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Seeing documenta 14 from the other south

by Jon Bywater  |  published 20.10.17

Artists from Aotearoa New Zealand were included in Documenta this year for the first time since the large scale, quinquennial exhibition was inaugurated in 1955. New Zealand critic Jon Bywater discusses the works by Ralph Hotere, Mata Aho Collective and Nathan Pohio in context, relating them to documenta 14 as a whole and to the way a notable concentration of work by indigenous artists—from Northern Europe and North America, as well as Australasia—operates within the exhibition’s reaction towards the European debt and migrant crisis. Images accompanying Bywater's essay include those taken by the Contemporary HUM team while at documenta 14 in Kassel in July 2017.



The signal feature of documenta 14 is, of course, its co-location in Athens and Kassel. Also responding to a globalising, decolonising sense of the contemporary, dOCUMENTA(13) took place in Kabul, Alexandria and Banff as well as Kassel in 2012, in its turn following the example of the additional “platforms” staged ahead of Documenta11 in Berlin, Vienna, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos a decade earlier. The critical salience of this year’s format lies in the equal status accorded its two parts, and the stark inequality their differences as contexts highlights. Wiring directly between Germany and Greece in 2017 short-circuits the tense and urgent politics of austerity, of migration, of the European Union, and the imbalance of economic and political power between the exhibition’s home in Germany and the European south.


While clearly not insignificant symbolically or materially, dividing this Documenta and its resources between the two centres provoked criticism before it opened that persists as it closes. Predictably for this most serious of shows, other factors mean it’s too in its head for some, too difficult, or (in a more nuanced line) marred by too much that isn’t art. But more polemically, the politics of spending a German budget in Greece to circulate art that might inform our responses to tense and urgent issues has been condemned as futile (not righting the wrongs), patronising (committing evils it seeks to condemn), and even exploitative (performing this hypocrisy at the Greeks’ expense). 1 


When commentary and rumour include disapproval, schadenfreude and professional envy amplify it. William Harris writing for N+1 describes it as “an exhibition tarnished less by definitive dismissals than a steady current of scoffs and whispers” 2 ; the latest round of which have fed on reports that the exhibition has run over budget. In the past few days, insinuations based on partial information have gained clickbait headlines and wide circulation, ahead of statements by the Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk and curatorial team and the participant artists, and an interview with the managing director in response. 3  As Swedish critic Frans Josef Petersson argues in Kunstkritikk, stakes as high as the nature of ongoing support for Documenta make further careful evaluation of this year’s project urgent. 4 

Visiting from the hemispheric south, I saw the show in reverse, as it were. I travelled for the Kassel opening in June, and from there to Athens to see the part of this “play in two acts” that had been open since April. Leaving work in Auckland, I travelled for more than thirty hours straight to arrive, suitcase in hand, to the welcomingly familiar-seeming surrounds of another art school, Kunsthochschule Kassel. I had just missed the speeches marking the launch of two of this Documenta’s main publications, the Reader and Daybook. Full disclosure, I attended as a participant, having written one of a pair of commissioned essays on New Zealand photographer John Miller to appear in the final edition of the Greek magazine South As A State of Mind that made up the other main strand of the publications programme. 5  It was my third Documenta, and like each before it, it now counts as the best large scale exhibition I have seen.


Compounding my personal connection, artists from New Zealand appear for the first time in 2017. All are Māori: the late Ralph Hotere, Christchurch-based Nathan Pohio, and the four-person Mata Aho Collective from Palmerston North, Wellington and Whakatāne. 6  In this way, too, documenta 14 extends the “decentring” begun by its immediate antecedents. Indigenous Australians Gordon Bennett, Doreen Reid Nakamarra and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, for example, were included in dOCUMENA(13) 7 ; but where, in relative isolation, Nakamarra’s and Tjapaltjarri’s painting appeared in implicit comparison with the heritage of Western modernism, the New Zealanders’ works take their place in a substantial weave of works by other indigenous artists, from Australia, North America and the Arctic area of Sápmi, appearing more clearly on its own terms. If the European situation is the show’s main subject, this facet presents an outside or a limit to it. Understanding its recognition of indigenous sovereignty illuminates both the show’s alleged difficulty and the ethics of Documenta’s being in Athens.


A dimension of the issue might be put in terms of speaking positions: Who was Szymczyk, a Pole (and his core team, having as limited a personal connection to Germany as to Greece) to say anything about Athens, as a point of contact between Europe and the record numbers of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, for example? His title—allegedly provisional to the end—and the emphasis on “unlearning” in other framing acknowledged this to an extent, but also risked seeming to address first those not-Greek: Athenians might very well learn from their own city, but “learning from Athens” has frequently been taken to cast the place as an (exotic) object of study, within a show and an audience from elsewhere.


The Kassel exhibition set out one important basic strategy in this connection. Addressing the contemporary situation obliquely, through context, the deployment of existing works implied a curatorial voice distinct from others given fuller agency through commissioning. The Neue Galerie hang was key to this groundwork, where various threads of a longer German (and particularly Documenta’s) connections to Greece were unravelled. Two surfaced readymade ironies: King Otto, the first king of the modern Greek state, was Barvarian; and Johann Joachim Winckelmann, German founder of art history, became an authority on Greek antiquity without ever having visited Greece. Further, where previously one leitmotif of documenta 12 had asked “Is modernity our antiquity?”, the place of antiquity as an ideal within modernity itself was excavated here, notably as a fantasy of German fascists. Although it has been mistaken for a failure to give a clear, precise contemporary political diagnosis (a charge expressed by Yanis Varoufakis most virulently, and echoed in several prominent takes), the exhibition’s reflexivity about the problems of Helenophilia made its obliqueness an ethical sophistication. 8 

Correspondingly, a network of newly commissioned works tackled current realities head on, with room to represent them from differently qualified positions. Charges that the exhibition failed to adequately inculpate the European Union, for example, or lacked “realism” in relation to Greece’s current condition 9 , underestimate works such as Angela Melitopoulos’s Crossings (2017). Extending a collaboration with Angela Anderson and Maurizio Lazzarato examining the violence wreaked upon Greece by disaster capitalism 10 , it cuts suggestively between contemporary refugee camps and the threatened archaeological sites of ancient silver mines (whose wealth had been accessed via slaves and built the naval fleet that gave Greece its classical imperial power in the Mediterranean; now posing an ecological threat in the way they are being re-mined), and foregrounds voices from the frontlines of extractive capitalism in simultaneously raw and boldly theorised footage. At one point in the two hour sequence new migrants visit a mine, closing a narrative loop as they confront their possible equivalence to contemporary slaves, but the work is careful to enact the discontinuities it sutures formally, through multiple screens and an elaborate multi-channel soundtrack.


The Tempest Society (2017) by Bouchra Khalili likewise gives direct expression to migrants’ experience. The history of a political theatre troupe from France in the early 1970s is taken up to produce a discussion of some new migrants’ experience in historical context. Peter Freidl’s Report (2016) coincides incisively with this piece, also presenting theatre on video. Viewing it, I was able to follow some English and some French, enough to gather that the array of performers shown on stage were attempting—some with some effort, some with thespian aptitude—to recite from memory a continuous first-person monologue. There are no subtitles, and perhaps half a dozen different languages used. Left with only tone, hesitations and mannerisms for stretches of a long half hour, I gleaned that the protagonist is an ape, displayed in captivity, who gains the power of speech after drinking some alcohol snatched through the bars of their cage. The text, it transpires, is a short story by Kafka, but the wall label in the Stadtmuseum offered no information about who we see or what they are performing. Even the fact that the various performers are migrants is not made explicit within the work or its immediate presentation. The narrative’s allegory for other ways in which the power of speech rules someone as human or not becomes powerful in combination of the actual situation, in my case, of being cast on the wrong side of a language barrier.


Numerous visitors stopped in and walked out of this work as I viewed it. That this mild and clearly structured disorientation—achieved through the unapologetic removal of translation, explanation and commentary—was intolerable to some viewers came to seem a microcosm of the exhibition’s reception. Repeatedly cited in complaints that it was too demanding 11 , in various ways this Documenta was careful to limit the way it interpreted itself, refraining from announcing works ahead of time, keeping its labels on the floor in most venues, and in general pulling back from narrating the visitor’s experience. As Peter Friedl did, another key strategy of the exhibition was to foreground the visitor’s own experience as something to reflect on. That experience included being in Kassel or being in Athens, and the effect was in general what a pedagogue might call “situated learning”. Simply, one walked away from the works—particularly those that addressed southern European realities—carrying the experience differently in each site.


Like many of the artists, Nathan Pohio presented works in both cities. In each case he reworked Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun!, already previously reconceived from its original appearance in SCAPE Public Art 2015 (on his own tribal territory of Otautahi) for the 2016 Walters Prize exhibition in Tāmaki Makaurau. In Athens, it reprised its waharoa or gateway-like appearance outside the Auckland Art Gallery as a threshold image at the beginning of the largest Documenta hang there, in the foyer at EMST. Tuahiwi leaders on horseback, in korowai (feather cloaks) flank the Crown’s representative in a motor car, cropped to a cinematic aspect ratio and printed at billboard scale: the images are 1905 newspaper photographs of a meeting between Pohio’s tūpuna (ancestors) and the Governor General, a formalised intercultural encounter. The mana (dignity) of the tangata whenua (people of the land) is legible in their dress and bearing, but also in their holding onto and enacting their tikanga (protocols).



Just as Pohio had worked to find the connections that would make the visit of his tūpuna to Auckland less arbitrary, to safeguard their presence there with the appropriate tikanga, involving those with tribal authority over the land it was to be installed on, he again worked with the support and presence of his iwi, Ngāi Tahu, to clear the way for the image to be displayed in Greece, respecting older values and overruling any supposed neutrality of the exhibition space to acknowledge relationships, historical and spiritual as well as familial. 12  Like Friedl’s work, then, in negotiating working on someone else’s turf, Pohio’s could also be seen as a model for something key to this Documenta: its own attempt to work out of its own territory.


At EMST it sits like an epigraph—together with such things as an etching picturing Diogenes, and archival materials relating to Christopher D’Arcangelo, an artist who made unauthorised interventions in museums in the 1970s—alongside work by Kwakwaka'wakw artist Beau Dick. First Nations Canadian ceremonies inaugurated the space and accompanied Dick’s masks. To generalise the role of the indigenous artists’ works in the exhibition, it is important to be clear that it is not the case, as Susanne von Falkenhausen writes in Frieze, that “artists from ethnic minorities present their cultures”. Dick’s masks appear to her not as contemporary art but ethnographic artefacts. Overlooking the fact that they have a dual existence as art and as ritual objects in Dick’s community, she misdiagnoses Gayatri Spivak’s characterisation of “a ‘museumized’ identity, roots in aspic”. 13  Ironically, she projects a desire for an ironised presentation of ethnic identity, looking back to works by Jimmie Durham for previous Documentas that provided a “disturbing mirror for a [Western public’s] own projections and expectations”.

von Falkenhausen does not mention Pohio’s works, but they are as irony-free as Dick’s. Taking in the photographs, we need to register that the welcoming party on horseback are Māori, despite the fact that while their horses connote an older tradition than the Governor General’s motor vehicle they are just as much colonial imports. And so, without any naive “rhetoric of authenticity”, the complex genealogy of appeals in Pohio’s source image—his discrete enhancement of the presence and self-possession of the Māori delegation draws on American cinema, and the The Magnificent Seven movie poster, in particular, as a personal reference point—does not make it any less fully Māori.


Mata Aho’s work, likewise, is presented on Māori terms, according to Māori values. Installed in a decorative stairwell at the Landesmuseum in Kassel, Kiko Moana (2017), a shimmering eleven metre drop of embroidered blue polyethene tarpaulin, adapts everyday plastics to traditional patterning. It is in a sculptural mode inherited from artists such as Ani O’Neill, Niki Hastings-McFall and Lonnie Hutchinson, but set apart by being an embodiment of its collective making process, conceived as a wānanga, a learning forum, and being a point of meditation for an archive of taniwhā stories presented online, that reflects the fluid variety of indigenous knowledge. 14  The importance of mana wāhine, the strength and dignity of women, to the all female group in this case extends to making themselves students of senior artist Maureen Lander with whom they worked on the project.


As well as Pohio’s and other indigenous artists’ works—such as the embroideries of Britta Marakatt-Labba (of Sámi Artist Group), in particular—Kiko Moana connects to another, broader swathe in documenta 14’s selection exploring abstract-tending formalisms and contexts they are embedded in. On the top floor of EMST in Athens, for example, works from Synnøve Persen’s Sámi Flag Project (1977– ) connect with paintings by Stanley Whitney, whose titles offer a cue to the particularity of worldview important to their formal effects. They in turn call out across the show to the installations of Vivian Suter’s paintings, Nisyros (2016) and Nisyros (Vivian’s bed) (2016–17) that were some personal highlights of the show for the way they returned this making visible of context to a white European subjectivity. 15 

The other work from Aotearoa, Ralph Hotere’s Malady Panels (1971) sits in the historical background to this theme, part of a digressive mapping of the entanglement of modernism in twentieth century political realities globally. Its immediate neighbours in the Neue include drawings by Russian composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky, coincidences of circular figures, the rainbow spectrum and a synaesthetic relationship to music or “melody” linking Hotere’s painting and Wyschnegradsky’s microtonal schema (the intricate faceting of the latter a bridge to Pavel Filinov’s work, nearby in this constellation…). These very different, personal and perhaps even mystical senses of the power of colour and geometry also find themselves at the intersection of another prominent strand of the show relating to music, specifically graphical scores and the idea of improvisation.



Malady Panels, then, appears decontextualised to New Zealand eyes. A refreshing chance to “unlearn” something for me, they are freed from its usual location in a regional story about the sophistication or courage in adopting modernist strategies, and get to ground themselves—as those strategies might have supposed themselves to do—in something more immediate and physical in the viewer’s response. Rather than the established (pākehā, non-Māori) choices to represent a New Zealand modernism (Gordon Walters, Colin McCahon), Hotere is typically a less expected choice, as in different ways are the recently formed Mata Aho Collective and Nathan Pohio (a relative outsider as a nominee for the 2016 Walters Prize). 16 


It is compelling that the title of Pohio’s work proposed raising the anchor long before its uprooting from its first home in Otautahi, the artist’s rohe, home turf, to set sail for Europe. Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! conveys a sea-shanty uplift (tinged with the psychedelic cool of Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, perhaps) through conspicuously Age of Discovery imagery. Even that “ever setting sun” echoes the sun that was said to never set on a global empire. Underscoring the confidence that it takes from the history it brings into the present, the piece, though, inverts this sense. Not “never setting”, “ever setting” could describe undoing the effects of Imperialism as an ongoing and active process. The work’s self-grounding—the way it bootstraps an integrity, so far from home, through the careful maintenance of connections—flags the endurance of other sovereignties. 17 

1.  Greek economist and politician Yanis Varoufakis forcefully denounced the move in 2015, and reprised his critique in conversation with iLiana Fokianaki in “We Come Bearing Gifts”—iLiana Fokianaki and Yanis Varoufakis on Documenta 14 Athens”, Iason Athanasiadis, though, provides local knowledge that suggests political affiliations against bodies Documenta had to negotiate with predict Varoufakis’s oppostion to their arrival, “Athenian Panopticon”,

2.  William Harris, “Obscurity of Purpose, Immediacy of Experience: On documenta 14”,

3.  “Statement by the Artistic Director and curatorial team of documenta 14”,
“A statement by the artists of documenta 14”,; “Interview with Annette Kulenkampff, managing director of Documenta 14, about budget shortfall”,

4.  Frans Josef Petersson, “We Need to Reclaim the Narrative of Documenta 14 as a Radical Exhibition”,


6.  Ralph Hotere (1931-2013, Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa), Nathan Pohio (b.1970, Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe, Ngāi Tahu), Erena Baker (b.1984, Te Atiawa ki Whakarongotai, Ngāti Toa Rangātira), Sarah Hudson (b.1986, Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe), Bridget Reweti (b.1985, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi), Terri Te Tau (b.1981, Rangitāne ki Wairarapa).

7.  Carolyn Christov-Bakagriev worked as Director of the 2008 Sydney Biennale.

8.  Another rebuttal to Varoufakis on this point is well made by Barry Schwabsky, noting that he appears to want “an art exhibition should be doing the job of an economic or political journalist or a scholar like himself”. “Wandering Through Documenta”,

9.  For example, J.J. Charlesworth, “Documenta against Democracy?”,; or William Harris, “Obscurity of Purpose, Immediacy of Experience: On documenta 14”,

10.  They adopt the term popularised by Naomi Klein in their previous double-screen work “Unearthing Disaster I” (2013),

11.  Dr. des. Jeni Fulton’s “How documenta 14 Failed Everyone but its Curators” is an extreme example,

12.  Some of Ngāi Tahu’s support for Pohio’s project is documented in “Nathan Pohio - Ngā Ringa Toi o Tahu”,

13.  Susanne von Falkenhausen, “Get Real”,

14.  “Taniwha Tales”,

15.  A nexus of works that the Basel connection in the curatorial team brings to the show are Suter’s, her mother Elizabeth Wild’s, and Rosalind Nashashibi’s responses, in film and in paint, to visiting them at home. Nashashibi’s Vivian’s Garden (2017) tenderly documents a domestic setting for Suter’s and Wild’s practices, its courage and beauty undercut by ineluctable signs of (overdetermined) privilege, the two Austrian artists living with domestic servants, behind a security gate, in a former coffee plantation in Guatemala.

16.  “A statement by the artists of documenta 14” generalises: “One aspect that makes documenta remarkable is its support of large numbers of artists who are not represented by commercial galleries…”,

17.  Reflecting the importance of this to the exhibition’s conception, The documenta 14 Reader reprints texts that map the juridical terrain of struggles for sovereignty globally: the Code Noir, the Aboriginals Protection Act, the Indian Act, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, the Marshall Plan, the McKee Treaty, the Sámi Act, the Zapatista (EZLN) Women’s Revolutionary Law and Te Tiriti o Waitangi (both Māori and English texts).




Jon Bywater  is an art critic, who teaches as a Senior Lecturer at Elam School of Fine Arts at The University of Auckland. His work has appeared in European and American periodicals including Artforum, Frieze, Afterall, Wire and Mute, and Australasian journals including Art New Zealand, Landfall, The Listener and Reading Room, as well as numerous catalogues and monographs.

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