Florian Cramer on Wed, 14 Aug 2002 20:55:24 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Josephine Bosma, review of Documenta XI

[written by Josephine Bosma]

Documenta XI:  no laughing matter

It was as if nature decided to complete the experience the curators of
Documenta XI seemed to be creating for us. It rained and rained in
Kassel and the rest of Germany when we were there. Streets were flooded
and the temperature was way below what it should be in summer. One of
the world's most leading art events can be described with one word:
depressing. The most positive thing one can say about this Documenta
probably is its openness to artists that are not white, male and

Documenta XI is depressing for three reasons (I am not even counting the
curators' ignorance of current new media art). Firstly: the amount of
documentary works and sad contemplations on the fate of second or third
world people was truly over the top. There was an overkill of (somehow
disguised) preaching which made one either grow irritated or totally
uninterested after a while. Secondly, at Documenta XI the struggle
around how to define art seems to have been lost in favor of anything
that confirms our unfortunate and inescapable First World bad
consciousness. One can tell the main curator Enwezor studied political
science and has no background in art. It looks like critic Dave Hickey
is right when he says (in a quote in a New York Times article): "It's
basically a Protestant view of art". This is the Documenta of mostly
useful art, almost everything has meaning and purpose. Enwezor's need to
preach and teach then leads to the third, most poignant reason for
depression: Documenta XI is above all dead and dead serious. There is
very little humor or anything else ridiculous, useless or grotesque.  

Of course it is a relief to see a major art show which somehow reflects
the way the world is opening up. It sounds cliché, but communication
technologies and mass media culture  -have- brought us closer together.
Cultures have slowly started to mix and good taste is no longer defined
by one or two elites but by many. We see each others faults better too.
One of the things this Documenta seems to want to be is what its name
implies: a -document- of these changes, a confirmation even maybe. But
it does so in a highly predictable, lecturing way. As I said, this is
the Documenta of documentaries, of useful 'art'. A video about a prison
in Uganda (Zarina Bhimji), found footage with images of aboriginals
re-edited (Destiny Beacon), a documentary about eskimo's (Igloolik Isuma
Productions), so called 'new forms of cinema' (see earlier Documenta
review by Lev Manovich) showing the situation around illegal immigrants
in the USA (Chantal Akerman), a documentary installation about the
tragic death of illegal immigrants (Multiplicity), documentaries on
black communities (Black Audio Collective) and a number of works in
which artists contemplate on themselves or their background (Pascale
Marthine Tayou, Mona Hatoum, Eija Liisa Antilla, Fiona Tan) are mixed
with grim looking pieces like an Iranian shop covered in tar (?)
(Chohreh Feyzdjou), dolls in colonial cloths in all kinds of sexual
positions (Yinka Shonibare), a room covered in soot (Artur Barrio),
black or brown paintings (Leon Golub, Glenn Ligon), black and white
films of empty or gloomy spaces (Stan Douglas, Jef Geys) and a labyrinth
with 12 signs of depression (Ken Lum). The relatively large number of
photo collections made the impression of Documenta as literal document
of our times even stronger. 

Documenta XI is not just dominated by documentary works and melancholy
or sadness. What is rather puzzling at this Documenta is the odd
presence of certain 'old favorites' in the exhibition. One wanders from
room to room filled with what I described above and then suddenly,
slightly lost, there is a space filled with works by Louise Bourgois,
Hanne Darboven, Dieter Roth, Constant or On Kawara. As again Manovich
has reported earlier, it seems like some even got a retrospective. Even
if these artists have made very interesting work (the unique Constant
exhibition within another exhibition was a nice surprise) seeing them
here made one wonder why specifically these artists were chosen (did a
stubborn sub-curator squeeze them in?). At first sight their work did
not seem to make much sense within what I would call the 'Documenta XI
message'. Also interesting works by 'newer' artists or artist groups
(Shirin Neshat, Steve McQueen, Atlas Group, Ryuji Miyamoto, James
Coleman, Mark Manders, Tsunamii.net, Nari Ward, Simparch, maybe even
John Bock!) got branded by their presence within this context. The
political brainwash of the rest of the exhibition is so strong that it
overpowers all works and leaves one with very little room for
interpretation. The question then haunts you: what makes the work of
these artists fit between the other works? Is it because they are
somehow documentaries or analyses (tsunamii.net, James Coleman, On
Kawara, Hanne Darboven), because the work is made of leftovers (thus a
sign of our decadence) and trash (Nari Ward, John Bock), because  the
work offers new perspectives or contemplations on the spaces we live in
(Simparch, Constant, Mark Manders, Ryuji Miyamoto) or simply because the
artists who made them are not white and make (again) contemplative,
melancholic pieces (Steve McQueen, Shirin Neshat)? Even if the works of
the latter two fits in this Documenta perfectly I don't think they
really benefit from it. 

The good intentions of the main curator, Okwui Enwezor, are beyond
doubt. But does he know what he is doing, one wonders. At a discussion
after a talk by Ravi Sundaram of the Sarai media collective Enwezor
started to talk about copyrights. He compared the notions of authorship
in Africa and the western world and decided that current copyright laws
needed to be changed as if he had just invented the very idea of it. The
way he talked seemed to reflect the impression I had gotten from the
exhibition perfectly. The Documenta XI curators are simply behind when
it comes to knowledge about art in media (which is where most copyright
issues occur and are battled over). It explains the overwhelming amount
of video art compared to the minimal presentation of art on computers
for instance. Walking through the exhibition spaces there were numeral
instances that I thought: "Wouldn't RTMark have said this much clearer?"
"Wouldn't the Electronic Disturbance Theatre, Heath Bunting or Critical
Art Ensemble represent this more appropriately?" "Wouldn't the Old Boys
Network be able to cheer this place up in the most suitable politically
correct way?". 
Tsunamii.net had been a pleasant surprise (even if the documentation
could have shown a bit more in this case! After the performance had
finished there was even less action at the Tsunamii site), but I was
disappointed about the Raqs Media Collective. The presentation of the
work "Co-Ordinates: 28.28N/77.15E : : 2001/2002" was very bland, even if
it was glossy. Apparently the collective tried to present or recreate
the streets of a large Indian city at the exhibition. A black space with
a few columns covered in glossy colorful stickers and some flat TV
screens showing crowds just didn't do the trick. On line the work looks
better, but to call it a solution for questions around authorship… that
seems a bit farfetched. Authorship is not a purely technical matter.
Another web art work by Andreja Kuluncic (who, according to the
catalogue made the most exposed Croatian web art today) requested for
the audience to upload files to the site, which was impossible from
Documenta. The work "Distributive Justice" is a good examply of old
fashioned critical net.art, done with better and faster technology. What
all three net art works share is a complexity that is often neglected in
selections of net art for large exhibitions. The works at Documenta XI
all extend beyond the web alone, and both "Co-Ordinates: 28.28N/77.15E :
: 2001/2002" and "Distributive Justice" ask for what I would call a more
intimate interactivity then the simple click of a mouse. 

This Documenta seems to be a message of change to all those who would
like to see art as something which represents the so called virtues of
the "free west". The problem is however that there are not that many
people who really believe in those virtues anyway, especially amongst
the European art audience. This message therefore only works on a meta
level. Maybe it would be better to see Documenta XI as an art work
itself, a project by the curators, whose message will probably resonate
for quite a while after this Documenta has closed. It seems fairly sure
that on the short term the Ars Electronica organizers were inspired by
it. Their next festival called "Unplugged" will deal with the
practically same theme (Does anyone still believe they really don't care
about connecting to the art world over there at Ars Electronica?  ;)). 


GnuPG/PGP public key ID 3200C7BA, finger cantsin@mail.zedat.fu-berlin.de

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