Daily reflections by Virginia MacKenny
Arrive in Kassel by train from Frankfurt and get off at the Wilhelmstrohebahnhof bestrewn with Documenta banners. There is a welcome desk for Documenta arrivals and a man called Michele proves particularly helpful in finding me a place to stay - phoning round and booking me a room in a relatively cheap hotel within fairly close proximity to the city centre, breakfast included and a shower of my own. He even calls me a taxi.
I am pleasantly surprised by my small but clean room. Opening the Kassel publicity magazine for Documenta 11, I find it 's all in German, but there is no mistaking the dominant image of Okwui Enwezor, presented God-like in a room with a striated ceiling which just happens to create the impression of a halo around him. It 's a portrait of a man who obviously commands this city at the moment. Enough said - I wait to see what kind of a world he has created, I mean curated, tomorrow.
Set off on the local bus for Documenta 11 - the hotel has a computer and they simply look up the bus timetables and you get a printout with all the possible permutations for the next hour - my bus arrives in three minutes - on time.
I go to the Press Office and receive my kit - maps as to the locations of the various exhibitions, a visitors' guide, a film programme, a discussions and events schedule, my pass and a short guide to all the artists (15 Euro for the short guide - the big catalogue is 55 Euro and not to be carried around the exhibition as it weighs a ton - though surprisingly given the text-dependent nature of this year's Documenta not as heavy as the last one - however there will be four further supporting texts from the four 'Platforms' of discussion held 1: Democracy Unrealised, 2: Experiments with Truth; Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation 3: Creolite and Creolisation, 4: Under Seige: Four African Cities: Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos). Thus equipped I set out to the Fridericianum, the central venue for every Documenta. Situated on the Friedrichsplatz it was this building that was restored after bombing in WW II and became the core for all subsequent Documentas.
Hanne Darboven's work dominates the three stories of the central well of the. Fridericianum. Concerned with numerical systems of sucession and repetition, mathematical composition, acts of counting or writing and the time taken by such acts her work provides a key for much of what is in this venue. Collecting, documenting, counting, archiving, history and texts produce works such as the 121 cut-out images from Der Spiegel of Isa Genzken, the quantities of blackened scrolls, paintings and artefacts of Chohreh Feyzdjou, Dieter Roth's 30 projector piece of all his old films, On Kawara's year by year inscription One Million Years intoned date by date by two readers throughout the show and Ecke Bonk's computerised presentation of the 350 000 entries in the Grimms' dictionary of German. Many of these works are exhaustive and exhausting, operating more lucidly in the mind than in physical actuality. Some, however, such as David Small's Illuminated Manuscript, a computerised book that fills with virtual text about text as the viewer moves their hand over the empty pages, is a magical engagement both conceptually and materially.
The recording of 'factuality' is the subje c of many of the works. A number of critics have already pointed out that Documenta 11 takes its name quite literally. Direct, often unedited, footage seems to proliferate. However it is those pieces that claim a position that attract me. There is a chilling and moving piece on the Rwandan genocide by Eyal Sivan who juxtaposes footage of the killings and the exhumation of Tutsis bodies with the rhetoric of Christian-inspired radio broadcasts that encouraged the massacres. Having lived in Uganda myself as a child, I found Zarina Bhimji's commentaryless video reflecting on her return to a Uganda assaulted by the violence of dictators and time was also particularly potent. Done with few images of actual people, the video marks the passing of their presence with blankets, clothes, shoes and shadows - particularly telling is an image of a prison courtyard showing the shadows of the day pull over the wall like a portent of things to come.
Shirin Neshat's double-screen projection has a kind of magic realism feel to it and it is one of the few works on show that provide inspirational relief to the litany of human cruelty and ignorance that dominate the exhibition. Depicting small groups of people converging on a tree/woman in a square, walled space it is mythic in its implications. My only concern is that perhaps the ending is too neat, too closed, too predictable as the figures swarm over the wall and the women�s figure in the tree vanishes into thin air.
On the same floor are Santu Mofokeng's large photographs of simple walls on Robben Island, not only the prison wall itself but the wall the prisoners built for a cattle kraal. Images of a wrecked ship and Mofokeng photographing himself as a reflection in the glass of a display at Auschwitz layer the banal and the atrocious with a personal history in a quiet way. Interestingly they are juxtaposed with Mona Hatoum's electrified domestic objects. These hum and intermittently glow; the colanders and sieves, the tables and chairs, the child's cot with its potty underneath suddenly become threatening implying an undercurrent in the apparently ordinary.
Nearby Glenn Ligon presents paintings in coal dust. They are visually arresting in their deeply black and glittering surfaces, stencilled with text from James Baldwin's 1935 essay A Stranger in the Village. Dealing with African-American civil rights they have a certain material and conceptual grittiness.
I make my way down to the work in the Documenta-Halle. It is dedicated to the most enormous amount of documentation, both visual and textual. There are videos, books, films and internet sites to be sampled. Generated most often by collectives, this is probably one of the core sites for Okwui's vision of dissemination of marginalized information. I, however, lacking the necessary stamina for such a venture, apart from locating some books on SA art in Meschac Gaba's library which is part of his Contemporary African Art Museum where I spot a Kentridge monograph and not surprisingly the catalogue for the Johannesburg Biennale, escape and go out to the Orangerie.
There I settle in for a while in the Simparch structure which provides nothing to look at except a space filled with low key ambient sound - quite a relief. Next up are the projects in the Orangerie park. Wet and muddy from unexpected heavy storms that caused the river to flood, and closed the boat bus made available for Documenta viewers, the park provided a necessary antidote to the conceptual overload I was suffering. Renee Green's Standardised Octagonal Units for Imagined and Existing Systems - small enclosures with sheets of primary colours and whispering reminders of the range of imaginative worlds we have created to escape this one - also seemed appropriate. Last up was Ken Lum's highly disorientating Mirror Maze with 12 Signs of Depression. Sandblasted phrases such as "I feel alone in the world" form possible points of identification for unsettled viewers who have lost their coordinates. A truly experiential installation the work has a very powerful and alienating effect.
Inspired by yesterday's successes I set out to the Kulturbahnhof at the station. Writing an article on the four South African artists in this year's Documenta (William kentridge, Santu Mofokeng, Kendell Geers and David Goldblatt) I am in search of Geers' contribution.
I enter first into Pavel Braila's video Shoes for Europe foolishly without checking how long it will be. The first few minutes are excruciatingly slow - filmed in real time virtually nothing happens. I cannot place the content bar noting that it is set in some industrial site, possibly a train station. Gradually I realise that this is the piece describing the change over of the wheels for different gauges as the trains cross the Moldovan-Romanian border. Without commentary the film takes us through the laborious process - I leave before it finishes having got the point. I notice on departure that the film takes 26 minutes - a mere smidgen of time compared to Jef Geys' 36 hour piece Day and Night and Day and... documenting every photograph he has ever taken in his life and a fleeting second in comparison to Stan Douglas' 100 day and night continuous video showing the local castle inhabited by spectres from the Brothers Grimm fairy tales that I saw part of yesterday. I whip past the Mona Hatoum piece that has a remarkable visual similarity to the work of Shirin Neshat with its calligraphic inscriptions but don't stop as all the headphones are busy.
I do stop however at what is to be a high point of the day; Seifollah Samadian's The White Station (1999). Samadian, an internationally recognised Iranian photojournalist, has successfully transferred his documentary skills into a piece that is poetic in its simplicity. Aptly described as a "filmic haiku" this 12-minute piece filmed from the maker's high-rise apartment gives credit to the "waiting stranger" who is the main character on a snow-driven street in Teheran. Here again virtually nothing happens in the film but every moment is engaging. Shot in colour it reads as a kind of animated black and white calligraphic statement. Opening with a white net curtain silhouetted black against a snow-bleached sky it focuses almost entirely on the simple image of an unidentified woman with an umbrella, her black chador swirling around her, battling against a snowstorm as she waits for a bus. Stark against the snow she is archetypal: a woman fighting the elements in a country rigid with the strictures of Islam. Thoroughly engaged, I watch it twice.
From there I move to Luis Camnitzer's beautiful yet powerfully disturbing photo engravings From the Ururaguayan Torture Series (1983-84). Simple images offset against text that disturbs conventional expectations - a comment on practicing everyday is positioned next to an image of a hand with pins through every fingernail, "her fragrance lingers on" is set against a finger wired to be electrified. The visual beauty of the images disturbs one doubly because aesthetic appreciation seems inappropriate with such content.
Next up is Indian documenter Ravi Agarwal with his images of a battered New Delhi juxtaposed to more recent Goldblatt works - a commissioned portrait of Johannesburg. More intensely detailed than the earlier black and white works depicting an apartheid Boksburg suburbia viewed in the Fridericianum, and full of obvious irony the works occasion animated discussion and much fingerpointing from the audience. Depicting Dainfern, a luxury property developme ear Johannesburg complete with a Gary Player designed golf course, the development is very closely situated to the Zewenfontein informal settlement. The contrast in lifestyles is hugely evident and the discomforting reality of this man-made Shangri-la is further emphasised by text that informs the viewer that the shiny futuristic pipeline bridge in the background carries 306 million tons of sewerage from Johannesburg each day. Goldblatt also turns his camera on Montecasino with its fake Tuscan fa�ade and parking lot clearly seen on the roof. Supplemented by other images, including one of Johannesburg seen as though it rests on an absolute mountain of rubbish, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots that still continues to exist in post-apartheid South Africa is clearly evident.
Goldblatt's work is juxtaposed with Bodys Isek Kingelez's cardboard utopian fantasies of inventive city structures. One such cityscape dominated by the twin towers telling reminds us of the vulnerability of such edifices. There are in the Kulturbahnhof many such constructions of the mind. Kendall Geers is here too with a disappointingly obvious set of photographs showing white South Africa's paranoia with security - countless security company signs on walled-in properties. Maybe it is because such observations are commonplace to those of us who live here or maybe it is because curatorially a point is being laboured that I move on. Later when I encounter his Shooting Gallery there is slightly more to engage with - slides of a cinematic image of a man being shot a number of times plays with mediated violence in a punning way.
As I move through the building a certain depression settles on me. Things go from bad to worse. Countless images of the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned or simply the deluded fill my vision. If this is our culture, and of course it is, then get me off the planet. The land reclamation projects of Julie Bargmann and Stacey Levy seem paltry and pale into insignificance barely registering on the scale as solutions when faced with the weight of real industrial and economic concerns with which so many of the artists are engaged.
I go to the Binding-Brauerei, the old brewery converted as a new site for this year's Documenta. Walking in I immediately come across the Igloolik Isuma Productions presentation of which I've heard good things. A docudrama of Inuit life set in the mid-forties, it serves as a means of preserving and passing on the tradition of a particular way of life that has been overtaken by modernity - 4000 years of oral tradition wiped out by 50 years of TV! My initial encounter does not go well - the Inuit group have just come across a hungry polar bear trying to grab a carcass - they shoot it and I, unable to stomach the desperate bear's failed attempt at escape, leave before they claim their bounty.
From there I walk into Allan Sekula's highly pessimistic photographic documentation Fish Story (1990-95). In it he tracks, through image and text, the decidedly unromantic life of maritime workers. The work focuses on industries that are threatened or dying and highlights details such as the permanent insomnia suffered by crews on ships because the ship's engines vibrate at the same rate as a human heart on amphetamines. I am finally brought down by the observation that "the gum disease of the future eats away at the teeth of the past". I flee. Dodging further images of Inuit slaughter I struggle on to the next room where Candida Hfer's bland photographic documentation contextualises the sites for the various casts of Rodin's Burghers of Calais. Unengaged in the self-reflective process of art viewing art, I head toward Louise Bourgeois who, in Documenta 9, blew me away with her construction of an enormous barrel, evoking an alchemist's cell, that completely blocked the passage between galleries.
This time round her work is on a more modest scale and less inspiring. Small, stitched, doll-like creatures incarcerated in cages, their soft forms hopelessly vulnerable, are surrounded by dozens of Bourgeois Insomnia drawings in red ink. These clearly indicate that Bourgeois cannot describe form in the traditional manner but can evoke, however, through her scribblings, a world of deeply personal experience where fears are encountered but hope may still be manifest.
Vaguely encouraged, I plough past Australian Destiny Deacon's 'blak' works (the term 'blak' is used here to indicate aborigine artists who are caught between cultures and do not subscribe to cultural expectations of 'authentic' aboriginal visions). Next up is Lorna Simpson's installation of 31 video monitors (Sarah Kent of London's 'Time Out' magazine posed the question many must have thought - "why 31?"). Known for her scrutiny of gender and race this work surveys a day in the life of two black women, who never meet. Presented asymmetrically, the monitors do not present any clear sequence and flood one with quantities of banal information - an overload that forced me to escape the building in the hope that tomorrow I would feel stronger to continue the task of working my way through this year's Documenta offerings.
Completely flattened, I give up on the discussion tabled for the Raqs Media Collective as well as the Isaac Julien movies. Unable to find a business that could develop my slides in less than five days I take refuge under a tree in an outside caf� where a much appreciated cappuccino and the unexpected arrival of a small travelling brass band which had the kids and adults alike jiving in the streets revived my sense of well-being whilst also making me acknowledge the privilege of such enjoyment in this conflicted world.
I hit the Binding-Brauerei again - this time better prepared. Studiously ignoring the Inuits who are by this time cutting the flippers off a seal, I head for the hi-tech production of Asymptote, a New York based architectur e firm that constructs virtual experimental and conceptual models of space. FluxSpace 3.0/M(otion)scapes is projected onto the floor; a turning, , three-dimensional form derived from a full-scale one in the room next door and then replicated ad infinitum in a series of mirrors - the whole becoming an environment akin to that inside a huge machine.
Machines and cities, constructions of the mind manifest in the physical world, or never realised as the case may be, appear again and again in this venue. Yona Friedman, a radical architect whose work was so utopian that it tended to remain on the drawing board or Carlos Garaicoa�s excavation of unfinished or unrealised architectural projects in Cuba are typical. Once again a rooms filled with models and drawings, an overload of information much of which remains inaccessible to my untutored eye. Instead I became engaged with Yinka Shonibare�s ribald and irreverent take on English 18th century aristocracy. Shonibare, who was recently seen at Camouflage in Johannesburg, creates a pantomime-like scene of different headless couples, and one interesting ménage-a-trois, fucking themselves witless amongst the boxes and packages of travel and dressed in the, by now de rigeur, Dutch print textiles of colonialism. Suspended over the entire lot is a Cinderella carriage perhaps signalling pumpkin hour is soon arriving.
Annette Messager's tragi-comedy tableau of soft toys suspended puppet-like from the ceiling packs an unexpected emotional punch given the amount of real horror seen in so many of the documentaries on this Documenta. Dislocated and rearticulated the stuffed toys are like violated bodies. Cuddly, but not comforting, they exist in limbo-land being jerked this way and that whilst an Eyeore-type creature is dragged round and round the perimeter of the installation by a mechanical pulley. Intense and disturbing.
I never get to see Steve McQueen's work as it is always closed but what a pleasure to see Isaac Julien's Paradise/Omeros. It explores the dualism of a world divided into love and hate, black and white utilising the narrative of a young black immigrant to Britain in a story that has fable-like qualities. Making intelligent use of three screens that sometimes carry the whole image and at other times reinforce the dualism of the subject the work is both mythic and pertinently real. Julien does not lose his audience and paces his work to a tight 20 minutes.
Another artist who makes intelligent, not gratuitous, use of multi-screen presentation is Eija-Liisa Ahtila, a Finnish artist currently showing at the Tate Modern. Very cool and detached Ahtila's work often conveys an event from different perspectives whether visual or personal. In the Documenta piece like much of her work she explores the breakdown of common perception to a point of psychological instability. Here one kind of reality is seen to penetrate another. The noise of her car, although parked outside, follows a woman inside her house. A cow, seen on TV, traipses through her lounge. Whilst the woman is conversing with a friend she hears the sound of water as though she were next to it. As realities dissolve and interpenetrate around her the protagonist retreats into her house, sewing black curtains so she can't see the outside world and how it differs from the sounds she hears. As the curtains are drawn so the screens blank out and the audience, like the woman, is transported into a world evoked by sound. Made cunningly aware of the difference between the reality we know we are in (an exhibition venue in Kassel) and what we are hearing we are drawn into the tale and asked to question our certitude in own perceptions of reality.
Outside the billboard scale 'paintants' of Fabian Marcaccio engage with the problematic of placing painting in the contemporary discourse. Half commercially printed, half painted the works play with materiality through optical illusion as well as huge gobs of a kind of plasticised paint. Engaging a graphic comic book look the works are part tongue-in-cheek and part serious and assert that there is still room for painting.
Rather by accident than design the very last thing I see at the Binding-Brauerei is William Kentridge's animation. His opera The Confessions of Zeno took pride of place at the opening of Documenta 11 but has since moved on and I have yet to see it. By all accounts though it was not deemed the most successful of his endeavours. Critiqued as more of an operetta than an opera it was seen as too slight a story to carry the load that Kentridge required. His remaining animation picks up on aspects of the story of the chain-smoking Zeno and engages with it in 11 minutes in a rich and satisfying way. Kentridge's expanded repertoire of cutouts, silhouettes, direct filming and documentary footage operate well with his trademark draw/erase/draw technique. Whilst I am not sure whether Kentridge brings anything particularly new to the table with this work it shows a visual acuity and imaginative wit not seen in many other works that overly rely on letting the facts speak for themselves.
Given that Okwui's prime agenda is, in his own words, one of taking on the immense task of engaging with the "unceasing cultural, social, and political frictions, transitions, transformations, fissures and global institutional consolidations" in a world full of what he calls "deterritorialisations" Documenta 11 has a serious bias. It is seriously serious, and sometimes a little top-heavy because of it. With a propensity to overburden the viewer with quantities of information comes the attendant tendency to be slightly didactic and whilst curatorial decisions re the juxtapositions of work are canny they can sometimes, in reinforcing the argument, lead to an overstating of the case. Designed to give greater credence and a larger arena to the marginalized in this age of globalisation the show is still essentially created for a western audience within a westernised context. Supporting texts (in a highly academic English) remain inaccessible to many in post-colonial and third world countries leaving the debate to the privileged elite and the paucity of visitors of colour that I observed whilst I was there might also attest to that.
There are some other interesting anomalies - India for instanc e made its very first showing at this year's Documenta - except that it wasn't the work of Indian artists that we saw but the work of a photojournalists and media collectives - Indian artists are still as marginalized as ever. Also given that one of the briefs for Documenta 11 is the engagement with the world it, is astonishing how hermetic it is. Not only in some cases conceptually but also physically. I didn't see Documenta X but did see Documenta 9 and came away from that show with a sensation that the art had spread out into the town insinuating itself into the the public domain in many more ways than this Documenta - most of my time was spent moving from darkened space to darkened space - which could have been anywhere.
One of the pros of this Documenta, however, is the amount of new work to be seen. Whilst there are a good number of works that are presented that already have a certain historical iconic status in the art world, such On Kawara's One Million Years and Hanne Darboven who has been on four Documentas (!), apparently over 70% of the works are newly commissioned. Also the few painters who are evident don't fare badly - in Documenta 9 I thought painting had upped and died - Golub, Lignon and Marciacco amongst others still have something to say. There were also some works that really stayed with one - no mean feat given the quantity of work one had to wade through.
It is certainly a blockbuster of a show - at the halfway point of 50 days on July 28 over 302,765 visitors had seen it and 9,500 press representatives. Unlike its poor second-cousin the European biennial 'Manifesta 4' that was on in Frankfurt at the same time (which, hoping to cash in on a travelling international audience, shot itself in the foot and disappeared off the radar screen in comparison) the show will influence contemporary thought on both the nature of exhibitions and culture's engagement with the world for quite a time to come. Frustrating, yes, exhausting, yes, but has it dropped out of my head, definitely not.
Documenta 11, at Kassel, Germany, runs until September 15.
Details: 00 49 561 70 7270; www.documenta.de