This was the year of the 15th edition of Documenta, the much-watched, agenda-defining exhibition held every five years in the German city of Kassel. As directors of one of the biggest and best-resourced art exhibitions on the artworld calendar, curators of Documenta are, unsurprisingly, influential figures in the world of contemporary art. A decade ago, ArtReview first recognised the rising power of the curator (and by extension Documenta) by assigning its top spot, for the first time ever, to a Documenta curator (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev).
What marked out the influence of that particular curator’s megashow, ArtReview noted, was its ambitious multidisciplinary and multivenue approach (reaching from Kassel to Kabul), and – relevant to this year’s number one – that it ‘allowed artists to speak for themselves through their work, and to make their own set of rules’. Ten years later, for the first time ever, Documenta was curated not by a single professional curator, but by artists. It was also the first time in the exhibition’s 67-year history that its curators came from Asia.
With the appointment of the Indonesian collective ruangrupa as artistic directors of Documenta, artists have ‘spoken for themselves’ and ‘made their own rules’. An amorphous group of artists, architects and educationalists, ruangrupa has over its 22-year existence developed a sophisticated form of mutual and collaborative working and organising in a country where, unlike in the wealthier (in terms of arts funding) West, the infrastructure for contemporary art has been minimal or nonexistent. Working on the principles of their ‘lumbung’ philosophy (the Indonesian term for a community rice barn, a metaphor for sharing resources), they invited collaborators from all round the world to join them for the hundred-day exhibition in Germany, inviting them to in turn invite further collaborations, groups and individuals. By opening day, over 750 individual ‘participants’ were listed, rising to 1,500 in the final tally, most of them members of or participants in collectives and artist-groups. How this distributed way of working might work in the usually hierarchical form of the orthodox ‘biennial’ model has been largely eclipsed by the controversy that has raged around the exhibition from even before it opened. Accusations of antisemitism in some of the works on show, and in the alleged pro-Palestine sympathies of a few of the participants, have fed (and been fed by) the German media, an ongoing furore that has caused resignations, media castigations, a major artist to pull her work from the show (this year’s number 4, Hito Steyerl), questions in the German parliament and a very public snub by the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz. In a country that struggles with the historical guilt of the Holocaust, and whose lawmakers have branded the Boycott Divest Sanction movement antisemitic, such accusations overshadowed the exhibition for the length of its run, and did much to obscure any more positive consideration of ruangrupa’s vast, polyphonic, chaotic and convivial assembly of artistic voices from the Global South.
All of which might make one wonder – where’s the power in all this?
A reply to this might be that power, today, doesn’t only accrue to those securely at the top of their respective hierarchies, but also to those who disrupt the normal way of doing things. Documenta’s hierarchy may not have anticipated that ruangrupa’s decentred, distributed way of doing things would have caused such instability, even though it might have believed, in a general way, that hierarchies and power are intrinsically ‘Bad Things’, to be done away with. But if any lesson might be learned from ruangrupa’s great experiment with Documenta, it is that you can’t, as a powerful, hierarchical organisation, pretend to value delegation, collaboration and devolution of power only to be surprised when events no longer stay under your control. By August, Documenta’s director general had resigned and Germany’s culture minister had released plans to ‘reform’ the governance of Documenta, to bring it under closer government oversight.
Power reveals itself when it’s challenged. But old models and old ways of doing things, exclusive and hierarchical, are now being challenged across the artworld. Two decades ago, a once well-known curator opined, ‘The next Documenta should be curated by an artist’. But replacing curators with artists doesn’t itself change the structure of power, only the individual who sits at the top. ruangrupa’s power has been in letting that structure unravel. Now everyone else has to work out what happens next.