Documenta 13: an interview with fair director Chus Martinez

 After 100 days, Kassel’s contemporary art bash has come to an end. The 13th edition of Documenta, in collaboration with Absolut Vodka, is an internationally renowned exhibition that graces our agendas every five years. We went along to have a look before it closed up shop for another year and managed to nab a few minutes with Spanish-born Chus Martinez, one of the event’s main organisers. We talked with the expert art passionista, a former Chief Curator of Barcelona’s MACBA and director of the Frankfurter Kunstverein, about Documenta’s place in the art world, dialogue with the chosen artists and the relationship between art and philosophy. 

What made you want to work for the Documenta?

A phone call from Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director. I didn’t know her but I loved the conversation with her, and I decided I would join her.

What is Documenta’s status in the art world  – compared to the Biennal in Venice, or other art fairs?

It’s completely different. It has a different logic. At the Biennal you have to show something every two years and it’s tied to the idea of showing the new and presenting a new catalogue, an index. Documenta has five years to prepare each time and has nothing to do with this temporary thinking. At the core of this kind of exhibition is the will to have an influence on culture. And that defines the way of working and the research conducted. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the art is new or old. We try to define how art might be eloquent inside culture and propose a way of thinking that helps you to understand a reality, which is definitely subject to economy, but not only. It surpasses the economic and goes into realms of life, further beyond. In that sense it’s a fundamental cultural tool. It’s very important.

How do you choose the artists?

Out of affinity and conversations, a lot of conversations. Affinities that make you come closer to certain realms of art. It’s not a list on a table, it’s a very complex set of conversations and anti-conversations and counter-argumenting. It’s about your own curiosity and others’ curiosity, and little by little you construct a decision. Five years is a very long time.

Why are so many of the artworks commissioned specifically for Documenta?

I think the freedom of the art is fundamental, and also the presence of the artist. We want to start a conversation together with the artist, a dialogue, from the beginning. When the artwork has already been produced, you cannot do that. Then there is no conversation.

So you give them some kind of hint, a theme?

No, we just involve them in our mindsets, in our thinking. The production is not only about stressing the need for the new, it’s also about starting out all together.

In your speech earlier you mentioned that there is no theme, but I read in different places that there actually is a theme: ‘The way we live on this planet’.

There is no relationship between illustrating ideas and the presentation of the art. There are many concepts running through the exhibition and there are many principles. How to live, how to understand life beyond a rationality that’s not only happening in the human, but also from the perspective of animals and other forms of living, these are principles. Principles that push you, obligate you, to imagine a world which is completely different from the one that gets defined by human will. And that is present, yes.

Is there something that all the artworks here have in common?

A force which is very propositional. We are living in a world where people are very good at exercising critique. But I think I all these artists have in common an impressive imagination of the possible. They are really trusting. And that gives off a very special energy.

What got you into art? Was there a certain moment, or a certain piece that got you interested?

I was always interested in it, but I studied philosophy and art history. I thought that the philosophers were artists. My interest in philosophy brought me close to art. They all think things in a way that is completely inspiring and amazing.

How do you define art, or good art?

Artistic thinking, artistic intelligence. It’s an intelligence which is embodied into matter and that claims experience as a way with which we can sense the world. It’s so important. It sounds banal, but it’s not.

Do you have a favourite piece at Documenta?

My opinion shifts every day. I myself am a visitor, too, and I go almost every day to see something, but every time I see something I think it’s the greatest. I love the exhibition.

Documenta is coming to an end, have you come to some kind of conclusion?

No, not yet. I think it’s going to take me several months to do that.