At the intersection of politcs and poetics

Julianne Pierce immersed in the screens at documentaX

The city of Kassel in the north west of Germany is an unlikely town for Documenta, the world’s leading art event. It has the feeling of a large village—perhaps once a grand city, but totally devastated then rebuilt after World War II. But somehow this village feeling works for an exhibition like Documenta, allowing the audience to walk the city between four exhibition spaces and view several site-specific projects along the way. Throughout all sites, a strong thematic cohesion is maintained along with a sense of relation between the many installation, photographic, screen-based and sculptural works on display.

The 10th Documenta (aka dX) was held from June to September this year assembled by French curator Catherine David with the title “politics/poetics”. Without including many big names, dX featured over 100 artists and groups, indicating a preference towards a thematic rather than a ‘blockbuster’ approach.

dX engaged in very direct ways, enticing the viewer to spend time with works, to read, to sit, to watch and at times touch. This engagement was particularly pronounced with the screen-based works, a predominant feature of dX. What was most obvious about these works was the presentation in relation to the viewer—with great consideration of how an audience relates to screen-based work within the context of an art exhibition. The viewer could be both receptive and active in the concept and delivery of the ideas.

The most pronounced example of this was a series of four videos by Jean Luc Godard screened in a ‘viewing structure’ designed by Dan Graham. The Godard works were from his personal history of cinema and other movies, excerpts from his own and others’ films, interspersed with interviews and dialogues on many topics from French philosophy to cinema theory. Each monitor sat on the floor and was displayed in one compartment of a four cell glass ‘booth’, the audience sitting on cushions in each booth with headphones. The design of the booth however created an uneasy sense of voyeurism as viewers could see each other through the glass, as well as reflections of the other videos, and in turn, their own image as part of the reflected Godard image. The whole structure created tension, mirroring Godard’s own techniques of fracturing and layering.

French artist Liisa Roberts presented a 16mm installation entitled Trap Door. Situated in a large space, three loops of repetitive human motion were projected on the walls as well as screens arranged in a triangular pattern. Her work “…reflects the relationship between viewer and work in time and space…in a space that is both closed and open at the same time. The viewer can walk around it, enter it, or observe it, for it adheres to sculptural principles as well as visual principles. It is both exhibition space and object.” (dX, Short Guide) The grainy black and white film, with only the sound of the projectors created an eerie and mesmeric effect. Like the Godard work, the viewer becomes both spectator and participant, but using a more poetic approach, Roberts created an immersive and contemplative screen environment.

On a more ‘gritty realist’ note Johan Grimonprez presented a documentary video Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1995-97), an historical chronology of airplane highjackings. The work was totally engaging, and in the context of dX was an important detailing of the history of extreme political actions. The work did not glorify the terrorist acts, but rather seemed nostalgic for the ‘classical’ terrorist method.

These three works are only a short selection from a comprehensive list of screen-based works. The inclusion of these works alongside many other artforms created a strong sense of content and theme rather than medium. Most of the screen-based works were actually about projecting beyond the screen, engaging the audience in an environment, creating the image as a confrontational spectre. Artists such as Graham/Godard, Roberts, Grimonprez as well as, for example, Jordan Crandall, Steve McQueen and the collaborative team of Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler are working at the intersection of politics and poetics, exploring ways in which the screen is simultaneously site of production, display medium and expanded sculptural/architectural mechanism.

RealTime issue #22 Dec-Jan 1997 pg. 26

© Julianne Pierce; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1997