Over its 40-year history, documenta has served many agendas. In the years following World War II it countered Hitler’s denunciation of “degenerate” Modernism as well as the competitive polemics of the Cold War by promoting the values and marketability of European and American abstraction and Pop art. In the ’60s and ’70s, documenta became a platform for cross-disciplinary experimentation even as it re-affirmed the socio-political roots of the avant-garde. As the cult of the art star grew in the ’80s, documenta came to embody, like other international exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale, the investment status of art as commodity.
Reflecting upon these past roles, the current curator Catherine David set about to organize an anti-documenta, one that self-consciously debated its own significance while aggressively re-affirming the validity of art as social practice. Instead of showcasing current trends or young talent within a grandly installed spectacle, the curator deliberately selected artists whose understated work accented social issues, ranging from the impact of urbanism and the global economy to the modern realities of immigration and racism. She also reached back to earlier documentas, exhibiting artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Gordon Matta-Clark, Richard Hamilton, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Öyvind Fahlström, whose conceptual contributions, in her view, initiated the critical examination of hierarchies and process currently being played out in today’s art.
In order to initiate the viewer to her perspective, David laid the exhibition out as a parcours, or itinerary. Beginning at the remodeled train station as a “visitor” or “foreigner,” not unlike the curator herself (she is French and the first female director of documenta), the viewer was led on a symbolic journey through downtown Kassel. Proceeding through underground walkways along the Treppenstrassee “passage” (modern Europe’s first shopping promenade) through the exhibition spaces of the Fridericianum, Ottoneum, and documenta-Halle, the promenade ended at the Orangerie along the Fulda river. Following this route, contemporary art became but one aspect of a complex model of urban life and social relationships. Although intent on encapsulating modern experience in general and the cultural and economic history of Germany in particular, this walk often left the visitor/viewer wondering whether he or she was attending an art exhibition or going on a shopping spree. Accompanying the visual art was the ongoing “100 Days-100 Guests” series in which, for the duration of the exhibition, audiences seated on Franz West chairs at the documenta-Halle watched David discuss globalization and other current issues with a broad spectrum of “cultural participants,” including artists, philosophers, critics, sociologists, economists, and political scientists. Even more critical to this documenta was “Das Büch” (“The Book”) in which a veritable “who’s who” of contemporary cultural theory gathered together by the curator assessed both the importance of past and present documentas and the future of art practice in an increasingly diverse and fragmented world.
Ambitious indeed, and despite its protestation, it was every bit the cultural and media event with all the trimmings of sponsorship, documentation, and Internet access that is expected in these modern interactive times. But for those whostill desired a bit of visual pleasure along with their theory, this documenta proved hard going. Downplaying painting and sculpture, David gave large areas over to installation and photo- or media-based work. Although there were some remarkable pieces, most notably by Nancy Spero, who showed her anti-war drawings from the ’60s, Kerry James Marshall, Stan Douglas, Steve McQueen, Johan Grimonprez, and Edgar Honetschläger, the pickings were slim. The attempt to broaden the discussion by including architects and architectural models had little impact and, aside from Rem Koolhaas’s text and image installation, these sections were out of touch with current issues. In the end, more pieces engaged the mind than the heart, evoking a kind of alienation that seemed ironic for an exhibition so bent on inscribing society into its discourse.
Sticking to her theoretical principles, David appeared to be biting the commercial and tourist hand that fed her for four years and paid 33 million deutsche marks to make this exhibition happen. Yet even if her desire to return art practice to the idealism and activism of the ’60s and ’70s was earnest and even admirable, the end result was nostalgia rather than passion. Unfortunately for David, the current scene is dominated by style rather than substance and this aspect was never more clearly visible than at the “Hybrid WorkSpace,” a “temporary laboratory” set up on the ground floor of the Orangerie.
While on opening day two hearty souls sat inside reading manifestoes to a non-existent audience, outside, the documenta crowd was drinking champagne while watching the locals play soccer on the vast lawn. Those sitting already knew what others will soon discover: this summer the best way to see documenta X was to stay at home and read “The Book.” -Susan Canning