Ordering the Universe: Documenta II and the Apotheosis of the Occidental Gaze

By Ogbechie, Sylvester Okwunodu | Art Journal, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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Ordering the Universe: Documenta II and the Apotheosis of the Occidental Gaze

Ogbechie, Sylvester Okwunodu, Art Journal

History is always interpretative, and it is that exegetical coloring and its inevitable and successive variations that give it a fictional quality. All narratives of this type thus turn out to be fatally tied to a fiction that they create and found.

-Carlos Basualdos

An history has been a complex and internally unstable enterprise throughout its two-century-long history. Since its beginnings, it has been deeply invested in the fabrication and maintenance of a model nity that linked Europe to an ethically superior aesthetics grounded in erotic relations, thereby allayin the anxieties of cultural relativism, such that Europe (and Christendom), in their expanding encounter with alien cultures, might be saved from reduction to but one reality among many.

-Donald Preziosi

Documenta 11 transformed critical and curatorial practice in contemporary art by investigating the possibilities of an avant-garde art for political action in the era after the end of art. ' Critics claimed the exhibition pandered to an ethos of identity politics and multiculturalism by its overwhelming focus on nonWestern spaces.2ThIs criticism arose from the visibly larger number of African, Asian, and other artists of non-European descent included in the exhibition. Viewed against the outright exclusion of such artists in previous Documenta exhibitions, Documenta n indeed achieved greater visibility for these artists. The appointment of Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian-born, American curator, as the first non-European person to manage this event was also a radical departure from the norm.

Identity politics typically concerns the liberation of a specific constituency marginalized within the larger context of national and global structures of politics or culture. Enwezor's curatorial project became implicated in identity politics when he declared his intention to focus on circuits of knowledge outside the predetermined institutional domain ofWesternism.3 However, the curator was careful not to hinge his selection of artists on ethnicity, and in most instances it was not possible to surmise an artist's ethnicity from the subject matter of the artwork. In addition, non-Western artists represented only about 20 percent of the total number of participants.4 The accusation of identity politics leveled against this exhibition therefore occludes a proper understanding of Documenta 11 's curatorial innovations and its challenge to the continued dominance of occidental paradigms in the discourse of contemporary art.

Identity politics defines a wide range of political activity and theorizing founded in the experiences of injustice shared by members of certain social groups and the attempts to rectify such marginalization within national and global contexts of politics and culture.5 The most common examples of this phenomenon concern struggles within Western capitalist democracies, but indigenous rights movements worldwide, nationalist projects, or demands for regional self-determination use similar arguments. These political activities have engendered a philosophical body of literature that takes up questions about the nature, origin, and futures of the identities being defended, as well as philosophical questions about the nature of subjectivity and the self.6 According to Sonia Kruks:

What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, preidentarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied. . . . The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of "universal humankind" on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect "in spite of" one's differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.7

Documenta 11 did not construct a narrative of contemporary art based on identity politics, although it insisted that no evaluation of contemporary global culture could ignore the glaring marginalization of large constituencies of non-Western artists that were, under Enwezor's watch, thereby included in a Documenta exhibition for the first time.

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Ordering the Universe: Documenta II and the Apotheosis of the Occidental Gaze


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