KASSEL, Germany — A piano concerto ricochets off the walls of a midcentury train station. A giant, plush dog’s head dwarfs passersby. A circle of young men in matching shorts and cotton socks march behind a woman with a high black ponytail, mimicking her peppy motions around a grassy plaza. A Madonna made of a human skeleton grins from the altar of a church, a gray plastic baby doll clutched against her ribs.
To classify — or quantify — the dizzying sensory and conceptual experience of documenta’s fifteenth summer in Kassel, Germany, demands a mind as open as one’s eyes. No individual artist is lionized; few works by art makers of European descent are on display at all. Erupting with a decolonialist fervor comparable to this year’s Berlin Biennale, documenta fifteen (D15) more loudly — and proudly — eschews Western modes of presentation, curation, and imminent commodification. Organized by Jakarta artist collective ruangrupa, and including over a thousand participants, D15 exalts the collective both in praxis and presentation, turning the traditional European art-scape inside out.
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Unsurprisingly, so many voices vibrating in unison also mean cacophony — the “DIY chaos” and controversy of which critics have already duly covered — from the removal of an anti-Semitic caricature in the epic People’s Justice installation by artist collective Taring Padi to the resignation of documenta director Sabine Schormann and consultant Meron Mendel, head of the Anne Frank Educational Institute in Frankfurt. During my mid-June stroll through the Friedrichsplatz, People’s Justice also featured, among its hundreds of cardboard figures, a cut-out of a woman with billowing lime-green hair that read, “All Lives Matters” [sic], seemingly oblivious to the slogan’s conservative connotations the United States.
As disorienting as this particular encounter felt, the multivalent timbre of D15 proved discordant to my American expectations in all sorts of sublimely insightful ways — ways often in tension with the text-heavy didacticism that dominated several major installations. When explicitly instructed to interpret work as anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, and anti-patriarchal, I found my sensory and intellectual faculties effectively dulled. The most fruitfully jarring artistic disruptions instead unsettle their own settings, stealthily intervening in traditional German institutions or landmarks, often off the beaten track or in spaces not built for art or performance: a factory in industrial Bettenhausen, for instance, or the dark, dank Rondell, a 16th-century defensive tower that once anchored the city’s fortifications. The sculptures, workshops, and site-specific installations blanketing Kassel’s center, as well as its suburban and industrial quarters, almost exclusively by artists from the Global South, serendipitously punctuated — and indeed defined — the documenta experience, delighting and disquieting in equal measure.
On the first night of my visit, a hypnotic concert by Black Quantum Futurism, a Philadelphia-based practice formed by Camae Ayewa and Rasheedah Phillips, echoed off the Fulda river and its bridges, packed with sunset spectators. Combining Afrofuturist spoken word with the jazz instrumentals of Irreversible Entanglements, who played on the bank above, Ayewa and Phillips performed Watch Night Service in honor of Juneteenth. Standing beside Phillips on “The Clepsydra Stage” (2022), a floating formation constructed of two circular clocks that move with the current, Ayewa declared, “To wait in the water … to submerge the Master’s clock, is a revolutionary act within a revolutionary act of escape.”
About two kilometers east of this performance site, in Bettenhausen, Hübner Areal manufacturing plant stretches across an industrial space with more than a few buildings that appear long condemned or uninhabited. Toward the front of the former factory, a tall vertical screen plays the video installation “Smashing Monuments” (2022) by Sebastián Díaz Morales, in which members of ruangrupa verbally address gigantic statues that commemorate historic Jakarta figures and events. As the camera trails the shoes of each speaker, we receive only a clue as to that person’s gender and age. In one video, a 30-something man holds his infant daughter and beseeches a monument for guidance; in another, a 20-something woman expresses ambivalence about her national identity.
At St. Kunigundis, a 1927 edifice tucked behind a stone wall to the east, a traditional Roman Catholic Church is repurposed to dramatic effect by the Haitian artist groups Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale, its interiors and grounds filled with mixed-media sculptures comprised of found materials and urban detritus. Below the 13th station of the cross engraved into the chapel nave hangs a framed photo of three nude women of color, who stoically hold a huge snake. Revolving illuminated plastic totems flank the chapel vestibule filled with votive candles. Skeletal remains scaffold anthropomorphic statues constructed of corroded metal, nails, and iridescent CDs. Signage clarifies that, in Haitian culture, the use of human bones as an art medium is not considered offensive. Under the vaulted arches of St. Kunigundis, the spectacle is breathtaking.
Across the Walter-Lübcke bridge, in a chamber once used for executions, the Rondell houses a light and sound installation by Hanoi-based filmmaker and video artist Nguyễn Trinh Thi. Slowly entering the cramped, caliginous corridor — its stone ceiling cushioned to prevent injury — visitors can barely see the bean bags in the center of the balcony, below which chili plants are arranged to cast a huge forest of shadows onto the turret walls. Moving in sync with the placid sounds of the sáo ôi flute, an Indigenous musical instrument from northern Vietnam, the shadows loom and overlap to the slightest listing of the plant life. A site of historic torture becomes a surprising space of humility and contemplation.
Up the Fulda at Grimmwelt Kassel, a museum dedicated to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, a two-channel animated video installation from Trinidad and Tobago-based collective Alice Yard redefines the brothers’ legacy, whimsically exposing the alienating effects of classic Disney princess culture. Nestled behind a children’s area equipped with a gingerbread house and enchanted forest, Forever a Princess chronicles the adventures of a gangly swan cycling through her own warped woods. Curiously approaching magical portals in her tiny crown, the swan encounters abrupt technicolor renderings of swirling dresses and animal folk from the likes of Cinderella and Snow White. When the gilded doors to both Aladdin’s Sultan’s Palace and Beauty and the Beast’s castle slam in her face, the swan dejectedly seeks out other “princess” signifiers — beguiled by the fantasy that all can aspire to royalty.
Equally hidden, and even more incriminating of imperialist power, is Australian Aboriginal artist Richard Bell’s balloon sculpture outside the basement lavatories of the stately Fridericianum museum, documenta’s main venue since 1955. A bouquet of five heart-shaped mylar balloons and a helium-pumped pig float above a small porcelain urinal placed under the stairs, while a scatter of latex balloons shrivel below. What exactly are we looking at? “Western Art” (2020–22), evidently, in which Bell pays cheeky homage to Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 readymade. Shall we wryly recycle the canon, as Bell seems to suggest, or it is time to finally flush it away? In the spirit of ruangrupa’s goal to “create a globally oriented, collaborative and interdisciplinary art and culture platform,” the latter extreme might not be necessary. Deflating Western egos, on the other hand? Absolutely crucial.
Documenta 15 continues at various venues in Kassel, Germany, through September 25. It was curated by ruangrupa.