Carved to Flow

Otobong Nkanga’s Carved to Flow (2017) is a process-based research project and enterprise encompassing performance, installation and socially engaged methodologies. Its focus is the production, distribution and sale of a natural soap bar, o 8, made up of seven oils that ‘nourish the skin’ sourced from regions that encompass the Mediterranean, North and West Africa and the Middle East. The oils are combined with water, lye and charcoal which according to Nkanga prompts us to ‘think about spaces that are actually charred’; places that are depleted of resources, riven by war, impacted by ecological shifts, toxicity and other such traumas that force people to move. The histories, knowledges and stories that are associated with these places travel with the ‘nourishing oils’ that are combined into o 8 and are according to the artist, ‘part and parcel’ of a ‘taste palate’ that connects us.[1]

Carved to Flow is divided into three phases: ‘the Laboratory’, ‘the Warehouse & Distribution’ and ‘the Germination.’ The Laboratory, located in an industrial area of Athens, was designed with reference to plant biology. Here oils and fats flow across the room according to a system of irrigation ditches, and are combined and poured into honeycomb-shaped moulds where they are left to set. The soaps are collaboratively made with significant contributions from Evi Lachana, a chemical engineer and botanist, Tasos Poulopoulos and Anastasia Roka from Kalamata-based natural soap makers Vis Olivae and participants from the Melissa network of migrant women.

The second phase regarding ‘Warehouse and Distribution’ occurs when the soap is taken to Kassel where it is installed as a sculpture in the Glass Pavilions, empty shop fronts along the heavily trafficked Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse. The soaps are also distributed among Documenta venues by a group of ‘carriers,’ which include Nkanaga. I encountered one such performer at the press opening in Kassel, wearing an outfit notable for a circular platform that was attached to her waist on which the soaps were stacked and displayed. Awkwardly balanced, clutching a support staff and semi-covered in a drape, she struck up a conversation about the soap and its production processes. Yet, during the opening days at Kassel, o 8 seemed like a hard sell at €20 for a palm sized piece.

Later at a session in the Laboratory in Athens, Nkanga emphasised how the soap was not ‘sold,’ but rather ‘exchanged’ for stories and money. It is easy to scoff at her statement as nonsensical artspeak, but I am choosing to stay with Nkanga’s attempts to articulate what art patrons are being offered to buy into, which is not simply the soap as a commodity, but rather a broader economic practice.

Otobong Nkanga, ‘Carved to Flow’, Documenta 14, Athens, 2017. Photo: Sumugan Sivanesan

‘Capitalism is a cancer’

So declared actor James Cromwell in a recent interview given prior to serving a week-long gaol sentence following his arrest at an anti-fracking sit-in in upstate New York.[2] Cromwell’s actions reflect the popular uptake of ideas critical of the link between extractivist capitalism and climate change. As movements such as ‘degrowth’ which critique the ‘growth at all costs’ ideology of current capitalism gain momentum, many argue that to rid ourselves of dominant notions of progress requires a complete transformation our consumption habits, financial and material ambitions and our ways of designing life.[3]

As an enterprise, Carved to Flow refers to the circular economy, a rethinking of design and production that encompasses the end life of products. In contrast to the ‘take, make and dispose’ mentality of dominant linear economics, whereby once a product is sold it is no longer considered as part of the economic cycle, circular economic thinking accounts for what happens to a product after it has fulfilled its use. Driven by an agenda to transition to renewable energy sources, the circular economy as a design principle demands products are comprised of components that can be re-used, recycled or composted; products which are ‘made to be made again’ to effectively eliminate the concept of waste. As circular economy expert Erik Van Buuren explained during a talk at Documenta in Athens, this is a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ understanding of production with an emphasis on ‘dematerialising utility from the product’.[4] Thus in circular economy initiatives, the ‘true cost’ of a product is incorporated into its pricing. Rather than choosing between commodities that serve similar functions competing in a market, consumers as economic agents use their purchasing power to participate in and support an alternative ideological program.

Art objects are often distinguished by their non-utilitarian value, for their unique, often non-reproducible qualities, that give aesthetic pleasure and stimulate contemplation. As they are traded on art markets their cultural worth is monetised. The profitable resale of an artwork on the secondary market affirms its value as an object worth collecting and thus contributes to the reputation, ‘bankability’ and the professional standing of the artist responsible.

In contrast, soap is often encountered as something cheap and mass produced; a ‘ubiquitous and yet largely mystical product,’ according to the curator of Carved to Flow’s public program Maya Tounta. As a common necessity, soap is also a somewhat mysterious product without a clear history of origin. Soaps have been produced for thousands of years across different cultures by mixing animal fats and vegetable oils with water and ash. A luxury for many, following developments in the industrial revolution and its promotion through hygiene campaigns soap became an affordable household product. Yet, bespoke natural soaps and oils still retain their luxury status.

o 8 brings together four oils, three butters, water and charcoal as a cultural and economic vector. It is a ‘zero waste product’ with multiple status. Through the artistic process and notably the institutional shine that Documenta brings to it, a common product, especially in its more luxurious form, can be fetishized, imbued with the stories of its ingredients and physically shaped by collective methods of production and distribution. Yet, as an art object it seems unlikely to me that the bars of o 8 purchased at Kassel would be resold in a secondary art market.  o 8 is fundamentally transitory, designed to decompose and disappear. Its worth is not as a store of cultural-monetary value, but in its use as a ritual object to clean and restore the skin and as a carrier of ideas.

Arguably an art object is a status symbol, not necessarily of wealth, but of privilege, education, cultural sophistication and a reflection of its possessor’s capacity to keep up with discourse-driven Contemporary Art. As a soap o 8 is also a commodity, but unlike those discussed in Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, it is not a seemingly autonomous object, detached from the labour and resources that brought it into being. Indeed, its status as an art object is conditional on it being handcrafted and co-produced by a celebrated artist at a prestigious and influential art event. So then, in a seemingly contradictory way, o 8 can be thought of as both a fetishized objet d’art imbued with the status-bringing powers and as a counter-fetish, a dematerialising agent of a circular economic program for habitual and ideological change.

Otobong Nkanga, ‘Carved to Flow’, Documenta 14, Athens, 2017. Photo: Sumugan Sivanesan


‘What valid political claims can we actually make as cultural practitioners when operating within, and being fed by, a capitalist structure with very well-defined power structures and power centers, in terms of enabling discourses and artworks?’
iLiana Fokianaki [5]

The fetishization of crises, particularly financial crisis, has been criticised in much of the commentary concerning Documenta 14’s foray into Greece. As Germany is a significant economic power in the EU, it has been influential in developing policy that governs the servicing Greek debt, which as curator iLiana Fokianaki and academic and politician Yanis Varoufakis discuss in a much-circulated text, favours the sell-off of public assets and the burden of the debt being borne by taxpayers.[6] Documenta’s presence in Athens has raised issues surrounding its exploitation of local resources and infrastructures, its role in gentrification and its representation of Greek concerns. As Fokianaki and Varoufakis emphasise, we should be wary of understanding Documenta’s investment in Athens as a benevolent gift, a trope that belies power relations between the two states. After all, when Germany assumes the role of the benefactor to its host it produces a dynamic that is distinctly neocolonial.

Indeed, major art festivals and biennales that present art as a public good often play down the role of culture in politics. While such art events remain important means by which art and ideas are disseminated, to remain critical we must also ask whose interests are ultimately represented by these undertakings and whom ultimately profits. As David Joselit discusses in his book After Art (2012), art institutions are effective in bringing together centres for research, philosophers, financers, captains of industry and political elites—they are effectively nodes around which power coalesces. So while it might be argued that major art events are the cultural expression of global elites, are artists completely powerless to intervene, subvert or disrupt their machinations?

While there is a socially engaged aspect of Carved to Flow, it is not presented with reference to notions of ‘the gift’ by which many such practices that seek to perform a social good are discussed. Unlike the practice of potlatch, the circular economy does not assume limitless resources, but rather acts to restore and maintain damaged ecologies. The sale of o 8 does not simply bolster Nkanga’s career, but is proposed to fund the establishment of a dispersed support structure for local knowledges and practices, using Documenta as a platform to leverage grass roots responses to the inequalities produced by globalised capital. Continuing the analogy of plant biology and horticulture by which Carved to Flow is presented, the third phase of the project, that is yet to come, is titled ‘the Germination’. This phase proposes to extend beyond Documenta 14, and one might guess it has to do with the further development and expansion of this experiment in circular production and distribution into an ongoing, self-sustaining, alternative economic enterprise.


From graffiti backlash and anti-gentrification protests, to the theft of an artwork by a queer refugee collective who condemn the event’s ‘fetishization’ of their conditions,[7] Documenta 14 in Athens has been the target of significant actions that have sought to engage with the attention that it draws to exercise limited forms of power. Thus, the question arises: was it worth it? Over drinks in Athens, participating artist Ben Russell explained that Documenta’s foray into Greece was destined to be a failure, but was nevertheless pursued as a once-in-a-lifetime experiment. So perhaps this notion of experimentation is key to assessing its endeavours?

Documenta is uniquely positioned as an established and prestigious contemporary art event that risks failure, courts controversy and does not only entertain ‘blue chip’ artists. Yet, invariably there remain boundaries to access; gatekeepers, critics and advisors who ultimately shape the development of all artists. It is then important to emphasise that professional artists, like those who show in events such as Documenta, do not have the monopoly on creativity, but rather have access to people of certain privilege and power. Perhaps what Carve to Flow effectively showcases are the kinds of knowledges, practices and ideas necessary in the production o 8 that are counter to the means of establishing value in the art market. o 8’s worth is not as a collectable art object, but as a vector that re-distributes biological elements and ideas. It is as though a relatively small investment into purchasing a bar of natural soap opens a gateway to an alternative reality.

It often seems that the prevalent option for artists seeking to ‘professionalise’ is to contend with the art market; to commercialise, commodify and conform to the designs of global elites. An alternative, as Carved to Flow suggests, is to experiment; to subvert and to foster other systems of value and open up means for survivance. Such practices propose a cure to our current malaise rather than perpetuate the disease.

Sumugan Sivanesan

[1] Nkanga, Otobong and Van Buuren, Erik, 2017. “‘What is a Circular Economy and How Can We Make It Possible?’ with Erik Van Buuren and Otobong Nkanga” [talk], Documenta 14, 13 May. URL:

[2] Cromwell, James 2017. ‘Oscar-Nominated Actor James Cromwell Speaks Out Before Jail Time for Peaceful Anti-Fracking Protest,’ Democracy Now, 14 July. URL:

[3] Research & Degrowth, n.d. URL:

[4] Nkanga, Otobong and Van Buuren, Erik, 2017.

[5] Fokianaki, iLiana and Varoufakis, Yanis, 2017. “We Come Bearing Gifts”—iLiana Fokianaki and Yanis Varoufakis on Documenta 14 Athens, Art Agenda, 7 June. URL:

[6] Fokianaki, iLiana and Varoufakis, Yanis, 2017.

[7] LGBTQI+ Refugee Solidarity Group, 2017. ‘We have stolen your stone and we will not give it back’ [press release], 22 May. URL:


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