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The Documenta 11 curators, from left: Carlos Basualdo, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Okwui Enwezor, Uta Meta Bauer, Octavio Zaya, Mark Nash

The Binding Brewery exhibition space

The Binding's mazelike exhibition galleries, with photos from Fish Story (1990-95) by Alan Sekula

Drawings from "Signs from Oranges"
by Frédéric Bruly Bouabré

Hanne Darboven's installation in the Museum Fridericianum

Muyiwa Osifuye's The Marina Scene (2002)
from "Selected Feature Photographs of Lagos"

Muyiwa Osifuye

Ryuji Miyamoto, photograph from "Kobe 1995: After the Eathquake"

Carlos Garaicoa
How Neoclassical Architecture Gave Birth to Socialist Architecture

Tania Bruguera in Kassel, 2002

Annette Messager

Raymond Pettibon's Throw Off Your Burkas!

Vendors selling Cildo Meireles' Disappearing Element (2002) in front of the Museum Fridericianum

Cildo Meireles
Monster Mash
by Walter Robinson

Documenta 11, which opens to the public in the German town of Kassel, June 8-Sept. 15, 2002, is a monster.

Four years in the making, crafted by a team of seven globetrotting curators with a budget of around $10 million, the exhibition boasts approximately 120 artists with works spread throughout five venues, including the 12,000-square-foot Museum Fridericianium and the brand new, brutally mazelike 16,000-square-foot Binding Brewery (other sites are the curved, glass-faced Documenta-Halle, the railway-station galleries at the Kulturbahnhof and some publicly sited works in the nearby Orangerie/Karlsaue park). What's more, approximately 70 percent of the works are new, commissioned by Documenta specifically for the exhibition.

Not for nothing that Okwui Enwezor, the necessarily megalomaniacal artistic director of the show, called it "the most important exhibition in the world."

The money shows in the scale of the works, which tend to be . . . demonstrative. One huge gallery contains hundreds and hundreds of drawings by the 80-year-old Ivory Coaster, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (most from the Pignozzi collection). The retrospective selection of Hanne Darboven's framed drawings and books occupies the entirety of the Fridericianum's three-story atrium. The Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman gets 24 color monitors for a multichannel piece on Mexican immigrants, while a grid of 21 Sharp color portables is used for Lorna Simpson's multichannel video on a pretty office worker's routine.

By the way, as part of its support for Documenta 11, Volkswagen provided Enwezor with a fleet of 18 cars for himself and his staff. That must have been a fun moment.

Documenta 11's gleaming surface does have one tiny nick. The theoretical underpinnings of the show, which are so evidently important to the curatorial team, and provided junkets to places like St. Lucia in the Caribbean and Lagos in Nigeria for the purpose of a series of cultishly termed "platforms" (which ordinarily would be called conferences), seem to be largely gobbledygook.

To cite one modest example (from the free exhibition pamphlet, no less): "The first four platforms were devised as committed intellectual and discursive interventions in a highly interdisciplinary manner to explore actively and critically the contemporary problematics of art, politics and society."

In this instance, it's not that some meaning can't be coaxed from this passage as that it seems an awkward translation from the . . . Martian? The huge catalogue, de rigueur for these sorts of enterprises, is filled with so much more of this kind of bad writing.

You have to admit that Enwezor's four "platforms," or themes, are promising: "Democracy Unrealized," "Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation," "Créolité and Creoliyation" and "Under Siege: Four African Cities -- Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos."

As for the art itself, well, the money shows here, too, especially in all the new commissions. In case you were wondering what happened to the political impulse in contemporary art, it's alive and well at Documenta 11. And Hans Haacke isn't even in the show.

Enwezor might live in New York's high-rent SoHo art district, but he was born in a town in Nigeria and lived through his share of ugliness before he came West. Presumably it was this to which he made cryptic reference at the press conference, calling some unnamed critics of the exhibition "deeply provincial journalists" who know not what it is to "live experimentally when the state has failed."

Whatever the nature of this trauma, it apparently gave Enwezor an abiding sympathy for the wretched of the earth. Their presence is strongly felt in Documenta 11.

Poetic images of the global poor abound. Photos of New Delhi beggar children by Ravi Agarwal, for example, or David Goldblatt's somber scenes of South Africans, or the astonishing photographs of the crowded streets of Lagos by Muyiwa Osifuye.

By extension, the architectural traces of repression, violence and even natural disaster are cherished, as in Michael Ashkin's black and white photos of the trashed landscape of the New Jersey Meadowlands, Santu Mofokung's elegant pictures of the prison on Robben Island in South Africa, Zarina Bhimji's film of pastoral barbed wire in her native Uganda or Ryuji Miyamoto's Kobe After the Earthquake (1995-98).

Even the luxurious color photography of Candida Hofer, who more famously occupies herself with neo-classical images of libraries and zoos, is pressed to join the cause, with a suite of photos showing the installation of Rodin's tortured Burghers of Calais at a dozen different museums.

More encouraging in this regard are the models, drawings and photographs of the Cuban architect Carlos Garaicoa, whose ambitious and poetic efforts to work with Havana's tragically dilapidated buildings -- the profound public face of Castro's socialism -- are given modest titles like Somebody's Architecture and How Neoclassical Architecture Gave Birth to Socialist Architecture.

Violence is given fictional form that is presumably cathartic in the stop-action assassination slide show titled Shooting Gallery by Kendell Geers, a South African who lives in London and Brussels, and in the harrowing performance piece by Tania Bruguera, which shocks viewers with blinding white lights while volunteer actors make repetitive sounds of rapid-fire shooting and thumping boots in the dark.

In an interesting bit of displacement, physical brutality finds favor as sculptural style (in the vein of Expressionism or Art Brut). Thus, the damaged chairs of Doris Salcedo, which apparently have been attacked with a machete and left scattered about a room (Leon Golub's severe canvases of mercenaries canvases, hanging unstretched on the wall, seem implicated), and the electrified kitchen suite of Mona Hatoum, crackling and humming behind a safety fence, its utensils all connected by live wire.

Elsewhere are the neurotic, malformed creatures of Louise Bourgeois, displayed in cages, as well as a sadistic, kinetic installation by Annette Messager, also in a room-sized pen, in which oversized plush animals hang from the ceiling, lie in heaps on the floor and are dragged around the perimeter of the space by a machine. Also kinetic is Nari Ward's huge mechanical metal tree, a monstrosity that stands in a dark field of wheels ripped from trikes and strollers.

Furthermore, much of the exhibition space is given over to ethnographic material, such as the 13 monitors in a long hallway playing a detailed documentary on Inuit ice-fishing, made by a group called Igoolik Canada. It's enchanting, but then so would be the finals of the World Cup or anything else you might expect to catch on television.

Nice painting, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found, and what signs of it there are seem rather hostile to the art. Fabian Marcaccio's huge undulating mural takes the ordinarily seductive painterly surface and gives it the boils and ruptures of a skin disease, while Glenn Ligon's gallery full of illegible text paintings adopts political eloquence -- a James Baldwin essay from 1953 -- and makes it clotted and ugly (which is somehow supposed to be the point).

The Iranian artist Chohreh Feyzdjou fills a large gallery with blackened stretchers, rack after rack of dingy rolled canvases, stacked crates full of used rags, plus shelves and boxes filled with all sorts of charred, gummy, nasty bits. Feyzdjou calls it Boutique Product, but these are the complete inventory of one dark, dank studio. (It gets worse -- all this is reputed by the catalogue essayist to have something to do with the fact that Feyzdjou is Jewish, and had to change her name from Cohen.)

Though remarks here may suggest the contrary, I rather liked the show, or what of it I saw during the first marathon eight-hour viewing. It did seem a bit puritan -- "the sensual" was indeed missing, as predicted by one questioner from the audience at the initial Documenta press conference.

That is to say, there are hardly any nudes, or nakedness. One exception, received with gratitude, is a drawing by Raymond Pettibon of a woman throwing off her chador to reveal her bare body, in a room papered with his divinely demented cartoons, newspaper clippings and children's drawings, most about latter-day Nick Furys and the new battle against evil in the world. [Xenophobic joke for Terry Myers -- Marian Goodman Gallery has more artists in Documenta (Fiona Tan, Gabriel Orozco, Jeff Wall, possibly others) than all of L.A., which has two (Pettibon and Alan Sekula)].

Curiously, at the heart of Documenta 11 is 1970s Conceptualism. Central place is given to Darboven's giant text piece, as mentioned above, while elsewhere On Kawara's One Million Years (1970) is actually being read into microphones by two performers sitting in a glass booth (they were up to 9,172 A.D. when I was there). Grids of photos of buildings by Bernd and Hilla Becher are also included.

Works like these, which humorlessly strive to index the entire world, appeal to the vanity and grandiosity of the curators, whose pretension is towards an exhibition that is epochal, even timeless. Unfortunately, as Stalinism proved, the true fruits of such an ambition are not utopia but bureaucracy, and worse.

Perhaps it would be apropos here to mention a small group exhibition organized by Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo in New York in 1980, titled "The New Capital" and including works by the then "emerging" artists Peter Halley and Jeff Koons. The point being that artists are for curators as capital is for capitalists, and lots of new capital is being formed at Documenta 11.

Not for nothing that one of the conceptual pieces in the show was a "public limited company" formed by Berlin artist Maria Eichhorn, with shares at one Euro each. She wisely made Enwezor a director.

On the other hand, one could buy for the same single Euro from Brazilian conceptualist Cildo Meireles a "Disappearing Element" -- ice water on a stick, packaged Good Humor-style -- and watch your investment run through your fingers.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.