Editors’ Picks: Six Standout Projects from Documenta 15

From Atis Rezistans's take over of St. Kunigundis Catholic Church to a mesmerizing installation by Nhà Sàn Collective at the Stadtmuseum

BY Andrew Durbin, Patrick Kurth AND Chloe Stead in Critic's Guides | 15 JUL 22

Curated by Indonesian collective ruangrupa, Documenta 15 draws heavily on the concept of lumbung (or 'rice barn'), an economic model based on communal resource sharing and collectivity. In practice, this proposal gave decision-making power to a network of 15 core collectives who, in turn, invited other collectives, ultimately resulting in 1500 participating artists. While this hands-off curatorial approach has not been without controversy – during the opening weekend it was revealed that anti-semitic imagery in a work by Taring Padi had been overlooked by organizers – it has also resulted in a rich exhibition that celebrates work from artists based outside of the usual art world centres.

Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale

St. Kunigundis Catholic Church

Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale, 2022, installation view, documenta fifteen, St. Kunigundis Church, Kassel. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Frank Sperling

Founded in the late 1990s by the sculptors André Eugène and Jean Herald Celeur, Atis Rezistans (Resistance Artists) is a group of artists working in the Grand Rue neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince. Since 2009, they have hosted the Ghetto Biennale (mostly recently in January of this year), which was ‘devised as a response to the lack of international mobility for majority-class artists’, as they write in the online catalogue that they produced for Documenta 15. To date, the Ghetto Biennale has hosted 300 artists in Port-au-Prince, establishing global, intergenerational relationships between collaborators who work in art, literature and music. At the St. Kunigundis Catholic Church in Bettenhausen, Atis Rezistanz has staged an exhibition that is, at turns, haunting and ambitious in its artistic and historical scope. I was captivated by two sculptors in particular: original founder Eugène and Jean Claude Saintilus, both of whom use the human skeleton for its haunting and humorous potential. In Eugène’s Gede Sekey (2009), the suggestive outline of a human body, rising from a narrow coffin decorated with CDs, has been constructed using rusted machine parts, with a tuba-like, almost gun-shaped device jutting from the crotch and an open-mouthed, thrilled-looking human skull plunked atop a long metal neck. There is something weirdly exuberant about what the catalogue describes as Eugène’s fusion of ‘the fetish effigy with an apocalyptic MTV vision’ – as if the depravations of the Anthropocene might someday conclude in a comedic marriage of inconvenience between human and machine.

Other works in this exhibition, which ranges widely in media, are more sombre, including Saintilus’s beautifully morbid and contrasting treatment of the skeleton. Here, the emphasis is on the romantic beauty that obtains to our posthumous form. Elsewhere, artists search both history and the abstractions of contemporary capitalism for ways of understanding how we live now. For instance, Leah Gordon’s ‘Caste Portraits’ (2012) trace ‘the practice of the grading from black and white of skin colour, which marked the extent of racial mixing in 18th-century colonial Haiti’ to demonstrate the ‘lengths the imagination can go to when driven by racial prejudice’. Toward the entrance of the church, Lafleur & Bogaert – an artist duo from Haiti and Belgium, respectively – have installed ‘mobile pharmacies’: flashing, conical sculptures covered in pills on an altar in a nook in the church. — Andrew Durbin, Editor-in-Chief

Nhà Sàn Collective


Nhà Sàn Collective, ‘A Mangrove Apple Tree’, 2022, exhibition view, documenta fifteen, Stadtmuseum Kassel. Courtesy: Nguyễn Phương Linh, Trương Quế Chi, Nguyễn Trần Nam and Nguyễn Thuỷ Tiên; photograph: Nguyễn Phương Linh

Founded in Hanoi in 2013, Nhà Sàn Collective presents work in multiple venues across Kassel, with a room of sculpture at the Stadtmuseum, a garden of migratory plants (with accompanying film and architectural installation) at WH22, and a riff on a Vietnamese bên (wharf) close to the cyclist-pedestrian bridge that spans the Fulda River between the districts of Mitte and Unterneustadt. I was completely mesmerized by the collective’s room at the Stadtmuseum, where subtle works draw on the architectural materials commonly used in the construction of a wharf. Trooping up the cold concrete stairwell to the top floor of the museum, you begin to hear the occasional thwack of something slamming against the floor – a sound both agitating in its periodic disruption of the perfunctory quiet of the institutional setting and siren-like in its allure. What could that be? A work by Nhà Sàn, it turns out, in which a mechanical box with a long bamboo prong attached to it gradually rises before slamming back down onto the floor. (For a Documenta that largely prioritizes participatory projects, a room of sculpture, with very little associated reading material, verged on radical.) Elsewhere in the city, the garden at WH22 offers a meditative space for reflection on cultivation and agricultural heritage, with workshops, film screenings and food, while the bên project hosts discussions, gatherings and workshops. — Andrew Durbin, Editor-in-Chief

Nguyen Trinh Thi


Nguyễn Trinh Thi, And They Die a Natural Death, 2022, installation view, documenta 15, Rondell, Kassel. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Nguyen Anh-Tuan

I almost walked past Nguyen Trinh Thi’s installation, which is tucked away in a section of the Rondell, a 16th century former gun turret located on the banks of the Fulda River. One of very few presentations from a single artist in the exhibition, And They Die a Natural Death (2022) is experienced by stepping through an opening in the ten-metre-thick wall into near-total darkness. In a cordoned off section of the rotunda – flanked by a seating bank accessible via a narrow temporary platform – the artist has lit a selection of chili plants so that their shadows dance across the stone walls. As lovely as the effect is, the cold, damp atmosphere inside the Rondell and the eerie soundscape created by a recording of a sáo ôi flute suggests a darker backstory. Indeed, the piece is inspired by a chapter of Bùi Ngọc Tấn’s autobiographical novel A Tale for 2000 (2010), in which a group of prisoners from a detention camp in North Vietnam take chilis from one of the forests they are forced to toil in – ‘All lunged forward as if they were possessed. Picked. Pulled. Stripped the whole branch of every fruit, including green ones.’ – resulting in the murder of one prisoner at the hands of a guard. When I left the Rondell, an attendant handed me a hardbound book containing translations of the passage in question and pointed back in the direction from which I had come. ‘They used to torture people in there,’ he said with a shudder. — Chloe Stead, Assistant Editor

Trampoline House

Hübner Areal

Trampoline House, Castle in Kassel, 2022, installation view, documenta fifteen, Hübner areal, Kassel. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Frank Sperling

In an exhibition full of squiggly mind maps, the directness of Trampoline House’s presentation really resonated with me. A not-for-profit set up in 2010 by artists, curators, refugee-rights advocates and asylum seekers, the group offers a weekly programme of activities at its space in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro neighbourhood for people who have – as stated on the Documenta website – ‘escaped war, poverty and human-rights abuse’ to help them find ‘new ways to participate in their host country and feel a sense of belonging’. In Kassel, Trampoline House’s multimedia installation Castle in Kassel (2022) launches a blistering attack on the cruelty of the Danish system, which, as explained on a wall decal, purposefully keeps asylum seekers from integrating into society by housing them in locations far from city centres. If asylum isn’t granted, the situation only becomes worse: people ‘lose the right to pocket money and unpaid internships, must move to a deportation centre where [they] are not allowed to cook [their] own food, and must report daily to camp authorities’. The Chain (2022), a video work presented in a living-room setting, shows the real-world effect of these policies on men, women and children. I watched Negin and Abira, two young girls already speaking in Danish-accented English, decry the restrictiveness of life in the camps. ‘I just feel like an animal being controlled in a zoo,’ 11-year-old Abira says. ‘I [want to] have freedom.’ — Chloe Stead, Assistant Editor

 Erick Beltrán 

Museum for Sepulchral Culture

Erick Beltrán, Manifold, 2022, installation view, documenta fifteen, Museum für Sepulkralkultur, Kassel. Courtesy: the artist and Galeria Joan Prats, Barcelona

The Museum for Sepulchral Culture is essentially a crypt of crypts: a cellar for the bygone rites with which (predominantly) German-speaking Christians have marked, mourned and buried their dead. The building’s lower level is a warren of shadowy corners and softly lit alcoves of caskets, fetishes and cerements. The stillness is solemn but unburdensome, the ornaments and their presentations flecked with enough folkloric, gaudy paint to ward off the truly macabre; on display are cults of the dead, not death itself.

Upstairs – past a series of text-printed fabrics spelling out Muslim thanatic ritual and its frequent conflicts with German law – Erick Beltrán has used the skylit atrium to complete a rhyming couplet for the museum’s memento mori. In place of records of death and depictions from antiquity, Manifold (2022) presents the results of a survey the artist carried out among current Kassel residents about the imagery of power. The responses excerpted onto long, overhead banners, across the walls as polygonal calligrams and in a bale of takeaway newsprint are by turns heady and funny: power is an egg; power is a possibility; power is a promise with Rumpelstilzchen or power is the one that tells the story. The word cloud of complementarity and contradiction sticks together in the work’s title figure, derived from the mathematical study of spatial relations, which names both a group of discrete elements and the unified set they make up. The funereal museum completes the idiom: while power cannot be wrangled into a labelled vitrine, it has a vast material surface that can be gathered, named, held up to be seen in the light. — Patrick Kurth, Publishing Trainee

Jumana Emil Abboud

Grimmwelt Kassel

Jumana Emil Abboud, ‘The Unbearable Halfness of Being’, 2022, exhibition view, documenta fifteen, Grimmwelt, Kassel. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Frank Sperling

Next door to the Museum of Sepulchral Culture, Grimmwelt Kassel – designed to resemble one half of an open book – presents a sleek historical narrative of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s other great philological opus, Deutsches Wörterbuch (The German Dictionary): a 330,000-word compendium begun by the brothers in 1838 and published in 32 volumes between 1854 and 1961. The project was backed by state ministries and the academy throughout, spanning unification, the German colonial empire, World War I, Nazism and Cold War partition, as a decidedly national – and nationalistic – undertaking.

Adjacent to this showpiecing, Jumana Emil Abboud’s The Unbearable Halfness of Being (2021) – comprising small sculptures, works on paper and the promise of participatory storytelling – invites a more permeable, less regimented view of the bonds between peoples, lands and languages. Beeswax talismans summon their forms and their charms from two Palestinian folktales, Half-a-Halfling and The Orphans’ Cow (both collected in Speak, Bird, Speak Again, 1989), including a pair of snail shells (‘two halves of forgetfulness’), an okra pod (‘for protection and longevity’) and a broken jar (‘to find lost things’), while the ink outlines and blurred colours of the wall-mounted pictures re-cast the siblinghood in both stories by blending the human and the avian. Addressing her practice to the expropriation of natural springs near Ramallah by Israeli-state settlement, Abboud offers the folktale not as a definitive or singular account, but as a supple, communal and continual medium to remake lost objects and restitute at least their symbolic value to the dispossessed. — Patrick Kurth, Publishing Trainee

Documenta 15 is on view at various exhibition venues and performance spaces in Kassel, Germany until 25 September 2022

Main image: Jumana Emil Abboud, The Unbearable Halfness of Being, 2022, exhibition view, documenta fifteen, Grimmwelt, Kassel. Photograph: Frank Sperling

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.

Patrick Kurth is a writer and editor based in Berlin, as well as the co-founder with Stela Žižak of the poetry publication SELDOM Press.

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.