The Last Hundred Days

Peter Wollen

  • Documenta 11

Late in August I visited Documenta 11, the most recent version of the mega-exhibition that has been held in the German city of Kassel since 1955, when Arnold Bode, a professor of art at the Kassel Academy, decided to organise an international art show. It achieved such success that it soon became a crucial element of Kassel’s character as a city, once the arms industry had gone. Documenta 11 dominated Kassel, filling the 18th-century Museum Fridericianum and its adjoining buildings; the nearby Orangerie and the Karlsaue park with its lawns and paths and ornamental lake, home to a host of temporary pavilions and installations; the disused hulk of the Binding Brewery, now converted into an art palace accessible by free Documenta bus; and the city’s central railway station, the Hauptbahnhof, renamed the Kulturbahnhof in 1995, its waiting rooms miraculously transformed into gallery spaces. Finally, a particularly eccentric outpost, Thomas Hirschhorn’s plywood and packing tape temple in honour of Georges Bataille, was erected in the middle of a low-income housing project.

Documenta, whose original mission had been to celebrate Germany’s new postwar identity and the transnational role of Kassel as a centre of culture, has now become an amazingly successful showcase for art from every corner of the world. Documenta 11 was a massive show, running for a hundred days and featuring more than a hundred artists. The show’s artistic director, Okwui Enwezor, recently published an explanatory essay entitled ‘Mega-Exhibitions and the Antinomies of a Transnational Global Form’, originally given as a lecture in Berlin last December, noting the problematic relationships that necessarily exist between ‘globalism’, in the loose sense of providing a showcase for artists from many different countries all over the world, and ‘globalisation’, in the particular sense of the subordination of local cultures to global capitalism and media technologies.

Essentially, Enwezor’s essay is pivoted on a subtle distinction that, he feels, needs to be made between a showcase for artists and a ‘spectacle’, in the sense in which that term was used by the Situationists in their attacks on the society of the spectacle. Enwezor argues that a large-scale global exhibition should and could be built on the foundation of a multitude of artworks which responded to local conditions in many countries worldwide, and thereby challenged the homogenising tendency of the dominant culture industry. At the same time, he worries that ‘carnivalesque’ – the world turned upside-down – and ‘counter-hegemonic practices and cultures’ might be reintegrated into the global culture industry and, implicitly, the global art market. His problem, as artistic director, was to find works that were local in their content but, at the same time, directed attention towards the problematic relationship between global and local, hegemonic and counter-hegemonic. In this context, Enwezor made a particular effort to produce a show that would feature artists, video and film-makers, and collectives from all over the world, whose work drew attention to the problems they faced within their own countries and communities.

I was particularly struck by the dominance of works made by artists who were hitherto quite unknown to me. Pavel Braila, for instance, exhibited a film, shot on digital video and then transferred to 16mm, Shoes for Europe, which documents the complicated passage of a train from Moldova, Braila’s country of origin, to Romania and the West, via the border town of Ungheni. Because the railway tracks have different gauges in the former Soviet Union and in Romania and Western Europe, each train has to be lifted two metres above the tracks in Ungheni so the old set of wheels can be replaced by a new set with a different gauge before the train is lowered again onto the Romanian track. It snows throughout this slow and complex procedure. Meanwhile, as the work crew wrestle with their task, man with machine, the passengers are shown lifted up in the carriages. In another video, A Season Outside, made by the Indian documentarist Amar Kanwar, we see the border crossing between India and Pakistan at Wagha, the site of a symbolically aggressive display of military drill by troops on both sides – performances of confrontation. This is followed by gripping footage of Tibetan refugees crossing the border into India, adopting passive resistance in the face of military crowd control, while the film-maker is reminded of dimly remembered passages from the writings of Tolstoy and Gandhi.

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