When Documenta was founded in 1955 by the artist Arnold Bode, he wanted to bring the world into dialogue again. Every four – and later five – years, Western views on artistic freedom, individuality, and universality were celebrated, and he chose a city close to the Iron Curtain: Kassel. This year’s Documenta is organized by ruangrupa, an Indonesian artist collective. A novelty: for the first time, an artist group is allowed to explore this influential art event.
For a long time, the art world was predominantly oriented towards the western hemisphere. The political and artistic development had an impact on the subsequent Documentas. For example, Harald Szeemann presented himself as a ‘star curator’ during Documenta 5 (1972). It became the beginning of the curator’s positioning as a power factor. In the subsequent editions, ingenious authorship and Western hegemony were slowly but surely broken up. The focus was on collaborative teams of curators from around the world. In 1997, during Documenta 10, Catherine David shifted her perspective to the increasingly globalizing world. And five years later, Okwui Enwezor further expanded its reach: Documenta 11 questioned the hierarchy of the Western art scene and the exoticization of ‘the other’.
In the early 2000s, there was a call from the art world to get the next Documenta organized by an artist. It took until the current edition before it really got that far. The collective ruangrupa of the Indonesian artists, selected for their participatory approach, laid the foundation for Documenta 15. “At a time when innovation is mainly based on independent, cooperating organizations,” wrote the selection committee, “it makes sense to offer this collective approach. . “
The collective was founded in 2000 in Jakarta. The chaos in this metropolis made the members long for a place where artists could meet, a workspace, but also a place where mental peace could be found. They created a clubhouse: always open, always populated. It is a studio, a library, a research laboratory and a party room in one. Creative talent, but also other communities find support there. It also became a place to moche, simply to hang out – ‘lumbung’ the collective calls it.
Lumbung is the core of ruangrupa’s working method. The term refers to a rice barn, a communal building in the Indonesian landscape, where the harvest is collected, stored and distributed. The latter is done according to jointly established criteria. In fact, it is a common resource for the future. As an artistic and economic model, it is rooted in the principles of collective and equitable distribution. These principles affect the whole artistic process of ruangrupa: from the structure, the self-image and their appearance to all parts of the collaboration and even the final exhibition. “We want to create a globally oriented, collaborative and interdisciplinary art and culture platform,” said ruangrupa in February during their lecture at the Academy of Fine Arts at KNAW in Amsterdam. That platform must also remain effective after the hundred days that Documenta 15 lasts. “Our curatorial approach seeks another form of collaboration model for resource use – in financial terms, but also in the form of ideas, knowledge, programs and innovations. We work on the basis of sustainability, proportionality and solidarity. ”
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In the organic, open, improvised and experimental space in lumbung, according to ruangrupa, there is really room for unexpected meetings. Exchanging ideas and knowledge becomes at least as important in Kassel as exhibiting works of art. Documenta 15 promises the visitor one big lumbung.
When organizing Documenta 15, lumbung also seemed to have boundaries. The corona pandemic made physical encounters impossible. Instead, there were weekly online meetings where new meetings between creators constantly appeared. The artistic team expanded into an ever-growing circle of friends, all of whom valued self-organization and self-government highly. Unique to Documenta is that the entire organizational process this time is documented on a comprehensive website. This website is, so to speak, one of the locations of Documenta 15.
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Of course, this collective organization is also taking shape in Kassel. The Fridericianum, an art museum in European tradition that opened in 1779, is transformed into Fridskul: a school working on a new curriculum, an alternative to the Western educational model. The main question is: what does the world need now that successive crises require a different kind of knowledge and experience than the knowledge that is causing the problems? Lumbung as a storage shed becomes tangible here from the perception that art is inseparable from everyday life. Or take ruruHaus in the heart of Kassel, where artists and visitors are looking for fertile ground for new projects based on composting processes. Months before Documenta was officially opened, discussions took place here, where ideas for exhibitions were exchanged. A practice that the ruangrupa already used in the time up to Sonsbeek’16: there was also a ruru house in Arnhem at that time.
Visitors are guided around by a sobat-sobat, a ‘best friend’
Around this are the exhibition venues: Documenta Halle, factory buildings, an old church, a hotel for and with refugees, museums, a boat house along the river and Auepark. Visitors are guided around by a sobat-sobat, a ‘best friend’.
Everything within the concept of ‘lumbung’ revolves around exchange. One could also see lumbung as a large laboratory for the future, where the results of experiments will only have an effect in the long run. Here two systems collide: lumbung is diametrically opposed to Western ideals of accumulation and profit production – ideals that often also prevail in the cultural world, where works of art are bought up as mere investments and then stored under lock and key. The slowness and collectivity of lumbung is in contrast to speed and individualism. Perhaps that is why lumbung in Germany, the country of efficiency and strict rules, has not yet been enthusiastically received.
What was more surprising was that the ruangrupa was accused of anti-Semitism. The organizers would show little or no sensitivity to the story of the place where Documenta takes place: Germany. This criticism was expressed after it became known that the ruangrupa had invited the Palestinian artist collective Question of Funding. This group from Ramallah used to call themselves the Khalil al Sakakini Cultural Center, a reference to an Arab nationalist who sympathized with National Socialism and expelled a ‘Jewish world conspiracy’.
It sparked a heated debate in the German media, where the ruangrupa (like Documenta itself for that matter) took a clear stance: they condemn any form of anti-Semitism, racism, extremism or Islamophobia.
The earlier Documenta also led to clashes. When it became known that the city of Kassel The Aliens and Refugees Monument, a work of art by Nigerian-American artist Olu Oguibe, infuriated the local branch of the right-wing nationalist political party AfD. The obelisk bore a proverb from the Gospel of Matthew in Arabic, German, English, and Turkish: “I was a stranger, and you took me in.” But the AfD, which was not dismissive of references to the German past, preferred to talk about ideologically polarizing, entelltte Kunst† Many visitors heard a clear reference to what the Nazis called Entartete Kunst.
In this way, Documenta remains what Bode once founded it to be: a place where stories and perspectives collide.
Liesbeth Bik is an artist and chairman of the Academy of Arts, part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Geertjan de Vugt is author and essayist and coordinator of Science & Art at KNAW.