David Joselit on Documenta 15 and the 59th Venice Biennale
THROUGHOUT THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, modern and contemporary art in the West sought either to cheat history or to travesty it. To cheat history is to outrun it in gestures aimed at utopian schemes (as envisioned by Suprematism or the artists of De Stijl) or dystopian destruction (as in Futurism or some variants of Dada). Among modernist avant-gardes, history offered a necessary dialectical framework for its own supersession—this is why the rhetoric of revolution remains so appealing and ubiquitous in accounts of modern art. Paradoxically, this legacy has been codified or canonized (and certainly domesticated) in art history’s narration of a succession of movements: Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, etc. As a modern discipline, history will not be cheated, because its very vocation entails cataloguing sequential attempts to outrun it. But, as every artist, curator, and critic knows, the contemporary is an ever-receding horizon. Every year, there is more contemporary art, and every few years, a new account of it will be required in Venice, Kassel, New York, Berlin, Gwangju, São Paulo, and so on. One begins to wonder if new art’s cultural role in the West is to manufacture the structural and affective state of the contemporary, just as the twenty-four-hour news cycle creates liveness by repeating the same “breaking stories” over and over again. It is well to remember that there is nothing natural about the contemporary—it is not an innocent experience of presentness but the perpetual interruption and resurrection of the present. From this perspective, art’s historicization might actually contribute to history’s eradication.
Modern art’s attempt to outrun history has perhaps succeeded too well, opening to the second strategy I mentioned at the outset—travesty. The travesty of history is identified with postmodernist pastiche: History becomes a costume drama, an archive of aesthetic styles to be reanimated. But though this strategy is conventionally associated with the aftermath of modernism, it is clear that it was contemporaneous with modern avant-gardes from the start. If one cares to look, one may find a Florine Stettheimer for every Marcel Duchamp and a Francis Picabia or Salvador Dalí for every Pablo Picasso. The travesty of history consists in arbitrarily arranging historical signs within an eternal present without concern for chronology or context. The aesthetic generation of the contemporary is part of a much broader program of forgetting in which what one saw (or knew) yesterday is superseded by what one sees (and knows) today. This relentless presentism has made us vulnerable to the forces of populist absolutism. As Hannah Arendt presciently wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), “In this stream the difference between ends and means evaporates together with the personality and the result is the monstrous immorality of ideological politics. All that matters is embodied in the moving movement itself; every idea, every value has vanished into a welter of superstitious pseudoscientific immanence.”1 Arendt’s felicitous if terrifying phrase “the moving movement itself” sounds a lot like the historical framework applied to contemporary art, the elision of its ostensible ambition to outrun history with the drive to travesty in an eternal present.
Ultimately, what proves ruangrupa’s concept for me is the presence of a set of aesthetic strategies that enable a spectatorship of translation.
My point is certainly not that contemporary art is inherently fascist. But I do believe that our historical frames for understanding modern and contemporary art have become problematically obsolete, even reactionary, and that, given the political situation in the US and parts of Europe, this urgently needs to be addressed. Describing modern and contemporary art as a succession of movements on the one hand (the correlate to a drive to outrun history) and as a pluralist riot of biennials on the other (the correlate, in its abolition of any particular genealogy or context, to a travesty of history) seems bankrupt. I frequently find evidence of this in my contact with artists and students, who tend to regard art-historical narratives as irrelevant. For this reason, I was heartened and inspired by my encounters with Documenta 15 and the 2022 Venice Biennale, “The Milk of Dreams.” In distinctly different but complementary ways, these exhibitions cogently propose alternate strategies for producing history with and of modern and contemporary art. Perhaps more accurately, they striate the manufactured contemporaneity of large international exhibitions with history. It is no coincidence that these approaches are launched from the Global South in the case of Documenta and from a feminist revision of both Western and global art history in the Biennale, for the closely linked drives to outrun and travesty history are inseparable from a long-standing Euro-American tradition of patriarchal imperialism. Two keywords introduced by the respective organizers of these exhibitions offer excellent starting points for understanding what each has to offer: translation in the case of Documenta, and metamorphosis in that of the Biennale.
Using the term lumbung, an Indonesian word for “a rice barn where a village community stores their harvests together, to be managed collectively, as a way to face an unpredictable future,”2 the ruangrupa collective, artistic directors of Documenta 15, describe translation as follows: “It is meaningless to exhibit the objects in Kassel without finding translations of the processes that gave rise to them. So, instead of following the logic of commissioning new or exhibiting existing work, we ask all lumbung members and artists to keep doing what they are doing while harvesting it and to think about how to translate their practices to Kassel. Making one’s resources shareable within the lumbung is already a translation in itself.”3 Ruangrupa’s first act of translation was to absorb Documenta into their collective structure of lumbung, as opposed to pursuing a conventional curatorial method. This required developing a different relationship to exhibiting artists and groups, a process that involved a series of collective discussions during the evolution of the project, as well as establishing a more equitable scheme for sharing resources. In the end, what emerged was a structure of delegation and dispersed curatorial prerogative: Ruangrupa invited fourteen collectives; each of these brought in their own collaborators; and, in some cases, these collaborators then brought in additional participants. Not surprisingly, these efforts have not been fully successful in transforming Documenta’s administrative structure, yet they were a crucially important experiment, asserting that reframing contemporary art requires transforming its infrastructure, not merely diversifying a roster of artists slotted into unchanged institutional frames.
The second level of translation, more evident to the casual visitor, was the communication of collective community-based projects to an international audience whose members could be presumed to have little knowledge of the multiple localities represented in Documenta. Here, as Barbara Cassin reminds us in the Dictionary of Untranslatables, it is crucial to introduce the condition of untranslatability into the act of translation. I spent days surveying projects originating in Haiti, Indonesia, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Palestine, and so on, and eventually it began to dawn on me that I understood little if anything of what I was seeing. As an experienced visitor to international exhibitions, I felt acutely uncomfortable: How was I supposed to make sense of this project? The answer, of course, is that the exhibition is not mine to consume. Bearing in mind indigenous practices of controlling certain kinds of visual knowledge that should be accessible only to the initiated, I began to think that the point of Documenta was not to proffer a snapshot of globality circa 2022 but to insist on the effort required to translate histories, the necessity of committing to that process, and even the ethical importance of acknowledging multiple opacities that exist among cultures and communities. Text included in a drawing by Safdar Ahmed published in the Documenta 15 handbook declares, “We try to produce a new aesthetics—an ethical paradigm where the viewer is obsolete.”4 This proposition—the obsolescence of the viewer—is a radical one to slip into an exhibition catalogue. We could easily deflate it by saying, in a paraphrase of Roland Barthes, that the death of the viewer gives way to the birth of the participant, but given the facile nature of what counts for participatory art, I think such an elision would sell Documenta 15 short. The form of participation imagined here is the effortful one of translation. And the opacities inherent in translation are essential to its significance as an alternate mode of history, one in which two realities, two languages and times and places, are held in palpable tension in the present.
All of this is risky. I wonder if the exhibition needed to be as big as it is—whether, were it smaller and structured more tightly into regional configurations or other affinities, the invitation to translate as opposed to simply view would be easier for visitors to act on. Translation requires more time than consuming familiar aesthetic genres. I feel it would have been more generous if the organizers had adjusted the scale of their endeavor and the nature of the gallery installations in recognition of that. Their failure to do so in any consistent way suggests that the invitation to translate is purely symbolic, accomplishing little more than a reversal of the exclusionary structure of globalism, which typically occludes localities while catering to a generalized audience posited as already familiar with the languages and protocols of a “global” contemporary art world.
Ultimately, what proves ruangrupa’s concept for me is the presence of a set of aesthetic strategies that enable a spectatorship of translation, if not always instantaneously in the galleries then as a kind of deferred promise of historical revision and even, in some cases, of future reparation. Prominent among these is the inclusion of archives, such as the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algerie, dedicated to women activists in Algeria since 1962; the Asia Art Archive, an unparalleled resource for the documentation of contemporary art across Asia that for Documenta shines a light on three different case studies; and the Black Archives, which collect materials related to the legacy of Dutch slavery. It is a remarkable and currently widespread practice to display archives in the context of exhibitions. This approach is distinct from what Hal Foster diagnosed long ago as an “archival impulse,” defined by artists’ appropriation of archival strategies to produce autonomous aesthetic works.5 I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to have made Documenta into an actual library, where people could sit comfortably and look at, read, and contemplate original sources. Translation can occur only through transformation in what counts as viewing. If one is put in the position of encountering an archive in the same way that one looks at a painting, it rather defeats the purpose. Other kinds of archival strategies are present among groups who made exhibits within exhibits, such as the spectacular Ghetto Biennale of Atis Rezistans, which includes art from Haiti; OFF-Biennale Budapest’s displays of Roma art; and the Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR)’s sequence of exhibitions of Cuban art. Documentary or partly documentary video is abundant, as in the work of the Sada [regroup], the Nest Collective, and Cao Minghao & Chen Jianjun. In short, Documenta 15 functions not only as a collective of collectives but also as a collection of collections, which returns me to the question of libraries. How could finding aids have been provided to help translator-viewers make informed choices about where to spend their energies?
Whether as a history in pieces or a history in plants, these two exhibitions insist that the tools we need to construct a usable past are present to us if we excavate them.
The controversy that erupted around the show this past June has so dominated discussions of the exhibition that it might easily undermine my analysis of Documenta’s successes. Under these conditions, a critic who fails to mention the imbroglio and to at least briefly limn their own position might appear to be engaging in a pointed omission that could be interpreted or misinterpreted in myriad ways. So I will state that the support for BDS among participating artists, and more pointedly the inclusion of painful stereotypical images of Jews, in a banner that was taken down after an outcry, does not, in my own view, demonstrate a systemic bias on the part of the organizers or artists; both groups have apologized for the imagery. I am not qualified to analyze the charged contemporary discourse around anti-Semitism in Germany, but I feel a fuller discussion of this affair calls for an account that situates anti-Semitism within the broader global discourse of racism and antiracism to which Documenta 15 seriously addresses itself.
FOR ME, DOCUMENTA 15 DISPLAYS a “history in pieces”: Archival elements are present and available for the interpretation of new futures as opposed to being synthesized into finished narratives of the past. “The Milk of Dreams” proposes a different model for telling art’s history—under the sign of metamorphosis. Its structure is more conventional than that of Documenta, but it is nonetheless significantly revisionist. Punctuating a long parcours of contemporary artworks from around the world in its sites at the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion are five historical mini-exhibitions that curator Cecilia Alemani calls “time capsules.” These thematic constellations, including a diverse group of women modernists, offer genealogies for theorizing historical change through bodily or organic transformation. Such strategies range from self-modification to desublimated language practices aligned with the écriture féminine of Hélène Cixous to various accounts of how living beings and machines co-constitute one another in a cyborgian embrace. The term time capsules is particularly apt because, like a medication, the content of these displays is metabolized across the “The Milk of Dreams,” as though dissolving into its bloodstream. One begins to experience the wide array of contemporary works within a force field established among the five proposed genealogies: Artworks are exposed to historicization in a fluid and layered way so that forebears can be chosen and recombined at will by a museum visitor. For instance, the section “A Leaf a Gourd a Shell a Net a Bag a Sling a Sack a Bottle a Pot a Box a Container,” inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1986 essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” brings together a provocative array of works assuming vessel forms rendered in a broad range of materials, including Ruth Asawa’s open-wire hanging sculptures, Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s glass-beaded purse, and a stunning papier-mâché model of the human womb made by the pioneering Dutch doctor Aletta Jacobs in 1840. In sum, this “time capsule” offers multiple historical genealogies for contemporary works that similarly manipulate the vessel form or engaged media and materials, such as ceramics, textiles, or flamboyant reflective elements like glass beads, that are typically coded as feminine. Encompassing both dense historical nodes and looser configurations of contemporary artists, the exhibition asks a daring question: How can change within a body, or bodies, become the model for history? In other words, how might the ontogenetic open to the phylogenetic in an art-historical frame? There’s a clear danger that such an embodied model of history could revive the racist tropes of eugenics, in which bodily characteristics ostensibly determine the character of a person or a people. “The Milk of Dreams,” however, seeks to show how bodies (human, animal, or vegetal) can be completely suffused with social values as well as the capacity for change or transformation without abandoning their biological substrate. As a whole, the exhibition suggests that the nature/culture divide that continues to undergird the discipline of Western history, including art history, must be dismantled.
A stunning example of these principles in action is offered by the final installation in “The Milk of Dreams,” Precious Okoyomon’s To See the Earth Before the End of the World, 2022, a garden punctuated by sculptures. In this work, sugarcane, one of the primary cash crops cultivated by enslaved people in the Americas, and kudzu, an invasive vine introduced by the US government to restore soil depleted by the overcultivation of monocrops, are locked in a vegetative battle, or embrace, through which run stone paths and streams. Monumental sculptures reminiscent of ancient fertility goddesses, built from wool, yarn, dirt, and blood, occupy the garden like fieldworkers, who are slowly overgrown by vines. How can nature be distinguished from culture in this real allegory of enslavement and ecological crisis (which, through the legacy of the plantation system and racial capitalism, are historically linked)? This garden, both lush and dystopian, embodies the forces of history as we experience them. Before they are historicized, events creep up on us like vines; they seduce and overwhelm our senses and our bodies. How can we account for and address these forces? I’m put in mind of an aphorism by Donna Haraway (whose work furnishes the conceptual frame of one of the five capsules): “Stay with the trouble.”6 In other words, don’t try to outrun the mess we’re in or imagine utopian forms of escape, but rather sit with it, or sit in it, as in Okoyomon’s beautiful and terrible garden.
Staying with the trouble invites acts of translation by prompting us to transform the conflict, contradiction, pleasure, and pain of current conditions into a plan of action. Whether as a history in pieces or a history in plants, these two exhibitions insist that the tools we need to construct a usable past are present to us if we excavate them. They emphatically reject a manufactured contemporary—the perversion of a present epitomized by the Trumpian compulsion to “win the news day” and then proceed as though each subsequent day, each new scandal, carries nothing of its past with it. Rather than disowning the past, Documenta and “The Milk of Dreams” deploy history as a tool to build new futures, new lines of escape from our never-ending amnesiac now.
David Joselit’s most recent book is Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization (MIT Press, 2020).
1. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt, 1968), 249.
2. Documenta Fifteen Handbook, Kassel, ed. Lincoln Dexter and Nicola von Velsen (Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2022), 12.
3. Ibid., 30.
4. Ibid., 29.
5. Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October, no. 110 (Autumn 2004): 3–22.
6. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).