The DIY Chaos of Documenta 15

Presented within multifunctional and frequently changing spaces, this year’s edition of the quinquennial exhibition combines art with social kitchens, garden gatherings and even a pro-BDSM party

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BY Nadine Khalil in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 07 JUL 22

A moment that remains with me from Documenta 15 is not a mental image but a sound. It lured me into the Hübner areal venue where I found Nasida Ria, a group of veiled Indonesian singers and musicians on violins, electric keyboards and bamboo flutes joyously performing modern qasidah, the Arabic music I grew up hearing as a child in Beirut. Their religious, trance-like inflections, which had many of us in the audience spellbound, were familiar, though the language was foreign to me. This sense of estranged familiarity permeated my experience of Documenta 15 – a result of the alienation that comes with being lumped into an expansive, ethnically diverse Global South.

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Nasida Ria's opening performance, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel. Courtesy: the artists; Photograph: Nicolas Wefers

If Documenta is a barometer for currents in the art world, it indicates that change comes slowly. Started in 1955 as a survey of art production after World War II, it wasn’t until 2002 that a non-European curator, the late Okwui Enwezor, was given the reigns. When the Indonesian collective ruangrupa were selected as artistic directors of the quinquennial exhibition, marking the first time a group had held this position, it felt like another breakthrough. They invited 14 core collectives who, in turn, extended that invitation to others, ultimately resulting in a reported 1,500 participants, the majority of whom are based in the Global South. It soon became clear, however, that while this is a decentred exhibition about the Global South, it’s not in/of the Global South. Rather, funded by the government to the tune of EU43 million, Documenta is subject to the historical and legal frameworks specific to Germany – an environment that carries the ghosts of Nazi history and its ideological burdens. Ruangrupa’s notion of the ‘inter-lokal’, which connects the hyperlocal to international networks, is inextricable from these structures of funding, distribution and, ultimately, power.

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Dan Perjovshi, Generosity, Regeneration, Transparency, Independence, Sufficiency, Local Anchor and most of all Humor, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; Photograph: Nicolas Wefers

The collaborative ethos was undermined when Taring Padi’s People’s Justice (2002), a work demonstrating antisemitic tropes, was taken down and other spaces unrelated to the controversy also temporarily closed – including those containing work by the Palestinian collectives Subversive Film and Question of Funding (QoF). At the time of writing, the whole exhibition is mired in a raging debate about antisemitism. Initially sparked in January, when some participants, including QoF, were accused of supporting the BDS movement, which the German government has deemed antisemitic, this contentious discourse has overshadowed the art to such an extent that it seems implausible for Documenta 15 to acquire meaning separate from this interpretation.

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Taring Padi, Sekarang Mereka, Besok Kita (Today they’ve come for them, tomorrow they come for us), 2021, installation view; photo: Frank Sperling

Viewers who missed the festival-like atmosphere of the professional preview will undoubtedly experience a very different show. What will remain are the innocuous hand-drawn mind maps, flow charts and endless protest banners in the main venue of the Fridericianum. Reading like residues of thinking together or didactic open-source documents, depending on your viewpoint, they lay down the language of interconnectivity – ‘ecosystem’, ‘harvest’, ‘friends’ – rooted in the logic of a communal lumbung (rice barn) economy practiced by ruangrupa.

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The Question of Funding hosts Eltiqa, 2022, exhibition view, WH22, Kassel; photo: Nils Klinger

These principles of togetherness and redistribution manifest more concretely in the exhibition’s shared venues. At WH22, for instance, QoF host the Gaza-based collective Eltiqa, whose paintings are each juxtaposed with a timeline that aligns details from its members’ personal lives with a history of international funding in Palestine (or lack thereof). At the Fridericianum, Asia Art Archive’s elegant presentation focuses on the artisanal movement in postcolonial India, feminist art in Thailand and performance art in Southeast Asia, while the Black Archives showcases behind glass vitrines instances of blackface and white supremacy in Dutch books and children’s songs – the archival aesthetic prompting vital questions on how to document the document and decolonize historical systems of knowledge. Alternative economic models were also presented, ranging from QoF’s Dayra (2022) – which uses skills, rather than money, as units of measuring communal wealth on the blockchain – to Marwa Arsanios’s proposal for collective land use in her video Who Is Afraid of Ideology? (2017–ongoing).

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The Black Archives, Black Pasts & Presents: Interwoven Histories of Solidarity, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artists; photo: Frank Sperling

While an astute reimagining of commons is pervasive at Documenta – albeit often through a dry, signpost-like aesthetic – other spaces cultivated a kind of DIY chaos: Nhà Sàn Collective’s architectural assemblages for senseless play (Bến Kassel, Kassel’s Wharf, 2022), for instance, or Agus Nur Amal PMTOH’s musical storytelling at Grimmwelt Kassel (Tritangtu, 2022). Serious subjects were presented in absurd formats, like the experimental photo-novella Borrowed Faces (2022) by Berlin-based Syrian art collective Fehras Publishing Practices, which unfolded in a maze of characters and cartoon bubbles on billboards at Hafenstraße 76. Exploring Cold War publishing and the feminist voices behind the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Movement – which was hugely influential on the then-emerging Non-Aligned Movement – it illustrated these histories using queer narratives and contemporary humour. On the other hand, Safdar Ahmed’s graphic novel Still Alive (2022), a collaboration with his non-profit Refugee Art Project, took a grimmer view of statelessness, and was exhibited at Stadtmuseum Kassel with footage of death-metal music from a band he formed with Iranian refugee Kazem Kazemi, who spent six years in an Australian offshore detention centre on Manus Island.

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Fehras Publishing Practices, Borrowed Faces: A Photo Novel on Publishing Culture, issue no. 3, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photo: Maja Wirkus

With its focus on social experimentation, the community art feel of many of the projects felt, at times, visually underwhelming. Presented within multifunctional and frequently changing art spaces, this Documenta is less a series of exhibitions and more a meta-event where activities – cooking, gardening, partying and communing – occur. Posited against a hard-nosed Western individualism, rangrupa’s vision was to bring sociality into art – life that imitates art rather than the other way around. Yet these convergences may not have been apparent to the average visitor, who, after spending EU38 on a two-day ticket, most likely missed the social kitchens, garden gatherings, Vietnamese sauna or pro-BDSM parties.

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Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture, The Rituals of Things, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artists; Photo: Nicolas Wefers

Still, there were a few gems within the communal offerings, such as Sada (regroup), led by Baghdad-born-artist Rijin Sahakian, who screened films at the Fridericianum by artists who had been part of the now-inactive Baghdad Collective, which supported Iraqi artists between 2011 and 2015. One of them, The Blue Ink Pocket (2022) by Ali Eyal, was a Kafkaesque narrative of a world in which art could travel but people couldn’t, with paintings acting as ghostly witnesses, arriving in parts like dismembered bodies. Also noteworthy is the contribution by *foundationClass*collective, which focuses on migrant perspectives in Germany. They presented work across two venues, from giant, hairy, orifice-like sculptures by Fadi Aljabour to banners featuring instructions on surviving art school.

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*foundationClass*collective, Becoming, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artists; photo: Frank Sperling

There was the magic of ritual too, present in the talismanic objects, oral traditions and co-authored folktales about endangered water in Palestine by Jumana Emil Abboud with her collaborators the Water Diviners (The Unbearable Halfness of Being, 2022) and in the voodoo-influenced, skeletal assemblages made of junkyard scrap and bones by André Eugène, a leading figure in the Haitian collective Atis Rezistans. As documented by Leah Gordon in her 2008 film The Sculptors of Grand Rue, for this group of 1990s Haitian artists, whose works were shown at St. Kunigundis Church – death bleeds into life and the ghetto becomes a living museum of objects and ancestral spirits. In this show of shows by a constellation of collectives, these works were by far the most memorable.

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Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale, 2022, exhibition view, St. Kunigundis Church, Kassel. Courtesy: the artists; photo: Frank Sperling

My last night was spent at a party held by the New Delhi-based Party Office b2b Fadescha, where my entry was given priority over that of my European and American companions. Even though I was ostensibly in a position of privilege, the insider-outsider feeling from the qasidah performance resurfaced: at home in Beirut, I was among people of colour and not distinguishable in the same way; here, the implications of cultural relativism truly registered. South and West Asian art practices, and bodies, can be romanticized and policed when placed in different contexts: welcomed, to an extent, but not on their own terms.

Documenta 15 is on view at various venues across Kassel until 25 September.

Main image: Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale Atis Rezistans, ANN PASE’L PASE, MACHE NAP MACHE (Walk the Walk & Talk the Talk), 2022, performance view, St. Kunigundis, Kassel. Courtesy: the artists; photo: Frank Sperling

Nadine Khalil is a writer, editor and researcher based in Dubai, UAE.

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