Saturday, 24 September 2022 11:32

Socialising Art: the Lumbung Documenta in Kassel, Germany

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Socialising Art: the Lumbung Documenta in Kassel, Germany

In the first of two articles on Documenta 15, Dennis Broe outlines the thinking behind the festival and some of its artworks. Image above: Group Sharing at the Main Hall 

This article will consider the impact of a monumental event in the art world, the turning over of Documenta, Kassel's quinquennial art festival. Documenta has been developed and managed by a series of collectives under the organizational framework of the Indonesian group Ruangrupa, the first such direction of a major art festival in the West by an Asian and Muslim group from the developing world.

Ruangrupa and the 50 participants, mostly collectives, rethought and refashioned the foundational concepts of not only how the art object is presented, but also the place of art in the developing world and in the West. They also addressed the issue of how art is, rather than simply being “consumed,” capable of critiquing the productivist development of the West and of posing new ways of being, and new solutions.

The project has been roundly criticized for daring this wholesale reimagining, mostly under the rubrics of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and criticism of the policies of the Israeli state. This first article will present the critique Documenta poses, and the second will consider the attack on it as well as examining the Berlin Biennale – a more art world friendly, but still cantankerous and challenging simultaneous presentation. Documenta closes this weekend, the Biennale closed last weekend, but both have challenged and in ways tried to upend preconceived perceptions both in the art world and more widely.

Socialising the production of art

Let’s start with the radical slogan of this year’s art festival in Kassel: “We are not in Documenta fifteen, we are in lumbung one.” In Indonesia a lumbung is a rice barn where the surplus harvest is stored to benefit the community in time of need. So Ruangrupa extends the concept of lumbung to this festival and, more importantly, to the world at large, as sharing the fruits of the system of production for the benefit of all. The concept is a developing world answer and a socialist answer to the private and extractive capitalist schemes of the West which have exploited the rest of the world for so long.


In the art world, the application of lumbung means not only throwing the festival open to collective labour but also viewing the practice of art not primarily as a production of a commodity but rather a means of opening up group participation, education and creativity. Thus, art is not individually made and consumed but rather collectively produced and digested as an opening to changing the world. Ruangrupa thus challenges the old system of state funding and/or free market art systems, or even biennial circuits such as Documenta, which it defines as “highly competitive, globally expansive, greedy and capitalist—in short exploitative and extractive.”

Thus, for example, another Indonesian collective Taring Padi, uses cardboard cutouts in street demonstrations and murals to indict the killing behind the global foundation of Indonesia’s island paradise Bali, financed by Western capital and built on the graves of the dead.

These artworks then resist being torn from their function in their real life social-political context and point the way to an art that is “no longer pursuing mere individual expression, no longer needing to be exhibited in stand-alone objects or sold to individual collectors and hegemonic state-funded museums.” 

Passive spectating versus active participation

“Lumbung calling,” another slogan of the festival, this one adopted from The Clash’s apocalyptic song “London Calling,” is here converted into a plea for humanity to avert the apocalypse. In practice this has meant work that, unlike much of the objects in the Berlin Biennale, does not obscure the issue by hiding behind the patina of making vague statements through a highly conceptual veil of abstraction. For daring to confront these issues directly, for bloodying itself with a confrontation of the actual results of these centuries of Western colonialism, the first critique that this version of Documenta faced by Western critics was that this was “not art.”

The difference was striking between the Biennale, with its more traditional mode of spectators passively contemplating individual works and measuring their comprehension against the artist’s concealed intent, and Documenta, with its groups of students and mostly young people engaging with and working out ways in which the artworks spurred discussion and action. So spectators became participants, they changed from being commodified consumers into activists together groping for means of change.

As in the metaphor of lumbung, the rice collective, many of these means recalled earlier methods of being part of the earth, as in the elaborate Vietnamese garden constructed on the grounds of a well-known local nightclub by a Hanoi collective. But their works also necessarily bore the traces of formerly or still colonized peoples labouring under the burden of being “developing nations,” a sobriquet that conceals the fact not only that they have been vastly underdeveloped and exploited by the West, but also that their path should be itself productivist, always “developing.”

Thus, at the Fridericianum, the main site of the festival, there was a tent labelled “Indigenous Embassy” with the slogan “We want land not handouts” as everywhere on the earth the claims of the original tenders of the earth are gathering steam and being taken more seriously. Their practices are vying for attention against the harmfully extractive methods which are destroying the planet e.g. the battle in Canada for its place as leading mineral miner versus the claims of those on the land whose life will be upended; and Biden’s “Environmental Protection Bill” which opens Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico up to oil drilling. A continual ticker above the festival building like the one in Times Square, New York, kept pacing out the money the Australian government owes First Nations Groups from 1901 to the present day, with the figure reaching into the trillions and still mounting.

Instead of simply locating themselves in the two main halls, as other iterations of the festival have done, Documenta’s collectives have also expanded out into the city, in what Ruangrupa calls “the ekosistem.” The institution itself, begun in 1955, was designed as an antidote and a mea culpa for the place of its site Kassel as a primary manufacturer of the armaments which fueled the Nazi war machine. As such Documenta, the most political of all art festivals, has always taken as its mission to highlight this grievous moment in the city’s past.

This trend broadens in this latest iteration as the lumbung Documenta expands or ‘occupies’ not only various sites in the city but also expands its critique, to encompass the postwar development of what became known as “the city of the car,” with the automobile replacing weapons manufacturing in the 1950s “economic miracle,” a situation globally that has accounted for numerous deaths in densely populated urban areas because of diesel pollution.

Thus, the headquarters of the clothing company C&A, an unadorned and monotonous façade typical of postwar reconstruction, is illuminated with a Taring Padi banner ablaze with colour and featuring a steadfast Karl Marx in the upper corner looking askance at the company. It profited under the Nazi regime, seizing Jewish assets and employing forced labour but it has also been accused in the global neoliberal era of employing sweatshop labour from the developing world.

What could possibly go wrong?

A platz near the centre is covered underfoot with headlines from Romanian Dan Perjovschi’s Horizontal Newspaper, with one containing the slogan WAteR, proclaiming the water wars to come, another ominously announcing that “I am so grateful to be in the last Documenta” and a third picturing a word balloon from an ocean liner whose cheery passengers address those below being submerged in a raft with the comforting slogan “We are all in this together.” Perjovschi’s project, as does much of the work here, democratizes the staid art world convention of Conceptualism, where meanings are obscure and which led not to a critique of art world materiality but only to a new form of commodification, this time focusing on the word as saleable object.

What might have been a plaza, a public place for gathering at the corner of two streets in the centre of Kassel, because of the dominance of the automobile in ’50s city planning became simply a traffic circle, with pedestrians directed underground. So Ruangrupa turned the bleak underground space over to the Black Quantum Futurism collective from Philadelphia, whose lively photo montages with slogans over a slave ship read “Black People Navigate Western Timelines as Our Ancestors Did The Stars” and “Dissolve the Arrow of Progress,” as the collective called attention to the global devastation this “progress” caused.

It must be mentioned also that with the Ukraine war now being the occasion for Germany and Japan to rearm, Kassel is again becoming a site of not only the manufacture of cars but also of weapons building for a new German war machine. What could possibly go wrong?


The extension out into the city also featured multiple works in the manufacturing district of Bettenhausen, generally ignored in previous Documentas. The Hallenbad Ost, formerly a workers’ swimming facility, was taken over by Taring Padi, the most radical group in the festival. That Taring Padi should install itself in a workers’ facility is fitting since the group, from Yogyakarta, aligns itself with working-class concerns.

The collective traces its origins to its involvement in protests and street demonstrations at the moment when the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis brought down the longtime U.S. supported dictator Suharto. The name itself means “fangs of rice,” suggesting the grain can support a community but also that it can prick opponents.


The lawn of the Hallenbad Ost, part of an interior and exterior display of over 100 objects from the group’s 22 years of active protest, was filled with cardboard cutout puppets used in street demonstrations, called wayang kardus, which take the more elite form of Indonesian puppet theatre and make it available for expressing people’s political concerns. One cutout had a Suharto figure clutching money bags while hovering over a ballot box and swaying

There is a gorgeous multitude of murals, often visually citing the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. In one, a woman linking Indonesian and Mexican indigenous peoples bursts her chains. Another mural transposes Bosch’s vision of hell into a modern history of the diabolical world of Indonesia’s historical exploitation by the Dutch, the Japanese, Suharto and the global capital that backed him.

That vision was laid out in a series of murals about the murder of thousands on the island of Bali in 1965-66 and the subsequent decision, even as the killings of the island’s left and any who had an association with them continued, to build Bali into a global “pleasure dome” with money supplied by “the World Bank, The French Tourism Board and the UN Development Program.”

The construction was done, Taring Padi relates, with no input from those on the island and with hotels possibly built over the mass graves, concealing the largest massacre in the country’s history, worse than the Dutch or the Japanese massacres. One black and white mural accompanying this story features an army officer prominently leading and salivating over the killing below him.

Countering this is a stunning full-color mural of an Indonesian princess with a tiger striding majestically across a busy modern intersection. In the background are billboards proposing “Skin Care” and other Western capitalist beauty products which the commanding natural beauty of the princess negates. Her almost mystical presence also recalls Indonesian folklore and its use in sustaining the country against its history of incursions, outlined for example in Eka Kurniawan’s novel Beauty is a Wound.

Mark Zuckerburg as Pinocchio

Finally, there was a more traditional art world presentation in an exhibition about myth by Mexican artist Erick Beltrán in Kassel’s Sepulchral Museum, which contains medieval burial objects. A wall of various mythical representations is introduced with standard late postmodern art world gobbledygook claiming that myths only produce “vacant meaning,” are “unknowable and equal” (so thus why try to understand them).

The one saving grace in a juxtaposition of images which never exceed their place as pretentious collage is that of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with a slightly oversized nose as Pinocchio, calling attention to the lies he tells at every congressional hearing to outwit those who would regulate his enterprise.

Documenta 15, the lumbung Documenta, opens the way for a developing world conception of art that directly embraces the current world crisis and that challenges and will continue to challenge Western traditions and institutions. The attack by those institutions will be the subject of the second part of this series.

Read 1539 times Last modified on Tuesday, 27 September 2022 10:05
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is the author of The House That Buff Built, the upcoming fourth volume in the Harry Palmer mystery trilogy whose subject is homelessness and the real estate industry, racial prejudice against the Chinese in Los Angeles, and the power of major media to set the development agenda.