Documenta fifteen: an Attempt of Restructuring Power Relations / in Conversation with Dan Perjovschi
Lena Götzinger, Mahlet Wolde Georgis
Kunst (2000) Dan Perjovschi, Zeichnung auf Papier ©Dan Perjovschi
andrei cadere & art & world (2019)
Dan Perjovschi, Zeichnung auf Papier ©Dan Perjovschi
Press is Gone (1999), Dan Perjovschi, Zeichnung auf Papier ©Dan Perjovschi
Artartist (2009) Dan Perjovschi, Zeichnung auf Papier ©Dan Perjovschi
Art Market (2009) Dan Perjovschi, Zeichnung auf Papier ©Dan Perjovschi
Mentioning last year's documenta fifteen under the terms of this issue is a necessity. There we were introduced to the practice of lumbung by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, who curated this version of documenta. The word lumbung originates from the Indonesian language and describes a communal rice barn where the surplus harvest is stored for the benefit of the community . Documenta fifteen was supposed to function along these principles of solidarity and community to create a space where networks of long-lasting connections could be formed between the people involved and thus challenge the hierarchy and power structures within the art world.
We had the chance to talk to Dan Perjovschi about whether these ambitions have been successful and possibly hold valuable prospects for new ways to restructure art institutions and power relations.
Entering his first attendance at documenta, he did not have any expectations or plans beforehand.
Since he is used to working alone or only with few other people, it was quite a new experience for him to get in touch with thousands of artists and to learn about their approaches and ways of thinking before the show. As a white male with a European passport, Dan Perjovschi did not depend on the space that got arranged for connecting and networking as much as less privileged colleagues of his did. Although he is not a person to work in a collective, since he fought for his authorship and individuality all of his life, he experienced that it can be great to have a collective output in some projects.
Documenta fifteen wanted to do things differently, starting with the fees they paid the artists to realize their visions – something that barely any major exhibition does.
In the beginning all the artists and collectives were put into so-called mini groups via Zoom where they got to know each other and were also given a budget to negotiate about. As money is also power and responsibility, a huge budget of money is a privilege not everyone has, which is why negotiations were taking place to talk about the artists' different needs. In case that the budget was not spent completely, it could be given to somebody who needed it more. For example, to pay for the visa and flight costs. The only regulations from the management were technic- and money-related, otherwise the artists were fully free and trusted in what they did. Though part of the planning was quite fixed by ruangrupa, new ideas came out of many regular discussions and everything could be completely changed within the process. Just like Dan Perjovschiˋs own role at documenta fifteen, who was invited quite late and initially got asked to illustrate a publication of the exhibition.
"Imagine, I started with a pocket-sized book idea and end up drawing on half of Kassel!"
Dan Perjovschi is aware of his influence as an artist and wants to use it for what he thinks is a common good, which is why his work often incorporates activistic contents and objectives. He sees his art as belonging to democracy.
This can take things into account that are often barely considered. When, for example, he works in countries which do not value democratic rights enough, he makes sure of their boundaries so that the employees of the institution, such as the curators, will not be left with what he calls a bomb and get into trouble because of him. He views it critically that many impactful artists impose their own criticism of circumstances on others and then just leave the people working in these institutions, on whom it will fall back, alone with it. Correspondingly he does not agree with Hito Steyerl´s decision to remove her work from the exhibition which also fuelled the narrative of reducing documenta 15 to the topic of antisemitism.
In this context, the way in which the German media dealt with the debate around antisemitic symbolism in the painting Peoples Justice by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi was also highly critical. While Dan Perjovschi himself agrees that the work should never have been shown at the exhibition, he still does not think it is right that one topic confiscated all the other important ones at documenta fifteen in the coverage.
First of all it is important to state that any kind of antisemitism is to be harshly condemned and cannot be tolerated. Though it is a fact that people from different parts of the world do not have the same sensibilities as people in Germany and some do not understand the gravity of certain images and symbols. As people working together we need to learn about each other's sensibilities and negotiate to find a common ground, without sacrificing the values of antidiscrimination and equality within the process. Dan Perjovschi saw it as his mission to contribute to that by creating a space at documenta fifteen where these conversations could be held, adding some humor that was in his eyes urgently needed.
“You know, I´m not thinking the same as the Palestinian artists, I´m not thinking the same as my friends from Syria but I understand their position. I understand what they claim and I understand sometimes the radicality of what they have to do. I´m in a different position but there's this moment where you have to show solidarity.”
It is this strong sense of solidarity that last year's documenta managed to establish among everyone involved. And this, while not concealing the issues of the show, deserves to be highlighted. There were many interesting approaches, as for instance the communal resources that were shared at documenta fifteen, like the lumbung press and the lumbung gallery that were financed by the institution but also supported by artists with spare money from their budgets. Different kinds of economies as such enable us to challenge the principles of the market. Also, and maybe due to this collective use of resources, there was no strong pressure of competition to be felt that is otherwise systemic in wide parts of the art world.
Of course, there are things the curators, artists and everyone else involved could have done better. One of the issues Dan Perjovschi criticized about the curation was that there were no artists from Ukraine invited to the show. Documenta fifteen was planned to mostly create a platform for positions of the global south and give attention to voices that are oftentimes ignored in global discourses. What happens in Ukraine was (and is) a white man´s conflict, as he was told by the curators. All of this is valid. But when something that drastic happens in the north, the concept should be a little more elastic to it. Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine can simply not be ignored. While it might have been difficult to invite any artists last minute, at least some efforts could have been made to contact Ukrainian groups to hold lectures and presentations.
Though, nobody ever made a claim of completeness. Documenta fifteen is rather to be seen as a big scale experiment of the lumbung idea – after all it is called lumbung 1 and is thought to be continued and improved in the process.
There are many problems within the art world, especially the excessive role that money plays. Luckily there are also interesting people with good ideas in the system with whom we, as people who are involved can connect, form networks and alliances. What is essentially missing today are more utopian model projects that open up perspectives to restructure the existing system. Through the eyes of Dan Perjovschi, the lumbung model, despite some weak spots, is already a kind of utopia.
“Documenta fifteen was an interesting attempt to challenge how the art world functions and in my eyes it succeeded.”
The following example underlines this quite humorously: At the beginning of the exhibition only Dan Perjovschi and three other artists had a gallery representation. As this is a must usually, this time the artist’s scale of notoriety and success were no crucial conditions to be invited. There were barely any world stars showing their work at documenta fifteen, instead of this 1.500 in parts hardly known artists were given the chance to exhibit and now have the name of this major exhibition in their CVs, which takes away a bit of its highly prestigious and exclusive status.
Ruangrupa managed to break down the hierarchy quite a bit and completely cut out the market. By doing so they created a lot of sympathy and also a lot of hate, as it very often happens when a running system is being targeted and people fear losing parts of their power and privileges.
Dan Perjovschi also emphasizes that, contrary to other opinions he encountered, he does not think it is right to completely crush the documenta as an institution. On the one hand because the people working there did everything in their power to enable the artists' visions, but on the other hand – and more importantly – because the institution has a huge impact and visibility all over the world. It is the only exhibition on the planet that can spend 42 million euros and give full freedom to the curators. This power should be preserved for the future, to be reformed by the revolutionary ideas that are yet to come.
An existing model which is unique to Germany and Austria and in Dan Perjovschi’s eyes has many similarities to lumbung is the model of the Kunstverein as a special form of art institution that creates an accessible space to connect, discuss and experiment. Financed by membership fees, it is also the only model that is sustainable and can survive an economic crisis. There are great approaches to be found everywhere, we simply have to start looking for them. The importance of connecting with each other and forming alliances is crucial to create different spaces and economies that represent our values.
“Nobody will give us this power. We have to create it.”
Dan Perjovschi (*1961) is an internationally successful artist showing his sketches and drawings in prestigious museums as well as small artist-run spaces all over the world.
Grown up in Rumania under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918–1989), he began targeting current social, political and environmental issues in his art from early on, fighting against the government's repressive censorship. Due to the simplicity of lines, motives and written words in addition to his ability to depict topics in a humorous, yet serious way, his drawings are easily accessible and understandable for people worldwide.
Mahlet Ketema Wolde Georgis (*1997) is a student of Braunschweig University of Fine Arts since 2019. Growing up between the German and Ethiopian culture, she has been interested in dialogs, expressions and the space between cultures ever since. After having the possibility to travel to different countries and starting to study architecture at University of Applied Sciences in Duesseldorf, she decided to focus on art theory and aesthetics combined with history studies at Technical University Braunschweig. Her goal is to focus and learn more about contemporary African art, how art and art institutions can help to open up conversations and spaces for people to come together.
Lena Götzinger (*1999) began studying fine arts and art mediation at the Braunschweig University of Fine Arts in 2020 and is a member of the editorial staff of appropriate! since Issue 4. She has been interested in the aesthetic, philosophical and political aspects of how we shape and construct our social cohabitation since her time in school, which was amplified during the year she spent in the USA as an exchange student. Following this interest, she worked on the project Showing Courage for Democracy in the course of a voluntary social year in 2019/2020, planning and conducting workshops for students with the ambition of opening up a creative room for exchange and discussion on socially relevant topics. In her artistic practice she explores themes like the depiction of FLINTA*  persons in art, self-(re)presentation and the tradition of architecture and painting, mainly focussing on the mediums of painting, sculpting and installation art while interlinking these fields with each other.
 documenta fifteen, lumbung in glossary (visited December 21, 2022) https://documenta-fifteen.de/en/glossary/
 The term FLINTA* is used in the German language and stands for people who identify themselves as females, lesbians, intergender, nonbinary, transgender and agender. It is an expression to describe a group of people that suffers from patriarchal discrimination because of their (gender) identity and does specifically not mean cis-men.
Tagesspiegel, The Queer Dictionary (visited January 15, 2023) https://www.tagesspiegel.de/gesellschaft/queerspiegel/was-bedeutet-flinta-3387385.html