On the first day that the fifteenth Documenta was open to the public, on June 18 the sun burned heavily in the square in front of the Fridericianum and Documentahalle. This is traditionally the heart of the five-year exhibition in Kassel, the place where the curator on duty speaks with a big gesture. In 1982, Rudi Fuchs had Joseph Beuys seven thousand basalt blocks deposited there, with an oak next to it, as the first of seven thousand oak trees. Still, once you know it, you can see oak trees all over Kassel accompanied by one of the basalt blocks.
In this edition, the Indonesian artist collective Ruangrupa has been appointed as curator. From the first day of the press opening, pictures of colored cardboard dolls, which the collective Taring Padi had placed there, appeared on social media. Fragile dolls embodying political battle cries, some clear, such as a dove with the text ‘We are not free until everyone is free’, some with texts in Indonesian, and there was even a cardboard Kurt Cobain.
Only the evening before the official opening, after the press had already explored the exhibition, did the organization place an approximately ten-meter-wide canvas at the edge of the field. ‘The justice of the people’ stood over it, and which in a medieval last judgment was left half dark, with the title ‘The extension of “multicultural” state hegemony’ and filled with grim soldiers, cannons and skyscrapers, while people to the right of the green relaxed in bright clothes with music and banners that stood up for a good cause. At the top center, the judges sat by a burning weight.
Three days later, it caught fire: precisely because of this work, in the central square, the earlier suspicions of anti-Semitic tendencies among the artists seemed confirmed. It was once its own war past that gave Germany the reason to start the five-year exhibition, initially as a replacement for the Nazis ‘starter’ art, which was shown in 1955 at the same time as the flowers of the Bundesgartenschau. After it was noticed in January this year that among the participants in this issue, supporters of bds-movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions) the Israeli boycott movement is considered anti-Semitic by the German parliament, and following a follow-up article in The time, quarrels from the Documenta board and cancellation of planned panels on the subject followed, right-wing extremist anti-Islam stickers were pasted in April, and vandals broke in before the opening of the exhibition, writing death threats on the wall in the room where a Palestinian would exhibit collectively.
Ruangrupa then stated that there no anti-Semitic statements were made in connection with this Documenta, but on June 20 it was all mouth-watering: on Taring Padi’s large banner, the banner, which had only been displayed for two days, between the gray soldiers appeared an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish figure with an SS sign on the hat, and Mossad soldiers were depicted as pigs. After more fumbling from the German Documenta board, the canvas with the dolls disappeared from the field. After sharp condemnations (from German politicians and media) and apologies (from Ruangrupa and Taring Padi), the German newspapers also put things in perspective. Taring Padi’s banner was created in 2002 in Yogyakarta, in response to the military dictatorship that had ruled there under Suharto. Israel in Indonesia often symbolized the evil colonizer, it was not a literal declaration of war. And Taring Padi was and is just one of the many participants, so far no other racist or hurtful expression has been identified.
Prior checking had also been practically complicated. Ruangrupa invited fourteen artist collectives to this Documenta, which in turn sometimes invited other artists. Unlike previous curators, this collective did not impose on the guests any structure or concept for the exhibition. In the run-up to the exhibition, however, a lot was said – of necessity via Zoom, live in Kassel or in a studio at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, the same place where Ruangrupa’s name and idea. occurred around 2000 in one of the residents. In total, about fifteen hundred artists are involved in this Documenta.
Big names do not appear on the posters. Not even a single artist is mentioned in the program booklet – a little juggling with QR codes and Documentasite helps. Anyone looking for Iris Kensmil’s work should look for Black Archives, Amsterdam’s archive on black heritage. Their presentation is thorough, as one would expect from an archive: with documents, it tells, among other things, the story of Hermina and Otto Huiswoud. The painting that Kensmil made about this hangs next to it as if it were one of the documents. For the film by Hito Steyerl (one of the highlights of the exhibition), look for the location of the Inland collective in the Natural History Museum. This is an initiative started in Spain that seeks from villages and in the countryside for ‘post-modern art’.
The latter is an expression which sounds more often along with ‘Global South’ – in response to the Northern Hemisphere – and above all ‘lumbung’, the Indonesian concept that owes its name to the storage site used to store surplus crops. A harvest that society can use for collective goals; the fourteen collectives that Ruangrupa has invited are allowed to share lumbung in this case.
Ruangrupa makes it clear that the rave about sustainable art is a European art concept
That they come from all over the world, not just from the global north, is not new to Documenta. In 2002, Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019) was the first non-European curator. Enwezor invited 117 artists from around the world and showed big European and North American names along with lesser known African and Asian artists. And in 2017, the (Polish) curator Adam Szymczyk chose to draw half of Documenta to Athens for the representation of the ‘south’, and to show emphatically ‘forgotten’ artists and their works that had the refugee crisis as their subject.
Nevertheless, Ruangrupa is taking a big step forward this year in changing perspectives. For Enwezor and Szymczyk, both loved the literary and intellectual predominantly European and North American traditions and references in which they had been schooled. After much discussion, even Olu Oguibe’s concrete obelisk for refugees and foreigners in 2017 was given a permanent place on the central – but certainly not monumental – Kasseler Treppenstraße.
To overthrow sustainable, preferably perpetual and at the same time innovative art, and only admire it in silence in cramped spaces, is the result of a European concept of art, Ruangrupa now makes clear. This message is particularly well received in the museum spaces around the Fridericianum. The classic columns are painted black, the Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi wrote down the core values of the lumbong idea with white chalk – and these can be wiped away in no time. Banners hang inside, public discussions are held, artists spend the night and eat there. In one of the galleries hangs the tapestries of Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, the Polish Roma artist responsible for the Polish participation in this year’s Venice Biennale. She uses French engravings from the seventeenth century ‘The Life of Egypt’ as a starting point to give the clichés that Roma are portrayed with in art history their own twist.
As you walk through the halls, shoots the exhibition around the world. From the archive of the women’s struggle in Algeria to films from the Asia Art Archive by artists in Singapore and Beijing, for example, and then to a presentation by El Warcha, a Tunisian artist collective currently working from London. Unlike five years ago, the explanatory signs generally provide a lot of background and explanation, although at times they could well have been a little more visible.
This is not Documenta for the monumental gesture, the most spectacular intervention can be seen on the facade of the Documenta Hall, which is partly covered by corrugated iron. The entrance resembles a house from the Kenyan slum where the Wajukuu Art Project was founded in 2004. When they come to our place, is called the installation, in other words: turn this situation around in your mind. Inside you can see sculptures and paintings made by young people from the slums of the Wajukuu project, which also offers a library and training courses: here art is a way out of a life full of violence and poverty.
In addition to the well-known central locations, the organization has always chosen exhibition venues throughout the city, a total of 32. In Hafenstraße, an empty three-storey factory building offers art and space for workshops, where food prepared on spot sometimes also plays a role. Comic book artist Nino Bulling presents silky fragments of him graphic novel about his gender reassignment; on another floor, the floor covers the floor, and a grand piano stands ready for a collaboration between art students from Beirut and Munich.
In the Stadtmuseum you can play a video game of the New Zealand collective Fafswag against each other and hear the life stories of this group one by one. queer Maori artists who aim to gain more visibility in cultural life. Something that they, as can be seen in the pictures and videos, practice with a lot of colors and glitter.
In the basement of the Fridericianum, on the way to the toilets there is a urinal, signed ‘R. Bell 2017 ‘- a reference to the famous urinal that R. Mutt’ had presented as art exactly a hundred years earlier. The Australian artist Richard Bell, whose work appears in several places in the exhibition, called this work Western Art 2020-2022. A bunch of hot air balloons are tied to the urinal. As if the thing had fallen directly out of the artificial sky after a hundred years of sanctuary. Deprived of all symbolism, it is little more than a soulless piece of baked brick so close to the toilets. And therefore an excellent statement to let it simmer in this place much longer after this Documenta.
Documentation 15 can be visited until September 25 in Kassel, Germany.