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Documenta (13) a Party, Every Five Years, for 750,000 Guests

Kassel, Germany

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Art Installation: Tokyo-born artist Shinro Ohtake news


If ever an art exhibition felt like a scavenger hunt, it's Documenta—a freewheeling display of contemporary art that draws hundreds of thousands to the northern German city of Kassel every five years.

Chinese sculptor Ai Weiwei became an international hit after Documenta unveiled his 2007 work, "Fairytale." (The title partly nods to the fact that the Brothers Grimm grew up in Kassel.) Before that, the art show was among the first to champion conceptual artists like Lawrence Weiner, a New Yorker who's known for covering entire floors or walls with cryptic sayings.

The latest edition, which opens this weekend and runs through Sept. 16, includes new art tucked into former bank vaults, Huguenot-era houses and factories where the Nazis once built tanks.

An art teacher in Kassel created Documenta in 1955 with the aim of unearthing artworks deemed degenerate by the Nazis. After the success of the first event, the organizers took four years to produce a sequel, and it then took on its two-a-decade form—a quirky calendar configuration that's helped make it a must-see for the art-world elite.

At least 750,000 people are expected to turn up in Kassel for a closer look. That beats the famed Venice Biennale, which attracted 440,000 visitors in 2011. Documenta's crowds dwarf the year-round population of Kassel—which rarely tops 200,000—but locals don't seem to mind the extra attention. Kassel, 120 miles northeast of Frankfurt, is more than a millennium old, but most of its medieval, historic center was destroyed during World War II. Aside from Documenta, the city's biggest claim to fame is Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, which features a giant statue of Hercules.

Documenta typically gives its artists at least two years to conceive and produce their projects, so the works are often elaborate and intellectually complex. That doesn't mean they're easy to spot, though: Chinese conceptualist Song Dong's contribution to Documenta is "The Doing Nothing Garden," a 160-foot-long grassy knoll in Karlsaue Park whose innards are a mound of trash. British artist Ryan Gander has also burrowed into the park, creating an inaccessible tunnel with a trap door called "Escape Hatch to Culturefield." Passersby who peer in can see a blue light at its end. (Bonus points go to those who recognize Mr. Gander's other park project, "Had a Message from the Curator," in which an actor plays a playwright working on a screenplay about a Hollywood star who plays himself resurrected from the dead.)

In the park are 24 cottage-like pavilions filled with art, including Tokyo-born artist Shinro Ohtake's "Mon Cheri: A Self-Portrait as a Scrapped Shed." It's brimming with ambient sound recordings and discarded objects like neon signs, posters and news clippings he gathered from around the world and assembled here like a one-stop travelogue.more...

Shinro Ohtake was born in 1955 in Tokyo and lives in Uwajima, Japan. He has had solo exhibitions at the Fukuoka Art Museum (2007), the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (2007), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (2006), and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1985). Ohtake has participated in the Gwangju Biennale (2010), the Asia Pacific Triennial (1993), and thematic surveys at numerous international institutions. 

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