Diatribe or art?
`Documenta II' at Kassel, Germany, may be viewed as something of a harbinger of art in the 21st Century. The dominant issue that runs through the exhibition is one of human displacement, writes GAYATRI SINHA.
"Half timbered facades" (1971-73), Bernd and Hilla Becher
WITH perverse predictability, perhaps, most 20th Century art has been devoted to destroying Ruskin's notion of art as mimesis. In more recent times, in an overt act of valour, art has pervaded social and political disciplines to become a volatile commentator on societies. In the continually shifting borders of the global battlefield it has assumed the role of a sixth estate of the community of nations and beauty be damned.
"Documenta II" at Kassel, Germany (from June to September 2002) may be viewed as something of a harbinger of art in the 21st Century. In the late 1950's, "Documenta" was established by Arnold Bode, in this small industrial town, as a step towards reintegrating post-war Germany into mainstream Europe. Over a period of time "Documenta" grew in influence even as it retained its eurocentricity.
This year that cover has been blown with ill-disguised intent in "Documenta II". Nigerian born curator Okwui Enwezor has opted to display art from the margins through works that actively challenge the very site of the wealthy developed nation in which they are being exhibited. There are a few internationally renowned artists such as France's Louis Bourgeois and Annette Messager, the celebrated Vietnamese Trin ti Minh Ha, and Alfredo Jaar, among others. But the broad selection appears to be based as much on issues of art making as of ethics and social responsibility. Arguably, Enwezor takes an enormous risk in pushing the exhibition to the brink of what its critics describe as pure polemic. The world press has been quick to react and question if political diatribe constitutes art.
Essentially Enwezor, with his team of six curators, has taken the fight to what he calls "globalisation and the terrible nearness of distant places". This is a double edged attack. On the one hand it seeks to expose how globalism has deflated the power of the avante garde to introduce radical change. On the other, it forcefully extends the forum beyond "art" to culture and politics.
In the process, "Documenta II" wrests the focus away from the eurocentricity with its power of patronage to the globally displaced. Displacement and diaspora which is a consequence of slavery and colonialism and the unresolved struggles for livelihood and territoriality have always been a subject for social and political discourse. At "Documenta II", they assertively become the stuff of art.
Of course these issues are politically loaded. If the Palestinian refugee, the Chinese boat stowaway and the victims of Ground Zero or September 11 are sympathetically represented, they presuppose the complicity or the political culpability of the "other". The other in turn is both the subject and maker of art that, in fact, can be displayed with the same validity at the same venue. Even if we accept the complications of multiple view points, the target, nevertheless, is the flawed social models of westernism perpetuated as the only model in large parts of the world. Perhaps necessarily then, the exhibition predetermines the sites and the issues of enquiry. Within such an objective format, the artist essentially moves out of himself to examine human settlements as they are borders, camps, cities, routes, streets, structure as areas of a leading discourse. The tools used through much of the exhibition are also traditionally associated with documentation rather than art film, video, printed text and photography.
Zarina Bhimji is a model participant. An Indian settled in Uganda, Africa, her family was uprooted a second time after Idi Amin gave the Asian community three months to quit Uganda in 1972, even as the British authorities were determined to restrict entry by Asians from Africa. Based as she is in Britain, Bhimji now returns to the Uganda of her memory disused factories, armament depots, derelict warehouses, abandoned spaces. Her style as a film maker is sharply non-narrative and as the camera lingers over cob webs, buzzing insects, derelict spaces and the terrible fear and urgency that accompanied the Asian diaspora and flight outward, we gain a sense of waste and the "forgetting" that is such an inevitable part of historical process.
Among the Indian participants, the focus was essentially on displacement and territoriality. The Raqs Collective from Delhi, like other group participants from other parts of the world, turned the focus from individual to collective art production and issues. Raqs' installation invited responses to the multiple, frequently conflicting efforts to "control" city spaces in Delhi. It found an echo in David Goldblatt's photographs of areas of contested control in South Africa.
Goldblatt's photographs suggest how airports, city streets and parking lots are sites which do not belong to any class of the citizenry but take on a racist hue. Michael Ashkin, American photographer, also presented a dead pan photographic view of the New Jersey Meadowlands, which in ironic contradiction to the Raqs project, show how city debris and spaces full of detritus have no claimants. Thus parts of the city dumps, landfills and junkyards are both unpeopled and unclaimed, yet perversely organic in the manner in which junk simply accumulates and grows. The city is also the subject of German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher who use a highly formal style to record urban houses, describing their work as "anonymous sculptures", but which emphasise the sheer monotonous shuttered look that grips dwellings. Individual artists also record the dehumanising effect of the city on the body in which the latter is a laboratory for experimentation as much as tired sensual stimulation.
The dominant issue, however, that ran through the exhibition like a mottled angry vein was one of human displacement. Amar Kanwar, Delhi-based film maker created for "Documenta II" the film "Of Poetry and Prophecies", on song and poetry as a record of aspiration in contemporary India. Also screened was his highly personal view of conflict and separation "A Season Outside" (1997). Beginning with the ritual "performance" of separation enacted at the Wagah border, the film philosophises quite beautifully on the nature of division and displacement. Kanwar's position was echoed in the work of artists from seemingly disparate parts of the world. A powerful work by Chantal Akerman "From the Other Side", was shown simultaneously on 18 monitors. Its subject is the check posts of New Mexico, in which America is the desired land, one which Mexicans try to slip into, to be caught and incarcerated or tortured to death. The voice of the displaced or homeless is very movingly demonstrated in a powerful collaboration between Fareed Armaly and Rashid Masharam who present little reported aspects of Palestinian life, living on the margins of separation and homelessness in their own land.
If these are issues that require will and a collective consciousness, then these too involve collective representation. "Documenta II" will stand out for incorporating the collective vision from different parts of the world. Thus works have come in from the Raqs Collective in Delhi and Huit Facettes, a Senegalese group that lets local idioms fly in the face of globalism. Le Group Amos from Congo is made up of a clutch of Christian activists who believe in inspiration as a tool of change, the Atlas Group records contemporary Lebanese history, and there is even a voice for the Inwui in Igloolik Isuma productions which speaks of societal change in the younger generations of the Inwui.
Certainly this is a powerful effort to make the margins move into the centre.
In such an exhibition, one can see how traditional art teaching methods have become fairly redundant, and the avidity with which the tools of new media are used to communicate. But whether "Documenta II" will be finally viewed as an aberration, or mark a new step in the role and purpose of art is still a matter for the future.
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