8 Standout Artists and Collectives at Documenta 15

For Documenta 15, organizers wanted something different. Breaking the prestigious quinquennial’s 67-year-long legacy of featuring major international artists—such as Hans Haacke, On Kawara, Adrian Piper, and Alfredo Jaar, to name a few—this year’s event is shoving the art world out of its comfort zone, with mixed results.

Spread across 32 venues in the city of Kassel in western Germany for 100 days, Documenta 15 is curated not by an individual art-world luminary as is tradition, but rather the dynamic Indonesian arts organization ruangrupa. In a radical departure from a festival that once featured the likes of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, this year’s exhibition replaces blue-chip, or even well-known, international artists with several relatively obscure, invited collectives, who were then allowed to invite any collaborating collectives they wanted to work with—culminating in a staggering total of 1,500 featured artists.

From the jump, ruangrupa approached a quintessentially elite European art festival from a decentralized, anti-capitalist, communitarian stance: what they term lumbung—a reference to an Indonesian word for a shared supply of rice, which the community divides with a spirit of mutual trust. In a repeated gesture of institutional critique, numerous rooms across this year’s Documenta are active artists’ workshops, positioned directly in the middle of otherwise-used gallery space and challenging the (arguably, fair) expectation to see any art at all.

This is far from ruangrupa’s only move away from curatorial norms. Across Documenta, traditional explanatory wall texts are nowhere to be found: at most, installed works are paired with sheets of A4 paper stuck to the wall with a magnet. Throughout official festival materials, participating artists are enthusiastic about the disintegration of traditional art world rigidity in favor of a flourishing community: included collaborators Cinema Caravan and Takashi Kuribayashi, for example, self-describe as “being driven by the motto ‘make friends not art’”—a phrase rarely heard in the art world.

Ruangrupa’s governing artistic statement is simultaneously simple and complicated: simple in that what they really wanted, it appears, is to financially uplift arts and community collectives from countries largely in the Global South; complicated in that the politics of doing so mandated elaborate, even convoluted, internal politics and terminologies that are difficult for an outside viewer to understand—to the extent that some festival materials come equipped with a multi-page glossary of relevant terms.

In keeping with the curators’ approach, event organizers have made such traditionally bureaucratic concerns as the allocation of institutional funding central. The redistribution of European wealth to art groups and communities in poorer countries is a fascinating cornerstone of ruangrupa’s philosophy, but it is rendered surprisingly, and unfortunately, often confusing to understand.

Of course, as you may have heard, these philosophical provocations about the art world and funding are hardly the most controversial story at this year’s Documenta. Shortly after the opening, visitors criticized a 60-foot mural by the art collective Taring Padi for including what was considered anti-Semitic imagery; the mural, which was featured in the center of the festival, has since been removed.

The long-standing repercussions of that decision remain to be seen: Citing the fracas, Germany’s culture minister announced last week that the government plans to be more involved in future editions of Documenta. Additionally, the allocation of the art event’s €40 million budget will be conditional on approval from organizations including the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Disputes aside, Documenta 15 offers a bold challenge to the viewer schooled in the expectations of the traditional art world. This year’s event is a fascinating, three-dimensional exploration of putting one’s money where their mouth is as Western Europe continues to grapple with the legacy of colonialism. At its best, Documenta 15 is rich, vibrant, exciting, and educational, opening up an unpretentious world to its viewership that is vast, international, and poignantly ephemeral. Whether or not you make the trip, here are some of the artists and collectives whose works are particularly noteworthy.

Britto Arts Trust

Venue: Documenta Halle

The artist-run nonprofit Britto Arts Trust grew out of Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2002. At Documenta, they’re presenting work exploring the relationship between food, community, postcolonialism, and the global supply chain. Outside of the Documenta Halle, the artists of Britto Arts Trust have constructed a living organic garden and communal kitchen space out of a cluster of woven bamboo structures, where they plan to serve the local cuisines of “100 nationalities in 100 days.”

Inside the Documenta Halle, take a tour through Britto Arts Trust’s rasad (2022), an elaborate twist on an epicurean bazaar. A playful series of fake food objects—eggs, milk, vegetables, potatoes—is installed across a number of different shelves and inside a constructed pantry. These faux foods, made from surprising materials—including ceramic, plaster, plastic, cotton, and corrugated metal—include painted ceramic papaya juice cartons and squishy, embroidered cushions shaped like Campbell’s soup cans. Some, like painted cartons that remind viewers that “organic food is a lie,” are overtly political, drawing a thought-provoking connection between the international food trade, the legacy of colonialism, the slave trade, and ongoing economics of extraction and exploitation.

Fondation Festival Sur le Niger

Venue: Hübner areal

The artists comprising Fondation Festival Sur le Niger (FFSN) came together in the summer of 2009 as an outgrowth of Mali’s annual Festival Sur le Niger. FFSN works across an array of disciplines, from colorful multimedia puppets to whimsical portraits and tapestries woven from recycled materials. Throughout the Fondation Festival Sur le Niger’s featured works is a lively sense of play. Looking at their series of staged portraits of grinning people playing oversized prop instruments, it’s no surprise that the group’s core principles—informed by Maaya traditional spiritual practices—include “sinakunya (humorous cousinhood) and humor.”

Among FFSN’s strongest featured works at Documenta is a series of woven recycled cardboard—dozens of beige and brown squares that have been wrapped tightly with string or twine and are then stitched together. In one instance, these tightly wound parcels are sewn into a flat tapestry, and hang on the wall with a few gaps of open space, evoking chipped paint or webs of rusted corrugated metal. The effect here is to merge the old and the new: an act of alchemy that renders discarded objects delicate.

A similar transfiguration occurs with two larger, but similar, quilts that are installed in hanging half-circles, expanding the series’s language of intentional negative space. Viewers can walk through the work and gaze up at the careful craft of embroidery that brought these blocks together, imagining the hands that threaded twine through square-shaped cardboard, stitch by stitch.

The Randomroutines

Venue: Bootsverleih Ahoi

The Randomroutines—the collaborative project of artists Tamás Kaszás and Krisztián Kristóf—are two invited participants by collective OFF-Biennale Budapest, a group of artist-activists based in Hungary who have made it their mission not to accept funding from the Hungarian government. OFF-Biennale Budapest has taken over Kassel’s Bootsverleih Ahoi, turning it into a lively, colorful set of installations that engage in themes of play, imagination, and daydreaming.

Tucked into a repurposed room at the Bootsverleih Ahoi, The Randomroutines’s A Dream on Lucids (2016/2022) is a poetically choreographed multi-channel video art and sound piece exploring lucid dreaming. This hour-long film plays on a loop and urges viewers not to enter in medias res. Press your hand to the white palmprint on a closed door between screenings and you’ll find your way to one of about eight armchairs staggered throughout the room. When the performance begins, a surround-sound audio recording about lucid dreaming narrates while five screens positioned around the room play animations, archival footage, and stills at different times, synchronized with the ambient narration. These are not random images: one has the sense that they have been meticulously arranged to align with the audio. The effect is mesmerizing, hypnotic, and entirely engaging.

It’s worth going to the Bootsverleih Ahoi for the location alone, especially with kids. The repurposed shed is surrounded by a usable playground made for Documenta by OFF-Biennale Budapest, and several other artworks. There is also a café where you can partake in numerous options of refreshments and admire a view of Kassel from the Fulda River.

Nguyễn Trinh Thi

Venue: Rondell

One of the more meditative site-specific experiments at this year’s Documenta is Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s new installation. Located in the historic Rondell building—a medieval tower from the 16th century located near the Fulda River—the work is reached by entering through a narrow, dimly lit hallway, then parting two dark curtains and ducking under a low-hanging door frame. There, after crossing a small bridge, you’ll find your way to a circular seating area. There, you can sit and soak in an immersive sound and light installation inspired by Bùi Ngọc Tấn’s 2000 autofiction novel Tale Told in the Year 2000—a book so controversial that, upon its publication in Vietnam, the text was, according to the Documenta fifteen handbook, “immediately banned and destroyed.”

Despite the work’s dark reference point, the installation is a quiet, peaceful, and even relaxing experience: If you are visiting Kassel on a hot summer day, a few contemplative moments within the cool walls of the Rondell will come as a balm. The installation pairs a slowly rotating lighting system to several real chili plants in order to cast large, leaf-shaped silhouettes around the walls of the building. Your experience is accompanied by the thoughtful sounds of an Indigenous sáo ôi flute.

Saodat Ismailova

Venue: Fridericianum

While the Fridericianum is one of the first buildings you’re likely to visit on your trip to Kassel, you may not catch the signs for Saodat Ismailova’s dreamlike Chilltan (2022), a multi-room immersive work in the building’s basement. After pushing open a heavy wooden door, find your way to a seat on any of the soft, comfortable Uzbek cushions in lime green, navy, bottle green, and mustard that have been arranged on the floor to watch one of two experimental film works exploring Central Asian folk tales on theater-sized film screens nestled into the regal, curved stone archways of the building.

Between the screening spaces is a liminal, low-ceilinged room, where a cluster of soft, velveteen cushions surround a dimly lit circular table. Based on the works just upstairs, which encourage viewers to come together in unconventional ways, this portion of the exhibition is presumably for quiet conversation and communion. After passing through a gauzy curtain, in the final room, a series of texts are projected in an endless, magenta-colored loop onto the same soft cushions in multiple languages.

Subversive Film

Venues: Gloria-Kino, Hübner areal

Among the more aesthetically satisfying works from Documenta 15 is Subversive Film’s Tokyo Reels (2018–present). Mohaad Yaqubi and Reem Shilleh are the artists behind the collective Subversive Film; their practice moves between Brussels, Belgium, and Ramallah, Palestine. In a projection of numerous reels playing on loop in a large room, take a seat on pillows piled on wooden bleachers to watch a documentary of archival footage, some smuggled out of Palestine, which depict international solidarity between Japan and Palestine in the 1970s and ’80s.

In addition to the obscure political history explored in these films, the project is beautiful to watch: The rich saturation of the fading archival film is presented complete with pinkish sprocket holes, purple-tinted audio tracks, and the imperfect frames of the original archival films. These material reminders of the original objects’ physical materiality—stores of secretly compiled historic and political artifacts, and the act of risky concealment necessary to preserve them.

Taring Padi

Venues: C&A Façade, Friedrichsplatz, Hallenbad Ost, Rondell

Get some context on the conflict: While Taring Padi’s controversial mural no longer hangs in Kassel, you can get a sense of the collective’s style and artwork elsewhere in the city through numerous smaller-scale paintings, including banners and their signature wayang kardus (cardboard figures). These figures, which number close to a thousand, are staggered throughout Kassel and are artifacts of politically oriented community workshops held by Taring Padi both in and outside of Indonesia. When not at Kassel, the wayang kardus are deployed in protests, live performances, and carnivals. Keep an eye out for Taring Padi’s signature—and envelope-pushing —tendency towards what the Documenta fifteen handbook calls “satirical iconography.”

In a recent statement about the controversial mural published on Documenta’s website, Taring Padi defended the now-removed mural, writing that their caricatures are “never intended as hatred directed at a particular ethnic or religious group, but as a critique of militarism and state violence.”

Taring Padi (which translates to “fangs of rice”) has been working in Indonesia since 1998, and was originally created by students and activists in Yogyakarta. In an interesting element of the backlash against their now-removed mural People’s Justice (2002), their stated mission in Documenta 15 is to communicate, as they write, “Flame of Solidarity: First they came for them, then they came for us”—a quote that, clanging against a brouhaha about anti-Semitism, evokes Martin Niemöller’s oft-referenced poem about the Holocaust: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Taring Padi’s murals and painted works are colorful, using an array of vibrant—sometimes intentionally garish or, evidently, unintentionally offensive—symbols and figures. When text is interwoven in the murals, it takes a number of forms, incorporating numerous languages. Within their works at Documenta 15, Taring Padi deploys the motif of a large gathered crowd, though in some works (like Today they’ve come for them, tomorrow they will come for us), the masses generally appear to be peaceful, even utopian, while People’s Justice depicted an ominous war scene.

Wajukuu Art Project

Venue: Documenta Halle

At the entrance of the Documenta Halle are beautiful sculptural works by Wajukuu Art Project, an art collective that grew out of the Lunga-Lunga neighborhood in Nairobi. Here, the traditional white walls of the art institution have been swapped out for partially rusted, corrugated metal, dotted with colorful paintings.

The standouts here are Wajukuu’s four sculptures, which repurpose found materials in kinetic, complex works that pair artifacts of violence with a surprising elegance. These works bring together materials like bricks, knives, bicycle gears, nails, and metal with smooth wood, sand, elegantly dangling string, and multiple objects made in the shape of humans. The collective’s works create a compelling interplay between soft and sharp, fragility and the body.

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