Visitors to Documenta 11 in Kassel are confronted with provocations about globalization and multiculturalism and with works that challenge traditional boundaries between creative genres. The show runs through Sept. 15.
"New Manhattan City," an archtectonic work by Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez
The decision four years ago to appoint Okwui Enwezor as the artistic director of Documenta 11 was everything less than expected. Just 35 years old at the time, the Nigerian-born writer, curator and cultural critic had more than 30 competitors for one of the most prestigious jobs in the European art world.
In the end, the commission charged with selecting the Documenta leadership was won over by Enwezor’s knowledge of the international contemporary art scene, and it decided to appoint the first non-European director to the job. The German press swooned at the time.
“With Enwezor at the top, Documenta 2002 will finally show world art instead of western art,” wrote Der Spiegel.
“With the appointment of the Nigerian-born American Okwui Enwezor as artistic director, the Kassel commission has once and for all freed Documenta of its European chains,” said the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “Now, at the brink of a new century, Documenta has a chance to mirror global perspectives.”
Indeed, many of the works shown at Documenta 11 by 118 artists from around the world do just that. In the five Kassel venues, which cover an expansive 13,000 square meters (139,990 square feet), visitors are confronted time and time again with provocations about globalization, multiculturalism, post-colonialism and the blurring of boundaries – both internationally and between genres.
An estimated 630,000 visitors are expected by the time the show closes on September 15 and Kassel empties out until Documenta 12 comes to town five years from now.
Is this art or is this architecture?
In “Testing the Waters,” American landscape architect Julie Bargmann and American artist Stacy Levy collaborated with a team of scientists, historians, architects and a Pennsylvania community to create a park out of an area that had been affected by acid mine drainage.
Documenta features photographs of the project site as well as glass panels incorporating materials such as coal and limestone from the area. The exhibit catalog notes that the project “expands artistic concepts of elevating post-industrial sites to the status of monuments, like Robert Smithson’s The Monuments of Passaic.”
Is this art or is this politics?
The Senegalese visual arts collective Huit Facettes conducts social interventions in the form of workshops and tries to “mediate the disparities between the “third” world and the Western world, between processes of globalization and the multiplicity of individual temporalities.” For Documenta, Huit Facettes presents a documentation of their social work in the village of Hamdallaye done in cooperation with Belgian NGOs devoted to furthering new technologies in suburban areas.
Even the border between journalism and art appears murky after viewing David Goldblatt’s photographic portraits of Johannesburg, Ravi Agarwal’s photos documenting “pre-industrial” workers in India or Ben Kinmont’s “Moveable Type No Documenta.”
In Kinmont's work, the artist interviews Kassel residents about the possibility of thinking of their activities as an art form – and then posts print-outs of these interviews in various public places in Kassel. In short, the artists adopted tools such as interviews and documentary photos that have been used by reporters for centuries.
The meaning of art And the age-old question of what art is and what it means is raised throughout the heavily theoretical show, where anyone seeking something as benign as beauty will surely be disappointed.
But this sort of challenge is just what Enwezor wanted to create. In doing so, he clearly marks the progression of time and modes of thinking at the turn of the century.
Consider Danish artist Jens Haaning, whose work concentrates on conflicts stemming from the social, economic and political conditions in Western socities. In 1994, Haaning installed a loudspeaker in a part of Oslo with a large Turkish population and broadcast jokes in Turkish. The work, which left listeners uncertain about the subject of the jokes and about who was being addressed, is being repeated in Kassel.
Enwezor did not limit the show to up-and-coming artists, however. He also included a smattering of art world stalwarts from Louise Bourgeois and Candida Höfer to Raymond Pettibon and Dieter Roth.
Since the late 1970s, Pettibon’s work has combined language with figural representations dealing with social critique. This work, as well as Roth’s chaotic room installations featuring elaborate collections of objects such as tables and video projectors, remind visitors about the roots of today’s art and leave impressions of times past.
Questions of time
In contrast, Bourgeois’ “Insomnia Drawings” – notebook pages with sketches mostly in red – manage to retain an era of timelessness.
And On Kawara’s “One Million Years” project, an exhaustive documentation of the passage of time that relates to work the Japanese-born artist began in the 1960s, raises questions and draws observations that are in a sense timeless. Or perhaps more valid than ever in today’s fast-paced, information-driven world.