Learning from Crisis? On the Transcultural Approach to Curating documenta 14

  • Barbara Lutz (Author)
    University of Hildesheim

    Barbara Lutz is a cultural scientist (Diploma) and art mediator, and a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Arts, Aesthetics and Cultural Studies at University of Hildesheim.


With the guiding principle “Learning from Athens” the 14th edition of documenta in 2017 was presented in the form of two nearly simultaneous, separate and at the same time related exhibitions in two historically very different and rather distant cities, Kassel and Athens, respectively in two different countries, Germany in the middle of Europe and Greece on the outskirts of Europe.
With this curatorial approach Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk obviously goes against the principles of the venerable art institution, which was founded in 1955 by artist and art educator Arnold Bode in Kassel and, since then, is implemented as a periodical exhibition with a 100-day duration at its venue in Kassel. Moreover, Szymczyk disengages documenta from its well-established position as a hosting institution that traditionally invites artists and cultural creators from all over the world to Kassel, and assigns it a new role as guest with the aim to manifest “the dissolution of barriers separating those who lack the simplest means from those who are usually all-too-willing to give them lessons but seldom a hand”, as he articulated in his concept in 2013.

In this paper, I will investigate how the curatorial concept of documenta 14 challenges not only the institutional history, structure and status of documenta but also how it resumes and transforms documenta’s initial understanding of an ethics of cultural connectivity in times of crisis and traumatic historical ruptures for today. From a transcultural perspective, I will critically examine, how far the curatorially initiated “terms of invitation” and “forms of collaboration” for the exhibition between Kassel and Athens can be acknowledged as a shared cultural practice within an open process that goes beyond the simple logic of oppositions between North and South, or the West and ‘the Rest’, binaries of exclusion and inclusion, or any essentializing and reducing criteria of national identity. According to this, I will also discuss how documenta 14’s claim “Learning from Athens” addresses and implements fundamental ideas of critical art education, which are strongly related to democratic conditions of participation and the legitimacy to produce knowledge and meaning in a globally interconnected and increasingly unpredictable world.


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Academic discipline and sub-disciplines
Cultural Studies
documenta 14; cultural self-conception of documenta; biennials; exhibition; curatorial concept; transcultural perspective; terms of invitation; forms of collaboration; role of guest; shared experience; (un)learning; educational processes