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<nettime> the last documenta as we knew them
Calin on Sat, 5 Oct 2002 16:48:03 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> the last documenta as we knew them

The latest Documenta raised, like no other art event before, quite some 
reactions on this list. That is due I guess to a certain convergence 
between social analysis, media criticism and artistic practice. 
Cross-domain inter-contamination is a good sign - it means 
communication; and a bad sign - it means that specialized activities are 
vanishing under the pressure of syncretism.

The most obvious sign that the Roman Empire was on the brink of the 
collapse has been the disappearance of the artisans, with their strait, 
narrow, and reliable practice. Anyway, although being out of the agenda 
by now, and also out of debate, maybe there is some interest for this 
retrospective of what might be the last Documenta, as we know it. Text 
to be published in Romanian version in the art magazine Balkon 


1. Documenta XI surfaced into the public attention in a period of 
radicalisation in the world's politics and economy. Therefore the 
appointment of a non-European, non-Caucasian Artistic Director was 
perceived as an obvious statement for change. After a long (and probably 
internally very active) period of total media silence, this statement 
was enforced by a series of events called platforms - that is the 
conferences in Vienna, New Delhi, Berlin, St. Lucia, Lagos. From that 
moment on my legitimate interest for the upcoming event started to be 
tainted with bits of doubt. No matter how much I appreciate colloquia, 
conferences, workshops and other types of gatherings of peers around 
hot/cold issues, they are in the end a common place, a circuit, and - as 
I just said - a gathering of peers. By just moving one of them to Lagos, 
in an exotic place, this closed medium was not generating more 
effectiveness beyond a particular circle. And why "Platforms"? This is 
another common place of the 90s, exhausted by a leftist intellectual 
discourse so much indebted to the Delleuze - Guattari concepts preparing 
what we discovered lately to be the globalisation. I know that platforms 
sound a bit better that the "Plateaux of Mankind" trumpeted by Harald 
Szeeman in the Venice Biennial, but it sounds as arrogant as that. So, 
the curatorial team started by building platforms, then invited to climb 
there a few luminaries of the world thinking, in order to contemplate 
together whatever was supposed to be the platform number five, the 

Packaged with a dogmatic persistence as being just one of the platforms, 
the eleventh Documenta was heading in the direction pointed at by the 
previous one, also very busy in re-branding the exhibition into the 
pre-text of a larger conglomerate of topics and media. This is not a bad 
thing in itself - it depends on how this conglomerate is structured. 
Which brings a more general question: what should one expect from (yet 
another) Documenta? Considering the fact that this is a mass event - one 
should expect entertainment (in the sense of emotional fulfillment). 
Considering that this is a massive (infrastructurally speaking) event - 
one should expect experiment. When (and only when) entertainment and 
experiment are covered, one can expect the introduction of reflection. 
There is no line separating those three elements, which must be 
organically imbedded in the whole. Ideally, a visitor at Documenta - be 
it a doctor going out with the family for a smart weekend, or a PhD in 
art and philosophy - must leave with the feeling that it was a 
stimulating experience in more that one way - it opened new prospective 
on life, it gave a sense of cultural continuity, and it induced a sense 
of disruption.

It is only fair to ask immediately what are the difficulties implied by 
such an enterprise. They can be all summed in the magic term of 
management: scale management, content management, shock management, 
boredom management. How to please the high and the low brow with the 
same means, how to accommodate the needs of so many people, how to 
combine the information overload and the suspension of disbelief.

2. It is interesting to see how were all those challenges assumed by the 
curatorial team in terms of the treatment of space. As it is known by 
now, Documenta's main venue is the Fredericianum - where the vision of 
the whole show is summed up into a statement. At least that is what the 
logic of urban circulation and architectural symbolism implies. The core 
energy of the building was dedicated to an endless piece by Hanne 
Darboven, whose flat and un-engaging conceptualism was indulged on the 
three levels of the rotunda. The main areas of the ground floor were 
dedicated to pieces reviving the sentimental painterly installations 
raving in the 70s (Doris Salcedo, Chohreh Feyzdjou). Further on, an 
insensitively large space was dedicated to a failure by Alfredo Jaar 
(who tried to combine political comment with spiritual revelation); and 
to a drop-dead-boring so-called media installation by Ecke Bonk, 
pretentiously extending in wall projections digitalized excerpts from 
the German dictionary of the brothers Grimm. Not to speak about the (as 
usual) intellectually useless and visually incomprehensible contribution 
of Maria Eichorn, which got a rather large room, while it could have fit 
in a passageway with the same result (since it is basically a narrative 
speculation on economic mechanisms). Meanwhile, predictable hits like 
the installation of Shirin Neshat are forced into spaces that make the 
relationship audience - projection literally a torture. The same goes 
for the pieces of two debutantes - Zirina Bhimji and Yang Fudong - whose 
lyrical films are hard to cope with unless crowding in dramatic 
conditions in tiny corridor-like rooms without air. If those last cases 
might be explained by pure negligence, the misunderstanding of space 
necessities is striking in the case of Chantal Ackerman, whose multi- 
screen films (one of the most substantial experiments with non-linear 
cinema that I experienced lately) need in order to make sense precisely 
the generosity of area that they were refused here.

In the Documenta-Halle, the same spatial hierarchy is undermining the 
effectiveness of the experience. No matter how much I sympathise with 
the Palestinian people and how much I consider that the tragedy 
happening in the Middle-East has to be relentlessly in focus, I do not 
see how would this agenda be helped by the fact that about 30% of this 
building is dedicated to the installation of Fareed Armaly & Rashid 
Mashrawi. If packaged differently, this documentation of the Palestinian 
spiritual and geographical confinement would have been gaining impact. 
Meanwhile, works by Johan van der Keuken, Gaston A. Ancelovici and other 
filmmakers with an interesting saying were stashed on monitors, in a 
traffic area strongly lit through the glass walls. The same bizarre 
unfairness works at least in one more case, this time in the more 
generously used Biding-Brauerei: the fascinating movies of Igloolik 
Isuma Productions (www.igloolik.ca - an Inuit film company aiming at the 
preservation of the oral narratives of this community in face of 
modernisation, says the catalogue), are delivered on a row of monitors 
hung along the passageway, like in a train station. No wonder that 
comments were made about this Documenta being a gathering of National 
Geographic and Descovery Channel movies; but this was not due to the 
material on offer, but to the manner in which it is displayed.

Space distribution being a statement in itself, one should look also at 
the way in which the three locations articulate a discourse. It becomes 
rather clear retrospectively that the Documenta-Halle was supposed to 
inherit some of the functions established by the previous edition - as a 
documentation centre. But this space is also significant for two types 
of segregation that operate in the whole event. One is media-based: 
While relying heavily on such topics as archiving, accumulation of data, 
processing of information, the curators did not see and use the digital 
media, and namely the internet as specific tools which could not only 
build artistic discourses on these principles, but which can also offer 
that reflexive component mentioned above. Establishing an information 
centre is what any culture house is doing nowadays; more could have been 
expected form such a mega-event in terms of integrating digital data 
access and digital art formats into the exhibition's flow and body.

The second segregation is concerning - unexpectedly - the political 
commitments of the curators. By making the same Halle a "platform" for 
the third world, a certain topical coherence was attained, but at the 
same time also a strange sense of marginalisation. I would have liked to 
see the educational videos of Le Groupe Amos (working on educational 
topics with grass roots organisations from Congo) at the place of 
Darboven's autistic piece. Or Pascal Martine Tayou's multi-media 
installation (one of the best pieces in the show and a real jump forward 
in the poetics of this artist) traded for the otherwise notable work of 
On Kawara (also in Fredericianum).

In the same line, one must notice the treatment of the Kulturbanhof - a 
sort of banlieue of the manifestation, where artists already present in 
the show elsewhere are replayed, from a different point of view, maybe, 
but so unnecessarily (the cases of David Goldblatt, Isa Genzken, Kendell 
Geers, Mona Hatoum). While a piece with a strong statement, like the one 
made by the Italian group Multiplicity on the humanitarian catastrophe 
produced by the sinking of a refugee boat between Sicily and Malta is 
relegated to the attic.

3. Obviously my taste and those of the curators are not a match - why 
should they? But the enhanced attention towards old ways of treating 
conceptualism and installation art was not sustained by reflective 
bodies of historical contextualization. And it cannot be justified by 
the fact that those specific works were issued in cultures where they 
could have been perceived as statements of political resistance. In the 
end - there is no good political art - there is only good art. On the 
other hand, the political commitment - when substantiated aesthetically 
- was displayed as a detail. The new and endearing pieces of work were 
few, and sometimes relegated to unjustified places. I had a few moments 
of fun, and a few revelations. I liked the ideas of Simparch and the 
skate-bowl multi-media sculpture that they developed. I enjoyed the 
kinetics of the totem installation made by Nari Ward - a simple way of 
saying that gods and demons are still working in our post-colonial 
confusion. I tried to spend more time with Eija-Liisa Ahtila's 
polymorphous stories and with the intensely poetic images of Craigie 
Horsfield. Wiliam Eggelstone, Dieter Roth and Constant fascinated me 
again. I enjoyed - for different reasons - the pieces of Fiona Tan and 
of Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas.

But all this was happening in extreme conditions - due to a trivial 
detail, unexpected in an environment so luxurious and so much focused on 
humane needs: the lack of air conditioning! If that was a symbolic 
statement, it succeeded in deed to make the Documenta flannerie into an 
oppressive and suffocating experience. If it wasn't meant to be so - it 
certainly ruined a lot of that mixture entertainment - revelation - 
reflection I see at the bottom rock of such an event.

But in the end of the day I didn't leave Kassel with any feeling of 
exultation and with no news to chew on, except the certitude that the 
formats used in Documenta XI were unfortunate, obliterating the content 
and rejecting the aha erlebinss we are all looking for.

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