Documenta 11 : Nicole Katz


Documenta 11 - Platform 5 Kassel -Nicole Katz
June 8 - September 15

Documenta, the exhibition, is the fifth in a series of discourses (or platforms) exploring the spaces inhabited by culture in our global society. From March 2001 to September 2002, in Vienna, New Delhi and elsewhere, the following worthy subjects were debated: Platform 1: Democracy Unrealized; Platform 2: Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice & the Processes of Truth & Reconciliation; Platform 3: Creolite & Creolization (an exploration of global cultural miscegenation) and Platform 4: Under Siege: Four African Cities, Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos. Kassel, the last of the platforms, is in the words of the Artistic Director, Okwui Enwezor, said to give concrete form to all of Documenta 11.

The scale and ambition of Documenta 11's mandate is both heart-warming and frustrating. The global trend in the art world towards self-consciously socially engaged art is an understandable, even laudable, response to the wholesale emptiness of corporatised popular culture in our increasingly wealthy capitalist/democratic societies; especially when contrasted with the astounding poverty that continues to flourish in the rest of the world. And so art has come to be an extension of activism. Art as a place where inequalities are acknowledged and for a time redressed. Art as a place where the most cruelly oppressed can scream, and presumably, be heard.

To put it another way: Equal Opportunity Art. Palestinian despair. Uruguayan torture. Congolese resistance. Moldovan railway workers. Black/white tension in the UK. Contemporary Lebanese historians. Inuits under siege. In a way there's something Utopian about all these groups and issues intersecting and colliding in the generous embrace of the art world. And after all, where else do you get to see and hear about all these things?

But on the ground, the complex and ambitious mandate of Documenta 11 translated into a stunning array of artistic banality. It felt like the art world's answer to the Earth Summit. Every oppressed minority represented, irrespective of artistic merit. Endless rooms of installations that looked suspiciously like libraries, offices and information booths jammed with reams of A4 paper explanations. Stills and videos that looked like they'd been lifted straight from National Geographic, and worse still, CNN.

Perhaps it is a measure of the degree of desperation felt by these people (for I hesitate to call them artists) that has lead them to communicate in such plain and direct language. Perhaps it is this that fuels their desire to deal in facts and figures rather than metaphors and images. Perhaps the last place for these people to turn to is the art world. All these possibilities may be true, but what sings truest of all is that no matter how eloquently the curators and directors and academics and critics and collectors shout about this kind of work, prose can never be transmuted into poetry.

There were, mercifully, some notable exceptions to this general rule, but not nearly as many as hoped for. These were, disappointingly, almost all by established artists. But perhaps I am being exigent and idealistic, for some say that a single gem among hundreds is worth the trek to Kassel. And in some ways, I am inclined to agree. For it felt like some kind of magic, winding through room after room of work in search of those moments. And however few and far between, those gems have pleasantly lodged in the visual memory and continue to weave their artistic spells.

In Shirin Neshat's Tooba on two screens facing off, men and women are again polarised and unreconciled. In the green sepia of a lonely mountain landscape, a lone woman stands by a single tree that has been bricked in. Her skin is worn as the tree's bark. Opposite a band of men are slowly and menacingly advancing on the woman/tree. Just as they scale the wall, she dissolves into the tree. Tooba is an imaginary and allegorical place, but one that is also biblical and primal. Neshat, as ever, has surrounded herself with an expert film crew. The camera is sharp and devoid of sentimentality; the music is taut but lyrical; and the editing so beautifully coordinated that in spite of only ever seeing the screens side-on, you never for a second feel lost. On the contrary, this feels like an entirely different way of seeing.

William Kentridge's Zeno Writing is a frantically paced animation made using not more than twenty charcoal drawings that are constantly reworked and reframed. There are amorphous, numb landscapes; maddening ledgers containing blind columns of texts and numbers; iron lace that decorates and suffocates; bourgeois interiors with grotesque dancing chairs; and most memorable of all a possessed typewriter with keys that jump up and flail about like a drowning man waving his arms. Words and images appear only to be melancholically smudged out seconds later. Kentridge simultaneously evokes the landscape of the mind and the landscape of war and hatred/the political landscape of his native South Africa. Each of the five acts, for the atmosphere is decidedly theatrical, are bracketed by black smoke rising and black smoke falling. Appearing, disappearing, recurring and reinventing.

In Homebound, Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum takes you inside to a place that looks like your home gone very wrong. The room is wired off with sharp, smoothe wires. Beyond that all of the familiar domestic apparatus, much of it skeletal and metallic, are connected by electric wires and heavy clamps. Periodically an object lights up and emits a pitiful wail, like a man gasping for his last breath. The title of the piece may be taken quite literally, whether the person inside be homebound because dying, or homebound because a political prisoner, or simply a civilian caught in the crossfire of a monstrous war.

Her name was Chantal Feyzdjou. She was born in Tehran in 1955 and died in Paris in 1996. Her piece, Products of Chantal Feyzdjou, is an enormous installation with hundreds of blackened, obscure objects. Each one of these, on sooty, mauve labels, bears the title of the piece. Rows of dirty bottles, jars and sachets containing incomprehensible, dead objects. Crates of black gunk and bolts of filthy fabrics and most disturbing of all canvases hanging from stretchers like raw hides at a tannery. The gross morbidity of the installation in the cavernous main of hall of the museum, coupled with the strangely intimate and obsessive labelling of each one of these futile objects, gives the effect of being inside the artist's very own sarcophagus.