documenta X - home June 21 - September 28, 1997
Geeta Kapur
Art historian, critic, curator from New Dehli, India.
Guest at »100 Days - 100 Guests«, 30 July
When I read Catherine David´s texts before I came to see the documenta, I had already gotten the impression that she was resisting works from the other parts of the world. She had used two or three terms like »I´m not interested in culture shopping,« or »I´m not going to have an ethnic feast,« and had said that works from other cultures appear in Europe as exotic or even as neocolonial if they are not contextualized. I was not sure whether this was a defense mechanism, or if she was really thinking these things. After having had some dialogs with her, I think that this is just part of a general preoccupation, so I´m more respectful now of her position.

David does seem to have one very strong inclination as an art historian and art critic, which is to contextualize historically. She does not want to show any art object, even a Western object, without making sure that its historicity is apparent in some way. It must be available to the viewer and sufficiently contextualized either by supporting information or by supporting works. I´m basically very sympathetic to this curatorial position.

The other preoccupation she has is trying to resist commodification, reification, as it is occurring in the Western art market. I think that the reification of the art object is not the only way that reification takes place, and I did comment upon this to her. Reification cannot be avoided: whatever is put out in an exhibition like the documenta is already reified, and the documenta itself is the most reified art event of Europe or of the world (it has private sponsors, and is seen everywhere as an advertising image, etc.). There is no way to overcome that. One can, however, try to resist it by keeping the documenta from becoming an art festival for the galleries, and I think David has done that.

In relation to the »100 Days 100 Guests« program, I raised the question as to whether the exchange through discourse isn´t too easy of a way out. It has of course its advantages: people use a similar code in discourse, which allows 100 guests from everywhere to communicate, and allows a general audience to listen and make sense of it all. However, discourse and intellectual life are also prone to a certain degree of commodification. It is an easy packet to get Geeta Kapur, Gayatri Spivak, and Edward Saïd to Kassel. I see it as a problem that one encapsulates entire cultures by expelling their art works while at the same time including their discourses. It´s like substituing an easily transportable commodity for one which is more difficult and more expensive to install.

I think that David´s point of view is that, though a piece of art may sit in the exhibition and look like an exotic object, by the very nature of the people she invites, issues will be raised, the documenta, its concept, and the Euro-American situation may be critiqued, so that contextualizing and historicising is already taking place. I think this is a fair assumption.

One statement which she clearly made in the introduction to the shortguide, is that in the art of many non-Western cultures there are local modernities, but not what one might call advanced or avantgarde works. The dynamic, she says, is in other forms of expression: in cinema, theater, literature, music, and in the oral traditions. There are cases in which this is true. For instance she has said that in Iran, cinema is the most advanced art form, and we all seem to have the same impression. But I wouldn´t say that this is true for India, for Indonesia, Korea, nor the Philippines, because I know that in these countries, the visual arts have a very definite positioning within the cultural complex. The same is true for Singapore and Thailand, and certainly South Africa (where David took Kentridge from), has one of the most vital visual art scenes. And Cuba´s, as we know, is one of the most advanced in South America, in terms not only of the production of art, but having become the point of convergence for the Latin American avantgarde.

I have actually had quite a lot of problems with this assumption. Even though she wants to open up the critical discourse on art, she is still protecting the nature of the art object as it has developed in the West. Also, she is more comfortable addressing the other arts, where strong intervention from her is not required. She is interested in cinema, but she is not a curator of film. Literature, music, and theatre are not her fields either, so she isn´t held responsible when she says there is a greater dynamic in these areas.

It is easier for her to protect a certain ground where she is very particular in what she wants to show. David is very stringent and has a clear idea of where the avantgarde comes out of modernity. She has narrowed it down from the general historical avantgarde to what she calles »critical art.« This is a critical intervention into the avantgarde itself. She understands very clearly the ways in which artists have intervened in, disrupted, and interrogated urban lives, society, and contemporary history, artistic positions commonly found in Europe and the USA, and to an extent in Latin America. She is much more confident and convinced about these, and the »rest« she is literally seeing as simply the rest.

In response to her comment that there exists »elsewhere« some other dynamic, I said to her that she is speaking as though it is an abstract dynamic. I believe this is a shortcut, and not a real investigation of the cultures involved. One of the reasons for her position, is that in these other art forms, (music, performing arts, cinema, etc.), the axis between the traditional form and the popular, urban form is more easily located. And that is what usually interests the Western intellectual, critic or curator.

One thing I would like to add is that, though I come from India, I´m no longer interesed in repeatedly telling European curators that they must include Asian art in their exhibitions. There is a certain kind of parallel developement of regions now, and that´s for the best. I´m not saying that regionalism is important; what I´m saying is that there are parallel expositions and parallel discourses, and it´s not necessary to have everything come to Europe or go to America. If it happens, then good: it means that there is a greater balance of exchange, that a new form of internationalism is developing. On the other hand, it doesn´t seem to trouble me very much anymore. One can now be sure that there will be something in Kwangju, or in Queensland, or in Johannesburg. Sao Paulo has always had an interesting viewpoint.

I would not be very concerned that the documenta X doesn´t have more Asian or African artists. Of course, it would have been a more complete understanding of contemporary art, and if she is interested in the historical avantgarde then she should have taken into account the historical avantgarde in different parts of the world. If she means to present just the Euro-American avantgarde with supplementary discourses, it remains just one point of view, and she and other curators will have to go elsewhere to see what´s happening in the world.

If David said that she was going to present a resume of contemporary culture, this is not represented by the actual exhibition. But, if she claims to be interested in the deconstruction of cultural practices through very rapid (and often destructive) processes of urban acculturation, then I think that she has made her point. In my mind, she has created a phenomenology of urban culture in the European-American context, concentrated (if you have noticed the works) on negative species, on species of destruction and death, of abuse and marginilization of peoples and populations in Western cultures.

There is definetely a point of view on which she is putting a critical edge. However, the objects she recognizes come out of the Western avantgarde. She doesn´t seem to recognize other objects, or when she does recognize them, she fears that they are »exotic.« To some degree, as a European curator she makes a very exclusive choice in the matter, and that choice is based on criteria that come out of Western modernism. How radically she makes her choices, or whatever cutting edge she tries to give the exhibition, she is still in an exclusionary mode rather than in an inclusive one.

From an interview for Universes in Universe, August 2, 1997.
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