Khalid Albaih

documenta 15: Platz der Deutschen Einheit (Underpass) 

Photo Jung Me Chai


©월간미술 Wolganmisool monthly art magazine/ Aug 2022

Documenta 15: The Ideal and Reality of Room Bung Worldview

Jung Me Chai

The beginning was hopeful. Indonesian-based collective Ruangrupa was appointed as the artistic director, breaking away from the traditional Western-centric hierarchy, and the atmosphere was elastic. The Documenta organizers probably expected that having a Southeast Asian collective plan the event instead of a European-centric solo exhibition director would alleviate criticism of the event being Western-centric. They also wanted to show different artistic concepts from the Southern Hemisphere rather than the Northern Hemisphere. With this, Ruangrupa presented the Documenta 15 vision, which was anti-central and diverse, with the keyword “room bung” (a place where excess harvest from a community is stored and managed collectively). Also, after 100 days of Documenta 15, they announced their intention to build a self-sustaining and transparent artistic ecosystem that continues to be independent and transparent.

The participant list is difficult to find names of well-known artists. Instead, most are names of collectives based in Southeast Asia or Africa. Rouan Rouan invited 67 collectives and artists from Southeast Asian, African, South American, and Arab cultural organizations, archives, activists, queer groups, and women’s groups. The 67 teams collectively brought along roughly 1500 to 1700 artists. Among the participating artists, approximately 80% are creatives who don’t have a gallery and have never sold their work. There is no “Courtesy” information as commonly found in significant events. It’s a fresh approach.

Since the beginning of this year, the most sensitive issue of anti-Semitism in Germany has begun to emerge in the media. It has been noticed that Jewish and Israeli-born artists have not been invited, and there have been reports that the documentary “Dokumenta 15” can be abused to spread anti-Israel and anti-Semitic positions. After the opening, the media reported that the Indonesian-born collective Taring Padi’s work “People’s Justice” installed at Friedrichsplatz was anti-Semitic, and ultimately the work was removed. In Germany, which is sensitive to anti-Semitism, inevitably, the depiction of Jews with Nazi German SS symbols in part of the work will be a source of considerable controversy. Taring Padi explained that the work was created with the intention of opposing the widespread violence, oppression, and censorship during the 32 years of military dictatorship in Suharto’s government. However, criticism did not subside, and Taring Padi and Ruangrupa concluded the sensitive issue by only releasing an apology statement on their homepage instead of using methods of communication such as discussion and dialogue.

The central role of the Documenta ecosystem, the Museum Fridericianum, has undergone a transformation into a research space where art and daily life are shared, known as the Fridskul, which houses a nursery, library, and dormitory. Fridskul comes from the Fridericianum as a school and is co-organized by the Ruhr University and the public learning space Gudskul. Artists can also reside in this space and participate in open workshops, seminars, and other events. The RURUKIDS, located on the first floor, is a nursery-style space with sandboxes, swings, and other play equipment where babies and parents can spend time together. The area is also used for learning through play, with forums, singing rooms, workshops, and movie screenings.

The Black Archives, which displays over 10,000 books and audiovisual materials, showcases the historical records and personal stories related to the Black liberation movement and black writers, scholars, and activists from the Netherlands. The themes of colonialism, racial discrimination, and economic inequality are shown in the form of audiovisual materials, paintings, drawings, and videos, creating a homely atmosphere. The section showcasing the collections from the Asia Art Archive features mainly Indo-colonial and feminist Thai-related materials, as well as traditional arts.

In the expansive Karlswiese park, with a size of 125 hectares, there is an installation called “Return to Sender” by the Kenyan film, music, fashion, and visual arts group, Nest Collective. The installation is made from clothes donated by the Western world, tied together into a building-like structure. “Return to Sender,” which symbolizes the beautiful architecture of the West and the environmental pollution of Africa, creates a strange contrast.

The Search for Multiple Universes

In front of the Fred Patrol Museum is an installation called the “Tent Embassy” by Richard Bell, an Australian activist and artist. Outside of the tent, a sign reads, “Aboriginal Embassy, white invaders, you are living on stolen land.” The “Tent Embassy” project, which started in 2013, aims to raise awareness and encourage solidarity through the discourse of colonial-modern history and the complex structure of indigenous art, as seen from the perspective of Richard Bell, who was born as an indigenous Kamilaroi of Australia.

Germany’s famous dome of the Documenta Halle building is covered with glass and steel. Visitors must pass through the dark installation “Killing Fear of the Unknown” covered with rusty metal plates reminiscent of the outskirts of Africa to enter the exhibition hall. It is an installation work of the Wajukuu Art Project, based in Nairobi, Kenya. Once you enter the tunnel made of local building material, clay tiles, you will find two sculptures made of combined bicycle pedals and many knives. It is said to be a work inspired by violence that occurs regularly in traditional Masai houses and slums.

The Thai non-profit organization ‘The House’ has created the installation ‘One Thousand Eyes’ in a small village in northern Thailand. The installation consists of a thousand Buddha statues, each with a different facial expression, placed in a rice field. The work reflects the diverse and complex nature of the local community and raises questions about the relationship between individuals and society.

The Britto Arts Trust, which operates an international exchange program and is based in Bangladesh, primarily focuses on Bangladeshi food policy, social and political upheavals, and environmental issues in its work. The vast wall of Documenta Halle features classical Bengali movies depicting food, famine, and war through characters and situations. On the opposite side of the mural, small baskets filled with food ingredients such as milk and fruit made of non-edible materials such as metal and ceramics are depicted.

The installation works of the group, composed of artists Go-gyeol, Kim Joong-won, and George Eun, can be seen at the Naturkundemuseum, Ottoneum, which also serves as a platform for environmental protection and preservation. “Seaweed Story,” which focuses on the Jeju Island hHenyeo, is comprised of sculptures, photos, and videos that seem to condense the world of Haenyeo. “Tropics Story” is a two-channel video work featuring a jungle runway in Micronesia, which was once occupied by Japan, and abandoned caves and graves.

The Spanish Madrid-based group Inland presents projects related to the potential of art, ecological issues, and agricultural economics, including the work of Hito Steyerl, “Animal Spirits.” The exhibit features a video containing cave paintings from Lascaux and 11 plants and glass containers, allowing visitors to experience the pieces from various angles while seated on limestone blocks of chair height scattered throughout the space. The exhibit is natural history museum-like.

The dark space of the Hotel Hessenland, designed by Paul Bode, the brother of Arnold Bode, the founder of the Documenta, is home to the sound-based installation by the MADEYOULOOK collective, composed of academic Molemo Moiloa from Johannesburg and artist Nare Mokgotho. During the colonial rule that lasted over a hundred years, the indigenous people lost their land and were also targeted for oppression and exploitation. By changing the perspective and influence of history and space on us, MADE YOU LOOK raises questions from the observer.

Hamja Ahsan, whose LED advertising board “Halal Fried Chicken” satirizes Islamophobia and religious discrimination, has also been introduced in London Tate Modern and Kwangju Biennale.

The area near Gu Kaesel station has an operating Lolita Bar, although there is also an exhibition at WH22. The QoF (Question of Funding), composed of creative individuals who work in various fields of Palestine, is introducing works by Palestinian authors. The QoF is planning to host events and workshops with Gaza-origin creators. Before the opening, QoF sparked controversy with Taring Padi, and the basement of WH22 gave an impression of being a place for LGBTQ+ and transgender culture, with almost pornographic sex party videos and multimedia works on display.

Refugees and alternative methods

The Benteler district, where factories and manufacturing industries are concentrated in the east of the city, is attracting attention for the first time as a documentary. The Hübner-Areal, which was used as the headquarters of the railway technology manufacturer Hübner, has been converted into an exhibition space. At the entrance of the exhibition hall, there are lumbung Kios, which members and artists of lumbung operate, and several vending machines, where you can also buy goods. It is said that they are trying to find a sustainable alternative economy that can raise income through the sale of products produced by the local economy.

At the Hyberner complex, the works of Trampoline House, consisting of writers, exhibition planners, and activists, have attracted attention. Trampoline House originally started with the aim of providing services such as legal counselling and language classes for refugees who came from Denmark. Trampoline House focuses on Denmark’s refugee system that criminalizes and unfairly treats refugees in their work “Castle in Kassel”. The structure, consisting of carpets, sofas, chairs, vases, televisions, etc., is arranged like a living room and a large circle is drawn around it. “Castle in Kassel,” with its theatrical workshops and debates, is an allegorical representation of discrimination, exclusion, and property rights.

At the Platz der Deutschen Einheit circular pedestrian underpass, the sound installation “The Walls Have Ears” by Khalid Albaih, a Trampoline House artist and civil rights activist from Sudan is installed almost secretly. The speakers installed on the graffiti that was initially in the underpass are covered in a background colour, so you have to concentrate on finding them like a hidden picture game. Next to the speakers installed in the crowded underpass filled with graffiti and street noise, there is a short text. “I am Syrian refugee Mohammed living in Denmark…”

The indoor swimming pool Hallenbad Ost closed in 2007 has a collective Taring Padi artwork installed, causing controversy over anti-Semitism. The entrance of the indoor swimming pool is filled with provocative images and slogans related to various capitalist and social-political themes, including artworks with evocative images and slogans related to various capitalist and political themes. There are more than 100 works on display inside the swimming pool, including large murals, banners, and wooden panel posters.

Church turned into a Voodoo Temple.

Since 2019, the unused St. Kunigundis Kirche church has been covered with works by Haitian artist Atis Rezistans, creating a voodoo-like atmosphere. The entrance of the church is surrounded by columns covered in various talismans. The space is filled with paintings, sculptures, multimedia works, and some installations made from actual human remain, giving the feeling of being in a zombie movie where the frames have frozen.

The works are spread out over 32 locations in the western regions of Mitte, Fulda, and Nordstadt and the eastern region of Bettenhausen, located across the Fulda River from the centre of Kassel. The physical dispersion of exhibition spaces is one of the intentions of decentralization. However, most of the participating artists are from the South and Southeast Asia regions, and their works reflect similar themes and expressions as a result of similar social and cultural experiences. Under the centralized direction of a single exhibition director, the works and events were coordinated. However, the criticism continued. In contrast, the decentralized curating system of Documenta 15 aims to move away from this centralization, but if an unpredictable situation arises, no one takes responsibility. Documenta 15 is less of a major exhibition that can provide new standards for contemporary art worldwide and more of an expression of the desire to improve the southern hemisphere. The difference between the ideals and reality of the worldview is significant.