The Quietus | Features | Craft/Work
Richard Bell, Umbrella Embassy, 2022, installation view: Fridericianum, June 14, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers
Every five years since 1955, the German city of Kassel organizes Documenta, a huge exhibition organized in various places of the agglomeration. Documenta is a showcase for contemporary art with a stellar history and this is its fifteenth iteration. Key artists and key art movements were constantly highlighted and/or introduced to the world in Kassel. Think of Joseph Beuys and his 700 oak trees or Walter de Maria’s kilometer-long brass rod driven into the earth: Land Art, minimalism and ecology intertwine. The 2017 show attracted nearly one million visitors. Documenta gives artists at least two years to conceive and refine their ideas – hence its great reputation for cutting edge projects.
Documenta 15 is curated by an Indonesian art collective called ruangrupa – the lowercase ‘r’ is deliberate. There are many utopian discourses about sharing and trust, generosity and humour: all of this summed up in the “values of lumbung”, a lumbung being a communal rice barn in rural Indonesia where farmers share the surplus harvest. Good and dandy but Documenta 15 has already caused controversy. Accusations of anti-Semitism arose after a banner emblazoned with Nazi symbols and Der Strürmer-stylish caricatures were shown, more of which below. This is Germany, remember, sharing images of swastikas is illegal; Chancellor Olaf Scholz ruled out a visit. So what’s missing? Here are five highlights. Oh, and a final warning about guilt:
The sign planted outside a makeshift building is unequivocal: White Invaders You are Living on Stolen Land. bells Embassy Tent (2013-ongoing) sits in the middle of the city’s main square, Friedrichsplatz. Bell is an Australian native who presents his own work alongside contributions from Meanjin (Brisbane) based organization Digi Youth Arts. Bell’s canvases are among the few oil paintings exhibited at Documenta 15. These, such as Protest (2022) and Floor (2021), feature protests and activists with placards demanding land rights. Harold Thomas’ brilliant design for the Aboriginal flag, with its black and red stripes and yellow sun, features prominently. There is rare humor here too as with acrylic on canvas How to start a book (2022) which sees a guy throwing a volume into what appears to be the Parramatta River in Sydney.
Documenta fifteenth: AtisRezistans| Ghetto Biennale, Henrike Naumann & Bastian Hagedorn, The Museum of Trance, 2022. Installation view, St Kunigundis, Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling
This is a collective based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which specializes in sculpture. Their work fills St. Kunigundis, a desecrated church, and so there is a thrill of transgression, of blasphemy even. We’re talking voodoo, Baron Samedi, zombies… all that scary headless chicken stuff. Skulls, real ones, are stuck on metal assemblies and look like exhumed madmax characters. Many look masculine and have giant phallic protrusions, pipe-like objects. One wonders what outraged students at Imperial would make of it given that it (somehow) surpasses anything Anthony Gormley has done. There are glass bells that work like spells, each filled with all sorts of totem gubbins: multicolored magic items like fishing floats and plastic bananas, synthetic earthworms and badminton birds. Elsewhere there are amulets and talismans, an okra of gris-gris. The works are a celebration of Haitian street culture and spirit keepers in a country otherwise cursed with extreme poverty. It reminded me of Ian Thomson’s empathetic classic Bonjour Blanc: A journey through Haiti’ (1992).
Another collective, this time formed in Seoul, South Korea, as recently as 2021. Monument (2022) is a sandbox-like installation with model buildings and layers of red bauxite, gray phosphate and black ash derived from a type of algae. All of this is said to commemorate the deaths of Korean slaves and miners during World War II. tropical history (2022) is a two-channel video installation and a series of photographs that presents remnants of war following the Japanese occupation of Jeju, Micronesia and Indonesia. There are old command posts, tunnel fortifications and tracks. Do you remember Paul Virilio’s volume Bunker Archeology and the crumbling Nazi fortifications on the Atlantic Wall. Also here is the infamous Suicide Cliff on Tinian Island in the Marianas where Japanese settlers committed suicide in 1944 rather than be captured by the Americans. Nature must work through the remnants of war, however devastating, and we see the jungle reclaiming once disputed territory, a common theme in Cal Flyn’s excellent book. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape.
Documenta XV: Taring Padi, 2022, Bara Solidaritas: Sekarang Mereka, Besok Kita/The Flame of Solidarity: First they came for them, then they came for us, installation view, Hallenbad OSt, Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling
Also in Indonesia, this group was founded in 1998, a year of strong political protest in the country which led to the resignation of dictator Suharto, who had been in power for thirty-one years. Suharto allegedly embezzled between 15 and 30 billion dollars. His invasion of East Timor is believed to have claimed at least 100,000 lives. Taring Padi made life size Wayang Kardus – cardboard puppets used in demonstrations. There are about a thousand displayed in the city. Here’s a woman armed with a tambourine wearing a green Sex Pistols T-shirt, a blue miniskirt and a Batman belt. Pig figurines depicting crony businessmen feature prominently as they knock over suitcases full of cash. Taring Padi makes huge banners in psychedelic colors filled with numbers and details. Crowds against buddies are invited to agitate, educate and organize. Aggressive greed is the target: how long before we see similar messages here in the UK?
Indonesia is a huge country. We are reminded of this in another banner called human earth regarding discrimination against West Papuans. Papuan Lives Matter is the message, a land where 4.3 million people must comply with a 1969 referendum that was only offered to around 1,000 representatives, hand-picked by the Indonesian military. West Papua has the largest gold mine in the world, but a quarter of its population lives below the poverty line. Extrajudicial executions have been reported.
Taring Padi is the team mentioned earlier who became famous for their mural People’s Justice. There was a detail with SS runes on a figure with fangs and sidelocks. The banner was taken down, the collective apologized for the incident, and Documenta 15 chief executive Sabine Schormann resigned.
Founded in Hastings, East Sussex in 1997 by artists Kate Adams and Jonathan Cole. Here we see collaborative works made by over sixty neurodiverse artists. It’s one of Documenta 15’s happiest affairs and features more neo-psychedelia: Michelle Roberts’ Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2016) is a wacky rainbow-colored drawing of creatures, crabs and tractors, trains and birds. There are strange men, all heads with small stick limbs. It would make a great album cover. In cooperation with Atelier Goldstein in Frankfurt, there is also the work of Hans Jörg Georgi who makes cardboard airplanes suspended from the ceiling. They look like clumsy Short Sunderland seaplanes and will appeal to old Airfix heads.
There’s a National Geographic feel to wandering through Documenta 15’s screens: you can easily forget it’s Germany – one minute you’re in Mali, the next in New Zealand, yet another in Lebanon or In Vietnam. But anyone who comes here expecting high technical values and the work of virtuoso painters and sculptors is going to be disappointed. This show is not about the individual but about the collective and activism. There are hundreds of banners and post-its and Venn diagrams. Eyebrows may feel battered by such a punch; there is a lot of information to take in. The tone is sometimes hectoral, even garish – This mess we’re in is your fault! If the old denominational booths had been open at the church showcasing Haitian art, you might have thought to come in and do a quick act of contrition.
Documenta 15 is often more serious than Hemingway and Guevara playing four-ball golf with Ernie Els and Ernie, the guy who drove the fastest milk cart in the West. But its central message is solid. Documenta 15 cries out to us in the West: get by before it’s too late.