I was so excited to be invited to my friend’s wedding in Germany near Kassel and getting the opportunity to take a day to stroll through Documenta 15. I have visited this amazing exhibition for the last edition and have been waiting for 5 years to pass, so I could visit it again. This year I was very interested to hear that it was actually curated by a group of artists and not a curator, as discussing and questioning this type of exhibition making was also a part of my master’s dissertation – you know, as (trained academic) curators we definitely have a different approach of seeing and exhibiting art than artists. Would you agree? I could go into a long discussion on that now, but I might leave it for another time.
Anyways, ruangrupa are an Indonesian artist’s collective and are actually the first Documenta artistic directors to hail from Asia AND the first non-curators, so kudos for changing the usual narrative. The collective was formed in 2000 in South Jakarta, Indonesia. In short, they are a non-profit art organization, focusing on urban contexts of cultural production. What is really interesting with them is that they are actually an interdisciplinary team (artists, architects, social scientists), also partnering with local communities of the city where they are exhibiting. And all of that was definitely felt in Documenta. Even before the visit I could sense a lot of social gatherings and audience participation in the making. After the years we had it was great to see people coming together, stories intertwined and at the same time shoving a mirror in front of everyone’s face. ruangrupa inviting so many more collectives to participate in the discourse of today’s world vs. the past has even deepened the connection between local and international networks and presentations of togetherness vs. controversial historical topics (with some works actually being taken down because of supposed antisemitic notions). A big question on display was how to deal with documenting colonial system, white supremacy, racial prejudice, feminism, refugees etc. Some presentations took more absurd and humorous approaches, yet others were more in your face type of art.
ruangrupa based their artistic model on communal resource sharing and collectivity, giving reins to 1500 participants based outside of the usual art world centres, breaking the tradition of showing major international artists and with that questioning the country’s funding of the arts and institutional critique.
So, here go my thoughts on my visit to Documenta 15, this quinquennial exhibition.
First off, for someone who is a bit orientationally challenged, it was pretty hard to navigate through town with the lack of signage of where the venues are. Sure, there are some big maps on some locations, but having a personal map on you is much needed. Probably even mapping out beforehand exactly where you are going is a great option. Especially as I had only one day to visit 32 exhibition venues scattered all throughout town. I obviously knew that was never going to happen realistically, so I pre-chose and researched a few I really craved to see and experience in person. Therefore, getting lost in the city took away my precious time I already didn’t have (though I usually say that getting lost in an unknown city is a worthy adventure in itself, just not when you are struggling for time). In the previous edition of Documenta you could almost see from anywhere where you were and where the venues were, because the signage was so good and that’s what really impressed me then. I feel the signage should be a bit clearer. I don’t think it takes away from the identity of the town (pollutes the environment), but it enriches it – because for those few months every five years Documenta becomes a part of Kassel and should be regarded as such. More signs might even enrich the city and bring in even more visitors, besides making the viewing more efficient. The walking tours are a great addition though, if you have more time on your hands. Maybe the lack of signage stems from a different approach than the curators are used to – which is also seen in the lack of wall texts next to the artworks (actually, that similar issues occured in the previous edition as well, go figure…). Sure, the artists are presented, but somehow I feel the majority of things on display could benefit from a bit more explanatory text (and not just an added QR code, sending you to the site of the presenting artist).
Four big rooms in Stadtmuseum are all devoted to inclusivity and various communities coming together and being represented in the artworks, through the artworks and making artworks.
Safdar Ahmed’s 3 part work (vinyl record, video installation, zine) critically questions immigration system through a story of a Kurdish-Iranian heavy metal guitarist Kazem Kazemi, a refugee being detained in an Australian detention centre for 6 years. 2 channel video installation with a huge sitting area in the middle alternated between documentary story telling and music videos on each side of the wall, so your participation in experiencing the whole artwork was made even more prominent. Through heavy music one could literally feel the heaviness of the situation on display and turning your head at all times threw you even deeper.
FAFSWAG presented the inclusivity of queer and Indigenous culture and gender through (one of my favourites) an interactive video of vogue dancers battling each other, where you can choose your own dancers and also the winner, as well as hear their personal stories. I feel it is a very interesting take to bring the topic closer to any kind of public.
Then there is Nhà Sàn Collective with their architectural assemblages in a room full of sculptures for sensless play, incorporating sounds into the story and making it even more prominent (cold concrete room with loud thumping noise that first almost gave me a heart attack), bringing together the scattered works and giving them an eerie aura and at the same time making even less sense.
Project Art Works is a collective of neurodiverse artists and activists with works presented in various venues, promoting creative and susatinable models of artist development. The work is shown as a combined exhibition and a working space, just screaming for participation.
As mentioned before, for such conceptual works the captions all throughout are too meagre, there is not much to read about, so one has to really make an effort to sit down and read about it before or after the visit by themselves to properly understand it.
Fridericianum has become a sort of school for artists and collectives to demonstrate different models of education, intertwining a domestic and social place: a structural and cold museum space becoming a warm and dynamic venue. Collectives are running various workshops, live performances, seminars and discussion circles, as well as open library to share ideas. Again, all about inclusivity and community, sharing, discussing current issues and finding solutions, playing games and music, immersing yourself in the experience of collective and simply enjoy yourself in an environment that teaches you but also offers fun at the same time. It feels more like a playground than an exhibition venue, especially the ground floor. It was also amazing to see they have a whole room just to educate kids through workshops and play and make tough subjects lighter for them. Oh, to be a kid again..
RomaMoMa‘s work calls for institualization of Romani artists, their history, art and culture, unpacking the racism, sexism, ableism and visibilty.
And then there are Asia Art Archive and The Black Archives presenting the works of artists archiving and documenting the histories, various practices and knowledge. They are unpacking the problematization of different marginal communities and their representation. Basically putting the issues on display for everyone to see. The exhibits are weaved together and it is hard to decipher where one collective finishes and the other starts, but thinking about that now, I actually don’t see that as a bad thing anymore, as the stories are so powerful, it does not matter where they are coming from. A bit of confusion might ensue, though. I saw it like a treasure hunt in a way. Projects on human rights and activism presented in an archivic way. And not to forget Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie from Algeria, putting on display the women activists and feminist movements in the country. It is very educational, as many probably don’t necessarily know what has been happening there and for how much time actually (female revolution). Also the music emanating from the speakers and videos give a different take to displayed materials, bringing the whole room together with a different feeling.
On the top floor Selma Selman exhibits a solo exhibition in various media, connected to her personal and family history, as well as using imagination to convey the message of trying to survive through engaging with scrap metal objects.
The basement under Fridericianum houses, again, one of my favourite exhibits. Saodat Ismailova presents video installations in labyrinth rooms, combining film and environmental performances on shamanic rituals of Central Asia. The visual imagery of repetition of women circles and practicing rituals really put me in a meditative, even trance like state. Feeling the magic, just sitting there mesmerized with open mouth and almost not blinking show the power that imagery and music can have over an individual. Pure magic is all I can say. Just closing your eyes and just be, listening to the chanting that pulls you inside.
Documenta Halle is being used by many collectives in, again, non-traditional ways of exhibiting. Wajukuu Art Project from Nairobi talks about kids from the slums turning to crime and drugs and giving them a chance to turn to art and empower them through it.
INSTAR from Cuba is presenting an archive that grows each day, questions the ‘white cube’ gallery space, shows how big the censorship in art is and holds workshops and debates around their countrie’s controlling regime.
Britto Arts Fund is a collective from Bangladesh, taking on issues on environmental changes and communities suffering the effects of industrialization through a playful approach (at least at first sight!).
The most exciting part for me was a skateboard ramp by Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts in the middle of an exhibition space. That was definitely a first for me, skating through an artwork in a gallery.. Talking about participatory art! They are also asking for contributions of old skateboards, so they can send them back to Thailand, where they will be given to the youth there and help fund the local skateboarding programme. They are all about connecting the history of their land (especially represented dairy farms) with modern youth culture.
Outside Documenta Halle a Palan, an organic garden was positioned, where you can pick your own veggies and herbs. Again, participatory and sustainable version of ‘art’.
An art installation I really didn’t want to miss came from Nguyen Trinh Thi and was placed in Rondell, an old defensive tower by the Fulda river. You walk through thick stone walls of the rotunda into total darkness (mind your head!) on a small temporary platform with pillows on the floor (Not that you really see them at first. I think I also stepped on someone lying on the floor – if you are reading, I am so so sorry.). Around there are potted chili plants, lit up in a way that projected the dark shadows on the walls, accompanied by an eerie music of bamboo fluttes, immediately transporting you into a deep meditative state. I felt so chill and at peace inside, I could sta in there for hours; the monochromatic room made me feel at ease and at the same time one could deeply feel a much darker story behind this atmospheric artwork. Dark and eerie experience, but also wonderfully chill. The inspiration for the work was taken from the shooting of the prisoners in wild chili forest and the shadow play inside really does give out the harshness and despair in this ‘live theatre’.
ST. KUNIGUNDIS CHURCH
The exhibition in St. Kunigundis church by Haitian Atis Rezistans (Ghetto Biennale) is located on the outskirts of town, but definitely worth a visit. Inside the church they staged a macabre exhibition, seen through the magic of ritual and talismanic objects, becoming a living museum of ancestral spirits. During my walk through I sometimes lost the feeling of where the church interior finishes and the exhibition starts, it is all so intertwined in it’s positioning. All the sculptures, talismans and amulets presented feel like they belong inside the church, but you know they don’t – it kind of feels out of place, but it immediately sucks you in. Eerie and haunting and at some instances also a bit humorous, the scrap metal and every day object sculptures with human skeletons give out a sombre feeling, contrasting the morbidity and the beauty, even hinting that life is a joke in some ways. Some other works discuss the history, racial mixing, racial prejudice and showing the lack of international mobility for their artists. There are also bigger structures standing outside on the courtyard, as well as an artwork in the shape of a floating ceiling structures, mirroring the geometry of the neighbouring streets.
There is also a rythmic thumping echoing around the church, bringing the uncanny artworks to life even more. When you go up the stairs you realize the sound is coming from a completely different work of art, giving an additional meaning to everything exhibited inside the church. The Museum of Trance for Documenta 15 is built around the church organ and explores the cultural phenomenon of 90s Germany trance music scene. St. Kunigundis is actually located next to a building that used to house a very famous nightclub, so one could hear the music beats thumping inside the church during Sunday services. The artist says that the artwork connects all these different spiritual spheres, as if the beats were still blasting. And yes, he is right.
MUSEUM FOR SEPULCHRAL CULTURE
A unique Museum for Sepulchral Culture houses the work of Erick Beltrán that spans around a few stories of the building. The artist is presenting the results of a survey he carried out about the imagery of power, showing very contradictory and also humorous answers, put on display through huge textile banners, mathematical studies and projections. I felt the positioning of this artwork inside the museum of death was definitely done on purpose – the meaning of power. However, even though the texts were very interesting to read, I have to say that there was a lot of it and it might be better to visit this venue first thing in the morning when your brain is still fresh. But at the same time, that same thing could actually be said for any of the displayed works on this year’s Documenta.
Oh, and not to forget Halal Fried Chicken shop signs jumping out of the museum walls, questioning the Islamic history and social exclusion. It honestly felt a bit random at first and I really thought it was just a good joke, until I realized what it represents and it is not a part of the permanent exhibition (lol at me, right).
But what stayed with me the most from my visit, was actually an artwork that was not a part of Documenta 15, but a temporary exhibit in this museum. Downstairs in the small rotunda was a solo exhibition ‘I am not my body‘ by a filmmaker Vanesa Abajo Pérez and oh, how I am glad I stayed and watched the full 45 minute long video. The artist explores how we can experience life and death through the eyes of someone else and their own perspective. For over a year she filmed the life of a terminally ill woman, who refused to give herself up to the inevitable death. Experiencing it visally took everything from me, but it was one of the most fulfilling experiences at the same time. It left me so deeply connected to the human life, the poetry of life and death, connecting you to the moment of being alive. It definitely changed my perspective..
I feel this artwork really deserves a special mention here. I have been thinking when was the last time an artwork hit me so hard and the one time I remember was the Danish Pavillion on this year’s Venice Biennale. The imagery is still stuck with me to this day and I know Abajos work will be with me for a long time as well – after a week now, my friend is still phoning me to talk about it. It was really that powerful. Especially with the experience of watching the film sitting on a chair of Kassel inhabitants who passed away.
To conclude my thoughts now, Documenta 15 is definitely not an exhibition that we are used to, but more of an event, filled with social practice art, sustainability practices, transparency, accountability, sharing knowledge and collaboration. It is more ‘life that imitates art’, promoting artistic ideas through an interdisciplinary approach. Throughout the venues a lot of live events are happening, there is a big cross-cultural exchange between ‘the West’ and the ‘Global South’. And through a lot of visitors not really participating fully to be completely immersed and engaged in the experiences presented, it also puts problematic power structures on display. Workshops, discussion forums and other live events ‘displayed’ in the middle of gallery spaces instead of traditional artworks was a huge move away from traditional curatorial norms, offering a different, non-pretentious and educational world to the international audience. It really is more about community than the visual.
In general, this year the exhibits felt more like a run-through thing, you didn’t have to stand in front of them and look at them in minuscule detail. I feel it was more about passing through it and taking it with you, thinking about what you saw and experienced at home, not necessarily sitting there and contemplating it on the spot. As a whole experience everything was much quicker for me. You can of course sit there and reflect upon everything, though the majority of the topics were quite heavy, therefore one might not wish to spend too much time in the presence of them. So, getting the idea, a glimpse of important topics and being confronted by them, taking it with you and researching and unwrapping it at home with a glass of wine in a discussion with friends was the way forward for me.
All in all, I would finish with a sentence: last edition and this year’s edition of Documenta were actually both dealing with similar topics, though the latter one sometimes felt a bit visually underwhelming (even compared to Documenta 14’s more conceptual approach!). The whole concept was completely out of a known canon and represented contemporary art more as a food for thought than actual visual art.