Visual Art

This year, documenta fifteen throws tradition out the window to foreground a vision of collective art-making. By Laura Phillips.

documenta fifteen

Installation views from documenta fifteen of the works of Richard Bell.
Installation views from documenta fifteen of the works of Richard Bell.
Credit: Nicolas Wefers

Taking place over 100 days once every five years in the unlikely central German city of Kassel, documenta fifteen is arguably the most anticipated date on the global art calendar. Founded in 1955 in the rubble of postwar West Germany, the exhibition was established to regenerate a city destroyed by war and to project a modern, Western outlook across the border to the German Democratic Republic.

This year, documenta is the first in the quinquennial’s history to be curated by artists from the Asia-Pacific. Ruangrupa, a collective of artists and creatives that formed in Jakarta in 2000, shaped the 15th edition of the exhibition through the practice of “lumbung”, the Indonesian term for a collectively governed rice barn.

Lumbung – sharing the development and distribution of ideas, knowledge, time and money – unfolds as a focus on artistic process rather than a final, commodified product. This approach connects 1500 artists’ and collectives’ work dispersed around the city in more than 32 venues, from Kassel’s traditional exhibition halls to a repurposed former department store, a hotel and even a nightclub. In effect, ruangrupa has transformed Kassel into a lumbung, with a decentralised network of laboratories that question how social, economic and environmental resources are allocated and suggest alternative, community-minded models of creation and distribution.

As the origins of documenta are rooted in soft power, it is seldom without political controversy. This iteration was overshadowed by allegations of anti-Semitism that stemmed from the inclusion of the Ramallah-based Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in the artistic team and an exhibition by Palestinian collective The Question of Funding. A local activist group alleged that both groups had connections to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In April, anti-Islam stickers were posted on the walls of one venue. More disturbingly, three weeks before the opening, WH22 – where The Question of Funding was set to exhibit – was broken into and vandalised with far-right graffiti.

In a public letter published in May, ruangrupa vehemently denied the claims that participating artists were connected to the BDS movement, saying the allegations included multiple factual inaccuracies. Shortly after documenta opened, however, a work unrelated to the original allegations – Indonesian collective Taring Padi’s mural, People’s Justice (2002) – was removed from display in the central Friedrichsplatz because it depicted anti-Semitic tropes.

The mural was condemned by the German government, documenta’s primary funder, and documenta has committed to undertaking a full investigation. While Taring Padi intended to express the struggle of living under the Suharto regime, ruangrupa and the artistic team acknowledged in a series of public apologies that the inclusion of anti-Semitic imagery in the 20-year-old work was a clear oversight.

Documenta aims to be a site where artists invite participants to remember the past, meaningfully engage with the present and shape a more equitable future. It attempts to open space to uncomfortable conversations that question entrenched systems of authority. The controversy demonstrates why these spaces need to be actively mediated.

However, in many ways documenta successfully proposes a dynamic framework for creative development and dissemination. In DIY workshops, patrons are invited to co-create works by writing, recording their thoughts or taking part in the program of discussions in the listening pits that dot the city.

This echoes the “nongkrong” gatherings in the Indonesian lounge rooms and cafes where ruangrupa was born, where artists hung out, played music and tested their ideas, far from the normative constraints of the Western art world. Through this method of informal collaboration, notions of authorship dissolve. Applied at the sprawling scale of documenta, it unites disparate voices from the global south with a focus on local representation and community self-expression.

In the Fridericianum, one of the oldest public museums in Europe, an installation by the Indonesian collective Gudskul transforms the ground floor into a Temujalar School. The term derives from the Indonesian “temu” (meet) and “jalar” (spread). Gudspace (2022), where participants write their reflections and hang them on a wall of collective thoughts, creates a site where people can gather and share their knowledge.

Upstairs, Tunisian collective El Warcha’s installation Clever ways of stacking chairs (2022) takes the form of a “rowdy workshop”. Barely an hour after the exhibition’s opening, three children were on the ground prototyping a chair from broom handles and zip ties. The desired result is fluid, the outcomes shaped by people engaging with each other and experimenting with the materials at hand.

Moving to the urban precinct, Black Grandmother Clock (Oral Futures Booth) (2021) by Black Quantum Futurism asks participants to record a hope for the future in a plush recording booth in the wall of a traffic underpass.

Auckland-based Moana Oceanic collective FAFSWAG provides a virtual platform for audiences to connect with queer Pacific people of colour through tablets and headphones in the Hessisches Landesmuseum. Produced in collaboration with Taika Waititi’s production company, Piki Films, ATUA (2022) is an augmented reality installation that reimagines queer Indigenous identity through the Māori creation story Te Kore.

In Kassel’s Grimmwelt museum, which normally presents the stories of the Brothers Grimm, Agus Nur Amal PMTOH’s work aims to preserve and renew Acehnese storytelling with an installation that uses everyday objects. This spirit of collectivity is presented throughout as a way of life that will influence how collaborative artistic practice is perceived and exhibited well into the future. Refusing capitalist individualism, the curation questions the Western obsession with material symbols of status, and challenges the market-driven expectations of global art events.

In parts of the exhibition, the ethos of equitable distribution moves beyond DIY incubators to interrogate the structures of marginalisation and injustice. Dan Perjovschi extends his The Horizontal Newspaper work to the entry columns of the Fridericianum. The statement “I am not exotic, I am exhausted” frames the museum’s entry, gesturing to works within that explore issues of colonisation, conflict and oppression, from the struggles of women in Algeria to Black emancipation movements in the Netherlands. The focus on dialogue is here intended to be an act of solidarity and healing.

On the facade of the Fridericianum, Indigenous Australian artist Richard Bell has installed digital panels that display an ever-increasing number that represents the money owed to First Nations Australians. Pay the Rent (2022) faces out to a new installation of Embassy (2013–ongoing), which announces itself in the form of a canvas tent with signs reading, “Aboriginal Embassy” and “We Want Land Not Handouts”.

Inside the museum, audiences are greeted by two large-scale works by Bell depicting “the complexities of oppression” experienced by Indigenous Australians. Umbrella Embassy (2021) and Hand-outs Protest (2021) begin a narrative of dispossession that intertwines throughout the exhibition.

Ecology is also a focus. Examining how shared resources are allocated according to commercial interests, a collection of works explores how sustainably minded collective decision-making provides a more equitable alternative. At the entry of documenta Halle, the installation Coal Museum Reflecting Point 2 displays coal as a relic of the past. Ilona Németh’s work, Floating Gardens (2011–2022), questions the control communities have over sustainable food systems, with an installation on the surface of the Fulda River. The Nest Collective’s Return to Sender (2022) in the Karlsaue gardens examines the environmental harm of Kenyan urbanisation with an imposing form fashioned from textile waste.

Immersive and often chaotic, documenta is more experiential festival than staid display. Ruangrupa co-opts audiences into collectively imagining, interrogating and archiving stories that navigate sociopolitical struggles and a rapidly changing climate. It throws tradition out the window and reaffirms the public value of art: to express the complex reality of the human condition and expand our mutual understanding. 

Documenta fifteen continues in Kassel, Germany, until September 25.


VISUAL ART Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until October 3

CINEMA Masterpieces of Ukrainian Cinema

ACMI, Melbourne, July 20 to August 3

OPERA La Traviata

Sydney Opera House, until November 4

THEATRE Jail by Oliver Twist

Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane, July 20-23

FESTIVAL Daminmin Art and Culture Festival

Venues throughout Darwin, July 22-24


FESTIVAL Bastille Festival

Customs House, Sydney, until July 17

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "Documenting change".

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