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Documenta XI

International Exhibition in Kassel Germany

By: Charles Giuliano - 09/18/2013

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Documenta 11 was organized by Okwui Enwezer.
Documenta 11 was organized by Okwui Enwezer.

Even though this week Platform Five, the hundred day long exhibition component of Okwui Enwezer’s vast and ambitious Documenta 11, officially closes in Kassel, Germany, on many critical levels, this marks not the end but rather a transitional moment in what is really an ongoing work in progress.

The four Platforms leading up to the exhibition itself- Democracy Unrealized, Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation, Creolite and Creolization, Under Siege: Four African Cities Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos- combined with the exhibition of more than 150 artists and its accompanying 618 page catalogue, represents such a vast amount of information and written and transcribed text, that it may indeed be many years before we fully absorb and utilize all of this vast resource of information.

This glut of material, beyond the scope of any individual, beyond Enwezer himself, has caused a major disruption in the usual process of critical writing. Art critics and journalists were overwhelmingly frustrated in trying to write about this eleventh version of the largest international art project/exhibition of its kind held every five years, with a current budget estimated at $20 million (or one to one with Euros). It is, in that sense, the super nova of the now ubiquitous biennials that are scattered all over the world. Writers like to feel that they have a handle on their topic. To formulate a succinct, well crafted, and definitive critique of an exhibition, project, or event. In this instance, that was clearly impossible. Not surprisingly, many of the responses have been harsh and negative, exactly as they were for the proceeding two versions of documenta. The prior one by Katherine David, the French curator, was attacked as cold and doctrinaire, a pretentious lecture or history lesson. Documenta 9, of Jan Hoet, the Belgian curator, was ridiculed for its circus like sense of vapid frivolity.

The most common reaction to Enwezer’s documenta, and its ambitious and complex series of Platforms bringing together scholars from many fields including but also other than art, is that it was more about sociology and politics and not much about art. That may indeed be true. It would appear that Enwezer has a more formidable mind than eye.

With my wife, Astrid, and her cousin, Horst Hiemer, an actor from Berlin, it took three days to work our way through the several sites of Platform Five. The sprawling campus at Kessel contained many powerful and unique works but also works that proved marginal and weak. The argument for many of these latter works had more to do with issues other than visual or aesthetic. There were many photographs and videos often of developing nations, social, political and environmental issues that failed to transcend the limits of documentation and journalism. If the content proved compelling one lingered but there was also the inclination to just move on.

During our second day, we made ever effort to “cover” the exhibition. This was an energy consuming, eight-hour effort also struggling with intensive heat. One refreshing reprieve was the opportunity to return by boat from the Brewery, the largest of the documenta sites, to the main campus. And, a conceptual work by Cildo Meireles proved to have a welcome and unexpected pragmatic application. There were a number of teenagers selling his “popsicles.” They were most anxious to explain his project. It entailed frozen water sticks in three different colored packages representing fresh water, salt water, and brackish water. For a Euro each we purchased and sucked on these refreshing but ephemeral works of art and also rubbed them on our foreheads and the backs of our necks.

It is ironic that this essay is datelined 9/11. We are discussing documenta just one year after the Attack on America. But Enwezer’s project, some five years in production, proved to be amazingly relevant to an art world that has changed dramatically and with great finality from what it was just a year ago. It contained precisely the social, political, environmental and global issues that one found absent from last Spring’s irrelevant and insulting Whitney Biennial which propagated the pathetic myth of art world business as usual.

Five years ago, Enwezer was hired precisely for the purpose of destroying the old hegemony, to recognize the singular efforts of established American and European artists addressing the relevant issues of our time, and also embracing the visions of the developing world, outsiders of every stripe, and the disenfranchised. On a lesser level, that tendency was already evident in the Documenta of David. That project was most memorable for making me aware of the early work of Michelangelo Pistoletto and the abstract artists of Brazil in the era of the Bossa Nova movement. That experience of Brazilian artists later turned up in some remarkable exhibitions including a survey of global conceptualism at MIT, as a component of the unjustly maligned Century City at Tate London, and the Guggenheim’s sprawling, uneven but fascinating Brazil show.
One of the stunning revelations of Documenta 11, for example, was an enormous installation of the visionary, architectural models of the Dutch artist, Constant, who was born in 1920. He was a member of the important Cobra group and co founder, with the French theorist, Guy Debord, of the seminal Situationist movement. This rarely seen work provided great insights and established this artist, before an international audience, as one of the most important artists of his generation. In addition to Constant’s there were other works by artists representing utopian models of buildings and cities as well as responses to urban crisis particularly in the developing world.

One measure of the anger and apathy of the establishment art world to this Documenta is that so much of the work proves to be uncollectable. There were few new art stars to be grabbed by major galleries. Miereles cleverly subverted this concept of art as commodity by selling his work for a single Euro. I saved several of the wrappers and sticks and plan to frame them. The framing will indeed entail more expense than the work but also enhance its value. Another clever work that focuses on the problems of art as commodity was the project of the German artist Maria Eichorn. She displayed the documents entailed in the legal establishment of a public company, the purpose of which is to generate no capital gain. It is the capitalist corollary of zero population growth. There are many companies that inadvertently suffer a similar fate but not deliberately.

The issues surrounding sales and appreciated value prove to be elitist and contribute to art’s limited audience. We are allowed to look but not touch or own. Unless we are wealthy. That is why I found the recent report on a work owned by Charles Saatchi, a self portrait head comprised of the artist’s frozen blood that accidentally melted, so hilarious. The collector had originally acquired the work for some $32,000 and, at the time of its demise, largely through the collector’s marketing strategies, the bloody object was estimated to be worth a couple of million. Saatchi was pissed. Cool.

We decided to spend our third day in Kassel just viewing videos and waiting to get into installations we missed the first time round. It has been estimated that it would have taken some 600 hours to see all of the videos. Clearly we experienced just a fraction of that in our eight hour day. This proved to be a very rewarding experience as we sat through some works in their entirety and moved after a shorter interval from works that were less absorbing. A stunning treasure was the work by Ravi Agarwal that narrated the tensions and daily life on the border between India and Pakistan. The multi monitor installation of Chantal Ackerman displayed many aspects of vigilante backlashes to Mexicans illegally crossing borders in the South West. There was a riveting treatment of Inuits hunting seals. We walked out on Stan Douglas and his surreal topic. Pavel Braila’s, Shoes of Europe, a narrative about railroads held our attention. The Shirin Neshat videos proved not to be working. But we did view a pioneering effort by Dieter Roth that entailed a double banked row of simulcast movie projectors. On a second visit it was out of order. There was also an installation of the entire content of the studio of this influential German artist who died in 1998. This was a ubiquitous theme as there were a number of cluttered studios on view. We wondered just what was the point of this.
Documentary video projects ranged from the horrors of Rawanda, a rare Iranian snowstorm, to a politically complex reaction and official denial, on multiple monitors, of the catastrophic sinking of a vessel with illegal migrants in the Mediterranean. Another highlight involved one of the first, Palestinian, black and white films. It was a work with primitive production values that narrated a drama of migrants attempting to illegally enter Kuwait in the hold of an empty water truck. Because of the glitch the three migrants suffocate and experience a horrific death while crossing the desert. It proved to be a riveting film.

While this project introduced many unfamiliar African, Asian and Latin American artists, there was also a fair representation of American and European art stars. The installations by such senior citizens as the polemical paintings of Leon Golub, and the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois, more than held their own in this context. There was a strong representation of African Americans: Adrian Piper, Glen Ligon, Renee Green, Nari Ward, and Lorna Simpson. An installation presented cartoonish drawings by Raymond Pettibon. A multi media installation by Joan Jonas honored one of the pioneers of that approach. David Small, from Cambridge, Mass., showed a provocative interactive video sculpture which viewers manipulate by floating and moving their hands over the surface. Alan Sekula’s documentary photo project on fisheries was given a generous portion of several large galleries. Ouatarra Watts, an African living in New York, showed big sprawling messy paintings that oddly made one long for Julian Schnabel. Gabriel Orozco, now a New Yorker, showed a table top of small, provocative objects/ sculptures.

There were mixed responses to works by some of the other international art stars. An installation by Mona Hatoum, seen in New York, and in her show at Mass MoCA, in Massachusetts held up strongly. A room dedicated to the French artist, Annette Messager, comprising stuffed animal and human parts, some of which were dragged around the space, was simply awful. I just never get the point of this artist’s work which always seems to suffer overkill. As Astrid commented, one Bourgeois stuffed head in a vitrine was more powerful than a room full of similar objects by Messager. A rounded stairwell, on three floors, was covered entirely with multiples of text by Hanne Darboven. More is more. Yawn. I unabashedly loved Candida Hofer’s large format, color photographs with multiple interpretations of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. And, the post colonial, 18th century, headless mannequins of sexually cavorting aristocrats, dressed in costumes made of colorful contemporary African fabrics, by London based, Yinka Shonibare, were just hilarious. But badly lit and poorly installed.

That seems to be an ongoing subtext to this exhibition. Some works held their space well while others sprawled all over out of proportion to their merit. Interesting works often seemed jammed into nooks and crannies or placed cheek to jowl with unlikely companions. The lighting tended to the generic unless it was a specific aspect of the work. As, for example, in a series of stunning, profoundly moving, backlit texts in a darkened room, by Alfredo Jaar, from which we emerged into a blinding light.
After three days of running about there were moments when the viewer indeed felt lost, abused and abandoned. This was not intended to be a user-friendly experience. Enwezer never considered that we have any comfort level. There was even a conspicuous absence of the most basic human amenities. Like finding a place to sit down, enjoy a snack en route, or even to pee.
The mood of this documenta was justfuggedahboutit. Ok. This was also about the death of art as we know it. Art as an idea and term may no longer apply in an emerging paradigm that comprises globalization, post colonialism, environment, and creolite. The Post 9/11 paradigm is less about art, or art making as we have known it, than the artist as creator and conduit for visual information. It makes art less of an elitist and exclusive enterprise. Nobody is going to buy up, corner the market, or speculate on this activity. In general, I embrace and applaud this idea. It implies an antidote to the greed and corruption that pervades the art world. And reconfigures the artist as an idealist, visionary and advocate of social and political change.

There is much to mull over and meditate. Indeed, there is a daunting critical mass for reading through cold winter nights. And, undoubtedly, this material will be mulled over and argued by hip graduate students, artists and curators. It will probably be ignored and ridiculed by gallerists and collectors. Just when we seem to get a handle on it, five years from now, it will be time to return once again to Kassel.

Reposted from Maverick Arts Magazine, September 11, 2002.

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