BERLIN — The members of ruangrupa, the Indonesian artist collective leading the next edition of Documenta, are under no illusions about the scale of the task they face. It will be the first time a group of artists has curated the five-yearly contemporary art mega-show — and they’re planning it in the middle of a pandemic.
Then there is Documenta’s fearsome reputation to reckon with.
Curating the show, which is set to take place next summer and fall, is one of the art world’s most coveted tasks because of the freedom it offers and the weight it carries in defining the direction of contemporary art. Documenta is also a barometer for changes in the world around it, as a major new exhibition in Berlin demonstrates.
“We are standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Farid Rakun, an artist in ruangrupa.
“Documenta: Politics and Art,” running from Friday through Jan. 9 at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, examines how Germany’s politics, in particular, have shaped Documenta, which is now in its 15th iteration. It also explores how Documenta, in turn, has reflected Germany: its post-World War II reluctance to confront the Holocaust, its position on the front lines of the Cold War, its reaction to the 1960s youth revolution and, more recently, its environmental and postcolonial anxieties and its embrace of a globalized world.
The last Documenta, held in 2017, drew more visitors than the Venice Biennale, but the show at the Deutsches Historisches Museum takes visitors back to 1955, when Documenta began on a much smaller scale. Then, West Germany was emerging from postwar deprivation to become a major economic power, and its government wanted to secure a global position as a cultural force, too.
West Germany’s president at the time, Theodor Heuss — who once said “we cannot create culture with politics, but perhaps we can do politics with culture” — agreed to serve as the patron for an international exhibition, to be held in Kassel, a small working-class city close to the border with East Germany.
The show was intended as a signal to the world that West Germany had drawn a line under the Nazi era. Art that the Nazis had scorned as “degenerate” and banished from museums was exhibited at the first Documenta, giving it an official seal of approval.
Yet as the new Berlin exhibition shows, the first Documenta did not represent as clean a break with the past as West Germany’s government hoped: Ten of the 21 officials who organized that edition had been affiliated with the Nazi party. Among them was the art historian Werner Haftmann, who was recruited to the event’s steering committee in part because of his influential book, “Painting in the 20th Century.”
Haftmann’s book baldly states that none of the German artists whose works the Nazis defamed as “degenerate” were Jewish. Julia Voss, one of the curators of the Berlin exhibition, pointed out during a tour of the show that this was not only untrue — it also meant that under Haftmann’s influence, Documenta had omitted Jewish artists from its rehabilitation of the shunned works. The Holocaust and the artists who died in it were not mentioned.
Haftmann also never publicly discussed his Nazi party membership or some other sinister elements of his own biography. Recent research shows that Haftmann was involved in brutal acts against resistance fighters during war service in Italy, where he was in command of a military unit.
Shortly before the Berlin exhibition opened, Carlo Gentile, a historian at Cologne University, published an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper detailing Haftmann’s involvement in the interrogation and torture of a captive who was later shot. Gentile also unearthed 1946 newspaper articles showing that the Italian government wanted to arrest Haftmann for war crimes.
Gentile said in a video interview that on the one hand Haftmann “was just one of many” German intellectuals who supported the Nazis and then took important public roles after the war. But “for art historians it has a deeper significance,” he added. “He had an enormous influence on the way art history is viewed, and this raises a lot of questions.”
The second Documenta, in 1959, was a celebration of abstract art and a clear Cold War political statement. The Museum of Modern Art sent a curator to oversee a section devoted to the United States, but there were few entries from Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, where abstraction was anathema to the ruling Communist governments.
Kassel was just 20 miles west of the inner-German border. “Documenta turned this to its advantage and presented itself as the last line of cultural defense against the East,” said Lars Bang Larsen, one of the curators at the Deutsches Historisches Museum.
It was not until the sixth edition, in 1977, in the spirit of the former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” — a policy of détente toward Eastern Europe — that Documenta showed art from communist East Germany.
Manfred Schneckenburger, that edition’s artistic director, invited six East German artists to present paintings in the government’s official “Socialist Realist” style. (One work on show in Berlin, “The Visitors,” by Willi Sitte, shows celebrating members of a workers’ brigade.)
At the same edition, artists who had moved from East Germany to the West staged protests in the galleries where these works were on display, to draw attention to the restrictions that artists in the East faced. Schneckenburger barred them from the site.
Protests had become a regular feature of Documenta from 1968, a year of student revolts across Europe. Activists called for an “Alternative Documenta,” on left-wing themes, and attacked the show because it didn’t mention the Vietnam War. In 1987, the New York feminist group Guerrilla Girls asked why Documenta was “95 percent white and 83 percent male?”
Ten years later, when the French curator Catherine David became the first woman to take the helm, for Documenta’s 10th edition, she shifted the focus toward globalization and decolonization — the dominant themes of Documentas in the new millennium.
Rakun, the ruangrupa member, said the Indonesian group had benefited from these recent movements. Until 2019, when ruangrupa was appointed to run Documenta, “we were still on the periphery,” he said. None of the group members have attended the exhibition before, Rakun said, adding that they want to build on the work of predecessors like the Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor, who oversaw the 11th edition as the first non-European artistic director.
“We are continuing these trajectories,” Rakun said.
Ruangrupa has invited other arts cooperatives with social objectives to take part in the exhibition, such as the Wajukuu Art Project from the poorest areas of Nairobi, and the Palestinian organization Question of Funding.
“Our understanding of art is very fluid,” Rakun said. “We want to highlight different practices that can be considered as contemporary art.”
The Documenta that the group is putting together has already made history, in one sense, as the first to be planned during a pandemic. This has also led to uncertainty over whether the show might be postponed. The supervisory board is set to make a decision in the coming weeks on whether to push the exhibition back a year, to 2023, said Karoline Köber, a Documenta spokeswoman.
Yet Rakun said ruangrupa was working on the basis that the show will go ahead as planned. How it will go down in art history — and history, for that matter — is “beyond our control,” he said. “It will be really interesting to see.”