An illustrated guide to Documenta 13

With subjects ranging from books to bunkers, moons to mountains, apples to atoms, ceramic sausages to prehistoric instruments, the five-yearly art-fest of Documenta in Kassel is overwhelming – so here’s a guide to seeing the best of it in just two or three days.
• Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany, 9 Jun-16 Sep 2012,

Tacita Dean’s Documenta installation.


Documenta 13 is massive, so although I’ve tried to keep this concise, it’s still long. Therefore I’ve broken it into chunks, which you can jump to from here.
Documenta overview
Main venue highlights: Hauptbahnhof | Fridericianum | Ex-Elisabeth Hospital | Ottoneum & Orangerie | Documenta-Halle | Karlsaue park | Neue Galerie
Off-site shows overview
Königsplatz area must-sees: C&A, Tacita Dean, Youth Library, Walid Raad
Brüder-Grimm-Platz area must-sees: Aschrott Fountain, City Hall Library, Huguenot House, Paul Chan, Francis Alÿs, Gerard Byrne, Brüder-Grimm Museum, Mundo Kassel, Weinberg Bunker, Weinberg Terrace, Funeral Museum
Practicalities: tickets, photography, getting around, refreshments

Documenta 13 overview

A tense Antony Gormley sculpture in front of the bombed church where JS Bach once played.

I’ve just come back from what, in an annoying “caps-lock stuck” logo, is styled dOCUMENTA (13), but which I shall call Documenta 13. This five-yearly art fest, which launched in 1955, is the second-most revered non-selling art world event after the bi-yearly Venice Biennale. That’s an art world love-in I’ve learnt to enjoy too, and which despite its randomness always sets up themes that resonate through the real world’s art institutions over the next two years.

Central Kassel – not very beautiful, even through a wine glass.

So I had high hopes for my first Documenta, and didn’t know what to expect at all, geographically or artistically. The town proved to be small and pleasant but unremarkable, massively bombed in WWII and thoughtfully rebuilt with expensive materials in the decade after (the one that also spawned Documenta), rendering it a museum of fine 1950s staircases – more akin to Coventry than Venice.

A 1950s staircase in Untere Karlsstr. 14, home to Walid Raad et al.

The art was generally less remarkable than Venice’s too, and pretty gruelling to get around in Kassel’s summer climate of alternately beating sun and rain, though it already seems to be improving in my memory. Given the high-flown and impenetrable prose that surrounds it, I suspect Documenta is largely aimed at curators, academics and artists, ie those in the biz who gain value from this veneer of erudition, and use such worthy jamborees as tribal get-togethers (centred on the artist-filled Huguenot House in Kassel, no doubt).

And another 1950s staircase, this in the Youth Library “appropriated” by Matias Faldbakken. Loving the mosaic pilotis.

Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev says this Documenta is themed around four incomprehensible art-speak “conditions”, eg “I dream, I am the dreaming subject of anticipation”, but many straightforwardly interleaving themes become evident as you walk around, eg wind, wind instruments, music, dancing, books, mountains, the moon, time measurement, trees, sheds, bunkers, the Holocaust, Afghanistan, archives and 1950s buildings (this last probably by necessity rather than design).

Help! I’m trapped in a 1950s staircase!

So what is the “amateur” art visitor to make of it? I have a few friends going next week, and they asked for my tips. Even cutting it short it’s a frighteningly long list, but here’s the blob-point version. There were a few works I really did like, so I’ll write about those at more length in a follow-up entry.

Main venues

There are a few major venues, mainly commandeered museums but also a railway station and a huge park, showing group exhibitions of varying quality, but mostly with at least one must-see. The “keynote” show is in the Fridericianum, which supposedly sets out the themes. But since these are either tenuous or blatantly obvious, it can safely be done at any point in the trip.

There’s sufficient labelling on most exhibits to make it clear what’s going on, but for more info buy  “The Guidebook”, a €24 green behemoth which gives a page plus picture to every single project. (Many doughty souls wander round clutching this weighty tome, but for me a kilo of dead tree stays in the hotel room.) The numbers in brackets throughout this article refer to the artwork’s reference number in the official Documenta map and guidebook.


The Hauptbahnhof – cheerful!

Most impressive is the Hauptbahnhof, a superannuated railway station with a heavy wartime history, an atmospheric site, and a concentration of good works. It took me five hours to get round even without watching any films, but with two snack stops and a brief look at the attached museum dedicated to local composer Louis Spohr. (Mahler also worked here briefly, but couldn’t get away fast enough.) I recommend kicking off this Arsenale-like venue, and indeed the whole Documenta, with Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller’s (37) scene-setting self-guided video tour, one of the festival’s highlights, mixing personal histories with the station’s actual past and imaginary present, and involving some stupendous choreography. Get there at 10am on the dot (or 9.45 if you need to buy your Documenta ticket) to get hold of an iPod before the crowds do. Apparently there’s a downloadable video for people with smartphones, but the official players have superb headphones and make life easy. Make sure to bring your passport, which is needed as a deposit.

The bleak Hauptbahnhof platform where Susan Philipsz’ sound piece is sited.

Also referencing the station’s history as a Holocaust staging point is Susan Philipsz’ (135) haunting sound piece on bleak platform 13, allowing an austere string quartet written by an Auschwitz victim to live again, fighting aurally with real tannoys and trains. After assimilating this, move on to the North Wing, where almost everything is arresting, especially Haegue Yang’s (189) militarily dancing blinds and William Kentridge’s (93) room-sized steampunk animation around time measurement, full of parping musicians and trundling machines. Don’t miss the gnomic moon and mountain museum by Haris Epaminonda & Daniel Gustav Kramer (55), which is in a separate building – though be prepared to leave your bag in the cloakroom outside.

Haegue Yang’s military-looking parade of marching blinds lining a disused platform.

Grab early lunch at the end of the North Wing, then cross Lara Favaretto’s (61) rubbish-sculptured yard to the Nachrichtenmeisterei, whatever that means. Here, Christodoulos Panayiotou’s (132) lopped-off telegraph poles smell nice (if you like creosote) but won’t detain you long, while Willie Doherty’s (51) well-paired film about mysteriously polluted trees looked interesting but too long to watch in full – though I wish I had now.

Wind instruments recur throughout – these are from William Kentridge’s steampunk animation.

The South Wing is mainly notable for its sounds: a challenging but pleasingly percussive electronic composition by Florian Hecker (77), and the more harmonious Beethovenian strains of the attached Spohr Museum. Sneak a break at the cute little ad-hoc snack stop next-door, then – if you can face it – head back to the main concourse to nose round the few bits and bobs there, basically a Susan Hiller (79) juke box you can hear to better effect in other venues, and a not-very-good 2,400-hour-long film (so don’t watch it all) in the classic 1950s Bali Cinema. Phew!


Vital too is the overstuffed Fridericianum, one of Europe’s oldest purpose-built museum buildings and keynote to the festival, though not necessary to see first. If you ever get overheated, cool off in Ryan Gander’s (67) “big wind”, which puffs through the mercifully bare ground floor. Best to start at the top with Kader Attia’s (17) grave and brooding roomful of masks and busts depicting self- and war-inflicted facial deformities, cross-culturally sculpted by Western and African artists. Descend to Korbinian Aigner’s (4) obsessive postcard-sized renditions of apples and pears, begun when he was a political prisoner in Dachau, secretly developing new strains of apple trees, one of which is exhibited in the park.

You can’t see it, but this room is being buffeted by Ryan Gander’s cooling big wind.

Kader Attia’s comparative study of willing and unwilling facial mutilation.

Also worth seeking out in the building’s Zwehrenturm (tower) is Emily Jacir’s (85) room papered with personal inscriptions from some of the thousands of Palestinian books looted by the Israelis in 1948, now kept in an Israeli library as “abandoned property”; she took the delicate photos on a cell phone, presumably covertly. Equally redolent of the tightly-bound relationship between religion, learning and war is Michael Rakowitz’s (144) nearby archive of Bamiyan Buddha fragments alongside destroyed European sacred books, recreated in Bamiyan travertine by Afghani stone carvers and clearly pointing up their visual similarity to Islamic texts.

Emily Jacir’s fragile Palestinian texts, photographed on a cell phone.

Michael Rakowitz’s stone sacred books, carved in Bamiyan.

Finally, do allow time to queue (or get there early) for the glassed-in Rotunda, Documenta’s self-styled “brain”, which brings together the various themes in a densely-curated display and only allows in 40 viewers per time. It’s notable for a peaceful row of beautiful Giorgio Morandi paintings (121) and the real bottles he copied them from, plus a rare array of tiny, ancient “Bactrian Princess” (18) sculptures, startling in their squat, modernist-looking elegance.

Wow – these are the actual bottles Giorgio Morandi used to paint.

Mysterious and rare Bactrian princesses, over 4,000 years old.

Oberste Gasse 4 (Ex-Elisabeth Hospital)

This is a mini-venue behind the Fridericianum, just around the corner from the Ottoneum. It’s a storied building, but too dark inside to appreciate architecturally, and not visually rich. The worthy exhibition of Afghani artists within also offers powerful stories, but is uncompelling to view. Depending on the whim of the intermittent door guard, you may be asked to leave your bag in the Fridericianum’s somewhat distant cloakroom, which possibly isn’t worth it if you’re short of time.

Afghan portraits by Ustad Sharif, commissioned by Jeanno Gaussi, inside the Ex-Elizabeth Hospital.


The nearby Ottoneum (natural history museum) and Orangerie (science museum) have iffy art themed around their interesting subject matter, and needn’t take long. Highlight of the former is Mark Dion’s (49) library of trees on the top floor; little else impressed, in addition to which my companion surrendered to heat exhaustion at this point – if only we’d known of Ryan Gander’s “big wind” round the corner!

The Orangerie seen from the park (that bushy thing on the right is a Song Dong work).

The science museum down the hill is more rewarding, largely due to its rambling permanent collection of steampunkish optical instruments and early computers (echoes of William Kentridge’s film here). Best art is a small selection of untutored deco-ish architectural fantasias by 1940s computer pioneer Konrad Zuse (193), and Erkki Kurenniemi’s (95) impressionistic three-screen documentary film about the building of a nuclear power plant in Finland. There’s a famous physicist and his students holed up in one room giving cutting-edge quantum talks as part of Documenta too, but it’s all in German and beyond a non-science buff’s comprehension.

Erkki Kurenniemi’s film about a Finnish nuclear plower station.

The Orangerie’s a good place to end the day, because outside is a terrace overlooking the park where it’s nice to eat and drink in the evening – more pleasant, in my opinion, than the plethora of open air dining spaces beside the Fridericianum.


This purpose-built gallery lies between the above two museums and, being smallish, its offerings can be sampled en route from one to t’other. Best are Thomas Bayrle’s (25) splayed-open car engines, still smoothly pumping like living beings, and the influential Gustav Metzger’s (116) archive of old work – though interesting more for his Kindertransport back-story and subsequent break with traditional art than the actual drawings.

Thomas Bayrle’s mesmeric pumping car engines.

And when nature, hunger or weariness call, as they all surely will, there’s a cafe down the side for interim comfort stops – we found this a very useful break-point when continually trolling back and forth between the town and the park.

Karlsaue park

The elegant park of Karlsaue spreads greenly amidst the whole Documenta experience, inviting and daunting in its lush expanse, and divided by decorative canals. Some exhibits require tickets and some are open access; but as it’s a long walk and you won’t want to retrace your steps, I advise having a valid ticket at all times. There’s far too much to list, mainly housed in customised sheds, so simply wander and wonder – the park can be done in stages, whenever you need a fresh-air stroll / restorative bus ride.

Giuseppe Penone’s trapped stone.

The town side is quicker to do: standouts include Guiseppe Penone’s (133) realistic bronze stone-in-a-tree and the explosive sound installation in a bosky glade by Documenta stars Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller (37). There’s also a working “clinic” by Pedro Reyes (147) where you can be “psycho-analysed” by white-coated artistas, which seems popular, but I didn’t have time or inclination to participate.

Ceramic sausages – just what every home needs. An installation by Anna Maria Maiolino.

The park’s far side is more spread out and harder to navigate, but has a nice cafe, the Glashaus, half way down, plus the free d13 bus route running along its length. Notable here are Sam Durant’s (53) giant playframe made of genuine American hangman’s gibbets, and Anna Maria Maiolino’s (107) little house full of clay sausages (only in modern art, eh?). Nearby is Anri Sala’s (155) giant malformed clock, shaped to appear in circular from a telescope in the Orangery (it looked like a white blur to me), and with a lozenge-shaped gear to help its asymmetrical dial keep time.

Anri Sala’s huge, distorted clock. Wow man, it’s like being in a Salvador Dali painting…

If you can face walking to the park’s very extremity beyond the pavilioned island, there’s a charming 18th century vista back to the town contrasting with a rough and ready dogs’ playground by Brian Jungen (88), though I didn’t fancy lingering at the non-Documenta eateries by the bus stop, or indeed the mini-golf course.

The elegant view from the rear of Karlsaue park.

Brian Jungen’s inelegant dogs’ playground nearby.

En route here, you may stumble on an outsiderish artist’s compound studded with passive-aggressive warning notices, where you’re asked to pay with a small coin and leave cameras and phones at the entrance (“the artist lives here and doesn’t want his picture taken”, we were informed – well, they could just have asked nicely). I am advised by writer Paul Carey-Kent that this is Documanta work no 120, by Gareth Moore, but didn’t spot any sign to indicate this. Not to be confused with Pierre Huyghe’s (83)horrible junk-yard “garden”, this actually is an outsiderish artist’s compound, and not a Documenta work; it’s interesting, but we thought it funny these so-called free souls were more paranoid about enforcing civic rules than the whole of the rest of Kassel.

A rule-bound and convincingly outsiderish artists’ compound which is apparently an official Documanta work by Gareth Moore (120).

Neue Galerie

Finally, on a promontory off to the other side of the park, is the Neue Galerie, the town’s newly refurbished actual art museum. This is worth seeing for the small permanent collection as well as the Documenta stuff.  Most impactful is Geoffrey Farmer’s (59) corridor-long chronological 3D collage of imagery from Life magazine 1935-85, and a somewhat incongruous room of canvases by famed Australian Aboriginal painter Gordon Bennett (27), whose rhythmic abstract surfaces enshrine memories of mythology and topography.

Geoffrey Farmer’s obsessive collage of Life magazines.

Off-site shows overview

In addition there are lots of smaller “off-site” locations, situated in places such as cinemas, shops, bunkers and disused offices: these are interesting for the venues alone, and many house good exhibitions too. It looks overwhelming at first, but many are seminars, long films and performances, all of which I gave a miss due to lack of patience and time. I was following blogger Paul Carey Kent’s sound dictum that with limited time, it’s best to concentrate on the real big-hitters that won’t look as good anywhere else.

Standing with your back to the station, the off-sites fall neatly into two halves, divided by Wilhelmsstrasse: those to the left of the town (the slightly gritty Königsplatz side) and those to the right (the ironically less grim Brüder-Grimm-Platz side).  I’ve covered the standouts below, plus a couple of avoidables; and I can’t emphasise enough not to miss out the outlying Weinberg bunker / terrace / funeral museum combo, which is something of a trek from the Neue Galerie, but definitely worth the trip.

Adrián Villar Rojas’ weird sculptures on the photogenic Weinberg Terrace.

Decorated skulls in the funeral museum.

Königsplatz area must-sees

These can be done together quite quickly on a pleasant stroll, as a light relief from the overwhelming major venues in this area.

C&A department store: Cevdet Erek (56)

Long since closed down in Britain in due to its unshakeable “cheap & awful” image, budget clothes chain C&A is still a going concern on the continent. Enter through a side entrance of this shabby Mies-ish behemoth and in a top-floor disused link block with good views there’s an electronic sound installation based on different rhythms. It’s not exactly in the class of Florian Hecker, but the atmospheric venue’s interesting. Exit through the kids’ dept for a view of “normal” Germany, and some very dubious clothes.

The view from C&A, while listening to a rhythmic sound piece.

Spohrstr. 7 (Ex-Finance Building): Tacita Dean (48)

Not conceptually groundbreaking for Dean, but a striking mise-en-scene: blackboard drawings of Afghan mountains on two tiers of an elegant old bank building with sweeping staircase (a recurring feature in Kassel). Usefully, it’s opposite one of Kassel’s remaining “old” landmarks, a bombed-out church where in 1732 JS Bach played the organ, now with a tense Antony Gormley statue outside the front door. Behind it rise latticework brick replacement spires, and a shockingly brutalist hall (which I genuinely thought was a car park at first), nicely setting up a spire-and-bunker theme we shall re-encounter soon.

Tacita Dean – beautiful drawings on a beautiful staircase.

JS Bach played ‘ere… and he didn’t even leave any graffiti.

Youth Library: Matias Faldbakken (58)

The Norwegian bad boy artist-cum-novelist provides two tableaux of scattered books in city libraries, both worth visiting for the architecture as much as his “intervention”. This building is a stunning piece of mid-century modern in Royal Festival Hall mode, and you’re allowed to wander round peacefully photographing details without feeling like a latent paedophile, as in England’s vigilante culture. If you can only catch one of Faldbakken’s displays, this is the better, but note the library opens at 1pm most days.

Mid-century modern architecture at the Youth Library.

Untere Karlsstr. 14: Walid Raad (143) et al

This shell of an office block behind the Fridericianum houses yet more spidery 1950s banisters, plus a few Arabic artists. Most space goes rightly to Walid Raad, whose whimsical installations playing on the rich Middle Eastern craze for fancy art museums looked initially daunting, but really drew me in with its light touch, sly digs, and visual imagination. I missed a couple of the other artists because I didn’t realise there were further rooms, and indeed the whole obscurely-named building is too easily passed by, so try to to plan it in, and allow around an hour.

A striking part of Walid Raad’s extensive installation around Arabic art museums.

Brüder-Grimm-Platz area must-sees

This is where Kassel’s mountain-framed topography gets vertiginous, with the park sweeping away below and walkways leading across a decorous main artery to the town and, further down, the Weinberg bunker and terrace, which climbs up to the unusual Sepulchral museum. There’s a carillon in the area – we arrived at around 5pm one day to find it playing a pretty tune, which really adds to the genteel parkside atmosphere. The only main venue round here is the Neue Galerie, which makes a good mid-way point, assuming a start from City Hall. You could happily spend a day in this area, following the order of venues I’ve listed here.

Surreal animal skull columns in City Hall.

Aschrott Fountain (outside City Hall): Horst Hoheisel (80)

The ex-Aschrott Fountain.

In front of City Hall is an invisible absence. At first you think there’s nothing there but a large cross flush with the ground. But read the label and you’ll see it’s the base of an upside-down fountain (allegedly) sunk into the earth, a replica of one donated by a Jewish businessman that was destroyed by the Nazis in 1939. It was created several Documentas ago, and apparently the artist comes back to personally hand-clean it every year, in a rather overwrought assumption of individual guilt. Personally I think it would have been better to leave the fountain the right way up as a permanent reminder – it’s too easily forgotten the rest of the time, situated as it is. It wasn’t till I got to some other exhibition (I forget which), that I found a photo of how the fountain had actually looked – a spire-like obelisk, unwittingly prefiguring all the other real spires which were later destroyed in WWII.

Spire and bunker (in fact part of the church) – two of Kassel’s many recurring themes.

Zentral Bibliotek im Rathaus (City Hall Library): Matias Faldbakken, (58)

At the back of City Hall is the town’s general library, home to another Faldbakken bombed bookcase, as at the Youth Library. This one hardly needs an artist to mess up its stock, as the normal stacks provide enough surreal juxtapositions of titles unaided. What we discovered by getting there early (it opens at 11am most days) and getting lost was that you’re allowed to walk through this historically layered civic edifice unhindered by petty jobsworths, admiring its weird and wonderful column mouldings of rams’ skulls (I think). Head towards the Job Centre (which being in Germany probably does dispense actual jobs), and follow the main corridor right to inspect the grandiose courtroom doors before exiting through the wedding-party-friendly front door, where for some unknown reason we encountered a phalanx of rather aggressive bubble-blowers.

A bombed book installation by Matias Faldbakken in City Hall library.

Hugenottenhaus (Huguenot House): Theaster Gates (70), Tino Sehgal (159)

This has been one of the hits of Documenta: Tino Sehghal’s fashionable participatory performances have made it all the way to Tate’s turbine hall, while Theaster Gates is a new darling of the art world, coming soon to London’s White Cube gallery. Trained in urban planning, he made his name with community projects around Chicago, revitalising poor neighbourhoods with a mix of redevelopment and art. Here he has turned a massive derelict old house into temporary studios, where a group of artists live while renovating and modifying it in sculptural ways with reclaimed building materials shipped over from another of his projects in Chicago. But in prosperous central Germany, as opposed to Chicago, it comes across as complacent bourgeois gentrification, albeit in a very lovely building. Maybe he should give Teesside a go.

Just what every home needs – two staircases going nowhere. Installation at Theaster Gates’ Huguenot House.

Punters in the artistically distressed Huguenot House.

Sehgal meanwhile is accessed out the back. You stumble into a darkened room, where large group of people are singing medleys of acapella hits ranging from Good Vibrations to what may have been a Beyoncé tune (I’m not down enough with the kids to be sure). I managed to stumble all the way across the room with only minor human buffeting, after which my eyes started to adjust and I could see other newbies bumbling round, and the happy-clappy young performers doing relaxed semi-choreographed routines while they sang. It’s obviously an unusual situation to find oneself in, but it’s hardly perception-altering, and personally I don’t think it’s visual art at all: it’s like a rather low-powered form of amateur theatre, town hall antics performed in a blackout. Nevertheless, it’s one of the “must-dos” at Documenta, so do it.

Exterior of the huge Huguenot House: today full of artists, tomorrow worth millions.

Also here is a Lawrence Weiner (186) work (with a name like that they should have put him in the Karlsaue clay-sausage-house, ha ha), but I forgot to look for it; no doubt it was a text piece high up on some wall. I’m not saying when you’ve seen one Lawrence Weiner you’ve seen them all, but… well, I am.

Speaking of Lawrence Weiner, here are more clay sausages from Anna Maria Maiolino’s bonkers Karlsaue installation.

Friedrichsstr. 28: Paul Chan (40)
Obere Karlsstr. 4 (Ex-Bakery): Francis Alÿs (10)
Grand City Hotel Hessenland (Large Ballroom): Gerard Byrne (35)

These three venues surround the Huguenot House, and don’t take long unless you choose to watch Gerard Byrne’s (35) film all the way through. Housed in a glorious 1950s hotel, this is one of his highly effective multi-screen installations where actors, playing famous historical figures in meticulously realised period settings, have a scripted discussion based on real texts. Here, Surrealists converse frankly about sex; if you’re with someone who’d be disturbed by a discourse that moves from male anal intercourse to female self-pleasuring in a couple of sentences, step very quickly through.

Minimal – Francis Alÿs’ tiny paintings in a bakery.

Maximal – Paul Chan’s mountain- and moon-painted book covers.

Francis Alÿs (10), colonising an old baker’s shop, shows elements related to a film, but not the actual film; there’s just a few tiny stripy paintings here, some visible only through a window, apparently part of the “concept”. Paul Chan (40) is known for animated shadow-films, notably a priapic wall-long tableau at the 2011 Venice Biennale (in a style William Kentridge’s film reminded me of). Here however he shows a colourful room full of book covers painted with monochrome moon and mountain scenes – echoing the visual themes of Haris Epaminonda, Matias Faldbakken and Tacita Dean, amongst others. It’s fun looking at all the period book covers, and the fascination some viewers find in them.

Brüder-Grimm Museum: Nedko Solakov (164)

As you may guess from the title of the museum and square, the Brothers Grimm were based in Kassel. This is worth a swing-through as it’s included in the Documenta ticket, and opposite the excellent Neue Galerie. But I was underwhelmed by Bulgarian art-cartoonist Solakov’s chaotic outsiderish takeover of the galleries to tell an incomprehensible and therefore uncompelling tale. Nothing stopped me in my tracks, so I hotfooted it through; with so much else on the agenda, it seemed non-essential, and I couldn’t help feeling the museum would be better in its “normal” state.

Not a surreal artwork (if only it were), but a real shop window in central Kassel, straight outta Grimm.

After this it would be a good idea to grab lunch at Mundo (below), then do the middle-sized main venue Neue Galerie (above) before heading off for Weinberg (below again).

Mundo Kassel: Susan Hiller (79)

This is a restaurant, useful for both lunch and coffee breaks, which holds one of Susan Hiller’s (79) contributions. Many of the “official” eateries have similar 1940s-style jukeboxes: these are all Hiller installations, offering low-volume tuneage from her right-on personal record collection. Acting like a chippy 1970s teenager, or Danny Boyle soundtracking the Olympics launch, I subjected diners to quiet renditions of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” followed by the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” – pathetic, but satisfying.

Susan Hiller’s rebellious-1970s-teenager jukebox selection.

Mundo itself is a good help-yourself buffet with a scenic outside terrace overlooking the park’s treetops. Sit at a table, tell the waiter whether you want a large or normal plate and order drinks (which never seem to arrive together in Kassel), then go in and be tempted by the dizzying array to mix chilli con carne with pickled herrings. Reader, I did just that.

Looking back at the Neue Galerie from Mundo. The treetop view in the other direction is lovely.

Bunker im Weinberg (Weinberg Bunker): Allora & Calzadilla (8)
Weinbergterassen (Weinberg Terraces): Adrián Villar Rojas (179)
Museum of Sepulchral Culture (aka the Funeral Museum): non-Documenta,

Art that involves donning hard hats is always worth checking out, and this trio was one of my highlights. Go on Wednesday afternoon if possible, when the Sepulchral museum’s open till 8pm, to enjoy a leisurely pace; the route involves caves and steps, so if you’re hiring bikes, this isn’t the place to bring them. You can stroll here from the Neue Galerie, along a leafy footpath above the arterial road – don’t cross the footbridge, but continue to the pedestrian crossing at ground level.

Hard-hatted art punters head for the Weinberg bunker.

Opposite, you’ll see a line of massive stone arches holding up the escarpment; cross over, grab a hard hat, and enter the Weinberg Bunker’s labyrinth of tunnels. These were originally used for keeping ice and provisions cool, later as WWII shelters, and now to showcase Allora & Calzadilla’s (8) not particularly bunker-specific film, in which a flautist struggles to blow a prehistoric bone pipe, one of the earliest musical instruments ever found. Her experimental puffs yield only terrible sounds until at one climactic point she does get a few recognisable notes from it – but who’s to say the pipe ever worked?

This woman is playing the oldest musical instrument in the world (unsuccessfully). Film by Allora & Calzadilla.

Deposit the hard hat, and enter the door leading onto the vertiginous steps up the derelict-looking Weinberg Terrace, a tangle of concrete, weedy grass, and rusting railings. Don’t be put off – you climb in tiered stages, and there are great views back over the local landscape en route. All the way up nestle white cracked sculptures by Adrián Villar Rojas (179), resembling baked mud. They are in many styles, from abstract to rough-hewn to mechanistic, and though at first I thought they were stupid, they grew on me as I climbed the hill. At the top, under some graffitied concrete pilotis, they culminate in a row of buddhist-style bells or stupas – most effective.

The peculiar Weinberg Terrace, with sculptures by Adrián Villar Rojas.

Underneath the funeral museum, stupa sculptures by Adrián Villar Rojas mix with dubious graffiti, of which we saw quite a bit.

Blank gravestones beneath the funeral museum.

Amongst them are uncarved gravestones, a reference the surprisingly airy and modernist edifice above: the Museum of Sepulchral Culture, a repository of primarily European Christian-based funereal items from decorated caskets to painted skulls. It’s more like an ethnographic collection than something spooky, and well worth the €6 entry. After this you can wend back down to Brüder-Grimm-Platz via some more notable architecture, and grab a sundowner (assuming there’s sun) at Postillion, a friendly bistro with decent food and a leafily private little terrace.

Looking up from the Weinberg Terrace to the Museum of Sepulchral Culture, aka the funeral museum.

Painted coffins in the funeral museum.

So, that’s what I saw – and just some of it. Pretty intense, so here are the practicalities of tickets, navigation, transport and food.



You can either get a 1-day ticket for €20, a 2-day for €35, or an after-5pm ticket for €10 (as most venues open till 8pm, though not some of the smaller ones so you need to check). If you’re serious and want to see everything then 2 days is the minimum, though I ended up doing 3 days in all, and definitely getting full usage out of the resultant €55 in tickets. Depending on your travel times you could always do a starter evening with a late ticket, or final half-day in the park without a ticket, as many things there are open access. But it seems a false economy – Documenta’s only on every 5 years, so best to splash out on full-time all-areas access.

Punters outside Francis Alÿs’ ex-bakery show – you can peer into many venues without a ticket.


What’s nice is that you’re allowed to take photos of the art throughout, except in a couple of rare instances where individual works have “no photography” signs, presumably due to some over-officious art estate’s copyright rules. It’s striking that the Germans in general are so civically un-paranoid compared to the UK, despite privacy rules stringent enough to outlaw Google Street View – no CCTV cameras following you, and officials unconcerned as you wander round libraries, shops and government buildings in search of art. It makes for some pretty Littlejohn-esque reflections on which country the Stasi ethos really holds sway in today.

Snooping around inside the City Hall, with no CCTV in sight.

Getting around

There’s a free map available from most venues, and although it’s complex (as it’s a complex event), it’s good enough that you don’t really need any other street map, although a GPS phone map is helpful now and again, especially in the confusing park.  All the info you’ll need is there, plus diagrams of all the main venues. All are within walking distance of each other, but cumulatively it’s a long way, with the park alone over 2km long. Fortunately a Documenta ticket gains admission to a free bus, the d13, which runs in a circular route every 15 minutes or so – handy for returning from the rear of the park, or getting to slightly further-out Weinberg. You can also hire Boris-style bikes, which would be especially useful in the park. There are also guided walks called d-Tours, but these are in German, rather crowded, and whenever I saw one I was glad I wasn’t on it.

The park really is huge. There are no boats, so get a d13 bus.


The inequality of the Euro is clear in Germany: their strong economy is reflected in modest internal prices, making it somewhat cheaper than London for food. (Though hotels are a rip-off if the spartan museum of 1970s Soviet furniture known as the Grand City Hotel Domus, which I paid around £90 a night to stay in, is anything to go by – believe the bad reviews on Tripadvisor is my advice.) While Kassel doesn’t appear a bastion of fine dining, German food is generally reliable, and you’re never far away from somewhere passable.

Pit-stop at “gLASHAUS” – note how all Documenta typography follows this stupid reverse-capitalisation stylee.

There are pleasantly situated eateries associated with each Documenta venue too, which all have leafy outside space and don’t get too crowded. I liked the cafes halfway through the station (after Hague Yang, no 198) and in the park (the Glashaus, between artworks 50 and 107), which do interesting salads in Kilner jars. Warning: take the jars back, or you’ll lose several euros in deposit as I unwittingly did first time. Many of these eateries have jukeboxes: these are artworks by Susan Hiller (no 79). We also found two decent places to eat round the Neue Galerie and Brüder-Grimm-Platz, though doubtless there are more: Mundo, a buffet with a scenic terrace, and Postillion, a friendly bistro with decent food and secluded patio, ideal to reach on a sunny evening (fingers crossed) after a tiring round-trip to Weinberg.

Well, that’s it for the words bit – here are a few more photos.

Coffee table dereliction at the Huguenot House.

Real dereliction at the enormous station – which is much nicer than it looks here during a shower.

Graffiti in the station. It was always disturbing to see the occasional Nazi-related scrawlings.

The gritty side of town as viewed from the C&A space.

Sound piece at C&A – they should try this approach in their changing rooms.

C&A again. Still bunkerish, even though it’s a roof space. Get me out of here!

Dachau inmate Korbinian Aigner’s obsessive postcard-sized renditions of apples and pears at the Fridericianum.

Oi! Look behind you! A row of Morandis at the Fridericianum.

Michael Rakowitz’s carved books at the Fridericianum all have their fascinating stories of destruction written in front of them.

I was endlessly fascinated by Thomas Bayrle’s animated anthropomorphic motors at Documenta-Halle.

A different kind of mechanism, at the equally engrossing Weinberg Terrace.

Sorry to bore on, but I really did enjoy the Weinberg Terrace. That’s the funeral museum above it.

Looking up from the Weinberg bunkers.

A cat looking at a thing. Fin.


  1. Monique Cremers

    Did it! Thanks again for your beautiful guidance. We did the Weinberg early Saturday morning, fresh and fruity and it was great. Loved it.
    Too tired now to make a lot of comments or additions, but for people still to go: be REALLY early for Cardiff and Bures Millers at Hauptbahnhof. We didnt do it: More than 90 minutes queue. We think Documenta should make it easier to queue and be more creative about it. We have a lot of plans.
    I very much liked Oberste Gasse 4, esspecially Lida Abdul, but also the whole atmosphere.
    Documenta Halle, basement: don’t overlook the last room, Nalini Malani.
    Neue Galerie, also skipped Farmer because of the endless queue. Spent a lot of time in Hillers room and bought the songbook (am happy:-).
    Loved Kentridge the most (though it’s hard to choose, and of course, did not see everything). Try to grab a chair once inside!

  2. Monique Cremers

    Thanks, It was hard finding something to give me some guidelines. The official website sucks. I will follow your trail this weekend and am now really looking forward. I will make certain not to miss the Weinberg bunkers!:-)

    • Vici MacDonald

      Ha ha – and thanks! Agree about their website, so hard to use and no info about the actual artworks.

  3. Many thnaks for an excellet comprehensive and very helpful review. Off to my fifth documenta tomorrow and am forewarned and forearmed thanks to your sterling efforts.


    • Vici MacDonald

      Five Documentas – that’s impressive!

      • Hi Vici

        I was introduced to it at Documenta VII in 1982 on returning to the area to visit friends made while on a year long posting to Felsberg just south of Kassel in 1980/81.

        Since then, I have had the pleasure of returning for Documenta IX, XI and XII.

        Flying to Germany this afternoon for XIII.

        I have sent your link to my travelling companions to tee them up as what’s best not to miss.

        Thanks again for your inciteful and entertaining review


      • Vici MacDonald

        Enjoy… You’re welcome to comment here afterwards as to how it compares to the others.

  4. jozien kreulen

    thanks alot! what a luxoury to be able to prepare myself using your guide and tips!

  5. best guide to Documenta!

  6. Betty B

    Really enjoyed reading this, thank you. I can’t make it to Documenta this summer (despite traipsing to Berlin for the disappointing biennial) but feel like you’ve done lots of of it for me!

    • Vici MacDonald

      Thanks! Sorry to hear the Berlin Biennale was poor. The only one I ever went to was No 4 (Of Mice and Men, 2006), the one Maurizio Cattelan co-curated in historically resonant buildings all down Auguststrasse – one of the best such events I’ve ever been to, really superb. Guess it’s been a hard one to follow up.

  7. Sunil Rashel

    Thanks for this, really the best coverage so far, very fresh point of view and wow, you really did see most of it but missed a couple– the main Susan Hiller room in the Neugalerie and the wonderful puppet show films in the basement same building).
    Sunil Rashel

    • Vici MacDonald

      Thanks – you’re right about the puppet tales of arabic history in the Neue Galerie basement, they were really engrossing, and visually put me in mind of a cross between Nathalie Djurburg and Thunderbirds. I wish I’d had time to watch more than I did. As for the Susan Hiller room, I must’ve missed that – was running on empty by that time!

  8. thanks very well done
    a lot of new angle !!

    this you won t see any more

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: