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.
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.
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. Rather, it constructed a new and inclusive discourse for art in an age of globalization. Enwezor's search for this inclusive discourse confronted the ethics and limits of occidental power, and its impact on contemporary discourses of globalization. This focus constitutes Documenta 11's principal organizational framework, and it was reiterated through the artists and artworks included in the exhibition.
The goal of the exhibition, according to Enwezor, was to make sense of the rapid changes and transformations that elicit new, inventive modes of transdisciplinary action within the contemporary global public sphere.8 Enwezor achieved this goal by conceptualizing five platforms devoted to "public discussions, conferences, workshops, books, and film and video programs that sought to mark the location of culture today and the spaces in which culture intersects with domains of complex knowledge circuits."9 These platforms took place on different continents, and they made a brave effort to decenter Documenta from its European site of operations and erstwhile focus on Euro-American practices. Platform 1, Democracy Unrealized, opened on March 15, 2001, in Vienna. Platform 2, Experiments with Truth:Transitional Justice and the Process of Truth and Reconciliation, opened in New Delhi on May 7, 2001. Creolité and Creolization, the third platform, took place in St. Lucia in January 2002, and Platform 4, Under Siege: Four African Cities; Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos, took place in Nigeria in March 2002.The exhibition of artworks by 116 artists and art groups that opened in Kassel on June 8, 2002, was the fifth and final platform of the Documenta II project. The platforms provided a unique opportunity to engender a truly international discourse on the intersection of art and the public sphere in contemporary culture. Each one resulted in a major publication, and the entire Documenta 11 project spawned a huge archive of published and referential material that art historians and other scholars of contemporary culture are still evaluating.
Enwezor disavowed attempts by previous Documentas to "forge one common, universal conception and interpretation of artistic and cultural modernity."10 That futile ambition underpinned the exclusionary discourses of modernism. Instead, Documenta 11 located its "spectacular difference" in an ethical and intellectual reflection on the contemporary global scale of cultural transformation. This confrontation with globalization maps the new geographies of contemporary discourse particularized in this exhibition as a literal documentation of different spaces of trauma.
Since its inception, the Documenta exhibitions have provided a forum for identifying current and future possibilities in contemporary art and its discourses. In Documenta 11, the edge was represented by a preponderance of projected images: films, video, and digital installations all posing questions about the nature of contemporary reality and the place of marginalized (mostly non-Western) constituencies within the "new world order" marked by post-cold war American hegemony. Documenta 11's ultimate goal was to interrogate what the emergence of a non-Western avant-garde means for the Western world's continued will-to-power. It identified the ubiquitous technologies of surveillance as a primary means by which the Western world imposes its power on non-Western societies. The ensuing interrogation of scopic regimes provided the principal medium of representation for various exhibits at Documenta 11.
The quest for spiritual direction was the holy grail of Euro-modernism's avant-garde. It is fitting that at the beginning of a century of existential anxieties, a quest for certainty should lead in the direction of those erstwhile spiritual directors. The avant-garde has returned, but, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, all is no longer at ease in the old dispensation. For one thing, the memory of international terrorism loomed large at Documenta 11 as the Western world digested the implications of the September n, 2001, attack on the United States and America's reaction of open-ended war against "terror." The West absorbed this return to violence in cultural terms by generalizing it (as encapsulated in the unfortunate designation of the devastated site of the World Trade Center as Ground Zero). Enwezor viewed the attack itself and the occidental response to it as a space-clearing gesture from which contemporary society might map a new and inclusive discourse of global relationships. Thus, although Documenta 11 proclaimed the ultimate demise of the modernist avant-garde's vision of art, its search for meaning in the dystopian reality of contemporary existence after this demise is itself a thoroughly avant-garde project.
The globalization contested in Documenta 11 maps the culmination of the European ascendancy that began in 1492 AD." However, the expected apotheosis of the West in the era after the cold war was rudely shattered by the rise of militant ethnicity and the proliferation of fundamentalist ideologies all over the world. The marked increase in ethnic and ideological conflicts in this new world order is definitely an affront to the hegemonic aspirations of occidental corporate imperialism, a resistance to the desire of the West that the "other" simply surrender to the temptations of corporate consumer culture.I2 Societies at the forefront of this struggle confront issues of life and death in which millions indeed lose their lives, either as victims of the occidental corporate order or as collateral damage, crushed by the hegemon de jour in its campaign for world domination. It is thus no surprise that the first thirty pages of the Documenta 11 catalogue document a harrowing litany of images of conflict. The stark images assert that it is violence that is the face of the contemporary global culture, rather than the postmodern conceit of occidental man incapacitated by an enormity of choices he confronts on a daily basis, torn between choosing whether to consume Haagen Dazs or carefully packaged doses of "Third World" exotica.
There was no dearth of ideologically explicit films and installations at Documenta 11. In fact, many artworks took up the issue of global conflict through installations (in film, digital, and other media) that chronicle the degradation of political and cultural life in communities under siege. They also documented the expanding threat of coercive governance as a critique of this Orwellian age. Their explicit imagery included obvious markers of fragmentation and conflict like images of armed men and women, dislocated populations, and devastating sites of violence (e.g., Ramallah and New York, now forever linked by the savage impact of organized brutality). Documenta 11 used these images of conflict to theorize disorder as the new norm of contemporary existence, through artworks devoted to a literal documentation of all facets of human experience and rooms filled with the accumulated detritus of urban culture. In the best artworks, this sustained focus reiterated the artist's commitment to a social vision grounded in justice and ethics, thus making the ensuing record of degradation and conflict a radical act in this eminently unjust age. In less successful artworks, it became didactic and polemical, reflecting only the biases of the artists toward cultures and conflicts considered exotic (it does not help that these images of conflict and trauma are mostly drawn from non-Western societies). This focus was also evident in many of the film and video projections depicting bleak landscapes, rotting walls, and urban warfare. There was a disjunction between these images of conflict and the clinical manner of visual display in the various exhibition sites. Massimiliano Gioni criticized Documenta 11 for this clinical and overly aesthetic representation of conflict, which, he argued, turns the spectator into a voyeur and does not provide a blueprint for political action.13
Documenta 11 also highlighted the growing abyss between the West and the rest of the -world through intertextual juxtapositions of artworks like Isa Genzken's New Buildings for Berlin series and the Ville fantôme/Phantom City series of Bodys Isek Kingelez, whose Utopian structures idolize the occidental ideal of architectural modernity. Both artists constructed visions of the future for two cities whose structural integrity was rudely dislocated by the cold war. The fates of these cities, however, could not be further apart: Berlin survived its cold-war partition and is rapidly reclaiming its former status as a center of European cultural and political power. Kingelez pursues a Utopia of what Kinshasa might have been from within the rubble of the failed state of Zaire. '4 The contrast between these artists' conceptions of their worlds mocked the idea of globalization, exposing the devastating effects of its unequal distribution of resources. Through these kinds of juxtaposition, Documenta 11 argued that the neutral citizen of liberal theory was in fact the bearer of an identity coded white, male, bourgeois, able-bodied, and heterosexual.'5 "This implicit ontology in part explained the persistent historical failure of liberal democracies to achieve anything more than token inclusion in power structures for members of marginalized groups."'6 Critics of this exhibition who raised the charge of identity politics refused to acknowledge that the current American imperium (and the European colonial world order that preceded it) uses various strategies to maintain and sustain white privilege. It is telling that earlier Documenta exhibitions were not read as celebrations of white identity despite their total exclusion of African, Asian, and other non-Western artists.
Many artworks in Documenta 11 criticized the Western world's ethnocentrism and opposed its expanding spheres of influence. They argued that structures of oppression may operate at macrolevels, but their consequences for the lived experience of those whose self-determination they undermine are myriad and very local. Jeff Wall's installation Invisible Man is a good example of this kind of artwork. Based upon Ralph Ellison's scathing novel on the travails of "Negroes" in Jim-Crow America, Wall re-creates in stark detail the underground abode of Ellison's protagonist, where he subsisted surrounded by a thousand light bulbs. In the novel, the lights were kept burning by electricity purloined from the state utility company. The effect of the lights in Wall's installation was memorable and horror-inducing. We acknowledge the empowerment of the subterranean dweller but are also horrified by the racism that drove him underground, further entrenching his invisibility. The light bulbs, kept burning all the time, thus reflect an impulse by the protagonist to narrate himself into being, to ensure a precarious existence that may be forever effaced if the utility company discovers his theft and turns out his lights (in all senses) for good. Wall's installation is an excellent metaphor for the condition of non-Western actors in the discourse of globalization. '7 The control of technologies of discourse by the West strongly limits the ability of black and brown peoples everywhere to make their voices heard or to attain viable political, economic, or cultural power. This control is backed by a very real coercive ability arising from the overwhelming military and economic power of the West, which is equally evident on the cultural front.
International exhibitions of contemporary art may have proliferated in the past decades, but in a very Orwellian sense these multiple sites of artistic practice are patently not equal, and all of them are ultimately subject to the discursive control of the West. The disparity between living conditions in the West and the rest of the world thus haunted the project of Documenta 11 and explains its focus on the ethics of power, which though implicated in similar discourses does not translate into the demand for recognition and inclusion within the mainstream characteristic of identity politics. "What is crucial about the 'identity' of identity politics appears to be the experience of the subject, especially his or her experience of oppression and the possibility of a shared and more authentic alternative."'8 Naive interpretations of this demand for subjectivity and agency often resort to nativist and romantic recuperation of a pristine past located in the period before the culture's marginalization. (The Negritude ideology of art evident in Senegal's Ecole de Dakar is a good example of this tendency.) In contrast, Documenta 11 directed attention to contemporary political experiences and used art to reflect on the immoral machinations of occidental power, with its legacy of injustice and inequality. It presented a comprehensive demand for the radical overhaul of contemporary structures of power and privilege, rather than a call for tokenist inclusion of "non-Western" peoples in what its critics assume to be a proprietary Western discourse.
However, in spite of its radical attempts to rethink the discourse of contemporary art, Documenta n did not succeed in disrupting the West's drive for global hegemony. Its interrogation of the possibility of avant-garde action was criticized as a very conservative and institutional interpretation of contemporary culture, one that emphasized precisely the occidental paradigms that Documenta 11 targeted in its counternarrative. '9 Although the artworks represented a global perspective on contemporary art and visual culture, the overriding structural perspective was still that of the Western world. The scopic regime of the panopticon was fully at work in the meticulous ordering of chaotic events, which spoke to a peculiar occidental tendency to objectify and fix reality. This clinical ordering of the material world is a very Western conceit that presages the revival of fascist aesthetics in this new century. The exhibition thus represented the latest attempt to order the universe in line with the unequal relationship between the West and the rest of the world.
The above concerns informed Gioni's criticism of the literalist approach and taxonomic impulses of artists like On Kawara, Dieter Roth, Hanne Darboven, and Joelle Tuerlinck. They also undermined the efficacy ofYinka Shonibare's installation, in which he exchanged a sophisticated critique of Victorian claims of racial and cultural purity for a melodramatic focus on explicit scenes of Victorian debauchery. Gioni suggests that being literal might become a new dogma, as oppressive as being abstract or modern was in the formalist aesthetics of high modernism in the previous century. In many instances, this literalism is built upon the fallacy that it is enough to be present, to document events, and that the very presence of an object within a discursively circumscribed spatial and temporal arena, say a museum, is enough to elevate it to the status of art. This literalism is a cultural dictum that advocates difference through conformity and yields homogenous artworks.
Yet one must not read a failure of the curatorial project into this critique. For the last couple of decades, curators and art theorists have championed the idea of disrupting the occidental construction of Western culture as the original and permanent center of political, economic, and cultural discourse. International art exhibitions in various South American, Asian, and African countries competed for this center and, failing to secure it, reconstituted themselves as alternative centers of discourse. The irony is that such attempts validate the binary ideal of "center and periphery" through which the West constructs its Cartesian geographies. Documenta 11 recognized that "universalist discourses of high theory were unable to account for or even recognize the subtleties of cultural difference and colonial representation [since] these questions are being worked out elsewhere ... in a multitude of sites where power advances and retreats, mutates and coalesces, and is displaced."20 It made a credible effort to focus attention on these other centers and posit a world in which knowledge and creativity exist in contrapuntal relationships with different centers of cultural practice. The decision to take Documenta's discourses to locations outside Kassel (and Europe for that matter) thus forcibly reorients the discursive frame of all subsequent international art exhibitions. However, the exhibition still returned to Kassel, where the artworks were judged by a system of aesthetics based on an occidental world view that effaces Africans and other non-Western artists from its purview.
One was thus not surprised to find very few black people among the throngs in Kassel. At the German consulate in Los Angeles, it took this author three days to explain to German consular officials why an art historian and professor in a major department of art history at a major American university should be interested in attending the most important contemporary art exhibition on the planet. One imagined other black attendees confronting the same problem of access at German embassies everywhere, worrying about securing a valid presence in an increasingly xenophobic Europe, clutching tightly to the transit visas that are now required of many black and brown peoples for passage through most European airports. The rights of ingress and egress that are taken for granted in the discourse of globalization apply only to those who hold the appropriate passports, in this instance, the markers of occidental heritage that enable anxiety-free transit. (In this ironic manner, the true legacy of September 11 has been a legalization of racist discourses that exclude non-European populations by associating black and brown skin color with "terrorism.")
The above issues compel a review of the conceptual and theoretical stance of the curator and his exhibition. As Yuko Hasegawa noted, Enwezor essentially positions himself within the context of Western discourse and from this position constructs an exacting theory of contemporary artistic practice designed to move marginalized non-Western discourses and locales of practice into the center formerly controlled by occidental culture. However, "the industry of art has reached such a level of complexity and sophistication that it can easily transform itself, only to confirm its own status and integrity: everything must change, in order to leave everything as it was."21 It may turn out that the recent focus on non-Western art merely answers to global capitalism's persistent need for new commodities. If this is so, Enwezor's role may have been to bring these artists and marginal centers of art to the purview of the West, thereby making them available for consumption. Rather than reflecting an identity politics that empowers marginalized societies and structures their demand for recognition, the exhibition may be constructing the conditions for a new appropriation of the "other" by the West, in a manner similar to modernism's appropriation of African and other "non-Western" arts at the beginning of the twentieth century. Elizabeth Harney suggests that "the international art market's recent intense interest in contemporary African art eerily mirrors the fascination of the art world a century ago when art nègre was in vogue." She remarks that the contemporary context replaces the world fairs of the Victorian era with today's international biennials, of which Documenta 11 is the ultimate incarnation.22 However, the disorderly nature of contemporary existence reflected in this exhibition suggests that non-Western populations are mounting a challenge to the West's unbridled consumption of the "other," by opposing its omnivorous appetite for global dominance. Enwezor's pioneering effort deserves commendation for focusing on this struggle and for using Documenta 11 to shoulder the exorbitant expectations of both the mainstream art world and its marginalized constituencies. Only time will reveal the true intent and impact of his intervention.
This essay was originally presented at the 2004 CAA annual conference in Seattle. It is derived from a larger evaluation of curatorial strategies of Documenta I I from a research trip to Kassel in summer 2002, sponsored by a University of California Santa Barbara Faculty Travel Grant. I am grateful to the UCSB academic senate for support of my research and also to Art journal's anonymous peer reviewers for their helpful comments.
The Documenta I I exhibition, organized by a seven-person team directed by Okwui Enwezor, took place in Kassel, Germany, from June 8 to September 15, 2002. An exhibition catalogue was published: Documenta I l_Platform 5, ed. Okwui Enwezor, Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat MaharaJ, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya (Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz; New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002).
The epigrams are from Carlos Basualdo, "The Encyclopaedia of Babel," in Documenta I IJIatform 5, 59, and Donald Preziosi, Brain of the Earth's Body: Art, Museums, and the Phantasms of Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 41.
I. For analysis of late-twentieth-century theories of "the end of art," see Arthur Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
2. see, for example, Georg imdahl, "@Documenta I I," Modern Pointers IS1 no. 3 (August 2002): 146-47.
3. Okwui Enwezor, "The Black Box," in Documenta I1_Platform 5, 42-55.
4. This appeal to statistics illustrates the carefully calibrated manner in which African, Asian, Native American, and other non-Western artists are admitted into mainstream discourses of contemporary art in occidental spaces. It supports a perception that these artists are interlopers in the spaces of global culture and contributes to their continued marginalization in the discourse of art history.
5. see Cressida Heyes, "Identity Politics," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, avail, online at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/. I adopt aspects of Heyes's analysis for sections of this paper.
6. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
7. Sonia Kruks, Retrieving Experience: Subjectivity and Recognition in Feminist Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 85.
8. Okwui Enwezor, preface to Documenta 11_ Platform 5. 40.
9. Ibid., 40.
10. Ibid., 44.
I I. This date memorializes the conquest of the Moors at Granada by Ferdinand of Castille (ruled 1474-1504), which ended the Islamic rule of Spain. Ferdinand and his queen, Isabella of Castille, sponsored Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Americas. The ensuing discovery and conquest of the Aztecs and lncas, the colonization of the Americas, and the enslavement of Africans in huge plantations in the New World all served as engines for European growth and dominance in the five centuries that followed.
12. see Ziauddin Sardar, Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1998).
13. Massimiliano Gioni, "Review: Documenta I I," orig. published online in June 2002, link expired; repr. "Documenta I I, The Platforms Report: Finding the Center," Hash Art 225 (July-September 2002): 106-07.
14. Enwezor devoted Platform 4-Under Siege: Four African Cities, Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos-of his Documenta I I project to the demise of African cities, which are increasingly interpreted as symbols of chaotic urban existence and used in Western discourses as cautionary tales of an undesirable future. A similar interpretation of African cities can be seen in Africas: The Artist and the City; A journey and an Exhibition, ed. Pep Subirós (Barcelona: Centre de Cultural Contemporània de Barcelona, 2001).
15. The racially encoded and male-gendered identity of the "liberal subject" is recently the subject of much analysis. see Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).
17. see also Glenn Ligon's interrogation of black inscription in the Stranger in the Village series, Documente 11_Platform 5, 388-91. The ambiguous nature of Ligon's ebony script echoes the struggle of the black subject to emerge in mainstream art discourses.
I 8. Heyes.
19. see Rasheed Araeen, "In the Heart of the Black Box," An Monthly 259 (September 2002): 17. Araeen argues that mere subject matter (such as the struggle of the oppressed used as a thematic framework in Documenta I I) does not provide an/ significant opposition to the hegemony of Western power.
20. Deborah Root, Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), ix.
22. Elizabeth Harney, "Contemporary African Art and the Marketplace: Situating the Works of Georges Adéagbo," in Georges Adéagbo: Archeology of Motivations; Rewriting History, ed. Silvia Eiblmayr (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2001), 19-35.
Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie is assistant professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on modern and contemporary African and African-diaspora arts.…
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Publication information: Article title: Ordering the Universe: Documenta II and the Apotheosis of the Occidental Gaze. Contributors: Ogbechie, Sylvester Okwunodu - Author. Journal title: Art Journal. Volume: 64. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2005. Page number: 80+. © 2008 College Art Association. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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