BY Thomas McEvilley in Reviews | 09 SEP 02
Featured in
Issue 69

Documenta 11

Various venues, Kassel, Germany

BY Thomas McEvilley in Reviews | 09 SEP 02

Each of artistic director Okwui Enwezor's six co-curators - Sarat Maharaj, Octavio Zaya, Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez and Mark Nash - spoke briefly, followed by Enwezor himself. Maharaj identified the point of art today as 'knowledge production' and the point of this exhibition as 'thinking the other'; Nash declared that the exhibition aimed to explore 'issues of dislocation and migration' ('We're all becoming transnational subjects', he observed); Ghez stressed the unusual fact that as many as 70% of the works in the show were made explicitly for the occasion; Basualdo spoke of 'establishing a new geography, or topology, of culture'; and Bauer spoke of 'deterritorialization'. Finally, Enwezor began his reflections by referring to Chinua Achebe's classic novel of pre-colonial Africa Things Fall Apart (1958). He spoke of the emergence of post-colonial identity, and said that he and his colleagues had aimed at something much larger than an art exhibition: they were seeking to find out what comes after imperialism.

These remarks were significant because Documenta, along with the Venice Biennale, is one of the foremost venues at which the current cultural politics of the art world is laid out. In a sense the agenda proclaimed by these curators gave one a sense of déjà vu; or rather, it seemed not exactly to usher in a new era but to set a seal on an era first announced long ago. The multicultural agenda for Documenta may be said to have begun with Harald Szeeman's ground-breaking Documenta 5 in 1972. In that show (which the brochure on the history of Documenta issued by the current show describes as 'strongly polarized') Szeeman included many works not from the academic mainstream of Western contemporary art. This was the exhibition for which James Lee Byars recommended to Szeeman the title 'The Five Continent Documenta' - historically important as the first recorded mention of the idea of a truly global exhibition; and although Szeeman did not go all the way in that direction, he made significant advances. (He waited until his Venice Biennale in 1984, however, to include Western outsider artist Howard Finster as the representative of the United States.) So the question of globalism was first raised - though not fully resolved - a full 30 years ago.

The issue really came out in the open almost 20 years ago with the Primitivism controversy of 1984-5, the same year in which Szeeman included Finster in the Venice Biennale. The Museum of Modern Art in New York had mounted a show called '"Primitivism" in 20th-century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern'. There was harsh criticism of the fact that artists of the so-called 'Third World' (that is, the previously colonized world) were used as footnotes to Western Modernist art history, rather than being recognized as having identities of their own.1 The controversy went on for the better part of a year, becoming heated at times, and attracted considerable attention. Subsequently the dominant approach to these issues seemed to have been permanently shifted in favour of an increasing recognition of non-Western cultures.

This change was most clearly embodied by Jean-Hubert Martin's show 'Les Magiciens de la terre' at the Centre Pompidou in 1989 - 13 years ago. There works by 50 Western and 50 non-Western artists were shown together in a neutral, non-hierarchical way which let the various cultures involved speak for themselves rather than as marginalia to Western art history. In the following decade many shows around the world pushed the globalist agenda in a variety of directions. Exhibitions of contemporary African art, of Indian and South-east Asian art, of Latin American and Native American artists and of other previously excluded traditions sprang up all over and were greeted with much enthusiasm.

So there is nothing exactly new about organizing a show around post-colonial issues. Nevertheless, in recent years a feeling has been spreading (especially with the brief flurry of excitement about the supposed return of traditional ideas of Beauty) that somehow all the Postmodernist fuss about the disintegration of social and cultural meanings accompanying the rearrangement of the geopolitical structure in the post-colonial era was already over, when in fact it had only been announced and not - until now anyway - nailed firmly into place in the world's leading international survey of contemporary art. In recent years enthusiasm for these issues has waned; the current state of affairs will become clear partly through reactions to this show.

Talking the talk the way the curators of Documenta 11 did at the opening press conference - about disregarding or deliberately overleaping traditional boundaries (not just those of art but also those of the social reality of the Western contemporary art world) - raised the issue of also walking the walk. A quick look at the numbers is instructive. There are ambiguities in counting nationalities: what, for example, about an artist born in one country who has spent most of his or her life in another and intends to continue living there? But on a rough count with no claim to methodological perfection, it seems that 25 artists can be described as from the United States (far more than from any other country), 34 from western Europe and 6 more from the former USSR, 14 from Africa, 16 from Asia and 9 from Latin America. (Some artist collectives are not counted here because of ambiguities.) On this basis it seems that the early reports that this would be the first Documenta in which the majority of artists came from outside Europe and the US are not quite accurate - Asia and Latin America in particular are a little thin.

In terms of gender issues, there seem to be 32 women artists, including those in groups - comprising about 20% of the total. Is that quite enough? More than a decade ago, when an earlier Documenta was in the planning stages, the show's artistic director was advised, 'Be sure you have at least 30% women'. His reply, in effect, was: 'Only Americans think that way. In Europe we care only about quality not about quotas.' He ended up with only about 20% and was widely criticized in the press for what was perceived as an insubstantial representation of women. Today, from the point of view of the many Americans who are aware that the majority of art students for at least the last decade have been women, 50% seems an appropriate number. But, considering Documenta as a European institution that is still evolving, 35% might seem OK. Instead we get about 20% again. With regard to age, the oldest artist, Louise Bourgeois, was 91; the youngest, Giuseppe Gabellone, 29. The average age was 52.

The Fridericianum show did not seem much concerned with 'thinking the other'; rather, it was a celebration of 'things fall apart'.

The show, like the press conference, was vast. It has variously been reported as including between 118 and 180 artists, depending on whether the members of collectives are counted separately (I arrived at 165), and contained a generous selectionof works by each artist. Most of the work was found in four major venues - the Fridericianum, the Binding Brewery, the Kulturbahnhof and the Documenta Halle, with a few outdoor pieces across the field from the Orangerie and elsewhere. It seemed that certain themes were associated with certain venues - or at least that they dominated within them - and the curators' brief remarks were useful in situating them. The show in the Fridericianum - the first one visited by most spectators and usually regarded as the central or defining venue - did not really seem much concerned with 'thinking the other'; rather, it was a kind of celebration of the theme that 'things fall apart'. Many of the works shown there seemed to suggest that inherited modes of constructing meanings - both verbal and visual - had been dismantled; traditional vocabularies had disintegrated and most of the artists showed no anxiety about this, making, it seems, little if any attempt to put them back together again in either old or new forms. In general there was, if not an actual celebration of the fact that things have in some senses fallen apart, at least a cheerful acceptance of the situation.

The central artist of the whole show was perhaps Hanne Darboven, a canny strategic move in several ways. For one thing it was a polite tip of the hat to classical Euro-American Conceptualism, which was still allowed to hold centre stage before attention veered off in every other direction; for another, the elevation of a white woman artist to this status may have been an attempt to settle the still tempestuous aftermath of Enwezor's second Johannesburg Biennial, which was riven by disputes about his attitude toward white South African women artists.2

In any case, Darboven's work filled all three floors of the curved back central segment of the Fridericianum - traditionally the most prestigious venue. Thousands of small, framed pages had been typed with fundamental units of vocabulary without ever managing to construct any meaning out of them. Over and over again the unseen hands on the typewriter counted to ten in English, then in German, then in Arabic numerals and so on. It was as if the artist were grasping at a fundamental ordering principle - the number series - but could not, or would not, connect it with the outside world.

Elsewhere in the Fridericianum, James Coleman showed a video on whose audio track a young girl's voice was trying falteringly to spell something out but could not get beyond nonsensical fragments, with an occasional word coming through in isolation. In the large room to the right of the entrance Iranian artist Chohreh Feyzdjou seemed to apply the 'things fall apart' idea to sculpture; her space was filled with endless rough wooden tables and shelves filled with fragmentary stuffs of all shapes and sizes, mostly unidentifiable despite the labels. It seemed that all the materials had been collected, but nobody was putting them together into anything. In a small, high room Raymond Pettibon showed a scattered array of childlike drawings and disconnected phrases scrawled on the walls. Belgian artist Joëlle Tuerlinckx took the demonstration into the realm of two-dimensional visuality. In a large room with dozens of video projection systems and video monitors she portrayed a mind slowly attempting to put together the materials of visual representations. On three little monitors mounted high on a wall an unseen hand created various series of dots with black marker pen, but representing nothing other than themselves; on monitors of various sizes here and there, two hands moved ribbons that served as line fragments around, disconnecting and reconnecting them in tentative ways that never got anywhere. One monitor appeared to be pink until, after looking at it for a time, it became clear that it was a one-to-one image of a piece of pink paper fastened to the wall along its upper edge and gradually curling up at the bottom. Colour, line, dot - the vocabulary of visual representation had fallen apart and the pieces remained in isolation, unable to construct meanings among themselves.

American artist David Small showed The Illuminated Manuscript (2002), a large book of some reflective fabric on to which a video projector beamed images from overhead. The viewer could turn the pages and otherwise manipulate the images. Each page held a passage on social justice by authors such as Mahatma Gandhi and Thomas Jefferson. If one moved one's hand over the page, interrupting the beam of light from overhead, the image on the printed page moved, jumped, bent itself, spun around, in general had a paroxysm. When one turned the page again there was another passage, waiting for audience intervention to go through the same contortions. It was as if even language that had been bound down to the printed page could no longer be relied on to maintain its meaning. Ecke Bonk showed a wall completely covered with variously hued reproductions of the title page of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch (Buch der Wörter, Book of Words, 2002), the great German dictionary inaugurated by the brothers in 1838, and which took a century for its 16 volumes to be completed. It just confronted one as a mute fact which one could not penetrate into discursively; in the context, it seemed to be asking, are 16 volumes enough to guarantee meaning? Many other works - of which there were here, and throughout the show, too many to mention - collaborated in this inquiry into the fact that 'things fall apart'.

The Orangerie, which has been used in past Documentas, housed only one piece this time, as a technical museum had been installed in most of the space. Instead, Documenta 11 took over the vast Binding Brewery, installing a maze of interior walls through which people wandered for hours at a time, often lost and disoriented, coming upon the same rooms again and again as they unknowingly walked round in circles. This was the building that most truly featured the theme of 'thinking the other'. Croatian Ivan Kozaric (one of the oldest artists at 81) presented an installation of his studio (Atelier Kozaric, 1930-2002), which combined the theme of endless fragmentation with the theme of different views of human nature, as partial representations of endlessly changing configurations suggested other and still other types of humans there might be. A zany assortment of small sculptures, objects and materials lay in disarray on large tables; various paintings, usually ironic or odd or humorous, hung around the walls. It was some far-off wizard's workshop, with countless views of humanity as a creature deformed and constantly changing. Meanwhile endless videos in dark spaces showed interviews and life scenes from the former colonial world. Steve McQueen's Western Deep (2002) showed South African miners descending into the hellish underworld of a gold mine. Enormous jarring sounds of mechanical equipment and metallic screeching and crashing accompanied the descent into darkness, with occasional flashing lights offering glimpses of the miners as they descended ever farther, getting out of the lift at its occasional subterranean stops. The message seemed to be that labour in a capitalist society is a hell of exploitation and humiliation. Six rooms of Allan Sekula's meticulous documentary photographs showed the effort to bridge the seas that separate nations from each other - labourers loading ships, workers welding them, people and things borne about by them. Most of the installations required the viewer to pay attention to numerous tracks of words and images at the same time. In Joan Jonas' room one track was a drama reworking the Old Irish saga of Cuchulain and Maeve. Another showed Jonas herself drawing rough primary shapes on a blackboard with chalk mounted at the end of a stick. Over it all Jonas' voice droned on in a series of disconnected reflections.

In the Kulturbahnhof, at the rear of the central railway station, the dominant theme might be called the City. Isa Genzken showed fanciful semi-transparent brightly coloured models of New Buildings for Berlin (2001). Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez offered other fantasy models of cities as bright and curvaceous as amusement parks. A huge space was devoted to the collages, drawings and urban models of Dutch artist Constant (another elder figure, born in 1920 and one of the founder members of Cobra in 1948), under the rubric 'New Babylon'. David Goldblatt's unbelievably detailed and sharp iris prints, Jo'burg Intersections (1999-2002), showed sweeping panoramic overviews of areas of the city, highlighting the contrast between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Bernd and Hilla Becher chimed in with about 150 of their familiar classical photographs of northern European timbered buildings. Meanwhile other artists dealt with themes such as otherness and exclusion. Trinh T. Minh-ha's film Naked Spaces: Living is Round (1985) was a fascinating and peculiar record of African tribal dances. Kendell Geers' Suburbia (1999) was made up of photographs of gated and barbed fences and armed-response warning signs around the residential compounds of the South African wealthy. German Lisl Ponger offered documentary photographs of the anti-globalization protests in Genoa in 2001.

In the Documenta Halle an enormous Palestinian installation by Fareed Armaly and Rashid Masharawi, Checkpoint (2002), covered the floor from room to room with pseudo-maps portraying routes between cities such as Amman and Ramallah, while in side rooms documentary videos showed Palestinian refugee camps and Palestinians crossing Israeli checkpoints. The Raqs Media Collective of New Delhi presented a complex installation that included film of poor Indian women working as hod carriers at a construction site. A large area filled with computers wired with various software offered interactive experiences. Here the theme of technology was very prominent, though 'thinking the other' was also in evidence.

The outdoor works included Ken Lum's Mirror Maze with 12 Signs of Depression (2002). As one struggled through a somewhat intimidating and disorienting maze, signs etched in the glass appeared from time to time with messages such as 'I cry for no reason', 'I sleep all the time', 'I feel alone in the world' and 'I am afraid of doing something bad'. The artist apparently said the piece was designed as the opposite of a Fun House - you enter it feeling OK and leave depressed. Someone said the house's Twelve Signs were derived from the literature of Scientology. Renée Green offered two little semi-enclosed shelters where a woman's voice whispered an endless list of alphabetical place names ('Darkland, Dead Man's Valley, Desert Town, Despairia, Devil's Garden, Difficulty, Dr Moreau's Island ...'). Thomas Hirschhorn had installed a little archive on Georges Bataille in ramshackle huts in the middle of nowhere. Overall, there were scores of other worthy artists, too numerous to mention.

A question that remained unanswered was exactly how Enwezor had worked with his six co-curators. The whole immense exhibition seemed the work of a single mind, not of seven different ones. The installations were elegant and intelligent throughout, always in much the same way. There was, for example, an overriding prominence given to the mode of seriality. Virtually every exhibition said its message more than once and many repeated it, often hundreds of times, in clean, tight serial arrangements of frames, monitors or other forms of presentation, with Darboven's central three-storey installation and On Kawara's incredibly persistent noting of the passage of time in the Fridericianum setting the tone. The fact that 70% of the works were made specifically for the show also suggests that Enwezor kept a tight rein on things, indicating to both curators and artists the type of thing he wanted, and having it custom-made to order to ensure he got it.

The idea that art and culture have passed truly at last into a new era was emphasized by the almost complete absence of painting. Leon Golub, Luc Tuymans, Cecilia Edefalk, Ouattara Watts, Fabian Marcaccio (who was represented by a huge outdoor collage of overpainted print-out on both sides) and Glenn Ligon may have been the only painters in the show - and at least one of them (Ligon) seems more a Conceptual artist than a painter per se. Golub was given the most prominent position (left of the entrance in the Fridericianum), where three of his large recent paintings were shown along with 22 of the small black and white paintings he has been making recently. The prominence given to him seemed especially notable since he might be regarded as the anti-painter par excellence, with his method of scraping the surface away, and with it the touch, with a meat cleaver.

The new-era idea was also apparent in the emphasis on video and photography and the trend, in both these media, towards work that had a documentary foundation, though it was by no means conventional documentary or journalistic footage. Countless different and ingenious modes of video presentation were seen. Chantal Akerman's documentary footage of Mexican border crossings, for example (in the Fridericianum), consisted of three or four rows of about five video monitors each, arranged so closely together that the viewer walking between the rows hardly had room enough to step back and look clearly at the images. One of the curiosities of the show was the variety of ways in which video was presented.

Finally, this was perhaps the least 'arty' Documenta yet. Though some earlier Documentas have had a strong basis in real-world issues, none before has been so relentless in elaborating on it. It was quite an accomplishment. Virtually none of the art looked commercial in the sense of prettified older works that seem destined to line some dealers' pockets. Most of the work seemed exemplary in the sense of the values of its objecthood. Very few artists were disappointing. The exhibition was admirable - to some tastes - for the rigour of its commitment to its chosen issues. Seeing art as a means of knowledge production seems to mean scouring the issues of the news with it and coming up with images and objects that bring their significance home in acute reality.

1 See Thomas McEvilley, 'Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief: "'Primitivism' in Twentieth-Century Art" at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984', Artforum, November 1984, and the subsequent exchange of lengthy polemical letters between MoMA curators William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe on the one hand and Thomas McEvilley on the other in Artforum, February and May 1985. This material has recently been republished in Bill Beckley, ed., Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics, Allworth Press, New York, 1998.

2 See Brenda Atkinson and Candice Breitz, eds., Gray Areas: Representation, Identity and Politics in Contemporary South African Art, Chalkham Hill Press, Johannesburg, 1999.