Posted:May 10, 2024

One Year After "Documenta 15" - What Does Looking Back Mean?: "Kassel Documenta Talk" Report at Goethe-Institut Villa Kamogawa

This is a report on a panel discussion about Documenta 15, which was held from June to September 2022. The panelists are independent curators Kodama Kanazawa and Koichiro Osaka and artist and program manager of Kika Gallery (Kyoto) Jun'ichiro Ishii. The moderator is Enzio Wetzel, director of the Goethe-Institut Osaka Kyoto and Goethe-Institut Villa Kamogawa.

Talk view

On September 2, 2023, the Goethe-Institut Villa Kamogawa in Kyoto hosted a panel discussion to address Documenta 15. Its three panelists included independent curators Kodama Kanazawa and Koichiro Osaka, plus artist Jun'ichiro Ishii, who also runs the Kyoto-based Kika Gallery as its program manager. Enzio Wetzel, director of the Goethe-Institut Osaka Kyoto, acted as moderator.

Cancel culture that eclipsed Documenta 15

The event aimed to report on and discuss Documenta 15 (June 18-September 25, 2022), an international art festival held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Hailed as one of the top festivals in the contemporary art world, its influence is felt from the day it opens. For the fifteenth edition, the Indonesian collective ruangrupa was brought on as artistic director, making it the first for a collective and anyone from the South Asian diaspora. Ruangrupa's "collaborative resource building" theme in resistance against hypercapitalism drew considerable attention, as seen in their motto, "Make Friends Not Art." However, shortly after, cancel culture permeated the news amidst allegations that Documenta 15 was antisemitic (*1), particularly from within Germany.

On the contrary, this panel discussion aimed to move away from such headlines and instead bring attention to Documenta 15's original purpose of 'collaborative resource building' and its continuing impact on the art world. Furthermore, the discussion took place in person without an online forum to allow an uninhibited conversation among the panelists and audience members (*2). The following report provides an overview of the overall discussion.

Re-examining Documenta 15: Festivity, Community & Art, and Hospitality

Let us review some of the discussion's key points. With approximately 20 people in the audience, the event began in an informal setting at tables arranged in a circle. As the audience consisted of a diverse range of East Asian nationalities, including Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, the event was primarily held in English (although participants were told they could speak in their native languages).

In his opening remarks, Enzio Wetzel said, "As we now approach one year since the opening of Documenta 15, I would like people to reflect upon the festival ruangrupa directed, from the viewpoint of Japan and East Asia." Before moving on to the presentations, he added that he wanted people to formulate their thoughts without biases based on their nationalities. The three panelists then shared their reflections from having experienced Documenta 15 in person.

Talk view Enzio Wetzel and Jun'ichiro Ishii

Artist Jun'ichiro Ishii gave the first presentation, "What is Art?" Drawing on his experience of numerous long-term art residencies in countries such as Korea, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Georgia, Ishii recalled often being confronted with what he called "ununderstandable" realities. In such situations, Ishii emphasized the importance of 'imagining' what the other person was thinking rather than pretending to understand or giving up on understanding. Ishii suggested that this imagination process could be considered "art."

Ishii followed up with an anecdote about a Korean friend, an embassy employee, who had been invited to a party by the Chinese government. His friend sampled Chinese wine but immediately thought it tasted terrible because of its distinct flavor. The friend later realized that he may have been too quick to judge because he was used to the taste of European wine. Only later did he discover that the wine was a traditional Uyghur wine cultivated to complement Uyghur cuisine. This episode exposes the source of our tendency to reject other cultures and individuals and should alert us to how much we are preoccupied with Westernized predispositions.

The impact of Documenta 15 is also connected to this story. Unknown artists from the Global South were predominantly featured, but judging from the Western standards that we all unconsciously follow, it left the audience puzzled. However, Ishii suggested that, in terms of revealing our innate biases, Documenta 15 had provided an ideal opportunity to imagine societies and people that had previously been disregarded.

Citing Singaporean curator David Teh, Ishii noted that "art" in Southeast Asia today was "a product of modernism" and, therefore, inseparable from the legacy of colonialism. With this in mind, it is even more necessary to consider art that existed before the West's modernism through the art of "festivity" vis-à-vis cultural festivals historically prevalent in Asia. If the 20th century was when art became a commodity, Ishii posited that the upsurge of the ubiquitous "art festival" in the 21st century is an era in which "art" has been re-defined as "festivity." In other words, we travel around the world to see these "festivals," i.e., "art festivals." After socializing with peers, we jet off again to the next destination, chasing not the material objects that define "art" but the "art" that is the energy generated from this repetitive chase. Ishii concluded that, indeed, through examining Documenta 15, which produced this energy, we can challenge ourselves to rethink "What is Art?"

Next, independent curator Kodama Kanazawa presented from the viewpoint of "community and art." Over the past several years, Kanazawa has been working with this theme (*3), including organizing an exhibition focused on community-based art practices in Stranger Than Fiction: Taking Creation Beyond Location (Towada Art Center, 2019) (*4).

Talk view Kodama Kanazawa

As Kanazawa pointed out, many artworks and initiatives at Documenta 15 were rooted in community building. For example, several members of ruangrupa relocated to Kassel in 2020 and interacted with the local community and residents. A children's workshop space and daycare service called "Fridskul" were offered at the main venue of the Fridericianum Museum. In addition, the number of participating collectives further emphasized Documenta 15's collaborative aspect. 

However, ruangrupa's efforts to create a "Documenta oriented towards community building" were met with mixed opinions. As an example, Kanazawa cited the hosts of "The Week in Art," The Art Newspaper's podcast, who said that Documenta 15's approach to "art as social practice" was "nothing new" and "was reminiscent of the '60s and '70s." However, Kanazawa's underlying presentation theme challenged these critiques: Did "the lack of novelty" or the fact that it was evocative of the '60s and '70s make it problematic?

Similarly, Kanazawa spoke on the criticism flagging "community and art" in Japan, as seen in art critic Naoya Fujita's text, "Zombies of the Avantgarde: The Problems with Locality Art." Fujita wrote, "68's style art practices are being absorbed into Japan's countryside. Oozing blood and guts, zombies of the avant-garde are falling to pieces in rural rice fields," regarding his concern that such art in Japan's popular "regional art festivals" and "community art" (*5) were "without substance." Kanazawa pointed out that the podcast "The Week in Art" and Fujita's text expose similar perspectives. As these critiques come from an underlying expectation that art should be innovative and progressive, Documenta 15 and Japan's regional art festivals are seen as replicating or degrading past art movements and concepts. 

Is it true that art from the '60s and '70s is considered "old" and therefore "inferior?" Kanazawa responded by presenting a diagram from a discussion (*6) between her and aesthetics scholar Futoshi Hoshino. Hoshino's diagram contrasted the "local," "regional," and "site-specific" aspects seen in "community and art" with the "global,"  "universal,"  and "portable" values within modern art. Furthermore, while these aspects of "community and art" might be symbolic of "pre-modern art," Hoshino asserts that they have the potential to subvert modernity through dialectical means. Kanazawa agreed, emphasizing the context of "community and art" in Japan's modernization. Moreover, Japan's modernism came as a form of self-colonialization, eliminating traditional and regional aesthetics over those from the West. Kanazawa suggested that perhaps this artistic practice had become necessary so individuals affected by Japan's self-colonization could recover their identities via art. 

Let us return to the discourse that "art must be progressive." Kanazawa claimed this stance is particularly prevalent in "mainstream" art history (i.e., Western art history), which runs the risk of ignoring diverse perspectives from regional and cultural communities. On the other hand, she credited Documenta 15 for highlighting the importance of understanding and addressing complexities in a world affected by modernization, colonization, and decolonization. To that end, Kanazawa suggested that it may be more accurate to say that art history was "something flowing backward."

Talk view Koichiro Osaka

Independent curator Koichiro Osaka presented last. While agreeing with the criticism that "Documenta 15 was nothing new," Osaka also stated that "novelty" was insufficient as a standard by which to evaluate today's artistic practices. Because artwork and exhibitions are produced in excess as a result of our capitalist society, Osaka ventured that "necessity" was a more suitable assessment. If so, he said, Documenta 15 could be considered "an experimental ground for a future society." Osaka went on to present three issues concerning the festival. 

First, in the words of Gudskul participants, there is "incomplete art history," wherein Western art history is essentially focused on an "incomplete" perspective of the "artistic practice of individuals." Osaka stated that Documenta 15 may have been a crucial counterpoint to this "incomplete art history," revealing the collective knowledge generated between all of its creative practitioners, not just the results of individual artists. 

Osaka's second point was the "public without institutions." Here, institutions refer to galleries, museums, and other subsidy systems that support the arts. Particularly after 1989, they primarily functioned as places that embodied democracy and freedom for citizens by supporting art. However, as a result of extreme capitalism and the pandemic, the wealth gap between the 1% and the rest of the world has only exacerbated. Consequently, the art world has come to function according to the whims and needs of the wealthy, diminishing the number of these democratized institutions. 

Under these circumstances, Osaka pointed out that it was crucial to consider the "public" in areas that do not have art institutions or infrastructure. Even in the region where ruangrupa operates in Indonesia, no organized infrastructures support contemporary art. But there is still a "public." Instead of simply curating displays of well-organized artworks, ruangrupa instills a curatorial practice of hospitality that considers every viewer. Osaka said that we could learn a lot from this practice of hospitality that Documenta 15 emphasized, a practice that comes particularly from an area without institutions. 

The third point was "inter-locality→geopoetics." Though ruangrupa advocated for "inter-locality" (regional exchange), Osaka drew attention to the word's limitations. Osaka introduced Patrick D. Flores's concept of "geopoetics" from the National Gallery Singapore as an alternative that would emphasize political solidarity and cross-regional connection. Flores's concept signifies that problems in one region could be expanded to others and illuminate connections that transcend geopolitical regionality. 

The presentations ended at this point and moved on to a Q&A portion with the audience. In the conversation that followed, questions included how to create art amidst such various opinions and backgrounds, what it means to be global, the difference between global and local, and the conditions that make the art scene possible. 

Looking to the future by reflecting on the past

Let us move on to the final summary. Despite distinct perspectives, the common theme among all three panelists was how to challenge the current art system's hegemony. It also seems pertinent to consider why many critiques of Documenta 15 described it as "confusing" or "outdated." I am also one of those who saw the festival and found it difficult to understand. However, speaking with different participants in Kassel or attending this discussion made me realize how much I am also bound to traditional viewpoints in the mainstream art world.  

As this discussion took place a year after the festival's closing, panelists wondered aloud that "perhaps it was too late to reflect." But I wonder if that is truly the case. As we all know, we live in a world fraught with tragedies. In this landscape, there is no doubt that we can learn from the practices of collective resource building embodied in Documenta 15. Besides, if we agree with Ishii that "the energy from 'festivity' is the art," perhaps this reflection is art in and of itself. Perhaps this belief allows art to act as a ray of hope against feeling powerless in the face of global tragedy (*7).

*1── For more information on Documenta 15, please refer to previous articles on Tokyo Art Beat (in Japanese only):
「『ドクメンタ15』レポート。本当に「キャンセルされるべき芸術祭」だったのか?」(Text: Yuki Saiki, Published: August 9, 2022)
「ドクメンタ15におけるルアンルパの挑戦:《ルル学校》の実践で生まれたフォーマット」(Text: Midori Hirota, Published: October 21, 2022)
*2── For further information, refer to the video recording of the panel discussion.
*3── This refers to artwork and projects in which artists collaborate with local or regional municipalities. Within Japan, this is commonly referred to as "chiiki art" (local art or community art), but due to much debate surrounding its meaning, Kanazawa chose to use the term "Community and Art" for this panel discussion.
*4── This exhibition included three artists: Jun Kitazawa, Nadegata Instant Party, and Hiroshi Fuji. Kitazawa designed activities that focused on play for Towada locals with rickshaws he brought from Indonesia. Nadegata Instant Party, an art collective that often facilitates spontaneous events with local residents, set up a virtual museum inside the venue. Hiroshi Fuji, whose previous projects include "The Kaekko Bazaar," presented a novel that he wrote with Kanazawa that illustrated his career focus from teamwork to theater to community work.
*5── Here we refer to Fujita's term "community art" from his original text. Kanazawa also noted that Fujita's term is problematic as it fails to differentiate between "regional art festivals" and "art projects."
*6── Kanazawa was also an editor for the book Where is Chiiki Art? (Towada Art Center, Horinouchi Publishing Co., 2020)
*7── As previously stated, the purpose of the discussion was to talk about Documenta 15's original intentions before accusations of antisemitism dominated its headlines. At any rate, as the implications of antisemitism have changed further since the festival in 2022, it may be important to re-examine why Documenta 15 was subject to such charges of antisemitism. This is undoubtedly another opportunity to think about the political and cultural division occurring now with what is happening in Israel and Gaza.

Venue: Goethe-Institut, Villa Kamogawa
Panelists: Jun'ichiro Ishii, Kodama Kanazawa, Koichiro Osaka
Moderator: Enzio Wetzel
Video: Shoen Media
Edit: Mizuki Kajihara
Subtitles: Kei Ota
Supported by: Kyoto Prefecture Bunka Ryoku Challenge, Kyoto City "Arts Aid Kyoto"
Produced by: ©Kika Gallery 2024
documenta Talk website

Mio Harada

Mio Harada

Assistant Curator at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. Born in Saitama in 1995 and raised in Tokyo. After receiving a B.A. in aesthetics and art theory from the University of Tokyo, she completed the Curatorial Practices course at the Department of Arts Studies, Graduate School of Global Arts, Tokyo University of the Arts, and received the Ikuo Hirayama Culture and Arts Award. She assumed her current position in 2022. Having been involved in performance practice herself, she has developed an interest in the performing arts. She has recently been examining and researching artistic practices that reconsider societal conditions. Exhibitions she has curated include "PRINT (ed.) VOICES" (Tokyo, 2021) and "(((((," (Tokyo, 2022).