The historical exhibition Documenta, considered the most politically reactive art event in the western world, recently came to a close leaving behind an atmosphere of controversy around what the German political establishment considered its financial extravagance. Given that Documenta has in recent years spilled over to other countries – namely those suffering the impact of the west’s self-interest in the form of occupations (Afghanistan) or forced bankruptcy (Greece) – these editions saw a number of ambitious, free of charge exhibitions organised around Athens. In addition, at one of Kassel’s main venues, the solemn Fridericianum was mainly occupied by Greek artists’ works from the Athens Museum of Contemporary Art under the title Antidoron (αντίδωρον, literally the return of a gift), a poignant gesture that visibly enabled a sense of empathy across borders. By virtue of such grand gesture, Documenta seemed to engage discussions around democracy and the value of embracing multiple knowledge systems that contended with a Eurocentric and ‘Brexitist’ political dystopia caused by the immigration phobia that has taken hold of old and shaky Europe. However, the curatorial concept seemed to be anchored not only in denouncing the many ills of the global present but also the dark period of Germany’s own nazy regime, with a selection of works spread around the venues in this plain city, fatally known for its role as a weapons manufacturer. On that note, Regina J. Galindo’s video piece records the artist running in front of a German war tank in looped sequence, a work among others that could induce a deep sense of anxiety.
In Friedrichsplatz, the heart of the city but also a sore memory as the place of fascist concentrations and book burning rituals during WW2, Marta Minujin’s Parthenon of books was been dismantled day after day and the books distributed to the public. The work, a restaging of the original piece erected on 9 de julio avenue in Buenos Aires to mark the end of the latest and most devastating period of military dictatorship in Argentina in 1983, resonated in Kassel as a double bind of historical references and a hint to the global erosion of democracy.
From Aotearoa/New Zealand’s first participation in Documenta came a refreshing selection of three representative practices and historical times: the gorgeous black paintings by modern master of abstract art Ralph Hotere, and a public art piece by Nathan Polio, whose appropriation of an historical photograph showing a formal Maori welcome ceremony points at notions of hospitality even under colonial conditions. Finally, the all-female Mata Aho Collective showed their piece Kiko Moana at the Landesmusuem, a gigantic blue wave that evoked the Maori figure of taniwa – a mythical sea water entity – made of woven light tarpaulin, therefore updating a traditional technique with contemporary materials and old wisdom with new and pertinent meanings, as expressed in the lines below.
He wāhine, he whenua, ka ngaro te tangata
(Without women and without land, humanity is lost)