The first Documenta of what artistic director Okwui Enwezor calls “an already less than promising century” is elegant, intelligent, and sleekly installed. The curatorial vision is generous, complex, and remarkably coherent. The art is relevant and political, exactly as the eloquent Enwezor had promised.
Updating the founder’s original intent, which was to bring to post-war Germany the latest developments in modern art from the rest of Europe, Documenta 11 (which continues through September 15) brings to Europe the latest developments from the rest of the struggling, globalizing, postcolonial world. Jan Hoet’s Documenta IX missed its historic chance to bring new art from the former Soviet empire into the fold in 1992. Catherine David’s Documenta X in 1997 talked the talk about inclusion, but flubbed it with exclusionist hauteur. Enwezor, with a team of six co-curators, delivers on his promise.
He delivers all too well. The advance list, studded with big-name artists, provoked expectations of a safe, low-risk show. The exhibition, however, stuns viewers into silence. With curatorial intelligence, it connects a plethora of unanticipated dots. It succeeds in bringing issues of genocide, poverty, political incarceration, industrial pollution, earthquake wreckage, strip-mine devastation, and news of fresh disasters into the inviolable white cube. With 415 works by 180 artists from five continents, a large percentage commissioned for the occasion, the show alludes to hostages, captives, witnesses, perpetrators, illegal immigrants, and truth commissions. It explores the representation of border disputes, contested territories (such as Pakistan/India or Palestine/Israel), and collapsing urban space. Nasty metal bed frames, used every which way, are a leitmotiv in an exhibition in which the most effective aesthetic strategy is often the use of photojournalistic and documentary formats. And before you fault certain works for rampant exoticism, consider that the local color signifies, as Enwezor has noted, “not an elsewhere but a deep entanglement.” As Sarat Maharaj, one of the co-curators, puts it, this Documenta negotiates “the tension between the foreign and the familiar in the xenographic space that is Europe today.”
The show pits architectural dreams of the urban future (by Dutch visionary Constant, Zairean fantasist Bodys Isek Kingalez, Cuban idealist Carlos Garaicoa) against images of structural and social failure in the very imperfect present. It turns messy studio accumulations by Dieter Roth and Ivan Kozari´c into a foil for Georges Adéagbo’s equally cluttered but far more politicized accumulation of street-smart stuff encompassing the history of African exploration and exploitation. And, attempting to come to terms with unbearable imminence, this Documenta intersperses universalizing delusions of quantification—On Kawara’s One Million Years (read out loud for 100 days), Hanne Darboven’s endless pages, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s inventory of industrial-zone images, Ecke Bonk’s scrolling dictionary—with works about excruciating and hideously specific far-flung local particularities, including Zarina Bhimji’s filmic return to Uganda and William Kentridge’s latest war-torn animation, which aims straight for the tear ducts. Foregrounding the politics of representation, it amplifies all kinds of instabilities—cultural, social, and structural collapse—and provokes dialogues among works by artists, such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Isaac Julien, and Shirin Neshat, who previously seemed to have little in common.
Of course the international artworlders swarming through Kassel didn’t remain silent for long. By the third preview day, petty complaints began to surface. “It’s political, it’s gutsy, it’s the kind of show you want to like,” waffled an art dealer. “It’s got no humor. Nothing made me laugh or even smile,” complained a critic from Central Europe. “As an Asian woman I am completely excluded,” griped a museum board member from Taipei, accusing Nigerian-born and -bred Enwezor of being part of the Westernized elite. “I just wish,” said a collector plaintively, “that the art world would stop being CNN.”
Political correctness? Not exactly. The first works that confront you in the Fridericianum, formerly the main exhibition space, are Leon Golub’s menacing canvases about abuse of power, uneasily sharing a gallery with Doris Salcedo’s brutalized chairs. Across the hall is an overwhelming installation of brutally blackened crates, bundles, trunks, jars, and racks of rolled drawings—capable of vanquishing perennial Documenta ghost Joseph Beuys—by the late Chohreh Feyzdjou, an Iranian-born Jew.
But this Documenta’s decentralized heart is the vast old Binding Brewery, which houses the newest, largest, and sometimes most gratuitous works, including Simparch’s skateboard pit. Louise Bourgeois’s crumpled rag dolls in cells are sadly upstaged by Annette Messager’s overblown installation of kinetic stuffed body parts, which drags one inert beast endlessly around its periphery. Mark Manders’s anti-Eden of android Adams, lab rats, and crematorium apparatus is portentous and pretentious. Fabian Marcaccio’s vast virtual mural—swarming with panicky urbanity, bloody brush strokes, and other ropy mutations of the painterly, the photographic, and the digital—wins hands down for raw acreage as well as excess of garbled global relevance. Yinka Shonibare’s grand-tour tableau, an orgy of fornicating imperialists, may be blatant but it gets the essential question of this Documenta right: Who’s screwing whom?
The vast show has more than its share of visual and conceptual excellence, including Feng Mengbo’s shooting-gallery computer game, Mona Hatoum’s electrified room installation, Jeff Wall’s Ralph Ellison-inspired lightbulb-bedecked lightbox image, Alfredo Jaar’s Lament of the Images (with three glowing texts about withheld images and a blindingly bright blank screen), and David Small’s interactive virtual book. There are powerful works by the Atlas Group, among whose archival conceits is an inventory of car bombs (make, model, and color) exploded in Beirut during the Lebanese wars; by Raqs Media Collective, which delineates the dispossession of urban space in New Delhi; and by Multiplicity, whose ID: Journey Through a Solid Sea exposes the Italian cover-up of a shipwreck of immigrants.
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?
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.