BERLIN – The members of ruangrupa, the collective of Indonesian artists leading the next edition of Documenta, have no illusions about the scale of the task at hand. This will be the first time that a group of artists have hosted the five-year contemporary art mega-show – and they are planning it in the midst of a pandemic.
Then, we must take into account the formidable reputation of Documenta.
Curating the exhibition, which is due to take place next summer and fall, is one of the art world’s most coveted tasks due to the freedom it offers and the weight it offers. carries in the definition of the direction of contemporary art. Documenta is also a barometer of changes in the world around it, as demonstrated by a new major exhibition in Berlin.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Farid Rakun, an artist from ruangrupa.
“Documenta: Politics and ArtWhich takes place from Friday to January 9 at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, examines how German politics, in particular, shaped Documenta, which is now in its 15th edition. It also explores how Documenta, in turn, reflected Germany: its post-WWII reluctance to confront the Holocaust, its position on the front lines of the Cold War, its reaction to the youth revolution of the 1960s and, more recently, his and postcolonial anxieties and embracing a globalized world.
The last Documenta, held in 2017, attracted more visitors than the Venice Biennale, but the Deutsches Historisches Museum exhibit takes visitors back to 1955, when the Documenta started on a much smaller scale. At the time, West Germany was emerging from post-war deprivation to become a major economic power, and its government also wanted to secure a global position as a cultural force.
The then West German President, Theodor Heuss – who once said “we cannot create culture with politics, but maybe we can do politics with culture” – agreed. to sponsor an international exhibition to be held in Kassel, a small working-class town close to the border with East Germany.
The show was meant to signal to the world that West Germany had drawn a line under the Nazi era. Art that the Nazis despised as “degenerate” and banned from museums was exhibited at the first Documenta, giving it an official seal of approval.
Yet, as the new Berlin exhibition shows, the first Documenta did not represent such a clear break from the past as the West German government had hoped: ten of the 21 officials who organized this edition were affiliated with the Nazi Party. Among them was art historian Werner Haftmann, who was recruited to the event’s steering committee in part because of his influential book, “Painting in the 20th Century”.
Haftmann’s book states bluntly that none of the German artists whose works the Nazis slandered as “degenerate” were Jewish. Julia Voss, one of the curators of the Berlin exhibition, pointed out during a visit to the exhibition that this was not only wrong – it also meant that under Haftmann’s influence, Documenta had omitted the artists Jews of his rehabilitation of the works avoided. The Holocaust and the artists who died there were not mentioned.
Haftmann also never publicly discussed his membership in the Nazi Party or other sinister elements in his own biography. Recent research shows that Haftmann was involved in brutal acts against resistance fighters during war service in Italy, where he commanded a military unit.
Shortly before the opening of the Berlin exhibition, Carlo Gentile, historian at the University of Cologne, published an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper detailing Haftmann’s involvement in the interrogation and torture of a captive who was later shot dead. Gentile also unearthed newspaper articles in 1946 showing that the Italian government wanted to arrest Haftmann for war crimes.
Gentile said in a video interview that, on the one hand, Haftmann “was just one of many” German intellectuals who supported the Nazis and then assumed important public roles after the war. But “for art historians it has a deeper meaning,” he added. “He’s had a huge influence on how art history is viewed, and that raises a lot of questions. “
The second Documenta, in 1959, was a celebration of abstract art and a clear political declaration of the Cold War. The Museum of Modern Art sent a curator to oversee a section devoted to the United States, but there were few entries from Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, where abstraction was anathema to governments. Communists in power.
Kassel was only 20 miles west of the internal German border. “Documenta turned this to its advantage and presented itself as the last line of cultural defense against the East,” said Lars Bang Larsen, one of the curators of the Deutsches Historisches Museum.
It was not until the sixth edition, in 1977, in the spirit of the old “Ostpolitik” by West German Chancellor Willy Brandt – a policy of detente towards Eastern Europe – which the Documenta showed of the art of Communist East Germany.
Manfred Schneckenburger, artistic director of this edition, invited six East German artists to present paintings in the official government “socialist realist” style. (A work on display in Berlin, “The Victors,” by Willi Sitte, shows the celebration of members of a workers’ brigade.)
In the same edition, artists who had moved from East Germany to the West organized protests in the galleries where these works were exhibited, to draw attention to the restrictions imposed on artists from the east were facing. Schneckenburger denied them access to the site.
Protests had become a regular feature of Documenta from 1968, a year of student uprisings across Europe. Activists called for an “alternative documenta,” on leftist themes, and attacked the show for not mentioning the Vietnam War. In 1987, the New York feminist group Guerrilla Girls asked why Documenta was “95% white and 83% male?” “
Ten years later, when French curator Catherine David became the first woman to lead the 10th edition of Documenta, she turned attention to globalization and decolonization, the dominant themes of Documentas of the new millennium.
Rakun, member ruangrupa, said the Indonesian group had benefited from these recent moves. Until 2019, when ruangrupa was appointed to lead Documenta, “we were still on the periphery,” he said. None of the group members have attended the exhibition before, Rakun said, adding that they wanted to build on the work of predecessors like the Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor, who oversaw the 11th edition as as the first non-European artistic director.
“We are continuing these trajectories,” said Rakun.
Ruangrupa invited other artistic cooperatives with social goals to participate in the exhibition, such as the Wajukuu art project from the poorest neighborhoods of Nairobi, and the Palestinian organization Funding question.
“Our understanding of art is very fluid,” said Rakun. “We want to highlight different practices that can be considered as contemporary art.
The Documenta that the group is putting together has already gone down in history, in a sense, as the first to be planned during a pandemic. It also led to uncertainty as to whether the show could be postponed. The supervisory board is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks on postponing the exhibition for one year, to 2023, said Karoline Köber, spokesperson for Documenta.
Still, Rakun said ruangrupa is working on the basis that the show will go as planned. How it will go down in art history – and history, for that matter – is “beyond our control,” he said. “It will be really interesting to see. “