Issue #12: What did you learn at documenta 15?

Photo by Dóra Hegyi, 2023 August, Kassel

documenta, the largest and most influential event of the art world beside the Venice Biennale, has always been surrounded by local and international scandal. During the Cold War, right from the first edition in 1955, documenta presented “Westkunst”. It was only later that the positions on the two sides of the Iron Curtain, Europe and the Transatlantic became more balanced: In the new millennium, missing discourses and eurocentrism gradually began to gain ground. 

documenta fifteen seems to have fulfilled an extreme agenda: The curators of ruangrupa – coming from Indonesia, which is perceived simply as an Islamic country – are part of a collective that brought its own international network into play, while putting the European and Western type of art market and institutional interests aside. With the lumbung partners concept, they were able to increase the number of participants and present the activities of many initiatives from around the world, while placing full responsibility out of their hands.

As known by many, the current edition was accused of presenting works and projects with anti-Semitic sentiments. At the same time, documenta missed to publicly face the fact that its funding initially served the purpose of cultural whitewashing of Germany’s Nazi past. It was not openly discussed in Kassel either that documenta’s founding art-historical advisor took his office as a former member of a Nazi paramilitary organization. During previous editions, participating artists repeatedly emphasized that the institution had never reflected radically enough on its past; most recently Hito Steyerl, who withdrew her work from the exhibition. 

In addition to the above, as it is often the case with larger art events, none of the visitors and the participants had full access to the program. While we usually have a few references and some connection to the works and projects on display, at documenta fifteen, due to the amount of globally lesser-known contexts and artists, the artistic practices or their documentation often had to speak for themselves.

Therefore, we are initiating this Mezosfera issue in which we ask each contributor about their personal experiences. Our questions were: What could be learnt at documenta fifteen? Did documenta manage to change the perspective of Western visitors this time? What was the experience of non-Western artists and cultural practitioners? What did they teach and what could they learn as part of one of the most influential legitimizing and canonizing machine of the art world? To what extent did ruangrupa’s lumbung concept manage to change the power structures of the art world? We asked our contributors of various backgrounds and coming from different parts of the world, to choose one project/collective/discourse/situation that taught them something or changed their perspective in a way they had not expected; to do a little bit of research, write down some basic information about it, and share their thoughts with others.

Our contributors include Judit Árva, Rosemary Esinam Damalie, Dóra Hegyi, Beatrix Kricsfalusi, Inga Lace, Adelina Luft, Shaunak Mahbubani, Veronika Molnár, Markus Norned, Andrea Pócsik, Vidisha Saini, Andreas Schlagel, Krisztián Gábor Török, and Jelena Vesić, among others.

The thematic issue is edited by Dóra Hegyi, editor of Mezosfera, curator, and project leader of tranzit.hu Budapest and Gyula Muskovics, independent curator and artist based in Budapest.

What did you learn at documenta 15? is an open-ended issue. If you would like to contribute, please submit your proposal, including a 200-word abstract and your short bio in English at office@tranzitinfo.hu.

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