PRINT September 2002

Linda Nochlin

THE MOST STRIKING ASPECT OF DOCUMENTA11 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 America interview with the Bechers, the crucial question of the relation of art to documentary is explicitly raised. The interviewer, Ulf Erdmann Ziegler, cites a text by Rudi Fuchs in which the author declares that “the question of whether Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work is a work of art is not so very interesting”; nevertheless, Ziegler points out that “‘only in art could they find the motivation’ for their gigantic task” He concludes that the Bechers “work precisely as artists do, since they rigidly limit their interest to a few chosen subjects and refuse to let themselves be distracted.”

Endless 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 of Zeno, 2002, which resituates Italo Svevo’s 1923 novel from pre-World War I Trieste to ’80s Johannesburg.

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, 2002, 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 foregrounding 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 kicks, 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 ironizes the earlier colonializing implications of “North West Passage”). Like Kanwar’s film, Ottinger’s 2002 record of a journey from Berlin through Eastern Europe and two urban expeditions, in Odessa and Istanbul, achieves its effects through film techniques that call attention to the medium itself. Although I didn’t get to see all of the three-part, six-hour work—a common drawback in reviewing film presentations at art exhibitions—what I saw was memorable: a huge market in Odessa with row after row of food products and stout, feisty, mostly middle-aged women running the stalls. I was struck by the humanity of these women—no waifs here, no Botox, just big arms, ample busts, and lots of caustic interaction. Heaps of white cheeses, making their visual appeal amid pools of translucent whey, lashings of rich, opaque cream. Then the fishwives, to use the old term, offering up their glistening, fleshy catch, vying with one another to display the superiority of their wet, scaly wares and impatient for the sale. Here, among the market women, Ottinger constructs that seductive amalgam of nostalgia and utopia that so often filters our view of marginal, outmoded lives and practices. But Ottinger’s market scenes make one think in more specifically economic terms as well. After all, this is buying and selling on display here, competition and comparison shopping, foregrounded by Ottinger’s astute camerawork and the robust appearance of the products and their sellers. Are these succulent cheeses just a sheet of Pliofilm away from being the prepackaged products of our impersonal shopping malls? Can we talk of a contrast between use value and exchange value in the Marxist sense here? Or is a market always a market?

One film that is not in any traditional sense “documentary” but certainly can take its place with the more flexible parameters of the mode is Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s The House, 2002, which can be simply described as the story of a woman who begins to hear voices. But there is nothing simple about the film or its construction. Here, using a triptych format, a multiple-screen strategy effectively deployed by several filmmakers in the show (Isaac Julien used three screens and Fiona Tan four), Ahtila visually demonstrates the subject’s increasing loss of a sense of inside and outside, self and other, a disturbing permeability to the myriad sights and sounds around her. Indeed, the installation—with its simultaneous and ever-changing left, right, and center views of the subject’s movement through space—envelops the viewer in this experience of dissolution. One striking sequence demonstrates the subject’s loss of the most basic sense of bodily rootedness—that of the gravitational pull of the earth—as the young woman floats uneasily into the air above her house. The house stands for, and is, the subject herself and her increasinginability to maintain a sense of psychic wholeness as the outside world—cars, cows, people—begins to impinge on her being, infest her four walls. In a film that is both highly poetic and nitty-gritty realist, madness is visually demonstrated as both temfylng and somehow just the way things really are.

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, finding 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 discrimination 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 South Africa. Because we are located experientially inside the mine, not watchng it from the outside, the trip is almost unbearable—but irresistible in its force. It is not just that we are submerged in almost total, otherworldly darkness for what seems an interminable length of time but that there is a stomach-churning gravitational velocity to our plunge. Nor is this visceral descent tied to a continuous comprehensible narrative that might help us “make sense” of our experience. On the contrary, narrative continuity is, continually disrupted—by infernal drilling noises, by momentary visions of individual heads, by the sudden and unexplained appearance of a thermometer between the lips of a desperately tired and ill-looking miner, and, most pointedly, by the unprecedented dancelike steps of rows of half-nude miners undergoing some sort of robotic physical test as inhuman and repressive as this descent into hell itself. McQueen explains nothing; it is simply there, the filmic equivalent of relentless suffering, colonial co-optation, and the prospect of nothing better—nothing but death.

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 Document11 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.