Kassel is a city lying in the land of the Brothers Grimm in the Hessen province of Germany. Normally, this area is an attraction for its fairy tale setting, surrounded by misty green forests, rolling hilly farmland, and crumbling stone castles. It is home to the Sleeping Beauty castle as well as lovely little villages with restored hotels and charming staff. Strolling through the region throws you back to the Germany of yesteryear.
However, once every 5 years, it transforms into a modern art extravaganza, when the Documenta exhibition arrives during late summer. The documenta is a modern art exhibition occurring once every 5 years, and while Kassel may normally be sleepy and quaint the Documenta is not. Documenta 14, which occurred from June 10th – September 17th in Kassel and from April 8th – July 16th in the partner city of Athens , was budgeted at 34 million euros, split between the two cities. 60 artists were invited to participate for this round, and in the end, nearly 900 000 visitors came to this little humble town to see the exhibition.
The documenta started in 1955, when professor Arnold Bode decided it was time to bring Germany back into contact with the global art world following World War II. Much of the modern art at the time had been deemed degenerate by the Nazis, and this was a way to highlight the work again. The first documenta was a retrospective of works from major art movements (Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, etc.). There was a surprisingly high number of visitors for the little-known exhibition, and a second round was planned for 1959. Each year, the new artistic director of the exhibit shows his/her concepts or ideas, and it is meant to not only showcase the art and artists but generate discussion and controversy.
An archive was started in 1961 which houses a library of information related to previous exhibitions.
This year, central themes of slavery, colonialism, immigration, displacement, and censorship, among others, clearly speak to the controversy surrounding the exhibition.
Two buildings flanking a main road in the city were clothed in sacks by the Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama. The sacks, reused over and over again for the packaging and shipping of coffee, cocoa, rice, and beans from Ghana to the rest of the world, are dirty, worn down, and mistreated. Parallels can be drawn to the underage child workers harvesting cocoa in Ghana today.
The most prominent installation however was without a doubt the Parthenon of Forbidden Books by Marta Minujin. The real Parthenon, residing in Athens, has over time become a symbol of democracy, and Marta deconstructed and rebuilt this well-known form into something quite different. First, in 1983, El Partenon de libros was constructed of 25 000 books previously locked up by the military, and placed in a public square in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of Minujin. In the current version in Kassel, the public are invited to send forbidden books to help build the structure – therefore making the artwork common to all.
Kassel has kept an outdoor piece of art from 16 past exhibitions – often the art is a commentary on, or integration into the surrounding landscape or architecture. As such, it is not uncommon to be walking down the road in Kassel and come across a rather odd-looking sculpture or figurine lodged in a strange place. On this page you can see a few examples – https://www.documenta.de/en/works_in_kassel. like the Rahmenbau from 1977 (below).
The exhibition was home to many many more pieces in a huge range of styles and themes – the best advice I can give is come to the next Documenta, happening five years from now! That means you have plenty of time to plan your visit 🙂