A new GRIMMWELT publication shows why contemporary art is a central part of the venue’s exhibition concept.
Visitors have high expectations when coming to GRIMMWETT—minus one thing. “Visitors are very heterogeneous and have a multitude of expectations,” says Jan Sauerwald, GRIMMWELT director and head of programing. Some anticipate a venue with a literary, biographical focus, a scholarly museum dedicated to the lives of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. While others might be seeking insight into the fairy tales that were read to them at bedtime as children or from Disney films.
Yet very few visitors likely expect to encounter contemporary art at a venue dedicated fully to the life's work of the Brothers Grimm. But a recent brochure published by GRIMMWELT illuminates the very pivotal role that contemporary art plays in GRIMMWELT's exhibition practice. The publication highlights six of the venue’s contemporary works, recounting how they became a part of GRIMMWELT and the reasons for including them in the permanent exhibition.
documenta was a major factor behind the decision to show contemporary art at GRIMMWELT, and documenta 11 in 2002 was central to this. At the time, artist Ecke Bonk's work buch der worte / random reading had become a public favorite. Art-interested Kassel audiences particularly loved the work, which was shown in the rotunda of the Fridericianum.
For documenta expert Dirk Schwarze, no other documenta work of art is “as uniquely tailored to Kassel and its history as Ecke Bonk’s installation on the Deutsches Wörterbuch, the German Dictionary.” In September 2002, seven days before the exhibition came to an end, he offered the following in the Hessische/Niedersächsische Allgemeine newspaper: “The work captivates as a double image, directly referencing the outstanding achievements of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as linguistic scholars. Shouldn’t there be a permanent home for this work in Kassel?” At the time, there was no talk of a new exhibition venue that would be fully dedicated to the lives and work of the Brothers Grimm. But it quickly became clear that Ecke Bonk’s work should remain in Kassel, and the artist himself put forward the notion of such a venue at the end of September 2002 when stating, in an interview with HNA cultural critic Schwarze, that “he would be most interested if there were the possibility in Kassel to create a site of commemoration and study for the dictionary: no such place currently exists that is dedicated to the Deutsches Wörterbuch.”
Negotiations between the city of Kassel and the artist dragged on for years and its acquisition was only finalized in 2007. When it became clear in 2010 that there would be a new building and new concept for the Brothers Grimm museum, it was also clear that Ecke Bonk’s work belonged there. “Given the acquisition and character of the work, it was clear that it had to be a part of GRIMMWELT,” says Jan Sauerwald. “Contemporary art plays such an important role in the city through documenta that the new exhibition venue would have been inconceivable without Ecke Bonk’s artwork.”
The three-part work buch der wörter / random reading is thus a core part of the exhibition concept for the new permanent exhibition at GRIMMWELT, which was curated by Nicola Lepp and Annemarie Hürlimann and opened on September 4, 2015. The three-part work is shown at various spots throughout the GRIMMWELT exhibition. One of the first things viewers see when entering the building foyer is a projection of all dictionary terms in alphabetical order. “It is a very elaborately produced work of art, even if it might not appear so at first glance,” says Jan Sauerwald. Here too a parallel exists to the work of the Brothers Grimm. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s contract with their publisher estimated seven years to complete the Deutsches Wörterbuch. In the end, it took multiple generations of employees over 120-years to finish the monumental work.
“You might come away with the impression that the perspective of a conceptual artist like Ecke Bonk was needed to make the Grimms' work on the Deutsches Wörterbuch visible to the general public,” adds the director.
The seamless fit between contemporary art and the work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is also apparent on the lower level, at the entrance to the GRIMMWELT permanent exhibition. Located here are five, seemingly random-looking colored tree roots by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose connection to Kassel also originates with the global-minded art show. In 2007, several of the artist’s contributions were shown at documenta 12; his work Template, installed on the Karlswiese in front of the Orangery, caused a stir because it had collapsed even before the opening and was deliberately not rebuilt by the artist.
Ai Weiwei created the installation Colored Roots for GRIMMWELT after receiving the Glas der Vernunft award in 2010 and subsequently deciding to donate a specially made work to the city of Kassel. “The donation was incorporated into the new GRIMMWELT concept,” says Sauerwald. The roots were produced in several phases in China, shipped to Germany and then sprayed with automotive paint here. The roots might seem random, but only at first given how they “complement research into the etymological ‘roots’ of Brothers Grimm linguistics in a cross-cultural way,” as art historian Ellen Wagner elaborates in the brochure Contemporary Art at GRIMMWELT.
Ai Weiwei’s work Colored Roots was not the only work developed specifically for the exhibition venue. Ukrainian artist Alexei Tchernyi also created fourteen Dioramas for the permanent exhibition—three-dimensional paper artworks narrating the history of the Deutsches Wörterbuch in a wonderfully poetic manner. The works are a highlight of the permanent exhibition.
The Märchenbombe (Fairy tale bomb) by Lutz & Guggisberg was also created especially for GRIMMWELT, as were the Banquet Table Tales by Antoni Miralda. Miralda’s wall installation is presented in close proximity to Wilhelm’s wife Dorothea Grimm’s handwritten notes from her cookbooks and household dairies. The wall is reminiscent of a long table, with the sumptuous feast presented on plates in the center, while Dorothea’s selected recipes can be read on the guests’ plates.
Kassel artist Albert (Ali) Schindehütte also created a work for the new building: The 2012 Diptychon der Märchenbrüder zu Ehren von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm (Diptych of the fairy tale brothers created in honor of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm), which has been displayed in the entrance area since the opening of the building.
“Contemporary art can shed light on many things and build marvelous bridges,” says Jan Sauerwald. At the same time, contemporary art continues to shape the GRIMMWELT concept today as well as create unexpected effects. Special exhibitions, such as imPOSSSIBLE. The magic of wishes (2022), or earlier shows like Im Dickicht der Haare (2015), were influenced by contemporary art positions.
This is likely also why the new exhibition venue was extremely well received by critics after it opened. From Deutschland Radio Kultur in September 2015: “GRIMMWELT Kassel is a Gesamtkunstwerk of letters and words, of well-placed gems and expansive visions, of modern art and recollections of archaic myths. A successful gateway into the ‘Grimm cosmos’—consisting, after all, primarily of books.” The British newspaper The Guardian even declared GRIMMWELT one of the “Ten of the best new museums” in December 2015.
“We elicit waves of enthusiasm among exhibition-loving audiences,” remarks Jan Sauerwald. But the concept is also very demanding and some visitors are perplexed—also because of the contemporary art, which might not fit in with the work of the Brothers Grimm at first glance.
The new brochure is intended for all those interested in contemporary art. Its purpose is “to better communicate our approach to showing contemporary art in exhibitions at GRIMMWELT and, where necessary, inspire visitors about contemporary art at GRIMMWELT,” explains Jan Sauerwald. And along the way, you can learn interesting details about the artists’ works and biographies. For instance, who would have known that German conceptual artist Ecke Bonk was born in Cairo?