Kristian Vistrup Madsen at Documenta 15

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DURING THE PREVIEW DAYS, riders on the international art circuit seemed excited about Documenta 15, mostly on the grounds that it was not the Berlin Biennale (“too depressing”) or because they were relieved to no longer be paying ten francs for water at Art Basel. Having gone to neither, I remained unenthused. “But it’s fun!” people said, in reference to the “relational” food offerings, generous beanbagged chill-out zones, and never-ending jam sessions. There were even “quiet rooms” where the fatigued could go and collect themselves, though the only occupied one I saw was being used by a stressed-out museum professional taking a Very Important phone call.

The latest iteration of the famed quinquennial, curated by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, is structured around the idea of the lumbung, Indonesian for “ricebarn.” With its convivial connotations of shared resources, it makes for an at once simple and highly generative premise, but also one prone to the kind of sentimental expressions of collectivity I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. Visitors are met with various visual communication strategies for how to present the good work of the exhibition’s participating collectives. Obligatory, it seemed, were mind maps—a truly extraordinary amount—videos showing interviews with artists and community organizers, and drone shots of where they’re from, as well as flags, posters, and paintings stating the makers’ identities and their political aims.

At the Fridericianum, a children’s area took up half of the first floor, and even the rooms that weren’t explicitly for children had serious Steiner School vibes. Children get aquariums, zoos, amusement parks, and natural history museums, and now they get Documenta, too. “It looks like a degree show,” I muttered, tired—and much of it actually was exactly that; the *foundationClass collective had brought student works from Berlin’s Weißensee academy. Among them, a banner that read: “My biography seems more interesting than my art,” a claim that the exhibition did not disprove. “Don’t you see, it’s the end of the art object,” more sympathetic pre-viewers would say, gleefully, and it’s true that ruangrupa’s Documenta triumphs in not pandering to the art market and its rapacious star-making system. Still, it was with much woe that I’d recall the ontologically dense trinkets that once so excited me, now nowhere to be found. If the idea is to take art out of the symbolic sphere and into a space of real action and impact, the result is that objects communicate, often literally, and that at the cost of some complexity.

My spiraling mood reached its nadir in the nightly “pro-BDSM” parties organized by the New Delhi–based collective Party Office, who, after a botched launch on Wednesday with predictably awkward art professionals tittering feebly around the toys, scrambled to create a safe space by making more and more intricate the matrix of identity that filtered entry to it. Already by Thursday, white cis men were off the list, though exceptions would be made in exchange for avowals of chronic illness or neurodivergence. Safety, of course, is in the eye—or the ear—of the beholder. Personally, I found that the sadomasochism exercised here had no need for whips and harnesses but worked by other, more inane forms of domination and submission. Under different circumstances, I would have read it as a bleak, Nietzschean satire, but this clique was dead serious.

And while on the subject of artificial hells, “lumbung” of course recalled Claire Bishop’s old question of whether rerouting money from art exhibitions is really the best way to fund community organizing. Each of the invited collectives received €25,000 of “seed money,” no strings attached. “It simply helped us keep the house,” said Joachim Hamou of Trampoline House, a place of exchange and education for refugees and undocumented immigrants in Copenhagen, whose efforts were successfully transmitted at the Hübner-Areal. One would hope that such money could be found elsewhere in greater treasuries, but it’s an amazing impact for an art exhibition to make, all the same.

It might have taken a good seventy-two hours, but eventually I started sipping the benevolent Kool-Aid. The interviews with children stuck in Danish detention centers shown by the Trampoline House were moving in their similarity to those from the 1970s with twelve-year-old Palestinian guerilla fighters, featured in the archive of the Subversive Film group. “How long have you been here?” the interviewers ask. “Do you want to go home?” At the same venue, I was reunited with my precious old art ontology in a five-star display of Amol K Patil’s formally tight yet poetic paintings and sculptures. Around us, soft music played from below a makeshift tent where tea was served; there were bratwursts on the grill, and familiar faces lounged in piles of cushions. Could it be that we were having . . . a nice time?

On Saturday, children arrived with their caretakers. As installations that had been vacant for days were finally “activated” by the long-awaited public, it became clear that, while the exhibition does not fan the art market, it does tickle the experience economy. For patrons of all ages, the communitarian fun provides welcome relief from years of accumulated biennial fatigue. (I read the excitement of curators in particular as a symptom of this.) Hanging out under straw umbrellas while ingesting sound bites about the global food crisis is, of course, a far less extragavant spectacle than, say, taking in global warming under Olafur Eliasson’s sun, but it is not so different in terms of the engagement it requires from the audience. As an escape from art’s unpopularity, it might be a little too easy, after all.

In pointed contrast to this child’s play, also on Saturday afternoon, protesters at two adjacent sites in Kassel’s city centerwaved the flags of Israel and Palestine. Following the German parliament’s constitutionally dubious 2019 resolution condemning the BDS movement as anti-Semitic, ruangrupa and Documenta have come under fire for inviting artists with presumed ties to BDS. Everyone from right-wing keyboard warriors, to old-fashioned vandals, to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung have made the show the subject of a full-blown crusade. One consequence of the collapse of the symbolic sphere is that when art bites the hand that feeds it, the powers that be might just bite back. Another is that, as a public event, Documenta becomes flypaper for the conflicting realities of the Bundesrepublik and the derangements that still underpin German guilt-management. Nothing was helped by the recent revelation that a work in the show by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi did indeed feature blatant anti-Semitic imagery. The banner was covered over, and Documenta’s administrators produced a shamefully flimsy statement. So far, ruangrupa hasn’t responded at all.

As if in a final ecstatic torching of irony and self-consciousness, the autonomous art object, and all other late-modernist attachments, Friedrichsplatz lit up for Saturday night’s opening party, where Syria’s premier pop-producer, Rizan Said, delivered hits to thousands of people, myself included, who, it turned out, already knew how to lumbung. On Sunday, while waiting for seed money to rejuvenate the metaphorically scorched land, I went in search of relational food. The Nhà Sàn collective’s Vietnamese picnic and karaoke event was invite-only, but, as per curatorial logic, you just stick around long enough, and someone will offer you their leftovers. I’d finally entered the ricebarn and the menu was pork ribs. They were delicious.

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