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Personal Remarks on Documenta 15

Written by Geraldus K. Martimbang | Master Student of Architecture, TU München

I. Documenta fifteen

Documenta started in 1955, with the initial purpose of showing “documentation” (which name then derives to be “documenta”) of works of modern arts which got censored by the Nationalsozialismus regime. Ever since the themes of the artworks and purpose of documenta have varied and would still undergo innovative developments in coming time.  Documenta takes place every five years and has become the biggest and the most anticipated art exhibition Germany wide as well as globally. In 2019 the directory board of documenta decided for ruangrupa, a Jakarta based artist collective to curate the 15th documenta of this year. A decision which has always been regarded as radical and controversial, since ruangrupa is so far the first curatorial teams originating from Asia and the first artist collective to curate the event. As have the previous documentas been, documenta 15 has proven to provide the art world an unexpected spectacle which strongly represents the “Global South” and alternative ways of making arts collectively. 

Unlike normal art exhibitions, documenta 15 doesn’t have any specific theme or issue which all invited artist shall follow and conceptualise their artworks for. As Ade Dermawan, one of the nine main members of ruangrupa, explained, documenta 15 organises itself around the typology of art making, which is the collective practice. All the invited artists are collectives. They are also non-commercial collectives, whose works do not go into auctions; they are mainly collectives with strong localities doing practices in their own geo-cultural contexts to encounter certain problems at their places. Each of them embodies certain values which are contrary to the stereotypical values of capitalistic practices. Those values, as collected and canonised officially in one of the documenta 15’s publications, are humour, generosity, curiosity, sufficiency, independence, local anchoring, transparency, and regeneration; values which are closely related to our lives and have resulted indeed in honest artworks which do not try to pretend to be academic art.

Ruangrupa then introduced lumbung which we all know means a place where people in the villages collect their harvests to share them with the whole inhabitants. Lumbung then functions as the analogy of the collectivistic approach of resource management and sharing between the participating collectives in terms of money, space, and even join works. Participation is also encouraged for the visitors, having in many spots in the whole exhibitions clearly the chance to contribute to the making of the artworks within the exhibition, thereby deconstructing the dichotomy of visitors and artists. (For example, you could play an instrument in front of a performance video, you could paint and make own your artwork and hang it in a room where you can find all materials to make it, and so on). This is the core collectivist approach of making arts: no one cannot really claim to be the sole, individual creator of the works. Documenta 15 hereby challenges the “methodological individualism” in artwork creations, which Bhabha designates much as ideological, by showing another working approach for making art collaboratively.

In total, documenta 15 involves around 1500 artists who are members of around 70 invited collectives. Ruangrupa has also mentioned many times, that these networks of collectives shall not stop collaborating after documenta ends, but shall work together again to create other works collectively based on collectivistic lumbung resource management. It is rendered possible, because all of the different collectives, though they are different in their practices, contexts, methods, artistic approaches, and so on, have nevertheless motives in common: they manifest into art things, themes, phenomenons, catastrophes, sufferings, experiences of human, animals, plants, or environments which are not so much heard. Their artworks belong to the realm of political art, meaning art that attempts to change certain situations in the world which are intertwined with politics and power. Among those themes are the faith of indigenous people, living under authoritarian regimes, ecosystems destruction, lives of people with mental disabilities, the issue of Palestine, and so on. 

Yet, what make their works special are their sincere and personal approaches in delivering their voices. The artworks showcased in documenta 15 today are not those types of “academic” arts, which are produced by schooled artists and are often incomprehensible by visitors out of their high level of abstraction, on which art historians or theorists will then write and praise them theoretically in the newspapers or art magazines. On the contrary, the locally rootedness of the scenes displayed by the artworks in documenta 15 compliment so much the ideas meant by the artists; their works become authentic, since forms and ideas become inseparable. It is impossible to talk about only the ideas behind the appearances of the their artworks, without talking at the same time about the formal decisions and the activities of each collectives; the case which normally happens with “academic art”–let us call it this way for the lack of a better word–, in which the artist’s intentions and ideas have to be deciphered first in abstract words of art historians and then become understood by readers. The opposite was true. Though many artworks are even presented in neither German nor English, people could still understand and get some “lessons” from them. 

II. A personal feeling of proudness

Sincerely, after attending and enjoying so much the exhibitions, a certain hope for Indonesia arises in my heart. An Indonesian artist collective has managed to organise, curate, and make the whole exhibition and side activities of a world class level. (Ruangrupa has actually been around also in international art scenes; documenta 15 is by no means their first big occasion. You can check it in their website, all their works in archives). Documenta 15 has been so far, after 50 days of the 100 days of its activity, visited by around 400.000 German and international visitors. And everywhere in the exhibition, Indonesia is represented like no times before in any international events I have seen in Germany. A lot of hybrid Indonesian-local words are used officially, such as “majelis”, “nongkrong”, “sobat”, “warung kopi”, “lumbung”, “ekosistem”, “gado-gado” etc., and those words circulate within the art discourses lead by the much read German art magazines and newspaper as well. Indonesia which is normally only known to be a cheap tourists destination for European people now presents their collectivist, locally rooted artistical discourse internationally. I am sure that ruangrupa never had the over nationalistic motives to make Indonesia “great again” in the art scene, because it seemed to me that the using of Indonesian terms just looked naturally and intuitively, showing how local and therefore authentic the approach is, not in the least signalling a mere narcissistic national popularisation.

This occasion should be perceived more by the Indonesian public as to be a marking of a standard which we have achieved. Nobody disputes, that Indonesian art scenes have grown tremendously ever since Soeharto dictatorship was enthroned. In the last two decades, there have been much more attempts to institutionalise art, as we have seen in cities like Yogyakarta, Bandung, Bali and Jakarta. Maybe, Indonesian art scene today is just as merry as it was during the 60s; a period in which many art institutions were still dynamically fighting each other by producing a lot of art scenes. (Lekra, Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakjat, was one of the institutions to remember from the left spectrum.) Documenta 15 marks another point in Indonesian art history, that Indonesian artists are appreciated and heard internationally, that ruangrupa has managed to “lead” the international lumbung artists. Yet, we shall never forget, that today’s challenge for artists in Indonesia are still the same: to bring art closer to the heart of the public, making art not just a matter for artists or art historians, but for the broader public.  

Though one thing has to be remarked specially on the Indonesian artists invited by ruangrupa to present their works in Kassel. The artworks of the collectives brought by ruangrupa to Kassel from Indonesia are those which making processes only are made possible by the local communities. The artworks that “represented” Indonesia in d15 today are those artworks which one cannot separate from the socio-politico-ecological practice and discourse of the collectives. Those kinds of art do not need to be put into those types of art to be “popularised”, since they are from the begining the results of interactions, aspirations, and life experiences of the people, the participating “public” which is the part of the collective. The amusing, yet authentic work of Agus Nur Amal is one of them, in which he displays the life of the Sundanese region in film, spatial instalations, and sculpture like objects, for which people in his village participated in the making process. Therefore, what I meant before with the advocation to bring art into more broader public here would mean the display of artworks of any kinds into broader public with other contexts, which do not take parts in the collectives, by means of easier and reachable access of the art dissemination infrastructure, such as art galleries, museums, art festivals, and so on. Since art has the potentiality of becoming an important public discourse, to deliver social, political, and ecological themes to be heard in the public. Art makes matters, which exist but are hidden in the opaque realm of silence, perceivable and speak louder than words.

Yet, we do not need to learn too far from the West in terms of the high level of public awareness on art scenes. Societies in Indonesia have always been close to art, in which art was a constant companion in way of life. Just take a look at hundreds of indigenous communities in Indonesia which still live within their way of life, where art, ritual, epistemology, lifestyle and so on are merged. Balinese people of today, though they cohabit their home with millions of tourists and other Indonesian people from other islands, they have always lived with art. They learn to dance, the costume customs, repairing temples since they are children. In middle Java case, Kartini once wrote about this matter, a bit romanticisingly, that “poetries mean so much to Javanese people. The least, the very humblest Javanese, is a poet”. What she referred to was the Javanese language which speech acts “impose” its people to be sentient with all their chosen words; also its aphorisms, which contain much wisdoms and are passed from generation to generation both at home, in the family education, or in the folks art, for example in wayang’s shows. 

Yet, Indonesia today has changed and become one–”hybrid”–nation. As a modern and yet postcolonial society, art practices vary in their modes of productions. Some arts are practiced by professional–individual–artists, or a collective one, just like ruangrupa, some are practiced by communities with local roots, and so on. Indonesia’s art scene is diverse and shall remain diverse in its openness of forms, actors, and themes. The need to expand art infrastructure for the public may seem to be a too modernistic endeavour, yet it is the only way that different arts from different contexts could reach others, and a dynamic art scene in Indonesia could be established. 

III. The medial judgement of antisemitism and the victory of plurality

However there is one case, which has been the main topic of discussion in Germany about documenta 15 and ruangrupa, that remains disturbingly unheard in Indonesia. (Another fact that is so astonishing: there have been really few publications made on ruangrupa and documenta 15 in Indonesia, you can try to google it and may find some, and you can count them with your fingers.) It all started after Kassel’s citizens spotted two figures of Jews which are represented as having wolf-like and pig-like mouth early in June. The citizen’s reportage on the internet website was then consumed and brought into publics by almost all of German newspaper outlets, say Zeit, FAZ, SZ, Spiegel, TAZ, all of them, condemning documenta 15 and its curator and its direction’s board. The two Jews figures are to be found in Taring Padi’s mural, with the title of “People Justice”, which is exactly 20 years old today and has been exhibited as well internationally, in the West. The artwork used to stand in the main square of Kassel until it was put down, after too much condemnations happened in German medias, even international medias, and followed by some demonstrations. The documenta 15 was then denounced even caricaturly as “antisemitica”, a play of the word antisemitism.

Antisemitism: an unknown concept in Indonesia, yet a pure taboo in Germany. The difference is understandable, Germany has the holocaust guilt, Indonesia has the anti-colonial agenda symbolised by Palestine; both sides retain different collective memories–if there are ones. We never forget, millions of European Jews were murdered under the Nazi regime under the cooperations of many European states outside Germany at that time. Fighting against the historical hates towards Jews has ever since been a “German mission”, especially after the 70s (the period between 40s and 70s was predominated by astonishing guilty silence and ignorance), which has manifested in the flourishing of Jews institutes, researches on holocausts, and many more. The theme of Israel’s occupation–as a state–in Palestine’s region has never been a thing. Gaza’s case has always been seen as a matter of Palestinian “millitants” who have started to launch rockets and Israelian soldiers who then “revenged”; it was never discussed about the infrastructural blockage that Gaza and Palestinian people living there experience, not having clean water, constant electricity, chance to escape, and so on. Criticising Israel as a state doesn’t exist, simply man macht das nicht. Even more, most German does not really know about those facts around the expansive territorial politics of Israel with Israelian settlements in the de jure land of Palestine; facts which one can easily find in internets, books, critical newspaper (even the American NYT), and as well UN sessions. Though Taring Padi have claimed and tried to explain, that the depictions of Jews people were critiques towards Israel’s territorial expansion politics, the resemblance of their Jews’ depictions with the ones of Nazi is still an unbreakable fact. The artistic, formal decision of the artists became the problem; the artists didn’t mean it, yet the German specific audience interprets it differently. 

The scandal then culminated after a commission was established by the government to scrutinise all the artworks presented in documenta 15, after which scrutiny some artworks are going to be decided as presentable or censored, based on the “scientifically defined” antisemitic motives. Yes, a censorship for artworks which they “scientifically” judge as having antisemitic motives. Problematically, since the level of sensitivity towards any subjects relating to the people, rights, and lives of Jews is really high, there has been no clear distinction made between anti-semitism, anti-zionism, and critiques of Israel’s state. Every artistic, formal expression which contain any of those aspects is then fallen under antisemitic category. The “objectivistical” approach that this German commission took did not allow any historical toleration of the artworks; no matter how old the artworks are and how bad or good the political situations of that time regarding the issue of Palestine-Israel was. Pig looking Jews is just forbidden, period, explanation is not required, since “antisemitism is antisemitism”, “racism is racism”.  

I personally do not agree and my very personal solution was the following. Antisemitism is objectively of course wrong; it is against the human rights, against humanity, and just lets hate grow. The Jews have suffered psycho-collectively and physically throughout thousands of years of history of mankind. They have the right to have a state, as do the Palestinians, or the Kurds, or whoever wishes to have and ready to struggle for this “national independence”. Yet, if a lot of documenta 15’s artist come from the regions where there is this collective spirit of supporting Palestine against Israel state’s territorial expansion, and even some of the artists even come from Palestine, artworks manifesting critiques towards Israel which could take the form of antisemitic expression are not really impossible to appear. Especially, when those works are decades old. One has to just acknowledge that every people in the world, especially from postcolonial societies and countries which have tremendous solidarity with Palestine,–bluntly speaking–have been antisemites. Even Indonesia, a huge and important country from South East Asia, never had any diplomatic relationship with Israel, because Indonesia has actually never acknowledged Israel even as a state completely. Nevertheless, there has been progress. Nowadays most of the sane people who are informed about global geopolitics would never be antisemites; after people know that in the Middle East everything is just about national interest–and money. 

My proposal is therefore: why don’t we then just read the artworks that might have antisemitic formal expressions historically? as part of progress of a broader humanity? Because ruangrupa, all the curatorial boards, and all the documenta 15 artists cannot be regarded simply as a bunch of dumb antisemitic people who try to present any antisemitic expressions in country like Germany which is deeply affected by holocaust’s guilt and sorrow. Believe me, they are brave, honest, and smart people. Those artworks are presented in Germany in honesty because of the motive of their love towards humanity, in which Palestine today is its name bearer. It is simply not true, that the judgement from German side has always said that the artworks contain antisemitic motives; the opposite is true: the artworks contain a deep honesty in struggle towards freedom and against any forms of oppression and violence, and the mere expression might resembles antisemitic formal expressions of the old time. We all know that those expressions are not correct today, but we also know that they were made not today, but decades before, early 2000s, even 70s and 80s, where the concept of “antisemitism” even didn’t exist in the collective mind of the people from where the artists might come from, since what they know is the desperate action and motive supporting the struggle of Palestinian people against the sheer fact of Israel state’s territorial politics which expelled and do never respect the “right–of the Palestinians–to have rights” to live with living quality. Antisemitic artistic formal expressions were probably the only ones which worked at that time, since Israel as a state is also a unique occasion, where being Jews and Israeli are legally possible to be identical.

Learning process should again be the important term, since people learn. Documenta 15 lumbung artists now know, that those pictures which today they still consider as critiques towards Israel state from the old time could be (mis)read as propagating antisemitism, and German public should learn more to see the other side of state of Israel. To stop calling Palestinian movements in general to be terrorists or aggressive muslim militants might be a good first step, since not every Palestinian fighters are Hamas’ followers. On the other hand, it shall remind the world and especially the Global South about the term antisemitism, but it shall also open German public’s eyes and medias about the facts and cases which happen between Palestine and Israel from both sides (many critical documentaries and books have also been created by German journalists and historians and are available in German). 

It is irritating to see how in feuilletons of German newspaper the many discussions narrowed towards interpretations like perspectivalism and relativism of values, blaming that the documenta 15 artists do not carry universalist values that German society does; a pure unconscious, Western, Eurocentric arrogance. In none of the articles demonising documenta 15 as antisemitic was it discussed about the artworks themselves. None has tried to go through the records of the suspected artists, and none has tried to show the artworks in the whole context(s) of their creation and coming into being. This is the other side of media outlets, which produced anyway “manufactured consents”, an ancient term from 50 years ago by Chomsky which today is still astonishingly relevant. 

As I was there, I went and paid attention to artworks which may be regarded as antisemitic. And there were many German too who were next to me, as I was paying a lot of attention to some certain Israeli soldier figures or a film by Palestinian artists, which were condemned antisemitic by the “scientific commission”. I did not know what those Germans thought, but surely I saw them trying to understand the matter, instead of just being trapped in the medially disseminated condemnation. Once people are there and in front of those artworks, they actually don’t feel anything to be reprehensible, since those artworks really stand within the whole message and contents of Palestinian struggle against military operations. The same goes to other analogous case from other context: Immanuel Kant might be a racist, misogynist, colonial, antisemitic, and so on in his epistemology or life style, but we still read him today in a whole context of his thought and for his deep humanistic spirit. Learning process is again the term which we need to understand and it will make us able to learn from each other, in a deep tolerance; it also teaches us that some differences are only bearable with tolerance.

Edited by Hessel Juliust


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