Welcome to the fun house! Sharks, skaters and smelters liven up Documenta 15 | Documenta

On the parched grass outside the Fridericianum Museum in Kassel, one of the oldest public museums in the world, sits a wan little black tent. Painted on one side is a statement: “The emergency has replaced the contemporary.” I’m not even certain that this tent is officially part of Documenta 15, or a response to it, but it is as succinct as any other definition of the current edition of the exhibition. Held every five years in the city, Documenta is frequently talked about as the world’s most important contemporary art show, a keynote for our changing times. The word contemporary has for a long while sounded meaningless, nothing more than a catch-all, its end announced by Tino Sehgal’s invigilators at the 2013 Venice Biennale, who pranced around the German Pavilion singing “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary!” to startled visitors.

Do we need yet another art world jamboree, with hot-shot artists and big ideas, a portentous theme and a nexus of the curatorial and the academic, the conceptual and the commercial? So horrible is the current global situation, so broken the sense of what art is or what it can say about the world, Documenta 15 needed to do things differently. The current Documenta intends to be both a dismantling and a corrective to the systems of art production, galleries, art fairs and exhibitions that constitute what is casually referred to as “the art world”, with its star artists, its often shadowy financing, its them-and-us mentality. As it is, Kassel, which has a street named after Joseph Beuys – who said that everyone was an artist – seems the right place for this current Documenta. What Beuys didn’t say was that all art was worth the time of day.

Opening day … visitors tour Documenta 15. Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Selected by an international panel, Documenta’s curator changes with each edition. This time, Jakarta-based collective Ruangrupa, founded in 2000, provides the artistic direction, and they in turn have chosen other art collectives as participants. These include groups as diverse as Project Art Works from Hastings (contenders in the last Turner prize), FAFSWAG, a collective of Indigenous queer artists from Aotearoa/New Zealand, and Off-Biennale Budapest, who imagine the creation of a transnational museum of contemporary Roma art, RomaMoMA.

For all the urgency, some things here are more about play than conflict. Welcome to the fun house. People are swerving across the elegant graffiti on the skateboard ramp installed in the Documenta Halle, courtesy of Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture from Thailand, and one large gallery in the Fridericianum is now a public day-care centre for babies and toddlers, set up by Graziela Kunsch. Perplexed visitors wander through, thinking the creche is some kind of collective artwork. Perhaps it is, but it is even more a practical response to need.

Outside the Documenta Halle the Bangladeshi-based Britto Arts Trust are digging in and planting out their Bengali kitchen garden under lovely, pagoda-like straw canopies, while inside they’ve erected a tin-roofed grocery bazaar, overlooked by scenes and faces from Bengali movies, drawn by Bangladeshi cinema poster artists and rickshaw painters. These images parade across the gallery’s high wall, showing scenes in movies relating to food, famine and war. And among the goods in the grocery are artillery shells that look suspiciously like aubergines, guns with fish for barrels, explosions that resemble heads of broccoli and displays of fish with “20m tons of plastic are dumped in our oceans annually” printed on their cast bodies. The shelves are stacked with emergency Meals Ready to Eat and cartons of fruit juice labelled “organic food is a lie” and “E coli”. So far, so obvious.

Fake food … work by Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture from Thailand.
Fake food … work by Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture from Thailand. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

To get into the Documenta Halle you have to enter through a ramshackle corridor of rusted corrugated-iron sheeting, reminiscent of the precarious slum dwellings on the outskirts of Nairobi. Upstairs is an almost abstract mural presenting an isometric drawing of a Cuban detention block, which was modelled on a Stasi prison, by the Soviet advisers that helped build it. Until you know this, it could be anything. This last is part of the evolving contribution by the Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt, a group of Cuban artists and activists, including Tania Bruguera, whose project in Kassel also continues in Havana. One room is lined with the daily drawings one artist posts on his Facebook account. Among the flying police batons and scenes depicting a tourist Cuba riven with hidden dissent, numerous images depict faces with their mouths mutilated – in one image a Jaws-like shark savages a man’s tongue. There’s a list of Cuban artists and intellectuals censored by government institutions between 1959 and the present, and mugshots of Cubans detained and imprisoned on fabricated crimes (hoarding, contempt and disobedience). Several of the contributors here have been deemed “non-artists” by the Cuban state and effectively silenced or exiled.

Already, ideas and contributors have proliferated beyond what seems feasible or manageable. Coherence, if there is any, emerges out of the collision of attitudes and directions. Documenta 15, Ruangrupa note, “is still using the language of – and can be understood as – a conventional artistic mega-event, despite the attempts to approach it in a more bottom-up, organic and accessible way”. Although trying to effect a critical break with the kinds of exhibition-making we are familiar with, Documenta 15 isn’t quite as radical as it may appear. We are already well used to exhibitions as evolving situations, where all kinds of activities can take place in the gallery. For years now we’ve been invited to join yoga classes or tea dances in galleries, to sleep, to eat, to meditate or to flirt, to count rice grains or to engage in all manner of collaborative participatory games. We’ve been courted, harangued, remonstrated with, buttonholed, sung to and seduced. We’ve been bored, baffled and beguiled, by art and non-art and maybe-art.

Words, words, words. So many words everywhere in Documenta 15; it is a wonder anyone has time for anything else. Words are scrawled over the pillars of the portico of the Fridericianum Museum by Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi, who writes: “I am not exotic I am exhausted.” No wonder, as he’s also repeated the words “ability responsibility” over and over again on one of the columns, as well as making little drawings, stray comments, things he may have overheard. He’s using the columns as if they were a kind of reportage of the emotional state of Documenta.

Words, words, words … visitors walk among columns scrawled with messages by Dan Perjovschi.
Words, words, words … visitors walk among columns scrawled with messages by Dan Perjovschi. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

More words fill banners dangling in the Fridericianum’s’s atrium, the work of the Berlin-based *foundationClass Collective, a group that aims to provide access to art education to migrant communities, proposing different ways to survive the art school experience. “How do we avoid falling into the trap of feeling the need to justify our art praxis by utilising inherited or foreign formal or conceptual languages?” they ask, as well they might. There are dozens of such statements, both here and in another of Documenta’s venues a mile or so away. By the time you’ve started to unpack one such thought, another cries for attention.

Phrases written on walls, filling a mural and a seemingly endless text in a series of scrolls that stretch floor to ceiling in the work of Mexican artist Erick Beltrán at Kassel’s wonderfully eccentric Museum for Sepulchral Culture. Maddening words, angry words, confrontational words. So many words you begin to forget where in Documenta you’ve read them. Some announce the end of art, and others presage new ways of doing things. “Where’s the art?”, reads one note. “Curators Go Home” another. Even the extensive wall labels are a challenge. Some are placed so low down you have to get on your hands and knees to read them.

Occupying 32 venues, this Documenta has no theme, and revels in its clamour of voices, positions, tactics and approaches. Thank goodness there are a number of chill-out rooms where visitors can take respite, except they remind me of purgatorial waiting rooms for some kind of appointment you’d prefer not to keep. The exhibition spaces here become living rooms, Ruangrupa tell us, the artists deciding how to use them. “Through this process, the rooting of artistic practice in daily life is made tangible,” they say. The trouble with this approach is that there is no possible overview about what’s being shown, and there are some terrible, terrible lapses among the worthy and the vital.

For Ruangrupa the key concept here is lumbung, an Indonesian term for a communal rice barn, and its attendant values of collectivity, resource sharing and allocation. To this end, there are lumbung artists, lumbung members and participants, and the audience that comes to Kassel, or who live in Kassel, are invited, in different ways, to share the lumbung. A sense of mutual care seems to be the key.

Stamina needed … Nguyen Trinh Thi’s video work evokes the experiences of captives in Vietnamese jungle camps.
Atmospheric … Nguyen Trinh Thi’s video work evokes the experiences of captives in Vietnamese jungle camps. Photograph: Jamie Maxtone-Graham/Artes Mundi prize/PA

Perhaps inevitably, a lot of moving image work has come to Kassel, not least because it is easier and cheaper to transport than sculptures or paintings. If you want to learn about the traditional smelters in the Congolese copper belt, in a film by a group from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or to understand something of the hard-scrabble life in the Tunisian town of Redeyef, in one of the world’s largest phosphate basins, and to see how creativity finds a way in the harshest of physical and political situations, this is the place to be. A compilation of beautiful, frightening and complex films by members of Sada (Regroup), a kind of ad hoc alternative art education initiative that has helped young film-makers in Beirut, provide some of the best, most inventive and emotionally difficult works to be found at Documenta 15.

Elsewhere, there are displays of archive material and film from the Black Archives, documenting Black Dutch emancipation movements, while the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algerie, which includes film interviews, footage of demonstrations and a host of other material detailing the history of activism in the women’s movements of Algeria. The heavy metal scene in Australia, and the experience of stateless guitarist Kazem Kazemi, a Kurdish Iranian refugee who was imprisoned for six years on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea before a further two years spent in hotel detention in Australia, is described in a film shot by Australian film-making student Alia Ardon. Going from one thing to another, from a sound work in an underpass to the wrenching little drawings made by Austrian-Romani artist Ceija Stojka, recalling her experiences in concentration camps, and going from the indoor skateboard ramp in the Documenta Halle to Vietnamese artist Nguyen Trinh Thi’s atmospheric son-et-lumiere in a 16th-century tower, which evokes the experiences of captives in Vietnamese jungle camps, requires a great deal of stamina. And some works still demand the kinds of extended and repeated viewings we’ve been used to in the past. This will always be the case.

More and more, artists are being asked by public institutions and funding bodies to earn their keep, to engage with audiences and to perform some kind of social good. For many artists, this is a political necessity, for others it is born of circumstance.

Coming over as less an exhibition of art and more an exhibition about the potential of the collaborative process, this is a reminder that there is such a thing as empowerment, and that the individual voice remains important. In any case, no one works in a vacuum. A critic is largely ill-equipped to judge art by its social use-value, however well intentioned. In any case, the whole idea of critical criteria and judgment in itself is starting to feel questionable. Some might harrumph that Documenta 15 is relational aesthetics gone mad. Documenta 15 foregrounds social practice, and treats museums and galleries less as places for the display and care of objects than as sites for social interaction and human development. But even when unspoken, the exhibition is always about more than the things it contains. It’s a lumbung.

  • Documenta 15 is at various venues in Kassel, Germany, until 25 September.

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