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Discussing Documenta XI

Part Two with Okwui Enwezer

By: Charles Giuliano - 09/18/2013

Click to Enlarge
Okwui Enwezer of Documanta XI.
Okwui Enwezer of Documanta XI.

December 20, 2000
Documenta XI
Part two

The past two versions of documenta were widely criticized for different reasons. The exhibition curated by the Belgian, Jan Hoet, documenta 9, in 1992, was viewed as a sprawling, unfocused spectacle. By contrast, documenta X of the French curator, Catherine David, was seen as didactic, theory driven, and austere. There were very few site specific works and she razed the temporary pavilions built for documenta 9, but created new gallery space in the train station, which connected to the main campus of the exhibition by a descending set of stairs through a shopping area.

“What can be the meaning and purpose of documenta today, at the close of this century, when similar large-scale exhibitions have been called into question, and often for very good reasons? It may seem paradoxical - or deliberately outrageous - to envision a critical confrontation with the present in the framework of an institution that over the past twenty years has become a mecca for tourism and cultural consumption. Yet the pressing issues of today make it equally presumptuous to abandon all ethical and political demands.

“In an age of globalization and of the sometimes violent social, economic, and cultural transformations it entails, contemporary artistic practices, condemned for their supposed meaninglessness or, ‘nullity.’ By the likes of Jean Baudrillard, are in fact a vital source of imaginary and symbolic representations whose diversity is irreducible to the (near) total economic domination of the real. The stakes here are no less political than aesthetic - at least if one can avoid reinforcing the mounting spectacularization and instrumentalization of ‘contemporary art’ by the culture industry, where art is used for social regulation or indeed control, through the aestheticization of information and forms of debate that paralyze any act of judgement in the immediacy of raw seduction or emotion (what may be called the ‘Benneton effect’)
“Overcoming the obstacles means seeking out the current manifestations and underlying conditions of a critical art which does not fall into a precut academic mold or let itself be summed up in a facile label. Such a project cannot ignore the upheavals that have occurred both in documenta’s institutional and geopolitical situation since the inaugural exhibition in 1955 and in the recent developments of aesthetic forms and practices. Nor can we shrink the necessary ruptures and changes in the event itself…” Catherine David, 1997


Charles Giuliano: You seemed very generous to Catherine David (in the two and a half hour lecture at MIT that preceded this interview) but you never mentioned Jan Hoet.

Okwui Enwezer I mentioned Jan Hoet.

CG No you didn’t. I was listening very carefully. But it seems that each documenta is a reaction to the one before much in the same way of the Whitney Biennials. The next one goes in the opposite direction. Jan Hoet’s was noted for its circus-like environment. Catherine David’s was very austere. Her catalogue seemed more important than the exhibition. I am interested in how you are going to install. For Jan Hoet there were temporary buildings and sightings around the Orangerie, out on the lawn. She had just two site specific pieces, the Carsten Holler/ Rosemarie Trockel pig farm, and the gypsy trailer. It was interesting, however, how she used the train station. You walked through the city.

OE I am glad your are describing the exhibition because you had the experience and remember three years after what you did see. It is a part of what Catherine, I do not say this just because I know Catherine, prior to my appointment, but simply to reassert the notion that an exhibition like documenta need not always create the atmosphere you describe for the traveler and the backpacker. Obviously, yes, her documenta was very politically and ideologically distancing itself from Jan Hoet’s documenta. I see that also as a part of a generational response. Of two kinds of experiences of art and if you know the history of Catherine’s prior exhibitions she has always been very stringent in terms of a structuralist approach in other exhibitions she’s made. But, to be fair to her, I believe that the exhibition she made was an exhibition that really demanded the attention, and the time of the public, and that is a very critical attempt to rescue the exhibition from what she saw to be its over spectacleurization. The scale of the exhibition working more with mega art works and so on to the expense of any kind of content in the work. This is not a critique of Jan Hoet, but yes, there are obvious differences. And even an attempt with her logo. D with an X. Which was a really important statement. I disagree that the book was more important than the exhibition.

In many respects I disagree and I have studied the book very carefully. There are moments in the book that are very interesting and engaging. But they are fragments. The book is not a discourse.

CG We made the effort at great personal expense in terms of time and money. Fortunately it was packaged with Munster (sculpture festival) so that made a nice twofer. But you got to Kassel and said, what’s this all about.

OE I want to say something to you now Charles, I will tease you now. (Laughs) Because you are treading on dangerous territory. There was a joke we made talking about Munster. In relationship to the Super Bowl. I watch the Super Bowl sometimes. They say to the person who has won the MVP, now that you have won the Super Bowl, where would you go. The answer is Disney World. So it seemed like the Super Bowl (documenta) as a place for punishment and Disney World ( Munster) as a place for recuperation. By extension, now that you have gone through the bruising punishment of documenta X (laughs) you go the Disney World of Munster. But I think there is a crucial difference between Munster and documenta. In their prior histories and so on. They do two different things and of course, documenta X did not engage the city in the way that other documentas have done. Or Jan Hoet had done with temporary buildings, which was fantastic with temporary buildings. Catherine wanted somehow to bring people inside and she created more space for people to meet and talk and discuss. By all accounts, I felt that her strategy really worked.

CG Are you being political?

OE No I’m not.

CG Are you being sincere?

OE Yes

CG You truly believe this?

OE Like any argument you propose one cannot just inhale it in total. It was not all good. But with all the criticisms of the exhibition, I think you should give her a little credit.

CG Do you think in some sense that your appointment was motivated as an antidote to that experience?

OE I have always tried to answer the reason for my appointment and I have never come up with any adequate answer. Is it is it not? I have no idea. It is done in secrecy. Six people are invited to submit a project. Which they come to defend with a panel of experts in a number of days.

CG I think there was a sense of surprise and shock when you were appointed. I think that is fair and honest to say.

OE Sure, there was a sense of surprise, when Catherine was appointed also. (laughs) So maybe they were keeping the tradition of surprises. Yes, and it is completely fair to say that.

CG You were shocked.

OE Yes, delightfully so. Yes, I was shocked.

CG What did you feel.

OE I was completely exhausted, from going back and forth to where the interview or inquisition took place. They confine you to your hotel room because they may call you back. But it was a sense of relief and exhilaration.

CG Did you present them some ideas.

OE Of course, all the people who were invited to present.

CG What was the concept you presented.

OE I will not tell you. I am forbidden, legally, by documenta to say so. We will see it in the exhibition. (laughs)

CG How will you use the city. Will I feel compelled that I must go to Kassel? Which is not a great place to go to.

OE It is a matter of how you see the city. Beginning with this brief history of documenta (subject of his lecture at MIT) and its relationship to Kassel. The historical dimension of the city, its involvement with culture. It is a fascinating place. People go to Bayreuth, for Wagner, and Weimar, for Goethe, and all these sorts of things. It is important to see that sometimes you may not want to see the city. You can not use the city as a neutral site. It is a very paradoxical place. Germany is not an easy place to go and just dot art around the city. Especially for somebody like me who has a consciousness of the history, who is not in any way dissolved by the sheer aesthetic force of the art work. You must be very careful when you invite artists to make interventions in the landscape that they do understand what the landscape represents and what they are saying. Does that mean that we are not going to have projects in the city? No, but we have to be very careful.

CG How do you plan to link the sites? You have the Friedericianum, the Train Station, the Neue Gallerie, the Orangerie, documenta-Halle. How do you physically connect those sites and make it feel like a whole exhibition?

OE That is the largest challenge of the show we are going to present.

CG Is that a consideration for you?

OE Of course, if you are going to have works dispersed in different places, conceptually, you have to continually test, how you go from one point to the other. Site specific work outside, or inside, buildings, so we really have to find a connection.


CG You also have water in the adjoining canal.

OE Isn’t it very nice to walk about even though you say Kassel is not a very interesting city (laughs).

CG For one thing it is hard to get to Kassel.

OE Not any more. Kassel is literally in the center of Germany. With the ICE train from Frankfurt it is one hour and twenty minutes. It takes about two hours to go from New York to Bard College. And then it is impossible to find anything there. Fly to Frankfurt and you can catch a direct train. Last time Deutsche Bahn, the train company, was a sponsor of documenta, so tickets to documenta were sold in every train station in Germany. You could buy a documenta ticket and a train ticket to Kassel.

CG In your discussion of the history of documenta you characterized some of the earlier ones as, “The expressionist one,” or, “The…” How is your documenta going to be characterized.

OE Since we still have 18 months to go, it is difficult to say what it will look like.

CG What is the dominating theme. The whole point of the Platforms is intriguing but I am trying to connect the dots. You have the four platforms.

OE Five platforms. Number five is the exhibition in Kassel. Number one is “Democracy Unrealized”. In Vienna. (March, 2001) It has three parts: Vienna, London and Berlin. Platform Two is Experiments with Truth. “Transitional Justice and the Process of Reconciliation”. That's in New Delhi, May 7 to 14, of 2001. Then, in November, we deal with the idea of “Creolite”. As an ethic of modernity not as hybridity. If we are to take the idea that the world is in the process of creoleization then we are not dealing with issues of hybridity but with issues of contact between culture, but, within that, you have a kind of resistance to localism, which insists upon the production of a very specific cultural ethic out of which everything emerges. In which the larger world is engaged. It is in American culture, which is something that people always speak about. What is that? What is American culture. It is an idea that comes from a manifesto written by three Martinique intellectuals in 1989. So this is where some of these ideas are explored and we want to critically engage this question. Because in the discussion of globalization we often make this hybrid relationship to globalization and we want to say that this is in fact not the case always. Because, how do you have a productive resistance to globalization that is not reactionary, but is critical to understanding the operation of how the paradigms continue to thrive, and continue to produce very complex cultural patterns, that are not easily commodified, or assimilated by global tendencies. So this is what we want to explore, and we want to use as a test case a very small island to do this. So, that’s three. The fourth one is in Lagos, “Under Siege”. Will take place in Lagos, Nigeria. Four African cities under siege. Freetown, Kinshasa, Capetown and Lagos. We are exploring not urbanism or architecture but the social conditions in which cities under enormous social stress reconstitute themselves. Certainly, if you look at Johannseburg, with crime, or the collapse of infrastructure in Lagos. There are so many things that we can begin to play with. So, we will invite architects, urban planners, anthropologists, artists, philosophers, to grapple with this question.

CG In what sense are you accountable to documenta. You talked about facing the inquisition.

OE Their job ceases after I am appointed. I don’t want to presume that everything rests in my hands, but I am not answerable to anyone as far as the exhibition is concerned. No one. That’s the way it was constructed. It’s Germany and it’s really about maintaining the integrity of the project. Of course, if I am going to light a fuse under the museum that is a different issue. But as long as we are talking about the exhibition, the city and the governing body, the supervisory board of documenta, which also includes many prominent local citizens, they are clearly supportive of the vision of the artistic director. Nobody wants to tamper with that.




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