The Ideal Does Not Exist: We Build It Together: documenta fifteen

The fifteenth edition of documenta centers artistic practices from the Global South that propose other ways of being together. Ruangrupa, the artistic directors, formed as a collective in Indonesia in 2000, after the end of the Suharto military regime. Back then, people had lost their sense of what owning the public meant; under the changing political conditions of reformation, the function of art lay in the creation of spaces for addressing and making visible locally situated, but already global, issues. And their long experience shows: creating spaces for collective assemblies around shared concerns is what this documenta does well. Its epistemology is social and relational; knowledge is not an imposed, detached object but a process that everyone is invited to join in. The exhibition spaces radiate a lounge feel, and the pillows, carpets, screens, and bookshelves are designed for nongkrong (hanging out together)—chilling, yes, but also “staying with the trouble,” daring to endure and linger a little longer, think a bit deeper, and formulate more questions.

For documenta fifteen, ruangrupa invited various initiatives to join in lumbung—their practice of collective sharing inspired by the communal rice barn—who then invited others to invite others, spiraling to more than fifteen hundred participating artists and collectives. Instead of commissioning new artworks or supporting already-existing projects, the brief was “to show the processes that give rise to them.”1 Atis Rezistans (Resistance Artists) and their Ghetto Biennale turned St. Kunigundis Church in Kassel’s less-affluent east into a vibrant space of Vodou cosmology and floating worlds with film screenings, radio recordings, and Henrike Naumann and Bastian Hagedorn’s Museum of Trance (2022) organ. The group exhibition One Day We Shall Celebrate Again at the Fridericianum is a long-term collaborative art project of OFF-Biennale Budapest and the European Roma Institute of Arts and Culture (ERIAC) that pivots on the question, and the supposed unthinkability, of RomaMoMA, a Roma Museum of Contemporary Art. These are only two of many examples in this arena.

In our world, the joys and burdens of modernity are shared unequally, and this documenta holds space for those whose worlds have already ended in multiple ways. Holding space for them to represent themselves on their own terms is as much an aesthetic and formal choice as an ethical one, with political implications. Many have chosen to speak the language of “ethnographic refusal,”2 and not all the works cater to an international audience. Nor should they need to. The kind of art that documenta fifteen offers is relational, processual, and collective. What is proposed is sensing, not making sense. This rubs against established notions of art and invites critics to unlearn their objects—to scrutinize the notion of the artwork as an isolated analytical thing. Art here can no longer be taken for granted as an existing empirical unit lending itself to detached theoretical dissection; it is better experienced as a mode of collectivity.

The value of these practices is situated in relations with communities. Artworks are only nodes in much longer processes that are punctuated, not defined, by documenta. This becomes ever more clear while meandering through the numerous exhibition spaces. At the Fridericianum, El Warcha (“the workshop” in Arabic) brings a DIY woodwork workshop to Kassel, and video screens show children entering another El Warcha workshop space in the Medina neighborhood of Tunis. Agus Nur Amal PMTOH’s Acehnese storytelling is all about educating and entertaining in the face of trauma. At Grimmwelt Kassel, visitors can see Agus spending time and talking to farmers in Aceh, Indonesia; his practice is rooted in communities, and this becomes tangible here. As the artist has been doing in Indonesia, he is holding storytelling workshops with Kassel schoolchildren, for example on the future of the Fulda River.

Food, and the absence of it, is another trope. Next to the uber-popular Nang Yai (Thai shadow puppetry) and skateboarding ramp and dairy farm exchange program of Baan Noorg collective , Britto Arts Trust confronts the messy interconnectedness of food, culture, and geopolitics: rasad (2022) is a food store stocked with shiny white porcelain crabs among metal weapons and embroidered fake-food objects. The uber-dimensional wall mural Chayachhobi (2022) shows an archive of scenes from Bengali social realist cinema on the Bengal famine and plague of 1942, and Re-Visit (2021–22) introduces collaborating communities all over Bangladesh who are struggling with displacement and industrial contamination. Outside documenta Halle, a Bengali kitchen garden invites everyone to volunteer and share recipes. Food, its entanglements with culture, and Islamophobia come into play with Hamja Ahsan’s Theological Positions on Fried Chicken (2022), comprising videos and iterative variations of LED signs, “a universe of competing halal fried chicken franchises,”3 and in Tuấn Mami of Nhà Sàn Collective’s (NSC) Vietnamese Immigrating Garden at WH22, where one also finds a sauna and free haircuts. Looking backward is important to understand differently how we got here, and this documenta features many initiatives that have dedicated the past several decades to just that: Asia Art Archive and Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie (Archives of Women’s Struggles in Algeria) feature objects as well as interviews with those who gave access to their personal archives; The Black Archives brings the legacies of Black Dutch writers to both “collect and enact resistance.”4 Projections on the floor of the Fridericianum raise the question of how we move our bodies through archives but, despite the heaviness of their contents, these archives are not untouchable, and the naturally sunlit space adds to an atmosphere under which collective unlearning becomes a possibility—if we are willing to enter into that conversation.

Presentation and process merge in a documenta that is vulnerable to uncomfortable questions. The Question of Funding is very honest about the fact that cultural practices are never really outside of the systems they critique. LE 18’s A Door to the Sky—or a Plea for Rain (2022) addresses the “exhaustion and (self)-exploitation”5 that often comes with participation in major art events. Why, then, be part of documenta in the first place? The better question is how one can acknowledge determination but refuse definition by these forces.

Amol K Patil’s installation is an extremely thoughtful and nuanced critique of the politics of land and caste. Delicate body-part sculptures of hands that carry out more labor than a human hand can do (a reference to the realities of street cleaners) ; of eyes that see more than is bearable, so they multiply. Sculptures that resemble fields of breathing earth are scattered in the center of the dimly lit exhibition space, and a cassette recorder plays powada protest songs.6 In a video, a cleaner moves through the chawls (five-story social housing complexes for workers built in the early 1900s) of Mumbai, on roller skates. Listening to music, he shuts out the world outside—a world that needs him as a cleaner but doesn’t want him as a human being.

Elsewhere, songs crystallize as space for temporary relief while fighting against too many problems and unthinkable repressions. The Komîna Fîlm a Rojava (Rojava Film Commune), based in the eponymous autonomous region in northern Syria, brings film to communities suffering from forced assimilation. Their film Darên Bi Tenê (The Lonely Trees, 2017) at the Fridericianum is a contagiously joyful celebration of the Kurdish heritage of the Dengbêj, the singing storytellers. And in Seaweed Story (2022), a video by the “visual research band” ikkibawiKrrr, a haenyeo choir of female divers from Jeju Island sings and slowly moves to the rhythms of coastal winds. Photographs of buildings, soil, and trees on the walls and the two-channel video installation Tropics Story (2002) push to the foreground the violence of war and Japanese occupations imprinted on the landscapes.

As an antidote to the assumption of the neoliberal individual, which has been biologically and philosophically disproven, the works in this documenta are rooted in ontological groundings that acknowledge radical interdependency with the more-than-human—landscapes, violent histories, ancestors, spirits, neighbors, futures. Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s “live theater” piece And They Die a Natural Death (2022) transmits the ecosystems of northern Vietnam’s landscapes into an expanded cinema installation of shadow reflections projected on the stone walls of the Rondell, a 1523 built defensive tower that is now inhabited by chilly plants, wind fans, and the eerie sound of the sáo ôi flute. A co-creation between wind data, internet technologies and memories, this multi-sited installation is triggered by location specific data from Vietnam’s Vinh Quang- Tam Da area and inspired by dissident writer Bùi Ngọc Tấn’s novel Tale Told in the Year 2000 (2000), an autobiographical take on the conditions in the detention camps of that specific area in the 1960-70s.

The ideal does not exist: we build it together. Expecting ruangrupa to do all the work is a delusional and cynical romanticization from a distance. Documenta was proposed as a collective rehearsal of other ways of being together. In acknowledging that we all come from very different positionalities of privilege, this edition aspires a space where alterity can be endured and difference is valued. What I have experienced during the opening days still echoes as not-yet-articulated structures of feeling—of joy, community, and hopes for another future for all of us. There have been dances, karaoke, shared meals, conversations, and beginnings of friendships. Exactly what ruangrupa wanted: “Make friends, not art.” Moments of unapologetic and genuine joy run through the exhibition. You can find their traces at FAFSWAG’s forceful celebration of queer and Indigenous being, and in the photographs of the artists of the Womanifesto laughing and bathing in a river in northeastern Thailand.

The establishment treated this documenta with skepticism from its very inception. Accusations of anti-Semitism were already loud on the invitation of the Palestinian collective The Question of Funding before the unveiling of the People’s Justice (2002) banner by Taring Padi, which depicts caricatures that in a German context could easily read as anti-Semitic. The discursive space to differentiate anti-Semitism from a criticism of Israeli politics does not exist in Germany. Documenta already was in crisis, grappling with a Nazi past and the historical exclusion of women and non-whites, before the caricatures ignited a scandal. The absolute dismissal of thousands of important, long-standing, and valuable initiatives because of one admitted mistake is a refusal to truly engage with and accommodate other modes of being, knowing, and engaging with the world.

A closer look at the works in documenta teaches us that agency is “differentially distributed,”7 “enacted”8 and not located in the domain of individual human intent. That the caricatures were not earlier understood as anti-Semitic by Taring Padi, and that they slipped through, is if anything the fault of many, and we would better understand and solve this with and not against each one another. Lumbung, as an approach to our common problems and not a ready-made imperialistically imposed one-size-fits-all solution, has radical potential.

Rosalia Namsai Engchuan is an anthropologist and artist whose work draws on decolonial, multispecies, and queer theory. She has written widely for art and academic publications on contemporary art and epistemic violence, and lectured internationally at Cornell University, Harvard University, HKB Fine Arts, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and Sandberg Institute. Her PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and Friedrich-Alexander University centers on decolonial epistemologies. She has curated screenings and dialogical encounters with un.thai.tled and the Forest Curriculum. She was the 2021 Goethe-Institut fellow at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin.
1    ruangrupa quoted on the back cover of documenta fifteen Handbook 2022.
2    Ethnographic refusal is a placeholder for methods and strategies that critically acknowledge and seek to overcome the colonial baggage inherent in ethnographic representation. See also Kheshti, Roshanak (“Epilogue: Modernity’s Radical Ear and the Sonic Infidelity of Zora Neale Hurston’s Recordings.” In Modernity’s Ear, 125–42. New York University Press, 2020) who used the term to discuss the practice of Zora Neale Hurston, an anthropologist of African American folklore and Simpson, Audra. “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship.” Junctures, no. 9 (December 2007): 67–80. The term itself was first coined by Anthropologist Sherry Ortner (Ortner, Sherry B. “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37, no. 1 (1995): 173–93), who however addressed a lack of ethnographic perspective in resistance studies, ultimately uncritically upholding the practice of ethnography itself.
6    The powada tradition dates back to the thirteenth century and refers to traveling performers praising the gods in kings courts as well as more recently a space for Dalit communities to criticize the caste system. The grandfather and father of the artist were powada performers and the documenta work is an investigation into powada as an ‘anti-colonial working-class musical performance’ (Documenta fifteen Handbook: 54), family histories as well as a collaboration with contemporary powada musicians Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch.
7    The notion of agency “as differentially distributed across a wider range of ontological types” (Bennett 2010: 9) is developed in Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
8    The notion of agency as “an enactment, not something that someone or something has” (Barad 2007: 178) is developed in Barad, Karen Michelle. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

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