Downstairs, near the toilets under Documenta’s main hall, there is a urinal with colored helium balloons attached. Signed R. Bell, 2017. The urinal is the Australian artist Richard Bell’s response to Marcel Duchamp’s response, who examined the museum’s collections a hundred years earlier with his now famous urinal. Duchamp, who stated that any object can be art as long as you present it in an art context, signed his urinal with R. Mutt.
‘Western Art’ is the title of this new work, as if that is where Western art belongs in this edition of Documenta: In the Sewer, where art lovers relax. On the one hand, it’s too funny – one of the balloons is a pig – to see a sour picture in it. On the other hand, it is indeed a kind of cynical summary of 20th-century Western art, from Duchamp to Jeff Koons, and fits as a statement with Documenta 15, in which Western art plays a marginal role.
Documenta has always been political. The idea behind it was already in 1955 that art and dialogue could open windows to the world. An ideal that this edition does not deny: The Indonesian collective ruangrupa composed the art manifesto and chose a different set-up. It is not the big names in the visual arts that are central, but collectives that do not revolve around the individual contribution. In addition, there is an emphatic focus on Global South instructed.
The question is: what does it provide? Friendship to begin with if it’s up to ruangrupa. Everywhere in the city they want people to discuss art, spectators can participate in works of art and the idea of lumbung – a concept that more or less stands for a ‘common rice barn’ – dominates.
It sounds vague, but it will not be. At Friedrichsplatz, where there is always a picture defining the face of the current edition, there is now an embassy: Aboriginals. A film is shown in which Richard Bell asks questions about land expropriation in Australia. The columns of the Fridericianum are painted black and filled with texts. Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi has ‘power’ (with a circle around the letters ‘we’), ‘Humanity’ and peace sign painted on it. At the bottom of one of the columns is also the text: ‘Me and the pigeons paint the pillars’which makes you take another good look at those paint stains, if they are at all.
Inside, you are welcomed by Fridskul Library, where eleven collectives have joined forces to create a work of art: Chairs are arranged in a circle around dishes, arranged like a fountain. At the back is a jukebox painted by the Dutchman Brian Elstak, which can be seen here on behalf of The Black Archives (a historical cultural center that focuses on black culture). All over it hang flags with slogans and wishes, such as the call “night” to deal with each other. IIn the reception next door, the Indonesian collective Gudskul has set up tables with playing cards, on which questions are asked, such as what a collective can be for you. There is a chess game for four people and there are notes on which you can put ideas. It’s all called ‘Nonkrong’, Bahasa for ‘place to get together’. Participatory art that sometimes puts you in a good mood.
This is also true of Nabwana IGG’s work: the Ugandan filmmaker made an action film about a struggling mother who over the top is that you are laughing. The Thai collective Baan Noorg has placed a halfpipe that you can skate on – something that not everyone fits well and is therefore extra fun to watch. Individual artists who have a separate space – such as a large installation with a film by the German artist Hito Steyerl, about a reality show and cheese – call for a collective or call for collective resistance to the established order.
The idea is also to create more attention. Abuse of power, the consequences of colonialism, the disappearance of traditions, the backwardness of used clothing in East African countries and the exhaustion of the earth: it all comes up for discussion. It’s a lot and there’s not much room for reflection, but it’s fascinating.
Whether this set-up will lead to friendships remains to be seen: The organization was previously accused of anti-Semitism, particularly for inviting a Palestinian collective to spread the idea of a pan-Arabist. Demonstrations have been announced for Saturday, the day of the opening.
Also read: A rice barn as a laboratory for the future
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on June 18, 2022