THE MOST STRIKING ASPECT OF DOCUMENTAII IS THE PREDOMINANCE OF THE documentary mode, for want of a better word. The work of Bernd and Hilla Becher occupies a central place in the genealogy of this sensibility—and in the space of the Kulturbahnhof itself. Their photographs constitute some of the earliest “documentation” (pace August Sander, the father of them all) that aspires to something beyond or different from conventional documentary, something which inevitably calls forth the idiom of art, conceptual or otherwise.
In a recent Art in
art. What is art? What is documentary?
Shows like Documenta11 ultimately redefine the parameters of the “artistic.”
But while everyone is surely bored by the “Is it art or something else?”
question, one does crave, amid all the exempla of the documentary mode at this
exhibition, works that are less problematic in their genre typology, works full
of sensuousness and color. Or one wants the definitely nondocumentary,
imaginative, sexually focused yet politically charged sculptural installations
of, say, Yinka Shonibare, in which headless bodies-gorgeously garbed in
costumes dix-huitième siècle in cut but African in decoratively patterned
fabric--fuck suck and bugger with an elegance at once postcolonial and bitterly
ironic. Or Annette Messager’s endlessly, fantastically mobile installation
combining animal form and human desire, stuffed figures with deep roots in
childish nightmares and grown-up perversity. Or the wacky, tacky slapstick
(better filmed than live) of John Bock. Or the lacerating, retro humanity of
William Kentridge’s opera Confessions offend, zoom, which resituates Italo
Svevo’s 1923 novel from pre-World War I Trieste to ’80s
But there is a return to humanity beyond the strictly documentary in much of the work in the exhibition, and this is certainly among the curatorial successes. Construed in its largest possible sense, the notion of the documentary mode includes installations and archives (another cornerstone typology) as well as photography, film, and video. Film and video are most apposite in exploring the nature of documentary sensibility and its relation to more conventional notions of art. Certainly the most interesting films here are not “documentary” in the traditional sense. Instead these works deliberately foreground the apparatus, defamiliarizing and dwelling on details and fragments, focusing with stop action on meaningful or meaningless images. Some, such as Steve McQueen’s coruscating Western Deep, zoom, leave us literally in the dark as to the precise nature of what is going on yet fully certain that the experience presented is sinister and literally toxic.
Many of these works function in the documentary mode but transform and expand it, making it into a kind of hybrid that appeals not merely to curiosity, a quest for specific information about some topic, but to imagination, political consciousness, and unconscious fears and desires.
In A Season Outside, 1997, Amar Kanwar, an independent documentary filmmaker from New Delhi, goes back and forth between pursuing a conventional documentary mode--recording the enactment of national identities on the India-Pakistan border crossing at Wagah in terms of crowd movement, the transfer of goods, and the military ritual of opening and closing the border-and constantly interrupting that mode by fore- grounding the telling detail. There are hypnotically repetitious close- ups of the bare feet of the Indians and Pakistanis exchanging their burdens of merchandise over that thin white line, emphasizing the arbitrariness of all such activities taking place across contested national boundaries.
Or his odd, sometimes focused, sometimes oblique attention to the strange military border routine, a kind of stiff, macho dance of repetitive hostility, punctuated by sharp turns and arrogant lucks, which his camera constructs as occurring within an increasingly claustrophobic space.
Very different yet just as
visually seductive is Ulrike Ottinger’s Southeast Passage: A Journey to New
Blank Spots on the Map of Europe (the title obviously idolizes the earlier
colonializing implications of “North West Passage”). Like Kanwar’s film,
Ottinger’s 2002 record of a journey from
I believe that all art-looking is a dialogic activity, enormously enhanced by interchange with a companion or two at one’s side (or, that lacking, an invisible one inside one’s head). That said, the Documenta experience was salutary. Never have I encountered so many people from so many parts of my life all assembled to look at and comment on a diverse range of often stimulating and original works. More particularly, I must admit that on first viewing I disliked The House, fading it at once pretentious and simple-minded. But my companion found it powerful in both formal and narrative terms, so I went to see it again. I realized I had been disturbed by the vividness of Ahtila’s visual inscription of total loss of self/other disculmination and that I had tried to belittle her achievement in defending my own selfhood, as it were. The moral of this story is that one should see works with another person, who can sometimes shine a different light shared on things that you yourself are incapable of seeing. (Incidentally, my penchant for shared viewing and thinking fits perfectly with an exhibition in which the number of works by collaborative teams is notable.)
Finally, the previously
mentioned Western Deep takes us on an infernal vertical journey into one of the
deepest gold mines in
It is perhaps beside the point to speak of McQueen’s brilliance as a filmmaker, and a highly political one. But his politics are totally imbricated with an original formal project His work draws us in, suffocates us, makes us psychically permeable and guilty on the level of the political unconscious, as well as that of conscious realization of injustice. if Documenta11 engages seriously with the documentary mode, Western Deep is one of its most moving, thought-provoking, and convincing achievements. I am grateful to Joe Hill for his assistance with this article.
Linda Nochlin is Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.