PRINT September 2002

James Meyer

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 call it.

Many critics have attacked the show's blinkered grimness, and it's true that Documenta11 is a fairly joyless experience. You see a lot of work that could be described as “good for you” but little that stimulates the imagination. And yet Enwezor's wager—to present a truly international, politically acute Documenta—results in a watershed show. Like its most famous predecessor, the Minimal/Conceptual art-driven Documenta V (1974), 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.

Documenta11's social 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's 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 Vienna, New Delhi, Berlin, St. Lucia, and Lagos, culminating in the Kassel show—challenges the traditional structure of the exhibition. 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 Isaac 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 if the 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 commodification 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 Kassel cannot help but feel the relatively diminished impact of the still image. A few photographers—William Eggleston and David Goldblatt—hold their own, but in a world of projections, Jeff Wall's light box and Allan SeMa's photo-documentary Fish Story seem lost. (Even the video monitor has trouble competing with projection: Chantal Akerman's installation on illegal Mexican-US migration and Lorna Simpson's wall of thirty-one TVs look like holdovers from the Image World '80s.)

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 Sivan's Itsembatsemba, Rwanda, One Genocide Later skillfully integrates recordings of incendiary speeches by Hutu leaders with haunting images of Tutsi survivors digging up corpses. The formal reticence of the piece is echoed in Zarina Bhimji's film about the destruction of Uganda under Idi Amin. Images of abandoned buildings and an eerie sound track tell you all you need to know about these places without telling you what went on there.

An occasional break from the projections was welcome: For example, Renie 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 Kassel.

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 slight 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, instrumentalized rendered machine-like—makes a strong impression. The film's microscopic attention to form does justice to its subject while 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 Emory University in Atlanta.