Documenta fifteen - some after-thoughts
Updated: Jan 8
In and amongst the tote bags, oat milk cappuccinos and cool urban branding is a desire to challenge and undermine the fundamental power structures which perpetuate the elitism of the western art machine. This is never going to happen overnight, nor in the 100 allocated days. This edition of documenta hoped to move art a step closer towards that elusive paradigm shift that will make it more inclusive for the many, not just the few, and present a model that could, perhaps, even be extended beyond the art world. If not a panacea then at least provide a taste, even a large gulp, that another way is possible.
In this quest the ‘curators’ ruangrupa undertake a major exercise in boundary smudging. Core ideas and definitions that have long provided art’s identity parameters are watered down and distorted on a leviathan scale - the art object, how it is experienced, the museum institution, funding structures etc etc. Out, are inwardness, individualism, sole ownership, centralised hierarchy and white western gallery artists. In, are outwardness, solidarity, sharing, rhizomatic networks, the global south and projects.
Art and life, the curators state, should blend seamlessly. You may well come away feeling confused and disoriented, unsure if you are at an arts festival or an NGO human rights convention. You may question whether you are in a functioning factory, playground or community centre rather than a state-run museum. You may wonder whether you should be gazing at the projects on display or actively playing a part in their existence. If these are the thoughts you are having then it is doing its job. Art is not imitating life, life is not even imitating art - both are happening all at once in a hodgepodge of alritfe.
And this philosophy dubbed lumbung goes deep into how the art is selected, which art is selected, how it is funded and administered, the artworks’ authorship, the exhibition spaces, the exhibition duration, the subject matter and the roles of the artist and the spectator.
They do not fit into the existing model of the global art world(s). Documenta fifteen is an attempt to clash these different realities against each other…Different ways of producing art will ask for other ways of being read and understood…functioning in real lives, no longer pursuing mere individual expression, no longer needing to be exhibited as standalone objects or sold to individual collectors and hegemonic state-funded museums. Other ways are possible.
Documenta Fifteen, Handbook.
Dada artist Kurt Schwitters claimed ‘Every age must redeem itself, because it suffers only from itself. But there is nothing that can redeem the spirit of commerce, the spirit of practical construction more than the most useless of all things in the world: art.'
The Dadaists also sought to draw attention to the darkness of the human condition which was ubiquitous at the time. Useless art is of no use at this documenta. Perhaps it has tried and failed. Our condition has little improved. Art for art’s sake is a relic of a post-colonial past. Real life art is the post-colonial present. The works on display are ‘relevant’, engaging with important social and political issues. Struggle and resistance are not a neatly packaged items that operate in some hermetically sealed museum vacuum. They are ongoing processes which are often messy with many sums to their parts and where identities are fluid and confusing. When there are art objects they are often incidental by-products that accompany an explanatory video. They are so representational that they are in fact alive. Subjectivity is sidelined, little is left to the imagination.
In fact, scant time is given to individualism at all. Gratuitous works of self-expression have no place here. Material and technique is only important to the extent it helps convey a plight. The message is the medium. Networks, groups and collectives are what dominate, operating in organically expansive ‘ekosistems’ like a fractal mind-map. The collective need not be made up of trained art practitioners. They might include campaigners, social workers, managers, lawyers and architects. The art lies in the creativity and its process. Individual ownership, an integral part of western capitalist ideology, is harder to pin down in a group which has no appointed director or definable hierarchy. Where there are sole artists it is for the collective good. Networks should be left to grow. A system perhaps more akin to a Hayekian free-market economy then the curators would wish to admit?
The form that rises out from this application does not have any readily identifiable shape, it is fluid, transparent and cell like. Spaces and durations are not fixed, they can be manipulated and adaptable. This allows a penetration into otherwise difficult to reach corners of the world and embrace a huge diversity of language, culture and ideas. Such shape is evident in other areas which are also subject to a process of abstractification where identities flicker and blend more with their environment.
Watered down boundaries are a common companion in the challenge against institutionalised establishments. If we can rub away at the the definitions which allow the injustice to perpetuate then an alternative, fairer version is possible. This process which I term 'abstractification' is not indigenous to the art world. We have been witnessing it taking place over many other profoundly influential phenomenon - the economy, politics, social attitudes, communication and nature. The severe warping of time and space trending in each example is not to be sniffed at.
Could the machine and its market become so undermined for it to be reinvented? Or will moving the goalposts simply do what capitalism thrives of most - grow and expand further, in the way it has always previously every time the rulebook chapters were modified? The market has always found a way to transform even the most intangible into property and ownership. After all, isn't it re-invention which feeds the monster hungry for originality? Distortion and transformation causes resistance. Backlash is the worry and fear from from those who are grounded and depend on 'tradition'. Backlash is therefore also a measure for the success of change.