Weitian Liu

PhD Scholar,
Goldsmiths, University of London

I went to see documenta fifteen with both anticipation and anxiety. I had been looking forward to what ruangrupa would bring to this prestigious art event in the present conjuncture. I had also heard about how convivial and unpresuming the opening party was, and how quickly that dynamic could dissipate.

By the time I arrived in Kassel in mid-July, the atmosphere seemed to have already recovered from earlier tensions. My ticket allowed me access to documenta venues across the city as well as free use of public transport, yet my experience in Kassel did not go far beyond visiting exhibitions. A distance remained between me and what I had imagined to be the collective conviviality of lumbung.

Hafenstrasse 76 is one of the old and unoccupied industrial buildings that are used as a venue for documenta fifteen. Image courtesy Weitian Liu.

Trafohaus (Transformer Station), a white small kiosk-like building, is used as a newsroom, radio station, rooftop garden, and site of theatre performance. Image courtesy Weitian Liu.

A case in point is Temujalar School, a collective study programme shown on the ground floor of the Fridericianum. In a large room, Jakarta-based educational knowledge-sharing platform Gudskul recreates a collective learning model that is ‘envisaged to be a gathering space and a starting point to make connections with others’. Filled with tables, chairs, diagrams, shelves, and handy objects that one usually finds in a studio, the room is reminiscent of a workshop, or rather a space in which a workshop has just taken place. A certain degree of imagination is required for me to picture the ephemeral gatherings that are not represented in front of me. The logic of representation is displaced. The objects and diagrams in the space point to the methods underpinning Gudskul’s practice in a way that is not short-circuited by representation.

Sekolah Temujalar, ground floor of the Fridericianum. Image courtesy Weitian Liu.

Sekolah Temujalar, ground floor of the Fridericianum. Image courtesy Weitian Liu.

At the same time, access to convivial gatherings is not guaranteed by the ticket. Frustration is inevitable for those who, so used to the customer’s right and reward conferred by the exhibition ticket, expect that some participation in conviviality is included in one way or another. Conviviality in documenta fifteen remains stubbornly opaque—it is neither readily available nor absolutely inaccessible, and its insistence on ‘make friends, not art’ calls for a mode of engagement entirely different from the notion of spectatorship we are habituated to.

Inside Hübner Areal, a recently vacated factory in the Kassel district of Bettenhausensite. Image courtesy Weitian Liu.

What causes a sense of something not working in documenta fifteen seems to be the incommensurability between the practice of lumbung and the logic of representation essential to the raison d'être of the exhibition. Concessions are made on both sides in documenta fifteen, to the extent that the lumbung system operating in Kassel is beset with impertinent demands and various forms of co-optation.

But it is precisely this sense of something not working that, I think, is the legacy of documenta fifteen. At a recent conference dedicated to the discussion of lumbung practices and its reception in different contexts, curator Charles Esche acclaims documenta fifteen by calling it ‘the first exhibition of the 21st century’. Esche’s timely celebration of lumbung practices is much needed in the face of all the turmoil that has hijacked the urgent questions raised by lumbung artists—What is not working in the global art ecosystem? How do we proceed in the brokenness of the world? What can we learn from conviviality? These are some of the questions that my colleagues and I are thinking about as part of the collective inquiry of the Advanced Practices programme.