Guest Column: Margaret Wertheim – Documental Stimulation & Art World Alterities

Notes on Documenta 15 and art experiences in Germany

What can art do for human experience? What can it add or contribute?

I’m not interested in answers relating to the Kantian sublime or Schiller’s vision of the arts as a salvific force to liberate man-kind from our supposedly inherent ‘savagery.’

Fuck the ‘form drives’ of modernism.

Something was weighing on my mind during my recent trip to Germany. Everything seems so elegant, precise, ‘beautiful’ – calibrated to maximize aesthetic nicety. The food’s superb. Architecture is on show (Capital A). There are well-tended parks, grand plazas, functional railways, wi-fi, cafes, good coffee. I don’t even drink coffee but I did there, it’s so nice! Of course, I had an elite experience. Super-elite. I was there for the art. I was there because I make art. I was there because I was privileged to have my work on show at an elite German gallery. I didn’t see any banlieurs or refugees or poverty. I had the ultra-experience of a well-educated white English-speaking artist.

But as a well-educated white English-speaking artist I was bothered. Art in Germany is so controlled. For two weeks I visited museums in Baden-Baden, where my own work was being exhibited, then Kassel and Berlin. I saw museums for contemporary art, modern art, ancient art, Renaissance and Medieval art; science and anthropology museums; institutions big, small and enormous. It’s all so well-funded. German financial support for culture from both the state and private individuals seems to be unparalleled. How heartening to see a nation so committed to cultural enrichment. But after a while, I needed some letting go. I wanted to see some un-control, to experience some wild.

That’s why Documenta resonated for me – it’s out of control. At least the best parts were. Most parts in fact. It’s the places where the control set in – local German curators poking in their theory-laden fingers – that I liked less. For the most part it was a mind-expanding explosion of non-Western exuberance embedding ‘art’ in a network of genuine social activism and offering a window into the lives and imaginations of sectors of humanity rarely seen in the modern white cube.

The bales of rubbish plonked down on the lawn of an imperialist palace by Kenya’s Nest Collective; Gudskul scrawling over the walls and inviting audiences to teach one another; columns of the Friderichianum defamed by graffiti; Richard Bell’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy, now celebrating 50 years of continuous indigenous protest, blasting out audio of protest marches from a gummy old tent. The mess and chaos. The absence of frames and Artspeak – except in a few German-curated sub-sections. The insistence on process and in-situ evo-lution. The lack of reso-lution. Give things a chance. Let them BE.

Chaos with a purpose. The Nest Collective calling out Western dumping of second-hand clothes in Africa and the destruction of local textile industries in the name of giving Africans aid, all the while avoiding filling our own landfills with fast fashion and foisting our crap onto poorer nations who are drowning in it. That there’s now a fleet of lobbyists working on behalf of ‘recyclers’ to ensure Congress keeps the channels open says it all. And then punishing Rwanda for daring to close its doors to any more. Rwanda. The documentary film screening inside the Documenta rubbish-bale pavilion, titled Return to Sender – Delivery Details, should be on permanent loop in every Western clothing store. Buyer be damned!

The Britto Art Fund from Bangladesh, who’s playful installation of a local food bazaar offers up exquisitely crafted ceramic fish morphing into torpedoes and tomatoes and a slew of other sly monstrosities, along with crocheted strawberries and woven Campbell’s soup cans, as a commentary on the industrialization of our food supply, genetic engineering, gastronomical commodification and the entanglements of militarism with agriculture. It’s a display so delicate and quiet, even while being monumental, it would be easy to skip over its devastating critique.

And one of my favorite works, by the Wajukuu Art Project based in the Mukuru slum of Nairobi – a curtainlike sculpture constructed from thousands of knives. At once drop-dead beautiful and glittering with menace, it also calls to mind the powerful ritual objects of traditional Congolese artisans impaled all over by nails. A vast collection of these magnificent pieces is on display at the Humbolt Forum in Berlin, crammed by the hundreds into glass cases screaming out to be free. To Germany’s credit, there are now serious discussions taking place about the possibility of repatriating many pillaged culture-objects back to their homelands.

At Documenta there is also, inescapably, Taring Padi, an Indonesian collective in the eye of a storm, accused of antisemitism. Just as the exhibition opened, two figures were discovered among thousands in a vast plethora of hand-made imagery: a pig-headed soldier wearing a scarf with a star of David and a helmet emblazoned with ‘Mossad,’ the name of Israel’s security agency; plus a figure with pointy teeth, side-locks and an ‘SS’ insignia. This is Germany, where antisemitism is illegal, and someone should have removed these figures, or the entire piece containing them – a 20-year old, 60-foot long canvas, with scathing references to many regimes. Next to the Mossad solider was another whose helmet spelled out ‘ASIO,’ the security agency of my home country, Australia. [* See postscript.]

Taring Padi and Documenta’s curators, the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, have both issued apologies. The former has explained that the figures were never intended as a comment on Jewish people; the contentious mural, called People’s Justice, is instead “part of a campaign against militarism and the violence we experienced during Suharto’s 32-year military dictatorship in Indonesia.” [1] The whole canvas has been removed, and there’s so much remaining work no-one who’d not paid attention to the press would have any idea there’d ever been any more. It’s a mind-blowing amount of stuff. Most of it focused on calling out murderous regimes – particularly Suharto’s and his many international allies, among them Australia and the US – demanding social justice, and most importantly, offering a way forward through an enactment of resistance via participation at all levels of society.

This is what the German art elite seem to have missed: the idea that citizen participation matters. Taring Padi may be artists, but first and foremost they are activists. Their art is not about aesthetics – though it’s graphically brilliant – it’s about social change. It’s about overthrowing tyranny. Suharto’s regime went on for three decades and according to Transparency International he was one of the most corrupt leaders in modern history, having embezzled up to $30 billion from his people. By some estimates his security forces killed over a million people and imprisoned many more. They tortured, plundered, and stole from their society with support from the international banking community. These artists and their families grew up under this regime. They’re fighting/advocating/activating for an alternative society. They walk the walk with their commitments and practices. They are in the streets protesting; they’re working with farmers, fisherman and local Indonesian communities; they believe art can be a tool for social change whilst maintaining a “progressive and militant character.” [2] We artists in the Euro-American West don’t have to think about actual militancy.

For sure Taring Padi made a mistake showing the offending piece in Germany; curators should have flagged it in advance. But it bears stressing that the canvas in question was two decades old – originally exhibited in Australia in 2002 – and was not made within or for the context of Documenta, or a European setting. 2002 was just 14 years after the end of the Suharto regime when Indonesia was mired in corruption and poverty, the nation of 275 million people (the worlds 4th largest, more than Germany, France, Italy and Britain combined), was the hardest hit by the Asian financial meltdown of 1997 due to vast cronyism between Suharto’s inner circle and the world’s financial institutions. Moreover, the two disputed figures were two among thousands in which many nations and regimes are critiqued. Not just Israel, which is no longer referenced at all, but Australia, the US, the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and very prominently, China – there are lots of pig-headed people wearing Mao caps. Mostly these artists’ work is about corruption, of which Indonesians have seen way too much, and alliances between money, the military, and oppression. Why isn’t this being talked about at Documenta?

Frankly, as a woman, I had a few criticisms myself. There is an overarching male-ness to a lot of Taring Padi’s imagery and a tendency to depict women as mothers, whores or goddesses. Indeed, my one gripe about Documenta overall is the lack of feminist perspectives, with a few notable exceptions such as the brilliant Archive of Women’s Struggles in Algeria, and a general ambiance in too many places of women being sidelines to political struggle. Let’s be clear: many of the social practice art methodologies celebrated at Documenta were pioneered by feminist artists. I don’t mean to say feminist artists invented political action; what I mean is that feminist artists are the ones who first recognized that political struggle and the work of social maintenance could and should be seen as Art. So much of what’s on offer in Kassel is social practice – cooking, growing, cleaning, sharing, teaching. if you believe in this vision of art, then feminists should be given much more due. Yet I am capable of looking beyond this lacuna and seeing a picture of Documenta that is mostly insanely admirable and urgently needs expression.

The spirit of collectivity and communal activism on show here is what world requires today. How can WE the people, gather together and support one another, against oppressive forces be they militarist, capitalist, corporatist, religious, or rightist of all persuasions? This is a primary question of our time. Allied to this is the issue of how can we overthrow the tyranny of ME and the cult of individual ‘genius’? How can we get beyond the insanity of an Art World that pays attention to a tiny few ‘stars’ and treats the vast bulk of humanity as detritus, at best to be ignored, at worst to be derided? I call this ‘attention deficit disorder.’ The Art World – TAW in Doug Harvey’s terms – pays insane attention to a select few and literally does not see everyone else. For me this is the over-riding issue. How can I help to participate in an art practice that visibilizes people – not just a few people, but all people?

This was clearly the motivating spirit behind Documenta-15 and the German government is to be applauded for making such as astonishing mash-up of cultures and peoples and non-Western arts available. It’s a €40-million public gift they perhaps now regret. Documenta’s director has resigned and the culture ministry has announced that henceforth all proposals will be audited before funding is agreed. Given the furor, it’s improbable anything like this will happen again in a long time, at least not in Europe, but for those lucky enough to get to Kassel it’s a vivifying vision of an ‘art world’ imbued with generosity and committed to social change, not just in name and on wall-texts ‘gesturing towards’ issues, but by concrete human action.

Down the train-line in Baden-Baden, an exhibition of my own work was just finishing up and what I saw at Documenta restored my faith in the collaborative feminist practice at its heart. The Crochet Coral Reef project I do with my sister Christine Wertheim – on show at Museum Frieder Burda and overlapping with Documenta by a week – is also about visibilizing and enabling the creative energies of ‘ordinary’ people. [3] 4,000 women (and a few men), from all over Germany participated with us in making a vast submarine fantasy world consisting of over 40,000 crocheted corals. It was a mind-blowing amount of stuff constituting well over 100,000 hours of (mostly) female labor. Every one of the participants names was on the walls in one of Germany’s top-tier galleries. All of them were credited as co-artists with Christine and I. This is an art world I want to be part of – one that includes rather than excludes, one that, in the spirit of living coral reefs, celebrates work made by myriad individuals. This is an art world Documenta envisions: cooperative, communal, collaborative, intersectional, intercultural, intergenerational, and truly international. No wonder the German art elite has reverberated against it. It could have blown Kant’s mind if only he’d been open to the concept of a sublime experience created by human collectives.

[*] Postscript
For the record, my father’s family were Jews, as were my mother’s maternal grandparents. My grandfather was the first, and for a long time the only, Jew admitted into the Australia Club, at a time when being Jewish in Australia was widely deemed an insurmountable social barrier.

[1] https://www.dw.com/en/antisemitic-mural-removed-from-documenta-art-show/a-62216554

[2] https://documenta-fifteen.de/en/lumbung-members-artists/taring-padi/

[3] https://crochetcoralreef.org/exhibitions/museum-frieder-burda-baden-baden-germany/

Margaret Wertheim is a writer, artist and curator whose work focuses on relations between science and the wider cultural landscape. A two-fold perspective animates her work: on the one hand science can be seen a set of conceptual enchantments that delight our minds and senses; on the other hand science is a socially embedded activity intersecting with philosophy, culture and politics. Wertheim aims to illuminate both dimensions of science and mathematics through her books, articles, lectures, workshops, and exhibitions.

Wertheim is the author of six books including Pythagoras’ Trousers, a history of physics and religion; The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, a history of scientific concepts of space; and Physics on the Fringe, a ground-breaking exploration of outsider science. She has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Aeon, Cabinet and many others. In 2003, with her twin-sister Christine, she founded the Institute For Figuring, a Los Angeles based practice devoted to the “aesthetic and poetic dimensions of science and mathematics.” Through the IFF she has designed art & science exhibits for galleries and museums around the world, including the Hayward Gallery (London), Science Gallery (Dublin) and Art Center College of Design (Pasadena). Margaret and Christine’s Crochet Coral Reef project is a global participatory art & science endeavor that has been seen by more than two million people and exhibited at the Helsinki Biennial 2021, 2019 Venice Biennale, the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburg), Museum of Arts and Design (New York), Deutsches Museum (Munich), the Smithsonian (Washington D.C.), and other international venues. Throughout her career, Margaret has been a pioneer in communicating STEM subjects to women. She lectures widely at universities, colleges, and conferences. With degrees in physics (University of Queensland) and mathematics (University of Sydney), she has worked on all seven continents and stood on the South Pole.

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