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    Simone Leigh’s Assembly of Black Feminist Creativity in Venice Left Me in Awe

    In what is sure to be remembered as a historic moment that honored Black womxn’s labor, creativity, and intellect, dozens of scholars, thought leaders, educators, writers, curators, authors, and artists from across the African diaspora communed in Venice last week for artist Simone Leigh’s symposium, “Loophole of Retreat.” The program included talks, film screenings, dance performances, music, panel discussions, and more. Over three emotional days, from the perch of my home office in New York—and at times, my local Soho House—I watched the livestream, engulfed in the feeling of being seen, heard, and perhaps finally understood in a way I’d never quite been before—in a way only a Black woman could understand.
    Taking its name from a section of Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the symposium was guided by five overarching themes, or “key directives:” “Maroonage,” “Manual,” “Magical Realism,” “Medicine,” and “Sovereignty.” It unearthed a long legacy of scholarship, free thought, wild imaginings, and the freedom Black women have continuously worked to build for themselves despite centuries of racialized and gendered oppression.
    “The labor of Black women is often made invisible,” author, social media star, and Pace gallery associate director Kimberly Drew told me, commenting afterwards on the remarkable experience of the weekend. “This obscuring of our rigor, scholarship, and dedication makes it seem like we haven’t been here. During these three days, I left feeling far from alone, inspired in every moment never to take for granted what happens when Black women come together.”
    Rashida Bumbray and Simone Leigh. Photo by Glorija Blazinsek.
    Curator and choreographer Rashida Bumbray organized the event, with Saidiya Hartman and Tina Campt. And from the moment that Bumbray’s voice flowed through my computer screen, singing out “good morning everybody” to the audience, I knew this weekend would be filled with claiming strength through sisterhood, and finding empowerment in the ethos of “doing it ourselves” (as trail-blazing Black gallerist Linda Goode Bryant puts it in a text currently on view at MoMA for a show celebrating her Just Above Midtown gallery).
    The conference’s first theme, “Maroonage,” was informed by Jamaican artist Deborah Anzinger’s work. Anzinger herself was on hand with a presentation that offered a reevaluation of both Black labor and the extraction of natural resources. But many other inspired interventions into the past filled the event. One that sticks in my mind is professor, poet, and critic Canisia Lubrin’s presentation of a series of 59 fictional codes in response to King Louis XIV’s infamous Code Noir (The Black Code), the set of rules defining the conditions of enslaved Africans within the French empire.
    Las Nietas de Nonó perform during Loophole of Retreat: Venice, October 9, 2022. Photo by Glorija Blazinsek.
    The second theme, “Manual,” was inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s “Manual for General Housework” in her brilliantly moving book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. While some presentations contextualized a set of conditions Black women have been subjugated to through physical labor and egregious bodily harm, I came away with the sense that, infinitely more important than these crushing constraints are the ways in which they, us, and the collective ‘we’ have persisted, forged untrodden paths, and continued to envision new forms of freedom by revolutionizing personal intimacy and kinship. Watching the program, I truly felt that by holding space for Black women to congregate and share knowledge, “Loophole of Retreat” existed as a haven, a respite, a dwelling where community could flourish.
    The event’s other directives—”Magical Realism,” “Medicine,” and “Sovereignty”—guided conversations and performances that made visible the creative labor of poets, activists, authors, and academics from every part of the diaspora. Women who were also mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters came from Portugal and Berlin, from South Africa and Brazil, and from all over the United States to share knowledge and hold space for joy, creative freedom, and community through sisterhood. To take one example, the literary and artist collective Black Quantum Futurism incorporated spoken word and poetry with rhythmic music and the ancient sounds of maracas.
    Black Quantum Futurism performs at Loophole of Retreat: Venice, October 8, 2022. Photo by Glorija Blazinsek.
    “‘Loophole of Retreat’ beautifully captured the thoughtfulness, joy, sacrifice, and rigor that is often carried out in the Black feminist imagination,” said Taylor Renee Aldridge, curator at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, after the event. “One of the many memorable moments for me was witnessing deference on display between generations and peers: Simone’s reverence of Lorraine [O’Grady], Rashida’s reverence of Simone, and Simone expressing gratitude for her own daughter.”
    Elsewhere during the weekend, the phenomenal Legacy Russell spotlighted works by painters Naudline Pierre and Firelei Báez, and moderated a riveting conversation with artist Ja’Tovia Gary following a screening of her work. Russell inspired the audience by speaking powerfully of the collective purpose represented by the event. “In a moment in the world where the visibility of Black femmehood continues to rise yet where sustained equity and representation still requires constant vigilance, care, and strategic work, being ‘in the loophole’ perforates boundaries and breaks through the mythos of Black exceptionalism and Black alienation—a reminder of the power of collective congress and its dazzling capacity to transform the world by holding space for shared information.”
    Guests share a moment during Loophole of Retreat: Venice. Photo by Glorija Blazinsek.
    As I reflect on the exuberant and utterly transformative weekend of “Loophole of Retreat,” I find myself entranced by this surplus of Black feminine creativity, presented in a way I have never seen. Every friend I spoke with during the retreat and in the days following remarked that they were “still processing” and needed “time to unpack.” It took me days to come up for air.
    When I finally resurfaced, I recognized that through the scholarship, care, and the brilliance of Simone Leigh, Rashida Bumbray, Saidiya Hartman, Deborah Anzinger, Zara Julius, Ja’tovia Gary, Mabel O. Wilson, and so many others who touched me, I came through the symposium forever changed. Perhaps by some force of nature or deep ancestral ties, I felt protected, seen, and celebrated by every Black woman I have ever known or have yet to meet, privileged not only to bask in our glory, but also to be in service to so many Black women.
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    I’ve Been to a Lot of Gallery Weekends. Vienna’s ‘Curated By’ Festival Was the Most Cohesive and Moving I’ve Ever Seen

    The resplendent chandeliers of Vienna’s Kursalon concert hall clashed with the lonely figures by Maria Sulymenko on view at the Vienna Contemporary fair. Standing in the booth of Ukraine’s Voloshyn Gallery, assistant Anna Kopylova and I had quick aside about her travels. She had driven for 30 hours from Kyiv, where, at the beginning of the war with Russia, she spent weeks living in the gallery. It is mostly underground, making it an ideal bomb shelter.
    I was haunted by a remark I had made the night before, lightly complaining over dinner about my seven-hour train ride from Berlin to attend of Vienna Contemporary and Curated By, a city-wide art festival that is, to quote one collector, “unique in the world.” It’s true: for 14 editions, this innovative model sees 24 dealers, with €9,000 in city funding, turn over their spaces to external curators who often hail from museums beyond Austria. Each organizes a single show that reflects on one umbrella theme.
    With an eye toward the ongoing war a 30-hour drive away, this year’s concept was kelet, Hungarian for “east.” (In case the psychological rift in Europe is not clear enough, the theme last year was humor.) Participating galleries each absorb the prompt differently, though in the case of kelet, many took it literally, opting to invite curators from longitudes east of Austria.
    Viennacontemporary 2022. 8-11 September, Kursalon Vienna. Photo courtesy of: kunstdokumentation.com
    Even without such a specific ask, Vienna’s art scene has long looked toward that horizon. Vienna Contemporary, held earlier this month, and the newer fair Spark, which takes place in the summer, both feature an array of galleries from central and eastern Europe.
    At Vienna Contemporary, one of the newcomers this year was Bucharest gallery Sandwich, a small artist-run space quite literally sandwiched between two buildings. The Romanian dealer showed small ceramic works based on a combination of folkloric myths and real political events by Ukrainian artist Diana Khalilova. On another floor, Ukrainian galleries Voloshyn and Kyiv’s Naked Room exhibited for free.
    Vienna and its cultural scene are a gateway between these European geographies and identities of east and west, however loaded the terms are. (“Every mention of east and west is accompanied by scare quotes,” noted Chicago-based curator of Curated By, Dieter Roelstraete, in his opening address.) However you want to slice Europe, Vienna is a town that looks like a polished jewel of old empire where you will hear Slavic languages almost as much as German on the streets. People, culture, and ideas flow from Bratislava and Budapest just as much as from western capitals of comparable sizes.
    Still, talk of east and west is a bit of a political game in Vienna, especially since the outbreak of war. Austria is pervaded by a “spooking kind of quiet” when it comes to solidarity with Ukraine, as one dealer put it. (The events were quieter too, with few to no Russian collectors.) In the not-so-distant past, this country was far from immune to Russian influence, money, and energy. And in the present, the nation has remained suspiciously neutral in a war with one aggressor.
    As such, the concept for Curated By, crafted by Dieter Roelstraete back in March (while Europe was still frozen in a collective gasp), carries a particular weight. Lithuanian curator Valentinas Klimasauskas commented that this year’s focus is, in a sense, a “gesture of art historical or curatorial justice.”
    The Prompt. Milda Drazdauskaitė, Elena Narbutaitė, Ola Vasiljeva, curated by Adomas Narkevičius, installation view GIANNI MANHATTAN (2022), courtesy the artists and GIANNI MANHATTAN, photo: kunst-dokumentation.com
    Kelet was, in some cases, gently rebutted by curators who deemed it too simplistic: Adomas Narkevičius, who organized an exhibition of Lithuanian artists at Gianni Manhattan, said he hoped to “react without responding.” His exhibition, with an all-Lithuanian female cast of artists (Milda Drazdauskaitė, Elena Narbutaitė, and Ola Vasiljeva) is cheekily called “The Prompt.” It examines the limits any sense of knowing, with minimal materials role-playing as something else. Supple-looking drapes of hanging paper obfuscate the view, and a laser light creates a pinkish-blue “cut” in the wall.
    Austrians seem to be well aware of the weird place they occupy now. Until recently, cheap Russian gas accounted for 80 percent of its energy. Europeans are panicking about the impending winter, and what it will mean for the economy (and what that, in turn, will mean for empathy for Ukraine). These same fears are deeply felt in the art world, with its big bright rooms that are costly to heat in a business with tight cash flow.
    This anxiety underpinned two exhibitions, including that of Galerie Georg Kargl, curated by Hana Ostan Ožbolt, where the lights were completely off in the gallery. Small sculptures, including meticulously wrought readymades by David Fesl, punctuated an otherwise somber space. At Galerie Crone, the front of the gallery was also darkened in a show curated by Eva Kraus, director of the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn, and Ukrainian artist Volo Bevza. The natural shadows deepened the poignant mood of an exhibition that included young, contemporary Ukrainian artists reflecting on the relationship between virtual and physical realities of war.
    “I Had a Dog and a Cat,” curated by Hana Ostan Ozbolt. Installation view. 2022. Courtesy the artists and Georg Kargl Fine Arts. © Georg Kargl Fine. Photo kunst-dokumentation.com.
    Particularly impactful was a large, standalone sculpture of a broadsheet by Yevgenia Belorusets. Placed in the middle of the room, the sculpture, called Please don’t take my picture! Or they’ll shoot me tomorrow, is printed with stories written by the artist that play with fact and fiction. The blown-up newspaper encompasses the split personality of media coverage around this war. I was struck by its date: 2015, one year after war officially began in Crimea. It was a time when Russian state money still enjoyed prominent status in the art world under the guise of promoting international exchange. Belorusets’s work punctures that myth and offers a very different picture.
    After circulating unknowable amounts of fairs and gallery weekends in recent years, they can begin to feel cacophonous. By contrast, Curated By hangs together in a way that is hybridized, varied, legible, and not pedantic. Although some contributors gently ignored the brief, all participants agreed it was no time for flashy works but instead an opportunity for muted reflection. There was some sense of a collective subconscious: in times of deep trouble, and where words fail us, art fills a void.
    Installation view. “The Neverending Eye,” Croy Nielsen, Vienna, 2022. Courtesy Croy Nielsen, Vienna. Photo: Kunst-dokumentation.com
    The most successful exhibitions opted to gaze beyond the immediate crisis, tracing a thread between the current war and longer plots. It’s essential not to reduce Ukrainian artists to the experience of this war and the refugee crisis, Polish curator from the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Natalia Sielewicz, pointed out as she gave a tour of “The Neverending Eye.”
    The solo exhibition at Croy Nielsen features works saved from Ukraine by the late Fedir Tetyanych. The pioneer of Ukrainian cosmism worked as a state artist for Soviet Ukraine. His works engage in double-speak: they are both historical champions of the Soviet era and also transgressive attempts to imagine worlds and ways beyond it.
    His “biotechnospheres,” futuristic utopian shelters of his own invention, are depicted in watercolors that were nearly lost to history before a dedicated group of “eastern” Europeans saved them during the onset of war. They hang now in Vienna, as dashed dreams from the past. The futuristic machines are set against lush Ukrainian fields that we now see with new eyes—a fertile, fragile ground.
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    Through Beauty and Pain, the 2022 Busan Biennale Flexes the Strength of South Korea’s Art Beyond Seoul

    The brilliant sunlight was beaming through Mire Lee’s installation on Yeongdo Island. Titled Landscape with Many Holes: Skins of Yeongdong Sea (2022), the 70-foot-tall work made of fence fabric draped across scaffolding is on show as part of this year’s Busan Biennale. The roofless abandoned factory of Song Kang Heavy Industrial, where the work was installed, allowed it to stand under a cloudless blue sky.
    A tranquil moment of art appreciation was disrupted, however, when exhibition staffers guided the tour group Artnet News was part of to walk away from the structure—for safety reasons. The glorious weather had already made us forget about Typhoon Hinnamnor, which had struck South Korea’s hilly coastal city of Busan just the day before our visit. The powerful tropical cyclone had devastated the southern part of the country and killed at least 10 people.
    But the monumental installation by the Amsterdam-based South Korean artist was still standing strong after the raging storm, albeit a little shaky and slightly damaged. It felt like a symbolic gesture that echoed the theme of this year’s Busan Biennale: “We, on the Rising Wave.”
    In this case, “rising wave” signifies the history and transformation of Busan, which was the country’s first port open to foreigners in 1876 and a safe haven for over 1 million refugees during the Korean War in 1950–53. And “we,”—be it the participating artists, art practitioners, audiences, or even the city—are still standing despite such rising waves of endless change, locally and abroad. Just like Lee’s work.
    Still standing after Typhoon Hinnamnor: Mire Lee, Landscape with Many Holes: Skins of Yeongdong Sea(2022). Photo: Vivienne Chow. An image of the work’s original state is at the bottom of this article.
    “This is the story of Busan,” Haeju Kim, the artistic director of Busan Biennale 2022, told Artnet News. Taking the helm of the biennale this year offered an extra layer of meaning to Kim, who was born and raised in the city. During her research to prepare for the show, she dived deep into the local histories of her hometown, covering how the city was built and how it has evolved since local elections resumed in 1991, after democracy was fully installed in South Korea in 1987.
    “This gives me a chance to take a good look at my city, what it means to me as an individual, and as an art practitioner from here,” noted the curator. “Busan, as a port city, is a starting point for this exhibition. From here, we look for the connection, a common ground for discussion with artists from different parts of the world.”
    Art Beyond Seoul
    It was indeed refreshing to visit the Busan Biennale following a week of frenzy surrounding Frieze Seoul, launched in partnership with Korea’s long-running homegrown fair Kiaf Seoul. All the glamorous parties, openings, and multimillion-dollar sales had undoubtedly made Seoul an exciting place to be, but the tranquility of Busan was where one could let art sink in.
    Such tranquility may or may not have been welcomed by the organizers, however, since the opening of this year’s biennale fell on the same date as the opening of Frieze Seoul and Kiaf, and many trips to Busan were postponed or canceled due to the typhoon.
    The biennale was founded in 1999, and as the host of one of South Korea’s most notable international art exhibitions, the city of Busan has been playing a tremendous role in not just the organization but also the narrative of the show. The support was rounded out by this year’s curatorial advisors, Christine Tohme, Philippe Pirotte, and Yuk Hui.
    One of the works by Oh U-Am (b. 1938) on show at Busan Biennale. Photo: Vivienne Chow.
    This year’s biennial features 64 artists and art collectives, born from the 1930s to 1990s, from 26 countries, with 46 (or 63 percent) of them based outside of South Korea.
    The show spans four different locations that carry specific meanings to the city’s transformation. The Museum of Contemporary Art Busan (MOCA Busan), which has been a main exhibition venue since the museum’s inception in 2018, is located on Eulsukdo Island, which was once Asia’s largest habitat for migratory birds, but the environment was severely damaged because of accelerated industrialization and urbanization. Pier 1 of Busan Port, which was completed in 1912, was the transportation hub during Japan’s invasion of China and the Korean War, but was excluded from the city’s current North Port redevelopment project. And the other two locations, Yeongdo and Choryang, played significant roles during the Korean War, since both were homes to refugees.
    According to artistic director Kim, exhibition locations—as well as the artists—were selected to address the exhibition’s four thematic focuses: “Migration,” “Women and Women Laborers,” “Ecosystem of the City,” and “Technological Change and Locality.”
    “There were some personal factors when I decided to look at Busan through the lens of these four focuses,” Kim noted. “Many people, for example, have already forgotten how the population of Busan was made of migration. A lot of mixed recipes can be found in the local food culture. The city is mountainous but it was quickly occupied by migrants and houses were built along the hilly landscape.”
    Although the majority of featured artists were based abroad, Kim hoped that by having Busan as a point of departure in the exhibition and in her discussion with artists, would allow a “more relevant identity of Busan under a larger context to be rebuilt.”
    Song Minjung, Custom (2022), on show at Choryang, a new venue of Busan Biennale 2022. Photo: Vivienne Chow.
    Four Themes in One
    Despite the biennial’s four distinctive focuses, there are no separations or any obvious boundaries drawn among the works. Rather, they are all laid out in a lyrical and sometimes poetic way, as if they were in dialogue with each other, telling stories that are related across time and space. Different images are juxtaposed alongside each other, addressing more than one focus at the same time.
    Indeed, these four focuses should not be isolated from each other. The memorable exhibition at MOCA Busan’s basement level space, for example, is a thoughtfully curated journey that begins with rarely seen paintings from the 1990s to 2000s by the Korean artist Oh U-Am (b. 1938). He was orphaned during the Korean War and painted the seemingly childlike yet somber images out of his childhood memories of the country’s liberation from Japanese imperial rule, and people’s suffering in the aftermath of the Korean War.
    This is followed by a journey through works that attempt to revive the memories of a forgotten past. Danish artist Pia Rönicke (b. 1974) tells the story of Le Klint, a woman who made the famous pleated lamp shades in installation set In Without a Name (2004–07), but never received the credit for it. (Rönicke has another brilliant work, In Future Horizon, that tells the history of military conflicts in the region through the stories of plants showing on the museum’s first floor.)
    Korean-Dutch Sara Sejin Chang (b. 1977) recounts the painful history of transnational and transracial adoption of Korean children, who were sold and transported to other countries—with Busan serving as an epicenter of child traffickers in the 1970s and 80s—in the film installation Four Months, Four Million Light Years (2020).
    French artist Laure Prouvost (b. 1978) reminds us of our watery origins from a mother’s womb in her 2022 video work Four For See Beauty, which is accessed through a mysterious tunnel of palm trees made with leaves from Jeju Island.
    The basement level exhibition concluded at South Korean artist Kim Jooyoung’s (b. 1948) Way-abyss (1994), a notable work hanging on the wall that was essentially a pathway for lost souls made by footsteps in black ink left on a white cotton cloth. The piece is an apt representation of her practice, revolving around the themes of departure and stemmed from her growing up during the division of the Korean peninsula. A similar theme is explored in her stunning recent work The Archeology of Pier 1: Wave Becomes Light. Becomes Wind. Becomes the Way. Becomes History (2022), on show at Pier 1 of Busan Port.
    Kim Jooyoung, The Archeology of Pier 1: Wave Becomes Light. Becomes Wind. Becomes the Way. Becomes History (2022). Courtesy of the artist and Busan Biennale.
    Off the Beaten Track
    Of the four locations, the abandoned house up on the hill of Choryang that was turned into a temporary exhibition space is a must-go experience for adventurous art lovers. The Busan-born South Korean artist Song Minjung’s (b. 1985) transformed the site into quirky show. (It is also fortunate that the typhoon did not seem to have caused a great deal of damage to the two-storey building.) Her work Custom follows a mysterious story told via various video clips shown on different smartphones, as if the fictional characters are video-calling each other.
    The exhibition location, from which visitors can enjoy a great view of the city, was an experiment as it was new to the biennale, and Song’s work explored the uneasy dynamics of the relationship between Korea and Japan inherited from a problematic historical past.
    The relationship between Korea and Japan was given a more positive note by the Japanese art collective Chim↑Pom from Smappa!Group, who invented a new beverage called “Doburokgeolli,” which was designated the official alcoholic drink of this year’s Busan Biennale. Free bottles of the mysterious dark beverage, held in a fridge housed in a hut in Yeongdo, were the outcome of an experiment. They were made with Japan’s technique of brewing Doburoku sake with the malt of Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli, a traditional alcohol from Busan.
    The artists argue that the two alcoholic drinks share a lot of similarities, including a crackdown on home-brewing by their respective countries’ governments. The creation of this new hybrid drink is meat to carry a symbolic meaning of how the relationship between these two cultural powerhouses of east Asia could move forward from their troubled history.
    A new alcoholic beverage fusing Korean and Japanese traditional brewing techniques, invented by Chim↑Pom from Smappa!Group, the “official” drink of the 2022 Busan Bieannle. Photo: Vivienne Chow.
    Like the work by Chim↑Pom, artistic director Kim has a lot of hope for the future, particularly for her hometown.
    “Busan deserves more attention, not just in Korea but also internationally,” Kim said. “Most of the global attention centers around Seoul, but Busan is getting better, and becoming a city that inspires artists.”
    The Busan Biennale 2022 runs until November 6. A series of public programs and screenings of moving image works at the Yeongdo Outdoor Cinema can be found here.
    How it looked originally: Mire Lee, Landscape with Many Holes: Skins of Yeongdong Sea (2022). Courtesy of the artist and Busan Biennale.
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    The Lyon Biennale Has Many Big, Beautiful Works—But Too Many Competing Curatorial Ideas

    Rows of tents sheltering migrants and other unhoused people stretch out in the electric blue light beneath Lyon’s bridges and underpasses. Outside the city, the cornfields are bleached by a summer of extreme heat. Conflict, climate catastrophe and the human movement they precipitate touch us all, even in this wealthy French city. Under the curatorial direction of Till Fellrath and Sam Bardaouil, our interconnected vulnerability has become the presiding theme of the 16th edition of the Biennale de Lyon. The show’s theme, “Manifesto of Fragility,” the curators suggest, positions fragility as “a generative form of resistance” and vulnerability as “a foundation for empowerment.”
    The biennial is vast, as is now de rigueur for such shows. It is like an art-world Man v. Food: Do you attempt to consume everything and make yourself ill, or can you pick and choose? (Alas, no one has yet invented a doggy bag for biennial art.) From the central venue—the cavernous Usines Fagor, a former household appliance factory—it spreads across the city’s museums, from the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) de Lyon to the wonderful, brutalist Lugdunum museum of Roman antiquities.
    Artefacts—many broken, or unfashionable—dating back three millennia are scattered between contemporary works throughout the biennial. The participating artists, living and dead, reflect Fellrath and Bardaouil’s years of immersion in art of the Arab world.
    Biennale de Lyon curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath. Photo: © Blandine Soulage.
    It’s been a busy year for the curators. In January, they took up a double-headed role as directors of the Hamburger Bahnhof. In March, their passion project, “Beirut and the Golden Sixties”, opened at Berlin’s Gropius Bau. (The show has now moved to Lyon, where it forms part of the Biennale.) April saw the opening of the Venice Biennale, for which they worked with Yasmina Reggad on artist Zineb Sedira’s Silver Lion-award winning French Pavilion installation. And throughout it all, they have been working on the Biennale de Lyon, which should have opened in 2021 but was delayed because of the pandemic.
    Fragility may be the theme, but art-wise this Biennale feels robust—extensive, expansive, expensive, even a little excessive. At Usines Fagor, artists and their work luxuriate in an abundance of space. Eva Fabregas’s biomorphic teats and bulges dangle in fleshy magnificence from the rafters. The Marta Górnicka’s film of a diverse choir “stress testing” the German constitution is broadcast at top volume. Dana Awartani has installed a 20-meter reproduction of the patterned courtyard floor of Aleppo’s Grand Mosque, its bricks made from colored clays.
    Installation view of “Manifesto of Fragility,” Biennale de Lyon 2022, Hans Op de Beeck’s We Were the Last to Stay (2022). © Adagp, Paris, 2022. Photo: Blandine Soulage.
    One whole warehouse is occupied by Hans Op de Beeck’s We Were the Last to Stay, a trailer park complete with river and statue of the Virgin Mary, all sprayed ashen grey, like a contemporary Pompeii. A neighboring warehouse hosts Julian Charrière’s videos of ice scapes and meltwater, flanking a perforated boulder of marble positioned on its own core samples. Both presentations are spectacular, though this stately beauty almost feels obscene.
    There’s a lot of slow-paced video, in which lush panning shots are matched to portentous voice-overs. Ambient music in a minor key washes throughout. It can feel like your emotions are being curated too, or you’re stuck in a sentimental video game.
    Many grand audio-visual works are so caught up in their own beauty that they forget to go anywhere, but a few work brilliantly. Phoebe Boswell’s dwelling (2022) immerses you in a swimming pool with a succession of Black families, lovers, and siblings as they float and play in the brilliant blue. There is a long legacy of trauma in the Black body’s relationship to water. Even today, many Black British adults don’t swim. Boswell’s moving work invites us to share space with people as they explore water as a medium of physical freedom and transformation.
    Installation view of “Manifesto of Fragility,” Biennale de Lyon 2022, Ugo Schiavi, Grafted Memory System (2022). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: © Blandine Soulage.
    Installed in an old chapel, Mali Arun’s three-screen Wunderwelten (2022) weirds up the familiar world of a theme park, using an (infrared?) filter to turn everything colored green to magenta. We follow a young girl through a joyous visit, charting her facial expressions as she reaches a peak of awe and ecstasy on a rollercoaster—in the mode of Bernini’s St Teresa, complete with churchy music. Arun’s celebration of child-like wonder links entertainment to religious experience, suggesting the former now occupies the cultural space once held by the latter.
    Planning for the Biennale had already started when, on 4 August 2020, an explosion tore through the Port of Beirut. For “Beirut and the Golden Sixties,” showing here at MAC Lyon, Fellrath and Bardaouil commissioned a devastating intervention from Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige.
    After many galleries of captivating historic work—psychedelic surrealism from Georges Doche and Juliana Seraphim, sexy sculptures by Dorothy Salhab Kazemi, coded embroidery by Nicolas Moufarrege included—we step into a ring of screens. Each replays two minutes of CCTV footage taken from a different vantage point in Beirut’s Sursock Museum as the blast rips through the galleries, shatters the stained glass on the facade and knocks a bride off her feet in the sculpture garden.
    The piece is positioned for maximum impact, after you’ve emotionally invested in the work of so many mid-century Lebanese artists. It’s like being given a puppy then learning the rest of the litter is dead.
    Installation view of “Beirut and the Golden Sixties,” at Martin Gropius Bau. Photo: © Luca Girardini.
    “Beirut and the Golden Sixties” is a great exhibition, but an odd change of pace; it is pedagogic, archival, historically immersed. It’s a proper institutional show in the midst of Biennale flurry.
    On the floor above, a conceptual display uses the life of Louise Brunet, a 19th-century silk weaver and workers’ rights activist from Lyon who ended up in Lebanon, as a structure through which to explore health, poverty, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. There is some good work here—canvases by the late Semiha Berksoy, a creepy giant asparagus sculpture by Hannah Levy, paintings by Salman Toor, palpable photographs of dead octopuses by Richard Learoyd—but too many competing ideas at a curatorial level.
    The Beirut explosion also bisects an inventive video installation by Rémie Akl, who greets us while she dresses for a party, and invites us to follow her across a series of screens. Following the blast, the work turns into a quest to hack into a locked iPhone. The inaccessible device illustrates the disruption caused by the loss of contemporary infrastructure, but also performs as a metaphor for a corrupt system.
    Installation view of “Manifesto of Fragility,” Biennale de Lyon 2022, Gómez-Egaña Virgo, (2022). Courtesy of the artist and Zilberman Gallery. Photo: © Blaise Adilon.
    Insecurity is given symbolic form in Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s Virgo (2022), an apartment-like structure with furnishings set on mobile tracks, which are slowly propelled through a succession of rooms by performers. And in Lucy McRae’s elegant laboratory-set film Institute of Isolation (2016) the artist goes through lonely training and testing as though preparing for a solo space mission, her experiments in isolation a poignant precursor to the pandemic.
    Among the breakout stars of this edition are Giulia Andreani, whose uncanny tableaux of forgotten and fantastical women’s histories are painted in Payne’s grey, and Zhang Yungao, who also paints in a reduced palette but on felt, which gives a nostalgic fuzziness to his exploration of BDSM iconography. The Biennale is likely to be transformative for Sylvie Selig, now in her 80s, who brings a fully-formed universe of weird humanoid figures assembled from seedpods, bones and other detritus, as well as suites of narrative embroideries and paintings.
    Fellrath and Bardaouil are storytellers. For Lyon, they have, with a few notable exceptions, favored art that delivers narrative and drama—big emotion, grand gestures. This is Biennale as balm rather than irritant, a woozily soundtracked counterbalance to the prevailing feel-bad tendency, all pearl and very little grit.
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    From Outraged Poems on Bedsheets to Photos of Women Workers, How 12 Female Ukrainian Artists Capture the Experience of Conflict

    Reports from Ukraine are full of devastating photographs of smoldering ruins, destroyed villages, bloated corpses, and ravaged landscapes. It is all too easy for such images to be subsumed into a generic narrative of the horrors of war. But like all wars, this one is particular, the outcome of a set of specific historical circumstances experienced by actual individuals and groups in ways that cannot be generalized.
    “Women at War” is an exhibition of works by twelve Ukrainian women artists who have lived through the current conflict and its precipitating events. Curated by Monika Fabijanska for Fridman Gallery, the show takes us inside the psyches of a group of artists who have learned to live with what a 2018 exhibition of contemporary Ukrainian art in Budapest termed a state of “Permanent Revolution.”
    Some of the works here were created in the heat of the current war. Others emerge from previous moments in Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination in the years since the fall of communism, reminding us of the long roots of today’s crisis. Running as undercurrents through the show are the complexities of geography stemming from the tensions between a Western-leaning west and a Russia-leaning east, and the upheavals of a post-Soviet (dis)order that has seen waves of mass protests, endemic corruption, two revolutions, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the looming threat that has now erupted into full-scale war.
    Why only women? In the essay that accompanies the show, Fabijanska notes, “Women are generally absent from the historical accounts of war, but violating a woman is seen as a violation of land and nation.” Having curated well-received shows on eco-feminism and rape, Fabijanska brings both these topics to bear here. Her chosen artists suggest how Ukrainian national identity is tied both to the land and to figures of the “great mother” as personified by the Soviet Motherland and the pre-Christian goddess Berehynia. The latter has emerged in recent years as a somewhat equivocal symbol of Ukrainian nationalism, representing both strength and a return to old, pre-Soviet values. Restricting her purview to women thus allows Fabijanska to deal with fraught definitions of feminism in a post-Soviet country where putative equality under the Communist system long masked a deeply misogynist reality even as the demise of that order has given way in many parts of the country to a regressive return to “traditional” roles.
    Alla Horska, Portrait of Ivan Svitlychny (1963). Courtesy of the Ukrainian Museum in NewYork.
    A modest linocut of a man clutching what appear to be seeds or cherries serves as an entrée into the show. Created in 1963 by the Ukrainian activist and artist Alla Horska (1929-1970), it depicts Ivan Svitychny, a Ukrainian poet and fellow dissident. Inclusion of this work by Horska draws attention to the troubled history of art and politics in Ukraine. Known in the Soviet era for her murals, mosaics, and stained glass in the Donbas region (many of them now presumed destroyed by Russian bombs), as well as her protests in favor of Ukrainian human rights, Horska was murdered in 1970 while under surveillance by the KGB.
    Alena Grom, Tamara with Her Brother. Mariinka, Donbas (Wombseries) (2018). © Alena Grom. Courtesy of the artist.
    The rest of the artists in “Woman at War” belong to the post-Soviet era. Several of them assume the role of witnesses. Alena Grom presents several photographs from her “Womb” series in which women emerge from the shadows of the bunker in which they have been hiding. Clutching their children, they suggest an inversion of the classic trope of Madonna and Child as they appear enveloped not in radiant light but in a darkness that is as tomb-like as it is womb-like. Though they seem frighteningly current, Grom’s photos were taken in 2018 during earlier fighting in the eastern region of Donbas where Russian separatists have been battling Ukrainian government forces since 2014. The bunkers are in fact abandoned mine shafts, relics of the economic lifeblood which has made the area a coveted prize for Russian forces.
    Yevgenia Belorusets, Victories of the Defeated 5 (2014-2017). ©Yevgenia Belorusets. Courtesy of the artist.
    Yevgenia Belorusets presents images from the same time and location. She photographs women workers who continued to labor in the still functioning mines during the occupation of the area by separatist forces. Despite disruptions in their salaries and efforts by the occupiers to get them to join in the fighting, they kept the mine open. In the photographs their faces are smudged by coal dust but hopeful and even at times joyful, offering portraits of resistance and courage as they attempt to cling to shreds of normalcy as the world crumbles around them. Sadly, after the expulsion of the separatists, the returning Ukrainian government closed the mine, negating their efforts.
    Lesia Khomenko, Max in the Army (2022). ©Lesia Khomenko.Courtesy of the artist.
    Two artists reframe images of the war by adapting art historical traditions to the current situation. Lesia Khomenko offers a deflated version of the heroic tropes of Soviet Socialist Realism in a painting of her partner dressed in rumpled civilian garb as he volunteers for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Anna Scherbyna undermines the Romanticism inherent in the 18th century European tradition of picturesque ruins with a series of miniature paintings that depict the devastation of Donbas.
    Other artists suggest the psychic toll of life in a constant war zone. Oksana Chepelyk’s 2014 video Letter from Ukraine evokes a mother’s recurring nightmare as a frenzied woman runs with her little boy though abandoned streets as if caught in an endless and inescapable maze. Olia Fedorova’s Tablets of Rage (2022) is a cry from the current conflict. Created in March of this year as the artist shuttled between her apartment and a bomb shelter in Kharkiv that has undergone constant Russian shelling, this work comprises an anguished poem scrawled in red ink on torn bed sheets. The text channels her rage into images suggesting an identification with the forces of nature “May you choke on my soil./May you poison yourself with my air./ . . . And may you be afraid every second.”
    Kateryna Yermolaeva, Photo No. 2 (2017). ©Kateryna Yermolaeva. Courtesy of the artist.
    Kateryna Yermolaeva presents an equally personal response to trauma. In photographic self-portraits she assumes personas that combine stereotypes and aspects of her actual experiences, among them sex workers, housewives, and men in drag. With these characterizations, she suggests how the ongoing conflict has induced a splintering of consciousness.
    Zhanna Kadyrova may have the biggest international profile of the artists here, having represented Ukraine in the 2013 Venice Biennale. She presents documentation of a project titled Palianytsia, the Ukrainian word for bread. “Palianytsia” is apparently unpronounceable by Russians and hence serves as a kind of password for Ukrainians in occupied territories. In her video, Kadyrova collects river stones, polishes them into semblances of bread loaves and presents them as an offering to local villagers. Kadyrova created this installation and performance as a way to re-establish a sense of place following her evacuation from Kyiv to Western Ukraine following the Russian incursion.
    Alevtina Kakhidze, Strawberry Andreevna #3 (2014). ©Alevtina Kakhidze. Courtesy of the artist.
    Among the most compelling works are several diaristic projects. Alevtina Kakhidze’s Strawberry Andreevna (2014‐2019) is a series of drawings based on texts and cell phone conversations with her mother who remained in the occupied territories in Donbas and was constantly forced to cross the border into unoccupied Ukraine to collect her pension. Kakhidze combines snippets of their conversations with childlike drawings to evoke the utter surrealism of life in a place where the only good cell reception is in the cemetery, while a trip to the border that used to take an hour and a half now takes eleven hours. The series ends in 2019 when her mother dies of cardiac arrest during a pension run.
    Vlada Ralko, Lviv Diary No. 078 (2022). ©Vlada Ralko. Courtesy of the artist.
    Vlada Ralko’s 2022 Lviv Diary is more expressionistic. Her drawings, created with overlays of ink and watercolor realized in black, red, and flesh tones, mingle such symbols of Russian imperialism as eagles and hammers and sickles with bombs, skulls, mutilated female bodies, murdered children, and weapon-like phalluses. Watery stains of red suggest pools of blood while spreading blots of black evoke an obliterating void. Symbols meld to create disturbing hybrid images that suggest the impact of abstract political ambitions on defenseless human bodies.
    Dana Kavelina, we are all tied now (Exit to the Blind Spot series) (2019). ©Dana Kavelina. Courtesy of the artist
    Something of the same commingling of flesh and inanimate objects animates Dana Kavelina’s drawings from the series “Exit from the Blind Spot.” At once delicately drawn and darkly brutal, they are reminiscent of Nancy Spero’s equally lacerating series Torture of Women. Kavelina presents female bodies enmeshed in violence: the red lines of a cat’s cradle pin them down, or real red threads drip from their mouths. They are victims who have been deformed by war.
    Fridman Gallery is also screening Kavelina’s remarkable twenty-minute video Letter to a Turtledove (2020). This kaleidoscopic collage of images, animations, video clips, and sounds of war is accompanied by a mesmerizing voiceover in which one woman addresses another in a poetic text delivered with a detached and pensive intonation. Musing on the contradictions of war, violence, and desire, she offers a communication that is both personal and universal.
    Dana Kavelina, Letter to a Turtledove (2020). ©Dana Kavelina. Courtesy of the artist.
    Throughout the video, different kinds of narratives collide: Soviet-era propaganda films heroizing the Donbas coal miners run in reverse as if to undo the rape of the earth, while raw footage from the recent war lingers over bodies of the dead. These clips are intercut with brief animations that present female-headed doves, the dismembering of a woman’s body, explosions of roses, and representations of Our Lady of the Sorrows, a devotional image of the Madonna pierced with swords.
    Running like a dream narrative over these images, the voiceover reveals the narrator’s identification with the violated land and suggests her willing submission to death and desecration. The work ends with a loop that dwells on an explosion whose gorgeous red suggests blood, roses, and fire. In an interview on the film, Kavelina remarks, “I suggest looking at all wars from the perspective of rape because every rape, even in peacetime, carries the seed of war. It shows the very capability of one human being to humiliate, and to display his anatomical power over, another human being—in this sense, the penis is the earliest weapon of war.”
    Vlada Ralko, Lviv Diary No. 030 (2022). ©Vlada Ralko. Courtesy of the artist.
    Having spent most of their adult lives in a state of political upheaval, post-Soviet era Ukrainian artists find it hard to distance themselves from politics. Many of them have been deeply involved in their country’s successive revolutions. But for the women in this exhibition, art and politics are not identical. In 2019 I interviewed a number of Ukrainian women artists for a forthcoming book on Ukrainian art. At that time Vlada Ralko told me, “From the beginning of the Ukrainian revolution, I clearly understood that civic engagement for me is not enough, that I would not be able to survive without examining the new dramatic, complex, contradictory, and sometimes bloody conflicts in the Ukrainian recent history through the eyes of an artist.” She added, “If some people view my recent work as a manifestation of patriotism or political demonstration, they are mistaken… Political changes began to tell me about my own personal things, which were hidden, sleeping, but suddenly came out to light.”
    Ralko might have been speaking for all the artists in this exhibition. Feminism in Ukraine takes a different tack than feminism in the West. It is not so much that “the personal is political,” as Western feminists have declared. It is more that “the political is personal.” Seared into their bodies and their consciousness, the current war reveals women artists reevaluating their status as women, citizens, and members of the human race.
    “Women at War” is on view at Fridman Gallery, 169 Bowery, New York, through August 26, 2022.
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    Mexico City’s Frida Kahlo Experience Takes ‘Frida-Mania’ to Its Logical Final Form: Dreamy Animation and Inspirational Quotes

    Would Frida Kahlo have liked “Frida: La Experiencia Inmersiva,” the snappy immersive-art experience currently at the Foro Polanco in Mexico City? I can’t definitely say no. Kahlo was a complicated person, obsessed with promoting a personal legend but also passionately politically concerned.
    What does Kahlo’s leap to immersive-art status suggests about contemporary “Frida-mania?” “Frida: La Experiencia Inmersiva” has the stamp of approval of the Kahlo family itself (as does “Immersive Frida Kahlo,” another Frida attraction open at cities across North America). Keep in mind, though, that that’s the same arm of the family that announced last year it was planning a Frida Kahlo and Family Metaverse (supposed to launch in Q2 of this year, but so far quiet).
    About 45 minutes in length, this immersive Frida experience fills two large chambers (there is also a side chamber with extra selfie ops, kids activities, and interactive, Frida-themed games). The walls are animated with high-res, super-scaled projections featuring swirling images culled from Kahlo’s Greatest Hits, from the Two Fridas (1939) to the Broken Column (1944) to her funny final painting, a still life of a watermelon with the words “Viva la Vida” (Live Life!) carved into it.
    Images are animated and repeated so that crowds can enjoy versions of the same show wherever they roam in the galleries. Foliage sprouts and moves. The atmospheres of her paintings change from day to night.
    The giant central figures are occasionally overrun by tides of paintbrushes, human hearts, chairs, or nails. Sometimes these animated swarms leave only the eyes of Frida or Diego Rivera peeking out, unintentionally evoking that meme of a frozen Homer Simpson sinking backwards into a hedge in embarrassment. Warm, twinkly music plays.
    Frida Kahlo’s Portrait of Diego Rivera (1938) projected within Frida: La Experiencia Inmersiva. Photo by Ben Davis.
    A smattering of Kahlo quotes on the soundtrack provide an atmosphere of biographical communion. These hit the familiar, big beats of Frida lore: the accident that left her in pain for life, her all-consuming passion for Diego, her shame at his affairs. It ends with a quote, spoken in the tone of a wise and mischievous grandmother: “No vale la pena irse de este mundo sin haberle dado tantito gusto a la vida” (something like: “It’s not worth leaving this world without getting a little pleasure from life.”)
    Like “Immersive Van Gogh,” which it closely echoes in style, “Frida: La Experiencia Inmersiva” does the job it sets out to do just fine—providing an efficiently spectacular version of visual art mythology and a family-friendly break in the air conditioning. Just as Vincent Van Gogh has been refined by media culture into his most marketably simple idea of “tortured genius,” so Frida Kahlo has been refined down to “passionate woman.”
    An animation of Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Deer (1947) in Frida: La Experiencia Inmersiva. Photo by Ben Davis.
    This particular immersive Frida doesn’t really make much of an effort to tell Frida Kahlo’s actual story—but then, the new Batman movie doesn’t bother to re-tell Bruce Wayne’s origin story either. The whole point of contemporary IP-driven blockbuster media is to feed you stuff that’s so familiar that you don’t have to do the work of learning about it. Instead you can just enjoy watching it creatively re-interpreted.
    In Mexico City, Frida Kahlo is more than familiar, of course. Dolls and tchotchkes with her likeness are sold everywhere; she gazes out from murals and T-shirts, in cutesy cartoon form. But there’s also plenty of Frida easily available that gives a sense of the tougher, less marketable political side that almost every modern-day version of “Frida-mania” seems hellbent on burying in kitsch.
    Go to see Diego Rivera’s famous mural cycle at the Secretariat of Public Education. In it, there’s an image called In the Arsenal, from 1929, centered on the image on Frida in a red worker’s shirt, with a Communist red star on it, handing out guns to the workers. The Soviet flag flaps behind her.
    Diego Rivera, In the Arsenal (1929). Photo by Ben Davis.
    Even at the underwhelming, over-touristed Frida shrine that is the Casa Azul, where they sell all manner of inoffensive Frida merch, they still preserve her bed complete with the five photos that looked down on her at night, like saints watching over her sleep: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. When I was there for my timed-ticket slot, the American tourist in front of me was loudly angry to discover that Frida was a Marxist. “You know, I read this shit in college—but I’m a grown man now, and it’s not cute anymore!” he snapped at his girlfriend.
    No one is going to have any similar unwanted epiphanies during “Frida: La Experiencia Inmersiva,” which is sponsored by a bank, Citibanamex.
    Defending the “political Frida” from the “commercial Frida” is by now its own critical trope. But the subject of Frida’s politics is also a knotty one, and I wouldn’t trust Citibanamex or its immersive art engineers with its intricacies. Usually, it runs in the direction of a simple heroization of the “political Frida.” But her politics were complex and contradictory. For instance, Frida was an anti-Stalinist, and then an ardent Stalinist by her final days. (She returned to the Mexican Communist Party, Hayden Herrera argues, because its vision of a muscular, actually existing world Communism offered an image of strength that served a psychic function for her as her own body failed.)
    Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column (1944), animated in Frida: La Experiencia Inmersiva. Photo by Ben Davis.
    You might actually be able to create an immersive show that gave a sense of Kahlo’s complexity—but this would require some creativity and thoughtful engagement with history, which would risk harshing the audience’s mellow. It would also require breaking with some of the emerging “immersive art” clichés, which favor free-floating atmosphere and pre-digested storytelling.
    The intro text that greets you outside “Frida: La Experiencia Inmersiva” all but says that it expects its audience to mainly come to the show primed by the 2002 Salma Hayek movie, Frida (which, incidentally, some Mexican critics criticized at the time for its glammed-up Hollywood treatment of the artist). It states:
    There are many paths that lead to the world-renowned Frida Kahlo: the medical path, the scientific path, the historical path, the biographical path, and the emotional path. Ever since the Hollywood movie came out, it is this last path that has led the largest number of people from around the world to Frida Kahlo: it has moved them and awakened them to great empathy.
    And now, this multimedia immersive experience is here…
    What does this mean—taking the “emotional path” into Frida, as opposed to the “biographical” or “historical” paths?
    Maybe because we’re already talking about how present-day Hollywood processes art, my immersive Frida experience made me think of an article by critic Alison Willmore, who asked recently in Vulture: “is Jane Austen just a vibe now?” Willmore looks at the contemporary “Jane Austen industrial complex” (but specifically the new Netflix Persuasion) and how a set of tropes—“bonnets, walks in the countryside, sessions of piano playing in the parlor, a vague sense of a stuffy British accent”—have come to crowd out the intricate psychological and social observations that have made Austen’s actual books so lasting.
    “Frida: La Experiencia Inmersiva” in Mexico City makes me think that immersive experiences are possibly best understood as agents of a similar process—or maybe what happens when this process takes its final form. They are a preeminent contemporary technology of vibe-ification.
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    The Investigative Mode of the Berlin Biennale Raises an Uncomfortable Question: Who Is All This Research Really for?

    When I look back over what was actually in the current Berlin Biennale, curated by artist Kader Attia and titled “Still Present!”, it seems a lot less dire than I remember.
    In fact, there’s a lot of poetry in Attia’s show. There are Tammy Nguyen’s vibrant, verdant paintings, rendering the Biblical Stations of the Cross but in an indelibly intricate style. I sat twice through Haig Aivazian’s They May Own the Lanterns But We Have the Light, Episode 1: Home Alone (2022), which strings together found cartoons into a ghostly black-and-white dream-tale.
    Zach Blas’s techno-horror installation is bombastic, but also truly unnerving. Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s film My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires (2017) memorably weaves together myths and political musings. There’s Mónica de Miranda’s mythic film, Path to the Stars (2022), and Amal Kenawy’s resonant animation, The Purple Artificial Flower (2005).
    There’s a lot of wit, formal flair, and intelligence in all these works.
    Overall, the show is pitched as Kader Attia’s survey of “two decades of decolonial engagement,” a framing device I think has overdetermined the way critics have experienced it—though “Still Present!” does contain a fair amount of art that feels like a homework assignment, enough to color the whole thing.
    Uriel Orlow, Reading Wood (Backwards) (2022). Photo by Ben Davis.
    As opposed to the sociable, DIY chill-out sensibility of the current Documenta, the 2022 Berlin Biennale feels like Biennale Classic, a Biennale full of Biennale Art: work characterized by a combination of aloofness and political declaration, often with a mild gulf between the object and the wall text filled in by an assumption of shared belief. A number of this show’s stars (Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Forensic Architecture, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Uriel Orlow, Susan Schullpi, Attia himself) are among the most-shown figures at big art exhibitions of the last five years.
    I agree with Rahel Aima, who wrote in Frieze that one of the overall effects of Attia’s exhibition is to leave you asking “who is this for?” And not just in front of a work like Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Poison soluble (2013), the 2022 Berlin Biennale’s most controversial moment. That installation traps you inside a literal maze composed of blown-up details of the ultra-graphic Abu Ghraib photos of U.S. soldiers torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners.
    Who is this for? It’s not as if the Abu Ghraib torture photos are news—they had a huge geopolitical effect from the moment they were first published 18 years ago by CBS, and caused a lot of anguish for Iraqis. I guess the idea here is that if we literally force the First World subject to confront this material again, some new catharsis will happen? But Lebel’s work does so by signal-boosting the degradation it decries. Poison soluble had to be supplemented by a rather panicked trigger warning.
    A trigger warning on view at the Berlin Biennale outside of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Poison soluble (2013). Photo ben Ben Davis.

    Investigative Aesthetics, Revisited
    There’s quite a bit going on in the show, and any number of routes to cut through its 80-plus artists. The main issue I’m going to talk about in relationship to Attia’s Berlin Biennale is the current status of “investigative aesthetics.”
    As I understand it, that term, associated with the group Forensic Architecture, was meant specifically to resist the temptation, evidenced by Lebel, to make art that tried to rouse its audience by directly showing atrocities or suffering. Instead, the idea was to assume the persona of an investigator, marshaling high-tech evidence, advancing specific cases.
    Thus, when Forensic Architecture showed the three-channel video 77sqm_9:26min at Documenta 14 in 2017 it was received as an advance on the more abstract fulminations of a lot of global Biennale Art. Its presence at Documenta was part of an ongoing agitation around the 2006 murder of immigrant Halit Yozgat by neo-Nazis. Using digital animation to recreate the internet café where the crime had taken place, the artwork carefully unspooled evidence that an undercover agent on the scene had lied under oath, and thereby may have taken part in the killing.
    Highlighting Forensic Architecture’s presence at Documenta, Hili Perlson would say that its work was “stretching the definition of what may constitute an artwork.” Now, five years on, Forensic Architecture’s art-as-investigation is one of the most prominent and in-demand genres of art.
    But compare 77sqm_9:26min from Documenta 14 to Airstrike on Babyn Yar (2022), on view at the Hamburger Bahnhof in this Berlin Biennale. While the former investigation took eight months and built on activism ongoing since 2006, the later engages with an event that happened just three months prior: the Russian missile attack on a TV tower in Kiyv on March 1, 2022.
    Forensic Architecture, Airstrike on Babyn Yar (2022). Photo by Ben Davis.
    “We gathered over dozens of videos, maps, and archival materials in order to study how these strikes hit not only media and communication networks but a tangled nervous system of historical references and repressed memories,” the narrator intones, in clinical voice. Airstrike on Babyn Yar goes on to detail how the Russian missile attack on the TV tower also hit the nearby Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial, pointing out the symbolic significance of this fact as linking two atrocities.
    But this connection was not in need of investigating, not really. 77sqm_9:26min was meaningful as an act of “counter-forensics,” a particularly resonant concept because the official German authorities investigating the murder of Halit Yozgat were potentially in league with his killers. But there is no serious “counter-forensic” aspect to Airstrike on Babyn Yar: the symbolism of attacking a Holocaust memorial was the media narrative about this event, pointed out immediately by Ukrainian President Zelensky in a Tweet after the attack as a way to shock the conscience of the world, and widely shared everywhere in outraged Western media coverage.
    What, then, does Airstrike on Babyn Yar’s investigation bring to the table? Onscreen, the video shows you different clips of the missile hitting the TV tower. “With the metadata from this clip that was sent to us directly, we corrected the time stamp from other videos, and determined the time of the strike was 5:08 a.m., which matches the first reports of the strike.”
    To sum up: Forensic Architecture has been able to confirm that the time of a particular Russian airstrike was… the same as the first reports of that same Russian airstrike.
    My suspicion is that this work exists here not because there was something urgent to investigate—there have been far grislier and far more shocking crimes by now—but to fill a need in this Berlin Biennale to address the war in Ukraine somehow. And so, despite the performance of investigation, we’re back to the old danger of Biennale Art, with artists on call for big art events to throw together some resonant material to make a Serious Statement.

    The Problem of Purpose
    Susan Schuppli is associated with Forensic Architecture and is the author of Material Witness: Material, Forensics, Evidence, a book on the possibilities of art-making that interrogates how objects bear witness to various crimes. Her work Icebox Detention Along the U.S.-Mexico Border (2021–22) is on view at the KW Art Institute.
    This work is, once again, a narrated investigation. It draws together evidence that U.S. border agents use freezing temperatures as an instrument of abuse, stating its mission as being an investigation of “a new thermo-politics defined by cold.” The facts Schuppli lays out are clear and scandalous—though also, once again, very well known to people who watch the news. (Perhaps they are more important to highlight now, when the U.S. media simply doesn’t report on the border as much as it did during the Trump administration, even as abuses go on.)
    Susan Schuppli, Icebox Detention Along the U.S.-Mexico Border (2021-2022). Photo by Ben Davis.
    But the words from Schuppli’s video narration that haunt me are the following: “despite numerous investigative reports… ‘icebox detention’ continues unabated.” If numerous professional investigative journalists and large human rights non-profits have already exposed the same facts to the public, in platforms with much bigger reach than the Berlin Biennale, what is this video hoping to add to the mix?
    The project’s own description of its mission is that it “invites viewers to reflect upon the ethical imaginaries implicit in the conjoined term just-ice and by extension the experiential valence of temperature as it both interacts with and is instrumentalized by institutions, bodies, materials, and environments.”
    List of sources for the data in Susan Schuppli, Icebox Detention Along the U.S.-Mexico Border. Photo by Ben Davis.
    If you were being ungenerous you might suspect that the form of spectatorship that such art implies is, on average, not being chastened or informed, but the half-disavowed pleasure of recognizing oneself in its footnotes from the Atlantic, the Guardian, the New York Times, and so on. “Yes, I too am the kind of person who keeps informed of such things; therefore I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am on the correct side of the moral line.”
    In fact, I hope that is how most people receive it. Because if you think more deeply about Icebox Detention Along the U.S.-Mexico Border, it literally informs its audience that the mere exposure of facts has done nothing, even as it sticks closely to the form of being an expose of facts. Its logical effect is not to rouse the audience, but to make it tune out.
    Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Air Conditioning (2022) in the Berlin Biennale. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Yet another artist associated with Forensic Architecture in “Still Present!” is Lawrence Abu Hamdan. His work, Air Conditioning (2022), is the first thing you encounter at the KW space. It consists of a well-researched but short informational video laying out Israel’s history of violating Lebanon’s air space over the past 15 years, based on U.N. documents. This seems an important topic, and newer terrain to me in terms of data.
    In addition to the video, Abu Hamdan offers a long mural that occupies the walls of the adjoining, giant, otherwise empty gallery. Using a software that simulates clouds, a trail of artificial vapor is rendered, supposedly using the U.N. data as a basis for its fluctuating shape, so that the long ribbon of depicted clouds acts as an illustration of the history of noise pollution over Lebanon from Israeli drones and fighter jets, each centimeter being a day.
    But honestly, this is just not a very compelling way to convey the visceral human impact of the material in question. Nor is it a truly useful infographic, since it doesn’t visualize any comparisons with other types of sonic environments that would give you a sense of how relatively severe the noise is. Nor is this artificial vapor plume a particularly arresting image on its own, detached from its role as data-illustration or advocacy. On all counts, the effect of Air Conditioning is nebulous. (The project’s website seems to be its currently most convincing form.)
    Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Air Conditioning (2022). Photo by Ben Davis.
    Clouds on the Horizon
    One of the few works getting consistent praise from this show, even from its critics like Isabella Zamboni, is another work about clouds: Forensic Architecture’s other video, Cloud Studies (2021), at the Akademie der Künste, Hanseatenweg. It is actually less a single work and more of a summa of various Forensic Architecture projects from the recent past, with excerpts from different investigations the group has done threaded together with a voiceover on the theme of clouds.
    Cloud Studies moves between a discussion of Israel’s illegal use of white phosphorous in Gaza, to struggles against methane gas flares from fracking sites in Argentina, to the deaths by smoke inhalation during London’s Grenfell Tower fire disaster.
    Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies (2021). Photo by Ben Davis.
    At one point, the video compares the work Forensic Architecture has done building computer models analyzing different explosions to the 19th-century tradition of “cloud atlases” created by amateur meteorologists, or to atmosphere studies created by landscape painters. But Cloud Studies‘s real point is political: the tour of Forensic Architecture’s various initiatives is, in effect, an argument that all these struggles are one: “we the citizens of toxic clouds must resist in common action.”
    I agree with Forensic Architecture’s general political perspective on these different matters, I think. The video is lovely and lucid.
    Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies (2021) in the Berlin Biennale. Photo by Ben Davis.
    But what I realized, watching Cloud Studies a second time, is how much the video’s effect depends on that pre-existing agreement on my part. In its own description of itself, it is not doing something so ordinary as making a case: “our ‘cloud studies’ meander between shape and fog, between analysis and experience.”
    The common links between, say, the suffocating pollution caused by deliberately set forest fires in Indonesia and dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chlorine gas in Syria may seem obvious within a certain progressive milieu, but not much beyond it. I’m not sure the appeal to the “citizens of toxic clouds” does any work to build tangible arguments linking different, situated, hotly contested struggles. It’s a poetic device—which is to say, artistic in the most classic sense.
    In a video that condenses a variety of larger research projects into a montage, the “investigative aesthetic” becomes visible as a set of tropes: zooming in and out of maps or computer models; highlighting sections of photos or overlaying squares on details of footage; synching up different bits of footage or audio; voiceover references to algorithms, models, and computer scripts.
    “Art has been very good in the last decades in problematizing the notion of truth, insisting that narratives are more complex than we’re told, that art is about doubt,” Eyal Weizman, of Forensic Architecture, said of 77sqm_9:26min five years ago. “We want to show another possibility of art—one that can confront doubt, and uses aesthetic techniques in order to interrogate.” In retrospect, it seems significant that this style of art-making gained such cachet at exactly the moment of the panic about “post-truth,” the idea that the ascendent right had somehow outflanked the postmodernists on their own terrain of epistemological doubt and narrative fragmentation.
    But the pitfall, as Lisa Deml wrote in a review of Schuppli’s book Material Witness, was always that this style snuck back in a relatively unsophisticated positivism—that is, the idea that “facts speak for themselves” beyond ideology and context, so that a mythology of forensic prowess comes to stand in for making compelling images or persuasive arguments.

    What the Data Says
    Here’s why I’m worrying these issues now. Over at Hamburger Bahnhof again, there’s another data-journalism-as-art installation by David Chavalarias. Here we take “investigative aesthetics” to the point where Attia just literally displays a book by Chavalarias, Toxic Data, on the wall. Chavalarias does not identify as an artist; he’s a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
    A book by David Chavalarias displayed in the Berlin Biennale. Photo by Ben Davis.
    The bulk of his installation presents one long infographic on the gallery wall, showing color-coded data gathered from an application he has created called the Politoscope, tracking the influence of various political tendencies online over time.
    Laying out years of Twitter data, the graphic shows the upward trajectory of right-wing and xenophobic presence over the last five years, which now dominates the conversation. Chillingly, Chavalarias says that he was inspired to do this work by his interest in tracking the breakdown in civic discourse leading up to the Rwandan genocide. I hope we’re not close to there yet.
    David Chavalarias, Shifting Collectives (2022). Photo by Ben Davis.
    These are the same five years that the “investigative aesthetic” became a dominant mainstream genre of art in the institutions. The point being: Now seems like a good time to check in on some of the political communication strategies adopted in the recent past, both in the museum and out. How effective are they at getting things done? How capable are they of reaching wider audiences? And to what degree do they serve the purpose of consoling a progressive audience in its own increasing isolation within a larger culture war that it is losing?
    “The 11th Berlin Biennale: Still Present!” is on view in Berlin, through September 18, 2022.
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    Documenta 15’s Focus on Populist Art Opens the Door to Art Worlds You Don’t Otherwise See—and May Not Always Want to

    Walking around the many spaces of Documenta 15 during its preview, I fell into and out of love with this massive show over and over again. I’m not talking about the major controversy that is currently rocking this always closely watched exhibition, which has shaken many people’s opinions of the whole thing—I’m going to get to that.
    But first I want to talk about what it felt like in its opening days. If the whole thing closes over the current debates over antisemitism, we should at least have an idea of what other kinds of conversations have been cancelled out.
    The exhibition is, first of all, massive—so massive that I definitely can’t say I’ve actually experienced close to all of it. Its curators, the Jakarta-based collective ruangrupa, invited a passel of other collectives, who then invited still more collectives and artists, who in some cases invited still more collectives and more artists. The result is a brain-busting program featuring thousands of names, spread out and packed into venues across the city, all doing different things.
    The title this year is “lumbung,” a name for a collective rice barn, thus making sharing its hallmark theme. For an art viewer passing through, the effect of all this focus on collectives is, paradoxically, to render one’s experience very individual. You are just not going to have a shared experience of Documenta 15, which is too big to experience overall, designed to unfold over time, and different at every point you touch it.
    Skateboarders on Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture, Churning Milk Mini Ramp (2022) at the Documenta Halle. Photo by Ben Davis.
    The show is by design anti-spectacular and light on big central images. At Documenta Halle, the photographers tend to gravitate towards a fittingly ordinary display of hanging-out: a rotation of live skateboarders who lackadaisically perform on a shallow, graffiti-splattered half-pipe. This is the work of Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture from Ratchaburi, Thailand (described as a “long term alternative interdisciplinary art and community-as-case study program based on post-studio and participatory practices”), teaming up with the local Mr. Wilson Skatehalle.
    That staging of two cultures coming together around a common pastime mirrors another encounter set up by Baan Noorg as part of Documenta, maybe the real heart of their contribution: a commercial exchange between local dairy producers in Kassel and the town of Nongpho, advertised in a video above the half pipe.
    Installation by Britto Arts Trust at the Documenta Halle. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Nearby, a mural fills the space with images appropriated from Bengali films by Dhaka-based nonprofit the Britto Arts Trust. In addition, group members have created a bazaar-like display, in the form of a series of stalls stocked with ingenious ceramic and crocheted replicas of everyday food items.
    A short walk away at the natural history museum, a show about rural life by a Spanish collective, INLAND, gives way to a grotto full of AI-generated cave art and a characteristically digressive and trippy video by Hito Steyerl that tells the story of a modern-day shepherd who is part of the INLAND collective. (Steyerl and INLAND also collaborate on a crypto-currency parody called “cheesecoin” that proposes creating an “internet of stink.” More importantly, you can also sample INLAND cheese on site.)
    Works by Erick Beltrán at the Museum für Sepulkralkultur. Photo by Ben Davis.
    At the Museum of Sepulchral Culture, Spanish artist Erick Beltrán’s complex, didactic installation Manifold (2022) is drawn from workshops he did with Kassel residents on what “power” might look like. It’s heady—though I admit I find the diagrams and word clouds illustrating the relationship between the positive value of “multiplicity” and the baleful, modern and Western concept of “unity” not really clarifying.
    At the Stadtsmuseum, Sydney-based Safdar Ahmed presents Border Farce (2022). The two-channel video cuts between the testimony of Kazem Kazemi, an Iranian refugee who was detained in scandalous conditions on Australia’s Manus Island, with intense, psychedelic, and cathartic visuals by Hazeen, an “anti-racist Muslim death metal band” the artist formed, which also features Kazemi.
    Cinema Caravan and Takashi Kuribayashi, YATAI TRIP PROJECT – road to documenta (2021-2022) in Karlswiese (Karlsaue). Photo by Ben Davis.
    Out in Karlsaue park, in the large green swath in front of the Orangerie, there’s a tent by Chinese artists Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun propagandizing the sustainable virtues of yak hair; a large structure, Return to Sender (2022), made of bales of textile waste that tries to confront the German audience with the extent of First World over-consumption by Nest Collective from Nairobi, Kenya; and a functional, make-shift sauna in the form of the Fukushima nuclear reactor brought to you by Japan’s Cinema Caravan, “a group of primates in the Good Vibes Hominidae family.”

    Community Art and Community as Art
    The projects of Documenta 15 often open onto past works of community-building or research, present pedagogical initiatives, or future processes unfolding during the 100 days of the show or beyond. A lot of it felt to me not like an art biennial, but like an art education biennial—with the strengths and weaknesses this implies. (Indeed, one prominent participant is CAMP notes on education, a collective that sprung from Documenta’s education and outreach department.)
    Camp Notes on Education, CAMP Space (2022) at Hafenstraße 76. Photo by Ben Davis.
    Documenta 15 is full of activity tables, banners exhorting self-reflection and inclusivity, designated chill-out zones for the neurodivergent, childcare spaces for parents, community kiosks selling crafts and vinyl records, collaborative printmaking studios, participatory oral history projects, homages to composting and beekeeping (or, more specifically, a daft combination of beekeeping and cryptocurrency mining).
    Objects are generally makeshift, unexalted, approachable. In film, the vibe is educational, with voiceover or talking heads soberly explaining historical events or topical concerns.
    Ruangrupa emerged in the 2000s out of Indonesia’s grassroots, artist-driven, post-dictatorship art scene. Documenta 15’s framework suggests the massive exhibition as an attempt to showcase egalitarian survival strategies and community initiatives from the Global South (only a single group amid the sprawling program, Black Quantum Futurism, hails from the United States). The concept of “lumbung” is offered as a resource to “heal today’s injuries, especially ones rooted in colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchal structures.”
    Community garden by Nhà Sàn Collective at WH22. Photo by Ben Davis.
    And yet… review the types of initiatives most celebrated here: children’s theater, puppets, workshops on tolerance and stereotypes, street festivals, tributes to scrappy local enterprise, and, above all, community gardening and archives preserving various kinds of marginalized or endangered cultures (the last being the two major pillars of Documenta 15’s aesthetic program).
    None of these are particularly beyond the pale for the typical German or U.S. are viewer. They are just more or less the accepted aesthetic preferences of international NGO culture, which values tangible deliverables and loves to produce texts with the word “community” in them. Indeed, almost all these works come with a label that explains what government agency or foundation has helped support them.
    Video display for the Question of Funding laying out a pitch for Dayra.net. Photo by Ben Davis.
    The Palestinian collective the Question of Funding actually has a video and associated brochure that directly critiques the ways that art philanthropy tends to produce cultures of dependency and limit political horizons. Unexpectedly to me, it turned not into a political call to change neocolonial funding structures but a call for Palestinians to use a blockchain-based service, Dayra.net, that allows participants to swap in-kind services. (Between this and Center for Art and Urbanistics’s “Beecoin,” Documenta 15 marks the arrival of blockchain at the highest level of the non-commercial side of the international art world.)
    Much of the justificatory text here about sharing and cooperation as a new model of co-habitation that challenges neoliberalism and colonialism seems to me to mistake effects for causes. Things aren’t unsustainable, either in art or more broadly, because of a bad mindset. If all the artists in Kassel learn to better share the collective pool—and I’m not dismissing this, it’s a good thing—you are still left with the main problem: that a tiny group of the world’s population controls a vast majority of its wealth and resources, and has it in its interests to keep it that way.
    Lumbung Kiosk, a functional community shop, at work in Hübner-areal. Photo by Ben Davis.
    The major problem is not an abstract “Western” habit of thought, like “hierarchy” or “individualism,” which you can fix by turning to collaboration. These are deflections of the kind that the non-profit world inculcates, as Anand Giridharadas argues in Winners Take All, because non-profit culture functions by reframing the “political as personal,” turning systemic problems into things that can be solved via workshops, at the level of interpersonal dynamics or clever bootstrap initiatives.
    As ruangrupa would also admit, I think, the ascription of an inherently collective form of wisdom to the “non-Western” subject has its own history of “othering” undertones, acknowledged fitfully throughout the show. For instance, one of the many banners stating pedagogical principles hung by *foundationClass collective at the Hafenstraße 76 space features an (ironically anonymous) statement demanding an end to “the narrative of every German cultural institutions [sic] that only acknowledge us collectively and never as individuals worthy of self expression.”
    Banner by *foundationClass collective. Photo by Ben Davis.

    Worth Celebrating
    If I found myself enjoying the “lumbung” vibe despite reservations, it’s because, leaving aside the bigger questions about how viable or radical its proposals for new models for art are, ruangrupa’s focus on sociality just made for a show that feels very approachable and alive. And the particular network-of-networks that ruangrupa has pulled in genuinely feels like it knits together artistic scenes that are vital and under-known. They do have the popular touch.
    The cadre of artists associated with Haiti’s Atis Rezistans (Resistance Artists), at the church of St. Kunigundis, beautifully commanded that space (I gather from a Times article that getting them permission to work in Germany required special attention). André Eugène’s elemental and unsettling sculptures incorporating human skulls dotted the floor, Edouard Duval-Carrié’s portraits of historic leaders of Haiti cut from blue mirrors commanded the walls, and Lafleur and Bogaert’s kinetic sculptures felt both like celebrations of everyday creativity and otherworldly.
    Works from Malgorzata Mirga-Tas’s “Out of Egypt” series on view at the Fridericianum. Photo by Ben Davis.
    At the Frederiecanium, inter-leafed throughout the various floors was a display showcasing recent work by artists from Roma backgrounds. It included Birth, a wild, historically important, multi-panel painting of a Roma origin myth by Tamás Péli from 1983; Damian le Bas’s 2013 painting Safe European Home, a map of Europe rendered as a strange, interlocking mosaic of faces; and Malgorzata Mirga-Tas’s recent “Out of Egypt” series (2021) of embroidered panels appropriating cliched images from 17th century etchings depicting the Roma people as lost Egyptian tribes, using textiles upcycled from clothing worn by the artist’s present-day Roma community.
    Also in the Frederiecanium, one screening room focuses on the legacy of Sada, a collective set up in 2011 to support artists and students in post-occupation Iraq, so completely memory-holed in the U.S. after official military withdrawal. The group’s founder Rijin Sahakian has a film essay that lucidly lays out how recent U.S. culture was shaped by the recent geopolitical crime. Her work has a sense for the darkly resonant image that makes the charges stick, but it’s also memorably direct, without poeticizing its subject.
    Visitors watching Wakaliga Uganda’s Football Kommando at the Documenta Halle. Photo by Ben Davis.
    On a totally different wavelength, I liked Football Kommando, from Wakaliga Uganda, a beyond-low-budget studio based outside of Kampala founded by Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana, a.k.a. Nabwana IGG. At one end of Documenta Halle, you enter the screening room past walls studded by homemade posters for the studio’s various adventure movies. A spy caper, Football Kommando tells the tale of a German footballer teaming up with an ass-kicking Ugandan mother, bringing his prowess with a soccer ball to a mission to rescue her kidnapped daughter. It’s fun. It’s also unlike anything I have seen at a biennial before.

    The Only Conversation That Matters
    I mention the questions the show raises about its artistic framework as well as the real highlights because I think both deserve space that the current meltdown is destined to make impossible. I said I hadn’t seen the whole show. Clearly, the curators hadn’t either.
    A slow-moving storm of criticism had haunted the show in the weeks leading up to it, touched off by a local blog decrying the “left-identitarian and postmodern art world,” and presenting any criticism of Israel—or public sympathy for Palestinians—as de facto antisemitic. As the charges of antisemitism circulated more generally in the German press, the bulk of the case was that the show featured many Palestinian artists talking about their plights, but no Israeli-Jewish artists; and that some artists in the show had signed various petitions in support of boycotting Israel or against Germany’s 2019 parliamentary motion conflating boycotts of Israel with antisemitism. (In the United States, a measure outlawing boycotts of Israel is probably heading to the Supreme Court.)
    But shortly after the opening of Documenta 15, observers discovered antisemitic caricatures within a large banner shown in the main plaza in front of the main Frederiecanium site by the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi. The 2002 work, People’s Justice, was a four-story-tall, scabrous tableau. It depicts the struggle between the heroic Indonesian people, shown on the right side as a flow of figures surging into battle beneath a banner that says “Resistance Culture Movement,” against the dictatorship of the then-recently deposed Suharto regime and the international forces that had supported it, illustrated on the left.
    People’s Justice by the Indonesian artists group Taring Padi hangs behind cardboard figures at the Documenta 15 on June 18, 2022 in Kassel, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
    Suharto is depicted in a red suit with lizard eyes at the top left, seated on a throne beneath a tower bearing the flags of the United States and Great Britain, with war planes soaring past them into the skies. At bottom left, an immense skull with bloodshot eyes is accompanied by a banner that reads “The Expansion of ‘Multicultural’ State Hegemony.”
    Amid this fetid landscape of evil cartoons, it’s hard to take in every detail. You see a grinning king fornicating with a crying woman who is also a windup doll. You see a grotesque fat figure with a beast’s snout, wearing a songkok, stuffing his face with a giant sandwich, pants busting open. You see a see a garishly made-up beauty queen, nipples projecting through her top, whose sash reads “Plastiks.” You see a drooling man hypnotized by a TV labeled “PROPAGANDA BOX.”
    Near the front, there is a commando with a pig face, sporting a red beret and a U.S. flag patch, masturbating onto a grave covered in skulls with one hand and giving the thumbs up with the other. Running to join him is a line of helmeted, beast-faced storm troopers, led by a duo labeled “007” and “KGB.” About midway back in this line of troopers, just in front of a figure labeled “ASIO” (the Australian intelligence service), is a figure labeled “MOSSAD” and bearing the Star of David, also with a pig face.
    Detail of the mural People’s Justice by the Indonesian artist group Taring Padi. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
    Nearby is a an evil wolf with a blood-soaked mouth with a talking balloon saying “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” a towering devil-clown applauding the storm troopers—and beside these, a tiny image of a cigar-chomping, fanged man with sidelocks, clearly a caricature of an Orthodox Jew, with a Nazi “SS” on his hat.
    Whatever its background in expressing visceral rage at international forces tied to Suharto’s historic crimes—and Israel really did deal weapons to Suharto—People’s Justice clearly evokes antisemitic imagery.
    When the scandal broke, the work was first covered and then taken down; the artists and curators apologized; and matters have escalated from there, with plans for a systematic review of the show for antisemitism and calls for the head of both Documenta and the German culture minister to step down, and for the show to be shuttered altogether.
    Taring Padi is a storied activist collective with undefined membership that is known to “reject the notion of art for art’s sake,” as the Jakarta Post put it, very much in the politicized and grassroots vibe that is closest to ruangrupa’s heart. They are very prominent in Documenta 15—maybe the most prominent presence.
    Cardboards, a work of the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi, at the Friedrichsplatz square in front of the Fridericianum Museum, one of the venues of Documenta 15 in Kassel. Photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images.
    Their cardboard signs featuring cartoons and social justice slogans about various causes, staked into the ground, filled the main site of the show, while an entire venue, Hallenbad Ost, was dedicated to a retrospective of their political graphics and banners.
    That show is called “Flame of Solidarity: First They Came for Them, Then They Came for Us.” That’s a reference to Martin Niemöller’s famous 1946 poem about the rise of Nazism. “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew…”
    As Jörg Heiser noted at Art Agenda, a critical essay archived on Taring Padi’s own website pointed out that how the satire of their political graphics “tend to reproduce the common, normative, and stereotypical messages” of Indonesian society, in particular when “depicting the physical and stereotypical attributes of religious, racial, and ethnic diversity.” The danger of something dire like this happening is actually the flip side of the curatorial emphasis on demotic, “popular” culture: The more that aperture opens, the more chance you have to reckon with tropes and stereotypes that a more carefully sterilized academic culture brackets out, because “popular consciousness” is not unilaterally righteous or pure.
    I sort of agree, then, with an essay by curator Mohammad Salemy (though not with his title, “Antisemitism Is the Least of Documenta’s Problems”), when he says that in some sense this scandal grows out of the entire delegated curatorial framework of Documenta 15. Assuming for a minute that neither Taring Padi nor ruangrupa were attempting to dog-whistle to neo-Nazis with People’s Justice, the work simply would not have been shown in a more carefully curated show.
    But the work was shown. The fallout will be immense.
    “Documenta 15: Lumbung” is on view in Kassel, Germany, through September 25, 2022.
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