Every five years, the largest and supposedly most important festival of contemporary art, called Documenta, transforms the small, buttoned-down town of Kassel in the middle of Germany into the epicenter of the global art world. The 100-days long event was established in 1955 in an attempt to revive Germany’s and Europe’s art and cultural scene, both countering and washing off the taste of two decades of Nazi repression. Back then people called it the “museum of 100 days”. Over the years, the Documenta has grown into an event of mindblowing proportions. Even art professionals and frequent biennial visitors are blown away by its ever-growing size and amount of artworks and events, reaching far beyond the museum walls.
This year’s 14th edition continues to push the boundaries. For the first time in its history, Documenta is taking place in not only one but two cities, Athens and Kassel, under the controversial title “Learning from Athens”. About his decision to split up the festival between two locations Adam Szymczyk, d14 Artistic Director, said: “This one is trying to stay out of focus. It is not so much about making a point, but about showing different posibilities from so many different points of view. The logical consequence was to have it divided between two cities.”
Documenta is known for being a political exhibition, addressing contemporary issues in society head-on, and thus acting as a signpost for formal and thematic trends in the years to come. So it seems only natural that, in a year like 2017, themes related to the current global refugee crisis feature in multiple variations. Many artists deal either directly or indirectly with migration, transit and transitions, trade routes and nomadic cultures. One of the pretexts for Documenta 14 is to leave the northern European comfort zone and look at these issues from the global South, if necessary to change perspective and assume a position akin to the South as a State of Mind (which is also the title of Documenta 14’s ongoing publication series). So rather than representing other people’s struggles, we are called upon to learn from those who are struggling themselves. Naturally, that also includes minorities like the nomadic Sámi people. Even though they don’t live in the south by any means but inhabit the most northern regions of Europe, their culture and livelihood are also threatened by neoliberal politics and globalist expansion. One major threat for the Sámi comes with new legislation that prevents them from herding reindeer according to their thousand-year old tradition.
Máret Ánne Sara, born 1983 in Hammerfest, Norway, is one of many Sámi artists present in this Documenta. In a series of works, she aims to raise awareness for their struggle with state interventions that prohibit them from living the way they are used to. Her brother, Jovsset Ánte Sara, recently won an important trial against the Norwegian state and managed to defend the property rights of the Sámi against the 2007 Reindeer Herding Act, which constrains herd sizes to an unacceptable minimum.
Pile o’ Sápmi draws upon spiritual, ecological, and political concerns. It references “Pile of Bones,” the Indigenous name for the place where the Cree nation stacked buffalo bones to anchor the animals’ spirits to the land, thereby ensuring their continued presence in what is today known as Western Canada. The artist also refers to the brutal colonial history of North America, when millions of bisons were killed in the 1800s and their bones ground into fertilizer or shipped overseas, where it was made into fine buffalo bone china and sold to wealthy European families. As a nod to the way that this destructive history now mimics what is taking place in regard to the reindeer culls in Norway, Sara commissioned a porcelain necklace made from ground reindeer bones. Its exaggerated size, almost absurdly proportioned relative to the human body, is deliberate. Sara notes that many city mayors and governmental leaders wear elaborate neckpieces adorned with crests as a demonstration of prestige and power. She intends her necklace to serve a similar function.