PRINT September 2002

Matthew Higgs

THE FRIEDRICH-WÖHLER HOUSING ESTATE IS A FAIRLY TYPICAL working-class enclave located on the fringes of Kassel’s town center. Patronizingly described as a “marginalized local community” in the exhibition’s accompanying guide, it is, for the duration of Documenta11 temporarily home to Thomas Hirschhorn’s extraordinary Bataille Monument, 2002, the highlight of an otherwise sober and at times tetchy exhibition.

The third in Hirschhorn’s ongoing series of ad hoc “anti monuments” dedicated to some of our most troubling and original thinkers—the previous incumbents being Baruch Spinoza and Gilles Deleuze—the Bataille Monument is a series of five interconnected structures that occupy the public spaces between the extant residential buildings. Built and maintained by the artist with the assistance and support of the local residents, the piece is inextricably implicated in the daily life of its neighbors and surroundings.

The Bataille Monument comprises a café, a library of books and videos that relate to the recurring themes in Bataille’s oeuvre, an exhibition dedicated to his life and works, a public sculpture in the form of an oversize tree trunk fabricated from scrap materials and mummified in brown packing tape, and a television studio-cum-lecture hall. Constructed in Hirschhorn’s now signature and somewhat precarious manner, the Bataille Monument is a complex provocation that seeks to test the potential of art as a discursive, socially liberating force. (On my second visit, during the final stages of the World Cup, the television studio had been temporarily commandeered to screen the third-place match between South Korea and Turkey. The crowd was a good-natured mix of “marginalized” Turkish and German locals drinking beer and cracking jokes. I’m sure Bataille would have approved.)

Hirschhorn’s project is successful primarily because it makes no assumptions about its outcome. Resolutely local and occurring in real time, it provides an opportunity for an engaged dialogue with its audience that acknowledges their participation and contribution as being key to its cumulative meaning. Ephemeral in nature, Hirschhorn’s monuments might best be understood as temporary vehicles through which intricate webs of contested territories like economics, politics, philosophy, art, literature, even sports can be held up for scrutiny and interrogation.

Essentially colloquial—a quality echoed in Dieter Roth’s scatological and entropic Large Table Ruin, 1970-98; Georges Adéagbo’s accumulation of pancontinental detritus “Explorer and Explorers Confronting the History of Exploration . . .!” The Theater of the World, 2002; William Eggleston’s photographs of the American South; and Ben Kinmont’s modest and affecting conversations with Kassel residents, printed on A4 sheets of paper attached to the walls of the Documenta Halle—Hirschhorn’s simple but radical proposal is often at odds with the convoluted nature of many of the works found elsewhere at Documenta11.

While rightly skeptical of the self-referential and self-satisfied autonomy of much recent art, Documenta11 is paradoxically an often simplistic and curiously prescriptive affair. The informal, open-ended possibilities offered by works such as Hirschhorn’s and Adéagbo’s are nearly drowned out by the hectoring tone of the many others that seek to represent—often with the subtlety of an amateur dramatics production—the plight of the world’s downtrodden and oppressed.

Works such as Chantal Akerman’s From the Other Side, 2002, an overwrought rumination on the nocturnal economic migration across the border that separates Mexico from the United States; Mona Hatoum’s lumpen riff on domesticity, Homebound, 2000; and Tania Bruguera and Luis Camnitzer’s ham-fisted theatrical installations appear at once naive and condescending, if not exploitative, of the estranged circumstances of others.

Writing elsewhere on documentary photography, British artist Liam Gillick has described the kind of work that seeks meaning in the apparent profundity of its subject matter in lieu of offering a “constructed critique” as a “stunned mirror.” Emblematic of this condition are Kendell Geers’s smug photographs of the attempts by paranoid post-apartheid white South Africans to defend their homes; Lisl Ponger’s banal photojournalistic account of the traces of the 2001 protests against the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy; and Touhami Ennadre’s frankly opportunistic images of New Yorkers, taken in the aftermath of September 11.

Elsewhere Documenta11 is peppered with clichéd and often sentimental pictures of the effects of social and economic deprivation, environmental neglect, natural disasters, military repression, and suspect ideologies. Unable or unwilling to go beyond meekly acknowledging the persistent presence of global traumas, these “stunned mirrors”-like images in Time or Newsweek—appear mute. Operating as political ballast, their ineffectualness is contrasted with the more pertinent inclusion of documentary films created by grassroots collectives such as Canada’s Inuit Igloolik Isuma Productions, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Le Groupe Amos, and Britain’s now defunct Black Audio Film Collective. Created out of direct need or to counter stereotypical misrepresentations in the mainstream media, these essentially activist works elect not to sit on the fence, preferring instead a more precise engagement with the immediate concerns of their respective constituents, communities, and audiences.

In many ways, like Catherine David’s pervasively influential 1997 Documenta X, Documenta11 sought sanctuary in the ivory towers of the academy and its nostalgia for the unrealized union of the postwar political and artistic avant-gardes. Historical curiosities such as the unrealizable urban projects of Yona Friedrnan and the former Situationist Constant were wheeled out as being somehow exemplary. Similarly, academically inclined late-’60s and early ’70s Conceptual art—including the oblique notations of Hanne Darboven and the emotionally stunted photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher—is privileged center-stage over and above the more troublesome and contemporaneous propositions of, say, Sturtevant or Gustav Metzger.

With some notable exceptions, including Kutlug Ataman’s gently subversive (and strangely suggestive) video installation The Four Seasons of Veronica Read, 2002, this is a curiously prim, somewhat repressed exhibition. Documenta11’s almost total disavowal of any practices, old or new, that might have invoked the continuing presence of more complex socially (and sexually) transgressive narratives—Jack Smith, General Idea, Valie Export, Pierre Molinier, San Francisco’s Cockettes, the Viennese Actionists, Nayland Blake, Sarah Lucas, Elke Krystufek, Tom Burr, Bruce LaBruce, Ugo Rondinone, Lukas Duwenhögger—appears at times censorious.

While the expectations for any Documenta are undoubtedly high, this is a curiously conservative exhibition that mirrors its predecessor in more ways than its organizers might care to admit. A decidedly mature exhibition—a cursory glance at the statistics reveals that the average age of its participants approaches fifty—Documenta11 seems wary, if not downright suspicious, of the potential and optimism that remain a privilege of youth. However, given the permanent turmoil that describes our global condition, maybe Documenta11’s pessimism is an honest reflection of our times after all. If so its subtext seems to suggest that, basically, we’re all fucked, and there’s not a lot we—or art, for that matter—can do about it.

Matthew Higgs is associate director of the CCAC Wattis Institute at the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco.