Documenta PRESENTS ITS ORGANIZER WITH A DILEMMA. SHOULD THE OUTSTANDING exhibition of contemporary art—a show that surpasses all others in ambition, financing, and planning—simply present the best work regardless of form and theme? Or should the curator impose strict parameters and choose art that fits his or her concept? Recent directors have differed in their response. Jan Hoet’s Documenta IX was notable for its openness, its refusal to favor one medium or theme. Catherine David’s Documenta X explored the legacy of ’68 and failed utopias, as well as the history of photo-documentation. This year’s show, organized by Okwui Enwezor and a team of six curators, is even more focused. Its theme is globalization and its discontents—racial strife, class inequity, and the excesses of capitalism. The dominant medium is film and video projection, our current salon form.
Much of the work has a documentary format. New Media Social Realism, you could cell it. Many critics have attacked the show’s blinkered grimness, and it’s true that Documentar11 is a fairly joyless experience. You see a lot of work that could be described as “good for you’’ but lithe that stimulates the imagination. And yet Enwezor’s wager-to present a truly inter- national, politically acute Documenta—results in a watershed show. Like its most famous predecessor, the Minimal/conceptual art-driven Documenta V (1972) Documenta11 is a bit tendentious. Seeing so many documentaries of the world’s horrors ultimately has a diminished impact, like watching too much CNN. Still, I could not help but admire Enwezor’s strong curatorial hand. This was without doubt the most memorable version of the show I have seen.
commitment is notable because the political in art has been in retreat in
recent years, a trend one can trace to the cool reception of the 1993 Whitney
Biennial (although there may be signs that this judgment is being reassessed).
Though the effort is admirable, DOCUMENTA11 concept of political art as documentary
does not encompass a reflexive approach to the exhibition itself. Certainly the
reconfiguration of Documenta into several “platforms”—events were held in
DOCUMENTA11 is global not only in theme but in location, exemplifying what I have elsewhere described as a mobile sense of place commensurate with the art world’s new internationalism.
But as I marveled at the lavish installations, I wondered about the show’s imbrication with the structures it claims to critique. Is there not an asymmetry between the images of oppression and the impressive apparatus that supports their display? What do the German and Hessian governments-not to mention Deutsche Telekom, Volkswagen, etc.-have to gain from financing a show of such exacting multiculturalism and global reach? These questions are not easily answered (or perhaps too easily answered). But surely this Documenta might have benefited from work that addressed its innovative (and expensive) postexhibition concept.
More troubling is the show’s tendency to stress the oppression of certain groups or identities. Fareed Armaly’s installation on Palestinian refugees, detailed as it is, should have been balanced by a work exploring the other side of the Israeli/Arab conflict. Even worse is the show’s disinterest in entire categories of political identity. In emphasizing ethnicity, nation, and race, the exhibition gives only passing attention to gender and even less to sexuality, whether straight or queer. Images of identifiably gay men are scarce; lesbian and transgendered subjects, nonexistent. Touhami Ennadre’s photograph of two guys hugging on September 11—one among many images of that tragic day in the show-says nothing specific
about gay subjectivity. Even the film Installation by Issac Julien a leading gay director, veils its queer content. I guess it’s a matter of taste—or interest. Yet how disappointing that this ostensibly progressive show is, in the end, a bizarrely heteronormative experience. The dominance of projection is a more telling manifestation of taste: It almost feels as lithe social Injustices of our time can only be accessed through the projected Image. We have been told for some time that traditional media are in retreat; the presence of a mere handful of painters in the show confirms this assertion. And yet one of the conclusions to be drawn from DOCUMENTA11 is that the “post-medium condition” lately lamented by Rosalind Krauss is not so pressing a concern. The recent commodiflcation of the projection, the epic-scale picture, and the whole-room installation means that new forms have become established. The old media seem less credible not because we no longer have a concept of medium but because the new media are more so.
Within these media, the
projection rules; indeed, a visitor to
Of course, a new format
does not guarantee a successful work. Stan Douglas’s hard-to-follow sequence of holograms portraying fairy tales and Shirin Neshat’s
pretentious two-screen projection of a veiled woman in a garden confirm
that even the fanciest production values can’t redeem an indifferent idea. By
contrast, Eyal Siyan’s
An occasional break from
the projections was welcome: For example, Renee Green’s cloth pavilions,
standardized Octagonal Units for Imagined and Existing Systems, located In
Karlsaue Park, are a nice respite. The main pavilion contains a video monitor
documenting Green’s concept within the histories of fantastic architecture
(gazebos, octagonal houses) and ’70s Land art. Images of earth projects at
Documenta VI (1977) provide a dimension of reflexivity that the show otherwise
lacks. An intriguing mix of media and discursive forms, the project transcends
the documentary aesthetic so prevalent at
Indeed, some of the better works In Documenta are documentaries that challenge documentary convention. Steve McQueen’s Western Deep ostensibly deals with a mundane subject: the daily descent of South African miners into a very deep mine. The dark Initial drop punctured by sight flickers of light, the subtle sound track, the bizarre images of men foraging for gold or undergoing bizarre physical examinations-of bodies confined to unimaginable spaces, Instrumentalists, rendered machine-like-makes a strong impression. The film’s macroscopic attention to form does justice to its subject whale transforming the way we see. McQueen’s work strikes a balance between documentary’s reality effect and an aesthetic encounter-an unlikely combination. In a show of memorable works It is perhaps the most outstanding.
James Meyer is an associate professor of art history at