documenta 15: a rhizomatic and distributive approach to artmaking

Reflections on the successes and shortcomings of the 2022 edition

Words By Alison Rhoades

It was mid-August before I made it to documenta 15, the German exhibition that takes place just twice per decade. After a trip to Paris the week before, I was worn out from spending the majority of my days trying to prevent my 4-year-old from touching, tipping over, or otherwise defacing or destroying ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. “Don’t touch that!” I would plead, but on reflection, I understood the temptation to run a hand across the ripples of Venus’s marble ribs. And yet, this art was to marvel at as a spectator, an audience member, a non-participant. The tactility, the passage of time, was to be seen but not touched.

Less than a week later, I watched that same 4-year-old engrave her initials into the edge of a skateboarding halfpipe, a mischievous, wistful grin plastered across her face. As she worked, a skilled skater in a cutoff shirt swung through the basin and ricocheted  into the air, pivoted, and whipped around for a splendidly skillful landing. This piece by Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture, The Rituals of Things, was one of a myriad of works where collective participation, creation, and witnessing were the art. Indeed, at documenta 15, curated by the Jakarta-based collective ruangrupa, being part of something – skating, drawing, discussing, and – yes – touching, was the name of the game.

documenta was founded in 1955 by Arnold Bolde, an artist, teacher, and curator who wanted to showcase – or, indeed, document – art that was banned during the Nazi regime. It takes place just twice per decade, always in the industrial yet lush city of Kassel. The story of documenta 15’s emergence goes like this: the documenta curators reached out inviting ruangrupa to make a proposal for documenta 15. ruanpanga declined, instead inviting documenta to be a part of what they call their “ekosistem” of collaboration, collectivity, and long-term sustainability.

Inherent in this action is a retaliation against being “exploited by EU agendas,” as they state in the exhibition handbook. In the spirit of other collectives founded in Indonesia at the same time, their entire practice is based on creating and sustaining communities and sharing ideas, rather than producing an output. Or, perhaps more accurately, the output is the creating, flowing, and sustaining of these communities through collective thought, pedagogy, and even activism. Once documenta accepted their terms, ruangrupa then invited 14 core collectives, who then invited others – making the estimate of artists involved around 1,500 (mostly, but not exclusively, from the Global South).

As the first Asian group or art collective to curate documenta, ruangrupa centered their curatorial concept around the concept of lumbung, a rice barn where a given village or community stores their harvests together as a way to prepare for the future. Importantly, this harvest is managed collectively. This concept was central to how they conceived of the process of making and – to a large extent – funding the exhibition. As they write, “most collectives in the lumbung inter-lokul come from contexts where the state had failed to support the development of infrastructure and a support system for art and culture.” This meant that they invited economists to their early collaborative sessions to come up with ideas on how to distribute the funds in their “pot” in a sustainable way.

The curatorial concept speaks to our interconnected nature as communities, thus asking us to assume a kind of shared authorship and, necessarily, a shared responsibility. As they state in their first press release from February 2019: “If documenta was launched in 1955 to heal war wounds, why shouldn’t we focus documenta fifteen on today’s injuries, especially ones rooted in colonialism, capitalism, or patriarchal structures, and contrast them with partnership-based models that enable people to have a different view of the world.”

Whether they achieved this is, to put it mildly, debatable, particularly with the scandal that ensued after the opening. Murals from the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi were removed due to antisemitic imagery, resulting in curator Sabine Schormann stepping down over the summer (read more on this here). The whole affair is nothing short of tragic and calls into question how effective ruangrupa’s lumbung principle is in practice.

It felt as though the whole city was speckled with art.
documenta fifiteen: Saodat Ismailova, Bibi Seshanbe, 2022, installation view, Fridericianum Kassel, June 11, 2022, Photo: Nicolas Wefers
documenta fifiteen: Saodat Ismailova, Bibi Seshanbe, 2022, installation view, Fridericianum Kassel, June 11, 2022, Photo: Nicolas Wefers

And yet, the idea of artmaking as a rhizomatic, distributive, and distributed process provided a stark and welcome contrast to the monuments of the Western canon I’d seen in Paris the week prior. On our first day, we cozied up on plush mattresses in the Fridericianum (one of the show’s main exhibition spaces) and soaked in Saodat Ismailova’s Chillpa, a video, performance, and installation work centered around the genderless shapeshifters of the same name. Here, 18 other artists were invited to contribute to the installation, and working together as the collective DAVRA Research Group, they produced a publication of essays exploring the concept of Chilltan.

It felt as though the whole city was speckled with art. The main hall of the Fridericianum was decorated with banners from the *foundationClass* collective set against stunning tapestries from the “Out of Egypt” series I–V series by Polish-Romani multidisciplinary artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas. Project Art Works, a collective founded in 1997 and dedicated to the collaborative creative freedom of those with complex support needs, showcased an ongoing installation of paintings and drawings, recreating their studio in Hastings, UK – a beautiful example of how nurturing, care, and artmaking intersect.

The garden of the Orangerie featured ornamental Baroque charm fascinatingly juxtaposed with installations on water shortage in China and the impacts of used-clothing politics and western waste on African countries.

At WH22, I opted to forgo the makeshift BDSM dungeon but was captivated by a showcasing of the Gaza-based collective Eltiqa, whose paintings are displayed along with a timeline of their struggles to acquire funding in Palestine. Further afield, a sound installation in the Frankfurter Straße underpass created by the lumbung artists and members allows passersby to bear witness to the audio of refugee stories. And Rurukids – a place where children and their parents can meet, create, and learn together – offered an inspiring and restful reprieve.

As Harry Burke states in Artforum: “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.” For everyone who engages with this exhibition along with the politics of and surrounding it, this will be a personal and individual task. Personally, I left feeling as conflicted about certain aspects of the exhibition as when I came – but also filled with a deep gratitude for the experience of community, creating, learning, and bearing witness I was invited to partake in.

documenta 15 is on display in Kassel through September 25th.