Art of Precarity
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Art of Precarity

A review of some of the best exhibits at documenta fifteen


What is the possibility of art in a precarious and even dangerous environment? The answer could be found everywhere at documenta fifteen.

Taring Padi's Bara Solidaritas: Sekarang Mereka, Besok Kita / The Flame Of Solidarity: First They Came For Them, Then They Came For Us. 

Taring Padi

For this 24-year-old Yogyakarta collective, art is a tool to fight against injustice and a shield against the elements. The most charming and effective part of Taring Padi's exhibition was in front of the Hallenbad Ost building, where cardboard protest signs filled the front lawn. They stood there come rain or shine just as when they were used at protests, where demonstrators turned them into umbrellas to protect them from the weather. Inside Hallenbad Ost, there was the retrospective, The Flame Of Solidarity: First They Came For Them, Then They Came For Us, where much more skilfully and intricately painted artworks could be seen on walls and hung from the ceiling. Although Taring Padi rejects art for art's sake, and their work is meant to be straightforward, information at the exhibition was too sparse. As a result, the struggles these images tell became a mere abstraction. The collective is fluent in the language of protest, but it didn't tell its own story very clearly. I wish they had worked with people who are fluent in the language of exhibition and history to better illuminate their own past, their process and the fights they have helped persecuted communities fight over the decades. Taring Padi may have started on the wrong foot at documenta fifteen when People's Justice had to be dismantled due to anti-Semitic images, but their interview with Artnet showed them to be admirably self-reflective. It will be interesting to see how their experience at documenta shapes the way they work with images in the future.

Atis Rezistans|­Ghetto Biennale. 

Atis Rezistans|Ghetto Biennale

Since 2009, the Haitian group Atis Rezistans (Resistance Artists) has been hosting Ghetto Biennale by inviting foreign artists to collaborate with others working in the Grand Rue neighbourhood of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. The Biennale was established in response to Haitian artists' isolation from the global art scene due to economic conditions. This exhibition at documenta fifteen took up the entire St Kunigundis church which was stripped of pews and altar. Atis Rezistans treated the church as an actual church -- a space of worship and contemplation, a space where ceremonies that recognise life and death are observed. And the artworks shown embrace religion and spirituality in the most unpretentious and refreshing way. The sculptures here are not only made from junkyard materials, but they also play with a range of aesthetics, from traditional African sculptures to sci-fi to Haitian Vodou and other religious imageries. Haitian sculptor Jean Claude Saintilus, for example, worked with human bones, net cloth and metal to create sculptures at once ghostly and human that reflect the connection between life and death. Tucked in the vestry, a beautiful audio-visual installation, The Memory Held Within Water by Jamaican-born artist Simon Benjamin, brings together multi-channel video and ceremonial objects like candles, incense and church bells to tell a story of water, migration and home. The tiny space felt silent and sacred, with just the occasional sweet chimes of bells. The soundtrack of the church, however, was dominated by The Museum Of Trance, a sound installation by German artists Henrike Naumann and Bastian Hagedorn. The artists paid homage to the 90s techno clubs near the church and German trance music of the same period. The sound that emanated from an organ was a simple booming, heart-pounding beat that crescendoed before it faded into silence.

Sada [Regroup]

This series of films was the most moving art I saw at documenta. Sada was an initiative founded in 2011 by Iraqi artist Rijin Sahakian to support Baghdad-based artists affected by war and political instability. Although Sada ended in 2015, for documenta, Sahakian invited former participants to make short films about living and making art in Baghdad in the aftermath of the American-led war in Iraq. The films show the level of repression and cruelty experienced by artists in Baghdad, from the authority's order of removal of public art in Sajjad Abbas' Water Of Life and the torture suffered by Bassim Al Shaker for drawing an image of Venus de Milo in his film Barbershop to the death of an art student that has gone uninvestigated by the police in Sarah Munaf's Inside The City. There is also the poetically told story of an artist who doesn't travel but sends paintings of different parts of himself to galleries as a commentary on the freedom of movement in Ali Eyal's Blue Ink Pocket and the angry, raw and unflinching film by Sahakian herself about the American invasion of Iraq. This series of films needs to be shown and seen as widely as possible.

Britto Arts Trust's Local Bazaar and Superstore. 

Britto Arts Trust

This Dhaka-based collective won me over with its clever and witty food-themed exhibition. Right outside documenta Halle, they had set up a pakghor, or kitchen, under a bamboo structure, along with a palan, a Bengali word for a kitchen garden, where visitors were encouraged to pick their own vegetables and herbs to be turned into a meal for lunch. Inside, however, food was more dangerous. The collective had opened a small grocery store with shelves and baskets stocked with beverages and foods, fresh and canned. Except that none of the items in this store was edible. They were made of clay, metal and thread. On closer inspection, some of the fish looked more like missiles, that basket of bell peppers was actually full of hand grenades, and those broccolis popped out of guns. There were knitted soda cans and soup cans. There were large, ceramic Nutella jars and milk cartons. It was a fun, beautifully crafted and powerful commentary on our inhumane industrial food system.

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