And meanwhile, all hell broke loose at Documenta in Kassel… Accusations of anti-Semitism flew around. The term “Nazi propaganda” dropped. Long, very German polemics in the newspapers – and angry German politicians who fell over each other to wipe the mantle of the Documenta organization over their political vision. Although the curators, the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, had announced in advance that they wanted to relate their exhibition to art and society in a different, new way, more collectively, with more attention to the process, but this was not the case either. . On the other hand, wasn’t so much excitement social interaction? But the trustees remained surprisingly silent. They issued a statement and were silent – which felt strange, for an exhibition that wants to be at the heart of society.
The seeds of unrest had been sown months earlier when it became clear that ruangrupa had invited both the collective The Question of Funding (with Palestinian sympathies) and the Palestinian Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center. Was Documenta anti-Israel? The ensuing discussion was still simmering, but flared up again when, during the opening at Kassel’s Friedrichsplatz, the heart of Documenta, the huge (12 x 7 meters) painting People’s Justice (2002) by Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi was unveiled. This canvas, a memorial to the victims of the Suharto regime, had been exhibited in various places for twenty years, but now, in Germany, it has identified two figures that touched the heart of German historical sensibility: a man with a pig’s nose and the word ‘mossad’ on the helmet and a man in a bowler hat, peies curls and pointed teeth. It was classic discriminatory stereotypes, especially the last one, but on the other hand, the Mossad man is running with a platoon of secret agents wearing helmets marked KGB, MI5 and 007, and the man with the curly hair is in a group. an (Indonesian?) red beret with a pig’s head, and a white man depicted as an overly consumptive, wind-breathing baby. Perhaps not very tasteful, certainly not by German standards, but the context of satire and exaggeration was again so clear that a certain relativization seemed in order. This is not the case in Germany.
Suddenly you feel how pleasant it is when art connects viewers
Federal President Frank Walter Steinmeier stated in his Documenta opening speech that “recognition of the State of Israel must remain the basis of the debate.” Always keen to be on the right side of history, artist Hito Steyerl withdrew his work and Documenta General Director Sabine Schormann stepped down. When I announced in the paper that I was going to Kassel at the end of July, a concerned colleague emailed me that she was curious if Documenta would still be open before then.
But it turned out to be okay.
In fact, the atmosphere in and around Friedrichsplatz is warm. It’s messy, but there’s a nice sense of community, very much in the spirit of lumbung, the rice barn that had declared ruangrupa a Documenta theme. The Fridericianum, the stately classical museum in the heart of the square, has been taken over by collectives. Groep Gudskul has created a project space where you can make, sew and play video games, RomaMoMA draws attention to the plight of Roma artists (including stunning tapestries by Venice Biennale hit Malgorzata Mirga-Tas) and the Tunisian collective El Warcha has packed a room with very catchy craft designs of chairs and benches, held together by ties.
Documenta focuses on issues and abuses, from the terror against the Kurds, environmental pollution in Colombia, female divers in South Korea and the disadvantaged position of women in Syria. The exhibition is critical, topical and socially engaged, which fits perfectly with the break with romantic individualism that ruangrupa had heralded.
And quite rightly: for the white Western spectator, that break turns out to be surprisingly hard. Suddenly you feel again how pleasant it is when art connects the viewers – and attention for those who are not seen, who is against that? Moreover, the collective method still simply produces works of art – what difference did it make that they were not made by an individual but by a group?
This Documenta has something of a huge hippie commune, albeit with less hair and less empty slogans, but with an Aboriginal embassy and vegetarian Bratwurst. Here, the coherence that the world so badly needs was not preached, but put into practice.
But slowly, an insidious side of the warm collectivity also penetrated – call it escapism. After a few hours in Kassel, it dawned on me that the political and social issues discussed at Documenta all meet rather narrowly filtered criteria. Or they are general themes that are well established in the art world, such as more attention to transgender people or to small farmers. Or it concerns specific abuses in non-Western countries. The latter is good, it is useful, but for the Western spectators it is also extremely safe and elitist: look how they are making a mess again in Colombia, Syria, Kenya. While we can see on a daily basis that there is also something to criticize in the West – for example the attitude in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, our handling of the climate, the increasingly aggressive extremism that Documenta itself was confronted with when the vandals chalked anti-Palestinian slogans on one of the pages. And why is the war in Ukraine so absent?
But that’s not what it’s about – discomfort, real confrontation, self-reflection Documenta only offers the Western viewer to a very limited extent – which makes this alternative exhibition suddenly reminiscent of Art Basel’s establishment bubble. Or in other words: as a community, as a lifestyle, this Documenta is pleasant, but the disruptive power of art is sacrificed here common sense of the art world – why didn’t the organization dare to take up the Taring Padi discussion? Isn’t that exactly what such social art must ultimately lead to?
At the other end of the spectrum, it is striking that there is not a single ‘masterpiece’ to be found at this Documenta, a work that crackles and reverberates and sticks – like, I daresay, Pierre Huyghes Unprocessed (2012, with the pink-legged dog) two Documentas ago. Perhaps the only exception to this is the exhibition of the Haitian collective Atis Rezistans in St. Kunigundi’s Church, because of the unsettling clash they present of macabre, voodoo-like statues with hollowed-out skulls (including a Mary and a child) and a former Christian church.
This work impresses because it emphatically differs from ‘good taste’ – because it is confrontational, rough, different, and the discomfort of the harsh clash between two cultures is not stifled in the end, but left with the viewer: let go. , this group of artists seems to be saying. It feels liberating.
But then I also thought: maybe sometimes we ask too much of art.
Because however you look at it, the energy of this Documenta, the atmosphere of freedom, of new possibilities that ruangrupa has created, is a unique experience. And serious gain for art.
How much excess became clear to me when I visited the Berlin Biennale last week and I was shot back with a time capsule to times of conceptual know-it-all image poverty: especially at the KW site, in the heart of Berlin, the Biennale is full of pedantic, visually poor installations. , which made it feel like all the energy was being sucked out of me. Fortunately, things fared better elsewhere, and the Berlin Biennale occasionally even reveals a mechanism that Documenta emphatically lacks: the fact that there is always an elephant in the room with this kind of engaged, socially engaged art – the factor power. Not so much the power of politicians, companies and financiers, but especially exhibition makers and artists.
Also read: What makes this Documenta so different, so revolutionary?
The video was not for nothing The silence of the sheep (2010) by the Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy at the Berlin Biennale one of the best works I have seen in recent weeks. The short film reflects a performance Kenawy gave on December 14, 2009, in which she made a group of twenty men and women crawl like sheep across the streets of downtown Cairo. It’s a confronting sight: you feel and see the physical discomfort of the crawlers, you realize the symbolic complexity of using people as sheep (certainly in Egypt), you wonder if the artist is allowed to ask people this, and if they are only poor people who have been able to get themselves ‘humiliated’ for a fee – which is precisely the core of the violent street discussions which make up the second part of the film.
Kenawy’s film made me realize how little power is treated as a concrete subject in these kinds of exhibitions, how little self-reflection there is still in the art world – no doubt because this power is so uncomfortable, because everyone struggles with it, including the ruangrupas, who a hippie-like community could only have been created with the help of 40 million euros of German taxpayers’ money.
The next step, the most difficult, therefore remains on the horizon for a while: this Documenta can certainly be a breakthrough, but you also hope that important exhibitions like this one will allow more contradiction in the future, that they show that we too, right , are at their best when we are united in disagreement. Connectedness in diversity, that seems like a good goal to me.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 18 August 2022