Documenta was a whole vibe. Then a scandal killed the buzz.

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Documenta was a whole vibe. Then a scandal killed the buzz.
A detail from “rasad”, an installation by the collective Britto Arts Trust from Dhaka, Bangladesh, part of Documenta 15, in Kassel, Germany, on June 20, 2022. The latest edition of the prestigious international art exhibition Documenta, which takes place every five years, opened last Saturday and runs through mid-September. Felix Schmitt/The New York Times.

by Siddhartha Mitter

KASSEL.- No one knows just how big Documenta 15 is. The latest edition of the prestigious international art exhibition, which takes place every five years here, opened June 18 and runs through mid-September. It resists all the usual metrics.

How many artists? Hard to say. Ruangrupa, the Indonesian collective that is this edition’s artistic director, invited 67 core participants — mostly grouped in collectives themselves — from outside the commercial art world, mainly from the Global South. Each invited group was allocated a budget, which they have used to involve other artists and collectives, so now over 1,000 people are showing work or rotating through Kassel to hold talks, stage performances, tend gardens, share food or otherwise commune and create. The roster has evolved, amoebalike.

How many artworks? Also elusive. It’s not all intangible and temporary: There are paintings, sculptures, drawings and textile works. There is an abundance of excellent video and photo-based projects. But this is not a show for checklists. It is a gathering of archives, a sharing of methods, a festival of experiments. It’s a whole vibe.

It has vegetable plots, a sauna built of plywood and mosquito nets on the lawn of a Baroque castle and a skateboard halfpipe in the main exhibition space, next to a collective printing press. It has a floating stage on the Fulda River (built by Black Quantum Futurism, a collective from Philadelphia) and a DIY wood shop in a central Kassel museum, courtesy of El Warcha, a design studio in Tunisia. It has a kink-friendly club and dungeon set up by Party Office, a collective from Delhi.

With its decentralized approach, Ruangrupa has placed its faith in the collective genius of the participants, in each group’s instincts, choices and knowledge.

To appoint the Indonesian collective was a bold move for the organizers of Documenta, a show that, for all its experimental reputation, is also an institution steeped in the art-world culture of top-down curatorial propositions and governed by German bureaucracy. There were many bumps on the road, but during the recent preview days, a sense of collective elation prevailed.

And then, right after the public opening June 18, came a scandal that has overshadowed the glorious ferment of energies, harshing everyone’s mellow with a sharp dose of historical realism and contemporary Germany politics.

As soon as a clearly antisemitic image with added Holocaust connotations — a figure with a large nose, pointy teeth and sidelocks, decked with an “SS” cap — was spotted in a massive agitprop tableau that had been erected in a central Kassel square, the integrity of Documenta itself, which runs on public funds, came into question.

The incident was infuriatingly avoidable. The mural-like banner by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi dates from 2002; it portrays Indonesian political life as a great battle of oppressors, capitalists and polluters against the people, with ancestors watching. It only went up on the Friedrichsplatz, the show’s hub, at the end of the preview, during which Taring Padi had charmed visitors with hundreds of cardboard puppets in the same square and around town.

Months before Documenta, critics had lobbed advance accusations, notably that participants supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which Germany’s Parliament has declared antisemitic. Before the show was installed, a Palestinian artists group called the Question of Funding was targeted by vandals who broke into and graffitied its exhibition space.

In this combustible climate, some vigilance might have been expected. But from whom? The banner, which apparently went up late because it was being restored, eluded the scrutiny of Ruangrupa, whose members, in an apology, said they had failed to spot the offensive elements. Sabine Schormann, Documenta’s director general, told the newsmagazine Der Spiegel that administrators had not screened any art in advance, out of respect for artistic freedom.

The work has been removed. But for Germany’s establishment, this Documenta is clearly over. A barrage of criticism from politicians and the media has proclaimed the whole exhibition a national embarrassment, called for greater state control of future editions and demanded the resignation of Schormann. The management has now announced that, artistic freedom notwithstanding, Ruangrupa must review the entire show for offensive content with support from the Anne Frank Center in Frankfurt — setting up a battle with artists.

Cloaked in the national Holocaust shame, this Documenta is further clouded by Germany’s sharply pro-Israel position, which many say occludes legitimate Palestinian perspectives.

In a simultaneously unfolding dispute, the Goethe-Institut, a state-funded organization that promotes German culture abroad, last week disinvited a Palestinian writer from a conference, citing his social media comments on Israel.

Documenta has thus become ammunition in ongoing German battles. But the condemnation has extended to the show’s premise of hyperdecentralized curation, which the Taring Padi incident, according to critics, has demonstrated to be invalid.

“An exhibition can only succeed if the individual works are known to a curator who places them in a meaningful, functioning relationship with one another,” Jörg Häntzschel and Catrin Lorsch wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. This Documenta, they concluded, “has made real dialogue between cultures extremely difficult for the foreseeable future.”

Summary judgment has its worth: It says little about the matter being judged, but plenty about the prosecutorial climate. To this viewer at least, the Taring Padi banner clearly includes an antisemitic image; it should not have been shown.

But for the vast constellation of artists here who have nothing to do with this controversy, the swift and comprehensive dismissal of the whole show may prove clarifying. It underscores why collectives are formed in the first place: to create artistic and civic space amid fundamentally hostile systems.

And that, more than “dialogue between cultures,” is what this Documenta delivers. Everywhere in this show are possibilities thrown open: ways of examining the past, or exchanging in the present, that offer grounds for hope; strategies outside the strictures of state and capitalist systems; and fodder for civic imagination.

Archival projects in the exhibition, for instance, stand out for their clarity of purpose — conveying how losing artistic or political history causes harm — and methods of presentation. One comes from the Archives of Women’s Struggles in Algeria, founded in 2019 during a period of upheaval against that country’s ossified political regime.

Its presentation in Kassel isolates a narrow window of mobilization and protest in the late 1980s and early ’90s, in which women played important roles that are diminished in patriarchal histories. The format — with video interviews, slide projections and laminated documents that viewers can carry around — is open and welcoming.

Elsewhere, Le 18, an artists’ group in Marrakesh, has created a lounge and study area rich with Moroccan art books and journals, as well as a DVD library of Moroccan cinema that visitors can watch in a cozy screening area. Asia Art Archive, based in Hong Kong, shares documents from overlooked programs and events in India, Thailand and elsewhere, in an effort to complete gaps in standard art histories.

Some exhibits join archives with concerns of living communities. Centre d’art Waza, a collective in Lubumbashi, Congo, shares its research on late-colonial and independence-era painting and photography collections from the mining region where it is based, but also films made recently with artisanal copper smelters and drawings based on conversations with those workers and their families.

Since 2015, Cao Minghao and Chen Jiajun, based in Chengdu, China, have focused on water systems in their region, working at the hinge of film, community engagement and environmental science; their mini-exhibition in Kassel in an industrial area across the river from the city center is fascinating. A film by Marwa Arsanios, presented nearby, shows efforts to make a section of rural land in Lebanon into a permanent commons, freed from the notion of property.

Canonical art formats don’t fare as badly as rumored. Within the magisterial presentation of OFF-Biennale Budapest are 1970s oil paintings by Janos Balász, and “Birth” (1983), a monumental painting by Tamás Péli portraying the mythical origin of the Roma people. The collective is also showing tapestries by Malgorzata Mirga-Tas; sculpture by Selma Selman using old car parts; and an installation by Robert Gabris in which photographs of simple touch — two hands, two naked shoulders — do all the work of cultural affirmation.

As for the Question of Funding, the bulk of its exhibition is given over to the work of another collective, Eltiqa, from Gaza. The presentation combines Eltiqa’s work — mostly painting — with a timeline of the group’s history that emphasizes its struggle to make space under the conditions of Israeli occupation, collapsed infrastructure and toxic reliance on foreign aid organizations.

This Documenta is didactic in the friendliest way. It invites you to burrow into texts and films, then talk about everything and nothing. Everywhere are sofas, beanbags, chill spaces. There’s a whole conceptual apparatus for this, courtesy of Ruangrupa: Its principle for Documenta is the “lumbung,” or Indonesian collective rice granary; it also encourages “nongkrong,” or the fine art of hanging out.

Much of the show exercises the lightest of touches. There is joy: Witness FAFSWAG, a queer Indigenous collective from New Zealand, with its community photo archive and a fun interactive video installation. There is community cooking by Britto Arts Trust, from Bangladesh. (You can volunteer.) There is flag-making with Serigrafistas Queer, from Argentina, and that group is also turning a weed-strewn lot into a happy prairie.

Making Documenta was hard work for its participating collectives. Some described exhausting Zoom meetings and a collaborative process that seems to have transformed at times into its own onerous bureaucracy. It was worth the effort. We are fortunate to witness so much imagination, so much flourishing.

And it might be the last time, in this format. The German backlash will only comfort skepticism toward this Documenta in the commercial art world. But collectives knew this all along: Systems that host you don’t necessarily like you. They may return from Kassel, if anything, with renewed clarity of purpose. In the meantime, vibe with them, and catch the spirit while you can.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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