The Atlas Group

By Mike Sperlinger, 5 November 2002

What it means for a work of art to be political, or for politics to be artful; whether the current vogue for documentary and ‘political’ art stems from an evacuation of the political elsewhere; and quite what happens to a community-based protest project transplanted to a purpose-built art fair space far away – these are some of the questions which this year’s monumental Documenta 11, held in Kassel, Germany, gestured towards. Some of the work on show suffered from the superficiality of this gesture, but the Atlas Group’s work managed to reframe many of the questions, while feeding off some of the weaker didactic works around it.

A video shows Beirut surveillance camera footage, edited to show only the moments when ‘operator #17’ diverted his camera to record the sunset. A series of Yves Klein-like blue canvases are revealed as concealing microscopic prints of people found dead in the Mediterranean between 1975 and 1990. Pages from a notebook sketch the weekly trips by a group of Lebanese historians to their local racecourse (‘Marxists and Islamists bet on races one through seven, Maronite nationalists and socialists on races eight through fifteen’), where they bet on the fraction of a second before or after the winning horse crosses the line that the racecourse photographer will take his picture; beside each photo are the historians’ initials with their wagered times, and a thumbnail description of the winning historian and their foibles.

The fictive over-precision of the ‘archive’ indicates a resistance to both conventional historical discourse and the gallery-goer’s self-satisfaction at going away ‘better informed’. Against all the odds, the Atlas Group seem hell bent on giving new meaning to the term ‘art history’.


Mike Sperlinger <mike AT> is a writer