documenta 15, an anti-stage stage
The 15th edition of documenta, in Kassel, Germany, between June 18 and September 25 this year, is focused not on an event, theme or concept, but on the working model ‘lumbung’ – an Indonesian word describing a community barn. ‘Lumbung’, in the context of documenta 15, is an idea of collective organisation and sharing. The main aim is to establish a cooperative and global platform, which will continue to exist even after the exhibition ends. The idea was brought forth by the Jakarta-based collective ruangrupa, invited to curate this edition.
That idea is not reflected on first impact. With more than thirty venues around Kassel, and tens of thousands of daily visitors who would ignore the city if not for this event, it seems hard to believe one of documenta 15’s major goals is to strengthen the local and collective side of art. When we look at the map, the first impression is in fact that this year’s edition has a monumental scale, with endless rooms, collectives and artists. From the outset, it is not difficult to understand that it takes several days to visit all the exhibition venues with time.
It is fair to say that monumentality is the first great challenge of the ruangrupa collective. And, besides the tardiness, this has several practical consequences: first, causing the visitor the impression of almost never finding what they expect; then, the idea that the space is more a call for discussion than the exhibition of anything. It is as if we are drawn to stay there and the works on show are more a pretext than an end. Not surprisingly: the revision of the concept of ‘art’ is also one of the discussions.
Even against these scenarios, there are several more conventional works. Manifold, by Erick Beltrán, is a multimedia installation, the result of a project supported by members of the University of Kassel. Among other elements, it includes interviews with the inhabitants of that city, where they are asked about the image that instinctively comes to mind when they think of power. Disruptive and heterogeneous, the installation, which uses video and schemes of ideas on panels, is located in several rooms of the Museum for Sepulchral Culture, merging with the rooms of the permanent exhibition, with slabs, tombs and coffins.
In an equally sombre register, Saodat Ismailova is in the cellars of the Fridericianum with Chilltan, a project that seeks lost cultural traces in the modern history of countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan or Tajikistan. Combining site intervention, film and performance, Ismailova extends the projected image to the venue by physically duplicating elements of the film, such as Uzbek carpets, pieces of silk or even the room lighting. The film is a replica of this elusive place between two dimensions. It has long, hazy shots where the landscape blends with the women who appear, in a search between the Islamic past and the region’s animist heritage.
This more limbic side is not the most evident. To meet the objective of disseminating information and knowledge, the predominant register in documenta 15 is direct and realistic. Information carries great weight. In most of the works presented, the historical elements are not just parts of the works, but the body itself, as a total dimension. In other words, a certain documental proximity, with as few filters as possible. We are not surprised by the constant presence of documentaries and archives. In the Fridericianum there are three in the same room: The Black Archive, Asia Art Archive and Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie, in the lobby of another room, where films about the recent history of Iraq, by the Sada collective (regroup), are shown.
The presentation is not surprising. From the beginning, the exhibition was seen by the ruangrupa collective as a chance to exhibit different methodologies and arts. With the context being more important than the product. In the words of the collective, “There are different ways and practices of producing art (works). These practices are not (yet) visible, as they do not fit the existing model of the global art world(s). documenta fifteen is an attempt to clash these different realities against each other, showing that different ways are possible.” in “How to do things differently.” For this reason, there was no curation. The invited collectives were challenged to continue their usual work and show it in Kassel.
The organisational and curatorial principle of documenta 15, and also a critical position, seems straightforward: artistic practice has a function, a role in finding solutions to practical problems in communities. Therefore, the exhibition site should allow for the growth of that function, the spreading of discussion. In other words, the practice. The observer’s role also becomes obsolete in this process.
The room housing the Gudskul collective is probably the best example of this intention: a constantly changing community space in a museum room, with chairs, tables, materials, sofas and some videos where the collective discusses its practice. Here there are workshops and discussions. But the most interesting thing is to observe the visitors in the hours when there are no events, dumbfounded as they look for something to see, photograph, contemplate, as if they couldn’t find the work. Some analyse the furniture, others look around. Many talk. “This is not art”, we can sometimes hear.
With a tendency to be criticised, documenta 15’s curatorial proposal has interesting points. For example, the idea that art, being a practice, should not be observed or contemplated, but experienced and discussed. Then, a conceptual discussion about a broader artistic dimension, thought from other categories. The expressive freedom in challenging contexts, the creative outlet of artistic practice, the possibility of detachment, for example. Like in the rooms of the Trampoline House, a Danish association of support to exiles and migrants in adverse conditions in the country. The video reports of several people who use this association speak of that: of the freedom they feel when, in the presence of paper, paints, cameras, they can have some autonomy. There is also an interesting notion of the concept of authorship, with many collectives not distinguishing between individual authors.
On the other hand, one can legitimately question whether the principle “keep doing what you’re doing”, and insisting on the context of artistic practice as the main object, without paying attention to the result, is not also reductive. The position of the ruangrupa collective is clear: “Art is rooted in life. The ensuing objects and methods help in thinking through the issues at hand and in finding solutions that are useful to the community. In this way it is impossible to separate art and life, and it is meaningless to exhibit the objects in Kassel without finding translations of the processes that give rise to them.” in “Keep on doing what you’re doing”. But isn’t one of art’s distinctive points the possibility of the product surpassing the process? Isn’t it reductionist to limit artistic practice to its place, not as an element, but as a benchmark?
Let’s take the example of the collective Wajukuu Art Project, with an architectural installation at the entrance of the documenta Halle, one of the exhibition’s most visited spaces. Between walls covered by coloured plates with fixed paintings, a horizon where almost three sculptures float, transformed into a bed by suspended bodies, knives and belts in low light, there is a video where, under motivational background music, the artists talk about their life story. Along the lines of the exhibition, the idea is to illustrate that this specific work comes from a specific context. But doesn’t this inclusion render the biography the object of the whole space and not just an element? And, if so, is the work just illustration?
The same question could be asked about the work Atis Rezistans present at St. Kunigundis church. With sculptures, video installation and sound, the Haitian collective entered the church – which was closed for the exhibition – and removed its usual decoration, filling it with religious elements of voodoo culture. Among erect corpses, made with recycled materials such as tyres, bones, irons and springs, and also altars occupied by transparent vases with objects collected from around the church, we find a festive, metallic, warm atmosphere. And the feeling – reinforced by some documentary videos – that the artists can make any piece of rubbish smile. But is this ability to work with waste materials enough to explain how this place is built?
Beyond these questions, there is the problem of scale. The exhibition’s discursive register, the principle of disseminating information, often generates a visual and material conflict that makes it practically impossible to connect that same information, especially when there are works by several collectives in the same room. Yes, there are common points between the collectives, particularly in relation to the working conditions. But the text underlies the room, it does not fill it – and often all that is left is the clash of different visual references and artistic dimensions.
In the end, we feel that documenta 15 is a site of proposals, of discussion, but also that the scale is inappropriate and counterproductive. It is important to remember that documenta has its context in central Europe and that it is one of the art events with the most funding, visibility and expression worldwide. Transforming it is always a Herculean endeavour – perhaps even impossible. It requires using a global stage and following the rules to set up the opposite scale. Perhaps these two worlds are incompatible. Or perhaps one must try. As with all documentas, we won’t know until later.