brian holmes on Sun, 18 Aug 2002 01:44:05 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The (anti-)CNN Documenta

Now that the authorized version of Josephine Bosma's Documenta complaint
is published on Rhizome, it may be interesting to read Kim Levin's review
from the Village Voice. Despite or because of the title, I think Levin's
review is spot on.

Each to their own. Documenta 11 is, basically, the first megashow that
strikes me as being worth all the resources, the first to engage me
totally without feeling like I had to recite the lessons of art history or
fake the latest attitude, the latest theoretical chic. This exhibition
realizes what the last one promised: cracking the borders, laying it all
out on the table. We're not just talking about name-brands from beyond the
conventional who's who. We're talking about full-fledged, contemporary
intellectuals, subjectivities, sensibilities, each time at grips in unique
ways with situations that are specific to some region, nation, tradition
of the globe, yet are also recognizably part of this world that I can
never know well enough, that I can never understand fully enough in all
its historical realities and exceptions, at this moment when it could all
be lost. Calin Dan - you really oughta go check this one out. I'm not sure
we're talking about ideology, or boredom either.

"But there isn't enough new media art." My opinion: the Internet has been
great for activism, and for communication of the most unexpected kinds.
But along with all the new media, it's been great for revealing the
beauties of everyone's cute little navel too. What else does the
"attention economy" come down to, in 2002? Hot air in the stock market,
and new versions of the autonomous art work entranced with its own
definition. Thank God for new media, without which the art-school crowds
would hardly have been able to take that old pseudo-avant-garde schlock
seriously. Meanwhile, the world heads for global civil war and a bunch of
blahzay specialists in navel-gazing think that this exhibition is
depressing! Well, little babies, I'm sure you will have a lovely future,
because the privileged usually do. Just don't breathe the air or use the
public transportation.

The idea that the many different engagements with video that you can see
at D11 are based on some naive belief in the medium's ontological realism
is just a perfect example of the uses of LitCrit 1A as a self-defense
mechanism. Trot out the old lessons about the "representational fallacy"
and then get back to making your Flash films, daddy Lev will give you a
good mark and some promotion if you need it. But representation is a
little more difficult than such abysmal simplifications.

"Depressing" is the opposite of "catchy," right? Pop as in popular for the
artsy set? I want to quote Sean Cubitt, writing about the people who've
been tenacious enough to contribute to Third Text over the years: "The
alibis offered by much contemporary cultural studies - that what the
people like cannot be wholly bad - have rarely convinced its authors, who
fear too much the act of representation, by which is understood not just
depiction but the political system of speaking on the behalf of another.
The struggle to speak for ourselves is too precious to be lost in enjoying
being spoken fluently by the professional elites." What I saw at Documenta
- outside a relatively small number of disappointing concessions to the
gallery-museum system - were talented and determined people taking up the
double challenge of refusing representation either by the vested interests
of the so-called autonomous-art-world, or by the commercial information
media that purport to tell us what to think about yesterday's coup. These
are artists making a sustained effort, squarely from within their own
field, to out-do the primary supplier of human consciousness today, which
is TV. And personally, I admire people that have managed to divert a chunk
of political-economy as big as Documenta, to make it into a multilayered,
endlessly diversifying, consciousness-expanding opponent to the bottomless
pit of what now passes for "info-tainment" - or art, for that matter.

I'm not a proselytizer. I'm interested in autonomy - not the absolute
autonomy of the art work, but the relative, fraught autonomy of artists
and other people who try to oppose what's insane and dangerous, I mean
dangerously unconscious, in the world today. The thing that struck me most
at Documenta 11 was seeing some knee-jerk technocratic manager flanked by
a bunch of cops chasing off the Publix Theater/No Border Caravan from out
in front of a show which counts the contemporary capitalist border regime
as one of its obsessive themes. The irony is all the greater when you know
that the Kein Mensch ist illegal movement first came together at Documenta
X. The scene in front of the Fridericianum reinforced my own belief that
the message ultimately has to be brought by people outside the
institutional walls of art, however fantastically useful and precise and
touching and mind-blowing what's inside those walls may be.

Each to their own. Take your ontological realism where it really resists.

Brian Holmes

The quote from Sean Cubitt is hot off the presses from _The Third Text
Reader on Art, Culture and Theory_. And here comes the review from -

The CNN Documenta 
Art in an International State of Emergency 
by Kim Levin
July 3 - 9, 2002 

The first Documenta of what artistic director Okwui Enwezor calls "an
already less than promising century" is elegant, intelligent, and sleekly
installed. The curatorial vision is generous, complex, and remarkably
coherent. The art is relevant and political, exactly as the eloquent
Enwezor had promised.

Updating the founder's original intent, which was to bring to post-war
Germany the latest developments in modern art from the rest of Europe,
Documenta 11 (which continues through September 15) brings to Europe the
latest developments from the rest of the struggling, globalizing,
postcolonial world. Jan Hoet's Documenta IX missed its historic chance to
bring new art from the former Soviet empire into the fold in 1992.
Catherine David's Documenta X in 1997 talked the talk about inclusion, but
flubbed it with exclusionist hauteur. Enwezor, with a team of six
co-curators, delivers on his promise.

He delivers all too well. The advance list, studded with big-name artists,
provoked expectations of a safe, low-risk show. The exhibition, however,
stuns viewers into silence. With curatorial intelligence, it connects a
plethora of unanticipated dots. It succeeds in bringing issues of
genocide, poverty, political incarceration, industrial pollution,
earthquake wreckage, strip-mine devastation, and news of fresh disasters
into the inviolable white cube. With 415 works by 180 artists from five
continents, a large percentage commissioned for the occasion, the show
alludes to hostages, captives, witnesses, perpetrators, illegal
immigrants, and truth commissions. It explores the representation of
border disputes, contested territories (such as Pakistan/India or
Palestine/Israel), and collapsing urban space. Nasty metal bed frames,
used every which way, are a leitmotiv in an exhibition in which the most
effective aesthetic strategy is often the use of photojournalistic and
documentary formats. And before you fault certain works for rampant
exoticism, consider that the local color signifies, as Enwezor has noted,
"not an elsewhere but a deep entanglement." As Sarat Maharaj, one of the
co-curators, puts it, this Documenta negotiates "the tension between the
foreign and the familiar in the xenographic space that is Europe today."

The show pits architectural dreams of the urban future (by Dutch visionary
Constant, Zairean fantasist Bodys Isek Kingalez, Cuban idealist Carlos
Garaicoa) against images of structural and social failure in the very
imperfect present. It turns messy studio accumulations by Dieter Roth and
Ivan Kozari´c into a foil for Georges Adéagbo's equally cluttered but far
more politicized accumulation of street-smart stuff encompassing the
history of African exploration and exploitation. And, attempting to come
to terms with unbearable imminence, this Documenta intersperses
universalizing delusions of quantification—On Kawara's One Million Years
(read out loud for 100 days), Hanne Darboven's endless pages, Bernd and
Hilla Becher's inventory of industrial-zone images, Ecke Bonk's scrolling
dictionary—with works about excruciating and hideously specific far-flung
local particularities, including Zarina Bhimji's filmic return to Uganda
and William Kentridge's latest war-torn animation, which aims straight for
the tear ducts. Foregrounding the politics of representation, it amplifies
all kinds of instabilities—cultural, social, and structural collapse—and
provokes dialogues among works by artists, such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila,
Isaac Julien, and Shirin Neshat, who previously seemed to have little in

Of course the international artworlders swarming through Kassel didn't
remain silent for long. By the third preview day, petty complaints began
to surface. "It's political, it's gutsy, it's the kind of show you want to
like," waffled an art dealer. "It's got no humor.  Nothing made me laugh
or even smile," complained a critic from Central Europe. "As an Asian
woman I am completely excluded," griped a museum board member from Taipei,
accusing Nigerian-born and -bred Enwezor of being part of the Westernized
elite. "I just wish," said a collector plaintively, "that the art world
would stop being CNN."

Political correctness? Not exactly. The first works that confront you in
the Fridericianum, formerly the main exhibition space, are Leon Golub's
menacing canvases about abuse of power, uneasily sharing a gallery with
Doris Salcedo's brutalized chairs. Across the hall is an overwhelming
installation of brutally blackened crates, bundles, trunks, jars, and
racks of rolled drawings—capable of vanquishing perennial Documenta ghost
Joseph Beuys—by the late Chohreh Feyzdjou, an Iranian-born Jew.

But this Documenta's decentralized heart is the vast old Binding Brewery,
which houses the newest, largest, and sometimes most gratuitous works,
including Simparch's skateboard pit. Louise Bourgeois's crumpled rag dolls
in cells are sadly upstaged by Annette Messager's overblown installation
of kinetic stuffed body parts, which drags one inert beast endlessly
around its periphery. Mark Manders's anti-Eden of android Adams, lab rats,
and crematorium apparatus is portentous and pretentious. Fabian
Marcaccio's vast virtual mural—swarming with panicky urbanity, bloody
brush strokes, and other ropy mutations of the painterly, the
photographic, and the digital—wins hands down for raw acreage as well as
excess of garbled global relevance. Yinka Shonibare's grand-tour tableau,
an orgy of fornicating imperialists, may be blatant but it gets the
essential question of this Documenta right: Who's screwing whom?

The vast show has more than its share of visual and conceptual excellence,
including Feng Mengbo's shooting-gallery computer game, Mona Hatoum's
electrified room installation, Jeff Wall's Ralph Ellison-inspired
lightbulb-bedecked lightbox image, Alfredo Jaar's Lament of the Images
(with three glowing texts about withheld images and a blindingly bright
blank screen), and David Small's interactive virtual book. There are
powerful works by the Atlas Group, among whose archival conceits is an
inventory of car bombs (make, model, and color) exploded in Beirut during
the Lebanese wars; by Raqs Media Collective, which delineates the
dispossession of urban space in New Delhi;  and by Multiplicity, whose ID:
Journey Through a Solid Sea exposes the Italian cover-up of a shipwreck of

There are outdoor diversions: Cildo Meireles's ice popsicle vendors
(Disappearing Element), Chinese performance artists in Maoist uniforms
staging a long march through Kassel, John Bock's sporadic events in a
riverside encampment. And, secreted in the courtyard of an immigrant
housing complex, Thomas Hirschhorn's scrappy monument to Bataille, a
user-friendly gesture of community inclusion. For the more affluent,
Hirschhorn's oversize gold-foil CNN locket, in the Documenta Halle with
other artists' editions, is buyable as well as emblematic.

But it's Tania Bruguera's brutal and thrilling installation that provides
the ultimate visceral summation of this Documenta. Blinded by the lights,
stunned by a barrage of stomping jackboots and hair-trigger clicks, it
takes a minute for you to realize that the sounds issue from a live sentry
pacing back and forth on a catwalk overhead, endlessly reloading his gun.
Recasting the viewer as a potential target, this Cuban artist brings us
full circle back to Golub's ancestral thugs. By the third preview day, the
installation was temporarily closed; the performer had a sore thumb.

Documenta 11 reflects not only on "the postcolonial aftermath of
globalization and the terrible nearness of distant places" (in Enwezor's
words), but on art's ultimate inadequacy within the
socio-cultural-political-historical context. Refusing to fall into the
trap of grand narratives and neat conclusions, Enwezor would have us
realize that this vast art show is merely one-fifth of a decentralizing
project: The first four "platforms"  were scholarly conferences about
burning issues on different continents. Bringing news of the woes of the
world to Europe, this Documenta tells a sorry tale of globalization and
its discontents. It has an agenda, as a fellow critic complained. But what
exhibition doesn't?

At the press conference in Kassel, Enwezor insisted that Documenta 11 is
"diagnostic"  rather than "prognostic." And that seems to be the main
complaint: Describing the crisis, it shows no way out. Yet it's a measure
of the power of Enwezor's chilling vision that you never notice the
near-total absence of works by artists exploring strategic naughtiness,
dreamy adolescence, cinematic byplay, or their own navels—all ubiquitous
on the gallery circuits lately. So let's receive this Documenta as the
proclamation of a state of emergency. It's going to be a hard act to
follow. And given the current events transpiring on our planet, it's
really not fair to blame the messenger for the dire news.

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