For the quinquennial Documenta, a citizen museum of 100 days opens its doors in Kassel, Germany. In 2022, it takes place the same year as the Venice Biennale, with many visitors coming from abroad. Besides the media uproar, the festival’s beginning was marked by a public scandal and accusation of anti-semitism towards the curation, which led to subsequent censorship and regulation of this gigantic show. This year, Documenta Fifteen claimed to be different from previous editions, and after the consequences, there will never be one like it again.
In this specially dry summer heat inside middle Germany no man’s land, during tourist high season and the void of summer break, there has been much debate regarding this year’s curation of Documenta by artist group ruangrupa – their various networks, their method of curating and their artistic methods of creating Documenta. I started with the assumption that this year’s Documenta would be different, as the hundred-day museum with a global reach to drive art markets, create trends and tendencies was curated by the community and processual-oriented ruangrupa from Jakarta, Indonesia.
History of Documenta – How it all started
Documenta is a contemporary art exhibition that was founded by the German artist, teacher and curator Arnolde Bode after the Second World War in 1955, as part of the Bundesgartenschau (Federal Horticultural Show), which took place in Kassel. It was based on the idea of bringing Germany up to date with modern art, both banishing and repressing the cultural darkness of Nazism. It is also not a selling exhibition and is often cited as the “museum of 100 days of the people”. From the very beginning, Documenta was considered a citizens’ exhibition, featuring many educational programs and mandatory visiting programs for German schools and education systems. During our visit, we were surrounded by many groups of elderly German-speaking pensioners and non-art-related audience members, so the event seemed all the more inhabited by this spirit of a citizen exhibition. Today, Documenta remains one of the leading institutions defining what contemporary art is supposed to be. At least, it creates a collective citizen memory, a balancing act between the profit-driven art markets, societal reception and acceptance inside society.
Indonesia – beyond Sumatra, Bamigoreng and Bandung
With a total population of 274 million, Indonesia is the largest archipelago, with 17,000 islands. It is also the country with the largest Muslim majority and the most ethnic diversity. For more than 800 years, the national common language of Bahasa Indonesia has unified thousands of distinct ethnicities and hundreds of linguistic groups. With this pluriversality, it is also the fourth most populated country in the world. Thriving on osmanic traditions, its various religions advocate sovereign self-administration, which has fostered peaceful cohabitation. Indonesia has been colonially exploited by China, India, Portugal, Japan and as a Dutch Colony since 16 CE, until then-president Soekarno officially announced its independence in 1945. Indonesia’s economy is based mainly on petroleum and natural gas resources, textile production and mining. It is the fourth largest exporter of palm oil, caoutchouc, coffee, tea and spices, rice and tropical fruits; it has been a main actor among trade routes since 7 CE. Indonesia is also the biggest producer of seaweed in aquacultures. Former Indonesian president Sukarno, together with Yugoslavian leader Tito, founded the Non-Aligned movement during the Conference of Bandung in 1955. Indonesia is also home of the corpse flower, the orangutan, the greater bird of paradise and the Komodo dragon.
Global South and Global West – How to do things differently
This year’s programming of Documenta Fifteen claimed that it would represent fewer Western artists (or almost none) and instead focus on artists from the Global South. The curatorial team ruangrupa took an entirely different approach to organising the huge exhibition, using strategies of co-curation and decentralisation, emphasising locality and displaying the artworks in more than 30 new venues. In line with the slogan “How to do things differently”, this year’s Documenta was curated in a way that had never been done before. Neologism keywords appearing throughout the exhibition and on-site discussions – Lumbung, Ekosistem, Harvest, Majalis, ruruhaus Interlokal, Gudskul, Fridskul, Meydan – were the entry codes. Visitors were required to invest in their participation, to make the effort to understand the practices and methods of meaning before entering the exhibition itself – for example, understanding why there is a living room inside the Fridericianum’s main venue and a kitchen behind it.
Ruangrupa co-curated Documenta in a distributive way, handing over the list of invited artists to 13 subgroups of lumbung-interlocal, letting go of their central role of curating and decision-making. They built allies with artists using shared methods: instead of writing contracts for requested artworks, they delegated the decisions of who would participate to other artist groups, who therefore initiated their own mini curations. The initial 150 artists became a myriad of 1,500 participating artists, losing all sense of human-scaled oversight. One aim of this curation was to think beyond the exhibition timeframe, in terms of how to develop a sustainable method, not only to be exploited themselves as a service provider, but to ask what remains of Documenta Fifteen after people return home.
About the Lumbung Processes – and how to become a host in a foreign country
For its initial pathways, Documenta hosted many zoom meetings that one could join beforehand, whose purpose was to distribute and activate artist networks in order to create allies and partners in co-curation and shared methods. How to do things differently – was manifested in the fact that Documenta Fifteen was curated bottom-up instead of top-down. Its networks were from Kassel, Indonesia, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Jerusalem, Denmark… and many, many more represented by a vast activated network around the globe. The keyword Lumbung refers in Bahasa Indonesian to a rice barn, a vernacular agrarian building, where a village community stores the surplus of their harvest to be managed collectively, as a way to face an unpredictable future with assets.
At the core of this year’s Documenta was the aspect of community, basic-democracy, assemblies as a process to build networks of an independent system working entirely outside the modus operandi of an art institution and making those structures visible. Societal models were manifestly lived mainly through the southern mentality of sharing and living the arts in collectives: learning together, build-up trust based on friendships, shared pots and collective negotiations for the distribution of funding, transparency. The many assemblies and meetings keeping an ecosystem alive, strengthening existing communities, refusal to be exploited by European institutional agendas, serendipity and synchronicity, going feral – all were a manifestation of the gregarious life of art collectives who work outside institutional structures and art markets. The more the merrier! This year, Documenta seemed intrinsically oriented toward those views from the outside. What do a tempeh workshop, skateboarding and DIY cinema have to do with high art? Participation by activation is a possible path, and those structures became inevitably visible, at least one could smell it. Things are different here.
Nhà Sàn Collective – Culture your own Garden
Vietnamese Immigration Garden, as people referred to it, is sited at the Werner Hilpert-Strasse 22, a cultural venue from 1980s Kassel, famous for its concerts, club, studios and bar, where one can read in huge neon letters above the building “Humus and Humans”. Next to participation by the Palestinian collective, a group from Marrakech was also present. At the very end of the venue was a secret garden, grown from seedlings donated and brought from Vietnamese migrants, often working in the service sector, such as in Vietnamese restaurants. Those plants were not for culinary consumption but for growing seeds to redistribute to people as seed banks. Quite often Vietnamese migrants came to the garden for private picnics with their families and friends, as if it were their own private garden; those seeds are not for commercialisation but for intimate gatherings and sharing. Coupled with the double meaning of migrating plants and its pejorative synonyms of neophytes, invasive and migrational, this work directly displayed its political claymation, as soft as the gesture of planting seeds and taming sprouts, full of hope and beauty for the dynamism of biology itself – life growing plants.
According to the invited artist collective, they set up a queer house and invited 30 other artists who came and gave workshops and readings on food and agriculture-related stories. To mention the hidden housing project “uhuh”, 2022, this was a project devoted to the LGBT community manifested as a queer shelter house initiated by Dinh Thao Linh, Dinh Nhung, Nguyen Quoc Than and the BaBauAir collective, with a sauna, offering haircuts, homemade wine, food and hosting discussion, poetry writing and other multidisciplinary practices. The issues of LGBT and intersectional feminism in Asia are still oppressed topics. Western media tend to downplay conflicts related to local political uproars in these regions on the premises of Covid-19 (Thai-protests 20-21). “uhuh”’s externalisation was as quiet as these movements were silent.
Britto Arts Trust – Food for Thought
Another cooking project devoted to gardening, agriculture, permaculture and food was manifested next to the Dokumenta Haus by Bangladesh art collective Britto Arts Trust. An open kitchen with a small porch and a splendid gardening architecture built with only vernacular materials, bamboo shapes, boxes filled with earth, edible plants growing everywhere and tunnels giving shade for plants and humans… all made up an impressive garden pavilion. This piece came to life through daily cooking initiatives responding to the open call to cook by and for the audience. Anyone could register by simply contacting the collective, with no selection process. Every day, 50 or more dishes are served on a free basis at more-or-less lunchtime, depending on the punctuality of the changing chefs. To feed the mouths of many randomly passing visitors, food as the centre of this work was as inviting and as alluring as a home-cooked meal.
Archiving Matter – Asian Art Archive
Asian Art Archive (AAA) was founded in Hong Kong at the turn of the century to fill a void resulting from the lack of organisations documenting the rapid rise of contemporary art across Asia. Since then, it is motivated by the belief that art must be preserved not only as an artefact but also – perhaps more importantly – as knowledge. AAA has set itself the task of collecting and sharing that knowledge as the crux of its endeavours. In the process, it has become one of the foremost custodians of primary and secondary materials about recent art from the region. Weaving together archival material from the AAA Collections and artworks on loan, this presentation zooms in on three clusters of artist collectives committed to documenting vernacular cultures across Asia: artists connected to the Faculty of Fine Arts, Vadodara, India, who participated in the Living Traditions movement in postcolonial India; Womanifesto, a feminist art collective and the biennial program in Thailand, most active from 1997 to 2008; and the network of performance art festivals that blossomed across East and Southeast Asia starting in the 1990s. These interwoven recent histories, as retold by Sasia Art Archive’s section, are an active testament to the collective ethos at the root of contemporary art across the region, and its engagement with the everyday local.
Jatiwangi art Factory – rural vs. urbanity mirror reflects Europe’s own disfuntionality of local history
When Indonesia’s reformation took place in 1998 after a 30-year dictatorship by president Suharto, many village structures built on governance and sovereignty during the non-aligned movement had declined. In this context, the Jatiwangi art Factory, known as the oldest artist-residence place in Indonesia and a former clay tile factory, aims to restore the dignity and resilience of rural villages by emphasising the community’s cultural ownership of the land. Positioning itself as part of the rural village community, Jatiwangi attempts to remake local identity by exploring creative potentialities. Local strategies on ownerships, resources and creative processes provides the material basis to develop collective strategies and ideas for dealing with pressing contemporary problems and the divergence of urbanity and the countryside. Jatiwangi exhibited a vast project with various contributions. The materiality of brickstones, roof tiles and rural symbols were omnipresent, video of music festivals and musical manifestations in the public space were filling in and around the Hübner Areal. For the first time, Documenta opened its doors east of the Fulda river in the industrial area of town. The Hübner Areal is located next to the major abandoned brickstone factory of Alte Salzmann Fabrik, that due to poor governance has been empty for more than a decade. Once used temporarily by creatives, its judicature fights about ownership and heritage protection laws.
“Rampak Genteng” with Lumbung member Jatiwangi art Factory:
Alte Salzmann Fabrik – squatting is so 1990s!
The irony of this setting is that while exiting the exhibition at Hubnerstrasse, one has a brilliant view of this historical abandoned brickstone building, and its parallel material reference to Jatiwangi art Factory becomes obvious. On one side, a failed story of investment, where unsettled lawsuits over property ownership and (corrupt?) historical heritage policy led to the fact that cultural actors, artists, musicians and local people were sent off from the Salzmann Factory many years ago. Now, the empty building is left abandoned, staring back in its dysfunctionality. After ten years, the historically valuable building is significantly deteriorating, with trees growing through the walls, water seeping through rooftops and broken windows everywhere. Seeing the rotting building structure, after exiting the vibrant exhibition of Hübner Areal, creates strong contradictions with our dysfunctional Western policy regarding the temporary reuse of arbitrary buildings by the creative sector. Instead of actively reusing abandoned structures, people mostly outside the art market system but actively contributing to local culture were forced to leave. In contrast with the Trampoline House project presented at Hübner Areal, this building evokes void, malfunction and lethargy.
How Nongkrong is probably the best thing about Indonesia
Gudskul is a collective rooted in Jakarta, Indonesia, and sustains the role of alternative art space as a site for visionary, collective gathering. It’s a shared space designed to consolidate intellectual and creative resources. Members are numerous collectives from around Indonesia; its founding members are ruangrupa, Serrum and Gafris Huru Hara, also extending to others such as Lifepatch in Yogyakarta. Gudskul is part of the international Arts Collaboratory translocal ecosystem, including mostly collective and basic democratic organised groups from the Global South, sharing a multilateral network around the hemispheres. The term Nongkrong – to hang out together – derives from this collective, and their processual way of working is inherent. The term itself caused a lot of uproar in the German press (FAZ article), mainly from conservative right-wing journalists who took the translation of “Nongkrong” far too literally. The German word for hanging out, abhängen, often connotates the notion of useless, unproductive and wasting time. It often shows the significant difference between southern and northern mindsets, where quality is often validated by efficiency and productivity, demeaning those who waste time by “doing nothing”.
Gudkitchen and Fridskul – Creating new allies
The energy-driven Gudskul kitchen was a place for hands-on practice, where on a daily basis people gave workshops and performances on cooking that culminated in eating together, and evenings that exploded in karaoke – a force of liberation following two years of Covid restrictions to give people back their voice and melody. Gudkitchen, together with the hidden dormitory inside Fridericianum, is an example of the common, collective and co-habitational form in Indonesia, where both private and public co-exist in the “same” space. It evokes new ways of habitation, co-living inside shared space, where people share common housing. Fridskul hosted daily activities inside the Fridericianum, bringing together humans as the centre of the artwork and making them visible. It was also an opportunity for many external university or college students to collectively experience Documenta Fifteen through active participation. Regarding the harsh criticism about what art was actually there, it’s worth recalling Documenta 6, when Joseph Beuys created a reunion space for the same purpose, which was considered brilliant and genuine, an action by a prominent figure of the art markets.
Meanwhile behind the curtain, this year’s Documenta artists were subject to a wave of discriminating visa regulations – a topic that is not without precedent, as when Beuys organised his “Social Sculptures” in form of the Free International University. His discussions with artists who tried to extend their visas in order to further explore Europe after their 24/7 presence and work shifts in Kassel ended in bitter silence, as they sensed the fear and obstacles of remaining inside Europe’s Schengen Area.
Gudskul’s daily activities were the (un-)official heart of Documenta Fifteen, as this year’s Fridericanium fondly recalled a traditional hospice or squat. As the slogan says, cooking together for staying together. Many new international partnerships based on mutuality and friendship were established behind cooking pots and during late-night singing. And at least one thing became obvious: at Documenta Fifteen, things were done differently.
Further references on the accusation and its counter statements by various art collectives and artists on this year’s incidents during Documenta Fifteen:
Open Letter by Lumbung community in reaction to the accusation of anti-semitism. “Censorship must be refused: Letter from Lumbung Community”: https://www.e-flux.com/notes/481665/censorship-must-be-refused-letter-from-lumbung-community
From “Sao Paulo Jewish collective”: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s false rumors about Documenta’s anti-semitism. Casa do Povo https://www.e-flux.com/notes/480764/from-a-so-paulo-jewish-collective-frankfurter-allgemeine-zeitung-s-false-rumors-about-documenta-and-antisemitism
A feuilleton review of Frankfurter Allgemeine Newspaper (FAZ) on “Anti-semitism scandal at Documenta Fifteen”, by Niklas Maak (closed paper): https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/documenta-fifteen-trotz-antisemitismus-skandal-weiterfeiern-18157000.html
“Who is Anti-semitic?” Documenta XIV artist Franco “Bifo” Berardi, who was previously accused of being anti-semitic, posted an open letter on e-flux Notes: https://www.e-flux.com/notes/481192/who-is-anti-semitic
Press article about the accusation of anti-semitism by Swiss newspaper (in Bahasa Indonesian): https://www.woz.ch/documenta/sebuah-konstruksi-kolonial
Talk between ruangrupa and Adam Scymczyk, curator of Documenta XIV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xjhv9eyeyE&ab_channel=SummeracademyAT
Documenta Fifteen ends on September 25, 2022.