An Exploded Museum

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

Get ready for the Olympics of the art world.

Kassel, Germany, is no great shakes. Bombed flat during World War II, it makes Peoria seem like Paris. Yet twice a decade for the past 57 years, it has become the center of the world for the planet's culturati. Beginning June 9, something like three quarters of a million visitors are expected to head to Kassel for its Documenta festival--a kind of art-world cross between the Olympics and the Oscars. It often sets the artistic agenda: the conceptual art that is now everywhere took hold at Kassel's fifth Documenta, in 1972; the expressionist painting that boomed in the 80s got a big break at Documenta 8 in 1982; the 11th showed art from beyond Western culture, and now there's no ignoring artists from Africa and Asia.

And here we are this summer, up to number 13, and the art world's on tenterhooks. This edition's creative director is Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, an American who has worked mostly in Europe, and so far she's been tight-lipped. But speaking by Skype one recent afternoon, she seems giddy to share details: among the big names she reveals are painter Julie Mehretu, animator William Kentridge (whose career was launched at the 10th Documenta), and Lawrence Wiener, the godfather of text-based art, who's been in almost all of Christov-Bakargiev's projects. "Documenta is really about thinking through all our aesthetic, social, political, and art-historical questions," she says modestly, and expects such famous artists to help her get there. …