Same Old Same Old
HOUSING ESTATE Is A FAIRLY TYPICAL working-class enclave located on the fringes
The third in Hirschhorn’s ongoing series of ad hoc “anti monuments’’ dedicated to some of our most troubling and original thinkers-the previous incumbents being Baruch Spinoza and Gilles Deleuze-the Bataille Monument is a series of five interconnected structures that occupy the public spaces between the extant residential buildings. Built and maintained by the artist with the assistance and support of the local residents, the piece is inextricably implicated in the daily life of its neighbors and surroundings. The Bataille Monument comprises a cafe, a library of books and videos that relate to the recurring themes in Bataille’s oeuvre, an exhibition dedicated to his life and works, a public sculpture in the form of an oversize tree trunk fabricated from scrap materials and mummified in brown packing tape, and a television studio-cum-lecture hall.
Constructed in Hirschhorn’s
now signature and somewhat precarious manner, the
Hirschhorn’s project is successful primarily because it makes no assumptions about its outcome. Resolutely local and occurring in real time, it provides an opportunity for an engaged dialogue with its audience that acknowledges their participation and contribution as being key to its cumulative meaning. Ephemeral in nature, Hirschhorn monuments might best be understood as temporary vehicles through which intricate webs of contested territories like economics, politics, philosophy, art, literature, even sports can be held up for scrutiny and interrogation.
Essentially colloquially quality echoed in Dieter Roth’s scatological and entropic Large Table Ruin, 1970-98; Georges Adeagbo’s accumulation of pancontinental detritus explorer and Explorers Confronting the History of Exploration...!” The Theater of the World, zoom; William Eggleston’s photographs of the American South; and Ben Kinmont’s modest and affecting conversations with Kassel residents, printed on A4 sheets of paper attached to the wails of the Documenta Halle-Hirschhorn’s simple but radical proposal is often at odds with the convoluted nature of many of the works found elsewhere at Documenta11.
While rightly skeptical of the self-referential and self-satisfied autonomy of much recent art, Documenta11 is paradoxically an often simplistic and curiously prescriptive affair. The informal, open-ended possibilities offered by works such as Hirschhorn’s and Adeagbo’s are nearly drowned out by the hectoring tone of the many others that seek to represent—often with the subtlety of an amateur dramatics production-the plight of the world’s downtrodden and oppressed.
Works such as Chantal Akerman’s From the Other Side, zoom, an overwrought rumination on the nocturnal economic migration across the border that separates Mexico from the United States; Mona Hatoum’s lumpen riff on domesticity, Homebound, zoom; and Tania Bruguera and Luis Camnitzer’s ham-fisted theatrical installations appear at once naive and condescending, if not exploitative, of the estranged circumstances of others.
Writing elsewhere on
documentary photography, British artist Liam Gillick has described the kind of
work that seeks meaning in the apparent profundity of its subject matter in lieu
of offering a “constructed critique’’ as a “stunned mirror.” Emblematic of this
condition are Kendell Geers’s smug photographs of the attempts by paranoid
postapartheid white South Africans to defend their homes; Lisl Ponger’s banal
photojournalistic account of the traces of the 2001 protests against the G8
Elsewhere Documenta11 is
peppered with clichéd and often sentimental pictures of the effects of social
and economic deprivation, environmental neglect, natural disasters, military
repression, and suspect ideologies. Unable or unwilling to go beyond meekly
acknowledging the persistent presence of global traumas, these “stunned mirrors”--like
images in Time or Newsweek-appear mute. Operating as
political ballast, their ineffectualness is contrasted with the more pertinent
inclusion of documentary films created by grassroots collectives such as
In many ways, like Catherine David’s pervasively influential 1997 Documenta X, Documenta11 sought sanctuary in the ivory towers of the academy and its nostalgia for the unrealized union of the postwar political and artistic avant-gardes. Historical curiosities such as the unrealizable urban projects of Yona Friedman and the former Situationist Constant were wheeled out as being somehow exemplary. Similarly, academically inclined late-’60s and early-’70s Conceptual art-including the oblique notations of Hanne Darboven and the emotionally stunted photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher—is privileged center-stage over and above the more troublesome and contemporaneous propositions of, say, Sturtevant or Gustav Metzger.
With some notable exceptions, inducing Kutlug Ataman’s gently subversive (and strangely suggestive) video installation The Four Seasons of Veronica Read, zoom, this is a curiously prim, somewhat repressed exhibition. Documenta11’s almost total disavowal of any practices, old or new, that might have invoked the continuing presence of more complex socially (and sexually) transgressive narratives—Jack Smith, General Idea, Valie Export, Pierre Molinier San Francisco’s Cockettes, the Viennese Actionists, Nayland Blake, Sarah Lucas, Elke Krystufek, Tom Burr, Bruce LaBruce, Ugo Rondinone, Lukas Duwenhogger—appears at times censorious.
While the expectations for any Documenta are undoubtedly high, this is a curiously conservative exhibition that mirrors its predecessor in more ways than its organizers might care to admit. A decidedly mature exhibition-a cursory glance at the statistics reveals that the average age of its participants approaches fifty—Documenta11 seems wary, if not downright suspicious, of the potential and optimism that remain a privilege of youth. However, given the permanent turmoil that describes our global condition, maybe Documenta11’s pessimism is an honest reflection of our times after all. If so its subtext seems to suggest that, basically, we’re all fucked, and there’s not a lot we--or art, for that matter—can do about it.
Matthew Higgs is associate director of the CCAC Wattis
Institute at the