20 JUNE 1992, Page 41


Exhibitions 1

Documenta IX (Kassel, Germany, till 20 September)

The biggest show of all

Adrian Dannatt

The midnight train from Paris to Kassel is packed, every sleeping berth occupied by a curator, an artist, a critic or a gallery owner. Conversation continues until first light, as France's most controversial young sculptor debates with the head of the Cen- tre Pompidou, the whole French art world rattling through the night to their date with Documenta. Every five years international art folk gather to congratulate themselves once again with this most enormous of all enormous group shows, held in the improb- able venue of the German town of Kassel. It is hard to imagine an equivalent event in other areas of culture; maybe a Bayreuth Ring cycle crossed with a worldwide sympo- sium on current directions in opera would hint at the magnitude of its aspirations.

The five years taken to put together the show are fraught with tension and ambition as every artist in the world waits to see if the Documenta team of curators will come on a studio visit and select him for fame and fortune. Documenta is quite blatant in its intentions: to demonstrate conclusively and exhaustively what is happening in con- temporary art, who are the stars and why. Thus the event takes on an almost mytho- logical aura: rumoured sightings and reported visits by the curatorial team become the stuff of gossip overnight. For this, the ninth Documenta, the team con- sisted of three critics, from Belgium, Greece and Italy, headed by Jan Hoet, director of the Ghent art museum and voted one of the sexiest living Belgians, a dubious accolade at the best of times.

'Jan Hoet is coming to look at his work,' has been heard from many a gallery owner trying to clinch a sale, and the name Hoet has become a magic talisman over the last years, once people learnt how to pro- nounce it. On top of that, Documenta has been sent several thousand objects and pleading letters by desperate artists who didn't realise or refused to believe that the show was a strictly personal selection. The rather smug pomposity of the event is at its worst in On the Way to Documenta, a book of moody photographs and self- congratulatory musings by Mr Hoet on how he came by his selections, which makes clear that it is the curator, not the artist, that takes precedence. Indeed, the cult of personality, that driving psychic motor of contemporary art, threatens to overwhelm any object on display, leaving us with noth- ing to admire but the egos of those involved in their production.

The 180 or so artists, who contributed a couple of works each, are spread out over a variety of buildings and site-specific venues around the city, from the specially built new exhibition hall to car parks and shops, Man Walking to the Sky', by Jonathan Borofsky, in the Friedrichsplatz, Kassel creating that deliberate ambiguity by which one could never be sure what was art and what were merely the visual oddities of the modern city.

Documenta lasts for 100 days, but for the art world it lasts only for two days, the opening preview, whereupon everyone moves swiftly on, leaving Kassel to the locals. Thus the success of the event is judged not by the number of visitors but by the reactions of the closed circle of profes- sionals during the opening. Each Documen- ta, from the first in 1955, has been carefully appraised and analysed, like a wine vintage, and a communal judgment then cruelly passed into history. The last one was defi- nitely voted a dud. This latest effort is under the closest scrutiny yet, as doubt creeps in about the validity of such gigantic shows, the blockbusters that Documenta spawned, such as Metropolis last year in Berlin. It is lucky that much contemporary art can be `got' at a single ,take, and one can pass swiftly on to the next work, for otherwise these shows would be even more punishing. The problem is that the subtler, more sophisticated work gets passed by at the same speed as the one-liner joke.

Thus the huge pole erected outside the main museum by Jonathan Borofsky, with a man marching confidently up it into the sky, is an easy, amusing symbol of aspira- tion and human optimism, to be readily understood and enjoyed. By contrast, Michelangelo Pistoletto's installation, using a raised Roman road, a mirror with a stat- ue of Caesar leaning against it, a drawing of the artist as a child and a soprano sitting at a table eating gruel and singing to her- self on a video monitor, is an extremely complex and eventually rewarding medita- tion on themes of personal and national history, on Italy and childhood, his father and his daughter.

Every Documenta supposedly has a theme — a ridiculous notion considering the amount of work on show — and Hoet expressed his interest in 'artists trying to redeem the loss of the body in our society'. Certainly topics of sexuality and gender were to the fore, not least because the show's four male, white curators have had to defend themselves against charges of hegemonic imperialism by loudly boasting of the 'first ever Native American artist' and other token exotics. That women artists made up only 11 per cent of the total was the cause of some outrage, and indeed it did seem strange in these modern times to have quite so resolutely male a team. To add to the laddish frisson, Jan Hoet is an ex-boxer and lifetime devotee of the sport, and had planned a boxing match between two European champions as a high point of the show. Sadly, this had to be cancelled due to lack of cash, but it did not endear him to the feminists, nor did his statements in defence of Mike Tyson after his rape conviction.

Much of the work on display about the body is queasily scatological, such as the entrance floor tiled by the Belgian Wim Delvoye, which at first looks like a beauti- ful Moorish pattern but on closer inspec- tion proves to be made from images of the artist's curved excreta. Likewise, Charles Ray gives us an extraordinary tableau of lifesize mannequins, naked and indulging in a full-scale sexual orgy, every one of them made in the image of the artist, a Boschian vision of narcissistic fulfillment: group sex only with oneself.

There are wonderful things at Documen- ta, funny, irritating, provocative and aston- ishing works that demonstrate the sheer variety and complexity of current art prac- tice. There is also, of course, the full quota of the pretentious and banal, the sort of stuff that comes to define the failings of contemporary art. But with its billions of deutschemarks, years of organisation and ceaseless conferences and publications, Documenta is above all else a sociological phenomenon, an example of state cultural funding and the vastness of the present art world that demands social and political, rather than aesthetic criteria to judge it.