In this year of 13 moons, the global art world was beset by blockbuster contemporary surveys -- the Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennale, Documenta (every five years) and the Münster sculpture project (every ten years). Careers are made (or forgotten) with the slip of a ball-point pen. Even more dubious artists can find themselves included in these events, by luck and/or subject matter.
The current installment of Documenta -- Documenta X -- was not much of a crowd-pleaser. The show comes off as a piece of heavy auteurship, in which the young French curator, Catherine David (b. 1953), manages to alienate her associates and mentors (here, notably, the philosopher Paul Virilio and the art historian Jean-Francois Chevrier) and provoke the press on both sides of the Atlantic with her haughty manner.
"The book," as the catalogue is dubbed, is filled with essays that frequently don't bother to be readable and with photomontages that do away with identifying captions. As the millennium approaches, it says, we are charged with the task of making sense of our history as well as our future direction.
Consequently, David rifles through her files and presents us with what she considers to be the more interesting moments in socially engaged artistic practice. In other words, a certain kind of p.c. art.
Documenta X is also a contrary reaction to Documenta IX, the 1992 installment of the show curated by Jan Hoet. In hindsight, the 1992 Documenta appears to have been the swan song of commodity art. It had big guns left over from the expressionist '80s, like Penck and Richter and Bacon. It had American avant-garde blue chips like Nauman and Marden. And it had hot shots of the moment like Matthew Barney, Robert Gober, Roni Horn, Mike Kelley, Cady Noland and Charles Ray.
Documenta IX was a political show, too, but only in the sense that it left no major art dealers unhappy. It can also be seen as an attempt to put a good face on a collapsed art market.
This year, Documenta embraces a bunch of emerging European artists, including Heath Bunting, Peter Friedl, Liam Gillick, Joachim Koester, Steve McQueen, Christian-Philipp Müller, Olav Nicolai and Liisa Roberts. Only 16 Americans are included -- about 12 percent of the total -- and only three of those are under 40 years of age -- Christine Hill, Andrea Zittel and Jordan Crandall. Among the familiar Documenta faces are Lothar Baumgarten, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Reinhard Mucha, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Richter and Franz West.
The installation takes the form of a "parcours," or path, leading from the train station through a pedestrian walkway and then through three museums, the Orangerie and a park. It also includes a program of 100 speakers on 100 days, a series of local TV and radio programs, endless Web sites, an 800-page book, performances, a film series and guided tours.
Each of the exhibition spaces addresses a theme. In the historical section, we begin in the 1930s in America (Europe begins, diplomatically, in the post-war '50s) with documentary photographers Helen Levitt and Walker Evans and next the photos of Garry Winogrand and Robert Adams. After segueing through Parisian decollagist Raymond Hains we come to the various socially engaged "art-and-architecture" practices from the 1960s -- Archigram/Ron Herron, Alison and Peter Smithson, Archizoom.
Then comes work from the '60s and '70s relating to the urban space by Hans Haacke and Gordon Matta-Clark. From here we are led to a Dan Graham mirror installation housing Godard videos. This floor ends with a group of political photographers. The short guide refers to this type of Social Realist photography as "without ever shrinking to the visual rhetoric of the shocking image." This is the same crew from 1991 -- Jeff Wall, Craigie Horsfield (now working under the name Collectiv), Patrick Faigenbaum. And so there we have it, according to David, art and urbanism to the present.
Having backed photography into a corner, David then strolls us through more current politically correct socially engaged art, from the Hohenbüchlers (making art with mentally handicapped people), to Christine Hill (selling clothes in a "Volksboutique") to Matthew N'gui (making a meal as art). It's of note that Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Christian Boltanski and Rirkrit Tiravanija, who are rather better known for the same sorts of activities, are absent. The mood of David's curating can often appear overcompensatory.
On the other hand certain underexposed artists from earlier eras are brought forward, such as the Brazilian performance artists and "social" sculptors Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica. Current work from distant shores is also featured, such as the Trinidadian Johan Grimonprez, whose very popular video is about hijacking, terrorism and Palestine. And true to David's quixotic, controversial style, no less than six artists were making work around the issue of Israel and Palestine -- is it a surprise to say that pro-peace, pro-Palestinian positions were implied?
Moving into the Documenta Halle itself, the exhibition returns to David's second favorite theme -- public art. Peter Kogler, Franz West, Vito Acconci and Heimo Zobernig produced the walls, chairs, shelving and building plan, respectively. But where was original bad boy of this genre, Felix Gonzalez-Torres? (Disregarded by David as too "esthetic" in Artforum, May '97?) Somehow this installation was the most unresolved of all.
David tried to integrate the "social sculpture" with a huge array of Internet Web sites in the basement, plus installations by three young video artists, Jordan Crandall, Siobhan Hapaska and Oladele Bamgboye, and only then (as if in an afterthought) Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler's collaborative "LSD-inspired" post-punk video-projected-on-painting sideshow. It was hard to get any sense of the work in this building. The curation seemed to wobble from heavily stated chronologies, then to some very minor young Berliner artists in side rooms, to these awkward juxtapositions.
As if shooting itself one last time in the foot, the show's final act declared a back gallery at the Orangerie a "Hybrid Workspace." It was an empty space dedicated to social interaction of all kinds, subject to change. A foretaste of the "Berlin Bienalle," by which it was sponsored. It all seemed rather lame. Self-important young Berlin curators trotted through proprietorially. But where was the work or the social exchange?
The Düsseldorf school will never let you down however, and closing the Documenta circuit, near the Orangerie, as a farewell gesture, Rosemarie Trockel and Carsten Höller had charmingly installed some pigs in a sty, which one could watch from a mirrored room. And by the river, Kippenberger's last piece, an upturned entrance to his imaginary intercontinental subway system. Last stop.
It is easy to dismiss Catherine David's curating of Documenta X as the kind of megalomaniacal "voyant" position that one might expect from a Parisian intellectual. But there are many aspects to this show that are courageous. It is deliberately not market-driven. It has few of the "big stars" of previous Documentas, and though the show's political dialectic does seem both overstated and somehow played out, its humanism is more appealing than whatever it is that's represented by shamanistic "megastars" like Matthew Barney and Marina Abramovic.
Documenta X is a Eurocentric show. And although it is true that many younger US artists are currently making very market-oriented work, one reason might be that their younger European counterparts are more state-stipendium supported. Again curiously, Liam Gillick, Siobhan Hapaska and Steve McQueen are the only representatives of the young energy currently unleashed in Britain. It appears to be tokenism. Similarly, UCLA professors Lari Pittman, Mike Kelley and associate Tony Oursler are included, but seemingly without much reference to David's central dialogue. The catalogue unconvincingly has Kelley wax nostalgic about "punk" hitting L.A. in the later '70s. But so what?
Catherine David apparently intends to slap the art world in the face with a neo-Marxist dialectic that revolves around certain Parisian theorists -- Chevrier as the art history parallel to Virilio, Deleuze and Guattari. To illuminate this position, she presents a group of Vancouver-based artists and a scattering of others from around the globe as paradigms of sociocultural virtue. These virtues would appear to be an aversion to showmanship, spectacle or shock. Sex is for the closed bedroom -- there is no gender work in Documenta X. According to David, computers are good if you are communicating with others through them. The museum is a tool for a kind of poetic after-school education.
For such a big-budget event, one wishes Catherine David could perhaps not play nanny so much, but throw in a dash of spectacle. Living in East Berlin for the last 3 years, as I have, one begins to crave a little color.
Documenta X runs in Kassel, Germany, June 21-Sept. 28, 1997.
Web sites can be accessed under http://www.documenta.
RUPERT GOLDSWORTHY is an artist, gallerist and writer, based in New York and Berlin.