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PARTNERSHIPS: Dhaka to documenta14 - A Samdani Artist-Led Initiatives Forum Research Trip (part 2)


By Sadya Mizan, Founder and Project Director, URONTO Artist Community

I always find it difficult to write about experiences I have had or places I have visited.  I never know where to start especially when I have so many memories and thought lines in my mind:  how do I align everything to properly express my experience?  Having been asked to submit a written account of my research trip to documenta14 and the Skulptur Projekte Münster, I feel it best to first surrender myself with a pre-apology to my readers in case this account does not wholly express my experience. 

Back in July, I was selected, as a member of one of the organisations involved in the Samdani Artist-Led Initiatives Forum, to go on a professional development trip to documenta14, in both Athens and Kassel, and Skulptur Projekte Münster: an opportunity for me to improve my practice and knowledge and develop professionally. I was accompanied by Jewel A. Rob from BACK Art, Salma Jamal from Gidree Bawlee, and the Samdani Art Foundation’s Head of Administration, Sazzad Hossain who aided our transition from Dhaka to Europe. For all of us, this was our first Documenta experience, and although I cannot say this was the same for the others, with only two days in each city, I had no clue what I would discover or how this opportunity was going to help my professional development.  


Both Documenta and the Skulptur Projekte Münster are long established exhibition platforms.  Documenta was first established in Kassel in 1955 and is today a significant international exhibition of contemporary art. Reflecting the relationship between art and society, Documenta takes place every five years, and this year, for its fourteenth edition, has expanded into the city of Athens: a first for the festival which has traditionally always taken place only in Kassel. The Skulptur Projekte Münster was founded in 1977 and takes place every ten years transforming public spaces across Münster (Germany) into exhibition spaces, for free, confronting art with public places.

When I first came to know that documenta14 was taking place in Athens, as well as Kassel, I was excited, but this excitement dulled when on our arrival one of our group had their bag snatched.  Trying not to let the incident dishearten me, I began thinking about how a city’s economic stability, and security system, affects its art scene. Athens’s recent economic crisis has led to a steep rise in unemployment across the city and an increase in crime rates, which has decreased the number of visiting tourists.  Kassel, in comparison to Athens, appears to survive only on Documenta tourism which brings a huge number of visitors to this small city every five years. In Athens, not everyone is aware of documenta14’s exhibitions and where they are located, but in Kassel, everybody knows everything about Documenta, and the city’s hotels provide free bus tickets for visitors around all of the exhibitions: this is what makes it an incredible experience. I wonder if this could ever become the case for Dhaka's large art events like the Asian Art Biennale or the Dhaka Art Summit.  

Now about the exhibitions.  In Athens, more than 160 artists were participating in exhibitions across more than 40 museums, university halls, libraries and open squares , but visitors also had a full programme of music, theatre performances, happenings, workshops and art installations that they could attend. The programme was the same in Kassel, but here there was more public engagement and the city’s museums were working in collaboration with each other. I was particularly struck by the technology used to display and install works and the way they had been curated but mostly by how careful viewers were around the works. Despite this, I was disappointed to find that there was a lack of information for each exhibition, as for someone like me, seeing many of the artists’ works for the first-time, I need more context than just the title of the artwork.

Documenta’s communication was designed in a way that someone who visits needs to have gone through the catalogue to make full sense of the works exhibited.  There are different versions of the catalogue, some with more text, some with less, but only when you combine both the catalogue and the artworks together do you have the entire context in your hand.

In-between exploring documenta14’s exhibitions, we had the opportunity to meet several members of documenta14’s team including Hendrik Folkerts (Curator), Henriette Gallus (Head of Communications), and Marina Fokidis (Head of Artistic Office in Athens) as well as Lliana Fokianaki, the owner of a private gallery in Athens. From each of these individuals we learned a lot about the art scene in both Athens and Kassel, the challenges of communication for big scale exhibitions, how private galleries are sustaining themselves, and dealing with artists, and why documenta14 has many historical representations. This year, documenta14 also had some controversial coverage, particularly concerning the offer in Athens which Sleek Magazine had tackled through a series of articles (links below).  Although documenta14 is one of the biggest contemporary art exhibitions, I was a little nonplussed by a few works that seemed more like anthropological displays than contemporary art, so understood these articles points of view. The offer in Kassel had a lot more conceptualised works and the public engagement within the city was remarkable, particularly Marta Minujín’s The Parthenon of Books, which was a show stopper. The huge size of many of the works was slightly overwhelming for me, but of course, this is partly down to the great amounts of financial and production support provided to the artists.

To summarise my documenta14 experience, I was mostly overwhelmed by the amount of venues, the size of the team engaged with producing the festival, and the amount of art work on display.  In Bangladesh, there are very few art exhibitions which spread their offer over multiple venues, and is something that has only started to happen recently. 

After leaving documenta14 behind we headed to the heavenly city of Münster which I very quickly fell in love with, mostly because of the Skulptur Projekte Münster. I cannot name one work in the Skulptur Projekte which I did not like:  it is not just about the sculpture, it is about how and where it is placed and how the audience reacts with it, so the artworks become part of the city and the daily life of the people living there. The way all the works were complementing the entire city was very very different experience for me but three works that stood out for me were: Ayse Erkmen’s On Water (2017); Mika Rottenberg’s Cosmic Generator (2017); Pierre Huyghe’s After Alife Ahead (2017); and Susan Philipsz’s The lost Reflection (2007).

If I try to recall the art works I experienced during the trip, I mostly recall works from Münster. In Athens and Kassel, there was such a huge amount of art work to see, each with a different context, two days was not enough time to take everything in, but Münster was like a treasure hunt, everywhere you looked in the city, you were left wondering if what you had just seen was an art work or not. We often realised after crossed a structure that it was a work of art, like the John Knight’s large metal water level attached to the side of the LWL-Museum of Art and Culture like a sign. The artists that really stayed in my mind are CAMP (Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran), Michael Dean, Jeremy Deller’s Speak to the Earth and It Will Tell You, Nicole Eisenman, Peles Empire, Samuel Nyholm, Hito Steyerl, Oscar Tuazon, and Herve Youmbi, but Münster’s show stopper was for me Gregor Schneider’s work in the LWL-Museum, which, after a long wait in line, one by one our group was able to experience individually, all of us having very different experiences.  To help us navigate the many works of art dotted across the city, the Skulpture Project had developed an app providing information about the works and where to find them, making our overall experience in Münster much more enjoyable. This kind of app would be very useful for Bangladesh too as it helped me enjoy the sculptures without any tension of documenting and taking photographs of them as I could always access the app later to find out more details and get images of the work.

My journey had begun in Athens, then moved to Kassel and ended in Münster: each city providing me with a very different experience. Before I close, I must thank Diana Campbell Betancourt for helping us with her guidance and knowledge, Sazzad Hossain for guiding us from Dhaka to each city, and of course, Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani for making this opportunity possible, along with the Goethe Institute.

Overall the trip was a great successful, but, with the huge amount of artwork to see, I personally feel you need more than two days in Athens and Kassel to get the full flavour of Documenta. With such a shortage of time, we didn’t experience any performances in Kassel so if I make it to the next edition of Documenta, I’ll plan at least five days. My overall highlight was how the programme had been integrated into public spaces, mostly because I work with art in public places within my own curatorial process, but it was fantastic to see how public place is engaged within international art exhibitions. I was inspired by what I saw and will use the knowledge gained in my upcoming opportunities in Bangladesh. The trip certainly gave me confidence in my own practice and a much better awareness of the global art scenario. 

Find out more about documenta14 and the Skulptur Projekte Münster through these useful links suggested by Sadya: