Aboriginal artist Richard Bell brings replica tent embassy to Germany’s Documenta, ahead of 2023 Tate London installation

Aboriginal artist Richard Bell is sitting on a bench in Kassel, Germany, enjoying the sunshine and crowds, when a couple from Austria approach him to ask about his work, Pay the Rent (2022), currently atop Kassel’s Fridericianum museum as part of the international quinquennial exhibition Documenta.

Bell, 68, is genial, gracious and more than happy to chat about his large-scale metronomic digital sign, which displays a rapidly inflating number calculating the debt owed to First Nations people by the Australian government. In fact, he’s made sure information about the work is hard to come by other than word of mouth.

“I want to be verbal about it. We’ve told some taxi drivers. They’ll spread the word. I’ve got to go back to the barber shop again and I’ll have a chat with them about it. I want to get people to talk about it,” Bell says.

“This is the most democratic Documenta … It’s transcended the exhibition and spilled out into the community. People are talking about it,” Richard Bell says.(Supplied: Documenta 15)

It is exactly these sorts of works and interactions that Indonesian artist collective ruangrupa — who have curated this year’s Documenta — envisioned when they invited Bell to participate.

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Why Documenta matters

Documenta has been one of the world’s most important art events since it was first conceived by artist and curator Arnold Bode in 1955. Today it sits alongside the Venice Biennale in terms of scale and influence.

One of Bode’s aims was to bring avant-garde art — which had been denigrated and confiscated under Nazism — back to a broad German public.

Before Documenta, the last exhibition of modern art in Germany had been the Nazi-designed Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937.

This propagandist exhibition was envisioned as a platform to shame, pillory and degrade any artist or artistic movement perceived to be at odds with the purification of German values and culture.

The Degenerate Art exhibition featured works by some of the 20th century’s most-important artists, including Käthe Kollwitz, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall. Ironically, despite — or, perhaps, because of — its notoriety, the exhibition was seen by more than one million people.

Many of these same artists would be included in Bode’s inaugural Documenta, which was held in Kassel’s Fridericianum: a public museum that was one of the first of its kind globally when it opened in 1779.

The building was nearly completely destroyed by Allied bombing but, by 1955, it had been mostly restored, and this sense of optimism and recovery was also important to Kassel-born Bode.

Black and white archival image showing group of older men standing in front of a modernist painting by Picasso.
Arnold Bode (left) with German President Theodor Heuss at the inaugural Documenta event in Kassel, 1955.(Getty Images: dpa/Picture-Alliance)

Bode wrote that the aim of Documenta was not to present an overview of work produced in the 20th century, but to “reveal the roots of contemporary art in all areas”.

This sentiment of showcasing art that is responding to the issues and concerns of its day has carried through each subsequent Documenta.

Documenta is now in its 15th iteration, and while previous outings have featured work by other Australian artists — including Gordon Bennett, Stuart Ringholt, Fiona Hall, Khadim Ali and Destiny Deacon — none were given the platform that Bell currently has.

International acclaim

Born in Brisbane in 1953, Richard Bell has been making art, and trouble, for decades now.

His work is unapologetically political, and has its roots in activism, which — for Bell — took flight in Redfern in the 1970s, and continues today with deliberately provocative artworks that call for Aboriginal self-determination and compensation.

“[Pay the Rent] represents a number calculating how much money the Australian government owes Aboriginal people — and that’s just for the rent of the place. Because that is still our country. It always was, always will be Aboriginal land,” Bell says.

A large digital ticker shows the number 101,715,300,199,298,698 in red over a black background installed on a gallery rooftop.
Richard Bell’s Pay the Rent (2022) installed on the roof of the Fridericianum for Documenta 15 in Kassel, Germany.(Supplied: Documenta 15)

“But we have to be smarter than that. We have to look for a solution, because nobody can ever afford to pay the kind of money that they actually owe.

Working across painting, video, installation, text and performance, Bell tackles everything from the erasure of Aboriginal experiences from Australian history to identity politics and the colonial complexities of Aboriginal art production in Australia.

Bell first came to significant attention in 2003, when he won the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award for his painting Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem), which declared, “Aboriginal art. It’s a white thing” — and was accompanied by a treatise outlining his theorem.

Despite being included in three Biennales of Sydney (1992, 2008 and 2016), the first National Indigenous Art Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia in 2007 and the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial at QAGOMA in 2015, among countless other significant group exhibitions, Bell’s first major institutional solo show wasn’t until 2021, at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

Richard Bell standing beside his artwork "A property dispute is turned into a race debate" (2019)
Richard Bell with his artwork A Property Dispute Is Turned Into A Race Debate, part of his 2021 solo exhibition You Can Go Now.(Supplied: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia/Anna Kucera)

Internationally, things are a little different.

This year alone, in addition to Documenta, Bell has two other concurrent projects taking place in Europe.

One is his first major European solo exhibition, at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, which opened in late June, and for which Bell has also written a follow-up essay to his 2002 Theorem, titled “Contemporary Art. It’s a White Thing”.

The other is an exhibition and specially commissioned work for the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy, where Bell has installed a replica of the shack he grew up in near Charleville, Queensland, before it was bulldozed in 1967 by local authorities.

Inside, a video shows an imagined teenage Bell facing down the bulldozer, like the protester who stared down the tanks in Tiananmen Square.

Bulldozer Scene No Tin Shack by Richard Bell
Richard Bell’s Bulldozer Scene No Tin Shack (2022) installation at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy.(Supplied: Milani Gallery)

Then, in 2023, after COVID-enforced delays, Bell’s Embassy (2013-ongoing), currently in situ in Kassel, will be erected in London, in Tate Modern’s iconic Turbine Hall.

When asked how he feels about all this success, Bell concedes to feeling “mildly triumphant” but he’s then quick to point out that, “if you let it go to your head, it’ll f*** you up”.

“The stars have aligned in a particular way, for me at this particular moment … But, mind you, there’s been a lot of planning and preparation for this.

Back at the park bench, the Austrian couple chat easily with Bell for another five minutes, before thanking him for his impressive work and entreating him to bring it to Austria.

According to Bell, these kinds of encounters happen at least once a day, such is the provocation in his work: a provocation that has been amplified by this iteration of Documenta.

Collective action

Pay the Rent is just one of a suite of politically forthright works by Bell that are on show at Documenta this year. Inside the Fridericianum, Bell has a new series of paintings and an installation also on display.

Three large canvas paintings hang on the white wall of a galley, each depicting Indigenous Australian subjects.
Richard Bell’s paintings on display inside the Fridericianum Museum, Kassel.(Supplied: Documenta 15)

Outside, staring back at the Fridericianum, Bell’s Embassy sits squarely in the middle of Kassel’s Friedrichsplatz, a location that in past Documentas has featured works by major artists including Walter de Maria (1977) and Joseph Beuys (1982).

A rear view of a large green tent set in a grassy park in front of a large white German classicist style art gallery.
Richard Bell’s Tent Embassy in Friedrichsplatz, Kassel — one of Germany’s largest, inner-city public squares.(Supplied: Documenta 15)

Embassy pays homage to the original Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, which marked its 50th anniversary this year.

Bell’s version — which has been erected everywhere from Performa 15 in New York to the Venice Biennale in 2019 — functions as both a display space, where each iteration shows video works and other archival materials, and as a gathering space, hosting public talks and performances as well as more informal conversations.

The inside of a large green tent with chairs set in front of a screen featuring black and white video and three protest placards
Richard Bell says of the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy: “To most Aboriginal people it is a symbol of resistance to the colonial power structure that still oppresses us.”(Supplied: Documenta 15)

Over Documenta’s 100 days, Bell will be hosting a series of Embassy Talks, inviting artists and thinkers to discuss issues close to their hearts and their communities.

Among others, Bell has invited Aboriginal artist and activist Gary Foley and Anishinaabe-kwe curator and writer Wanda Nanibush, from the Art Gallery of Ontario, to take part.

He is particularly excited that the Brisbane-based Indigenous youth collective Digi Youth Arts will also be joining him here.

Members of the group met Bell at one of his exhibitions in 2019, after which they presented a response to his work.

“It was so powerful and emotional. Some people were brought to tears and I thought, f***ing hell, I’m going to take these kids to Documenta,” Bell says.

“What they’re doing — they’re writing powerful material, speaking to colonisation, speaking to the wastefulness, speaking to the extractivism. They’re doing all these things already. I’m just giving them a leg up.”

As a political activist and one of the founding members of the Indigenous collective proppaNOW, Bell has always worked in this way.

For ruangrupa — who make history as the first artist collective to program Documenta — ideas of ecosystems, sharing, knowledge distribution and collectivism are also foundational to their practice, which they have used to imagine a Documenta unlike any other.

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