Published  18/09/2002

Kassel Documenta

Kassel Documenta

By Andrey Kovalev

Kassel Documenta is commonly compared to the Olympic games, but, being an inhabitant of former Eastern Empire, I remember great all-Union exhibitions held in the USSR, where regional unions of artists struggled fiercely for the right to ‘represent’. The rhetorical scheme designed to justify these pragmatic actions (‘National diversity of Socialistic realism’) bore a somewhat suspicious resemblance to today’s postcolonial terminology.

Despite Documenta’s curator Okwui Enwezor announcing the end of Eurocentrist era to be his primary goal, one must as well draw attention to the fact that he is not only the first non-European curator of Documenta, but also a New York intellectual with a rapper’s attitude. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to declare not the end of globalisation era, but changing of vector and transition from a Roman type empire with a Senate, CNN, gladiator arenas, McDonalds and aqueducts to a Byzantine model, where only basic religious concepts are unified, while local cultures develop in their own ways.

It is notable that they blame Enwezor for swindling, as many artists whom he thinks to be representing the ‘Second world’, are already living in metropolises and have become members of the international elite. It is quite understandable, since contemporary art is product of gladiators, lance-knights, legionaries, mercenaries, soldiers of fortune, pilgrims, conquistadors, double agents. For me the best example of that are Svetlana and Igor Kopystiansky, who were brought up in complicated traditions of Moscow conceptualism and are now ‘playing’ for German and American clubs. Their work titled ‘The Flow’ is represented by several TV screens showing various leftovers of civilization, such as rubber gloves, plastic cans etc., floating in muddy flows of water. A radical answer to the demand for self-identification is performing some non-committal meditation.

Art critics have already noted that perhaps the only place where the ‘9/11 trauma’ is interpreted is a huge catalogue preceded by a series of ‘hot shots’ — homeless in the streets of New York, Milosevic under trial etc. The funniest thing about this scientific volume is futurology, which, as it is well known, has already become an exclusive prerogative of Big Hollywood. For example, Boris Groys, honored by sceptical Russian intellectuals, argues that art is a form of life, while a work of art is a mere documentation of this form of life. In this case it is natural that most installations selected by Enwezor looked like scenery for just another Hollywood blockbuster.

But curator’s work was indeed delicate, because that somewhat cinematographic attitude was counterbalanced by many works which resembled illustrations for UNESCO famine fighting reports. Real horrors still happen out there, on the farthermost border of Oykumena (but the best compliment one can pay to Enwezor is not even his politicized New York intellectual’s attitude, but instead delicate and productive curator’s work).

Documenta, having survived both Jan Hoet’s hysterical fits and Catherine David’s iron will, suddenly became perfectly logical American style show). In the very heart of Fridericianum museum, near Documenta’s front entrance, installations of two minimalist classics are located. On Kawara arranged a lengthy action titled ‘One million years’ by publishing a series of thick volumes containing lists of all dates for a million years. Hanne Darboven (Life, living) following the same cold style, covered museum’s walls with papers sheets with some texts that turned out to be meaningless combinations of numbers. Back there in the 60s minimalists proved the fact that no sign meant anything. Perhaps minimalism and conceptualism gain subversive meaning when reduced to some baroque verve, and communication becomes an attraction that boasts its meaninglessness. For example, a discotheque ball in Cerith Wyn Evans’s installation ‘Cleave 02’ transmits into the world quotes from William Blake in Morse code, and ‘Illustrated manuscript’ by an American artist David Small prevents the spectator from reading electronic books.

Contemporary art becomes an enormous attraction, a horror room. But every museum or gallery is supposed to be a place for taking delight in the Beautiful, so that high pathos turns into its opposite. Perhaps the point is in the spirit of location — on every corner of Kassel, the Grimm brothers’ home town, slow-witted travellers encounter dangers that are destinied to have a happy end. When you get inside Cuban artist’s Tania Bruguera installation, it looks like Orwell’s Ministry of love — floodlights into your eyes, clicking of a gun breech, someone’s steps behind your back. Escape and you can go on — for example, to a London Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum’s installation (Wheelchair II): interior — a kitchen table and bed — is tied around and fenced with wire that produces a typical high-voltage line sound. Being an adherent of realism in art, I touched the wire.

Nothing happened. Art is still an illusion, even when it boasts its ‘vitality’, like Artur Barrio’s project titled ‘Idea-situation’ — a big dirty room with fine ground coffee spilled onto the floor. Spectators walk on this precious dirt and hardly ever think that the artist in fact intended to emphasise the problem of neocolonialism and exploitation of natural resources in his motherland of Brazil. But sometimes this political attraction style mutates into a real horror room, like in the work of a Canadian Chinese artist Ken Lum. A small pavillion located in the park is filled with mirrors, and you can see yourself in a moving away perspective and stumble into these awful and dangerous mirrors with various sentences inscribed on them, things that nervous ladies usually say to psychoanalysts.

However, the actual state of international contemporary art is not that pitiable. Yinka Shonibare (Gallantry and Criminal Conversation), a British artist, exhibited a work that inspired some optimism — headless dummies in 18th century costumes making love in every imaginable position. What is really required of modern art is a good sight and positive emotions.

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