Documenta 15: social practice, controversy, food for thought


‘What did the ocean say to the beach? Nothing. He just waved. So said an artist sitting across from my assistant at the Fridericianum, a museum in Kassel, Germany. On the wall behind them hung a handwritten sign that read “Free Dad Jokes.” After the joke, we sat across from another performer. While she sketched us, we leafed through books on the events organized in Indonesia by Hysteria, the collective of which the artist is a member. On the table between us were additional publications and an iPad playing an Indonesian news segment. From the table hung a sign: ‘Free Portrait Sketch’s [sic].’ On the left, another collective was distributing sticky rice topped with soy powder. To the right, a stand offered toothpicks embedded in cubes of gouda cheese and green grapes.

This was an event organized by the educational platform Gudskul, and one of more than 35 events that took place over the weekend we were in town to see Documenta 15 – a five-year exhibition in the center from Germany which draws international and regional crowds and is known for its conservative positions which reflect or even predict the zeitgeist. Unlike previous editions of Documenta, the artistic director appointed for 2022 was a collective, ruangrupa, rather than an individual curator. The Jakarta-based non-profit organization is dedicated to promoting artistic ideas in various contexts through an interdisciplinary approach, where art meets social science, politics, technology, and more. With this philosophy in mind, they built the foundation of Documenta on the core values ​​and ideas of low back pain, the Indonesian term for a communal rice barn – first by inviting five collaborators to become the artistic team, with which they then recruited 14 collectives, organizations and initiatives to become “Lumbung Members”. Each of the member groups then engaged more collectives, many of whom then used their budgets to invite others to join their processes. The result? A sprawling network of collective artistic and social practices that activate 32 venues and public spaces in what can only be described as a 100-day, somewhat ad hoc festival. In other words, it’s far from a neatly curated fixed exhibit.

Documenta fifteenth: Collective Nhà Sàn, Tuấn Mami, garden of Vietnamese immigrants2022, installation view, WH22, Kassel. Photography: Nils Klinger

In all venues, social practice-based projects take center stage, with collectives showcasing both documentation of previous activities as well as live programming. A particular highlight is the garden of Nhá Sàn Collective at the WH22 site. Here, the Vietnamese group cultivates migratory plant species in a garden built with resources and contributions from Vietnamese immigrants in Germany, who can also donate or request to receive seeds from the “seed library”, housed in a wooden shed. During my visit, 16 people had participated in the construction of the garden, 36 had donated seeds or plants and 50 had received them. In Hübner areal, a sprawling disused factory, Guangzhou-based collective Boloho offer a Chinese buffet in the former cafeteria on the first floor, where they also film and live-stream a sitcom.

Meanwhile, in a room on the ground floor, three dancers were giving an improvised performance, recorded by live djembes (or at least djembe-style drums), as part of a program organized by the Festival Foundation on Niger based in Mali. Beside them stood a giant sphere made and surrounded by clay bricks. This backdrop a proverbial path to an “desk” set up in an adjoining room. Here, a representative from the Indonesian art factory Jatiwangi offered information on the destruction of village structures and the industrialization of agriculture, including deforestation, of land in Java. With the idea of ​​beating the developers at their own game and helping to preserve Indonesia’s endangered social and cultural infrastructure, visitors were invited to purchase a 4×4 meter piece of land with the aim of creating the first collective forest to the world (in turn, the land would no longer be available to developers). In addition to the land, stakeholders also receive their own clay brick and an NFT proof of purchase certificate.

Documenta fifteen: Jatiwangi art Factory, Clay Workshop, 2022, Hübner-Areal, Kassel, June 13, 2022. Photography: Frank Sperling

Documenta fifteenth: Fondation Festival sur le Niger: Amaichata Salamata & Mama Koné & Djoulaye Samuel Coulibaly & Tieble Traoré, Activation of the Maaya Bulon: Storytelling and Dancing, Live Playing/ Storytelling, Hübner areal, Kassel, June 3, 2022. Photography: Nicolas Wefers

As is often the case at Documenta, a number of remarkable projects are also located in Karlsaue, a national park. Finding Argentinian band La Intermundial Holobiente’s project – at the site of a compost heap – is a task in itself this year, so when we finally turned the right corner, walked through some trees and into a clearing, the scene was magnificent and worth the journey: a semi-transparent banner painted with trees fluttered in the breeze between the trees themselves, supported by two giant white balloons filled with helium. Beyond that, a small wooden trailer housed a polyphonically written and edited book between the collective, 14 additional artists and writers, and non-human collaborators. Nearby, in a greenhouse, we strolled around the stacked trunks of beetle-infested trees, while the soundscapes of the Colombian rainforests echoed throughout – an installation part of a larger program organized by the Latin group American Más Arte Más Acción.

Documenta fifteenth: La Intermundial Holobiente, Theaterschlag2022, The Holobiente trail2022, installation view, compost heap (Karlsaue), Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photography: Nils Klinger

Elsewhere in the park is Nest Collective’s Return to sender (2021/2022), an installation made of waste: electronic waste was sorted by color to create monochromatic freestanding cubes, while discarded textiles were intertwined, grouped and stacked to create an enclosure.

indoor games Return to Sender – Delivery Details (2022), a documentary-style video about the lack of dignity felt when wearing – and other social and economic roles – second-hand clothes in Nairobi, Kenya, where the collective is based. These three plays together speak loudly of countries in the North literally shipping problems to the South and the ramifications of these destructive practices.

Documenta fifteenth: The Nest Collective, Return to sender, 2022, installation view (detail), Karlswiese (Karlsaue), Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photography: Nils Klinger

Nest Collective’s installation is an exceptional example of the few aesthetic, static, object-based works that exist in what is above all a living and ever-changing affair. Another notable work was Inland and Hito Steyerl’s collaborative immersive installation titled Animal Spirits and staged in the Metaverse. However, due to the ongoing anti-Semitism scandal, which can be read here (and which has since prompted the resignation of Documenta’s managing director, Sabine Schormann), Steyerl requested that his work be removed.

Elsewhere, the Port-au-Prince group Atis Rezistans | The Ghetto Biennial has created site-specific sculptures and installations that make St Kunigundis, an early 20th-century Roman Catholic church, a place of reflection – on world-class politics in the art world, the Haitian stories and folklore, and the low back pain spirit of collaboration. With their accompanying program of performances, screenings and discussions, this intervention felt like an organized exhibition in itself.

Above and above: Documenta fifteen: Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale, Studio Verve Architects, Vivian Chan, Martina Vanin, The Floating Ghetto, 2022, installation view, St. Kunigundis, Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photography Frank Sperling

While some projects, such as the Atis Rezistans | The presentation of the Ghetto Biennale and those in the park, felt well placed and understood, other aspects of this edition of Documenta certainly sounded better in theory than in practice. Back in the Fridericianum open market, I couldn’t help but notice that those who sat down for sketches before and after us didn’t engage with the artist or the books she was offering; rather they were chatting among themselves, waiting for their free portrait. Without even looking at what they were about to eat, let alone speak to the performer manning the booth, I watched people take a serving of soy flavored sticky rice, put it in their mouths, make a grimace and find the nearest towel. It was a free market in which artists from the Global South worked for a predominantly white European audience and received literally nothing in return.

It is significant that these collective practices have benefited from such autonomy and such a place in a place where they have barely been represented or worked on. But when cross-cultural exchange and collaboration is supposed to be the goal and no one speaks across the tables, such efforts risk being reversed, reinforcing problematic power structures. The 100-day festival indeed has a lively and encouraging spirit and invites viewers to reposition their perception of what art is and can be, but to do this, visitors must not only accept the invitation but also participate. fully. From my point of view, understanding and engaging in low back pain requires visiting much more than a weekend, conversing and lingering regardless of time. §

Documenta fifteenth: Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale, Studio Verve Architects, Vivian Chan, Martina Vanin, The Floating Ghetto, 2022, installation view, St. Kunigundis, Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photography Frank Sperling


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