KASSEL, Germany — It began with a calumny, it ends with a crack-up.
Twice a decade, for exactly 100 days, the world of culture turns its eyes to this midsize German city for Documenta, a giant exhibition whose intellectual ambitions and hefty budgets have ensured its reputation as the world’s most prestigious show of contemporary art. This year’s edition got off to a dreadful start in June, when its most prominent artwork, an agitprop mural incorporating unmistakable antisemitic caricatures, had to be withdrawn amid national outcry. The 15th Documenta now comes to a close on Sunday — not before another controversy that has seen artists, scholars and politicians trade accusations of antisemitism and racism, harassment and incompetence.
When an organizing committee nominated the Indonesian artist collective ruangrupa to organize Documenta 15, we knew an old model was dying; we could not guess how fitfully the new would struggle to be born. This was the first time that artists themselves were tasked to organize what had been, until now, the ultimate curator-led, thesis-driven exhibition. And ruangrupa’s core members blew up their collective decision-making into a larger paradigm, inviting dozens of other art collectives to Kassel, then allowing those collectives to invite participants of their own. The show came together on giant Zoom calls where everyone could forge a big, happy, distributed family they called a lumbung (meaning a rice barn, in Indonesian). This Documenta, unlike any before it, was not about art, or ideas, but about the friends we made along the way — the friends and, indeed, the enemies.