Documenta 15 Opens With a Record 1,500 Artists, Promising to Be Unlike Any Edition That Came Before It

The press conference included a karaoke session.

Lumbung artist Agus Nur Amal PMTOH performs at the opening press conference during the first press day at the documenta 15. Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images.

Psychedelic rock blasted from speakers in an outdoor soccer stadium while the audience filed in for Documenta 15’s press conference. Outwardly, there was little sign of either heightened tensions or increased security here, despite the controversies that have swirled around the show recently.

As a tone-setting event, the press conference made it clear that Documenta 15 aspires to be something very far from the buttoned-up exhibitions that came before it. The throngs of artists invited by Indonesian collective Ruangrupa made up much of the crowd at the stadium, and greeted them repeatedly with waves of cheers and clapping. At one point, a karaoke-style music video by Tropical Tap Water played, and the audience clapped and sang along to the refrain “We Use the Baskom” (a word that refers to a type of wash basin familiar in Indonesia).

The scheme of the show is novel. Fourteen core member groups invited by Ruangrupa are working together with around 50 artist collectives; each of those collectives, in turn, invited still more artists.

The result is a truly gigantic exhibition. The artist list unveiled in the press materials comes to at least 1,500 figures, the group said. In fact, even that staggering number doesn’t capture the scope, as the second invited round of artists invited another round in some cases, too.

“The philosophy was ‘not big but many,'” said artistic team member Frederikke Hansen. “On paper, we have invited very few, but in practice we have invited very many.”

Artist participants cheer after a performance by lumbung artist Agus Nur Amal Pmtoh at the press conference in the Auestadion. Photo: Swen Pförtner/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Signaling the kind of communal-focused art favored by the show, one of the many was Agus Nur Amal PMTOH, who did a touching, low-fi performance, half-singing a story about his recent workshop he did at a school in Kassel. “The children,” he sung out, “are pessimistic / We want to create wishful thinking.”

Thus, from these very first opening moments of this years-in-the-making show (it opens to the general public on June 18), it is clear that Ruangrupa’s focus is on hope and joy, as well as offering alternative solutions to complex issues of economy, globalism, and climate change. The show is focused around the concept of lumbung, which means “rice barn” in Indonesian. The group has said the term represents their desire for community-sharing and resource-pooling. Projects are decentralized across Kassel, with many “venues” and events in the program taking place in parks as well as at more traditional spaces.

The press conference marked an attempt at a reset, of sorts. In the lead up to the closely watched show, Ruangrupa had their wider efforts overshadowed by accusations of anti-semitism but also racist vandalism on two of its venues.

Members of the Indonesian artist collective Ruangrupa applaud the artists in the crowd during the press conference in the Auestadion. Photo: Swen Pförtner/dpa via Getty Images.

Politicians who welcomed Ruangrupa onstage addressed the allegations of anti-semitism that have been looming over the show since January—serious in any country, but especially so in Germany. 

“Documenta has always been a place of exchange and also of heated discourse,” said Angela Dorn, art and culture minister in Kassel. She said she welcomed the debates that have been ongoing since January, when a blog made allegations about the anti-Israel political motives of a few members of the artists and artistic team. Ruangrupa has vehemently rebutted these charges.

Dorn added that she hopes the debates can be fruitful. “Dialogue means differentiating, not painting in black and white,” she said. “Dialogue presupposes that people listen to each other and also that they understand where boundaries lie.”

She added that “anti-Semitic resentment” has no place at Documenta, nor does any “racist hostility” or attacks, referring to the the recent vandalism targeting a group of Palestinian artists in the show.

“The pictures of threatening graffiti in the exhibition area of ‘The Question of Funding’ have made me very concerned,” said Dorn. “My solidarity also goes explicitly to the curators and artists who have been racially targeted and attacked in the course of the debate.”

Documenta 15 runs from June 18 to September 25, 2022.

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