I’m playing chess against myself at the Fridericianum in Kassel. Colourful sofas, toys, and hammocks, gathered together under the name Gudskul, turn the space into something resembling relational art for kids. A few art critics are looking on. The game has been collectivised with four different sets of pieces, but no one sits down to challenge me. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s (1881–1942) legendary chess player became insane after splitting himself into two players; I’m trying to split myself into four. How is this going to end? Has the divided self become the new black? A reaction to an increasingly collectivised and identity-fluid art world?
At the fifteenth edition of Documenta, the individualistic model of the star curator has been cast aside in favour of the Indonesian artist collective ruangrupa. At the press conference in Kassel’s football stadium, artists cheered from the stands as soon as someone from ruangrupa began to speak, in a sort of collective narcissism which escalated in a cheerful performance by the artist Agus Nur Amal Pmtoh. He practices Tri Tangtu, a spiritual and object-based form of storytelling aimed at children. But of course.
Ruangrupa has invited fourteen artist collectives, who in turn have invited several other artist collectives. After being invited by Documenta’s management, ruangrupa in turn invited Documenta’s management. It is about a redistribution of resources, and the invited artist collectives have received EUR 25,000 each to relocate the activities they perform in their home countries to Kassel. At the heart of everything is networking, but also pedagogy. The galleries are filled with expounding texts and mind maps. In Indonesian, it’s called lumbung: a communal barn used to store the rice harvest, a confluence of sustenance and conviviality. The message is clear: the time of the authoritarian star curator is over. It has been replaced by what we might, for lack of a better concept, call “invitational art.”
Some 1,500 artists are participating. At the press conference, ruangrupa said that it would discover the exhibition along with the visitors. No wonder there is a lack of focus and coherence. “Is this art or political activism?” a colleague asks. “Where is the art?” asks another. This is not about turning life into art, like the dandies did two centuries ago, but about creating spaces where the question “but is it art?” becomes irrelevant. Aesthetics doesn’t matter anymore, ethics does. But that does not stop the exhibition from looking like an archive of collective art or a stage design for a play that is yet to be performed. The usual benches and chairs have been replaced with sofas and bean bags. Some of the art critics are asleep, which in itself can probably be considered an act of criticism. The entire Documenta is an exercise in horizontality, which is good for both our backs and our egos. “Make friends, not art,” it says on one of the many wall displays.
I zigzag between androgynous cyborg shamans engaged in dance battles that the audience can vote for (FAFSWAG), skateboard along the Documenta Halle’s graffiti covered ramps among Thai shadow puppeteers (Baan Noorg), participate in a tea ceremony with musicians and puppet designers from Mali (Festival sur le Niger) and drink beer at the Ghetto Biennale at St. Kunigundis church, together with Haitian voodoo artists who have filled the space with the skeletons of their ancestors (Atis Rezistans). Some skeletons are dressed in Virgin Mary paraphernalia, while others appear as soldiers or pirates with bayonets and pistols at the ready. The latter look like they’re from a dystopian film somewhere in the borderland between Mad Max and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Although these sympathetic gatherings can be said to contribute to a “re-enchantment of life,” to use Silvia Federici’s concept, it is impossible to ignore the spectacularisation of the domestic and the folkloric. Several art-critic colleagues claim that the Western art intelligentsia’s craze for exoticism is a new form of colonialism. Whether they dare to put that in print remains to be seen, but I’m inclined to agree. My curator friends, on the other hand, claim that the gap between “us” and “them” becomes smaller if you stop “watching” and instead interact with the collectives – which many critics refuse to do.
Personally, I see the belief that the gap can be overcome through interaction as an illusion that the West has been saddled with ever since Rousseau’s thoughts on “the noble savage.” No matter how fascinated I am by the Malian puppeteer Yaya Coulibaly’s stories about divine dolls that can protect us from evil spirits, I am convinced that it will take several decades before the art world can completely free itself from the West’s hegemonic criteria of taste. It’s hardly something that can be done in a few days by jumping from one culture pot to another in a multicultural shopping centre of this kind.
But it’s a nice thought by ruangrupa – too nice, maybe. Where are the works that challenge our Eurocentric gaze or sabotage our inability to seriously think and feel in polytheistic or totemic paths? All that is offered are one or two films made collectively (without certain names outshining the others) and some Indonesian concepts to undermine the globalized art world’s lingua franca, English.
What is most striking to me is the lack of discursive platforms. Not least considering the conflict that has arisen around the artist collective The Question of Funding, which has been accused of being anti-Semitic. The accusation was based on the fact that some of the participating Palestinian artists have supported the international BDS movement, which calls for a cultural boycott of Israel. Why didn’t ruangrupa offer a platform where we could debate all this? That, if anything, could have contributed to a decentralisation of the art world’s autarkic dimensions and create unexpected friendships.
Another thing that strikes me is the lack of sex and eroticism, which could have been a link to the “make love, not war” energies of the 1960s and 70s counterculture. But there are exceptions. In the basement of Documenta’s main bar, Party Office B2B Fadescha offers crip and kink activities with cages, whips, and dog leashes. The result is a cross between a Dario Argento film, a gymnasium, a Masonic lodge, and a kind of bureaucratic sorting of people. One of the parties is only for women, BIPOC, and transgender people. My colleague, who is perceived as a man is allowed to enter, but only if I “take responsibility for him.” What is this kind of pejorative gender essentialism really good for? Wouldn’t true lumbung-thinking be focused on our similarities rather than our differences?
I’m conflicted and wrestle with myself. Part of me finds Documenta 15 fantastic, the beginning of a new decolonial era, even. Historically, only one former Documenta curator, Okwui Enwezor, was from a non-Western continent, but he was educated in the Western stronghold of the diaspora. Another part of me finds the exhibition too flat, muddled, childish, and nostalgic for the 1990s – a revival of something that the art world tired of a long time ago, but is now warming up to as we are emerging from a pandemic.
But to love Documenta 15 simply because we survived Covid would be a critical collapse. At the same time, I would not mind moving to Kassel for the duration of the exhibition to seriously immerse myself in the customs and desires of each collective and then form my own little lumbung and leave the centre of the art world never to return. Which, of course, sounds even less inviting than a traditional curator-led exhibition.
Yet, among the works I really managed to appreciate during my few days in Kassel was Pınar Öğrenci’s dizzyingly beautiful film about Kurds and Armenians living side by side in Müküs, a snow-capped village in Anatolia where Stefan Zweig’s short story about a chess game without a winner becomes a symbol for survival in harsh living conditions. A farmer lists his sheep and describes their inherent characteristics with a love that I think few of us have felt for either animals or humans. In the background are the ghosts of the Armenian genocide, which Turkey has yet to acknowledge, as well as contemporary dangers and new persecutions, which Öğrenci presents as equally inevitable natural phenomena.
Hito Steyerl does the exact opposite. Within the framework of the “collaborative agency” Inland, she has created an AI-animated Palaeolithic cave that recalls both Lascaux and Plato’s parable. The world of appearances consists of a film about bagpipe-playing shepherds who have created a new cryptocurrency based on cheese. They are filmed with the same pomp and circumstance as a Eurovision Song Contest entry, but the naive ethno-Romanticism is disturbed by a cynical wolf cult conducting a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” experiment. It’s a perfect critique of our self-critical time, because who are the fittest today? The self-aware ones. The artist duo The Randomroutines has taken this in an even more self-analytical direction. Its fragmented film, shown in a barn, depicts a couple of people trying to merge into a common dream in order to answer the seemingly simple, but oh so difficult question: “Why don’t we live the way we want to?”
These three films deserve days of joint analysis and discussion, a “lumbung critique” perhaps, where different perspectives could be set against each other, and be written together to collectivise the last bastion of the West – the critical subject. Instead, I feel inadequate, not least when I talk about memories from my communist childhood with my Romanian compatriot, the artist Dan Perjovschi, whose breathtakingly funny and powerful drawings about the situation in the world today are scattered across Kassel’s buildings and streets. One drawing shows a couple of people carrying a plank across an abyss, so that others can walk from one side to the other. My memories of people risking their lives making jokes in the endless bread lines are just a fantasy, a dream I’ve conjured after the fact, Perjovschi claims. He’s probably right. We spin around in laughter, agreeing that while we share a common language, we still live on different planets.
It’s an important thought, one that reminds me of the fact than cultures don’t always unify. People are discontent and fundamentally lonely, scared, and deeply unsatisfied in civilisation. How can art help? In quite a few ways. Art is what it has always been: both a poison and a remedy: a pharmakon. But perhaps it’s time to leave the Greeks’ neurotic relationship to the arts for a more engaging and conciliatory lumbung. A lumbung that welcomes everyone, especially those who need it most.