DOCUMENTA 2017: The experience of the contemporary art festival’s dynamics – the interaction between cultural and political statements, and my physical and mental movement through it – remains the most thought-provoking part of Documenta.
When the bombed-out small town Kassel was to be rebuilt after the hellish war, a local anti-fascist artist who had returned after being a prisoner of war, established a contemporary art festival for the art the Nazis had banned. In 1955, no one would have dreamt of that Documenta – that once belonged to “the German Garden Exhibition” – would, within a few decades, become the most important art festival of the international art world and that it was going to be visited by around one million people every time it takes place. Documenta is organized every five years and it is mandatory for all artists, art students and others with ambitions to understand and participate in international contemporary art.
«This year’s Documenta 14 was expressively political and activist, based on nationalism, migration and our recent history»
This year’s exhibition was expressively political and activist and curated by the leading radical Polish curator Adam Szymczyk. Based on nationalism, migration and recent history, Szymczyk wanted to create an exhibition that breaks with the art world’s social and economic hierarchies. I, therefore, had expectations for this year’s version – which also was organized in Athens for the very first time – although I, in my experience, rarely get anything particular out of political art within such a framework. I have participated in another major international exhibition myself, Manifesta, and I know how contemporary art exhibitions of that kind can limit the “politically engaged” art; they are heavily financed by public funds, thus it is important not to provoke the authorities financing them, too much.
Documenta 14 is an extremely comprehensive exhibition consisting of traditional galleries, film programs, publications, archives, performances and actions, debates, outdoor installations and concerts. It took three days, with the opening hours of 10:00 until 20:00, to experience it.
It’s the experience of the exhibition’s dynamics, the interaction between cultural and political statements and my physical and mental movement through the exhibition that stands out as the most thought-provoking aspect of it. As a socialist, it was enjoyable to see truly radical contributions to discussions about class and identity. Because, as an artist, I am primarily concerned with strong individual works, this time, I was – unlike the previous versions of Documenta I have seen – also pleasantly surprised by the variable, but at its best, high level of ambition.
Two Meetings and a Funeral
My personal favorite work was Naeem Mohaiemen’s video installation from 2017. Mohaiemen was born in London, in 1969, and his parents had a background from Pakistan in the part that later became Bangladesh. Mohaiemen is known for working towards the left-wing radical movements of the past and has among other things dealt with the Japanese Red Brigades. He has been politically active for many years himself, including in the group Visible Collective group, which consisted of artists, activists and lawyers who worked against the suppression of the lower class muslims in the USA after 9/11. I have also been politically active for a long time and therefore often react negatively towards artists who engage in political issues without having contact with the social movements and the historical assumptions for what they are thematizing – it often feels hollow, arbitrary and characterized by factual errors that show that this is not digested material.
However, Mohaiemen’s Two Meetings and a Funeral is an impressive piece of documentary work that is convincing with its political insights, artistic sensitivity and formal qualities. I find myself sitting in a dark room, comfortably decorated with cinema chairs and wall hangings, as I slip into the story and the artist’s agenda which is clearly presented on a three-channel projection that provides a large and wide screening area. Mohaiemen tells the story of how Bangladesh, after the bloody detachment from Pakistan, evolved from attempted socialism within the NonAligned Movement, to be forced into the conservative Organization for Islamic Cooperation under the imperialist agenda of the United States during the Cold War.
«It is ironic that the struggle against Islamic forces has taken over the fight against the Third Way because this Islamism is a real child of American imperialism.»
It is a sad story, but it has to be told to make sure it will not be repeated. We are facing major global changes, and Mohaiemen’s history of optimism in the, at the time, newly independent states, liberation movements and global solidarity are an important, but a tragic backdrop for today’s international situation. Unlike the dominant attitude in Western media and politics, the power management shown by the US is not a solution in Two Meetings and a Funeral. It is the very basis of the problems we are experiencing, and Mohaiem’s report is not only likely – it seems true.
Important for the way ahead
Both Mohaiemen and I were little children when Chile’s President Salvador Allende was killed in a CIAsupported coup in 1973 – although it seems like an eternity ago. This event appears as a dark shift in a story that could have ended well, but instead it ends with an empty shell of a building in Algeria – the conference building built by the young Algeria after the War of Independence against France, the same building that was the scene of the Non-Aligned Movement’s meetings in 1973, and all its radical and solidarity statements.
In this building, state leaders from the third world’s postcolonial states waited for Allende and mourned the coup in Chile with leaders of the liberation movements at that time – such as PLO’s Yassir Arafat and the Provisional Revolutionary South Vietnamese Government’s Vice President Madame Binh, who temporarily opened their press conference with “Ladies and Gentlemen of the International press, please listen.” Today the decayed building is a reminder of what was lost. In Bangladesh there is a trade fair hall that once symbolized national independence and faith in the future, today left to commercial interests. There is nothing left of the dream about a Third Way, regardless of the superpowers’ imperialism, other than faded film recordings.
These film recordings are, on the other hand, important to be able to understand how extreme the pressure made by the United States and its allied Islamic states against progressive movements in the 1970s and 80s was, until what was left of the anti-imperialist power of the third world dissolved in the 90s. It is ironic that the struggle against Islamist forces has taken over the fight against the Third Way because this Islamism is a real child of American imperialism.
Hope through understanding. Mohaiemen offer no clear alternative for the time coming, but in the encounter with radical artists and theorists, we understand that there is hope that the experience of the attempts in the 60s and 70s were not a waste of time. Through understanding how it could go wrong, we become aware of the systematic and pervasive nature of oppression. If Norwegian left-wing politicians were as clear-minded as Mohaiemen, they would hardly have accepted Norwegian participation in the Libyan War or sent troops to Afghanistan. Mohaiemen’s film is so profound and convincing in its artistic depth that it should be mandatory for system critics; how can we discuss the way ahead without reflecting upon what happened to the Third Way 40-50 years ago?