The end of art 'they' know it. Documenta 11 diffuses the boundary between politics and aesthetics

By Pradip Saha, Nava Thakuria
Published: Wednesday 31 July 2002

-- Kassel, a small town in central Germany, is home to Documenta, one of Europe's most prestigious art festivals. Documenta is often called the art Olympic, for it lasts a 100 days. Of course, it takes place only once every five years. The eleventh Documenta (Documenta 11) is currently on.

Each Documenta is expected to define the current trend in the art world. The curator ensures that, and like all fashion, Documenta is expected to show the way for the next few years. The 'bad press' from the international mainstream media this year, therefore, is unusual. "Too much activism and politics, too little art", one opined. Another asked, "Is this the end of art?"

So what has got the establishment press' goat? Well, there are artworks on world trade, squatters' rights, prison suicides in Uruguay, Amazonian rain-forests, disappearing water, illegal migrant workers, and a multitude of other 'issues' that a potboiler of the contemporary world could throw up. Only, this time, they are so uncomfortably pointed you cannot miss the point.

Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of Documenta 11, is the man in the eye of this storm. He has been as explicit about the direction of this art festival as most of its exhibits: "the postcolonial aftermath of globalisation and the terrible nearness of distant places".

A majority of the artists are from distant places, (a major departure from Documenta 10, an overtly Euro-American art vision), and they paint a vividly violent picture of globalisation. It is obvious that the collection has shocked a complacent Europe. Take those large canvases of New York artist Leon Golub; disturbing images of state brutality. His series 'We Can Disappear You' presents the grand theme of globalisation: abuse of power.

An activist's socio-political concern arises from this grand abuse of power. Andreja Kuluncic's web-based artwork 'Distributive Justice' is a fine example of this. The artist from Croatia employs a computer game to deal with the issues of distribution of goods in society.

Culture is another victim of globalisation. Even a lot of Europeans are sad about the onslaught of McCulture. The video installation of Igloolik Isuma Productions, an important Inuit cultural group is a case in point. Their production 'Nunavut' (Our Land, a 13 part half-an-hour TV series) is an interesting experiment in content and form. The effort uses video as an extension of early oral tradition of the Inuits, now almost extinct with the advent of English language programming. The storylines, a strange mix of fiction and documentary about the tribe's traditions, are targeted at the younger Inuits.

The activeness of art seems to have created a flutter among traditional art lovers and critics. But there is no denying the emerging trend to engage artworks in a dialogue with its subjects, out of their passive mode. The one thing Enwezor and his curatorial team have done in Documenta 11 is to push these fringe experiences to the foreground. And these experiences do not necessarily counter the obvious definition of art, but expand the horizon of articulation.

This Documenta has thrown in a lot of artworks created by collectives and collaborations. It is cause for celebration when artists, architects, landscape planners, environmentalists, scientists, activists and local communities join hands for a project that articulates and provokes thought on an issue. The collaboration of Julie Bargmann, a landscape architect, and artist Stacy Levy is a case in point. The team, with active help of scientists, historians and local community, have regenerated a 40 acre land devastated by acid mine drainage from an abandoned coal mine in Pennsylvania. The artworks of the project 'Testing the Water' are made of sandblasted glass, covered by acidic materials found in the area, etched with the local maps. Testimony to a post-industrial society. These works transform a local industrial problem into a monumental universal experience.

In another work called 'Park Fiction', activists and artists get together to present the documentation archive of a longstanding squatter movement in Hamburg's redlight area. The archive of the struggle -- an array of passive documentation -- become active campaign material. And social communication finds a new friend in art.

Peter Plagens in Newsweek sniggered, "The catalogues resemble un reports on pressing global problems." Excuse me, Mr Plagens, pressing global problems are everyday reality for us, not just flickering tv images from a distant land. And we want to talk about it in our own way.

Pradip Saha is an applied artist

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