Towards the end of 2020, …Close
Towards the end of 2020, …
Towards the end of 2020, Gerhard Richter announced that he will stop painting. This was not so surprising given his age and extraordinary achievements, but it is perhaps also to be expected for other reasons. Richter is a great artist because he so accurately captured the emotional temperature of the later 20th century in western Europe, and gave it a material, aesthetic sense that served as both representation and witness of Europe’s suffering. It was what the white community needed at that time: an artist that could speak about the past through the present and could make affective images that spoke of loss and disorientation while still being familiar. That he could find his way to heal some of the pain and horror of his time is not only remarkable but did much to repair the possibility of intellectual, thoughtful human life in Europe just when it was in doubt. He remains the crucial artist to pass on the atmosphere of post-1945, post-colonial and ultimately post-socialist Europe to posterity; so, the fact he has stopped painting heralds an end to something more significant than an old man putting away his brushes.
documenta played a major role in that same coming to terms with the past and Richter was himself an important contributor to many previous editions. In the fifties and sixties of the last century, Germany made great efforts to place itself back into the western European mainstream. The Europe that Germany wanted to reclaim was one that aligned itself with the values of modernity and the Enlightenment - values that Germany had apparently reneged on during the NS dictatorship. Modernist culture and events like documenta were a route towards both restoration and redemption. Just as with Richter’s work, documenta is both understandable and crucial in the post-war circumstances. Germany needed to have its cultural past restituted from extreme nationalist capture, just as it also needed to repair its relation to the world. Both processes meant that the country and its remaining citizens had to search their souls in a more profound way than the rest of Europe. The latter, even if it joined in Germany’s economic recovery, stayed largely aloof from the process of reassessing its history, questioning its national identity, and repairing its relationships with others. With hindsight, it is possible to see here the beginnings of the challenges that have now fully developed in our time. The “Never Again” imperative that drove the German urge to re-establish and invest in modern European culture was quite a limited refusal. Never again to extreme nationalism was not framed as a never again to French, Dutch or British imperialism. Instead, the retreat from European Empire was done unwillingly, defensively, and out of economic rather than moral necessity. That is not to deny the voices that called Europe out at the time, such as Aimé Cesaire, but it is to say that the then failure to address the wider legacy of colonial/imperial Europe is the agony that the whole continent faces today.
Beginning with documenta 10, there have been various attempts to address the shift to a wider coming to terms with the past that was becoming apparent from 1989 onwards. As can be seen through the recent launch of the new website Platform6. Documenta11, curated by a team led by Okwui Enwezor, was arguably the most significant of the recent editions. Its claim to significance lies in its rigorous commitment to an expanded geography of art, its large-scale incorporation of the documentary form and its platform model for spreading the potential agency of documenta beyond Kassel. It was also a committed post-colonial exhibition, a crucial if belated step for contemporary art to make at that moment. While post-colonialism has been vital to understand the post-1945 world, its discourse is now giving way to demands for decolonising western institutions and addressing more directly the power imbalances between north and south. This shift is arguably one way to understand what ruangrupa’s appointment could represent.
Already in the last edition of 2017, the spotlight fell intelligently on indigenous art traditions in all their diversity thus beginning the decolonial shift. The mass and power of their presence suggested the possibility of a knowledge system beyond the colonial-modern that might offer a better way forward than looking for an alternative or more equitable modernity. It would be an important task to analyse how each of the past 5 editions have wrestled the idea of the planetary or the global in their structure and politics, but it remains a fact that all of them still departed in some way from the local zero point of 1945, albeit in critical and sometimes devastating ways. They held true to the historic duty of documenta to make amends for the second world war but also limited themselves to a guilty German exceptionalism that is simply not enough to face up to today’s ethical collapse.
I suspect that the current edition of documenta will make a break from this series and usher in a new trajectory. It is certain that no-one will be able to judge what kind of aesthetic solutions the exhibition might provide, indeed I doubt even the members of the curatorial collective ruangrupa will know until some days after its opening, but there are a number of reasons that point towards a different spirit and objective than what documenta publics have come to expect. Instead of asking “who” is selected, the small announcements so far focus attention on the “how” and even the “why” of documenta. The structural innovation of an artists’ collective shaping the show was quickly followed by the promise to bring “Lumbung” or the “commoning” of resources for social well-being to the heart of the curatorial process. The model draws from collective agricultural practice formed on the basis of a mutual dependence that modern individualism has done its best to eliminate. What this means in practice is slowly becoming clear, with 15 Lumbung partners invited to work on their own programmes, invitations and projects within the spirit of sharing resources and sustaining well-being. This practical philosophy can be seen in ruangrupa’s Indonesian projects such as the current Gudskul and Ecosys platforms for education and collaboration. It is also an approach in line with a number of related artistic projects of the recent past that in all their diversity see their task as an ethical one responding to the abuse, exploitation and destitution of life and the environment. There is less focus on pure visuality and more on the way art can help people communicate with life experiences.
By foregrounding the mode of production in all they have done so far, ruangrupa might seem to underplay the value of the exhibition. Those curious as to what documenta fifteen might look like will have to be patient. I suspect the exhibition will be grander and more familiar than expected but, for now, it is maybe more useful to speculate on what it may do to the visitor or to the idea of art, or how it will find ways to take care of its legacy across the world. At its core will be a question that lies at the heart of Rolando Vazquez’ decolonial research: Can a person live an ethical life in a world system that causes suffering to others and destroys the earth? This is surely one of the only really meaningful questions as we approach the second quarter of the 21st century and to answer it in a ruangrupa way – that is full of humour, joy and the manifestation of the good life – could make for a remarkable documenta.
It is not only in its methods that this documenta has the potential to change what art can be in the future. Ruangrupa, as artists and curators, come from a cultural context that is significant in its relation to the modern world ideology that Germany wanted to re-join after 1945. A common narrative would have it that Indonesia came late to modernity held back by an irresponsible Dutch colonial power and only fully embarking on a process of modernisation with the dictatorship of Suharto in 1965. Thus, ways of life and value systems from the past survived and were only recently repressed within living memory. As the total dependence of modernity on the colonial power system has become more visible through the work of decolonial scholars, it is possible to rewrite this history in a way that gives an advantage to those only recently disciplined by modern ideology. The thinking-feeling (sentipensar in Spanish) that decolonial thinkers call on to understand a different sense of the relation and connection between life and matter is also more accessible and tangible in a place like Indonesia. This is not to claim that ruangrupa are naïve or do not know their modernist history but that their context helps them to perceive modern rituals and belief systems for what they are. There artistic leadership of this documenta might then ask Germany and Europe to question the foundations of the modern past not in terms of a national socialist deviation but in terms of a much broader failure of the ideology of colonialism and imperialism to answer the existential questions of life that art has always sought to communicate. In this sense, ruangrupa are continuing the ancient task of art by new means.
Many aspects of the changes suggested here will have traces in other exhibitions and previous documenta editions. There is no claim to originality from ruangrupa but rather to a consistency of approach and commitment to something that might reach back to the earliest origins of documenta. The exhibition began as a museum of 100 days because there was no museum of modern art in Germany at the time. It was a compensation for what didn’t exist and a call to set up the institutions that were needed to embed a free, independent, autonomous modernism in place of the political instrumentalization of culture that had happened before. This call to institute, or set up and maintain, the infrastructure necessary to artistic life is being renewed through the Lumbung system and its partners. If the call to freedom and autonomy still resonates in the contemporary world, the modernist understanding of what they were is no longer persuasive. Freedom and autonomy defined in advance and only available for some by living off the labour of others no longer delivers a world that is inviting or even sustainable. In 2022, the ideas, the structures, and the eco-system of modernity-coloniality have outworn their useful life and need to change. By building and funding networks of mutual dependence among informal organisations and collective artistic initiatives, a “Lumbung” documenta draws attention to this disjuncture. It focuses on the need for a different infrastructure that produces different kinds of artistic outcomes and supports the small projects across the planet to allow the millions coming to Documenta to see what such a world would look like. documenta fifteen is not a survey show of the latest trends that can be discovered in a fixed, defined idea of art but rather a site where art’s modus operandi is redefined and the possibilities for its well-being as part of a more equitable world are laid out before its public.
ruangrupa’s proposal for 2022 opens the way to a documenta that puts art at the heart of what it means today to talk about reforming institutions, building sustainable communities, as well as the restitution and reparation for colonialism that is so urgently needed. With good will, it can even help to put the genie of extreme nationalism back in the box where it belongs. However, to be effective and given the nature of the planetary emergency that is now apparent everywhere, it will need to work on a much wider scale than before and with an even less clear and certain outcome than any documenta since 1955.