Documenta is a large-scale exhibition that happens every five years in Kassel, Germany. It is considered one of the most important events in the international art calendar and for the first time since it started in 1955, it includes several artists from Aotearoa New Zealand: Mata Aho Collective (Erena Baker, Sarah Hudson, Bridget Reweti, Terri Te Tau), Nathan Pohio, and the work of Ralph Hotere (1931-2013). This documenta is unusual in that the exhibition is presented in two cities, Kassel and Athens, as a bold and controversial curatorial statement from artistic director Adam Szymczyk: ‘Learning from Athens’. Featuring over a hundred artists with works installed across numerous venues, and accompanied by a busy schedule of public programmes and publishing, this expansive exhibition stimulates consideration of contemporary issues, art and politics. Indigenous art practices are strongly represented, and the selection of artists from Aotearoa reflects this. Within this critically engaged platform, they are all highly impacting and bring a unique perspective to the discourse of colonisation, migration and indigenous knowledge.
In one of the larger venues in Kassel, it is refreshing to see Ralph Hotere’s work situated within an international context that is relevant for his approach and influences. Another thread that runs throughout documenta is the concept of the musical score, so Hotere’s ‘Malady Panels’ (1971) resonate with this, incorporating a play on malady/melody/my lady.
Nathan Pohio presents work in both Kassel and Athens. ‘Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun!’, appropriates two found photographs from 1905 that show Ngāi Tahu leaders with the visiting British Governor General and his wife. The work references the pōwhiri ceremony, hospitality and rituals of welcoming, though by displacing these images from Ōtautahi Christchurch into a foreign site, there is a heightened awareness of their movement across time and space, and what it means to be a guest, entering new territory.
Lastly, Mata Aho Collective’s work is installed in the central stairwell of one of the Kassel venues – the Hessisches Landesmuseum – and can be viewed from all levels of the multi-storey building. Created from hundreds of bright blue tarpaulins sewn together in an intricate geometric pattern, ‘Kiko Moana’ is a giant sculptural textile, a waterfall that cascades through the space, highlighted by natural light from the windows and washing over the stairs at its base. Standing beneath, it looms over visitors dramatically. The physical work is accompanied by a website of taniwha narratives gifted to the collective by friends and family. These stories acknowledge the personal, multiple, shared, diverse understandings of taniwha and indigenous knowledge more broadly.
While reviews of documenta have been mixed and the breadth of the exhibition is somewhat overwhelming, the ambitious and momentous works of Hotere, Pohio and Mata Aho Collective, cleverly articulate local concerns in relation to international discourse and practice.