Friendship is in vogue of late, as the theme of a 2019 issue of Artforum; a 2021 group show at Chicago’s Renaissance Society titled “Smashing into my heart”; and the subject of a 2016 performance piece, Carolyn Lazard’s Support System, during which visitors brought dozens of bouquets to the artist, who was on bed rest. While some of these projects simply uncover the social circuitry that links the arts, others point to something more transformative by surveying networks of relations that cut across privatized institutions, couples, and nuclear families as they model alternative paths for intimacy, support, and accomplice-ship.
At Documenta 15, in a space occupied by Cinema Caravan and Takashi Kuribayashi, the words NO ART MAKE FRIENDS appear on a chalkboard, providing the theme for this edition of the quinquennial, organized by the collective ruangrupa. The curators describe friendship as mutual support, or nongkrong, an Indonesian term for “hanging out together,” and lumbung, the rice barn in which harvest surplus is exchanged and bonds are forged. Framing their curatorial method as decentralized resource distribution, ruangrupa chose core artists and collectives who then invited their own communities, resulting in a rhizomatic roster of around 1,500 participants. Less a sprawling art exhibition, this edition is more a celebration of experimental social constructions.
Ruangrupa is the first collective to serve as Documenta artistic directors. Formed in the dense, syncretic urban atmosphere of Jakarta at the turn of the millennium, amid the rebellious highs of the reformasi era that followed the ouster of Suharto’s New Order regime, the group of mostly college dropouts prefers folk traditions and lived experience to the cogitations of academic theory. As writer David Teh put it in his 2012 article “Who Cares a Lot? Ruangrupa as Curatorship” in Afterall, they embrace a “punk xerox DIY culture that dovetails with a neo-Situationism that was de rigeur at the couch-surfing stratum of global art in the early 2000s.” This description perfectly encapsulates the group’s vision for Documenta, where visitors will find a graffitied skateboard halfpipe by Baan Noorg Collaborative, an open woodshop for “rowdy prototyping” by El Warcha, and Serigrafistas Queer’s conversion of a defunct lot into a lounge area with streamer canopies and makeshift beds. Even when presenting works more readily recognizable as art, the exhibition design suggests an anti-fetishist attitude: errant seats of flipped milk crates encircle video screens, labels affixed with tape or hung at random heights.
That art is inseparable from life is an undeniable principle at this Documenta. In the Hallenbad Ost building, the Javanese collective Taring Padi displays 20 years’ worth of agitprop materials, with cardboard paintings of workers and peasants brandishing wrenches and scythes at protests, accompanied by photographs documenting the events to emphasize their lives outside of white cubes. Many installations require activation, and each night during opening week, friends from Morocco, Cambodia, and Tobago gathered in the courtyard of the venue, WH22, with laughter, music, and cigarette smoke swirling.
Friendship-as-praxis is tricky: it’s subjective, exclusionary by nature, and, in some cases, a veil for nepotism. But participants in this Documenta—predominantly from outside major cultural and economic centers—are less cliques based on intergenerational wealth or MFA cohorts, and more groups that have long collaborated without funding or fanfare. They have convened to address specific local needs by creating social organizations where they were absent. The publication Chimurenga in Cape Town, for example, developed a new season of Radio Freedom, a broadcast program on pan-African liberation movements; and Nha San, a collective founded in Hanoi in 1998, invited more than 50 members of local art scenes to partake in communal living activities in WH22.
Ruangrupa itself exemplifies the friends-cum-cultural-organizers model. As a nonhierarchical collective, their method of nongkrong encompasses not only hanging out but also self-organizing. Their Jakarta headquarters, replicated at Documenta, is an exhibition and studio space but also a clubhouse where people converse, collaborate, and hash out conflicts over meals, karaoke, and loose assemblies. Many of the projects in the exhibition prioritize the exchange of services, resources, and knowledge, like the public day care offered by Brazilian artist Graziela Kunsch or the Britto Arts Trust Bengali kitchen, which presents cuisines from 100 nationalities over 100 days. During Documenta, the Fridericianum serves as a center for self-organized education models, where groups like The Black Archives and Keleketla! Library exhibit open-ended research initiatives with library-style displays, bookshelves, and floods of wall text.
The show calls to mind a concept that art historian John Roberts described in a 2017 lecture as “art of the commons,” or forms of collaborative and participatory exchange that fall between artistic practice and political struggle. To Roberts, the privatization of common life is as ideological as it is economic, and making these practices social helps build defenses against self-alienation.
One of the strongest aspects of this Documenta is that it makes plain the ways that the commons of the Global South are being eroded by actions of the “Global North.” The Nest Collective’s installation of trash, for instance, conveys what the fashion industry has discarded in Nairobi and Kenya; Centre d’art Waza’s work about the Congolese Copperbelt likewise addresses the extraction of human and natural resources. Among center-periphery relations, the concept of “interdependence” takes on a more adversarial register.
In her 2004 denouncement of relational art, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” Claire Bishop suggests that the practice’s democratic claims are disingenuous; they often force harmony, whereas democratization of the public sphere occurs when conflicts are not erased but instead confronted. She writes that Rirkrit Tiravanija’s landmark performances that involve cooking pad Thai have no “inherent friction.”
Though an exhibition with plenty of relations (and plenty of cooking), inherent frictions riddle Documenta 15. When the Documenta organization funded by the City of Kassel and the State of Hesse announced ruangrupa’s appointment as artistic director in 2019, the Hessian Minister for Science and Art lauded the decision as “consciously giving room to the non-European view of the art world.” Referencing Documenta’s beginnings as a postwar enterprise, ruangrupa stated that they wished to address “today’s injuries, especially ones rooted in colonialism, capitalism, or patriarchal structures.” But this noble aim conflicts with the disposition of the organization behind Documenta itself, which was created to engineer new national identity and assert geopolitical clout. (When Documenta began in 1955, Kassel was an attractive choice for its proximity to the East German border and thus, its influence beyond it in the Eastern Bloc.) The exhibition’s $51 million in funding comes from city and federal stakeholders who occasionally flex executive power over matters of content and aesthetic form. How do these terms predetermine ruangrupa’s agency in the task at hand?
Perhaps the most searing friction is that caused by the exhibition’s pluralist, decolonial values mixing with Germany’s Eurocentrism and guarded relationship to its own past. Long before Documenta opened, there had been simmering accusations of anti-Semitism (due to the inclusion of Palestinian collective The Question of Funding and other participants who allegedly support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement). When Taring Padi’s 2002 mural People’s Justice was installed on the Friedrichsplatz square on June 18, visitors spotted and reported details that confirmed suspicions. The mural included an orthodox Jewish character with sidelocks, fangs, red eyes, and a bowler hat bearing the Nazi insignia SS; elsewhere, a soldier bearing a pig’s face wore a scarf adorned with the Star of David and a helmet that reads MOSSAD. The images were swiftly propagated within the German media and condemned by authorities from the Israeli Embassy to Kassel’s mayor and Germany’s commissioner for culture. After first being covered by a black drape, the mural was later chaotically dismantled in a punitory spectacle.
Ruangrupa and Taring Padi issued public apologies for brushing against the painful histories enmeshed with the elements in question. Appearing in front of the German Parliament on July 6, ruangrupa member Ade Darmawan explained that People’s Justice responds to the Indonesian history of Suharto’s military dictatorship and its accompanying 1965 anti-Communist genocide. This point does not trivialize the offending elements, but it does propose an approach akin to what historian Michael Rothberg terms “multidirectional memory,” referring to the ways that histories of extreme violence confront each other in the public sphere. Rothberg appealed to the mural’s context in the newspaper Berliner Zeitung, writing that, taken as a critique of militarism, the Star of David is likely less a symbol of Jewish identity than of Israel’s aiding the Suharto regime. Rothberg added that a reflexive read would also consider the arrival of anti-Semitic tropes in Indonesia—likely during Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation, or through the Dutch-supported presence of German Nazis in the 1930s—as a lesson in the surprising and contradictory ways that colonialism, anti-Semitism, and genocide are entangled.
Documenta 15 may have unwittingly become collateral in Germany’s memory wars. But the unsafe conditions for Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, and other minority artists—who have faced a barrage of vandalism, harassment, and threats by authorities and extremist factions―point to failings of the institution. After repeated requests to leadership for protection were ignored, many artists, such as Delhi’s Party Office, have fled Kassel. Hamja Ahsan, whose installations of LED signs from various halal fried chicken franchises examine Islamic and decolonial histories, told me of extreme harassment that turned “what should have been the best time of my life” into the “most terrifying.” Ruangrupa had conceived of advocacy as not only representational but material, but the organizational mismanagement undermined their efforts.
As Darmawan contrasted in his Parliament speech, the interrogative and censoring climate is the opposite of the values lumbung stands for: “mutual learning based on respect.” While Documenta 15 delivered on its promise of a “non-European view” of the world and a multidirectional exhibition from the Global South not only in theme but in method, the shambolic and prosecutorial reactions to it only affirm the hegemonic absurdities the exhibition was responding to in the first place.
Correction, 8/8/21, 5:10 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that details in Taring Pad’s 2002 mural were first spotted by the blog Bündnis gegen Antisemitismus Kassel. They were first spotted by visitors who then reported them.