The CNN Documenta

Art in an International State of Emergency

There are outdoor diversions: Cildo Meireles's ice popsicle vendors (Disappearing Element), Chinese performance artists in Maoist uniforms staging a long march through Kassel, John Bock's sporadic events in a riverside encampment. And, secreted in the courtyard of an immigrant housing complex, Thomas Hirschhorn's scrappy monument to Bataille, a user-friendly gesture of community inclusion. For the more affluent, Hirschhorn's oversize gold-foil CNN locket, in the Documenta Halle with other artists' editions, is buyable as well as emblematic.

But it's Tania Bruguera's brutal and thrilling installation that provides the ultimate visceral summation of this Documenta. Blinded by the lights, stunned by a barrage of stomping jackboots and hair-trigger clicks, it takes a minute for you to realize that the sounds issue from a live sentry pacing back and forth on a catwalk overhead, endlessly reloading his gun. Recasting the viewer as a potential target, this Cuban artist brings us full circle back to Golub's ancestral thugs. By the third preview day, the installation was temporarily closed; the performer had a sore thumb.

Documenta 11 reflects not only on "the postcolonial aftermath of globalization and the terrible nearness of distant places" (in Enwezor's words), but on art's ultimate inadequacy within the socio-cultural-political-historical context. Refusing to fall into the trap of grand narratives and neat conclusions, Enwezor would have us realize that this vast art show is merely one-fifth of a decentralizing project: The first four "platforms" were scholarly conferences about burning issues on different continents. Bringing news of the woes of the world to Europe, this Documenta tells a sorry tale of globalization and its discontents. It has an agenda, as a fellow critic complained. But what exhibition doesn't?

The artist as target: a still from Feng Mengbo's Q4U (2001–02)
photo: Documenta 11
The artist as target: a still from Feng Mengbo's Q4U (2001–02)

At the press conference in Kassel, Enwezor insisted that Documenta 11 is "diagnostic" rather than "prognostic." And that seems to be the main complaint: Describing the crisis, it shows no way out. Yet it's a measure of the power of Enwezor's chilling vision that you never notice the near-total absence of works by artists exploring strategic naughtiness, dreamy adolescence, cinematic byplay, or their own navels—all ubiquitous on the gallery circuits lately. So let's receive this Documenta as the proclamation of a state of emergency. It's going to be a hard act to follow. And given the current events transpiring on our planet, it's really not fair to blame the messenger for the dire news.

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