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Kassel: the 13th documenta (9 June - 16 September)

Kassel: the 13th documenta (9 June - 16 September)

Georges Rouzeau - 2012-06-30

One of the world’s largest international exhibitions of contemporary art is currently underway in Kassel, Germany. Centred on the theme Collapse and Recovery, the 2012 edition of documenta presents the work of 150 artists. Spectators are encouraged to participate.

Kassel, the destiny of a German city
In the night of 22 October 1943, a rain of British bombs fell on Kassel, killing 10,000 people and destroying 80% of the city. After the war, Kassel was rebuilt in the lifeless, lacklustre style of the 1950s. Since then, it has been labelled an ‘ugly city’... even by Germans.
The documenta effect
And yet every five years the ugly toady morphs into a lovely princess courted by the whole world. Is it A Kind of Magic, à la Freddie Mercury? No, it’s the documenta effect (documenta is always written with a small ‘d’). This colossal exhibition of contemporary art has no equivalent anywhere. Launched in 1955, the goal of the first documenta was to reconcile Germans with all of the art forms that Hitler’s regime had defined as ‘degenerate’. Today it is seen as a means of mapping out the latest artistic trends worldwide, and of giving the creators of tomorrow a space to shine.
This year, the show’s artistic director is the former curator of Piedmont’s Castello di Rivoli, the American Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. To distinguish documenta from similar venues in Venice and Basel, she has opted out of presenting the best-known artists. In point of fact, and contrary to the show’s ‘competitors’, nothing is really being marketed here.
dOCUMENTA (13): an excellent vintage
In her director’s statement, Christov-Bakargiev proposes a more ‘political’ as well as a more ‘sensual and dynamic’ 13th edition of documenta, all under the umbrella of the Collapse and Recovery dialectic, a time-honoured Kassel tradition. Yes, there are allusions to WWII, the Vietnam War, tsunami in Japan, Arab Spring, Syrian massacres, etc., but the exhibition is far from funereal – there’s also room for ecology (including composting!), cultural differences and biodiversity. Fine art advisor Lisa Austin from Miami finds that this edition is ‘much better than the last one: less abstract and conceptual, more visual and diversified.’
Work by artists as well as by spectators
dOCUMENTA (13) is truly gigantic. It presents itself as a pandemonium of art that focuses on questioning the modern world and its fractures – a fertile chaos which requires of visitors a fair amount of goodwill and a readiness to get involved physically.
750,000 visitors
Some 750,000 modern pilgrims in search of meaning are expected to visit the venue over the space of a hundred days. Several thousand students from the city (including my guide, Kaja, who has just finished high school) have been hired to assist them with customary German helpfulness.
Kassel and documenta: all in it together
As the entire city participates in documenta, Kassel is transformed by the common cause and suddenly its dreary urbanism seems less banal. Backdrops for the event include a bank; an abandoned ballroom; the ground floor of an anonymous building; a student library; cinemas; the train station; all of the museums, evidently (including the one dedicated to the Brothers Grimm, the city’s heroes); and especially an immense park, the Karlsaue.
Good walking shoes are a must, even if the D13 bus, which you can take once you’ve presented your documenta entry ticket, makes it possible to ride through the city and the Karlsaue park as often as you wish and break your visit into manageable pieces. You’ll need at least two or three full days to fully appreciate this 13th edition. And even so, the profusion of art and events is frankly dizzying!
Fridericianum, documenta’s DNA
The Fridericianum might be considered documenta’s central nervous system, since it hosts an ensemble of artists who support Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s project. This handsome neoclassic building, one of the rare to have survived the war, is a hive of activity. On the ground floor, a composition by Englishman Ryan Gander will probably invite a few sneers from those who detest modern art (in the unlikely event that any such are to be found in Kassel). ‘I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull)’ is all about wind: the artist has jacked up the ventilation, as if a thorough head-cleaning were a prerequisite for appreciating dOCUMENTA (13).
Next you move from 4,500 year-old statues (Bactrian Princesses) to a Kader Attia piece created for documenta. You can rediscover the work of Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943), a Dutch artist assassinated by Nazi barbarism, as well as tapestries by the Swedish-born anti-fascist weaver Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970). Further down you’ll find paintings with Aboriginal patterns and Giorgio Morandi’s timeless still lifes. The eclectic circuit expresses this edition of documenta perfectly.
Three favourites
It would take more than one book to present the art of the 150 artists on show until 16 September. With the Pass (well worth its price), you can wander through the city, its monuments and exhibition areas at will. Don’t forget to stop and enjoy some bratwurst or espresso en route.
The Karlsaue park
One of the city of Kassel’s two public parks - along with that of the Wilhelmshöhe castle - Karlsaue is the other epicentre of documenta, a space where art and chlorophyll merge seamlessly. What a great pleasure to stroll under the old trees looking for the works of art strewn here and there! Naturally you can bring along a picnic; there is also a cafeteria located next to the park’s glasshouses. Over 50 artists have taken over Karlsaue: one with a boat dedicated to biodiversity, another with a concrete tube capable of capturing the sound of the wind, and yet another with a chalet where Saharan militants invite you in for a cup of tea. One must-see is the work of Giuseppe Penone, the Italian artist associated with the Arte Povera movement, who has hauled a rock up amongst the branches of a tree in a poetic flash remarkably representative of his maniera.
Tino Seghal
A former student of choreographers Jérôme Bel and Xavier Le Roy, British-German Tino Seghal (born in 1976) has laid a claim on Hugenottenhaus, an abandoned hotel on Friedrichstrasse. The dilapidated rooms hold both video installations and members of his dance troupe, leading to a peculiar blend of public and private. The strangeness grows even stronger as you approach the hotel’s old ballroom near the (unkempt) garden. Continue through the darkness to the middle of the room for an incredible stereophonic and sensory experience as twenty members of Tino’s troupe sing, dance, murmur and clap their hands in the unlit space. You sense a body that rubs up against yours, you feel a singer’s breath on your shoulder, a dancer dances a few steps with you... Wonderfully disquieting.
Neue Galerie: Stuart Ringholt
Australian artist Stuart Ringholt (born in 1971) has chosen to place his Anger Workshop – a collective performance about, well, anger - under the neon lights of the Neue Galerie. Noon and night daily, he brings ten or so people together in a closed-off area of the museum. The visitors must first give voice to all of the reasons they are angry and, without restraint, let streams of swearwords rip to a background of deafening techno music. Next, participants must forgive themselves to the harmonies of a Mozart concerto. It is a splendid example of a participatory performance that gently pulls spectators out of their passivity under the leadership of a deeply sympathetic artist. Not to be missed under any circumstances.
Where to stay
Golden Tulip Hotel Reiss
Werner-Hilpert-Straße 24
34117 Kassel
Tel: +49 (0)5 61 52 14 00
Located just 800 metres from the Fridericianum, the interior of this hotel with a council flat-like exterior has been completely renovated for dOCUMENTA (13). Pleasant materials, modern colours, a young staff: an excellent choice all around.
Full price: € 20/£ 16.15 (1-day pass); € 35/£ 28 (2-day pass) / € 100/£ 81.75 (season pass). Families: € 50/£ 40.35 (two adults and up to three children aged 10 to 16). Children under 10 free.

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