The power of the subversive and the poetic
WHEN I RETURNED to the Fridericianum, a museum in Kassel, Germany, and the notional ‘ground zero’ of every Documenta edition since its inception in 1955, the camouflage-skinned military tanker of Andreas Angelidakis’ Polemos had metamorphosed. What was earlier an iconic instrument of aggression, a vehicle of conquest, an archetype of war and civil unrest, had been dismantled both structurally and metaphorically, facilitated in large part by the nature of the material used in its construction—10 blocks of 50 x 70 x 70 cm, 110 blocks of 50 x 70 x 140 cm and 16 blocks of 50cm x 70 cm diameter made of foam and vinyl. Each constituent block was now spread across the room as seats for the audience of a session of The Parliament of Bodies, the public programme of Documenta 14.
Launched in September 2016 in Athens and helmed by Paul Preciado, The Parliament of Bodies’ mission statement is ‘to proliferate new forms of subjectivity’. I decided to attend the session on June 10th not only out of solidarity towards the anti-colonialist artistic practice of the Brisbane-based indigenous artist Gordon Hookey, who belongs to the Waanyi people, but also to hear the Syrian refugee musician Ali Moraly perform his violin compositions. Hookey and Moraly had forged a friendship over several breakfasts during the opening week of Documenta 14 in Athens in April 2017. Given their newfound intimacy, Josh Milani, Hookey’s gallerist, thought it would be meaningful to have Moraly perform at the launch of the artist’s book, Summoning Time: Painting and Politikill Transition in Murriland! at the Fridericianum.
Moraly prefaced his performance of a composition dedicated to Hookey with an anecdote about his first encounter with his colossal wall painting, currently mounted at the Neue Neue Gallerie in Kassel. Murriland! explores a familiar narrative of White supremacist colonisation through a series of illustrations that move from left to right, inscribing, through paint, the oral, inherited history of erasure and exploitation of Aboriginal land, identity and legacy. Moraly, accustomed to the Arabic script, which, unlike English, is written and recited from right to left, had mistakenly read Hookey’s painting from end to beginning, akin to the act of rewinding. His gaze, influenced by his cultural upbringing, transformed the painting’s narrative arc, unconsciously creating a subversive alternative in which the Aboriginals were returned to their pre- colonial state of being. While apologising for this error in seeing, he said (and I paraphrase)—That’s what happens when you become a refugee of war, you become an optimist. Hookey, while graciously accepting Moraly’s musical gesture, articulated his own linguistic sin over which, like Moraly, he didn’t feel any excessive guilt.
He was not sorry about bastardising the ‘Queen’s English’, but believed he ought to be forgiven because it was not his mother tongue to begin with. He didn’t have the luxury of having a native language. It had been stolen from his people by White colonial oppressors.
WHO BELONGS WHERE and for how long and why?” Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, the Cameroonian curator at large, asked during his keynote address at the opening press conference for the Kassel end of this edition’s two-fold exhibition. The open- ended question offered some insight into the ideological zeitgeist of ‘Learning from Athens’, the ‘working title’ of the critically un-acclaimed Documenta 14. Ndikung began his address with a line from a poem by Britain-based writer of African descent, Warsan Shire’s Conversations About Home (At a Deportation Centre): ‘I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs…I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.’
Ndikung’s discourse critiqued the ‘post-truth’ age we inhabit, ‘where uncertainty is performed as certainty’ and within which crisis, presumably a temporary state of exception, has established itself as the new normal. I would learn over the course of my experiences in Kassel and later, in Athens, that this revelation was at the heart of Documenta 14’s curatorial strategy. I would learn also, that this edition was not limited to exhibition- making, that it was more a humanist-driven project, one that involved ‘renouncing who we are so we can re-become human so we can live together’.
“White people won’t get this Documenta,” Milani had said to me just before Hookey’s book launch. He is White but woke, someone who keeps his privilege in check, and embraces the subjectivities of the ‘others’ he represents, three of whom were invited to participate in Documenta 14: Hookey, Dale Harding and Bonita Ely. Moraly and Hookey’s honesty about their perspective towards the acts of seeing and speaking seemed to confirm our mutual suspicions about how this edition has been constructed so strategically that the viewer’s gaze would become the primary informant of his or her aesthetic experience.
You are invited to inhabit a tabula rasa by surrendering the burden of your presumptions and expectations. This is Documenta 14’s Great Subversive Act
But it was the White supremacist/ Eurocentric gaze in particular that was being dismantled through ingenious programming that went beyond the format of the exhibition to include durational concerts, performance pieces, a magazine, South, and initiatives like The Parliament of Bodies. It felt like a simultaneous attack and could be perceived as threatening to the Western viewer. Privilege, which has, particularly in the art world, been the mainstay of the White male artist, was being reconstructed as a form of loss, because it limited you from experiencing work through the prism of empathy. The vitriolic criticism carried echoes of the reception Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot received when it made its debut at the Arts Theatre in London.
Unlearning, which Polish artistic director Adam Szymczyk is inviting viewers to engage in, is a counter- intuitive act, even while it is a behaviour that is required to gain any form of knowledge. The relative scorn that Szymczyk seems to have drawn from critics could be regarded in some way as a manifestation of an unwillingness to unlearn, because knowledge has, for centuries, and particularly post-Enlightenment, formed the crux of Western privilege. To have access to knowledge, to have invented a script, to have colonised the lands of the others, were indicators of civilisation. To be ‘in the light’ also implied an evangelical duty, to compel those differently knowledgeable to comply with the colonialist’s idea of knowledge, or what Rudyard Kipling called ‘The White Man’s Burden’.
WHERE REVIEWER JOHN McDonald was reading Dr Faustus on trains between German cities, I, a subaltern from India who had made the journey to both Kassel and Greece on her own dime after a year of saving through art journalism, was re-reading Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, an essayistic treatise on the nature of desire through a literary decoding of the fragments of Sappho (the Lesbian ancient Greek poet from Lesbos). It felt like a great way to lay the groundwork in order to ‘learn from Athens’. Desire, she suggested, is significantly constructed as a result of the source of one’s erudition. ‘Oral cultures and literate cultures do not think, perceive or fall in love in the same way,’ she says.
Carson theorises that an individual who inhabits an oral culture uses his senses differently than his literate counterpart. Consequently, the variation in sensual deployment entails ‘a different way of conceiving his own relations with his environment, a different conception of the body and a different conception of his self’. Perhaps this explains why I was so magnetised by the work of Keviselie (Hans Ragnar Mathisen). His 2016 piece Indigenous People of Southeast Asia, on display at Kassel, made with coloured pencil on coated plastic sheets, encompasses an ongoing, deeply political act of reclaiming Indigenous territories. ‘Since 1975, Keviselie/Hans Ragnar Mathisen has reclaimed the maps from the hands of the colonisers and replaced their place names with those of the Sámi and of Sámi perspectives,’ writes Hanna Horsberg Hansen.
Another powerful moment stemmed from a quote in Indian artist Nilima Sheikh’s exquisite octagonal-shaped 16-panel tempera paintings, Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind (2016), by Rohith Vemula (the Dalit scholar who committed suicide in December 2016); ‘My birth is my fatal accident/I can never recover from my childhood loneliness/ The unappreciated child from my past…’ At the Neue Galerie, where this work was positioned, were other fascinating narratives of alterity such as the late Kassel-based disabled, transgender artist, Lorenza Böttner, who, despite losing both arms, made exhilarating self-portraits, controlling, artistically, her own perception and depiction of her body.
Throw into this mix the films by the octogenarian, Jonas Mekas, particularly Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), a recounting of his life as a displaced person from Lithuania and a trip he makes years later, back home, to see his family, and you are filled with a sense of human resilience, and how the written word inscribes its legacy from the moment of its recording that no amount of book burning or banning or even self- immolation can erase such a subjectivity.
These profound linkages between works across venues, across cities, are not necessarily overt. As a viewer, you are given no lessons on how to think, how to read, how to respond to the works included. You are invited to inhabit a tabula rasa by surrendering the burden of your presumptions and expectations. This is Documenta 14’s great subversive act. To denounce the curatorial team (which itself reflects a diversity of origins, perspectives and identities) for ‘instrumentalising’ subaltern voices to suit their agendas is to discredit and betray the conscious agency with which the individual practitioners, mostly subaltern, practise their art, functioning within the space of resistance to Western hegemonies that continue to dominate the global conception of the art world.
Any invocation of guilt in a Judeo- Christian context must also contain seeds of atonement and reparation. What Documenta 14 is proposing is that these needn’t be purely fiscal; that redemption can also occur within the cultural sphere, and perhaps is more valid and pertinent when it does. As the criticism continues and the resistance surmounts, I wonder about Kosovo- based artist Sokol Beqiri’s gesture of rooting an oak tree at the National Technical University of Athens campus grafted from what are known as the (Joseph) Beuys trees in Kassel, planted by the legendary artist for Documenta 7 in 1982 to herald environmental and social activism. “Will it take?” I ask myself.
While it is easy to condemn the notion of ideological transplanting, I think about the nature of the subjectivity of the Athens-based tree as the saps within the grafts combine. I think of all the music that still lingers in corners of my brain from performances at Kassel and Athens; the electrifying reimagining of Flamenco by Spanish artists Israel Galván, Niño de Elche, and Pedro G Romero, the compositions by Alvin Lucier I was privileged to listen to at the Athens Conservatory after viewing Lala Rukh’s hauntingly eloquent body of Hieroglyphics , notational works on paper that speak of taal, and the Byzantine and Northern Greek songs sung by ethnomusicologist Athina Katsanevaki, who has been collecting these lost tunes for decades.
Warson Shire’s poem imagines her self not as a singular entity or victim but one among the collective of the deported, displaced, exiled. ‘When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces,’ she writes. She also admits that sometimes she feels as though someone else is wearing her body.
The telling of one’s narratives of despair or victimhood inverts the hierarchies between oppressed and oppressor and offers catharsis. Documenta 14 focuses its energies on representing a collective but heterogeneous body politic, and in doing so, also identifies the oppressor as a body of systemic entities: patriarchy, capitalism, heteronormativity, and fascism, to name a few. At Hookey’s book launch, anthropologist Johannes Fabian introduced the audience to a Swahili proverb: ‘Where a story is told, there is a lie.’ The twin-fold exhibition and its diverse collateral programming attempts to expose many of those lies by relying on the mystical energy of art when the power structures surrounding it are kept in check. It also allows for new narratives, new lies to be born, and in doing so helps elucidate the sentience of humanity. The ability to embrace this experimental, humanist enterprise rests on the viewer’s appetite for poetry.