Somewhere at the heart of every bi-, tri-, quadr-, quintennial (and my, doesn't it seem like every other town has one these days?) there survives a dearly held but fuzzy belief in a plain old-fashioned internationalism.
Love can tear us apart but on the global stage art will bring us together. Nowhere can the remnants of this belief be more clearly seen than at the opening press conference for Documenta. With flash bulbs a-popping and curatorial intent set forth amid the burble of hundreds of simultaneous translation units, microphones and TV cameras, Documenta 11's press powwow was enough to make any writer more used to the genteel pace of art writing feel like a seasoned journalist attending a press call of enormous geopolitical import.
For a moment I felt myself swept up in the excitement too, like a newshound from an old Hollywood movie with a press card in my hatband and Pulitzer-sharp instincts in my soul. As I walked away from the sight of Okwui Enwezor surrounded by European press crews (a scene that looked, as one participating artist put it, like the cover photo for a college textbook on post-colonialism) I knew the fantasy couldn't last, but also that I would not be alone in having to own up and confess a certain disengagement from Documenta in its entirety. I wonder how many who attended Platform 5 of Documenta 11 - the exhibition leg - could look you in the eye and tell you that they have fully cogitated, pondered, digested, wrestled with and thoroughly mulled over the public debates, seminars and mighty tomes that comprised Platforms 1 to 4: Democracy Unrealized; Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation; Créolité and Creolization; and Under Siege: Four African Cities - Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos. This structuring of Documenta into five equally important sections presupposes an audience's total immersion in the entire dialogue, but the whole history of Documenta inevitably weights emphasis towards the exhibition in Kassel. This is not, for a single moment, to belittle the importance of these discussions, or to contest the rigour with which these subjects need to be approached. I just find myself worrying that there's a certain fault line, a tricky gap bisecting the genuine gravitas of Documenta's intellectual pursuits and its reception by the majority of the exhibition audience. It's a gap that presents a crucial problem with the efficacy of such grand endeavours; a question of information display and information use. Co-curator Sarat Maharaj rather neatly described the work in Platform 5 as 'epistemological engines' - generative systems for ideas. What was lacking, however, was the spark.
A great deal comes down (or in this case, adds up) to size, from the sheer volume of published literature to the physical extent of the exhibition in Kassel. For a show of such magnitude Enwezor and his team had succeeded in putting together a particularly coherent cross-section of work, one that surprised the doom-mongers who feared even the Kassel exhibition would consist mainly of lectures and wall texts. The exhibition was laden with apposite inclusions, the intention being to incorporate a large number of works by artists working or hailing from areas outside the metropolitan Western art centres. Documenta runs for 100 days and quite probably requires 100 days to digest properly. Take a few of the film and video works on display: the exquisite 76 minutes of Yang Fudong's film An Estranged Paradise (1997-2002), Black Audio Film Collective's engaging and powerful 58-minute analysis of British race relations under the Thatcher regime, Handsworth Songs (1986), 14 psychologically unsettling minutes in Eija-Liisa Ahtila's The House (2002) or Trinh T. Minh-ha's 135 minute Naked Spaces: Living is Round (1985). That's over four and a half hours (and deep vein thrombosis if you're not careful) to take in just four of the 116 artists in the show. Valuable contributions to the discourse in which Enwezor and his team immersed themselves are inevitably flattened and stripped of nuance, subjected instead to the drifting attentions of flâneur-like art viewing.
The serious and often harrowing political import of much of the work in Kassel - particularly the documentary offerings - was also diluted by mundane exigencies of presentation. Observing visitors move from space to space - from Eyal Sivan's Itsembatsemba-Rwanda, One Genocide Later (1996) to Seifollah Samadian's The White Station (1999), for example, or from the claustrophobia of Steve McQueen's Western Deep (2002) to the Arctic vistas of Igloolik Isuma Productions' Nunavut (Our Land) (1994-5). I began to yearn for some kind of mode of discourse that functioned on a local scale, rather than attempting to get a handle on the dizzying, macroscopic global perspective. Zealous catholicism and inclusivity can leave one feeling strangely disempowered when faced with such a sudden overview as Documenta 11. Although the curators made it clear that the project was not a show dealing with foreclosure, or neatly underlined conceits, what do all the libraries, archives, discussions and exhibitions in the world amount to when all this clamour denies the silence in which to reflect on them, or the time with which to apply them?
Mega-shows utilize economies of scale: the details are not important, all that matters is that the details exist. Like a conversation in a broken language, you may lose a few subtleties but you get the gist.
Maybe whining about these kinds of formal curatorial practicality may seem somewhat off-target - a fatigued mind embarrassed by the further truncation of its already brief attention span - but that they even warrant mentioning is a little disturbing. Kassel was overrun by art professionals, punters and pushers, all busy bombing through their checklist before the next junket out of town. It seems the case that for most visitors the mere display of information, of art, of tangible product, suffices. Close observation, dare I say engagement, goes by the board when, overwhelmed by information, the Pavlovian responses and 1,000-yard stares begin to kick in. Mega-shows function on economies of scale where the details are not important - all that matters is that those details exist. Like a conversation in a shared but broken language, you may lose a few subtleties but you get the gist.
Thomas Hirschhorn's Bataille Monument (2002), a library, snack bar, TV studio and public sculpture installed in a working-class Turkish neighbourhood away from the madding crowds of the Fridericianum, seemed demonstrative of this kind of disparity. As with previous Hirschhorn 'monuments' dedicated to influential thinkers (Gilles Deleuze, for example, or the Swiss writer Robert Walser), the Bataille Monument presented agglomerations of information about its subject. What it actually did with that information was curious, and the results nebulous. If Jean-Luc Godard was right when he said 'style is the outside of content', then maybe there's nothing wrong with Hirschhorn's methodology. One can't help feeling, though, that he also pushes dangerously towards a window-shopping approach to knowledge, where browsing replaces applied investigation, and where smart juxtapositions in rough 'n' ready sculptural surroundings are stand-ins for informed dialectics. Just displaying a few books does not constitute a sustained examination of the significance of Bataille to the lives of you, me or any of the kids who happily enjoyed watching films on video in one of the monument's pavilions. In his essay for Platform 1 Slavoj Zizek invoked Walter Benjamin's dictum that 'it is not enough to ask how a certain theory (or art) declares itself with regard to social struggles - one should also ask how it effectively functions in these very struggles'.1 There, perhaps, lies the interesting crux of Hirschhorn's work - it's one thing opening up paths, making connections or showing people the way to new sources of ideas and knowledge, another to make something of them.
One work that managed to achieve this was McQueen's Western Deep. A taut, rhythmic study of South African workers in the world's deepest gold mine, the film took its audiences through long periods of disorienting darkness, abrupt blasts of noise and vacuums of silence. Occasionally a miner's lamp might illuminate an elevator shaft, then once again darkness fell. An intense passage under the strip lights of a medical examination room would then segue back to darkness. These were moments of clarity along a daunting, disorienting journey. Dreams of lucidity while fully aware of the impossibility of getting anything near a clear picture of the global push and pull.
1 Slavoj Zizek, 'The Prospects of Radical Politics Today', in Democracy Unrealized: Documenta11_Platform1, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2002, p.68.