Gudskul banner, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 11, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

Gudskul banner, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 11, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

Documenta 15

Gudskul banner, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 11, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

Curated by ruangrupa

“IDEAS ARE TO OBJECTS,” suggested Walter Benjamin, “as constellations are to stars.” This metaphor comes to me as I drift through the Fridericianum, which has been restyled as a school by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, artistic directors of Documenta 15. Etched across the walls on its ground floor are notes and diagrams elaborating the pedagogical methods of Gudskul, an alternative art school devoted to collective practices and ecosystem studies. Founded in Jakarta in 2018 by ruangrupa with fellow collectives Serrum and Grafis Huru Hara, Gudskul is a kind of polestar within the larger firmament of this exhibition. The directors describe it as a “collective of collectives”; they apply the same phrase, with a kind of fractal logic, to the entire show. Judging by the wall texts, Gudskul’s approach to teaching is expansively interrogative: HOW CAN WE DISTRIBUTE OUR KNOWLEDGE? WHAT IS YOUR ROLE IN THE ECOSYSTEM? WHAT DO WE LEARN FROM HANGING OUT?

Such inquiries drive Documenta 15, a sprawling affair that has taken over thirty-two venues in Kassel this summer and seeded further projects across the world. Lumbung, the exhibition’s curatorial framework, is the Indonesian word for “rice barn”—an architectural form found across the archipelago—and a metonym for sustainable harvesting, in which agricultural surpluses are shared. For the curators, it’s at once a guiding principle and an operative method. The group asked fourteen other collectives to co-organize Documenta 15. These lumbung members, as they are known, in turn invited other collectives and artists to participate, culminating in an artist list that numbers in the thousands. By deploying Indonesian ideas, which are emblazoned on posters and mind maps across Kassel, ruangrupa ask their audience to meet them where they are. For instance, we learn that in Indonesian culture, hanging out, or nongkrong, a way of shooting the breeze—often over coffee, for hours at a time—is indispensable to everyday life. The rubric of Documenta 14 was “Learning from Athens”; this Documenta invites visitors not to learn from but to learn with.

It remains to be seen what lessons Documenta 15 will be remembered for. Just two days after its public opening, the quinquennial was rocked by an outcry over anti-Semitic imagery in a vast painted banner by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi installed on Friedrichsplatz. The banner was covered and, amid escalating anger, removed. Ruangrupa apologized for having “collectively failed to spot” the work’s “classical stereotypes of anti-Semitism,” and Taring Padi soon issued their own apology.

This Documenta invites visitors not to learn from but to learn with. It remains to be seen what lessons the exhibition will be remembered for.

In the days that followed, Claudia Roth, Germany’s culture minister, harshly criticized the exhibition and called for “structural reforms” to be overseen by federal organizations. Olaf Scholz, the nation’s chancellor, declared he would not attend the show. Meanwhile, cultural critics pleaded that the scandal not detract from the thousands of other artworks displayed. Yet even this position, sympathetic to ruangrupa and Documenta 15, tempers the central premise of lumbung: that political and ideological differences be addressed through “mutual learning based on respect,” to cite a clearheaded speech read by ruangrupa’s Ade Darmawan in the Bundestag in July.

Perhaps one reason why nongkrong is characteristically unrushed is that building consensus is slow going.

Tuấn Mami, Vietnamese Immigrating Garden, 2022, plants, seeds, wood structures, performance. Installation view, WH22, Kassel. Photo: Nils Klinger.

RUANGRUPA WAS FOUNDED in Jakarta in January 2000, just over a year after the extraordinary ousting of the military general Suharto, leader of the tyrannical New Order government for thirty-one years, in May 1998. Members of ruangrupa and other collectives, like Taring Padi, participated in the groundswell of community organizing that propelled the revival of electoral democracy. Young artists took over spaces—be it a house, in ruangrupa’s case, or a squatted art-school campus, in Taring Padi’s—and turned these into vehicles for exhibitions, conversations, publishing, and other forms of creative pedagogy.

Gudskul Kitchen, set up behind the Fridericianum for the run of Documenta 15, captures this DIY spirit. In this warung, or informal eatery, visitors can enjoy a free meal or join a throng for karaoke. While belting the chorus of Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” I spotted makeshift bunk beds through the windows of the museum’s southeast wing, where visiting artists sleep. These provisions make the point that you can’t create art without sustaining life: The principle is very basic, but it’s one often rendered invisible within the typical structures of arts funding and exhibition-making.

The work of Nhà Sàn Collective is emblematic of the exhibition’s ethos, as a consideration of their affinities with ruangrupa helps to illuminate. This group evolved out of Nhà Sàn Studio, an artist-run space begun by Nguyễn Mạnh Đức and Trần Lươg in Hanoi in 1998. That the initiative was conceived at around the same time as Taring Padi and ruangrupa testifies to the wave of artistic collectivization that followed the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Nhà Sàn Studio (which was shut down by the government in 2011) was a gathering place for the first generation of Vietnamese contemporary artists, who came to prominence as the Communist country transitioned to a market economy. The group are outliers of a kind in their national context—many Vietnamese artists after the collapse of the planned economy embraced individual practices. Documenta 15 solicits reflections on such histories, reminding us that contemporaneity, like modernity, emerges at different times in different nations, while underscoring the complex relationship between liberalization and contemporary art in Southeast Asia.

Until 2020, Nhà Sàn operated out of a Mường stilt house built by Nguyễn as his family home. Nguyễn’s daughter Nguyễn Phương Linh, working with Trương Quế Chi, has repurposed a wooden horse, a vase, and other materials from this house to create A Mangrove Apple Tree, 2022, a sleek installation at the Stadtmuseum. Its dramatic centerpiece is a kinetic sculpture incorporating a bamboo pole. A metallic motor raises this staff, which is the measurement of all units of construction in Mường houses, until it’s almost vertical; it then falls under its own weight, whipping the gray carpet.

Nguyễn Phương Linh and Trương Quễ Chi, A Mangrove Apple Tree, 2022, mixed-media. Installation view, Stadtmuseum, Kassel. Photo: Nils Klinger.

Over at WH22, a courtyard converted into a nightclub, beer garden, and exhibition venue for the run of the exhibition, is collective member Tuấn Mami’s garden of “immigrant plants,” brought from Vietnam to Kassel for the summer. This garden hosts a seed bank as well as an event program run by the collective’s “queer house” (as they brand it; though not advertised, this hostelry accommodates visitors for two to three days for free). On one memorable evening while I was in Kassel, Nguyễn Quốc Thành made a traditional steam sauna by holding a bedsheet over a pot of water boiled with herbs foraged from the banks of Kassel’s Fulda River.

Benjamin’s musing on constellations comes from his esoteric analysis of modernity, Origin of the German Trauerspiel (1928). He proposes that ideas do not emerge in a “continuum of conceptual deductions,” but in groupings of “irreducible multiplicity.” A constellation, in sum, differs radically from a system of classification. Constellations are ideas that hang out together.

Every Documenta since at least Catherine David’s Documenta 10 in 1997 has sought to question, with some tenacity, its institutional foundations. Nonetheless, the reductive epistemological tendencies that Benjamin critiqued in Origin continue to shape museological practice. Museums, even with their expanded, globalized reach, classify and regionalize artistic forms, risking ahistorical abstractions. In contradistinction, the constellation offers a relational model of knowledge production. A Mangrove Apple Tree constellates with readymades, genre-blurring Vietnamese experiments of the 1990s, and traditional Mường architectural practices.

More broadly, ruangrupa conceive of ideas and artworks as living parts of a shared ecosystem. Notably, each collective participating as a lumbung artist received €10,000 ($10,200) in seed money (individuals were given €5,000 each), to be spent as they wish. Nhà Sàn Collective are committing these funds to a new space by Hanoi’s Red River, where they host events throughout the summer. Documenta 15—a constellation of constellations, or cosmos—dismantles the false opposition between textuality and materiality. Site-specific to the Fulda and Red Rivers, Nhà Sàn’s contribution attends to coeval worlds of artistic and social possibility.

View of the exhibition curated by the Question of Funding and Eltiqa, 2022, WH22, Kassel. From left: Mohammad Abusal, Thrones and Flowers 1, 2016; Mohammad Al Hawajri, Guernica Gaza: A Family of Famers - Vincent Van Gogh (1885), 2010–13. Photo: Nils Klinger.

ARTIST, DESIGNER, AND CURATOR Arnold Bode conceived of Documenta as an international survey. Bode, who’d been forced out of his role as a university lecturer in Berlin by the National Socialists in 1933, wished to elevate the avant-garde lineages that had been denounced and banned by the fascist state, and his Weltkunstschau, or world art show, was the first display of modern art in Germany since the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937.

Opening in July 1955, “Documenta. Art of the 20th Century. International Exhibition” attracted 130,000 visitors in one hundred days. It was restaged in 1959, and since 1972 has been held every five years. Though the inaugural Documenta’s international credentials are contestable—most of its participating artists were West German, French, or Italian—the quinquennial became celebrated for expanding art’s global purview, with early iterations, in particular, advancing adviser Werner Haftmann’s thesis of “abstraction as world language.” (Shockingly, Haftmann was last year discovered to have been a member of the Nazi Party and SA.) The project’s lingering Eurocentrism was finally shattered by Documenta 11 in 2002, directed by the late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor. He sketched a vision of what he would soon dub the “postcolonial constellation,” a methodological displacement of time and space through which he set out to destabilize the “sovereign judgment of art history, with its unremitting dimension of universality and totality.”

INLAND’s crafts and workshop materials, date unknown, mixed media. Installation view, Museum of Natural History Ottoneum, Kassel, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

Where Enwezor fastidiously questioned curatorial power relations, ruangrupa test the extent to which curation can be dispersed and decentralized. There is a noticeable inconsistency to the didactic materials presented alongside each installation in Documenta 15. At WH22, a thoughtful presentation of paintings by artists residing in the Gaza Strip, arranged by Gazan collective Eltiqa with Ramallah-based lumbung member the Question of Funding, is embellished by extensive wall labels, leaflets, and even an annotated timeline of historical events since the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948, which features personal anecdotes and highlights the political economy in which the artists operate. In the Ottoneum natural-history museum, an enchanting display of objects relating to rural life in highland Spain by INLAND, a collective working in Madrid, Mallorca, and the northern Spanish mountains, is accompanied by paragraphs on printed placards that read like jotted-down research notes.

Amid this eclecticism, I gravitated toward contributions that conveyed some of the collective’s home environment. INLAND’s presentation was clarified for me by Hito Steyerl’s Animal Spirits, 2022, a video and interactive simulation—which the artist has since withdrawn in response to Documenta’s “refusal to facilitate a sustained and structurally anchored inclusive debate around the exhibition”—that humorously pulls from Keynesian economic jargon and blockchain fintech to frame contemporary challenges to highland sheepherding. The local concerns of Javanese group Jatiwangi art Factory were beautifully animated by an ecstatic event outside the Fridericianum. After the ceramic roof-tile industry in the West Javanese district of Jatiwangi was destroyed by the recession that followed the Asian financial crisis, this group transformed a defunct factory into a community arts hub. Among their multifaceted programming is Rampak Genteng, a triennial festival initiated in 2012, in which instruments fired in the factory’s kiln are played in unison by hundreds of participants. Re-creating this in Kassel, the lumbung member trained a crowd of local people, and some visiting artists, to perform a song titled “Doa Tanah” (Earth Prayer). Its lyrics expressed the oneness of humanity and the land, a connection illustrated by the rhythmic harmony of the terra-cotta instruments.

An astonishing display by the artist Agus Nur Amal PMTOH at the museum Grimmwelt Kassel also illuminates an Indonesian context while looking to hikayat, a Malay romance tradition, to forge a performative ecocriticism. In Aceh, the westernmost province of Indonesia, the style is known as PMTOH, the name a vernacular slurring of the Acehnese term poh tèm (storytelling). For Documenta 15, Agus, who hails from Pulau Weh, a small volcanic island in Aceh, has made videos introducing the work of Gudskul and Jatiwangi art Factory to viewers. Presented as the programming of his zany, self-created television channel, TV Eng Ong, the artist’s monologues, translated into English and German, set the scene for each collective’s work in a manner that entertains and educates.

These videos are accompanied by clusters of everyday items, many of them plastic—colorful umbrellas, disposable water bottles, buckets, a kitchen blender, a small boat—that the artist uses as props. Tacked to the walls are laser-printed pearls of archipelagic wisdom. One reads, “Love is all including nature and hope. It floats and is grounded.” Perhaps the most insightful video is Tri Tangtu, 2022, its title a reference to a Sundanese philosophical principle of interconnectedness. It follows the peripatetic artist as he walks through a rural region in western Java, searching for the Dano spring. His songs, and his conversations with farmers, demonstrate the significance of this water source for the area. Seen holistically, it becomes evident that there is not one sole origin of the water table; it emerges heterogeneously as river and rain.

Jatiwangi art Factory, Soil Ritual, 2021–, soil, brick, samping kebat. Installation view, Hübner-Areal, Kassel, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

BENJAMIN COMPOSED Origin of the German Trauerspiel in the context of the hyperinflation and political polarization of the Weimar Republic. He advises readers against finding a universal ethics in the genre of tragedy, presenting the Trauerspiel as a counterpoint to classical tragedy and positioning the putatively lesser style of Baroque drama as pivotal to comprehending the Germany of his time.

In the German feuilletons, the scandal of Taring Padi’s 2002 banner, People’s Justice, was narrated with the rhetoric of tragedy: Claudia Roth accused Documenta and its curators of betrayal. Documenta 15 initially came under scrutiny in January, when a blog charged the quinquennial with anti-Semitism for its inclusion of artists sympathetic to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The allegations, although spurious, were picked up by the mainstream media, thanks in no small part to a 2019 Bundestag resolution denouncing BDS as anti-Semitic—an increasingly common canard in reactionary attacks on the movement for Palestinian liberation. In May, a series of panels assembled to address “a scandal about a rumor” was canceled amid persistent controversy. Commendably, the curators requested that artworks be judged on their own terms once the show opened.

People’s Justice was in place for just one day prior to the June 18 public opening of Documenta 15. Two days into the exhibition, the firestorm started building as images of two of the banner’s caricatures circulated. The first was a military figure depicted as a pig with a Mossad cap, the second a classically anti-Semitic image of a fanged, red-eyed, cigar-smoking man with sidelocks, an SS insignia stamped on his bowler hat. As crops of these cartoons were disseminated in the press, even staunch defenders of ruangrupa conceded that this iconography was indefensible. Under mounting pressure, Documenta’s director general, Sabine Schormann, left her post in mid-July.

Tragedy is likewise a theme in the writings of another titan of twentieth-century thought, W. E. B. Du Bois. In his seminal Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Du Bois reads the reconstruction of democracy in the United States following the 1865 abolition of slavery as a tragic enterprise. Du Bois was not alone in this regard, as white conservatives also argued that emancipation had failed. Yet while those voices sought to pin this failure on the shortcomings of Black people, Du Bois scathingly exposed the complicity of white-led political institutions in marshaling a “counter-revolution of property.”

Agus Nur Amal PMTOH, Tritangtu, 2022, household objects, mixed media, video. Installation view, Grimmwelt, Kassel. Photo: Nils Klinger.

Du Bois, a Pan-Africanist socialist, was a free-spoken proponent of the internationalist solidarity that would find its defining expression at the Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, just two months before the first Documenta. At Documenta 15, the spirit of Bandung ripples through presentations like the Ghetto Biennale, an installation at Saint Kunigundis Church of mixed-media works by Atis Rezistans (Resistance Artists), a group founded in the late 1990s in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Cofounder André Eugène’s figurative assemblages—which boast ostentatious, machinic phalluses and are constructed from recycled metals, used clothes, and even human skulls—command the space. A floating structure that hangs from the ceiling invokes the cacophonous street map of the Grand Rue neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, where the Ghetto Biennale has been staged since 2009. Texts on wooden boards by the entrance detail Haiti’s history, centering the island’s epochal fight for freedom.

Of all the collectives participating in Documenta 15, it is arguably Taring Padi who most explicitly address the ongoing reverberations of midcentury anticolonial politics. The collective was founded in Yogyakarta in 1998 as Lembaga Budaya Kerakyatan Taring Padi, or the Institute of People-Oriented Culture Taring Padi. Their full moniker echoes the Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakjat, or Institute of People’s Culture, commonly abbreviated as Lekra, the cultural arm of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) from 1950 to 1965. The PKI was one of the strongest parties in the nation in 1965, when its members were mercilessly subjected to a genocide, covertly instigated by the United States and the United Kingdom, that resulted in the murder and imprisonment of upward of a million people and paved the way for a coup d’état that placed Suharto in power.

In the revived climate of free expression following the reformasi, or reformation, as the period following Suharto’s demise is known, groups like Taring Padi dedicated themselves to uncovering the imperial interests responsible for more than three decades of dictatorship in Indonesia. People’s Justice, in fact, is a monumental expression of this project. The twenty-six-by-forty-foot banner depicts a miscellany of figures in ideological conflict, including representatives of agencies such as MI5 defending capitalist interests and the masses united in opposition. As noted above, Taring Padi, like ruangrupa, have apologized for the harm caused by this banner at Documenta 15, stating, “The imagery that we use is never intended as hatred directed at a particular ethnic or religious group. . . . Anti-Semitism does not have a place in our hearts and minds. . . . We . . . recognize now that our imagery has taken on a specific meaning in the historic context of Germany.” The group have underlined that the artwork is a critique of the “militarism and state violence” that marked the New Order. “The banner attempts to expose the complex power relationships that are at play behind these injustices and the erasure of public memory surrounding the Indonesian genocide. . . . Various western democracies, among them our former coloniser, favoured—openly or secretly—[the] military regime. . . . The CIA and other secret services allegedly supplied weapons and intelligence.”

Wayang presents a cosmic order, like Documenta 15, that is busy, noisy, and ardently ambivalent.

The banner chimes with a critique mounted by Lekra in their founding statement of 1950, in which tthey designate the revolution of August 1945, when a fledgling Indonesia declared its independence from the Dutch, as a failure. This polemical assertion was motivated by the analysis that although Indonesians had gained political sovereignty by 1949, they were still dependent upon, and indebted to, global capitalism. Comparable claims can be made of the reformasi, which has been, so far, an imperfect liberalization.

Henrike Naumann and Bastian Hagedorn, The Museum of Trance, 2022, wall unit furniture, organ pipes, CD stands, sound system, sub-woofer, trance composition. Installation view, St. Kunigundis, Kassel. From “Atis Rezistans (Resistance Artists): Ghetto Biennale.” Photo: Frank Sperling.

As a vibrant retrospective of Taring Padi’s banners and posters at Hallenbad Ost evidences, the collective have been committed to antiracism and religious harmony since their conception. How could a group of artists so dedicated to equality produce such an inflammatory image? No easy answer arises. Nonetheless, it might be asked whether this scandal can be read through the frame of more than one dramatic tradition. Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel is, to this day, an instructive lens through which the melancholic arc of European history may be understood. Du Bois’s analysis of the counterrevolution of property as among the principal tragedies of the modern United States is a cornerstone of global understandings of race. Is there a framework, literary or otherwise, that might elucidate democratic failings in the Indonesian context and inform a more complex reading of Documenta 15?

In front of People’s Justice was an installation of hundreds of cardboard puppets. Scores more are to be found on the lawn outside Hallenbad Ost. Most of the puppets were created during participatory workshops and used in performances of wayang, the classical Indonesian puppet drama. Taring Padi have produced wayang kardus (cardboard puppet) performances for two decades, addressing themes of equity and environmental justice.

View of Taring Padi’s 2002 People’s Justice and cardboard figures, Kassel, June 18, 2022. Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images.

Wayang theater is more than a form of entertainment in Indonesia. It’s an expansive metaphor for political and religious life. Frequently, wayang performances rework Sanskrit epics, particularly the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, recasting these ancient narratives to criticize social ills and to promote change. Wayang, in short, presents a cosmic order, like Documenta 15, that is busy, noisy, and ardently ambivalent. It teaches that ethics are not static but must be revised as situations alter. Much of the genre’s drama stems, in tragicomic fashion, from heroes finding themselves compelled to decide between equally harmful choices. A just course of action can only be found through rigorous and nuanced self-reflection.

When self-reflection is forgone, opportunities for learning and unlearning are missed, and this exhibition’s commitments—from the agglomeration of ideas to the sharing of resources—are lost to a porcelain European cultural hegemony. On the ground, the quinquennial asks that we look, think, and do pluralistically. What, then, might it mean to see Documenta 15 through the lenses of both the Trauerspiel and wayang? Analyses that begin here will glimpse, like the recently activated James Webb Space Telescope, a fuller cosmos.

Documenta 15 is on view through September 25.

Harry Burke is a critic and a graduate student in the history of art at Yale University, New Haven.