Exploring the politics and curatorial vision amidst the documenta fifteen controversy

Gertrude Flentge, one of the curators from the artistic team of documenta fifteen, who was working with ruangrupa since 2000s, comments on the current state of events.

by Daria KravchukPublished on : Jul 26, 2022

Launched back in 1955, documenta was founded as an attempt to bring Germany back into dialogue with the rest of the world after the end of World War II, also to contrast the pain caused by the war in general and specifically policy of ‘entarte Kunst’ during the Nazi regime. With documenta the connection with the international art scene was re-established. documenta is known as an exhibition that goes far beyond a survey of what is currently happening, inviting the attention of the international art world every five years for 100 days into the specific vision of an artistic team. With its contextual methodology it became a place where art can take place.  

documenta fifteen was curated by the Indonesian art collective ruangrupa. For the first time in documenta’s history, artistic direction has been given to an artist collective. ruangrupa has based documenta fifteen upon the values and ideas of lumbung, which is the Indonesian word for a communal rice-barn, where the surplus harvest is stored for the benefit of the community. For ruangrupa, lumbung is not a concept, but a practice, which exists in constant change through interactions between people. As ruangrupa was stating, mission of documenta fifteen was to “heal today’s injuries, especially ones rooted in colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchal structures.” 

The Rituals of Things, 2022, installation view, Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture | documenta fifteen| STIRworld
The Rituals of Things, 2022, installation view, Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture Image: Nicolas Wefers

Intensifying drama around documenta fifteen, caused by the allegations of antisemitism, deinstallation of the work People's Justice by Taring Padi from the Friedrichplatz, withdrawal of Hito Steyerl, resignation of the Head of documenta, Sabine Schormann, appointment of Alexander Farenholtz as the interim director general, indicated that it was time to have yet another look on this sensitive and multifaceted matter. 

This feature is following the principles of lumbung and performs as a platform for the multitude of voices.

Floating System for Snails, 2022, installation view, documenta fifteen:Chang En-Mang | STIRworld
Floating System for Snails, 2022, installation view, documenta fifteen: Chang En-Mang Image: Frank Sperling

On one hand Germany's culture minister, Claudia Roth, announced that documenta comes under greater control of the federal government in light of the anti-semtism row, telling Frankfurter Rundschau: “It is right and necessary that we can now work through how antisemitic imagery could have been exhibited and draw the necessary conclusions for the art exhibition.” On the other - The L'Internationale, which is the common platform for research, debate and communication for the confederation L’Internationale and its partner institutions: MG+MSUM (Ljubljana), Museo Reina Sofía (Madrid), MACBA (Barcelona), M HKA (Antwerp), SALT (Istanbul & Ankara), Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven), MSN (Warsaw) / NCAD (Dublin), HDK-Valand (Gothenburg), “stands in full support of the artists, lumbung partners and the artistic direction of documenta fifteen,” pointing out that “it is saddening and shocking to see the treatment of artists and curators in the exhibition based on division” and commenting that “the aggressive press response in Germany is creating a fearful atmosphere, while the exhibition itself is a joyful proposition for unity”. 

ছায়ািছব (Chayachobi), 2022, installation view, documenta fifteen: Britto Arts Trust | documenta fifteen| STIRworld
ছায়ািছব (Chayachobi), 2022, installation view, documenta fifteen: Britto Arts Trust Image: Nicolas Wefers

Oliver Marchart, Vienna-based political theorist and philosopher, in his essay Hegemony Machines. Documenta X to fifteen and the Politics of Biennalization takes an analytical and provocative look at the last six documenta exhibitions. Marchart describes museums and biennials as national and global hegemony machines that reproduce bourgeois dominant culture, but also make it vulnerable to attack. Talking about documenta fifteen, Marchant says that, “despite its integrative posture and joyous communality, not a single Jewish Israeli artist was invited. It seems there is ‘lumbung’ for all kinds of international groups and individual artists, as well as for the inhabitants of Kassel, but not for Jews from Israel. Everyone seems to be invited to communal ‘sharing’, based on the ruangrupa principle of generosity, but Jews from Israel had never been invited to share.” He also claims, that “What we need to do is, without political naivety, to ‘divide the division’ in a moment where compromise is impossible but enmity unproductive. What do I mean by this? There might be no way ‘to talk’ because of a striking incapability on the side of most participants in the discussion to criticise two things at once: Western-centrism and Israel-related antisemitism.” 

Richard Bell, 2022, installation view | STIRworld
Richard Bell, 2022, installation view Image: Nicolas Wefers

STIR spoke to Gertrude Flentge, one of the curators from the artistic team of documenta fifteen, who was working with ruangrupa since the early 2000s. Together they have built networks called ‘the rain network’ and Arts Collaboratory, which contained pre lumbung ideas. Gertrude Flentge has been involved in developing, hosting and supporting arts and cultural institutions, collectives and networks. In her practice she was working a lot with the themes of inclusion, collaboration, de-centralisation and creating new ecosystems for art making. 

Becoming, 2022, installation view, documenta fifteen: *foundationClass*collective | STIRworld
Becoming, 2022, installation view, documenta fifteen: *foundationClass*collective Image: Frank Sperling

Artistic framework of documenta fifteen was aiming at including the multitude of voices - artist collectives inviting artist collectives, thus creating a horizontal structure of the show, which felt very approachable. It’s questionable, whether such a complex ecosystem should have had some additional monitoring of programming. Flentge describes lumbung as “a way to work together, to support and sustain each other. It is very much about building a collective economy. So, this whole process is based on the set of values, which starts with building trust with each other and then work from values like generosity, humour, transparency, and regeneration. Notions of horizontality and collective governance are very importance for us”. Commenting on the current state of events, Flentge says, that documenta fifteen was “a way to actually govern collectively, not only the resources, but everything that's happening. It's also a kind of a platform, where difficult issues can be discussed with each other. But this, of course, also goes with the notion of us not being in control. Every of these contexts have their own issues. But this would never have been possible if we centralised, would have sat on top and decided on every single step of seeing every single artwork because it's way too much to understand in depth, all the problematic issues that come around.” 

Clever ways of stacking chairs, 2022, installation view, ElWarcha | documenta fifteen| STIRworld
Clever ways of stacking chairs, 2022, installation view, ElWarcha Image: Frank Sperling

Exhibitions nowadays can be seen as means of analysis of contemporaneity. Art is responding to the pressing issues of our time. How can we make exhibitions speak beyond their initial proposal? How to value and evaluate what happens off the curatorial vision? And then there is an afterlife of the exhibition. How do we deal with it and how can we value what happens off the curatorial vision?

Generosity, Regeneration, Transparency,Independence, Sufficiency, Local Anchor and most of all Humor, 2022, installation view, Dan Perjovshi | STIRworld
Generosity, Regeneration, Transparency, Independence, Sufficiency, Local Anchor and most of all Humor, 2022, installation view, Dan Perjovshi Image: Nicolas Wefers

Flentge, taking into consideration all these urgent questions and reflections, commented that, “it was very core to the approach of documenta fifteen. Our curatorial question to the artist was to keep on doing what they are doing, because we have selected them for their practice that is very valuable for their community and their local ecosystem - to find the translation to Kassel and to see how this translation can fit into their practice locally beyond documenta. So, a way of doing that is to not commission works. We recognise the practice that the artist already has, and that is actually the input for an exhibition. It's more a matter of translating this practice to the exhibition, then commissioning an artwork specifically for Kassel. But of course, the relation to Kassel is also a starting point, I think, is really important. It's not a work which is detached from its local context and then brought to a different reality in Kassel, it stays relevant on both levels and therefore it can also live on.”

Whispers of the Bark Beetles, 2022, installation view, Más Arte Más Acción (MAMA) | documenta fifteen| STIRworld
Whispers of the Bark Beetles, 2022, installation view, Más Arte Más Acción (MAMA) Image: Nils Klinger

Further on, she adds, “I think building a lumbung economy is the kind of system that clashes with a very control-based system. And I believe it's very necessary in this world of today to make societies more inclusive, to make us being able to think about alternatives to neoliberal economies, in other words, towards more value driven economies, to go with this notion of trust, horizontality and taking risk. It means mistakes can happen, but this also happens in very control-based societies. It’s more about building the mechanisms of people being able to analyse and discuss what is happening.”

Profile of Gertrude Flentge | documenta fifteen| STIRworld
Profile of Gertrude Flentge Image: Nicolas Wefer

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