Now in its 14th edition, the documenta contemporary art festival has proven of major importance for the city and the international art world. Attracting many hundreds of thousands of visitors to Kassel for 100 days every five years, it has managed to inspire and infuriate generations of artists and art-lovers with its themed editions composed in by a changing set of curators. The last documenta held in 2012 was a great success, and the city is gearing up for an even better documenta this year.
In a special collaboration, there is a 100-day documenta festival in Athens in Greece as well, from 8 April until 16 July 2017 and partially overlapping in time and content with the Kassel festival. Greece’s National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), the main venue of the Athens festival, will also exhibit various artworks from the 1960s to the present day in the Fridericianum; look out for Mona Hatoum's large fence sculpture.
documenta 14 in Kassel
documenta 14, June 10 – September 17 2017, tel. +49 561 707 27 70, www.documenta14.de. Open 10:00-20:00, public spaces open 24hrs. Admission €22/15; 2 days €38/27, evening ticket (from 17:00) €10/7, family ticket (2 adults and 3 children aged 11-16) €50, children aged 10 and under free. Tickets available online or from the visitor centre or any participating documenta shop in Kassel. Tickets can be used for admission on any day of the festival.
documenta visitor centre: Friedrichsplatz 18, tel. +49 561 707 27 70, firstname.lastname@example.org.
documenta transport tips
If you're travelling to Kassel by train for documenta, consider purchasing your train trip right after booking your documenta ticket online at www.documenta14.de; a link to the Deutsche Bahn Sparpreis Kultur Ticket with discounted round trips from any German station, and extra reduction for groups of up to 4 people. Low-budget bus operator Flixbus.de runs regular services from German and international destinations to Kassel, usually stopping off at Wilhelmshöhe station.
The documenta festival's fascinating history starts with a garden show and an artist and art academy lecturer from Kassel named Arnold Bode. Bode discovered that there was an opportunity to showcase art during the Bundesgartenschau, Kassel's first post-war international horticultural show in 1955. The semi-ruined Fridericianum museum, mainland Europe's first dedicated museum building, was the perfect venue for his selection of art formerly banned by the Nazi regime, and with an exhibition of works by Josef Albers, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky and others he attracted an amazing 130,000 visitors. Sculptures by Henry Moore and mobiles by Alexander Calder amazed the visitors, and many German artists who had been shunned since the 1930s came to exhibit new works in Kassel.
Kassel soon agreed to repeat the festival every few years – and the success of documenta was born. The 1959 edition saw Bode focus on contemporary abstract expressionism, and by 1964 documenta was extended to be a 'museum for 100 days' and become internationally renowned for its leading role in presenting new trends in art – in this case Pop Art. Protest, politics, multimedia, the traditional media of painting and sculpture, war, violence and globalisation all were themes dominating the next editions of documenta, and German art demigod Joseph Beuys became a permanent guest artist – famously taking the festival out of the museum buildings and planting his 7000 oak trees across Kassel for documenta in 1982. By the 1992 edition, documenta was well-established, attracting 600,000 visitors. Ai Wei Wei staged a memorable installation with his 2007 work Fairytale. He invited 1,001 Chinese visitors and documented their journey and impressions, giving each of them a Ming dynasty chair to take home. The 2012 documenta 13 festival was also a great success, with an optimistic outlook and great works by among others William Kentridge and Theaster Gates. Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakariev stressed she believed that art will change everything for the better, and defended the equality of all life. Her documenta was the first to go abroad, with parallel exhibitions and artworks by 300 artists in Kabul, Cairo and Banff, Canada.
The 2017 documenta also has an important international aspect, with curator Adam Szymczyk inviting all artists to exhibit works in Athens for 100 days as well.
The documenta festival highlights the newest developments in sculpture, painting, performance, film, photography and installation under a new curator and new theme and concept every 5 years, allowing artists to experiment, discuss and develop themselves and their concepts. Over the years the event has become more international, with artists from other continents participating and weakening the Eurocentric approach to art that was criticised early on by Joseph Beuys. The audience is often asked to actively participate and provide thoughts and feedback during their visit, though some question if the festival's abstract streak is too much for the crowds that come to be inspired by the festival. But perhaps it's a good thing to be simply dazzled, confused and bowled over every five years – and this year's documenta is the perfect place for your next mind-shifting experience.
documenta guided walks
Join a guide for a two-hour English-language themed walk. Discover the city on a stroll between the Alte Neue Hauptpost and the 1950s Gottschalkhalle building, around the Neue Galerie and the Schöne Aussicht viewpoint, from Friedrichsplatz to the documenta-Halle or around the Fridericianum building. Visitors and guides are mindful of the act of walking and create their own lines of enquiry and insights into documenta as they stroll along. Tickets cost €12 and can be booked online at www.documenta14.de/en/walks.
DOCUMENTA 14 GUIDE
Kassel's documenta 14 festival programme is shrouded in mystery until the moment the art exhibition kicks off. Quoting the festival director Adam Szymczyk “Unlearn what you know, in my opinion, an exhibition should be an experience, without great programmed expectations.” Going with his recommendation, take it all in by simply wandering around and being surprised by what you find, rather than targeting specific names. The full list and biographies of over 160 artists participating in documenta 14 can be found at www.documenta14.de/en/public-exhibition.
documenta 14 exhibition venues
Three dozen buildings and sites across Kassel are used for the documenta exhibitions. The most important ones can be found near Friedrichsplatz; the Fridericianum, documenta Halle, Neue Galerie, Westpavillon in the Orangerie and Karlsaue Park. This edition, more local museums than ever present documenta art; GRIMMWELT, the Stadtmuseum, Landesmuseum, Museum für Sepulkralkultur and Ottoneum all participate. Unusual and new venues include the Neue Neue Galerie in the former Neue Hauptpost post office, the industrial Henschel-Hallen, an unused tunnel beneath Hauptbahnhof and a former tofu factory. They're spread out all over the city, so get grips on the transport network or rent a Konrad bike (see p.7) to get around efficiently.
documenta 14 artworks
Although the content of the documenta 14 exhibition is mostly kept under wraps, some remarkable artworks were installed in the city centre in the weeks leading up to the opening.
The most eye-catching installation is undoubtedly the impressive Parthenon of Books structure on Friedrichsplatz, where up to 100,000 donated books form the outer skin of a 70-metre long, 31-metre wide and 14-metre high Akropolis-sized temple made from scaffolding. Argentinian artist Marta Minujín first presented a similar installation called El Partenón de libros in 1983, just after the end of the dictatorship in Argentina, and used it to present books that were banned by the junta. In Kassel, on the very spot where 'un-German' books were burnt by the Nazis in 1941, her new structure holds books from the depressingly long list of 70,000 works that are currently banned in countries across the world – including Gulliver’s Travels, The Da Vinci Code, Alice in Wonderland and Animal Farm. This way, Minujín, drawing attention to censorship, the persecution of writers and the politically-motivated prohibition of their texts. Visitors are invited to donate their own books, and at the end of documenta 14, the organisers intend to return all titles to the public.
The turret of the Zwehrenturm, the medieval city gate tower behind the Fridericianum, started smoking in early April. The local fire brigade has been receiving panicked calls ever since - but it's actually an installation by Romanian artist Daniel Knorr, referring to white smoke used as a means of communication, or as the smoking chimney of the 'art factory' next door.
Nearby, in front of the documenta-Halle, the stack of 60 ceramic pipes is an artwork by Berlin-based Iraqi artist Hiwa K. On the run to Europe from the chaos in Iraq, he spent nights sheltering in such pipes.
On Königsplatz there's a brand new classical monument by the Nigerian-born American artist and writer Olu Oguibe, a 16-metre-high obelisk inscribed with the biblical quote 'I was a stranger and you invited me in', in English, German, Arabic and Turkish. This way, Oguibe places a monument to hospitality in the heart of Germany, a country that took in well over a million refugees in the past few years.
Finally, at the eastern end of the city centre, the two Torwache buildings along Wilhelmshöher Allee have been covered in 2000 used jute sacks, sewn together by Kassel volunteers and visiting artists as part of a performance. Ghanese artist Ibrahim Mahama acquired the bags, usually used for transporting cocoa, rice, beans and coal, by swapping new for old ones, and their ragged look provides a scarred skin, a patched-together quilt of memories, smells, texts, names and dates.
documenta 14: Daybook
The documenta 14 Daybook, for sale for €25 (€35 online), dedicates one page to each artist, with texts and photos of representative artworks, and city maps of both Athens and Kassel.