, welcoming horizon as though stepping into a distant sky. The display of art from the GDR was largely well received, but remained a one-off gesture. The successful and momentous “Westernization” of the Federal Republic of Germany prevented even the slightest curiosity about the East as its Other.

As Raphael Gross remarked in one of our team discussions: “documenta may be an international exhibition, but it is really only important for the history of West Germany.” This idea is embedded in the fifth and final section of the exhibition: “documenta as an event and institution”. High-ranking West German politicians attended every documenta, an indication of just how important the exhibition was for the political posturing of the Federal Republic of Germany. Behind the symbolism, however, was real support. Ever since its inception, the state has provided documenta with basic funding without interfering in the artistic freedom of its featured artists. The artists, in turn, have rarely used the platform to show overtly political art, with the exception of certain notable figures like Joseph Beuys or Hans Haacke. For the most part, the artists used this guaranteed freedom to mirror West Germany’s perception of itself through art.

I was particularly interested in the social-historical aspect of documenta. My jumping-off point was the audience, which represented a specific segment of West German society throughout this entire period: the university-educated elite. In other words, traditionally or newly middle-class people with university degrees have always been clearly over-represented in the visitor numbers, even more so than people between the ages of 20 and 40. This demographic never changed, even though visitor numbers had almost quintupled by 1997.

The goal of documenta was to be an exclusive yet democratic event. This was consistent with two aspirations that informed the attitude of the audience. At documenta 8, Hans Hollein offered an ironic commentary on the desire to gain a deeper understanding of contemporary art through explanations and guided tours in order to build self-confidence. The artist turned the explanatory wall text into the main piece, while the artwork itself was relegated to a small plaque at the lower edge. But the behaviour of visitors also displayed an unabashed curiosity in the art and a desire to stroll leisurely amid the paintings and sculptures. Over time documenta not only evolved into a large-scale popular event, but also developed its own business model in response to growing profits. This commercialization didn’t go unchallenged in the art scene. In the run-up to documenta 9, textile artist Annemarie Burckhardt fashioned a “fake documenta catalogue” out of foam material and an embroidered case. Her action owed much of its success to the fact that the managing director of documenta threatened to sue her for “trademark infringement”. What he hadn’t counted on was that such a response was precisely what would make her cushion a bestseller. The story also shows how documenta was increasingly perceived as an open space, and how the exhibition clearly saw this as a threatening transgression, an overstepping of boundaries. In the end, documenta not only mirrors social developments – especially the post-sixties boom in university education and “liberal values” off campus – but also cultural transformations denoted by keywords like eventification and commercialization.