KASSEL – A mammoth contemporary

KASSEL – A mammoth contemporary art exhibition. First things first: Documenta 11 is at least an order of magnitude better than last year’s Venice Bienale, and not just because it’s not so freakin’ hot. While pursuing some gratuitous VIP ego-stroking (I’d just come from Basel, what do you expect?), I wandered into the Documenta Lounge, where I met Okwui Enwezor, curator-for-life and the suavest guy in town. [As of today, the catalog’s not on Amazon, but these “Documenta” books are.]
Even though there is at least as great a percentage of video-based art, it is far more engaging, engrossing, and better presented than the depressing gauntlet of the Arsenale. Presentation seems to vary and complement the work, with some stadium-style seating platforms (for Isaac Julien, Steve McQueen, and one more I don’t remember); futon-like benches for Craigie Horsfield’s 4-wall meditation, and more standard black box theater/rooms for others. Who suffered? Shirin Neshat’s film–shown on two opposing walls like her breakthrough piece at Venice in 1997– is beautiful and back on track, but the room is cramped and clogged with lost-looking people. Igloolik, Zacharias Kunuk’s production company (as well as the name of the Inuit town where he is based), is showing 13 documentaries on 13 wall-mounted monitors in the loong central hallway of the main venue; there’s a bench all along the wall, but it seems shortchanged. (Although I’m hard-pressed to think of a better way to show 13 Inuit documentaries in an art gallery… Compared to Atanarjuat, they’re like a full season of The Real World: Igloolik.
There are installations with video, too, but for some reason I found them almost universally lacking. They included Chantal Akerman’s multi-channel “real-time” piece on immigration, the INS and the Arizona border, which was like wandering around a darkened Circuit City and seemed full of an outmoded French smugness. (If she’s critiquing France’s own immigration problems through a self-righteous ‘exploration’ of US/Mexico, doesn’t seem too guilt-ridden to me.) Joan Jonas…I forget, but I just couldn’t watch any of it. And a net-based piece by tsunamii.net, which included a synthetic voice intended to read the webpages on the monitor was, instead, reading the error page from Internet Explorer.
So why am I really dwelling on the challenges and vagaries of video-based art? Because I hauled my sorry butt to Kassel to see one work, a three-channel video installation by an artist whose work has been very important to me (and who has been a friend) for a long time, Michael Ashkin. I happen to have bought this work, Michael’s first video piece, more than two years ago. I was extremely excited when he told me he was included in Documenta, and both honored and excited when he said he would include this video piece as well. Since the piece requires a large room, three flatscreen monitors on large pedestals, and a central bench, we’ve never installed it (although we play the DVD’s from it one at a time on our TV). Earlier in the week at Basel, many people (most of whom didn’t know I had the work) spoke very highly of Michael’s pieces here, and the installation itself is wonderful. EXCEPT FOR THAT ONE MISSING MONITOR AND THE “OUT OF ORDER” SIGN ON THE WALL.
Fortunately, I’d just sat through an amazing work (A Season Outside by Amar Kanwar, an Indian documentary filmmaker) which dwelt beautifully on Gandhi’s and the Dalai Lama’s teachings of non-violence. [I have to write about Kanwar later. His work made a real impression on me.] I found the head of technical services and calmly talked to him about the missing (broken, actually) monitor. Of course, fixing it was already a concern for him, and by the afternoon, he said the replacement would be installed tomorrow morning. The piece would be back in action Friday morning, noon at the latest. So, I am staying an extra day to see it. Thus, the vagaries of video-based art are transformed from institutional inconvenience to personal crisis.