The Artist As Stuntman

Documenta, the big art exhibition that takes place once every four or five years in Germany, is an idea whose time has gone. The first one, back in 1955, had a noble purpose: to help rehabilitate German culture after the Nazi years. Gradually, the show overtook the Venice Biennale as the most important anthology of contemporary art. At its peak during 196476, Documenta was a big, boisterous celebration of the cutting edge, confirming the importance of pop art, minimalism, site-specific sculpture and video installations. It gave international prominence to Joseph Beuys, the political artist/moralist who stood until his death, in 1986, as a vital counterforce to the contagious entrepreneurial coyness of Andy Warhol. With the recent proliferation of commercial "art fairs" everywhere from Chicago to Yokohama, Documenta's earnestness in trying to figure out the meaning of what's going on, as opposed to just marketing it, has kept the exhibition a sentimental favorite.

But not anymore--if Documenta IX is an indication of where things are headed. On view in Kassel (as always) through Sept. 20, this year's edition announces itself as the " largest and most expensive contemporary art show ever mounted." It includes 190 artists from 40 countries, boasts an $11 million budget (piddling for a movie, enormous for an art exhibition) and has spun off official T shirts, caps, bags and sugar packets. Documenta IX's curator, Belgian museum director Jan Hoet, worked on the show for four years, and he needed an Italian critic (Pier Luigi Tazzi), a Greek art historian (Denys Zacharopoulos) and his curator from back in Ghent (Bart De Baere) to help him put it together. Trouble is, Hoet has assembled less an art exhibition than a kind of theme park for the terminally hip.

Sprawling through eight buildings new and old, and various outdoor sites, Documenta IX is an exhausting trek through everything from David Hammons's untitled dreadlockian sculpture (1992) to Jonathan Borofsky's amiable "Man Walking to the Sky" (1992), in which a fiberglass figure strides up an 80-foot pole tilting up out of the ground in front of the 18th-century Fridericianum (allegedly the oldest museum building in Europe). Inside the Fridericianum, Peter Kogler has wallpapered a whole room with a pattern of huge ants. In the new documenta-Halle, there's Ulf Rollof's comically functionless giant " Bellows 9" machine (1992) and Wim Delvoye's " Mosaic" (1990-92), an indecorous tile floor patterned with photographic images of, um, those things New Yorkers have to pick up with plastic gloves after they walk their dogs. Over in the Neue Galerie, Zoe Leonard has taken down several 19th-century paintings and replaced them with her "Vagina" series (1992), black-and-white photographs of female genitals.

What's enervating about this melange of recycled Duchamp, cute scatology and a brand of feminism that gives obviousness a bad name is not so much its lack of visual grace but its in-house competitiveness. Artists have come to know that the biggest difficulty in these overpopulated international festivals is simply getting noticed. Installation artists, especially, now realize that their real mission isn't to help Documenta IX make a cohesive statement but to blow the neighboring art out of the water by being larger, sillier, angrier or ruder. After the first three or four momentary jolts, one wanders lethargically from room to room, ready to flinch at the next sensation. Documenta IX is for the most part a trial by stunt.

All the clang-and-bang art is somewhat cushioned by a few paintings by the late Francis Bacon, the whimsically erotic Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar and Eugene Leroy, the octogenarian French abstractionist whose pictures have paint crusts a few inches thick. But anything truly beautiful, charming, pretty, intimate or delicate in Documenta IX looks about as comfortable as an orchid in a cactus garden. Why put it in at all? Well, Documenta IX seemingly wants to have it every way at once. Hoet makes the case for strange, inaccessible art by saying that art " . . . is alien [as soon as it's made]. And it remains alien." Then he grants it the power to effect change, although in "the individual, not society." Finally, he tells us that the curatorial team "wanted to invent a completely new structure ... for an approach to art in the nineties." How odd then that Documenta IX features crowd-pleasers like Borofsky's column and fervently social-activist work like Zoe Leonard's. And how disappointing that, in the end, it amounts to a fairly standard, what's-hot-and-what's-not, international group show blown up to the size of a supernova.

Paradoxically, Documenta IX managed to get itself in a censorship imbroglio. On opening day Manuel Ocampo, the young Filipino artist who lives in Los Angeles, found all but one of his satirical paintings censored because they contained swastikas. Ocampo's remaining picture, "La Mala Vida" (1991), was moved from the Fridericianum to the toolroom of the documenta-Halle, where it's almost invisible. In attempting to satisfy everyone, even the politically oversensitive, Documenta has lost its way. Salvaging the exhibition which is to say making it more concise and more pointed-won't be easy. Kassel, a university town of 200,000, depends on the exhibition economically as Indianapolis depends on the 500. The first Documenta drew 130,000; in 1987 attendance was half a million, and many more are expected at Documenta IX. During Documenta summers, hotel rooms are scarce and restaurants do a brisk business. Clearly, it won't be in the municipal interest to scale back the show. But it might be in the artists', whose works increasingly resemble attractions in something that might better be called Six Flags Over Kassel.