Lost in Meanings – On the Ghetto Biennale at documenta fifteen

“A misunderstanding is also a kind of understanding.” This was my favorite phrase at university, frequently used by one of my teachers, referring to the phenomena when misinterpretation opens a new aspect of an artwork and sheds light on the position of the interpreter. Misunderstanding, per definition, “is a failure to understand something properly, for example, a situation or a person’s remarks”. According to this definition, there must be some clear and obvious content, message or meaning that the viewer or listener does not understand correctly. There are many ‘opportunities’ for misunderstanding in the art world: e.g. conscious or unconscious disregard for the intention(s) and aim(s) of the artist(s), the context of artwork(s), or differences of cultural backgrounds, not to mention the complexity of each artwork which – in my opinion – excludes the possibility of one final understanding. From a certain point of view, every way of understanding is valid; but what happens if we highlight only one aspect and accept it as the obvious and only legitimate one? The way I see it, this is what happened in the case of documenta fifteen, where the perspective of most Western critics displaced and invalidated every possible interpretation that did not fit or was too far from their own. [see Dóra Hegyi’s article in this issue] 

In order not to give more publicity to the scandals than they already have, I would like to discuss the installation that was the visitors’ favorite: the project of the Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale from Haiti, exhibited inside and outside of the St. Kunigundis Church in Kassel’s Bettenhausen district. Behind this preference, in a way, a typical Western attitude can be detected; the viewers’ attraction to works of art that, for European eyes, are ‘mystical’ and ‘exotic,’ which ‘gaze’ has not changed since the beginning of the 20th century. The artworks of the collective, mostly sculptures, were surrounded by the frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures of the Church, which allowed the viewer to ‘read them together,’ identify and analyze connections and differences between them. I chose Erwin Panofsky’s iconology – a determinant methodology and approach in art history  from the mid 20th century – to serve as the starting point of the present inquiry. I am interested in the meanings and layers of meanings we can talk about in this case; when an almost hundred-year-old, German, Roman Catholic church built in Neo-Roman style encounters with often bizarre, but still ‘familiar’ works of art that come from a foreign culture in the Caribbean. At the same time, in a way, my interest resonates with one of the main questions of the Ghetto Biennale: “What happens when first world art rubs up against third world art? Does it bleed?”1

documenta fifteen: Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale, installation view, St. Kunigundis, Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling

In this brief text, I will not attempt a full-scale, in-depth analysis of the whole installation. Rather, I would like to concentrate on some of the specific artworks in their context in an effort to reveal some of the answers – and the lessons to be learnt – to the question posed by Ghetto Biennale itself. I will apply the method of iconology in a partially arbitrary way, and I will not accept any meanings as ultimate or unique. Let me treat the present discourse as an experimental inquiry, one that may end in failure or – just to repeat the already used term – in misunderstanding.

Firstly, let us briefly outline Panofsky’s methodology. The well-known German-American art historian formulized his method in 1932, in his text ‘Zum Problem der Beschreibung und Inhaltsdeutung von Werken der bildenden Kunst’ [On the Problem of Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts],2 and then, in 1939, in his book Studies in Iconology. Humanistic Themes in the Art of Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press).3 Considering mostly two-dimensional artworks, he emphasized the way in which their contents and meanings depend on cultural and social conditions, which, unintentionally, define every work of art. One of his examples sheds light on this dependence and on the Western perspective as a starting point: 

“When an acquaintance greets me on the street by lifting his hat, what I see from a formal point of view is nothing but the change of certain details within a configuration forming part of the general pattern of color, lines and volumes which constitutes my world of vision. When I identify, as I automatically do, this configuration as an object (gentleman), and the change of detail as an event (hat-lifting), I have already overstepped the limits of purely formal perception and entered a first sphere of subject matter or meaning. (…) However, my realization that the lifting of the hat stands for a greeting belongs in an altogether different realm of interpretation. This form of salute is peculiar to the Western world and is a residue of medieval chivalry (…) Neither an Australian bushman nor an ancient Greek could be expected to realize that the lifting of a hat is not only a practical event with certain expressional connotations, but also a sign of politeness. To understand this significance of the gentleman’s action I must not only be familiar with the practical world of objects and events, but also with the more-than-practical world of customs and cultural traditions peculiar to a certain civilization.”(Panofsky, 1955, pp. 26-27.)

Performance Ghetto Gucci, took place in the Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale installation at St. Kunigundis Church. By Adriana Benjamin, Jerry Reginald Chery aka Twoket, Per Hutner, Michel Lafleur, Carima Neusser. Source: https://ghettobiennale.org/documenta-fifteen-2022/performance-films/

In his text, Panofsky differentiated three levels of interpretation: at the first level stands the “Primary or natural subject matter as a Pre-iconographical description (and pseudo-formal analysis),” when we identify forms, colors, and artistic motifs empirically (phenomenal meaning). The next one, the “Secondary or conventional subject matter, constituting the world of images, stories, and allegories,” is the stage of iconographical analysis to connect meanings to the forms and motifs according to cultural conventions conveyed by literature sources and knowledge (meaning dependent on content). The third and most complex level is the “Intrinsic meaning or content, constituting the world of »symbolical« values,” the territory of worldview (documentary meaning). As Panofsky argued, “… the products of art are governed beyond their phenomenal meaning and their meaning dependent on content by an ultimate intrinsic meaning: the unintentional and subconscious self-revelation of a fundamental attitude towards the world which is characteristic in equal measure of the individual producer, the individual period, the individual people, and the individual cultural community.” (Panofsky, 2012, p. 479.) It is important to pay attention to the factors Panofsky mentioned, which inevitably define an artwork. He was thinking in dimensions of history and the “energy of a particular worldview,” hence his opinion that every interpretation which does not accept the “historically situated factuality“as a boundary, uses “violence” against the artwork.4 However, I do not entirely accept his argument that the ultimate content or meaning is enclosed in the works of art, and the interpreter’s task is ‘only’ to decode it. His method was built on the interpretation of images, mostly from the Renaissance; therefore, it is questionable whether it can be used for contemporary multimedia artworks in a non-Western context. Nevertheless, because of the cultural distance between my perspective and the context of the chosen project, the Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale, I think it is worth following Panofsky’s method and observe these artworks – full of symbolical meanings – layer by layer to avoid serious misunderstandings and get a little closer to their essence.

Jean Claude Saintilus, Vyej Mari (Virgin Mary, detail), 2015, 115 x 55 x 54in, metal, net cloth, glazed paper, bible, clock, doll, plastic chair, balsam & recycled objects. Photo: Judit Árva

Let us start with an artwork, which was exhibited on the right-hand side of the altar at the apsis of the church. A skeleton was sitting on a chair, almost entirely covered by a blue net cloth. On the lap of the skeleton was lying a colored baby doll, surrounded by dried cypress plants, on the chest, a clock (showing half past ten) and below, an open book. The title of the artwork gave a clear identification of the figure (if our suspicion had not been enough): the Virgin Mary, with presumably the newborn Christ. The color blue is traditionally one attribute of the Virgin Mary in Western iconography; icons and images depicted Mary in red and blue cloak too as symbol of motherhood and her love towards Christ. The figure of Mary, contrary to typical representations, appears as a skeleton that makes it impossible to identify the gender at first sight and erases the sacred image of the young and beautiful Mother of the Redeemer. Rather, this depiction emphasized the mortality of the human body, even that of Mary’s, who had no divine nature in her life (blessed but not divine). In contrast, the child appears as a lively and animated newborn. (In a Christian context it could remind us of the debates taking place from the 5th century onward about the two natures of Christ.) The book is a German-language Bible, opened at Matthew 27-28, starting at the end of 27.19: “When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, »Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.«” The quoted and shown phrases by the artist of the work, Jean Claude Saintilus, are on Christ before Pilate, the Crucifixion and the Burial (Mat 27.19-27.66), and some phrases from chapter 28, ending with the scene of Resurrection. Looking at the artwork from the quoted text’s point of view, it depicts both the beginning and the end of the Redeemer’s life, putting these two poles in a kind of dialogue and emphasizing the materiality behind the sacred story by the skeleton of the Virgin. In Haitian Vodou, “»[d]eath (…) is both the beginning and the end, death is a welcomed friend«.”5 This circumstance points to the fact that what appears an atypical representation from one point of view, is an expression of a fundamental belief from another. The decision to exhibit this artwork below the apsis, depiction of Christ in Mandorla – the divine Jesus sitting on his throne, raising his hand to bless – accompanied by saints, opens another level of this dialogue. 

As the exhibition guide says, “[m]ost of his [the artist, Jean Claude Saintilus – the author] work is figurative and rich in Vodou symbolism. He represents the strongest blurring of boundaries between religion and art, citing the spirits as his biggest influence and inspiration.”6 Catholicism and Vodou have a specific connection in Haiti – it is commonly said that Haitians are “70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% Vodou” – which has a long history going back to the colonial past, to the 16th and 17th centuries. In the case of Vodou, which is a “worldview encompassing philosophy, medicine, justice, and religion,” we should understand that every act and every motif serves the spirit – the name of Vodou also means spirit – and even if the correlation between Christian iconography and this artwork is evident, it has a higher purpose. 

Taking a step further, we need to say more about “the individual producer, the individual period, the individual people, and the individual cultural community,” as mentioned by Panofsky, and about where this artwork stems from. Jean Claude Saintilus, born in 1960 in Haiti, is an artist and a musician. He started to work together with the sculptor André Eugène in the mid-1990s; Eugène was one of the founding members of the Atis Rezistans [Resistance Artists], a “majority class group of artists working in the Grand Rue neighborhood of downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti,” deeply connected to Haitian history and religion. They organized the first Ghetto Biennale in 2009, and attempted to strengthen the artists’ mobility (travelling), visibility, and transcultural connections by creating a platform for discussions and knowledge exchange. Members of Atis Rezistans work with recycled materials, such as engine manifolds, wheel hubcaps, and medical detritus, as well as human bones, which connects them to the “African cultural heritage, Vodou practice and a dystopian sci-fi view of the future.”

The Virgin Mary by Saintilus encompasses all the elements which characterized the installation of Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale: bones, recycled materials – life and death, divine and demonic.7 The last term, in the context of the Christian and Vodou religions, leads us to a much more complex field. It has formed the basis of the stigmatization of Vodou, which was accepted as an official religion in Haiti only in 2003. Stereotypes of Vodou, such as the usage of black magic, violence, and dangerous rites, were created by the Christian West. It was not only a simplistic approach but also a reason for prejudice and oppression. The symbolism of the exhibited artworks could be interpreted as a reaction to this phenomenon and the explicit sexuality displayed by many artworks as conscious provocation. However, if we consider that sexuality is an important element in Vodou ceremonies  – since lwa (Vodou’s spirits) like Ezili Freda (abundance and love; a “mèt tèt [guiding spirit] of masisi (gay males, effeminate men, or transgender women]), or Gede (“who playfully signal death, humor, and eroticism for the sake of continuity in memory and life”), have a strong erotic manifestation both verbally and physically during the ceremonies – becomes apparent that this kind of interpretation is not only questionable but also arbitrary.8 The juxtaposition of Christianity and Vodou raises many questions, not just about the colonial past of Haiti and about the role of the religions in it – since Vodou, and the story of the Vodou priest Dutty Boukman, are deeply intertwined with the 1791-1804 Haitian revolution9 – but also about the true nature of these religions. 

Leah Gordon, Europe Supported by Africa and the Americas: A Prophesy, 2015, 16 x 20in, hand printed black & white fibre photographic hand tinted using specialist photographic dyes. Photo: Judit Árva

Another example may put this correlation in a different light. On the right wall of the church was a small, over-tinted, black and white photograph depicting three naked women tied together with a kind of rope. In the middle of this composition stands a white, old woman, supported by two colored ones. The title makes the identification clear: the central figure is Europe, accompanied by Africa and the Americas who support her. The artwork by the British artist Leah Gordon, as the exhibition guide explains, is a photographic reproduction of William Blake’s illustration Europe Supported by Africa and the Americas from the book Life in an Eighteenth-Century Slave Society, written by the Scottish-Dutch soldier, John Gabriel Stedman. The book was widely known among the circle of the British abolitionists, whose movement triggered the end of transatlantic slavery. As the description of the artwork – let us take it as a literary source – put it, the photo “…with a decrepit Europe, functions as a stark look at a future where the old economic power balances could shift and change as reparations are demanded.” In the context of the exhibition, the reference to the history of West Indian plantation slavery can be connected to the colonial past of Haiti, and the historical moment of independence from French suppression, which is an essential basis of reference not just for the members of Atis Rezistans, but for Haitians in general. Above the photograph, there was a three-figure composition in which two men are holding a glorified figure. The latter has gaping wounds on his hands, his eyes are closed, and his body seems inanimate. Based on our education, we can recognize the scene as the taking down of Christ from the cross and the burial. The artwork, which also resonates with Jean Claude Saintilus’s work, with Gordon’s photography – not only because of the analogies between forms and the composition – highlights the suffering and subjection in both depictions. Taking this line of thought further, it also raises questions surrounding the subject of responsibility and suppression in the name of religion. 

Lafleur & Bogaert (Michel Lafleur and Tom Bogaert), Famasi Mobil Kongolè, installation view. Photo: Judit Árva

The works of art in the exhibition, the first-seemingly foreign and bizarre forms, are dissolving in the context of the church, once we consider that these sacred places not only serve the purposes of contemplation and worship but also function as a place of burial, and hence are full of human remains and relics, in most cases not only in the crypt. From this perspective, the sculptures at the center of the church – by Evel Romain and André Eugène – remind us of the harsh reality of the sacrament, while urge us to find the reasons behind the strange forms. This mutual ‘positioning,’ as I see it, is one of the most substantial powers in this exhibition – the way in which every layer of meaning points out the contradictions and similarities between the works of these different cultures, which are, in a way, connected by their historical past. Observing the artworks from both a Christian and a Vodou perspective sheds light on the possibilities of different interpretations, and justifies the impossibility of the illusionistic one-and-only meaning. 

André Eugène, Gratis Santi, 2018, 73 x 25 x 15in, wood, metal & tires. Photo: Judit Árva

An observation focusing on such artworks as Herold Pierre Louis’s paintings, exhibited before a Pieta, or Lafleur & Bogaert’s mobile pharmacies integrated into a shrine, could end with similarly discrepant results. The church had a ‘transcendent’ atmosphere, which was further strengthened by a pulsating, strong electronic sound. I automatically identified it as something elemental – a sonic part of the exhibition, fitting to the recycled metal objects. The source of the sound – and the intentions of the artists, Henrike Naumann & Bastian Hagedorn – became apparent when the visitor went up to the choir, read about The Museum of Trance, which recalled how techno came from the neighbor club, penetrating the church atmosphere and blended with it at the 90s. Turning back to the question “What happens when first world art rubs up against third world art? Does it bleed?”, posed by Atis Rezistans | Ghetto Biennale, my answer is: definitely, and finally.

To look beyond the works of art – in an effort to reveal, in the hope of understanding, the cultural contexts and the history behind them – is necessary, but not sufficient. Every interpretation is subjective, as it is defined by the interpreter’s perspective, and we cannot know what we do not know. In my opinion, this particular exhibition pointed out how many things we should learn not only about the cultural background of the exhibited artworks but about ourselves.

L, Talismans, amulets, devotional and ceremonial accoutrements, 2022, mixed media, variable dimensions. Photo: Judit Árva

Judit Árva is a critic and art historian. Her research interests lie in experimental artistic tendencies, individual and collective practices, primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, which she examines in exhibition forms and in publications. She is one of the founding members of Lehetőségek tere [Space of Opportunity], a long-term educational and cultural program of tranzit.hu. She is engaged with cooperative and educational art projects focusing on issues like marginalized positions, ecological problems or urban-rural dichotomy. In her practice, she combines these two areas and examines problems in theory and practice.

What did you learn at documenta 15? is an open-ended issue 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. 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.

  1. documenta fifteen, Handbook (English) Hatja Cantz, p. 66.
  2. Logos 21, 1932, pp. 103–119. English translation: Erwin Panofsky, On the Problem of Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts. Translated by Jaś Elsner and Katharina Lorenz. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Spring 2012), pp. 467-482.
  3. Another important book, among others, on this method is Meaning in the Visual Arts (New York: Anchor Books), published in 1955.
  4. Ibid. pp. 477, 480.
  5. Myron M. Beasley, Vodou, Penises and Bones Ritual performances of death and eroticism in the cemetery and the junk yard of Port-au-Prince. Performance Research 15 (1), 2010, p. 41. http://myronbeasley.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/VodouPenises-BonesFINAL.pdf (last access: 03.11.2023.)
  6. Ghetto Biennale | Atis Rezistans, exhibition catalogue. Green Family Foundation – documenta fifteen, Kassel, 2022, w.p. https://ghettobiennale.org/files/SINGLEARGBCATALOGUE.pdf (last accessed: 03.06.2022)
  7. For example, the term “demonic” occurs in a collective review, in which some of the writers found the project “aggravating,” “horror,” or “sacrilegious,” where “like satan had triumphed over Christ in the apocalyptic battle.” Atis Rezistans, Installation in the Church St. Kunigundis, Kassel. Controversial perceptions. Exploring Visual Culture, https://www.explore-vc.org/en/objects/atis-rezistans-port-au-prince-haiti-various-artists-installation-in-the-church-st-kunigundis.html (last accessed: 03.11.2023.)
  8. On the connection between eroticism and Vodou rituals, see among others: Beasley (2010), pp. 41-47. http://myronbeasley.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/VodouPenises-BonesFINAL.pdf (last accessed: 03.11.2023.); Dasha A. Chapman, Embodying Dantò, Performing Freda, Dancing Lasirenn. Journal of Haitian Studies, Fall 2019, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Fall 2019), pp. 4-40.; Eziaku Atuama Nwokocha, An Equilibrist Vodou Goddess. Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Religion in Africa and the Diaspora, Summer/Autumn 2013. https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/an-equilibrist-vodou-goddess/ (last accessed: 20th March 2023.) Source of the quotations: Chapman (2019) p. 5, 7-8.
  9. “Vodou was both the inspiration and precipitation of the long fight for Haiti’s independence. On 23rd August 1791, a Vodou priest called Dutty Boukman performed a ceremony at Bwa Kayman, in the north of Haiti. Slaves gathered from all over the region. Boukman sacrificed a black pig for the African ancestors, and in its blood wrote the words ‘liberty or death’. Inspired the slaves returned to their plantations and spread the message of rebellion. Within days the fertile plains of cash crops were burning with a passion for freedom that did not dampen for thirteen years until independence was achieved in 1804.” Ghetto Biennale | Atis Rezistans, exhibition catalogue. Green Family Foundation – documenta fifteen, Kassel, 2022, w.p. https://ghettobiennale.org/files/SINGLEARGBCATALOGUE.pdf (last accessed: 03.06.2022)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

© 2024 tranzit.hu - Contemporary Art Organization

Main partner of tranzit is Erste Foundation

erste stiftung logo