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.
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