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.

The theme of borders and dislocation was repeated constantly in Documenta 11. Besides Shoes for Europe and A Season Outside there was also Chantal Akerman’s video work From the Other Side, commissioned by Documenta and shot on the Mexican-American border, and Shirin Neshat’s use of Iranian imagery in a film shot in the north of Mexico. But most extraordinary of all was the work created by Multiplicity, a Milan-based group of architects, TV producers, photographers, urban planners, geographers, sociologists and film-makers. They created a video installation with nine TV monitors, each showing a different interviewee giving an account of the collision of two vessels off the coast of Italy and its terrible repercussions: the wreck of a boat loaded with illegal immigrants, most of them Tamils from Sri Lanka, most of whom died. The interviewees included local fishermen, the police chief of Reggio Calabria, a survivor, relatives of the dead, and the captain of the Yiohan, the second ship involved in the collision. They give discrepant versions of what happened, whether it could have been prevented, and why the bodies were never retrieved. It gradually becomes clear that the true story can never be completely reconstructed. The captain of the Yiohan, a Lebanese sailor who had himself fled Lebanon because of war, sees the whole tragedy as being created by the war in Sri Lanka and the lack of governance in the Mediterranean, by the money involved in people-smuggling – $200,000 in the case of the wrecked boat – and the lack of interest shown by the local authorities. He wonders who to blame – arms-dealers, traders, ‘terrorists who are friends with the European authorities’ – and concludes: ‘We sailors must live in this Mediterranean . . . We sailors are slaves of this Mediterranean.’ As the viewer’s attention passes from one monitor to another, one soundtrack to another, the disaster becomes more and more complex, more and more difficult to comprehend. One thing at least is clear: it is the fate of migrants to be subject to commodification, extortion and the risk of death.

The dominant trend in Documenta 11, exemplified by these works, was one of obsession with information, documentation and research. Georges Adéagbo, from Benin, developed a project in which he displayed an eclectic array of books and newspapers and images – paintings and photographs, all relevant to the contemporary history of Africa – laid out on the floor and on the walls in a kind of cross between a library, a gallery and a museum. Issues of Le Monde, record albums by Fela Ransom Kuti, Mozart and the Kings of Soul, books on Le Droit de travail africain and Economie de développement, were exhibited alongside sculptures, picture postcards and political posters. In a different but related vein, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, from the Ivory Coast, exhibited cards with coloured symbols on them, surrounded by interpretative texts based on his own self-made hermeneutic system, creating a symbolic iconography, an ever-expanding text. In many of the documentary films and videos there was a similar tendency, with emphasis on the gap between what happened and what is recorded – the contradictory and incomplete stories in the Multiplicity installation, for instance.

For Enwezor, the crucial problem was defining the role of what Arjun Appadurai, in Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation, has called the ‘diasporic public sphere’. In Enwezor’s words, the diasporic ‘delineates late modernity’s transnational, transcultural, post-colonial and global attitudes’ and, by doing so, ‘shows us, in a paradoxical sense, both the limits of identity discourse and the fate of all Leitkulturen’ – the ‘lead cultures’ of host nations, such as Germany, to which immigrant identities should supposedly be subordinated – ‘in the wake of the mass mobility of not only people travelling beyond home, nation, race, ethnicity and continent but also all forms of migratory knowledge, cultural iconography, artistic objects, contemporary subjectivities and the networks of their distribution, mediation and interpretation’. In this context, Enwezor clearly sees Documenta 11 as a site in which ‘lead cultures’ are largely disregarded in order to make space for art that represents the ‘diasporic public sphere’, both as an inevitable feature of globalisation and as a development running counter to the hegemonic assumptions of the global elites: a public sphere that is a context for experiment and innovation as well as political protest.

Enwezor’s perceived bias towards little-known artists from distant corners of the globe seems to have earned him condescending and scurrilously ad hominem coverage from the New York press. At the same time, of course, Enwezor has included a number of European and US-based artists in Documenta 11. Twenty of them are based in New York, including Louise Bourgeois, Leon Golub, Alfredo Jaar, On Kawara, Glenn Ligon, Shirin Neshat, Gabriel Orozco, Adrian Piper and Lorna Simpson, all of whom are widely recognised and esteemed. A smaller number are based on the West Coast, including Allan Sekula and Raymond Pettibon in California, together with Stan Douglas, Ken Lum and Jeff Wall, all born and based in Vancouver. London fared well, too, with artists such as Kutlug Ataman, Mona Hatoum, Isaac Julien, Steve McQueen and Yinka Shonibare; while Pierre Huyghe, Annette Messager and others are Paris-based. Germany was represented by a number of established artists, such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Hanne Darboven, Maria Eichhorn and Dieter Roth.

They were clearly outnumbered, however, by artists from faraway places with very little track-record in the established art world – Benin, Chile, Croatia, Cuba, Finland, Indonesia, Iran, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Moldova, Nunavut, Singapore, the Torres Straits, Uruguay, Zaire. In my view, the outsiders – and some of the work was close to ‘outsider art’ – stood their ground well against the insiders. Sometimes, unexpected cross-references emerged: the ‘outsider art’ dimension of Hanne Darboven’s work, posited on the endless serial accumulation of numbers, suddenly suggested a kinship with that of Bruly Bouabré. Similarly, On Kawara seemed to share obsessive traits with Ecke Bonk, who randomly selected and projected a cycle of words taken from the 300,000 entries listed in the great dictionary compiled by the Brothers Grimm, who lived and worked in Kassel between 1815 and 1830.

Of course, that the work of lesser-known artists dominated the exhibition does not in itself indicate a global shift in the world of art. It would be more accurate to describe the exhibition as having taken an unusual opportunity to make the marginal central in a number of unexpected ways, provoking the viewers – mostly local groups from Germany, but also enthusiastic or disgruntled art-world professionals – into recognising that globalisation can be reconfigured, at least within art, to change the balance of power between centre and periphery. Documenta 11 raises issues concerning the role of marginal, local and idiosyncratic artists whose aesthetic strategies, consciously or not, suggest new ways of making and presenting art, which in many cases directly challenge conventional art-world assumptions, systems of evaluation and views of the global role of mega-exhibitions.

Indeed, critics and curators with whom I have talked about the show often expressed confusion, seeing Documenta 11 as an unstructured lucky dip within which the viewer might find a few islands of stability but a great many more archipelagos of uncertainty and confusion; a few major works but a great many more minor works with an obsessive attachment to particularity and a disregard for conventional aesthetics, which are replaced by a spirit of documentary reportage, investigative journalism and idiosyncratic record-keeping. Take the Atlas Group, an imaginary foundation set up ‘to research and document the contemporary history of the Lebanon’. The group is devoted to creating an archive comprising both ‘authored’ and ‘found’ documents and files. One project concerned the activity of a group of gamblers – gamblers who bet not on which horse would win, but on the precise number of fractions of a second between the time the winning horse crossed the finish line and the time the frame of the horse finishing was actually exposed by the photographer, who would make the exposure, in most cases, just too early or just too late. A designated ‘historian’ also made it his job to write character sketches of the gamblers who, it turned out, each belonged to a different and rival political faction – Maronite, Marxist, Islamist, Socialist etc – between whom there was sharp competition. The relevant documents – the saved images and the descriptions of the winning gamblers – were filed and archived and, if the opportunity arose, as it did with Documenta 11, exhibited. The ‘historian’, Dr Fakhouri, was, we were told, avuncular rather than domineering, adept at the well-timed humorous aside to defuse tension, and thus able to collaborate happily with his diverse group of gamblers.

In another project, the Atlas Group archived photographs of every single car exploded by a car bomb in Beirut between 1975 and 1991, a total of 145 images. Another tape, supposedly received by the Group in the post, contained images of sunsets over the Mediterranean, probably taken over a period of years by a security officer whose job it was to monitor events on the Corniche. Yet another project concerned a tape of the experience of a Lebanese hostage held in captivity in Beirut for three months with five Americans. As with other Atlas Group projects, watching the tape is an extraordinary, even hilarious experience, undercut by the growing suspicion that the whole thing must be a carefully contrived hoax.

Whatever the true status of the documents archived by the Atlas Group, there is no doubt that they create a vivid sense of the fragility of civil society in Lebanon, the political intrigues, the bitter animosities, the breakdown of law and order. In this context, pseudo-documentary – fictional filing and archiving – can create a sense of the texture of everyday Lebanese life that is undoubtedly more effective than conventional journalistic techniques. As in many of the works in Documenta 11, the truth hovers between documentation and dramatic fiction. As with the work by Multiplicity, there is no certainty about what actually happened, but the viewer still receives a very clear sense of the circumstances in which tragedies took place. In a similar vein, Luis Camnitzer, a Uruguayan artist now living in New York, exhibited a set of apparently innocuous photographs called the Uruguayan Torture Series, each of which was accompanied by a handwritten English sentence. A photograph of a half-filled glass of water was underscored by the words, ‘He feared thirst’; another image, of battered feet in open sandals, by the words: ‘He couldn’t feel what he saw nor could he see what he felt.’

The established art world will continue to believe, no doubt, that in the long run conventional values will prevail and Documenta 11 will be dismissed as a temporary aberration, failing to reach the high standards endorsed by powerful critics, richly rewarded dealers and ambitious museum curators and directors. Of course, this may be the outcome: Enwezor’s Documenta 11 may be remembered as an event with more of a political than an artistic character, easily marginalised and dismissed. On the other hand, perhaps it will be remembered, in Enwezor’s own terms, not simply as a mega-spectacle, but also as a carnivalesque extravaganza, with the carnivalesque ultimately winning out over the spectacular. If the show had a weakness, it lay in its excessive media-consciousness, its leaning towards film and video and digital effects. Yet, looked at in another way, it can be seen as having celebrated the use of media to challenge the spectacle, to show what has been overlooked and to take a political and aesthetic stand.

Documenta 11 was a show with a traceable past and it will, I believe, have a future. The relevant past began, perhaps, with the interest in ‘World Music’ that sprang up during the 1980s; but in the art world, too, Documenta 11 has a clear ancestry, beginning with Magiciens de la terre, the show organised by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Centre Pompidou in 1989. Eight artists from Magiciens were represented in Enwezor’s Documenta – Bruly Bouabré, Louise Bourgeois, Stanley Brouwn, Alfredo Jaar, On Kawara, Isek Kingelez, Juan Muñoz and Jeff Wall. Yet Magiciens was dismissed by a leading New York critic, in my hearing, as reminiscent of a ‘Tokyo Airport giftshop’. Eight years passed before Enwezor curated Trade Routes in Johannesburg, featuring as many as a quarter of the artists who later appeared in Documenta 11. Soon afterwards, in 1999, came Global Conceptualism, for which Enwezor curated the African section, featuring Bouabré, Kendell Geers and William Kentridge, a painter and animated film-maker from Johannesburg – a kind of expressionistic Lotte Reiniger – working, in the film shown in Kassel, with shadow-puppets and a voice-over evoking both the Great War and the Freudian couch.

In 2001, Enwezor directed The Short Century, a retrospective show of African artists, travelling through a number of European cities before arriving at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. This exhibition featured many artists who later reappeared in Documenta 11, including Bouabré and Kingelez as well as John Akomfrah, a member of the Black Audio Film Collective and director of Handsworth Songs, a breakthrough documentary of the Handsworth riots intercut with a series of interviews. Documenta 11 also drew artists from its immediate predecessor, Catherine David’s groundbreaking Documenta 10 – Enwezor has indicated that he carefully studied David’s priorities and choices before embarking on his own selection. The result was an exhibition with a central core established within a clear curatorial tradition, but approached from an innovative new angle.

Documenta 11 showed that unrenowned artists from marginalised countries had much to contribute, both in form and in content. It made clear that there was room in a mega-exhibition both for drawings and paintings, for conceptual and installation art, for media work as well as conceptual art and architectural models, from Isaac Julien’s beautiful new film, Paradise/Omeros, made in collaboration with Gaby Agis and Derek Walcott, to Maria Eichhorn’s work – a contract ceding itself to a company created for that purpose, with Enwezor as principal director – and Kingelez’s phantasmagoric model of a future Manhattan (see previous page), with new ornate structures replacing the lost twin towers. Documenta 11 revealed the power of art to alarm, shock and move, across a spectrum running from Allan Sekula’s ‘iconography of labour’ in Fish Story to Steve McQueen’s anguished descent into one of the deepest goldmines in the world, with its mechanical noises, claustrophobic images and exhausted subjects; from Glen Ligon’s black on black painting of a paragraph from a James Baldwin essay to Chohreh Feyzdjou’s smearing of black pigment on jars and boxes that contain the scrolled text of her autobiography. As Enwezor envisaged, many ‘new relations of spectatorship’ were introduced, relations which drew on the tragic and the carnivalesque, the uncanny and the political, challenging deep preconceptions about the scope of art.