Documenta XI and The Global Culture

Here There Was History – Culture Now Nothing

This puzzling inscription found graffitied on a crumbling church wall provides the title for Joellëe Tuerlinckx’s new installation and a loaded introduction to the international contemporary art exhibition Documenta XI. Calling into question the inter-dependent systems of religion, culture and history, the inscription does more than to revel in the flux of post-modern fragmentation; but rather de-stabilises the very foundations on which Western structures of thought have colonised and prospered. If religion, culture and history have been reduced to ‘nothing’, then how does the individual construct and affirm an understanding of their own identity? This crisis in the role of the individual in a world determined by the aftermath of colonisation and the impact of globalisation forms the central tenet for Documenta XI.

Documenta is a contemporary visual art exhibition held every five years in the German town of Kassel. Since its inception in 1955, it has grown to become arguably the world’s most important exhibition of contemporary art, commenting on and often setting future cultural agendas in visual arts practice. First conceived by artists Arnold Bode and Werner Haftmann, Documenta is rooted in a spirit of German post-war idealism. With an original intention of re-introducing a culturally isolated Germany to the most recent developments in international contemporary art, Documenta has become a platform for exploring the notion of art as global culture.

Early in its development, the artistic direction of Documenta was influenced by German artist Joseph Beuys, whose practice fused together shamanic systems of thought with a radical political agenda. Joseph’s synthesis of Western rationalism with Eastern spiritualism set the tone for an exhibition format that would mutually respect ideas of inclusivity and difference. His influence on the political and cultural agenda of Documenta was to challenge the Euro-centric bias in the visual arts, exposing the reality that when we speak of ‘high culture’ or the ‘fine arts’ it is actually a tradition restricted to a European cultural experience about which we refer. How to effect an exhibition ‘platform’ that supports cultural representation on a global scale has since been the pre-occupation of many artists, curators and art producers alike.

This year the challenge has been fittingly taken up with the appointment of the first non-European, black artistic director; Okwui Enwezor. Okwui’s Documenta XI questions how contemporary art, as a ‘material reflection’ on the world, confronts the spectres of ‘unceasing cultural, social and political frictions, transitions, transformations, fissures and global institutional consolidations.’ In the face of such global conflict, Okwui’s outlook is strikingly utopian, firmly believing in the purpose of art today as ‘knowledge production’, informing the shape and dynamics of the post-colonial world. Eschewing aesthetic debate in favour of global politics, Okwui’s ‘multi-cultural Documenta’ is one in which the role of the artist as social commentator, anthropologist and politico-agitator takes centre stage.

If Okwui’s ambitious project has any unifying aesthetic experience it is one firmly rooted in the documentary tradition. Photography and video are prioritised as Okwui uses an intelligent combination of the archival and the contemporary to throw into sharp relief current political tension.

Amar Kanwar’s film A Season Outside (1997) documents the public display of national identities on the Indian-Pakistan border crossing at Wagha. The film bears witness to the ritual opening and closing of the border performed by soldiers in an elaborate choreographed dance. Amar’s document of the performed confrontation situation explores the relationship between the construction of national identities and masculine bravado.

The transgression of geographical, cultural and political borders becomes a re-occurring theme. The beautifully crafted Shoes for Europe by the Moldavian artist Pavel Braila addresses a conceptual and historical fault-line separating East and West in the small frontier town of Ugheni on the Moldavian-Romanian border. The artist has covertly filmed the routine procedure of changing train wheels from the Russian gauge to standard gauge used in Romania and Western Europe – a discrepancy of 80mm. Providing an historic strategic juncture for the Soviet military, Ugheni today becomes a symbolic flash point for cultural and economic access to Western Europe.

Closer to home is the presentation of Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs (1986). Almost an hour in length, the film documents the riots that took place in Birmingham in the Thatcherite 80’s. The collage of disturbing scenes of violence and inner city poverty has been collated from existing newsreels, interviews and dramatisations. The film is a retrospective reclamation of Black history in Britain, an attempt to refute the received history mediated through institutionalised racism.

Okuwi Enwezor welcomes the implications and questions raised by presenting such archival work within the context of a contemporary art exhibition. That such inclusions disrupt the expected make-up of an international exhibition bears testimony to Okuwi’s belief in de-stabilising and breaking down the mainstream cultural experience. Referring to the classic novel of pre-colonial Africa Things Fall Apart (1958), Okuwi’s Documenta XI is one of cultural ruptures, breaks and fractures in which art becomes a force for delineating a post-colonial identity in a world after imperialism.

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