The Blind Spot of documenta

Larysa Venediktova and Mariana Matveichuk (Translated by Larissa Babij)

This essay was originally published in Ukrainian as “The Collective Farm as the Dream of Humankind: Why has documenta never been interested in Ukraine?” on LB.ua

The contemporary art exhibition documenta, one of the art world’s most important events, which lasts 100 days and takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, has just ended. The focus of this year’s edition, documenta fifteen, was the “global south,” with artworks presented at the exhibition addressing topics like postcolonialism, refugees and ecological crises. Initially there was no plan to include Ukraine in the exhibition (as usual): the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, who curated documenta 15, did not take it into consideration. Although Ukraine is not part of the “global south” geographically speaking, all the issues mentioned above are incredibly important there, and its significance for global supply chains is well illustrated by the case of Indonesia, which is one of the top three importers of Ukrainian grain.

However, once the full-scale war with Russia began, documenta responded to an initiative by Ukrainian organizations to create a separate space [within the exhibition] called “Citizenship Ukraine,” which became an important platform for discussion. Here two participants offer their analysis of the relationship between documenta and Ukraine, and contemporary art with the present moment.

For thirty years, Germans lectured Ukrainians about fascism. When fascism actually arrived, Germans funded it, and Ukrainians died fighting it.

—Timothy Snyder (Twitter, April 21, 2022)

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On July 15, 1955, in the completely ruined city of Kassel, the first documenta opened with the title “documenta. Art of the Twentieth Century. International Exhibition.” It was a retrospective of modern art that Nazi Germay had called “degenerate” and banned. Using modern art, Germany sought to rehabilitate itself after years of totalitarianism and enter the friendly circle of free democratic countries. The exhibition also aimed to bring life back to the industrial city, which had suffered greatly from the war.

Arnold Bode, who launched documenta, used the Latin word documentum, which comes from docere (to teach) and mens (mind). Perhaps he was thinking that through intellectual effort art could compel humanity (the very notion of which was put into question by the mass murders of the 20th century) to learn a lesson from its past. Modern art was to be the compelling force.  

Kassel soon became the mecca of the art world. Taking part in documenta was the pinnacle of artists’ and curators’ careers, and also guaranteed that you’d be written into art history. Crowds of viewers would pour into Kassel every five years to immerse themselves in the complex appreciation of the world that contemporary art promised.

This promise held for a pretty long time, forming several generations of audiences and artists. It seemed that things would go on like this: art would use various creative means to point out social, ecological, and political troubles and problematize them, viewers would discuss, and together it would produce a communicative field where the problems would gradually be solved.

When Russia began its insidious hybrid war against Ukraine in 2014, the Western art world did not find this problem worthy of attention. In 2017, at documenta 14 there was not even a hint of reflection about the war, which had been going on for three years. At that time the West was concerned with Greece’s economic troubles. Why has documenta never taken interest in Ukraine?

We think the main reason is this: contemporary art exists on the left of the social and political spectrum, while it views Ukraine—thanks to Russian propaganda and Soviet historiography—on the extreme right. We all know that Soviet historiography and Russian propaganda go hand in hand with cheap energy, which makes them very appealing.

This last documenta decided to move even further left, giving voice to the global south, where Soviet influence has been even greater than in Europe. It’s as if documenta forgot the etymology of its name and gave in to the temptation of collectivization. The Collective Farm as the Dream of Humankind—this is what we would call this year’s documenta.

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In 2019 documenta announced that ruangrupa, an artists’ group from Indonesia will collectively take on the responsibility of artistic direction of documenta 15. This is the first time an artists’ collective from Asia curated the massive international exhibition. ruangrupa’s curatorial concept centers on the idea of lumbung—a rice barn that holds common resources for rice production to be used in the future.  

In 2019 ruangrupa declared, “If Documenta was launched in 1955 to heal war wounds, why shouldn’t we focus Documenta 15 on today’s injuries, especially ones rooted in colonialism, capitalism, or patriarchal structures, and contrast them with partnership-based models that enable people to have a different view of the world.”

The participants of ruangrupa decided to heal the world while ignoring the fact that a zombie-like terrorist—the heir (or dead) of the Soviet Collective Farm—had started a genocidal war against Ukraine not long before documenta’s opening. As revealed during the discussion program led by Ukrainian cultural organizations invited to documenta by their German colleagues, this ignorance is buttressed by Germans’ unfamiliarity with Soviet history. For example, in response to a question asking members of the audience to compare Soviet and National Socialist totalitarianism, one woman said, “This is very hard for Germans, because a lot of information was missing. I have a thirteen-year education in Germany. And one of my majors was social studies. But there was only that comparison between capitalism and communism. And maybe that was a two- or three-month topic. We did not hear much about life in the USSR. There really was an Iron Curtain. I first traveled to the GDR when I was 15… but there was such a gap of knowing about the life circumstances and the political issues.”

It became clear during the conversation that Germans equate their totalitarianism with shame for the Shoah, while leaving political prisoners, persecution for homosexuality, etc. out of the picture. We got the feeling that Germans still have a long way to go before they understand the Soviet as totalitarianism. But the world has no time for this.

Another discussion participant said he believes in people and is sure that everything can be resolved through peaceful means. We think Boris Johnson, speaking on Ukraine’s Independence Day, offered a nice response: “You can’t negotiate with a bear that’s eating your leg.” How does the proposal to negotiate with Russia really look to Ukrainians? Like a psychologist reassuring his patient to pay no mind to the fact she is being raped during the therapy session. So here’s the question: is it only Ukraine that’s being raped? Maybe rapists have been in vogue for a hundred years already?

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According to ruangrupa’s concept a “community-oriented model of resource usage” would be the instrument for grappling with today’s problems: colonialism, capitalism, and the patriarchy. Each of the 14 lumbung members received 25,000 euros as initial funding along with a production budget of 180,000 euros. These artistic collectives then invited their colleagues to participate in the exhibition. Thus, overall, documenta 15 had nearly 1500 individual and collective participants from all over the world. The curators divided this “collective of collectives” geographically and organized discussion groups they called majelises. This Arab term was used by ruangrupa to designate “a non-competitive learning space.” This branching network of international local community artistic organizations was called to create an alternative to the logocentric, star- and career-oriented economy of large European exhibitions.

One of these majelises, organized by the Berlin-based ZK/U Center for Art and Urbanistics, was supposed to be a group of grass-roots community organizations from post-Soviet countries—Belarus, Russia, Ukraine. In the fall of 2021 they even met in Armenia, a “neutral” territory that did not require a visa from any of the participants. But after the Russian army invaded Ukraine this already dubious cooperation between post-Soviet countries became categorically impossible for the Ukrainians. Can citizens of a country that is struck daily by missiles stay in “a non-competitive learning space” with the citizens of the country who is sending those missiles?

Unfortunately, for the latter, their citizenship is not a matter of principle and they are sure they have nothing to do with those missiles. They even consider themselves victims of those missiles. The German curators of the Ukrainian program seem even more unprincipled. The next day after this program they scheduled a presentation of artistic statements from Russia’s regions (the journal “We Are Invisible”) and a conversation about the “difficult legacy of World War II” according to the Russians.

Meanwhile the three-day discussion program Citizenship Ukraine was presented by Ukrainian organizations from Mariupol (Platform Tu), Dnipro (Kultura medialna), Kharkiv (Garage 127) and Kherson (Totem). Ukrainians called the artistic and intellectual Western world to “Talk WITH Ukrainians, not ABOUT them” and proposed thinking about the reasons for the war of aggression that the RF has unleashed against the civilized world, about Europeans’ blind spots on the map and in the history of Europe, about freedom, decoloniality, and the danger of forgetting the past.

The Ukrainian organizers announced an open call and, surprisingly, received many responses. Truth be told, none of them actually made it to Kassel. The respondents even included signatories of the Open Letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz urging him to refrain from supplying weapons to Ukraine. Their appeals, like their intentions to participate in the discussion, betrayed a completely abstract idea of pacifism. It’s probably not peace that these people desire, but a stable supply of energy resources. 

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During one of the discussions a small demonstration took place on a nearby square. The German protestors held banners declaring, “Not a single cent for your war!” That same day the international media broke the news of the inhuman killing of Ukrainian soldiers held prisoner of war in Olenivka. The photos of the aftermath immediately brought to mind images of German/Soviet concentration camps. This slash between “German” and “Soviet” is a big problem for Germans. The singularity of the Holocaust is the basis of contemporary German identity. In some sense this singularity is at the base of documenta too. The exhibition conceived to document the art banned by the Nazis continues to refer back to its origin.

For a long time documenta managed to speak politically. However the analogy between Nazism and Communism was never brought up for discussion. The first exhibitions took place to the west of the Iron Curtain. And after the fall of the Berlin Wall it seems the socialist part of Europe was simply subsumed by the new capitalist-patriarchal threats it faced. The struggle against these threats began to dominate contemporary art discourses, especially in Ukraine.

Ukrainian contemporary art happily ignored its own history of Soviet crimes; instead it eagerly took on the problem of right-wing movements in Ukraine, and in this way played into the hands of Russian propaganda. For instance, we all saw with our own eyes what happened as a result of the demonization of the Azov battalion. Do any of these artists intend to admit they made a mistake? This is a rhetorical question.

So while everybody was worrying about global problems like climate change, colonialism and capitalism, facism in its purest form (devoid of national characteristics)—the Chekist International “Russkyi Mir [Russian World]”— arose from historical nonbeing. The first attribute of the International is the Russian language, the second is neo-Marxism, and the third is anti-Americanism.

Meanwhile German intellectuals think that comparing Fascism and Communism lessens their own responsibility for the Holocaust and therefore even admitting the possibility is unacceptable. We think this encourages a view that Communism is less dangerous for humankind and that Soviet concentration camps were “just” correctional labor facilities. As if dying from torture, inhuman labor conditions, and years of captivity is more humane than being killed by gas or bullets.

Allow us to disagree. We believe Communism is no less horrific of a criminal operation than National Socialism. In the 20th century there were two totalitarianisms and they are of equal consequence; more so, their ideologues and practitioners learned from each other.

Perhaps it’s the singularity of the Holocaust and ignorance of Soviet totalitarianism that allows Germans to call Russia’s war against Ukraine “your.” Most likely it’s on us to establish the singularity of our totalitarian experience, starting today and for a long time to come.

It may also be the case that ignorance is what allowed the Germans to plan Russian events on the day right after the Ukrainian program.

Threatening yet another scandal (this year’s documenta, from the moment it opened, is memorable for its scandals associated with antisemitism), the Ukrainian participants persuaded their German colleagues to cancel the events featuring Russian participants. We later discovered that the events were removed from the public program, but they still took place—unannounced. Overall, we observed that the Germans gravitate more toward the misfortunate, oppressed Russians, who complain about the war, than to the Ukrainians who resist and deserve support in this resistance. Thus, one can draw the conclusion that the humanist West likes victims. Victims give meaning to the abstract notion of “humanism” and justify historical ignorance and inaction in providing real military aid to Ukraine.

Sometimes it seems like something is beginning to change, albeit very carefully, in public statements. In a recent interview with Ukrinform, the Ambassador of Germany to Ukraine Anka Feldhusen said, “Historical analogies aren’t always accurate, and Germany holds a belief that our guilt in the Second World War cannot be surpassed. But, like many other Germans, I think about those parallels every day, and they are undeniable, particularly in terms of Putin’s ambition to create an empire of some kind, and we don’t know its scope or extent. I do think about it a lot.”

We’ll let you in on a little “secret”: Putin wants to bring back the Soviet Union and all of its “spheres of influence,” including East Germany—everything that the West once gave to Stalin. Contemporary artists, who repeat “No war!” in solidarity (like Dan Perjovschi with his call to “Stop Putin’s war”) in the context of this war have shown their inability to understand what is actually happening.

Amazingly, contemporary artists and intellectuals, in particular, have revealed themselves as utterly conservative and unprepared for this situation that is changing the architecture of European security and perhaps the entire world order.

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In summer 2012, during documenta 13 in Kassel, Thierry Geoffroy set up a tent in front of the Fridericianum, the “Vatican of the contemporary art world.” In this manner the French-Danish conceptual artist declared: the emergency will replace the contemporary.

This manifesto was taken as an artistic gesture, then put in a museum, making it safe. Actually this was a warning—for anyone with the ability to sense. It looks like contemporary art has lost that ability. THE EMERGENCY IS REPLACING CONTEMPORARY.