Reviewing the Reviews: Documenta 15

The coverage and criticism of Documenta 15 was an experience in itself, whether or not you made it to Kassel this year. This edition of the contemporary art exhibition was the first to focus entirely on artists from the Global South, and it was curated by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa. It modeled its curatorial approach on the lumbung, a communal rice barn where surplus grains are stored and shared with members of a community. ruangrupa invited multiple collectives to participate, and these collectives, in turn, invited others until the number of participating artists swelled to 1500.

Controversy started early. Months before the exhibition opened, the international press had already begun throwing around the term “anti-Semitism.” This trend came about after the Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel targeted artists and curators in January 2022. The Alliance accused ruangrupa and certain artists of supporting the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and thus having anti-Semitic biases. In response, ruangrupa planned a series of talks on anti-Semitism at Documenta (called “We Need to Talk!”). Then Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, criticized these talks for including pro-Palestinian perspectives. They were canceled. And in April, the space that would exhibit work by the Palestinian collective the Question of Funding was vandalized.

These early events shaped the press about Documenta 15, as did the imagery seen as anti-Semitic that appeared in a mural that the Taring Padi collective unveiled in June after the exhibition’s preview. Here, Momus’s associate editors Rahel Aima and Catherine G. Wagley discuss what it was like to read about Documenta 15 before and after seeing the exhibition.

 

Documenta 15: Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale, “Ghetto Gucci,” performance, St. Kunigundis, Kassel, 17 June 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Catherine Wagley: For me, it seemed clear, from the swirl of press that led up to the opening of Documenta 15, that these “controversies” were not about Documenta or its (many, many) artists at all, but about issues that a navel-gazing version of the Western art world just had not figured out how to effectively address. But also from the very start, it was hard to keep track of the conversation. There were so many threads: in local contexts, in German publications (and since I don’t read German, I feel I’ve missed a lot), in open letters from ruangrupa and participating artists.

When Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture wrote about Documenta 15 for the London Review of Books, he pointed out that when it began, “the antisemitism row at Documenta” was “not about the institution’s own legacy—its co-founder Werner Haftmann was a Nazi war criminal—or the ongoing violence against Germany’s Jewish community.” Interestingly, Weizman was supposed to participate in Documenta’s talk about anti-Semitism—which was canceled.

Rahel Aima: I think I was only loosely aware of these canceled talks, or rather dismissed them as something adjacent to but not all that relevant to the event itself. What did put me on edge, however, was the attacks on the Question of Funding a few weeks before the opening. Authorities opened a criminal case which went nowhere. Later, I would learn of racist and transphobic attacks on the Haitian collective the Ghetto Biennale and Party Office from New Delhi. It’s nothing new—remember the decapitation (twice!) of Nicole Eisenman’s genderqueer figures at Skulptur Projekte Münster a few years ago? In each case, the events were reported to the authorities, who did nothing. It quickly became clear how contingent and specific their definitions of a hate crime were. I don’t think anyone realized at that point that the white supremacy was coming from inside the house. I thought Jörg Heiser’s early piece at Art Agenda did a great job of contextualizing the accusations of anti-Semitism vis-a-vis the German context, even as he objected to the Israel Defense Forces being compared to European fascists. And it continues: to be accused of supporting BDS remains such a serious charge, and one that marks the person as unfit to hold a prominent role in the German cultural landscape, as we saw most recently with incoming Haus der Kulturen der Welt museum director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung.

Still, even with this looming over it, the preview days were a limited period when it actually could be about the exhibition itself; Taring Padi didn’t happen until the opening day. So much of the preview felt like sets for the programming and activations—though that’s not the right word—that would later unfold. You visited quite a bit later. How was your experience?

Documenta 15: Taring Padi, Bara Solidaritas: Sekarang Mereka, Besok Kita, “The Flame of Solidarity: First they came for them, then they came for us,” 2022. Installation, Kassel, 14 June 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

CW: Once I got there in August, I had already read so much about the post–Taring Padi controversies, and the organizers’ behaviors: the scolding letter from Documenta director Sabine Schormann, and her resignation a month later; how Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt, was enlisted to lead “inspections” of the exhibition venues for any other “problematic” content.

So I suppose I was struck by the parts the coverage left out. Siddartha Mitter’s New York Times piece gave me a sense of the scale (“this is not a show for checklists. It is a gathering of archives, a sharing of methods, a festival of experiments”), but a lot of press made it sound chaotic. One review, in Frieze, was literally titled “The DIY Chaos of Documenta 15” (though the writing was more measured than the headline).

To me it felt impressively well organized. I was blown away by how much of a curatorial feat it all was. There were artists living in exhibition spaces—the Fridericianum included—and yet the galleries still felt like galleries: they were orderly; there were wall labels. I appreciated how, later, it was difficult to single out certain works in my memory, because what I remembered was the full sensation of each installation. I’d also read press that suggested, with some frustration, that it was near impossible to fully experience Documenta in just a few days (the amount of time most visitors could afford to stay), because there were so many events. There was also some frustration about who could attend which events—a few white men felt miffed about being turned away from Party Office’s BDSM parties, which privileged queer and non-white attendees (one man allegedly yelled, “You are doing the wrong thing, you are misguided!”).

I wished I’d been able to stay longer, and experience more, but my inability to access everything didn’t feel like a failure or complication of the show. Your experience, at least when it came to engaging the press-generated narrative versus the exhibition itself, was kind of the opposite, right? What was it like for you? 

RA: Openings and preview days can be so weird. You know how there’s this funny groupthink at play, where it feels like a judgment, and perhaps indictment, of the event is collectively settled on before it’s even open to the public? Me, I felt like I did it all wrong. When you go to these big, sprawling biennials, there’s a self-imposed pressure to see—to consume—everything, that checklist mode that Mitter mentions. The way tourists talk about cities: “We’ve done Rome, Venice, and Treviso too.” And I was too caught up in that, in making it to every venue when I would have been so much better served attending talks, performances, and gatherings, just being instead of experiencing, consuming.

Documenta 15: Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale, “Ghetto Gucci,” performance, St. Kunigundis, Kassel, 17 June 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

I did truly enjoy the sociality of the art circuit opening, and seeing a lot of people that I rarely get to, as Schengen visas are difficult. I thought it was remarkably well organized, too, with a lot of attention to access: not just physically and even mentally, with much-needed “quiet rooms,” but in terms of engagement, too, with things like the easy-to-read guide. But it also had me thinking about access of another kind: who could even enter Europe to even see, let alone write, about an event like this? So many people can engage with major events like this, the Venice Biennale especially, only through what gets written about it. And I’m always aware that said coverage necessarily comes from very geographically specific points of view. 

I feel like the show washed over me, a warm bath. I think I felt good, I think we felt good during those first few days—and this is an amorphous, weaponized first-person “we,” but by this I mean people from the global majority, this Telfar logic that this biennial was both for us and for everyone. I want to emphasize that this kind of flattened “we” is a feeling, and not at all a reality with the asymmetric ways that race, class, and passport privilege play out. But what felt remarkable here was precisely that kind of banked glow. It was such a balm after the excruciating didacticism of the Berlin Biennale: decolonialism in practice and not just in name. As the messes piled up, I began reading every bit of coverage I could afterward, almost obsessively, as if to make sense of it, and I still haven’t been able to. It was very much coverage and not criticism.

CW: And it felt like, when coverage was not overshadowing the curatorial model, the curatorial model was often being blamed for the controversies. The model was framed as the problem.

RA: Some writers took the opportunity to gleefully air their xenophobia. Especially atrocious was Ingo Niermann in Arts of the Working Class with an article titled “Documenta 9/11?” that asks, “Was the belated installation of Taring Padi’s banner an act of terrorism meant to blow up the allegedly inclusive, actually hopelessly paternalistic Western art world—in the scale of the reactions it provokes a sort of cultural 9/11?” and it just got worse from there. Mostly I kept tripping over this weird way people talked about the lumbung like it was donning a Hawaiian shirt to do the lambada or something like that—as a kind of suspension-of-reality, we’re-on-holiday tourism. They had a lightly bemused, performing tolerance of difference almost. It felt like a way to deal with the slipperiness, and perhaps even illegibility, for many, of this particular curatorial model.

CW: Yes, there were a lot of strange deployments of lumbung. Like Kristian Vistrup Madsen, who ended his Artforum piece with a reluctant admission that he, like “thousands of people,” “already knew how to lumbung,” or Ben Davis, who in Artnet treated the word like an unfamiliar food he’d agreed to try: “I found myself enjoying the ‘lumbung’ vibe despite reservations.”

I do think some of this fixation with the word had to do with discomfort with the curatorial model, and perhaps also discomfort around a major art event including so many artists who are working in nontraditional ways outside of the mainstream Western art world, or “hitherto hegemonic Global North,” as Mi You put it in her recent essay for e-flux. She also pointed out that “the image of community life and self-governance” that lumbung conjures “is not as simple, or simply good, as it seems,” given that “Lumbung also symbolizes the perennial issue of food insecurity, with Indonesians caught between the aspiration for self-sufficiency and international marketization and development.”

Kate Brown’s Artnet piece got at some of the discomfort, too, though it was framed around the market. Brown describes noticing a “quietly simmering intolerance for Ruangrupa’s repudiation of star-spangled artist lists.”

RA: Yes. I really liked that Brown’s piece was anchored in the market. We all know, even if we don’t acknowledge, that these major biennial-type events are points of sale, and increasingly so given, as a collector recently pointed out to me that galleries increasingly fund production, which they expect to soon recoup. And perhaps it’s exactly this proposition at the heart of this Documenta that perplexes: if this art is not for sale, then what is it for? I would not be able to answer that.

CW: To me it felt like a lot of the “work” at Documenta was about being able to do the work. I was really drawn in by a video in the Gudskul installation, in which members of different collectives were talking about the spaces where they gathered and worked: Whose name was on the lease, how many other people shared the space with them? Was that video art, or about the conditions of making art? That seems like a kind of tired question to me, and I don’t really care what the answer is, but I know other visitors, and critics, did care.

RA: More than anything, it felt like an exercise not in how to make art but how to live together—and/or perhaps for many of the collectives these are the same thing. It was on view in the real-time solidarity happening among the artists—taking away and hosting Taring Padi’s puppets in their own spaces, for example, or the Black Archives (TBA) removing their painting of a Black Jesus and replacing it with a sign that attributed the action to “false accusations of anti-Semitism to lumbung members.” And by extension, what is the critic’s role—do they express solidarity, too, do they maintain performative distance, even though I can’t imagine anyone still believes in the fiction of the objective critic?

I think this dispatch model that Art Agenda and a few others have been doing is fascinating. Likewise with the New York Times commissioning at least two people. There’s an inherent acknowledgment of the absolute arbitrariness of criticism and how one writer cannot possibly either sum it up or provide the kind of definitive, authoritative take that so much of criticism otherwise assumes. But I wonder if this is about the size and breadth of the show or its perceived importance? I feel like you only really see this commentary split between multiple writers with Venice, outside of Artforum’s opening diary-review coverage.

CW: A case in point would be Mitter’s New York Times writing versus Jason Farago’s. In Farago’s Times postmortem, he asks, “Was there something specific in this show’s method that led to the breakdown?” Then he essentially answers that yes, there was: “Vibing was its aim, and its downfall too.”

RA: There was this line in Farago’s piece that was really jarring: “the indifference it showed to its public, and the strange satisfaction it took in being unappreciated.” And “the dream of a global art world has died,” which honestly, good. And that statement from Documenta that curators “did not fully control” everything, and were less thorough, which felt like it was implicitly saying, “This is not the European way.” The thing is, we speak about Documenta as a temperature-taking, and perhaps even a referendum, on the state of the art world. But really, it’s a referendum on Germany, its place in the world, and perhaps even the European project as a whole. This Documenta came into being amidst an already brewing firestorm around Achille Mbembe, around restitution, and around Germany’s colonial past. (I thought the Black Archive’s installation, dealing with the Netherlands’ legacy, was incredible in this regard.) The previous edition unfolded as Greece suffered a crisis of Germany and the IMF’s making. The first edition was very much about progressive culture after the horrors of Nazism even as, as Weizman points out, the same people stewarded and shaped its early years. I was so struck by this line in a ruangrupa interview at The Art Newspaper: “​​At times it felt like we were being asked to fix Germany.”

CW: Speaking of past editions, Farago also says, quite dramatically, that Okwui Enwezor’s “legacy lies tattered.” Enwezor, who directed Documenta 11 in 2002, was the exhibition’s first non-European curator, and his edition is widely hailed for taking a postcolonial approach—though, unlike this year’s iteration, it did not include a majority of non-Western artists.

RA: Arguably, this was the first non-Western Documenta in form and not just content. As much as Enwezor’s edition was a watershed moment, he was very much a curator in the familiar authorial Western European institutional mode, albeit a particularly brilliant one. But will this be a game changer, too, or just remembered as an aberration? For sure we can expect a reactionary course correction for the next edition. And perhaps it’s just reflecting a broader turn to more diffuse, less didactic shows. This year’s Istanbul Biennial certainly felt like that—what I’ve come to think of as compost heap–style curating—though it had been in the works for years, and opened a scant few months after Documenta did. Most of all, this edition really revealed how representation functions as a pacifying bromide in the European art world, as in Europe more broadly, and the discomfort when people dare ask for more than just being included and visible—functionally, being on display.

CW: For all the praise for the decolonial implications of Enwezor’s Documenta, there wasn’t a non-Western artistic director again until this year (twenty years later!)—though for Documenta 14, artistic director Adam Szymczyk oversaw a large, fairly diverse team of curators. That edition was similarly shaped by open letters and publicly aired fractures between officials and curators. The program ran an $8 million deficit, which, the German publication HNA reported, threatened the future of the quinquennial. Then the curatorial team wrote an open letter to HNA, arguing that the real problem was that Documenta officials wanted to scale up the event (this iteration, in 2017, was held in both Kassel and Athens) without properly supporting it. The curators wrote that they “denounce the exploitative model under which the stakeholders of documenta wish the ‘most important exhibition of the world’ to be produced.”

RA: Is that what’s happening here? Is Documenta no longer the most important exhibition in the world? The world has changed so much in the last nearly seventy years, and what was once “the art world” has become several art worlds that do not overlap except in name, and that feels like what we saw here. Perhaps it’s time. Also, apropos of nothing, I find this move of open letters so very strange. You have this feeling of different groups speaking not to but past each other, turning to face the camera like they’re breaking a fourth wall.

CW: Although it also feels like an act of desperation on the curators’ part. In the September 10 open letter from Kassel, titled, “We are angry, we are sad, we are tired, we are united: Letter from lumbung community,” the collective “we” say they have tried multiple times to be heard by Documenta officials. The letter actually, in a way, answers that question you pose, about Documenta’s role and “the” important exhibition. It responds to a preliminary report by a panel appointed by Documenta’s supervisory board, which found that the curatorial approach “allowed an anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli mood to prevail.” The collective rejects this finding as censorious and racist in its conflation of criticism of Zionism with anti-Semitism, and argues that it pits one oppressed community against each other—while ignoring the reality of anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian racism. Then the letter describes the lumbung model as something that existed before Documenta and exists beyond it. In other words, it does not need the institution of “Documenta,” the “most important exhibition,” to validate its existence.

I thought Skye Arundhati Thomas’s piece for Art Agenda did a good job of showing the curatorial model as part of something bigger—specifically, how community networks across the Global South have already been redistributing funds and resources to meet needs while also challenging oppressive structures.


Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale, “The Big Chair von Joe Winter, 3,” Ghetto Biennale, 2013, Port-au-Prince. Photo: Multiversal Services / Lazaros.

RA: Speaking of which, I also loved Abhijan Toto and Pujita Guha for Forest Curriculum at Artforum, pointing to a line in one of those snaking timelines on a mural in the basement of ruruHaus: “Documenta is invited to join the ruangrupa ecosystem.” And also: “Lumbung, then, thought of as method rather than theme, proposes a refreshingly uncynical inquiry into an aesthetics of redistribution, one informed by both the strategies and the failures of generations of institutional critique.”

Who curators are accountable to: indeed, Arts Collaboratory’s method of accounting, in which collectives report to one another rather than to a central organizational body, finds reflection in the overall structure that ruangrupa produce and therefore in the mural as well. We see a form of public accounting, where the distribution of funding at various stages is clearly laid out.

CW: So good! I think again of Weizman, who wrote that “the whole arrangement was irreverent, non-hierarchical, a much needed corrective.” I still feel like the controversy and a close-minded, or at least cagey, framing of the exhibition dominated the press too much. But there were so many carefully wrought perspectives like this one, which excised from the controversy hopeful possibilities. Yet where will those possibilities live in the future?

In Documenta Halle, stacked next to the big communal printing press, I saw a broadsheet that read “Grateful to be part of the last Documenta.” And while I doubt Documenta will actually end in five years, I don’t doubt that it could turn toward conservatism, which would erode its relevance. I always fall back on a version of the same thought: that we can’t rely on existing institutions to build another art world.

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