Art Travel

Hello from documenta 14 – First Impressions and How Strangers Influenced My Experience

8. June 2017

I arrived in Frankfurt in the morning and was sitting at the train station finally eating breakfast (there is nothing worse than food on the plane…). A woman, maybe in her seventies, approached the gate – I immediately spotted her pink Rimowa suitcase and her eccentric glasses. I knew she was probably also going to Kassel. She travelled with two friends or colleagues and they sat down next to me on the bench. “That looks really good”, she said while I still kept stuffing my face… I got distracted from my breakfast and we started talking. She was indeed on her way to Kassel and was an art historian and art dealer/galerist from the US. One of her artists will exhibit in Kassel.

“It is so funny, I can tell you who is on their way to Kassel by their outfits”, she giggled. “You see these two women over there? Definitely on their way there. And have you seen the guy with the long hair further down? He’s also going to Kassel, I’m sure.”

“So, are you an artist?”, she asked me.

“No, I run a blog for women who are interested in art and travelling.”

“I used to promote women and black/native American artists in times when nobody wanted to look at their works.”

This was so inspiring, this woman promoted female artists and artists form minorities at times when nobody wanted to exhibit them. I got really excited and wanted to know more but the train was approaching. “If you ever come to Florida, let me know, I give you my card.”

Even though a lot of buildings were destroyed during World War II, there are some beautiful houses taking us back to the “old” Kassel.

Going to Kassel from Frankfurt airport took me longer than from Helsinki to Frankfurt because two trains were cancelled. After I finally arrived at the hotel, I explored Kassel. Unfortunately, it was raining and I ended up at a coffee place and had a cake and then decided to head back to the hotel to prepare for the big the of the press conference.

While waiting for the press conference to start, I met Sabine, a Latvian now living in Berlin who also runs an art blog and several other projects. Similar to Athens, the press conference was quite long – it took about 3 hours. Even though it was informative, I enjoyed the Athens conference more because it was more interactive and involved more artists – I guess this might have been a move by Adam Szymczyk and his team to prove that Athens was an equal partner.

documenta 14 Team

Immediately after the conference, my new “art buddy” and I went to explore the city and its artworks. documenta 14 is spread over more than 30 locations, mainly scattered around a North-South axis. Our first stop was the Stadtmuseum Kassel where I actually spotted one of my favourite works by Dutch artist Hans Eijkelboom: he photographed people wearing the same outfits and juxtaposed the photos.

Hans Eijkelboom Photo Notes 1992 – 2017 at the Stadtmuseum Kassel

We headed on to numerous places, among them the big locations such as the Neue Galerie, the Palais Bellevue, the Fridericianum and the documenta Halle. I have to say that even though most of the people we met praised the artworks at the Neue Galerie, I enjoyed the exhibits at documenta Halle more. And, of course, the Parthenon of Books by Marta Minujin was very impressive.

Parthenon of Books by Marta Minujin

So far, I am not able to clearly define my feelings about documenta14. This art forum is one of the biggest in the world and my expectations had been really high. Especially after the kick-off in Athens. Unfortunately, after spending a long day exploring the exhibits, I found the first day a bit depressing. It do not know if it was because of the weather, or because of the flight or because of the exhibits.

Does art have to hurt to have an impact? The main topics I identified were Nazis, UdSSR, the refugee crisis, war, death and sexuality (not in a beautiful but  horrifying way, like a woman making love to a vacuum cleaner…). I think we are all over-exposed to these topics by the media and, hence, often not receptive anymore. I do understand that art has the ambition to address these problems but I am not sure if this is the right approach. Is it really necessary to have guns, tanks and brutality everywhere? Has art lost its power of intriguing us by beauty? I think instead of merely depicting the problems, the mission of art should be to contribute to the solution of the problem.  Some artworks even hurt in a literal way: like a big metal piece being hit by a magnet and causing a loud noise at the Fridericianum.

War and brutality are omnipresent

I do understand the motive of the documenta team to make people reflect about our society and (re-)orientate. But I am not sure if this target can be achieved this way: I am passionate about art and very open to new approaches but even for me it was very difficult to relate to a lot of the artworks. I hoped to be intrigued and pushed to new limits. But very often, it was just too abstract for me.

In Athens, the documenta14 team presented their ambitions to contribute to societal problems, especially to fight neo-fascism. I was deeply touched by the press conference in April. But to have an impact, it is crucial to make art accessible to everyone. A big forum like documenta should democratize their event. Even though I like the idea of the exhibits being scattered across the city, I am not sure if this is enough: it is often very hard to find the locations, because not all locations have documenta signs (maybe it was only during the preview days). If you are already interested in art and coming to documenta for this reason, it might be a bight annoying but not a real problem. I do see a challenge with those who are not the “typical art crowd”. This group might not even know that documenta is taking place (even though this might be hard to believe for “art insiders”). Furthermore, I am not sure if the exhibits – often without descriptions – would be able to spark their interest in contemporary art. Even I felt like an outsider sometimes.

Even though I have mixed feelings about documenta at the moment, I really enjoyed exploring Kassel with my “art buddy” from Berlin. It was nice to share my thoughts and exchange our views on the artworks and maybe I had to experience art the way I had. It is so funny how easily I meet new people when I travel. Bernice and Sabine definitely contributed to my experience with contemporary art in Kassel. And by the way, there even is a documentary on iTunes about Bernice and her truly inspiring work. I came to Kassel mainly for the art and obviously art still has the nice side-effect of connecting people – whether you share the same or different points of view.

I am now heading out for day 2 and I am already looking forward to learn more. Maybe today’s artworks have a more positive approach. I have not given up my hopes as yet. 🙂

documenta14 is currently open for preview for accredited press and guests. It is open to the public from Saturday, June 10th, 2017 onwards.

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