Published  19/11/2002

Documenta 11

Documenta 11

Australia is often out of synch with much of the rest of the world. The progressive Whitlam Labour era of the 1970s was described as 'half an hour ahead'; more recently the conservative and xenophobic Howard government was accused as having, 'putting the clock back to the 1950s'. Prosperity then was achieved under the stewardship of Howard's mentor Robert Menzies, within the confines of a 'white Australia policy', and the lack of citizenship or voting rights for indigenous Australians, and the perpetration of the 'stolen generation'.

Having been immersed in the 13th Biennale of Sydney, it was illuminating to visit Documenta 11 in Kassel this year. The former began in 1955, the latter in 1963, and each resolved to provide a platform for their respective country's leading artists to enter a dialogue with their international peers, the one driven by previous devastation, the other by isolation.

Documenta was the curatorial offspring of Nigerian-born, New York and Kassel-based Okwui Enwezor and a sextet of co-curators from South and North America, South Africa, Europe and the United Kingdom. It provided a very serious and committed exhibition, preceded by four platforms on four continents. They explored social, political and philosophical issues, each of relevance to the fifth platform, Documenta II in Kassel. The last named confronted the traumas of displacement, forced migration - both legal and illegal - of the boat people and the refugee situation, of politicised global bullying, harassment and coercion in its various forms. It also examined the largely uncaring menace of increasingly globalised economies and centralised production. It was an exhibition that, as you would expect, had a considerable African presence. It also had a weighty Palestinian focus, and one of its great strengths was the way in which it presented such a wide range of alternative views that the observer was constantly being asked to question a status quo. Although there was only one representative from Australia, the indigenous artist Destiny Deacon, it did mean that this country's politically inhumane behaviour was not overlooked, and the exhibition made painfully clear its inability and seeming unwillingness, at many levels, to put the key issues up for objective and honest debate.

At the same time as this hard-hitting, but very open, Documenta was making such a mark, both in public numbers and critical response (and as always there were negative voices), in Sydney Richard Grayson's (The World May Be Fantastic) was equally successful. Born in England, Grayson had run the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide for many years, and became the first practising artist to curate a Sydney Biennale, with assistance in the formative stages from an advisory panel consisting of Ralph Rugoff based in California, American-born, London-based Susan Hiller and Janos Sugar from Budapest. The exhibition's title helps convey its premise: Fictions Fakes Fabrications Models Miniatures Hypotheses Conspiracy theories. It did not propose that people look seriously at what was happening politically in this country, nor did it present the audience with the views of those who had been ill-treated here. But this was never its intention, and it was conceived well before the 'fictitious' refugee children overboard saga that helped return the Howard government to power, as well as September 11. What, however, the two quite different projects reveal is two dissimilar zeitgeists; one committed to analysing and questioning oppression and the oppressors, one turning a blind eye to the problems and their ramifications. A colleague, Anne Kirker, put it succinctly in writing on Documenta for the Brisbane publication Eyeline: 'I was chastened into thinking that here in Australia we are inured to pleasure. Seemingly far removed from catastrophic world happenings and in denial of fully appreciating the fall-out from major genocide, we may not register the moral and ideological pressures on artists living elsewhere'.

One project encapsulated the fundamental nature of this Documenta. A Journey Through a Solid Sea, 2002, the work of an Italian-based collective Multiplicity, provided a harrowing examination of the sinking in the Mediterranean in 1996 of a fishing boat, sailing under the Maltese flag with 283 Pakistani, Indian and Sri Lankan clandestine refugees on board. The largest Mediterranean cemetery since World War II, it was long denied by local authorities. This event, at the heart of so much current contestation, is movingly examined from every relevant angle by the collective, including interviews with the surviving sea captain; it so convincingly immerses the viewer in the subject and opens awareness in the most powerful and lasting manner.

There are too many other provocative and moving works to name them all; but David Goldblatt, Santu Mofokeng, Julie Bargman/Stacy Levy, Zarina Bhimji, Tania Bruguera, Meschac Gaba, Leon Golub, Mona Hatoum, William Kentridge, Annette Messager, Ryuji Miyamoto, Yinka Shonibare, Ouattara Watts, Eyal Sivan and Luc Tuymans helped make this an utterly memorable Documenta II. And, as so often, a new space was stunningly realised; this time it was the Brewery.

Nick Waterlow

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