When the Documenta was founded in 1955 by artist Arnold Bode, he wanted to bring the world into dialogue again. Every four – and later five – years, Western views on artistic freedom, individuality and universality were celebrated and he chose a city close to the Iron Curtain: Kassel. This year’s Documenta is organized by ruangrupa, an Indonesian artists’ collective. A novelty: for the first time, an artist group is allowed to examine this influential art event.

For a long time, the art world was predominantly oriented towards the western hemisphere. Political and artistic developments had an impact on the successive Documentas. For example, Harald Szeemann introduced himself as a ‘star curator’ during Documenta 5 (1972). It was the beginning of the curator’s positioning as a power factor. In subsequent editions, genius authorship and western hegemony were slowly but surely broken open. The focus was on collaborating teams of curators from around the world. In 1997, during Documenta 10, Catherine David shifted perspective to the increasingly globalizing world. And five years later, Okwui Enwezor expanded the scope even further: Documenta 11 questioned the hierarchy of the Western art scene and the exoticization of ‘the other’.

In the early 2000s there was a call from the art world to have the next Documenta organized by an artist. It took until the current edition before it really got that far. The Indonesian artists’ collective ruangrupa, selected for their participatory approach, laid the foundation for Documenta 15. “At a time when innovation is mainly based on independent, collaborating organisations,” the selection committee wrote, “it makes sense to offer this collective approach a platform. ”

The Curators of Documenta: The Indonesian Collective ruangrupa
Photo Maurice Boyer


The collective was founded in 2000 in Jakarta. The chaos of this metropolis made the members long for a place where artists could come together, a workspace, but also a place where mental peace could be found. They created a clubhouse: always open, always populated. It is a studio, a library, a research lab and a party location in one. Creative talents, but also other communities find support there. It also became a place to mooch, to simply hang out – the collective calls it ‘lumbung’.

Lumbung is at the heart of ruangrupa’s working method. The term refers to a rice barn, a communal building in the Indonesian countryside in which the harvest is collected, stored and distributed. The latter is done according to collectively established criteria. In fact, it is a shared resource for the future. As an artistic and economic model, it is rooted in the principles of collectivity and equitable distribution. These principles influence the entire artistic process of ruangrupa: from the structure, the self-image and their appearance to all parts of the collaboration and even the final exhibition. “We want to create a globally oriented, collaborative and interdisciplinary art and culture platform,” said ruangrupa in February during their lecture at the Academy of Arts of the KNAW in Amsterdam. That platform must also remain effective after the hundred days that Documenta 15 lasts. “Our curatorial approach seeks a different kind of collaborative model for resource use – in economic terms, but also in terms of ideas, knowledge, programs and innovations. We work on the basis of sustainability, proportionality and solidarity.”

Also read the review of the previous edition: Documenta 14 focuses on Greece and refugees

In the organic, open, improvised and experimental space of lumbung, according to ruangrupa, there is really room for unexpected encounters. Exchanging ideas and knowledge will be at least as important in Kassel as exhibiting works of art. Documenta 15 promises the visitor one big lumbung.

When organizing Documenta 15, the lumbung also seemed to have limits. The corona pandemic made physical meetings impossible. Instead, there were weekly online meetings, where new encounters between creators constantly emerged. The artistic team expanded to an ever-growing circle of friends, all of whom highly valued self-organization and self-government. Unique to Documenta is that the entire organizational process is documented this time on an extensive website. That website is, as it were, one of the locations of Documenta 15.

Also read: Underground art must face barbarism

This collective organization is of course also taking shape in a physical way in Kassel. The Fridericianum, an art museum in the European tradition that opened in 1779, is transformed into Fridskul: a school working on a new curriculum, an alternative to the Western educational model. The main question is: what does the world need now that successive crises require different kinds of knowledge and experience than the knowledge that causes the problems? Lumbung as a storage shed becomes tangible here, based on the view that art is inseparable from everyday life. Or take the ruruHaus, in the heart of Kassel, where artists and visitors look for fertile ground for new projects based on composting processes. Months before the Documenta was officially opened, discussions took place here in which ideas for exhibitions were exchanged. A practice that ruangrupa already applied in the run-up to Sonsbeek’16: there was also a ruru house in Arnhem at the time.

Visitors are guided around by a sobat-sobat, a ‘best friend’

Around this are the exhibition places: the Documenta Halle, factory buildings, an old church, a hotel for and with refugees, museums, a boathouse along the river and the Auepark. Visitors are guided around by a sobat-sobat, a ‘best friend’.


Everything within the concept of ‘lumbung’ revolves around exchange. You could also see lumbung as a large laboratory for the future, where the results of experiments will only have an effect in the long term. Two systems clash here: lumbung is diametrically opposed to Western ideals of accumulation and profit production – ideals that often also prevail in the cultural world, in which works of art are bought up as mere investments and then stored under lock and key. The slowness and collectivity of lumbung are opposed to speed and individualism. Perhaps that’s why lumbung in Germany, the country of efficiency and strict regulations, has not yet been enthusiastically received.

What was more surprising was that ruangrupa was accused of anti-Semitism. The organizers would show little or no sensitivity to the history of the place where the Documenta takes place: Germany. This criticism was expressed after it became known that ruangrupa had invited the Palestinian artist collective Question of Funding. This group from Ramallah used to call itself the Khalil al Sakakini Cultural Center, a reference to an Arab nationalist who sympathized with National Socialism and railed against a ‘world Jewish conspiracy’.

It sparked a heated debate in the German media, with ruangrupa (like the Documenta itself, for that matter) taking a clear stance: they denounce any form of anti-Semitism, racism, extremism or Islamophobia.

The previous Documenta also led to clashes. When it became known that the city of Kassel Das Fremdlinge und Fluchtlinge Monument, a work of art by Nigerian-American artist Olu Oguibe, infuriated the local branch of the right-wing nationalist political party AfD. The obelisk bore a proverb from the Gospel of Matthew in Arabic, German, English, and Turkish: “I was a stranger, and you took me in.” But the AfD, not averse to references to the German past, preferred to talk about ideologically polarizing, entstellte Kunst† Many a visitor heard a clear reference to what the Nazis called Entartete Kunst.

In this way the Documenta remains what Bode once founded it for: a place where histories and perspectives collide.

Documentation 15 can be visited from 18/6 to 25/9 in Kassel, Germany. incl. documenta-fifteen.de

Liesbeth Bik is an artist and chairman of the Academy of Arts, part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Geertjan de Vugt is a writer and essayist, and coordinator of Science & Art at the KNAW.

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