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Every five years, the eyes of the art world turn to Kassel: documenta is considered a world show of new art – and never has it been as international as in 2002. Directed by Okwui Enwezor (right), Documenta 11 is sending out signals from the global village. Until September 15, documenta will be addressing globalization issues like the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous, the clash between rich and poor, power and powerlessness, the ensuing conflicts and their consequences. Diversity.

Janet Schayan reports

Kutlug Ataman, born in Istanbul, lives in London; Artur Barrio, born in Porto, lives in Rio de Janeiro; Ouattara Watts, born in Abidjan/Ivory Coast, lives in New York; Fiona Tan, born in Indonesia, lives in Berlin. Currently, all in Kassel in North Hesse. These are just four of the 118 artists represented at documenta 11 and having a common link: they live at the interfaces between cultures, they are at home in the “global village.” Their biographys stand for the geographical diversity that characterizes documenta 11 – and which was never as strong in any of the preceding shows. Although documenta has enjoyed sporting the label “world art show” since its inception in 1955, it really only embodies it for the first time this year, for the first documenta of the new millennium. The artistic North-South Passage through continents and cultures leads from the group Igloolik Isuma Productions, from the Canadian Arctic, to Destiny Deacon, who belong to the generation of “urban aboriginal” Australian artists. What was supposedly on the periphery has now shifted to the centre.

What theme is capable of linking and holding this diversity together? Globalization, transnationality, post-colonialism are keywords for documenta 11. The art on show in Kassel in the year 2002 deals with some of the issues posed by globalization: the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous, the clash between poor and rich, power and powerlessness, the conflicts in our world and their consequences. Diversity. Not art for art’s sake, but art as part of the intellectual discourse on the world in which we live – that is artistic director Okwui Enwezor’s concept. For documenta 11, politics and social criticism have been brought back into art.

Here, art is never just a matter of form, but also of content. Here art has a message which it is sending out as a signal from the “global village” in the form of videos, installations, photographs, and Internet projects. Images are on show at documenta 11, but only seldom paintings. However, more than two thirds of the exhibited works were created specially for the documenta.
The press conference in early June lured 2500 journalists to Kassel from all over the world – an indicator of the interest documenta 11 has awakened. The media repeatedly emphasize that Enwezor, who was born in Nigeria but lives in New York, is the first non-European curator of the art show in Kassel, “whatever that may mean,” as he himself comments. After all, for the political scientist, curator and poet, the main theme is the “proximity of the distant” and not exoticism: “The post-colonial world is a world of proximity, not a world of the elsewhere.” And this world is moving closer together, is merging to form a space where tensions meet. Perhaps this concept becomes clearest in the video installation “From the Other Side” by Belgian artist Chantal Akerman. She has arranged video recorders in several rows, one after the other; on the monitors we see both sides of the border between Mexico and the USA, one a dusty no man’s land, the other a busy freeway – and in-between, the fortress-like wall between poor and rich. Anyone wanting to cross that wall and head in the direction of wealth is tracked down like an animal with floodlights and heat detectors: the promise of the American dream, and the trauma of those born by chance only a short distance from it, just a few kilometres away. Compelling images of a globalized but divided world.

Shattering the western focus

“Post-colonialism shatters the narrow focus of the West’s global viewpoint and fixes its gaze on the larger sphere with its new political, social and cultural conditions,” writes Enwezor in his foreword to the catalogue. And in order to circumscribe that larger sphere, the documenta head and his six international co-curators have divided the show into five platforms: platforms one to four have already taken place – as discussion rounds in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean. For Enwezor and his team these are elementary components of documenta 11, not additives. That is why those discussion contributions can be downloaded from the Internet as videos, or read in various publications. The themes of the platforms – democracy as an incomplete process, legal systems in the process of change, creolization, urbanism – provide the intellectual framework for the fifth platform, which is the actual exhibition in Kassel. Initially, the media’s culture sections were bristling with criticism of the documenta director’s obvious preference for theory, of the apparently conservative return to the political in art. Now that this has assumed a visible shape, their judgement is largely positive: documenta 11 is more appealing to the senses than expected, despite the fact that it contains a few slightly more impenetrable works that only become accessible after much reading.
It may well be, however, that documenta 11 is less “visible” in the city of Kassel than former shows, that is, if one disregards the brightly coloured flags and posters. There is not much art in the public domain, not many events which abandon the classical venues of the Fridericianum museum, the documenta hall, or the Kulturbahnhof (culture railway station). Instead, Enwezor has acquired a new venue for documenta, and one which has become the heart of this exhibition: the Binding Hall, to the east of the city, premises of the former beer brewery, which almost doubles the floor space available for the documenta. The factory building is an ideal exhibition platform: large bright rooms, small chambers, labyrinthine corridors leading to ever new encounters.

Time as entrance fee and theme

That social criticism and politics in art need not necessarily be cold and theoretical is shown here by the French artist Annette Messager, who has staged a colourful puppet theatre of cuddly toys – at first glance, an amusing confusion of dolls and animals moving up and down; at second glance, a horror scenario of disability and suppression. Whoever enters the walk-in installation by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera is overwhelmed by a physical unease, blinded by glaring floodlights that hinder orientation; the accompanying threatening noise in the background is of guns being repeatedly cocked and their cylinders rotated. Artur Barrio from Brazil has prepared a sensual experience for nose and feet by covering the floor of a narrow room with coffee.
Many of the smaller rooms are taken up by video art: Chinese artist Feng Mengbo has installed an interactive Internet performance, a bang-bang video game in which the visitors can join in, although without knowing whether it is their or the artist’s turn to draw, as it were. The room occupied by English artist Craigie Horsfield is quiet by comparison, and time assumes another dimension here – “The El Hierro Conversation” is a social archive on the population of the smallest of the Canary Islands captured on film, and it lasts a full ten hours.

Links in German:
history of the Documenta
Documenta Archive
history of the Documenta
official site of the Documenta XI

first information abour the Documenta XII
politic art
Documenta XI - a boundless project

Anyone going to Kassel should bring a lot of time with them, for many of the video installations demand this “entrance fee” of their viewers. The theme of time also plays a direct role, for example, in the project by Japanese artist On Kawara, who has long since become established on the international art scene. His “One Million Years” in the central room of the Fridericianum illustrates the extent to which dates determine the measure of our existence: a man and a women alternately read out the dates of all the years from 998 031 B.C. to 1969 and from 1969 to 1 001 995 – thus rendering both past and future perceptible in the present. This too is a kind of attempt to archive, a theme addressed a number of times, be it in the black-and-white photography of the South African Santu Mofokeng, showing prisons in the townships, or in the work of Georges Adéagbo. In his room he has arranged found objects from Benin and Kassel, a collection of traces from North and South – a wooden boat, traditional sculptures, and beside them a record of 1970s German hit songs, books, clothes. “The way people here throw things away,” comments Adéagbo, “it’s as if they were throwing away money.”

Naked capital, in the form of a fat bundle of 500 euro notes behind glass, is the main focus of Maria Eichhorn’s documenta contribution: the German artist founded a share-holding company, the express aim of which is to make no profit – a topsy-turvy world in turbo-capitalism. The certificates and contracts relating to the formation of the company can be seen and read in the exhibition hall – not so much an aesthetic as an intellectual delight. By contrast, Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles’ variation on the theme of art and the market is more light-hearted. He has arranged for small stalls to be pushed around Kassel selling art for one euro – in the form of ice-cream on a stick. Printed on the ice-cream paper are the words “Disappearing Element/Disappeared Element.” And while this chilly artwork is still melting in your mouth and actually disappearing, your knowledge is increasing. For example, the knowledge that after exactly 100 days this documenta too will disappear, while its insights remain.