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Documenta art show faces challenges

Stefan Dege
January 19, 2022

Indonesian collective Ruangrupa, curators of the world-famous contemporary art show, refute accusations of antisemitism. The pandemic is also making planning difficult.

A glittering green statue of a gymnast.
Months before its start, the Documenta art show is already visible in the cityscapeImage: Andreas Fischer/epd-bild

Held every five years in the German city of Kassel, the 2022 Documenta art exhibition will take place from June 18 to September 25.

It will bring in artists from around the world who address in their work today's global challenges — from climate change and digitization to social upheaval and political radicalization.

Yet, in the past few days, the festival itself, which is considered one of the world's most important showcase for contemporary art, has been caught up in its own challenge in the form of a political scandal.

In a blog post, the Kassel Alliance Against Antisemitism accused Ruangrupa, the festival's curator collective from Jakarta, Indonesia, of involving organizations that supported the cultural boycott of Israel or were antisemitic, including a Palestinian group that is said to have spoken out in favor of boycotting Israel in cultural life. German newspaper Die Zeit first reported on the allegations.

The Documenta has firmly rejected the accusations of antisemitism, and have meanwhile obtained support from several experts from the art scene, who called the criticism excessive or unfounded.

Art magazine Monopol, for instance, noted that the initial Zeit report had not looked into the details of the Palestinian group in question — or checked who in that collective was actually invited to the art show — before publishing their story that went on to be widely covered in Germany's media.  

A sign for the 2022 Documenta festival with the name and dates.
The 15th edition of Documenta opens June 18Image: Andreas Fischer/epd-bild

A heated debate

Kassel Mayor Christian Geselle, who is the chairman of the supervisory board of the art show, rejected the allegations against Ruangrupa, citing a "heated debate" that was "not started objectively." 

Still, the accusations prompted worry among German officials.

Germany has "exceptional responsibility towards people of the Jewish faith and the state of Israel," added Geselle.

Federal Culture and Media Commissioner Claudia Roth contacted the sponsors of the Documenta, as well as the state of Hesse and the city of Kassel and urged consultations.

Hesse state Arts Minister Angela Dorn, who is also deputy chairwoman of the Documenta supervisory board, said after a round-table meeting on January 17 that everyone was moving in the same direction and was aware of their responsibilities. Dorn said all agreed that artistic freedom is a "central component of our democratic society" and that this "especially applies when it touches on political discourse."

Even though the Kassel Alliance Against Antisemitism wrote on their blog that Kassel risked becoming a "place of anti-Israeli and antisemitic agitation" during Documenta, the alliance has meanwhile commented on the statement that launched the whole discussion, writing on Facebook on Tuesday, "in no way ... did we accuse the creators or the curators or other contributors of Documenta 15 of general antisemitism."

Nine members of the group Ruangrupa sitting outside
The Jakarta-based art collective Ruangrupa are curating the 2022 DocumentaImage: Gudskul/Jin Panji

Higher costs for this year's show

Beyond this major issue of concern, preparations for Documenta are in full swing. 

The coronavirus pandemic has posed additional challenges, but organizers don't see cancellation as a possibility. "We continue to assume that Documenta will take place as planned," said the festival's chief executive director, Sabine Schormann. 

The budget of €42 million ($51 million), which has already been increased because of additional hygiene and safety measures, must be significantly expanded again.

The contemporary artworks that will be presented at Documenta 15 remain to be seen.

With only five months before the festival begins, few big names have been announced.

Yet Ruangrupa isn't shying away from doing things its own way. In the German local newspaper Asphalt, which is sold by homeless residents, Ruangrupa published a provisional list of participants which includes 14 collectives, organizations and institutions as well as 54 largely unknown artists.

A drawing of an Indonesian rice barn, called a "lumbung" with a description written
A drawing of an Indonesian rice barn, called a "lumbung," which emphasizes sharingImage: Iswanto Hartono/ruangrupa/documenta15

The best place to get insight into the state of planning these days is on the homepage of Documenta 15, which includes photos, descriptions and links to the artists' work, and information about projects and groups that have been invited to present. Examples include the Cuban activists of Instar, who call for social justice and freedom of expression and reference the German philosopher Hannah Arendt

Also present is the Boloho collective from Guangzhou, China, whose works include social projects based on equality, self-discipline and mutual assistance.

The Spanish collective and collaborative agency Inland, which is dedicated to agricultural, social and cultural production — producing a radio show and cheese, among other products — is also on the list.

Berlin-based artists are also taking part, such as author and cartoonist Nino Bulling, whose work deals with racism and right-wing terror, while also questioning human coexistence.

Indonesian rice barn as a model for collaboration

This unique list of artistic guests reflects Ruangrupa's way of thinking and focus on collective work.

For this reason alone, the 2022 show will be different from its 14 predecessors.

Ruangrupa is organizing Documenta 15 with inspiration from the Indonesian concept of "lumbung," a term used to describe communal rice barns in which surplus harvest is stored for the benefit of the community. The group describes "lumbung" as an artistic and economic model rooted in principles such as collectivity, communal resource sharing and equal allocation and has used this model for Documenta 15.

The participants were asked to practice "lumbung" in accordance with the festival's mission statement.

Can Documenta 15 live up to its reputation?

Although it's still a few months away, signs that Documenta 15 is drawing near are already visible around Kassel.

Located in the middle of the city, the RuruHaus is hard to miss with its colorful decorations. The former department store serves as a hub and meeting place during the festival.

The Ruangrupa members even teamed up with local Hütt brewery to produce a beer for the festival.

Although organizers say it's difficult to predict the number of visitors to the event because of the ongoing pandemic, ticket sales started back in September 2021.

It remains to be seen whether this year's Documenta can live up to its reputation. 

This article was originally written in German.