PRINT September 2002

Tom Holert

THE CLIMACTIC FINALE OF THIS CRITIC’S DOCUMENTA11 EXPERIENCE took place under the influence of an obscenely outsize mirror ball. The rotating disco globe was installed at a considerable height in one of the countless black cubes/white boxes crammed into the main building of the Binding brewery on the outskirts of central Kassel. A spotlight mounted on a stand beamed measured loads of photons in the direction of the glitter ball. The resulting moving tapestry of reflections on the walls, floor, and ceiling gave rise to the giddy sensation of weightlessness, of the ground loosening, of doing overtime in zero gravity.

Surprisingly few visitors seemed intrigued enough to approach the empty space beneath the globe. Probably Cleave ’02 (The Accursed Share), 2002 , by Welsh artist and former filmmaker Cerith Wyn Evans, fails the test of high-tech spectacularity, in spite of the presence of a laptop computer. But the installation turns out to be not only a complex stage for experiences of a both visceral and highly erudite order but also one of the unlikelier works to sum up a good deal of Documenta11’s themes and ideas: Evans proffers a lexicon of translation and translatability (the beams of light are triggered by software that translates an English sentence into Morse code), of globalization and images of the global (the glitter ball as a futuristic-nostalgic vision of the planet), the construction and domestication of the exotic (a potted palm next to the spotlight), of architectural dreams and social utopias (the discodelic club space as ultimate destination of a community at once emergent and vanishing).

Moreover Cleave ’02 (The Accursed Share) invites one to draw connections with other works and artists that either are included in Documenta11 or provide subtexts and models for the overall conception of the show. Marcel Broodthaers, a key figure in the history of the exhibition (this time very present in his absence), is quoted with one of his signature items of displacement, the potted palm tree, a metonymic object that addresses the symbolic axis between the (un)homely and the exotic, the decorative and the colonial, but also refers to the ways Broodthaers “framed” the institutions of culture by means of mimicking their idle efforts to bridge the gap between public concerns and private spaces of imperialism.

Less obliquely, Georges Bataille is another figure, already invoked in the parenthesis of the installation’s title. “The Meaning of General Economy,” a chapter from Bataille’s The Accursed Share, is supplementarily turned into the language of the spinning glitter ball light via Morse code—something Evans has already done, in a previous version of Cleave, with the writings of William Blake.

In a working-class, “multicultural” housing estate in northern Kassel, the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn has erected a multipart interactive anti-“monument” to Bataille, similar to those he has already dedicated to Gilles Deleuze (in Avignon) and Baruch Spinoza (in Amsterdam). Several buildings and sculptures, made out of cheap materials such as plywood and tape, serve as a library, a snack bar, a TV studio, etc. Built by people from the neighborhood, who were paid by the artist and who worked under his direction, the “monument” loosely connects the writings of Bataille to the sculptural activity of the artist and the practice of the specific community generated in and around the whole project. Time and again
during the first days of the event Hirschhorn explained to journalists and TV crews, who adored slumming/visiting him on-site, how he imposes his particular brand of Bataille fan obsession on this very specific urban environment.

The philosopher of expenditure and the informe seems an unlikely candidate to serve as a model for the alleged politics of Documenta11. In fact, Bataillean politics might be least expected in the wake of German media coverage of the show. Reduced to notions of “political correctness” (yes, still the source of much anger . . .) or “globalization” (as if this were a process whose totality is consensually agreed upon . . .), politics and the political become nothing if not the antidote to aesthetically convincing, “sensual” art. The best work in Kassel precisely contradicts such limited understandings of “the political” since it does not eschew or repel but instead inverts and reconceptualizes it. Here, the heritage of a general economy of accumulation and expenditure seems strangely suitable in offering a way out of politics “proper.” In his admonition to consider “the general problems” of the “global activity of men” (instead of following the “narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire”) Bataille introduces a scope of analysis that is both necessary and impossible in its generalism.

Exiting the dilemma, one could enter the discussion about the political as the “art of the local and singular construction of cases of universality,” as Jacques Rancière, a writer who was part of Catherine David’s referential armature in 1997, puts it in La Mésentente (1995). But the alignment of categories like locality, singularity, and universality should not be confused with easy concepts like “the glocal.” The curatorial and conceptual challenge of Documenta11, defined by Okwui Enwezor and his collaborators’ theoretical and political premises, is to shun such confusion. Insistence on the difficulty of the relationship between the singular and the universal, the local and the global, presents a major task here, because it is in the very construction of this relationship that the political emerges.

This task is seriously complicated by the sheer scale of the final “platform” of operation Documenta11, which affects every single work, practice, and gesture on display. The (rather non-Bataillean) economic constraint of persuading and seducing the more than 600,000 visitors necessary over the course of a hundred days for the exhibition to break even is inscribed in the tiniest aspect of the project. “Difficulty” itself, packaged as discursive aroma, becomes a selling tool. Of all the problems generated by the supershow scale, the curatorial ambition as such is less pertinent than the almost inevitable urge to create effects of evidence through thematic clustering: Archive, city, model, border, textuality, encyclopedism, violence, postcolonialism, carnival, labyrinth, and so many other classificatory aids tend to support a narrative of contiguities and seamlessness rather than one of disruptions and constructions (in Rancière’s sense of the political). On the other hand, the impressive array of concepts displayed in the theoretical framing of Documenta11 is supposed to represent an enhanced reflexivity—which is certainly unusual for a blockbuster art event like this but also, as the largely positive echo in the German mainstream media might prove, is well disposed to be conceived as a discourse about (not of) subversion, creolization, exterritoriality, etc., and therefore in danger of being consumed instead of being put into (political) practice.

Hirschhorn’s disruptive and open-ended inscription of his idea of a Bataillean practice in a given social environment and Evans’s sophisticated entrapments of allusion, translation, and bodily sensation both point to very different modes of conceiving the political as integral to art. Usage of the same philosopher’s name notwithstanding, convergence is out of the question. Dialogue between the two works appears far from evident. Conversation might start here. Possible topics: how to contest Documents without serving the spectacle of “criticality”; how to construct universality out of the singular and the local; what it means either to provide visual news fodder for the reporting mainstream media (Hirschhorn) or to be comparably invisible (Evans)?

Tom Holert is a Cologne-based cultural critic.