Documenta, an exhibition that began as a site for monumental art, has now been turned into a forum for largely fleeting images and events. Dominated by photography and electronic media, Catherine David's Documenta X challenges conventional ideas of location, both physically and theoretically. For one thing, the exhibition is spread along a so-called parcours, or pathway, laid out through Kassel and encompassing five buildings, a stretch of pedestrian tunnels and a shopping area. As I was beginning my trek, a photographer came by and told me it takes "only" two hours.
This may be true if you are looking for objects or paintings to point-and-shoot at, but it takes days to take in all of the information in an exhibition that includes an overwhelming amount of video, films, Internet projects and written information, including a 830-page book. And you might as well move to Kassel to take in the films specially made for the show, the theater marathon in September and the "100 Days -100 Guests" program, featuring not just the usual artists and art historians but everything from urbanists to sociologists. Anyone going through Documenta should be prepared for something different than the usual art-fair style adopted by most giant exhibitions.
If you obediently begin the parcours outside of the main train station, renamed the "Kulturbahnhof" (roughly translated as the "Train Station of Culture"), expect to spend some time figuring out what was conceived as art and what was not. For instance, the posters hung in and around the railway station by Hans Haacke, Jean-Luc Moulène and Erik Steinbrecher almost completely blend in with the regular advertisements. The thin line between the esthetics of art and advertising is a poignant issue, but these works get lost in urban chaos. As a matter of fact, without buying the "Short Guide" for approximately $15 most of the outdoor artworks could never be found. How much relevance can art have if it cannot assert itself in its surroundings?
Among different rooms tucked inside the station, a passageway leads from the main hall up to a homey, dimly lit gallery for watching any of the 40-plus videos selected by artists Johan Grimonprez and Herman Asselberghs. They also suggest bringing your own videos to watch and show others. As comfortable and inviting as the room is, the idea of spectator-turned-curator isn't very radical. People choose their entertainments every day, whether it be TV, movies, video rentals or live events. Besides, video libraries have been an essential part of video and media festivals for quite some time now.
The importance of video to Documenta X becomes instantly apparent upon entering the first conventional building for displaying art, the train station's converted southern wing. To the left of the door is a video by Matthew Ngui that records the process of a person sitting on a chair while to the right a broken chair lies in pieces strewn across the floor. Through a door and to the right, Oladélé Ajiboyé Bamgboyé's three-monitor video installation features real people in his homeland. Seen through the eyes of a Nigerian, the video is meant to provide an alternative to the Western camera's typically voyeuristic view of Africa. Works by non-Western artists -- 13 percent of in the show, a statistic David emphasized at the press conference -- are often displayed prominently at the entrances to Documenta's main buildings. In Bamgboyé's case, however, the placement is counterproductive, as it is impossible to hear what the speakers in his videos have to say while people go through the entryways.
The south wing shows video at every turn, and it soon becomes apparent that Documenta X resembles the electronic art festivals that, until now, have usually been considered as presenting an "underground" art form, despite the global success of a handful video artists. This high-profile show will finally put the seal on the institutionalization of electronic images as high art.
In Steve McQueen's video projection Catch the camera spins back and forth between two people in a park. The confusion of the camera's dizzying movement and constant re-fixing of the shot leads to questions of location, not just of the video's subject, but of the viewer's place in relation to it. These points are also echoed in Joachim Koester's installation Pit Music, where the audience stands on a stage and watches a projection of a chamber orchestra on the wall and in the pit below. The virtual orchestra acts as a ruse to get the spectators on stage where they become the watched, while the video's slow-motion and freeze-framing disrupts the sense of reality and linear time inside the gallery.
Nearby, Uri Tzaig's video works also play with this sense of time and orientation. In Desert Tzaig has manipulated a tape of a basketball game by digitally creating two balls and installing a virus to distort the picture. The teams run from one end of the court to the other in a never-ending game while a German narrative and English subtitles also run nowhere in the completion of total non-linearity. Amidst all this disorientation, Stephen Craig's architectural models offer a vision of solid ground with their half-open, half-closed structures. These works raise questions of orientation. Even Rem Koolhaas fits into this greater scheme, with rooms lined with a maze of tubes, colorful buckets and computers and wallpapered with city skylines, charts and written information on the state of Western and Asian architecture industries.
Why David chose to install in the same building a large room with Hélio Oitica's sensorial explorations in color and form, or Michelangelo Pistoletto's Arte Povera as part of what she calls a "retroperspective, " remains somewhat of a mystery. David has an eye and a mind for fantastic artworks, but the relationships aren't always clear.
This also goes for Lygia Clark's therapeutic clothes, masks and objects in the Ottoneum, the natural history museum that is one of the five main spaces for The Show (the others are the Kulturbannhof, Fredericianum, Orangeric and Documneta Halle). These warm, sensual pieces truly inhabit their central gallery. Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler's collaboration with artists from clinical and penal institutions is the only installation that feels close to Clark's work. Here, the twin sisters have set up a fully furnished room filled with knitted clothing, small woven rugs, inventive striped furniture and written information on their work. Across the hall, photographs by Robert Adams from his "Our Lives and Our Children" series give off a totally different energy of concrete suburban coldness. AYA & GAL MIDDLE EAST, a team that has been working together for five years (and who added "Middle East" to their names as a political label), present an interactive drive through Jerusalem via CD-ROM and video entitled The Naturalize/Local Observation Point that left me cold.
The floor below has more video in store. Stan Douglas' Der Sandmann begins with an excerpt from E.T.A. Hoffmann's novel in which an exchange of letters unfolds the main character's troubled psyche. Douglas illustrates the protagonist, Nathaniel, with a man in a studio reading his letters, and the antagonist, an older man in a garden in former East Germany -- shot twice to depict before and after the Berlin Wall fell. The scenes are edited back to back and run in a loop to form a circling image as different character's letters are read. He also taped the studio scenes twice, splicing the whole thing together left and right so they "wipe each other away" as the camera pans around the scene. The effect is one of incredible timing and a mesmerizing story.
Next door, Catherine Beaugrand's tale of intrigue in an amusement park builds an interesting twist on the narrative form. Its video of real and fictional urban fun parks with a synthetic narrating voice accompanied by a brightly colored, model-toy fairgrounds creates a multi-dimensional story and makes a solid link between Douglas' piece and another wall piece on the future of architecture by Rem Koolhaas' lesson on the future of architecture plastered across the center hall. From here, in the next side gallery Dorothee Golz has installed a big plastic bubble containing a white lamp, chair and what could be described as a giant polyp gives a more threatening view of the future environment. This section of the Ottoneum holds together well in its psychological and physical descriptions of different types of world.
The other side of the floor sadly does not keep up the rapport. Reinhard Mucha falls flat with his glass cases and ordered drawers relating to German train stations; Edgar Honetschlager's video and stills of naked Japanese he asked to sit in and pose with a chair contain a lot of theory about conforming to Western standards, but do not offer enough to visually to support the theory; and Yana Milez' revolving urban horizon that can only be seen clearly when you intervene in the projection to catch it on a round screen held up to the light seems out of place.
The Ottoneum's disunity, though, is made up for in the Halle where the different aspects of Documenta X are integrated. Heimo Zobernig designed the interior for "100 Days - 100 Guests" in a construction-site fashion with a raw, wooden stage, a large shipping container housing the technical crew and other elements like separate translator booths. Franz West provided the colorful chairs and Peter Kogler even wallpapered the ground-level walls and high ceiling with giant tubes in what could be seen as a metaphor for the channeling of information through Documenta's halls.
The building is a place where people meet, not just face to face in the book shop with see-through walls and bookshelves that Vito Acconci Studio built for Walther König or in the cafe next door, but also via a room full of computers each devoted to a different Internet project. These often deal with travel, dispersion and localization as in Eva Wohlgemuth and Andreas Baumann's Location Sculptural System, Muntadas' Translation, or the project by Huber et al. called Description of the Equator and Some Otherlands.
Like the spirit of the Internet, there is no real hierarchy in the exhibition and things often fit loosely together, intersecting at vaguely common points. There are places of orientation, though. In the Museum Fridericianum, traditionally Documenta's main building, Dan Graham installed his X-shaped semi-transparent partition to form four triangular spaces with monitors and throw pillows where one can sit and watch videos while being watched by other Documenta-goers. One journalist called it the "heart piece" of the show, and it does have many of the themes that come up in the entire exhibition -- the electronic relaying of information, spectating, and an awareness of location in the sense of "X marks the spot."
It could also be argued that Gerhard Richter's "Atlas" mounted in a large gallery near the Fridericianum's entrance is the centerpiece. It is a collection of hundreds of photographs, some of which are partially painted over, that are the roots of both his abstract and representational paintings. The work in progress was first exhibited in 1972 and has grown to be a photo-journal of his art and the society he lives in. Richter's use of photography and the idea of looking through a "second eye, " the camera lens, pops up again and again in the exhibition, particularly in the Fridericianum, and gives it a unifying esthetic -- be it in Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Patrick Faigenbaum or Garry Winogrand's urban documentation; in the thousands of drawings sequenced together to make the South African William Kentridge's socio-political animated films; or in David Reeb's painting from press photos of Israeli military actions.
Reeb's paintings hang close to another pillar of the exhibition, Gordon Matta-Clark's photo-documentation of the destruction of living spaces. The construction and destruction of architecture reoccurs throughout the exhibition. Kerry James Marshall's paintings of housing developments usually inhabited by Afro-Americans have the beat-up style of 1960's "urban renewal" projects. These illustrate a broken society just as Hans Haacke's 1970's documentation of real-estate scams tell of social and economic destruction. Other works in the building concentrate on constructing places for people to live in. For instance, Andrea Zittel built A-Z Escape Vehicles -- tiny custom-made trailers perfect for the individual who wants to hide-out in comfort. And Richard Hamilton's Seven Rooms made up of manipulated photographs of interiors hung together in a recreation of their original gallery installation create a house between the virtual and the real.
A step in another direction and what another journalist dubbed the exhibition's "heart piece" is Broodthaers' Section Publicité, also shown at Documenta V in 1972. This piece was first withdrawn from the show on the day of the press conference by the artist's heirs, who objected to its installation, but the conflict was resolved in time for the opening and the little room full of treasures now stands in a corner, close to the foyer. Broodthaers critique of the institution of the museum -- a collection of empty picture frames, heavily symbolic eagles taken from art and advertising, and theoretical texts in the sense of "This is not a work of art" -- does not have a direct link to anything else in the show. What it does do, however, is set a tone for questioning the visual and urges the observer to look at the exhibition in the greater context of the entire Documenta program. Perhaps this really does encompass the entire show on a theoretical level.
At the end of the parcours lies the Orangerie where the Hybrid WorkSpace has been constructed. Designed as an amorphic room of movable tables and walls for people to sit, work and talk about Documenta and its contingent events, the Hybrid WorkSpace also provides a place to rest from the exhausting parcours. Outside, a few works are scattered around the building, including Carsten Höller and Rosemarie Trockel's A House for Pigs and People. The concrete building holding a pig sty complete with swine to be looked at through a one-way mirror by the visitors resting in the other side of the house has got everyone talking about something that outside an urban environment wouldn't be blinked at. I guess art is not what it is, but where it is. In many different ways, Documenta X proves an old truism -- location is everything.
ROSANNE ALTSTATT is a critic and curator working in Cologne.