The Art Snooper

Portrait of Jan Hoet, director of the DOCUMENTA in Kassel

1 Jun 1992
News & Stories
Heiner Müller
Müller's circle: Jan Hoet


On the occasion of "documenta XI" in 1992, Alexander Kluge and Heiner Müller talk to art director Jan Hoet, who prior to the opening traveled the world in search for new forms of artistic expression.

In the beginning, the conversation revolves around Jan Hoet's visit in Africa: What was he looking for? How do we have to imagine the work of an "art snooper"? In regard to European art history, Müller, Kluge and Hoet discuss the reasons for the interest in Oriental art in the second half of the 19th century, and the interest in "primitive" African art in early 20th century (for example Picasso, as well as formal similarities between Expressionism and African sculpture).

For Hoet, a possible explanation is the longing for a non-alienated form of art. For him, the fascination with African art stems from the fascination with the magical, the authentic and the naturalistic, as opposed to the development of the intellectual and hieratic European form of artistic expression.

Influenced by his father's collection of African art, and inspired by Jean-Hubert Martin's trendsetting Parisian art exhibition "Magiciens de la terre", Hoet traveled to the roots of African art, not least to get an understanding of African culture.

He sought direct contact with the artists, traveled to various cities by jeep, visited artists at home, and connected with African and European ethnologists and anthropologists.

Hoet also talks about the difficulties he encountered while searching for art before the backdrop of Africa's colonial history, without the familiar "Western" infrastructure, institutional ties and national organizations. He only found the African artist Pili-Pili after driving across the country for days with an African guide.

The keyword "colonial power" brings Kluge, Müller and Hoet to discuss the problematic cultural confrontation between "the West" and Africa. Is Hoet's hunt for art as "Western detective" a form of exploitation? Hoet proposes an open-minded approach to the issue of power imbalance; for him, the burden of colonial history is the cause for an European sense of pity and paternalism.

Müller uses two examples to elaborate on the cultural differences of sign systems, and to demonstrate the difficulties of mutual understanding. During his hunt for art in Tokyo, Hoet accidentally walked into an exhibition at a department store and discovered an Indian artist who is now presenting at the Documenta. He also met an artist whom he recruited for the Documenta, in New York on the street. Kluge and Müller explore the debate about Hoet's understanding of art from different perspectives, and discuss the ways he chose to search for art on his travels. Kluge wonders: Is there something like an art of warfare? In the context of an aesthetic reception of war scenery, for instance in the work of Ernst Jünger, Wassili Grossman (the "beautiful play of colors" of Stalingrad), or news footage from the gulf war, the following question is raised: What is the function of art when reality is perceived as artistic? Kluge introduces an example from the natural sciences, where beauty can shine up in science (for instance in ice prisms). Müller points out that the increasing visibility of reality also leads to a "crisis of representation" in art, but Hoet thinks that art has the potential for a "reduction of the spectacle" – unlike the staged TV images of the gulf war, which create an illusion of reality, but cannot actually represent war.

During a hospital stay, Hoet saw images of the gulf war on TV and realized that something very close to art showed only in brief moments, for instance when captured soldiers appeared on screen: "the sudden, real confrontation with what is seated deep inside these people." In this sense art is not staged, but the representation of authenticity before the background of a staged reality. The discussion culminates in a definition of the fundamental laws of art, among which Hoet and Kluge count authenticity of expression, "in the difference of material, life experience, topic, existence".