Global art: Of catastrophes, redemptive gestures
Documenta 11, the latest edition of the legendary show of international contemporary art may be seen as a heroic, but flawed, attempt as an encyclopaedic register. For here is presented the effect of the flows of globalisation in specific, local situations, their material impact and the imaginaries they generate. Thus, even the most abstract of the 415 art-works that bear a visceral relationship to the hopes and terrors of the subaltern and the marginalised everywhere are deeply coloured by political preoccupations, concludes RANJIT HOSKOTE.
Bodys lsek Kingelez has gained recognition for his vibrant and meticulously ornate phantom cityscapes made out of glue, paper, carton, plywood and miscellaneous materials from the packaging industry. By reworking the trauma of colonialism, he shows us how architecture becomes the carrier of social meaning and hierarchies.
THE term `global art' has often been employed in the past as a loose placeholder to describe contemporary art across the planet at any given moment. In recent years, however, this category has come to bear a specific connotation: it stands for a kind of art that transcends territorial borders, national cultures, regional legacies of theme, style and ideological preoccupation. It was inevitable, perhaps, that the epoch of globalisation should have produced such an art, whose practitioners, though located in countries of varying economic attainment and cultural texture, are linked by certain common concerns. Among these are the major effects of globalisation: the experiential consequences of the revolution in communications technology; altered conceptions of community, mobilisation, individual identity and mobility; and, preeminently, the apocalyptic horrors of war, environmental degradation, and neo-tribalist conflict. Formally, the new global art is richly varied in its gamut of tones, hybrid in its combination of media, and versatile in the techniques by which it makes images and constructs a public for itself. Documenta 11, the latest edition of the legendary exhibition of international contemporary art held every five years since 1955 in the small German town of Kassel, served as a barometer to these emergent positions in global art.
Documenta was originally intended to re-connect a Germany isolated by Nazism and World War II with the mainstream of European and American modernist art; it has changed shape and purpose, subtly or dramatically, with every artistic director who has presided over it. But no previous edition of Documenta has had to bear such a weight of expectation as Documenta 11 did. Long before it opened this summer like a flight taking off along a runway formed by four discussion platforms, staged at venues across the globe over 2001-2002 Okwui Enwezor's appointment as its artistic director had been seen as an augury of radical changes to come. Many Western critics assumed, somewhat naively, that the Nigerian-born, New York-based curator would act as an "ambassador of the periphery to the centre", a bearer of news from elsewhere. In sharp contrast, many of the `peripherals' whose envoy Enwezor was believed to be, saw in him an émigré, a diasporic figure adept at playing native informant and prospector on behalf of the First World, while actually pursuing his own agenda of dismantling the primacy of the art-work in favour of the political and cultural contexts of its production. Enwezor is certainly a challenger of the Euro-American ascendancy that dominates the global art circuit but he acts under the sign of a sophisticated disciplinary re-conceptualisation, not that of an uncomplicated Third-Worldist vision.
Enwezor's intellectual ambition for Documenta 11 was considerable. He underlined the shift of emphasis from the expressive to the discursive in the framing of art practice; from a politics embodied in aesthetic form, to a demonstrative politics of which the art-work is only one possible outcome. Consequently, in his exhibition, the art-work is not a scene of intimate significance, but a testimony of engagement with the crucial existential issues of its epoch and locale. Documenta 11 seeks to move away from the idioms of art-making sanctioned by the aesthetic orthodoxies of the industrially developed societies, and towards the work of the imagination as it develops in non-Western or industrially underdeveloped locations, fraught with different economic, religious and ethnic histories.
Nearly all of George Adeagbo's works are derived from a central anecdote that the artist connects to the reason behind the execution of the work.
Therefore, Documenta 11 may be seen as a heroic, if flawed and deeply problematic attempt to act in the encyclopaedic register, in a world whose disparate, variegated and unpredictable energies constantly elude classification. Enwezor and his curatorial team present the global present through the alternative modernities of postcolonialism, and the critical art-situations these provoke: we see, here, the cultural and political results of the flows of globalisation in specific, local situations, their material impact and the imaginaries they generate.
At one level, Enwezor's curatorial decisions turn Documenta 11 into a museum of catastrophes: passing from the Fridericianum to the Documentahalle, or from the Binding-brauerei to the Kulturbahnhof, the Orangerie to the outdoor installations distributed through Kassel, we encounter the contemporary martyr in many avatars: refugee, torture victim, slave labourer, prisoner of conscience. We also pass through scenes of genocide and border warfare, natural disaster and State-ordained terror, urban degeneration and guerrilla normality, where the human subject is debilitated. At another level, these predicaments point to the agency of individuals and communities: there runs, through them, the theme of the identity or position in flux. The Enwezor curatorium bases its exploration on the phenomena of mobility, diaspora or voluntary exile to which the self now appears increasingly subject; and even the most meditative and seemingly abstract of the 415 works gathered together under the canopy of Documenta 11 are deeply coloured by these preoccupations.
* * *
Viewing Documenta 11 from my own location as a cultural theorist and independent curator based in India but active in trans-cultural projects, I found myself asking whether Enwezor's strategies of choice have not reduced the art-work to an information-machine: an archive, digest or index for the radicalisation of political experience. Surely the poetics of provocation operates on the basis of an invitation to the transitive, an aesthetic surplus which indicates that the imagination has been at work above and beyond the call of the annalist's duty?
The curatorial argument suggests that it is sufficient for an art-work to signal an issue or problem, even at the risk of leaving the concept disembodied, simulacral. The result is that many of the art-works are illustrative or referential: the didactic assembling of evidentiary material replaces the transformative possibilities of art, in the numerous projects built around notations from the war zone, lists of missing persons and destroyed places, troves of useful information, stochastic models of opinion concerning just governance, data bases for citizens. To regard such works as more than the demonstration or journalism they are, one must constantly place them within a context, mentally, and give them credit for bearing a sense of that context to Kassel.
The core of Alfredo Jaar's work lies in the aim to make art out of information most of us would rather ignore. At Documenta 11, he created an installation that consisted of darkened space with three light texts as a philosophical essay on today's crisis on representation.
The determination to be politically correct also throws up positions so solemnly correct that it is impossible to disagree with them. Having no ragged edge, no confrontational, opinionated stance to react to, we concur and pass on, or hurry ahead to escape death by tedium. Sometimes, the politically correct art-work becomes almost grotesque in its oversimplification, offensive in its caricature of a horrible reality such as the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera's performance piece, which seeks to blind viewers with floodlights, deafen them with the stamping of jackboots, terrify them with the sounds of a gun being loaded, a trigger being clicked. As the scene changes, we see the performer who plays sentry, marching back and forth on a catwalk above the passage: the sensory cliches of the State-terror movie are rendered even more absurd by this revelation of the art-work's machinery.
This points us towards a central flaw of Documenta 11: the desire to reduce visual art-works to the condition of essayistic language. Such a reduction obliges us to accept the limitations of the discursive and the textual: a language cannot function without a context that activates its grammar and meanings. But the visual image can transcend its context; its grammar and meanings activate themselves independently of context, in the experiencing consciousness. While the playing-down of visuality and palpability, in favour of textuality and intent, has a crippling effect generally, a compelling exception is Alfredo Jaar's `Lament of the Images', which uses textuality to powerful effect: three light-texts confront us with reports from Robben Island, Pennsylvania and Kabul. Each report is a parable, telling of how light can blind and darkness produce insight; how states conceal information before our eyes so as to proceed with war and butchery in the glare of the camera; and how corporations seize control over archives of images, not to show them, but to bury them in the name of security.
The Raqs Media Collective is a group of media practitioners that works in new media and digital art practice, documentary film making, photography, media theory and research, writing and criticism and curating.
We find another fascinating interplay of visuality and textuality, record and fiction, politically subtle wit and imagistic beauty, in the work of the Atlas Group, an imaginary foundation established to research the turbulent history of Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s, by the artist Walid Ra'ad. This history is rendered in fictions presented as historical accounts, in the deceptively truth-delivering languages of witness testimony and neutral reportage: tragedy, nostalgia and elegy, as well as satire and sly humour interweave in such works as an inventory of car-bomb attacks classified by car model and colour; an account of horse-racing bets laid by historians; and a series of video-filmed sunsets at the beach, supposedly by a surveillance camera but telling of unattainable homes, childhoods lost to war.
The contest between visuality and textuality incarnates the interplay between the political and the aesthetic, between justice and pleasure, truth and beauty. Despite the dominant tendency towards a restrictive language-biased model, several artists included in Documenta 11 foreground this interplay by synaesthetic means. Consider, for instance, the quirky idiosyncrasy combined with political shrewdness and optimism in `New Manhattan City 3021', the Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez's translation of New York into a future Orientalised cosmopolis. Against the metropolitan ascendancy of the West, the horror of brutalised subcultures and collapsing infrastructures, Kingelez sets up an architectural fantasia: it may resemble a child's construction set, highly coloured and made from diverse materials, but it is charged with a sophisticated, Utopian and counter-establishment spirit.
The Atlas Group is an imaginary foundation whose objective is to research and document Lebanon's contemporary history.
Consider, also, the inter-media installation produced by the New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective: a meditation on locality and everyday life at the urban margin, cartography as power and communication as resistance, it attempts to breach the various walls separating the formal exhibition space from the public space of the street, natural-born citizen from migrant labourer, artist from technologist, developed world from developing world. Allied in spirit is the work of Georges Adeagbo from Benin: playing the artist-as-collector and seemingly mobilising a metaphor for Documenta 11, Adeagbo assembles a polymorphous library, in which the detritus of cultural history is ordered into a personal universe where the hierarchies of North/South, modern/folk, urban/ethnic are dissolved: catalogues, newspapers, sculptures, books, clothes and ritual objects from every conceivable source are patterned over the floor and walls.
Such art-works represent a dramatic prospect for the global art of the 21st Century: their logic and trajectory may be conditioned by the contexts of their origin, but they offer a vivid take on the globalised contemporary reality, not splenetic but optimistic. They bear a visceral relationship to the hopes and terrors of the subaltern and the marginalised everywhere whether in those former Third-World sites of ethnic otherness, supposedly "mired in history" according to Fukuyamist mythology, or in the world's global metropolitan centres, which have woken up to the alien, immigrant and disempowered within themselves. Far from being peripheral elsewheres, regions like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will soon have to be acknowledged as dynamic centres, as situations from which artists of impressive energy and protean inventiveness have emerged, their redemptive gestures creating resolute, if small and temporary Utopias against the pervasive catastrophe of the present.
Send this article to Friends by