I am not retweeting documenta fifteen. Instead, taking my cue from the approach of Palestinian collective The Question of Funding (QoF)’s response to the vandalism of the Eltiqua Group’s exhibition space in WH22, I hope to leave the evidence in the room without doing too much to engage it, so as not to overshadow the discussion of the actual work at hand – myriad, diverse, and invested as it is. I will, however, get some things out of the way.
To call it a shame that documenta needed to cancel what surely would have been a series of generative and important discussions titled “We need to Talk! Art — Freedom — Solidarity” meant to address the “fundamental right of artistic freedom in the face of antisemitism, racism and Islamophobia,” is an understatement. Few sources I’ve read discussing QoF have spoken about what their exhibitions are actually about: using funding and economic models as a means to mobilize collective strengths based on justice and solidarity principles. It would seem that many American and German critics and art writers have smelled blood in the water, and rather than approaching and critiquing the work in documenta fifteen, many have instead focused on regurgitating sensationalist content that includes the original (now debunked) accusation of anti-Semitism, a go-to silencing mechanism so often used to stifle and deflect difficult and necessary conversations around the relationship between Palestinian oppression, racism, Zionism, and German philosemitism. A large majority of writers have continued to do this even after ruangrupa’s deftly written and thoughtfully-considered letter published by e-flux resolutely discredited the shittily-researched blog post by a singular individual claiming to be part of an alliance (consisting of a single member) that instigated the initial anti-Semitic allegations toward ruangrupa in the first place. I am neither qualified to nor interested in tackling the latest scandal. Instead, as a viewer, an artist, and a witness to the opening weekend of documenta fifteen, I will use my small platform give the art event a critical eye, one that the marginalized artists and collectives involved – at the very least – deserve for their efforts. Thankfully, I’m not the only one (or two).
The Question of Funding (Eltiqua), WH22, documenta 15
This was my first documenta, I’m told a strange one to begin with given that previous documentas largely focused on giving platforms to individual artists driven by sole curatorial visions, rather than an organically-formed ekosistem of considerably lesser-known collectives, mostly from the so-called Global South. On the event of this rare doubling of the Venice Biennale and documenta, an occurrence hastened by pandemic delays, some viewers will have come directly from the often shiny, instagrammable former to the challenging latter – demanding as much of the viewer as it does of its contributors. Five years in the making in the midst of a global pandemic, the collectives involved insist that the opening weekend served as the beginning of their work together, rather than the culmination of their efforts. Everyone involved, from the curatorial centre of ruangrupa down to the sobat-sobats charged with touring visitors through works, are part of the shared resource arts ecology of the Bahasa Indonesian method of lumbung upon which documenta fifteen is premised. With only two days to view works, and with each venue offering enough content to occupy oneself for several days a pop, I by no means experienced the quinquennial in its fullness. However, here follows my impression:
El Warcha, Fredericianum, documenta 15
Gudskul, Fredericianum, documenta 15
In central Fredericianum location, I made a chair from unconventional materials in Tunisian collaborative design studio El Warcha‘s workshop, and engaged in non-prescriptive four-way chess with my husband and two German strangers in Gudskul‘s otherwise tiresome installation. Project Art Works‘ location had me wishing for more inviting configurations of the space, which didn’t encourage much but passive viewership of the compelling paintings created by neurominorities. I was struck by a series of five films by Sada [regroup], a selection of Iraqi artists who partook in an arts initiative together in Baghdad from 2011-2015, “re-grouped” for documenta by Rijin Sahakian. I watched a live musical performance in the midst of a chill lounge created for viewers to gather and interact (an experience that for many was mediated through recording cellphones, naturally). The gathering space was further sullied by the opening weekend’s gaggle of harassing film and audio recorders who accosted viewers and performers with invasive booms and impromptu interviews.
In the nearby Friedrichsplatz park where performances took place throughout the day and live music by Syrian musician Rizan Said filled the evening, I found the proximity of Walter de Maria’s “Erdkilometer” (1977) and Richard Bell’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy to be generative. The real treat was documenta Halle, which after a bit of sculpture, painting and installation opened up to a large atrium containing a small-town bazaar by Bangladeshi Britto Arts Trust‘s delectable (albeit on the nose) political ceramic and embroidered parodies of foodstuffs divorced from their natural origins, from bananas and coffee beans to Coca-cola and Campbell’s soup. Beside the actively-used skatepark, a professional printmaker churned out pamphlets and posters with his series of large risographs as I took in an introductory video preparing me for the captivating films of Wakaliga Uganda out of Kampala. We entered a theatre corridor filled with hand-painted posters for films like Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010) and Football Kommando (2022). We missed two talks in order to watch the latter, a gripping premier which screened for the first time at documenta, and which was created — incredibly — on Ramon Film Productions’ famous $200USD budget. Between the delightful special effects, the compelling B-movie acting, and the at times horrific, instructive, and preposterous subject matter Wakaliwood had to offer, we were hooked. When exiting documenta Halle, we moved through Britto Arts Trust’s deftly-constructed palan — a Bengali kitchen garden constructed using bamboo — the vegetables and herbs of which are to be used in the presentation of food cultures from 100 nationalities in 100 days, while sharing histories, memories and hosting events.
Britto Arts Trust, documenta Halle, documenta fifteen
Wakaliga Uganda (Ramon Film Productions), documenta Halle, documenta fifteen
Britto Arts Trust, (outside) documenta Halle, documenta fifteen
Though a compelling installation, Eltiqua’s “formal artworks” in painting and photography were less impactful than the series of informative panels that led you through the space, describing how each member of the collective and the collective itself has sustained itself over many years. Their transparent discussion of the movement of funds and people between classes, national borders, and war zones had me amazed that the group was able to make work at all, let alone insist, as many of them did, that their art be considered in non-political terms (a demand that appears to be all but impossible when showing their work in Western contexts, eager as they are to tokenize, rarefy, and Other). Unlike the confused, seemingly disingenuous “beecoin” displayed in the basement of the ruruHaus Welcome Center, the small nook that contained Studio Kawakeb’s Dayra* blockchain technology for circulating communal economic value stopped me in my tracks, and had me eager to understand how I could become a part of the concept IRL. It helped that the graphic design and linguistic systems of engagement were succinct, open, and compelling, of course, but the concept at its core – helping communities measure and exchange the value of their local resources in the absence of money – is not only a clever and practical piece of tech, but also an urgent and necessary alternative to monetary exchange in the face of global inflation and crippling sanctions humans are facing worldwide. In the basement, my tour had us feeling like voyeurs of an extremely healthy and boundary-filled BDSM functional space by Party Office b2b Fadescha, an independent, crip and kink inclusive artist-run initiative out of New Delhi that not but the previous evening hosted a DJ set by the indomitable Juliana Huxtable (and others), and encouraged safe play among the actively centred Black, Brown, and FLINTA** communities while remaining inclusive to other respectful/responsible participants. By day, the space was ‘enlivened’, strangely, by a series of interesting and (probably) helpful publications on strings that one was not allowed to touch…[?] Outside, behind local brewer Lolita Bar’s atmospheric patio was a community garden of Vietnamese plants and narratives by Nhà Sàn Collective. The space was mostly akin to any other social practice garden, of which there are many, but was clearly being loved and well-used by the community and its extended members for whom it was created. I experienced the entire venue of WH22 on one of the hundreds of exhibition walks that will be given over the span of documenta fifteen, led by an Italian sobat-sobat and her German apprentice. Based on my engagement with documenta fifteen’s website (a mess to engage with, admittedly, even in ‘simple design’ and ‘easy read’ modes), I was led to believe that this “exhibition walk” would consist of stories that enlivened the work, but to my disappointment, it was a traditional museum-style tour. Still, I found it pleasant (though a bit rushed) to have other voices there to guide and illuminate as I engaged with the work.
Party Office b2b Fadescha, WH22, documenta fifteen
Overall, the event was an incredibly ambitious effort to de-centre the so-called Global North while distributing resources throughout the enormous network of social practice-oriented collectives selected by ruangrupa according to lumbung. In my conversations with many of the artists and collectives involved, by this measure, documenta fifteen was an enormous success. Many of its artistic challenges, however, were predictable. In my perfect world, Claire Bishop (writer, professor, and author of Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship) would offer her reflections on said challenges. Bishop, a proponent of the complexity and richness of demanding social practice in all of its richness, puts it best in her own words:
“In using people as a medium, participatory art has always had a double ontological status: it is both an event in the world, and at once removed from it. As such, it has the capacity to communicate on two levels – to participants and to spectators – the paradoxes that are repressed in everyday discourse, and to elicit perverse, disturbing, and pleasurable experiences that enlarge our capacity to imagine the world and our relations anew. But to reach the second level requires a mediating third term – an object, image, story, film, even a spectacle – that permits this experience to have purchase on the public imaginary. Participatory art is not a privileged political medium, nor a ready-made solution to a society of the spectacle, but is as uncertain and precarious as democracy itself; neither are legitimated in advance but need continually to be performed and tested in every specific context.” (C. Bishop, Artificial Hells, p. 284).
I would like to end with a standout work that managed not only to find, but also to revel in the sweet spot of this ‘third mediating term’: namely Agus Nur Amal PMTOH’s installation at Grimmwelt Kassel. Agus, more commonly known as PM Toh, facilitates a series of storytelling sessions based on the Sundanese (west Java) life principle called Tri Tangtu, which combines the mystical, rational and natural as a means of transgressing and collapsing the boundaries between humans and their environments. When entering the space, viewers are confronted with a smorgasbord of playful sculptural constructions made from the very same everyday objects used to enliven his storytelling. Many of these objects were made collaboratively with schoolchildren from the Friedrich Wöhler Schule and Reformschule in Kassel, and their intuitive aesthetic predilections mix seamlessly with his own. Within and among the structures are several comfortable ‘story corners’ in which one naturally gathers, cross-legged on the carpeted floor, eager to listen to PM Toh as he seamlessly changes roles from journalist to researcher, from neighbour to friend. Like a Sumatran Mister Rogers cum Levar Burton, PM Toh’s compelling style is both musical, comical, sincere, and deeply rooted in incredibly important topics that face not only the Indonesian communities with which he engages, but also our entire world. I watched enraptured as he sang charismatically from the other side of a cartoonish cardboard cut-out television about local roof-tile manufacturers, told using a method called hikayat – a threatened Acehnese method of musical storytelling. In a large projection, I was first treated to a sincere and beautiful offering of PM Toh’s own connection to water as he traversed a lush forested landscape, followed by a singsong description — equal parts scientific, hilarious, and deeply local — about how water is created, used, accessed, and protected in the area. His audience was a large group of mostly schoolgirls, their eyes sparkling, thirstily absorbing the subject matter as filtered through the artist’s easy charm. But the stakes are high. These girls are learning about how the water cycle works and their important place within it, at a time where consumption in rich countries threatens water resources worldwide in vulnerable communities. This could be too much to bear, but the playfulness and intimacy of PM Toh’s tales gives both the room and the tools from which to make hope and new realities. Through his virtuosic charisma, PM Toh is able to open up difficult conversations and make visible hidden stories and repressed memories, as Nuraini Juliastuti describes, from military violence and ecological destruction to human rights oppression and forgotten wisdom. Then, he applies object-oriented sleights of hand. A rice hat goes from cap to mountain, plastic bags from condensation to clouds, a plastic bowl from container to water basin, as easily and matter-of-factually as if by magic, to our giddy delight. The Grimmwelt installation, though seemingly gratuitous in its aesthetic, is made essential in these moments of high-stakes information distillation in which not a single rubber ball or review mirror isn’t essential, multi-use, and gestalt. Ironically, PM Toh was one of the few artists represented who was without a collective, a point that he lamented woefully when I had the privilege of speaking with him directly in his installation.
Agus Nur Amal PMTOH, Grimmwelt Kassel, documenta fifteen
Agus Nur Amal PMTOH, Grimmwelt Kassel, documenta fifteen
On the whole, a distilled moment like this — linking artist, community, and viewer in time and space — was rare. My hope for the remaining 90 days of documenta fifteen is that the collectives are able to manifest and extend not just their heavily discussed concept of lumbung, but also that of sobat-sobat, with the spirit of the passionate storytelling of PM Toh. ruangrupa has successfully gathered their financial resources together, and managed them collectively to a harvest that appears destined to proliferate as new crops. documenta has produced countless publications, an illustrated storybook of alternative walking tours, a program of formal ones, performances, workshops, and videos, all of which served to expand and invigorate the work of collective practice. Like any global art event, it’s a lot to take in, and requires time and investment from those who come to experience it. The vignettes I was provided in my short 48 hours did a lot to give me insight into an ambitious range of crucial perspectives and strategies that are essential to centre and to consider. And many were beautiful. But as to Bishop’s third mediating term, whereby the fruits of one’s social labour are reified into something in the exhibition space that is capable of “having purchase in the public imaginary,” I only experienced a mere handful who did so successfully. It’s possible that one has to be there, literally eating a bowl of Tiravanija’s pad thai, or nestled in Hirschhorn’s cardboard constructions, in order to feel something akin to the Geist experienced by the ekosistem. But PM Toh’s work argues otherwise. What can documenta learn from documenta fifteen? Can viewers have stir-fry, without eating it, too?
*Dayra: an Arabic word meaning “a circle” and “circulating.” The word britto from Britto Arts trust also means circle, in Bangla.
**FLINTA: Female, Lesbian, Intersexual, Non-binary Transsexual and A-Sexual Persons
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