Dialogue with Documenta's Okwui Enwezer

Part Three with Robert Fleck Letter

By: - Sep 18, 2013

December 21, 2000
Documenta XI
Part Three

This is the conclusion of a three part report on documenta X which opens in June, 2002, in Kassel, Germany. Leading up to Kassel are Five Platforms, starting with, “Democracy Unrealized,” in Vienna, Austria, in March, 2001. This segment deals with controversy surrounding the decision to open the first Platform in Vienna which is the subject of an art boycott. For clarification and an update we corresponded with Dr. Robert Fleck the organizer of this action. We present his entire letter edited for clarity. This is followed by the conclusion of the interview with Okwui Enwezer the organizer of documenta XI and his responses to questions related to Vienna.

Dear Charles,

1) Dr. Joerg Haider (doctor is the academic title, in Austria they use it always, and it shows that the normal people in Austria respect Haider very much because he's a "doctor") He was president of the FPOe (Freedom Party - Freiheitliche Partei Oesterreichs) from 1986 to March 2000, he resigned officially in March, but he's still leading the party. He is Governor and local minister of Culture in the "land" (state) of Carinthia since June 1999 (head of the local government and local minister of Culture, very powerful).

2) My main idea with my text in February, immediately with the arrival of
this new government, where, for the first time since world war two, half of
the ministers come from a political party which has openly marked sympathies for the period of the "Third Reich", and headed by this person Haider who is the son of a high nazi person and who deals openly since 15 years with the rehabilitation of parts of the nazi period in Austria), was A. To make clear to colleagues in the artworld that this is a main event (with big consequences for Central Europe, as seen through the elections now in Romania...), that it is important to take it in consideration.

B. To make a point about the fact that everybody has to decide for himself what he will
do in regard this situation and the country.

C. To sensibilize colleagues that the situation is very ambiguous and delicate: I still feelthat an artist or curator has to be immensely clever to do something now INVienna or IN Austria which is not used by the actual government for the big
Propaganda of this government.

Of course, my point that the only efficient way would be not to do anything there, IN the country (but to do many things with Austrian colleagues OUTSIDE the country), this point was then very much discussed, and created a polemic. It was intended to do so. But I am of course very happy with the result. A. It had a nearly worldwide reception. B. Many people - who mostly did not agree with me - started to be aware that everybody has to make a decision regarding this problem. C. And this is a big point: while many Austrian artists felt in the first moment my act was directed against them (of course, it was the opposite), in fact, it helped, with other factors, to establish the impression, in the international art world, that Austrian artists are more linked with resistance than with collaboration, and that is a very important factor for the international position and career of
Austrian artists.

Some artists, as Thomas Hirschorn and Christian Boltanski, seem to have
reacted exactly like me.

The project of Rachel Whiteread was started very much before this political event, and it is the FIRST monument in Austria for the history and the presence of the Jews! Therefore, I am completely understanding that she wanted to finish the project. (Even if, of course, if she would have stopped the project, this would have been a main political event in Austria, it
would have been an enormous event, while the inauguration of the monument was more used by the government to show how "normal" and "tolerant" this government pretends to be).

A major art event in Vienna at this time: why not, but it should be a major event (a half size event does not bring anything) and it would be very helpful if some of the international artists would publicly express aclear opinion to what is going on in the country (actually, even people of the conservative "People's Party" and very considered journalists are speaking of a "Austria-fascistation" of the political life).

Of course, I was not so naive to think that I could provoke a general boycott of collaborations in Austria or with official Austrian state institutions. But. A. Somebody had to publish a clear and extreme point of view. This was crucial for the Austrian artists and art scene. B. If such a general cultural boycott would have taken place, this government would no longer be in power actually, this I am completely sure of (now, this government seems to stay in power for 15 years...).

Last point: I have a very good relationship again to many Austrian artists, gallerists, critics, museum curators etc. etc., and I am trying to do many concrete things for and with Austrian artists, critics etc. But of course, I am not going back in the country as long as this government is in power, this is more a question of physical repulsion...

Best Wishes,
Robert Fleck

Okwui Enwezer Interview

Charles Giuliano May I ask who pays for documenta and how much.

Okwui Enwezer I don’t want to say. The city and the state pay. They pay fifty percent each. And of course there are sponsorships.

CG We are talking multiple millions of Marks.

OE It is a lot of money. Documenta is always interested in spending enormous amounts of money in creating works and shipping them and whatever.

CG Is there a bottom line that they see in this in terms of how many people (some 750,000 for documenta X) come to the city. What does the city get out of it. Do they get a financial boost.

OE Of course. There is an enormous financial gain but first and foremost its culture. One cannot be naive that the economic impact is not felt. In some ways I want to bring it down a bit so that it’s not this monster.

CG Are you prepared to put your head on the block in terms of the potential negative impact.

OE Of course one tries. One can never anticipate. Failure is always an option. One has to test the waters in whatever way.

CG Do you think about that? Is that a part of your strategy or process. Is it something that you talk about with your wife.

OE We haven’t got to that point yet. But I am entirely consumed by the pace.

CG Look at your two predecessors. They took their share of criticism. Wouldn’t it be normal to expect that?

OE It’s part of the territory. I would be disappointed if there were no debates or arguments. If the debates are informed by honest critical discourse with the exhibition or institution then that is fine. It’s not something that one has any control over. One does not make an exhibition like this to gain accolades or platitudes. You never know what will be appealing until you’ve done it.
You cannot play to applause before you have done the exhibition. Otherwise you run the risk of destroying your own integrity.

CG What role will the internet play.

OE Absolutely. Documenta has faced that premise already with the 100 Days. And you can still download all the interviews. We are building our server.

CG Are you officially launching this the first platform. Is that being advertised, or announced.

OE There will be a press conference in January in Vienna.

CG How are you dealing with being in Vienna? Artists have been asked to boycott Austria because of the Haider situation. How are you strike breaking by coming in against international protests against the current political situation?

OE I am a man from Nigeria, who travels constantly, and carries an American passport. Always subjected to submitting to some of the most humiliating searches and so on. I cannot tell you that I am breaking any strike. I think it’s my lot when I travel when I am participating in documenta or not. And I think it’s really important that in relation to Austria that one certainly looks at what is going on there. And really to try very critically to engage ideas and hopefully those ideas can have a point of engagement with what local people are thinking. I deeply empathize with what artists are doing and what the boycotts are calling for. But I think it is naïve to think that the only way that we can engage with that, with Haider and his lot, is shutting down everything else. I think there has to be a counter politics of some sort. With that kind of tendency. What we did was to withdraw, essentially, a little bit.

CG Who is going to fund the Austrian component. Are you getting any government money?

OE The school, (unidentified) but documenta essentially.

CG So you are not using Austrian money to go there.

OE I wouldn’t say we are not using Austrian money. We are certainly not using money from the Austrian state. But I wouldn’t say we’re not using Austrian money.

CG You dealt with some of those same issues in South Africa. So, the question is how can artists make a positive impact. In very tense political environments.

OE I think they also risk not making any statements at all. Indeed I have colleagues who work in Austria who have been very supportive. There have been different attempts by artists working in different categories working in Austria. So, what do we do? Abandon them? I think Haider is not Austria. Haider represents

CG Hitler wasn’t Austria either.

OE Haider represents. This is precisely the point that. I am not trying to say that the initiative of the boycott is a wrong move. But it cannot surely be the only response. And we are not making this in response to Haider. Really. In any way shape or form. What I am trying to put forward is something really simple. The global response to Haider is for me very important how exposed the relationship is between art and politics. And this is precisely what we want. We cannot be naïve about the critical role that art and culture has to play. What I am proposing is that there has to be a counter politics as well.
If not in Austria where else can it take place? I feel our position is not indefensible at all. Because, there are artists who call for a boycott, and artists who do not call for a boycott. You are referring to people like Robert Fleck who call for a boycott and people who say we don’t need a boycott. So how do you reconcile those two things. Let me use an example. In South Carolina a boycott has been called because of the State (Confederate) flag (flying over the Capital). Now how are we honoring that. Is it any different.

CG Do you intend to make part of that your platform in Vienna?

OE No. Not at all. We are dealing with the notion of Democracy Unrealized. That already speaks.

Astrid Hiemer Unrealized. A perfect place to be.

PE Exactly. So, can we announce anything more. (laughs)

CG What was your involvement with the Johannesburg Biennale?

OE I was the artistic director. It was the same position I have with documenta. It was the second one. It was the very first time that an exhibition of contemporary art of that scope and scale had ever taken place in Africa.

CG All of Africa. The entire continent.

OE The entire continent.

CG That’s amazing isn’t it.

OE The very first time on a contemporary art level. Not on a cultural level. Prior to that there had been festivals in Lagos and Dakar, Algiers. Those were larger than Johannesburg. But again it came at a remarkable time in South Africa three years after the transition. It was a way again to introduce a different feel.

CG You are Nigerian but it sounds like you live all over the world.

OE I have my office in Brooklyn but I live in (Manhattan).

CG What role do you see for Africa in contemporary art?

OE I think it is very clear not only for Africa but for different parts of the world. Let’s just use the Whitney Biennial as an example. It has been restructured that if you live in the United States you’re in.

CG Like Wolfgang Tillmans winning the Turner Prize.

OE Precisely. That the contributions of artists do not just belong to the places that they come from. Many African artists have made remarkable inroads into the international discourse. In ways that would not have been anticipated ten years ago. Not just Africa, but also Asia, and Latin America.

In documenta X, in Venice, whatever those things means. There are increasing roles that artists are going to play. There couldn’t be a more exciting and challenging time to work as a curator. The landscape is really very complex and interesting. One has to be very precise and careful in making exhibitions.