Once the seat of the princes of Hesse, Kassel, West Germany (population, 192,000), now has a distinctly small-town feel. An industrial centre during Hitler’s Third Reich, it was almost totally destroyed in the Second World War. Now, its baroque skeleton is fleshed out with nondescript commercial buildings and cafés, where burghers meet to enjoy cream-covered confections. The closest thing
to excitement is the thunderous passage of armored convoys, a reminder that Kassel, once in the centre of Germany, is now less than 30 km from the eastern frontier. It is also paradoxical that every five years Kassel becomes, for 100 days, the centre of the world of contemporary art. The reason is Documenta, a vast, panoramic show of current art that attracts about 400,000 visitors. This year the show opened on June 12.
Begun in 1955 to show the kind of modernist art that Nazis had outlawed, Documenta quickly established itself as a champion of the international language of abstraction. By the 1970s the event was not only reflecting recent art history, but actually making it. To the extent that art is competi-
tive, Documenta is the art Olympics, the place to excel.
This year’s exhibition, Documenta 8, attracted heavy advance interest. In part, that was normal art world curiosity about who is in and who is not. Canadians were intrigued because of the unprecedented size of their delegation-six artists in the main shows, another half-dozen in performance and video events. On a wider level, interest
centred on just how Documenta organizer Manfred Schneckenburger and his team would make sense of a period in which art appears to be in a state of profound crisis.
The unsatisfactory label attached to this crisis is “postmodern,” a term first coined to describe the new eclecticism in architecture. In the visual arts, postmodernism signals a loss of faith in the idea of the avant-garde. The apostolic succession of modernity, which began with Manet and Cézanne and continued through Picasso to Jackson Pollock, appears to have foundered some time in the 1970s. Somewhere amid the terminal reductivism of minimal art and the cerebral experiments of the conceptualists, the notion of progressive formal breakthroughs,
based on the achievements of the last generation, broke down.
What replaced it was a bewildering array of approaches to art-making. As never before, contemporary art has become a commodity, a lifestyle accessory of the newly rich. Styles come and go like designer dresses. The whole course of art history is open for the plundering, and artists are making daylight raids on the past. Meanwhile,
the appropriators are everywhere— children of the TV age who play an ironic end game with the pervasive imagery of the consumer society.
Even before Documenta 8 opened, many critics were scanning its catalogue—the theoretical justifications of Schneckenburger and his colleagues— for those critical values that would be revealed to have staying power. Clearly, there is a widely felt need for a stronger sense of direction in contemporary art, one that will prevent it from spiralling in ever-smaller circles. And there was hope that Documenta 8 would help provide that direction.
But if anything, the show has a reactionary and somewhat retrospective look. It also has a stated social and political agenda that it does not really
carry out. According to its organizers, Documenta 8 sets out to address “city life, violence, negative utopia,” and to insert into the city of Kassel itself works made for specific sites—an attempt to give contemporary art a reassuring relevance. But if the gargantuan event fails to do that, it does at least clarify some of the contradictions in the current art system.
The show also includes sections on industrial design and architectural projects for ideal museums—the latter an expression of the fact that, while the late 20th century may not be a period of great art, it is a great era of museum building. As frosting on the cake, Documenta includes a series of performance art events and anthologies of video and audio work.
To meld together that somewhat inchoate mass, Documenta hired the veteran Italian designer Ettore Sottsass. The main buildings that house Documenta are the magnificent Orangerie and the Fridericianum, a large 18th-century structure that was the first building in Europe designed as a museum. After the war, they were transformed into strikingly raw white spaces. Under Sottsass’s direction, they assumed a glossy, spectacular and theatrical look, as if the organizers had in mind a glazed, distracted public that needed constant stimulation.
Schneckenburger and his colleagues seem to have searched out high-impact material for the show, favoring the large scale, the dramatic and the technological over the personal, the lyrical and the intimate. This is art that needs a sound track—and it is often provided. Various works include recordings of Mack the Knife, La Traviata, rhythm and blues, and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. To orchestrate her visual hymn to a body builder, Belgian artist Marie-Jo Lafontaine used 27 video screens. American Nam June Paik, the father of video art, employed 44 screens for his equally adulatory tape about Joseph Beuys, the visionary German artist who died last year at his home in Düsseldorf at age 64.
Beuys, a powerful artist and a man who created his own myth, was a pervasive presence in Kassel. In past Documentas he could be seen lecturing at a blackboard about ecology or initiating a project to plant 7,000 oak trees. This time, his widow, Eva, opened the show by planting more; there was also a massive installation of his work in a
vast white room that resembled a chapel. For an artist who claimed that none of his pieces was ever completed, it all looked curiously final.
If Beuys dominated from the grave, the other overwhelming presence was that of another German, the virtuoso
painter Anselm Kiefer, a personality as remote as Beuys was gregarious. One of the exhibition rooms featured Kiefer’s series of extraordinary handmade books, along with two immense, glowering canvases of an operatic, positively Wagnerian intensity. Without a trace of irony, Kiefer’s apocalyptic landscapes and ruins convey both ancient myths and the darker side of the Nordic psyche. By comparison— and comparison is one of the things Documenta is about—the work of the American artist Robert Morris seemed forced. Morris has used death camp photographs as a starting point for his vistas of horrors and surrounded those images by reliefs containing human body parts. But even in the German context, these works seemed pious rather than moving—an illustration of the extreme difficulty of convincingly representing evil.
The contribution of American artist Robert Longo takes cinematic form. His Machines in Love is a flashy, star wars combination of graphics and sculpture, while his All You Zombies (Truth Before God) is a large bronze of an armored and visibly priapic warrior—a slick and cynical compendium of space-age kitsch. Judging from the reactions of opening-day visitors, Longo’s work promises to be the popular hit of the show.
Amid all the clamoring for attention, the work of the Canadians at Kassel seemed both serious and highly intelligent. It has been apparent for some time now that much of the strength of Canadian art lies in the area of installation art, a form in which artists use a variety of means to convey complex, layered messages. Torontonians Robin Collyer and Liz Magor produced works dealing with ideas of consumption and production.
Collyer’s The Zulu (European Version) is a scaled-down camper van that is both a minimal sculpture and an ironic comment on North American life. In Regal Decor, Liz Magor used
standing columns of linoleum—and a mock lino-making machine—to create a metaphor for the construction of psychic and physical interiors. And Toronto’s Ian Carr-Harris used a representation of a huge paper crown, a magic carpet, the image of a woman and the sound of a ticking alarm clock to fashion a highly personal work dealing with childhood memory.
Among Documenta’s many artists who used photography, Vancouver’s Jeff Wall stood out with particular authority. For a decade now, Wall has been using huge backlit transparencies—the medium of advertising—to create disconcerting and sophisticated tableaus. His Documenta work, The Storyteller, shows six Indians sitting or lying on the embankment beneath a superhighway. The piece seems to be about a marginal people, but on inspection Wall’s knowing use of art history puts a strange slant on the message. The Indians, all fully clothed, have assumed the positions of the characters in Manet’s scandalously famous depiction of a 19th-century picnic with a nude, Dejeuner sur Vherbe.
When Documenta moved outside the hothouse environment of Sottsass’s interiors, it seemed to become more unsure of itself. Past shows have made memorable use of Kassel’s great baroque park, but this year’s organizers seem to have lost either their nerve or their interest. Typical of the outdoor works was American artist Charlemagne Palestine’s enormous God Bear, a 15-foot, elephantine joke that on opening day was reduced by bad weather to a ton of wet plush.
Most of the works in the city itself seemed, if possible, even more out of place. The American sculptor Richard Serra, for all his magisterial reputation, can produce pieces that are deeply hostile to their environment. The intimidating H-shaped standing steel plates that he placed in a Kassel street effectively blocked off the view of one of the city’s few remaining churches.
It was left to a Canadian, George Trakas, a longtime resident of New York, to make a work that was sensitive to its site. Trakas spent six months in Kassel before deciding to work in the circular Königsplatz, the city’s central tram stop. He put up two steel bridges over tram lines, erected massive tree trunks and built platforms that opened up unexpected views of the city. With his welding torch and chain saw, he became something of a permanent fixture in the city. On opening day, his piece, although unfinished, was being mounted and traversed by the citizens of Kassel as if it had been there for years.
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