Germany - Since it was founded in 1955, Documenta has grown to become a hugely anticipated and influential exhibition in the art world calendar. Held every five years in multiple venues across Kassel, it provides a snapshot of international contemporary art. Documenta 14 is one of the more controversial editions with an emphasis on art addressing race, gender, unfettered capitalism, politics and society.
Documenta 14’s director, Adam Szymczyk, subtitled the exhibition “learning from Athens” and showed half of this summer’s show in Athens in protest to Greece’s debt crisis, much to the chagrin of some German politicians. If you missed it, don’t worry, there is an almost overwhelming amount to see in Kassel: work by more than 200 artists spread across 38 sites.
On a good day, dedicated visitors might fit in two or three major galleries and a handful of the site-specific installations in unusual locations, including a former underground station and abandoned “glass pavilion” shops. If you have limited time, focus on a couple of these outstanding museum shows:
Founded in 1779, the Fridericanum was one of the world’s first public museums and the first German parliament. Today it is a cutting edge contemporary art gallery. For Documenta 14, it plays host to an enormous exhibition of works by 80 artists, all part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens. Among the highlights is a room devoted to the Greek artist Vlassis Caniaris, with work from the 1970s made in an Arte Povera style addressing the topical issue of migration.
Despite its name (the New Museum), Kassel’s Neue Galerie opened in 1877 and houses the Hessen-Kassel collection of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century art. Taken over entirely by Documenta 14, the exhibition looks at the long shadow of European nationalism that culminated in the Second World War. One of the most memorable works is Maria Eichhorn’s research into the fate of art looted by the Nazis from one of Kassel’s leading citizens, Alexander Fiorino.
Neue Neue Galerie
Documenta 14 has turned the former central post-office, a massive Brutalist edifice opened in 1975, into one of its major exhibition spaces. The building’s size allows for very large work: giant videos, installations and sculptures. Playing with scale, one of the most intriguing works is a series of performances by dancers dotted in among the artworks, moving so slowly they take on an almost sculptural quality. The work is part of a series titled “STAGING” by the Cyprus-born, New York-based artist Maria Hassabi.
A musical thread runs through Documenta Halle, a purpose-built exhibition hall opened in 1992 by the late, legendary Belgian curator Jan Hoet. There are works about music scores and dance notation and a huge set of office tables by artist Marie Cool Fabio Balducci is enlivened by films and performers. In the final galleries are unusual musical instruments, including a boat-turned-guitar by Mexican artist Guillermo Galindo. Outside, a series of pipes transformed into living quarters by the artist Hiwa K. has proved one of the stand-out works of the show. It is a clever commentary on designing small living spaces, but also refers to the “homes” that refugees are forced to create in whatever they can find.
The Brothers Grimm are Kassel’s most famous residents. Jacob and Wilhelm worked as court librarians to the King of Westphalia in the early 1800s, collecting and writing their famous folk tales on the side. The Grimmwelt, Kassel’s newest museum, opened in the autumn of 2015 and is devoted to the brothers’ artistic and academic achievements. Documenta has created an exhibition that examines the lightness and darkness underlying historic and contemporary fairy tales. Among the highlights is a series of works retelling the Merchant of Venice from the point of view of Shylock by the Israeli artist Roee Rosen.
The majority of international visitors fly into Frankfurt Airport, and then drive (2 hrs 30 mins) or take a fast train (ICE, 1 hr 45 mins) from the airport to Kassel’s main station, Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe (not Kassel Hauptbahnhof). Kassel’s hotels are chiefly aimed at commercial and business travellers, so there are a number of budget options—including some good quality Airbnbs. One of the nicest hotels is the boutique Renthof (a former medieval monastery), situated on the river Fulda and conveniently located for all of Documenta’s main venues.
Documenta 14 is on view in Kassel, Germany until 17 September, 2017.