Documenta IX

With one hundred and eighty artists participating and work especially prepared to suit the eight venues and their surroundings, the ninth Documenta took on the character of an event, rather than an exhibit. It was clearly the curator's intention to involve, confront, amuse or tease at every turn, coaxing the viewer into participation not only with the artworks themselves but with the whole city environment. The responsibility for interpretation was always put squarely into the lap of the viewer.

The parameters for this Documenta, subtly articulated by the inclusion of eight historical works under the heading Collective Memory, reminded the viewer that some of the critical issues of contemporary art practice are in fact as old as art itself. Housing these works in the vaulted spaces of the Zwerenturm, an ancient medieval tower, was indicative of the way in which the Belgian curator, Jan Hoet, and his team accommodated all the works, allowing the buildings to participate in the construction of a total sign. These eight works, by, amongst others, Jacques Louis David, Paul Gauguin, and James Ensor, signified issues such as the location of the artist in society, the liberation of the viewer, the autonomy of the art object and the search for Utopia. The form in which these issues were addressed in the past is now in the vaults; the gallery proper was filled with new metaphorical style and form.

The highlighting of contemporary art's discourse with history made a great deal of sense in this small city where history oozes from every pore. The architecture is a reminder of long eclipsed power structures. Outside, in front of the main venue, Jonathan Borofsky's Man Walking to the Sky, with its dynamic diagonal structure, not only commented on what seemed to me to be humankind's audacious mentality but also challenged the static and stately historical figures on the gable of the Museum Fredericanum.

The curatorial strategy allowed for a range of visual discourse, by persons well-known, (such as Ellsworth Kelly, Bruce Naumann, Rebecca Horn, Brice Marden), as well as lesser known or emerging artists. On the one extreme there were video installations-for example, Dara Birnbaum 's Tianamen Square: Break in Transmission, in which she brings together highly contrasting images, leaving the viewer to make the connections between mass media and war; on the other extreme one found sculptures by, for instance, Harald Klingerholler, which at first seemed to continue the traditions of formal abstraction until the nature of the titles revealed that one was looking at highly conceptual work based on abstract geometric codes. Or, to indulge in another set of extremes; works by Helmut Donner, Egene Leroy and Mariella Simoni, dealing with problems of surface and facture, stood in contrast to the opportunistically coloured elevators by Reiner Ruthenbeck.

Over-saturation with diversity was avoided by the inclusion of a group of works by each artist, so that one got the impression of a series of solo shows and installations. The various venues lent themselves perfectly to this kind of layout and also allowed for interaction between space and work. The Temporary Exhibition spaces with large glass walls, surrounded by parkland, accommodated works that needed or interacted with the abundance of natural light. The large horizontal reflective surfaces of Adrian Schiess'swork could only thrive in such a situation. Tim Johnson's works too were at home in this light and attracted considerable attention from the public. The main venues, the Museum Fredericanum and the Documenta Halle offered potent challenges to the viewer; their many smaller and larger rooms filled with installations, some funky, some humorous, such as: the doggie-doo ceramic tile floor (people avoided walking over it) by Wim Delvoye; pillars rotating vertically at dazzling speed by Thanassis Totsikas; a frozen doorstep by Pier Paolo Colzolari; super-real sculpture by Charles Ray; a roomful of punch bags by FLATZ; or a roomful of rulers and clocks by Cildo Meireles. A set of huge Rorschach inkblots was accompanied by the following text; "If you do not feel any of these things you are not human. If you feel too many of these things you are insane."

Outside many installations were spread between the various venues. Anish Kapoor's Kabba-like installation allowed small groups of people to contemplate the ultimate black hole in the ground; a chubby grass mount by Keunbeung Yook right in front of the main entrance, foregrounded the monumentality of the museum as an institution, while the scrap timber tower of Mo Edoga grew a little every day to the concern of the city fathers, who questioned its safety.

Whilst most of the works selected by Hoet and his team succeeded in putting the responsibility for interpretation onto the viewer, the artists, in their turn, took the responsibility, in my opinion, to achieve a level of intrigue most viewers could not resist. From that point of view one could almost say that the show was "user-friendly". The average person with an interest in the visual and in the habit of visiting such events, appreciated this show (if conversations overheard, throw-away comments and huge crowds are any indication). People stood still, discussed, talked, giggled , pointed. There was an atmosphere of active participation. The crowds did not look put-out, or frustrated beyond their limits, by too much material being exclusive or for artists only. Neither does this mean that the works were concessions to mass taste moulded by traditional metaphors. Rather, most works were accessible and operated on many levels; the comments, parodies and quotations were not so outrageously obscure that one could not possibly participate unless one had studied both the history of art, sociology and semiology.

As a final, critical, comment I would like to draw attention to the statistics of selection, particularly in view of the present age, supposedly involved with regionalism, "grid rather than centre", and equity of representation. Most work came from the USA, followed by Germany, Belgium and Italy, with all other countries in the world represented by just a few artists; for example, two from Australia. Regrettably, it appears that the art world is still based in the Northern Hemisphere. With less than eight percent of the participants of the female gender it also appears to be male.