Germany Holidays: dOCUMENTA puts Kassel on the map

Once every five years one of the largest modern art exhibitions in the world takes place in the city of Kassel, right in the midriff of Germany.

dOCUMENTA(13) was, as its name suggests, the 13th such exhibition, and it ran for 100 days from June to September 2012 in the city of Kassel, attracting around a million visitors along the way.

Those are the bare facts, but the reality is much more interesting. The first dOCUMENTA, back in 1955, was originally planned by a local art professor as something of a sideshow to run alongside the Federal Horticultural exhibition.

At the time, Kassel was still reeling from the impact of war. As a centre for a lot of heavy industry – tanks, locomotives, etc – it had been around 85 percent destroyed in Allied bombing raids, and it was hastily rebuilt in 1950s style, which doesn’t look particularly pleasing on the eye today. A lot of imported labour was involved in the rebuilding process, and the resultant community is very ethnically mixed. As a tourist destination, it’s fair to say that it would struggle to attract visitors, if it wasn’t for the likes of dOCUMENTA.

The initial idea of the show’s creator, Arnold Bode, was to display art from movements that had been labelled as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi regime, such as Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Blauer Reiter and Futurism. Over the years, however, the focus has shifted to any contemporary art, coming from all corners of the world.

For the artists, it’s a big career move

dOCUMENTA’s approach is to hire a completely artistic director every time, so that the show remains fresh and original. In a typical year it contracts around 160 artists, most of whom will regard being accepted by the exhibition as an almighty step forward in their careers – so there’s no shortage of applicants. Artists generally have to come along with their own funding, but there’s also very generous outside sponsorship (€30 million in 2012) if their cash supply runs a bit short.

The show has its main spaces in a couple of key venues, the Fridericianum and the Gloria Cinema, but art works appear all over town, in parks, on top of buildings, on street corners, and even under the ground (one of last time’s artists did an installation that bored a thousand metres down beneath the central square).

The organisers offer what they call ‘dTOURS’ , which last two hours each, and are led by trained personnel called ‘Worldly Companions’, mainly from Kassel and with different backgrounds and generations. So a tour helps get under the skin both of the show, and of what is not, on the face of it, a particularly aesthetically appealing destination. It’s interesting stuff, and a shame that it only comes round once in every five years.

More information on the dOCUMENTA website.

Looking for more? See other destinations in Western Germany

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