A rebours. Documenta zoekt naar een nieuwe toon / Against the grain. Documents in search of a new tone

It was rather embarrassing to see how the merest trace of reflection and detachment can ruffle the feathers of the cultural fraternity: apart from critics, fellow exhibition makers in particular, the most masculine of whom have a tendency to behave like uptight chefs convinced of their own sensibility and the idea that women cannot cook.

‘Naturally’ painting is their favourite dish.


The tenth edition of Documenta is the most restrained and reflective for a long time. After the exuberant spectacles of Documenta 7 to IX all the indications are that number X will be a good deal less popular, with both the art critic and the general public. That is a pity for what we have here is a rare case of a mega-exhibition that is intended to present a serious alternative to the over-heated machinery promoting the young and the new in art.


Part of the resentment directed at Catherine David stems from her unwillingness to follow trodden paths and ‘proper’ channels. She has also refused to deliver what many expect of a Documenta: a wide-ranging inventory of developments in the visual arts during the preceding five years. David realized that at a time when even the most distinguished art institutions and museums are vying with one another in their pursuit of young and wild talent and at the same time neglecting to develop more interesting arthistorical models than a two-dimensional ‘movements’ chart, it might be up to the Documenta to assume certain reflective tasks left undone elsewhere.


And there are other reasons why Catherine David’s approach satisfies a demand. Now that it looks as though the artistic developments of the 1990s are all about engagement, activism and the breakthrough between ‘art and life’ (whereby the naivety of young artists is often exceeded only by their enthusiasm), it certainly makes sense to try to gain more insight into the role that ‘critical art’ – as David is pleased to call it – has played in the context of political and cultural change in Europe since the Second World War. To meet that need we now have Documenta X the book, a monumental publication that is emphatically not a catalogue.


Most of the exhibitors are only indirectly mentioned in the book that – leap-frogging along the crucial years 19451967-1978-1989 – documents, interprets and evaluates the cultural history of Europe in a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of images and texts from the perspective of a fragmented, avant- gardist enterprise. Larded with essays by a variety of authors on such topics as ‘Punk Riot in the Pop Music Industry’, ‘Political Architecture in Italy’, ‘A Borderless World’, ‘Artaud’s Return to Poetry’ and ‘The Political Potential of Art’, the book seems less an appendix to the exhibition than the other way round.


As if this were not enough, David has extended her Documenta into a triptych. As well as the exhibition and the book, there is a daily programme of lectures, discussions and films and theatrical sketches. This is her solution to the dilemma that bedevils Western exhibition makers anxious to acknowledge the globalization of post-colonial culture, but also aware that it is counter-productive to include artworks from non-Western countries in their exhibitions as exotic bonbons. David has come to the conclusion that visual art is in many instances not the right medium for studying ‘other’ cultures: ‘it seems that the pertinence, excellence, and radicality of contemporary nonWestern expressions often finds its privileged avenues in music, oral and written language (literature, theater), and cinema forms which have traditionally contributed to strategies of emancipation.’ This plausible argument, which is remarkably relativistic for a visual art specialist, explains why nonWestern artists feature largely in the lecture and events programme, despite the fact that David must have known that this would alienate a good many mainstream art critics.


The most lucid moments in the exhibition section of Documenta X are to be had in the main gallery, the Museum Fridericianum, where the historical core of David’s layout is on display. I would describe its objective as the elimination of the usual polarization between a humanist-instrumental and a postmodernsceptical attitude towards the image.


The first pole finds expression in the visionary collages and models of Ron Herron (Archigram) and Andrea Branzi (Archizoom), who tried to radicalize the modernist view of architecture for the popular consumer culture; in Aldo van Eyck’s organic designs for playgrounds and pavilions from the 1950s and 1960s; and in Ed van der Elsken’s engage photoreports from the same period. The optimistic, sometimes rather softheaded output of these individuals is set against the work of Art and Language, Gerhard Richter and Marcel Broodthaers, who exemplify the opposite, sceptical pole.


Richter and Broodthaers are represented by very particular ensembles. Broodthaers’s Musee d’Art Moderne, Departement des Aigles, Section Publicite (1972) is a collection of photographs, reproductions and historical visual material featuring the eagle. This collection of logos, labels, symbols and emblems gives the impression of uncovering a bizarre avian global conspiracy that has had a major impact on the course of history. At the same time, the figure of the eagle is an empty and reproducible husk that can be used for any ideology whatsoever. Gerhard Richter exhibits his Atlas (1962-1996), an extensive archive of photographs, both his own and those cut out of newspapers and magazines, that – unlike Broodthaers’s Departement des Aigles have no common motif, except perhaps that, as a documentary reference for Richter’s paintings, they collectively demonstrate the pointlessness of the ‘project’ of painting. Sunset, mother and child, Auschwitz victims, pornographic scene and kitschy still-life – they are all subjects that, with the exception of Richter himself, are untouchable for modern painters.


The fact that Richter, one of the very few painters invited to take part in this Documenta, is not represented by a single painting is significant. David’s dismissal of contemporary painting as ‘at its best academic and at its worst reactionary’, may sound dogmatic but it does seem to be the case that painting nowadays is by definition about egos – and at best about The Ego. As such, Richter’s Atlas can be positively interpreted as an attempt to document the limits of an anonymous visual culture as the limits of an Ego turned inside out.


Documenta X is the first mega-exhibition in a long time that does not identify itself with the paradigm of painting. Given the expansive mental space that paintings usually claim for themselves, this represents an enormous liberation. Photography (followed by its descendant, film) is the privileged medium here. Moreover, photography epitomizes the attitude in the exhibition as a whole and in many of the exhibited works towards history and contemporary urbanized society: a quasi-anthropological attitude that endows staged images with a documentary function and, conversely, places documentary images inside a fictional narrative frame.


This method projects by turns the alien onto the familiar and the familiar onto the alien. And although the role of the Ego is not compulsively denied here, it is subjected to a dynamic protocol: the protocol of the ‘participating observer’. David makes a plausible case for considering the classical documentary photography of the likes of Walker Evans and Garry Winogrand as a breeding ground for this. In the exhibition, this line is extended into the present with photo-, film- and videoworks by Stan Douglas, Johan Grimonprez, Aglaia Konrad, Liisa Roberts, Jeff Wall, Steve McQueen, Peter Friedl, Marijke van Warmerdam, Craigie Horsfield and Uri Tzaig. The tone of these works is sometimes imploring and sometimes relaxed, sometimes manic and sometimes contemplative. Sometimes all these things at once.


As already stated, David presents the quasi-anthropological method as the product of an imploding polarity: the sceptical and the idealistic approach are conflated at the level of the photographic reproduction and the visual culture. She is suggesting that this offers the prospect of a way out of the dilemmas surrounding the status of the image and the future of art – dilemmas that were so painfully demonstrated five years ago by Jan Hoet, whose unbridled ‘passion’ and lack of detachment ended in muddiness and stagnation. Compared with Documenta IX, number X amounts to a serious attempt, in the midst of the postmodernist visual plethora (the surfeit of ‘signs that only refer to other signs’), to pinpoint a hard core that critical artists might be able to exploit.


So is all the criticism of this exhibition unfounded? Unfortunately not. Anyone who, in addition to the central Fridericianum, has visited the other locations, cannot help but observe that Catherine David’s starting point was stronger than her elaboration. Where she presents certain marginal figures from the 1960s and 1970s in order to draw lines from their work to today’s art, the choice of the therapeutic objects of Lygia Clark and HÈlio Oiticica, the playful installations of ÷yvind Fahlstrˆm and the dynamic interventions of Gordon Matta-Clark is indeed fruitful, although the absence of Eva Hesse and Robert Smithson is remarkable. The choice of young or younger artists is less convincing, however. Too often the work smacks of mediocrity or even epigonism. It seems as if David has gone too far in her ideologically motivated unwillingness to confirm budding reputations. Thus the focus and urgency of the exhibition diminish the further one gets from the core, and the whole pointe is to a certain extent undermined. Where David ultimately fails is in investing her notion of ‘critical art’ with a meaning that is also constructive at the visual level in the current situation. As such she hands the critics of the spectacle society, who are basically on her side, too few current proofs and arguments with which to buttress their position and to defend themselves in turn against accusations of iconoclasm.


Catherine David has taken a deliberate risk in adopting such a strong stand against the touristic aspect of ‘Kassel’, knowing that ticket and book sales must recoup 10 of the 20 million Deutschmarks expended on the exhibition. Only in retrospect will it be possible to say whether her gamble has paid off economically as well as intellectually. For the time being, the main thing is that David has attempted with Documenta X to set a new tone for the treatment of art products in their relation to culture (in the broadest sense of that word). Although she has been only partially successful in this – and is reportedly going around with the idea that this will be the last Documenta – one wishes that serious thought might be given to a continuation of this approach in the future.


Documenta X is showing in Kassel until 28 September 1997.