DOCUMENTA A Compendium of the Routine

You know what conventions are like. Everybody from home boys to schoolmates and work cronies gathers in a far-off spot in hope of getting some work done, furthering their careers, rekindling friendships, cooling rivalries and letting the world know that their group counts for something. If you assemble in a small enough town, you might make the local paper.

Well, Kassel is a small enough town to not rate a Lufthansa office, and the convention that comes here every four years or so is called Documenta, which makes some very big papers and all the glossy art magazines.

It did not used to feel like a conventional convention of Rotarians or arch-support salesmen. It used to feel, by all accounts, like the most important international art compendium in the Free World.

Documenta, held eight times since 1955, was smart and daring and--because it was in Germany, where Hitler had tried to do to modern art roughly what he did to the Jews--it was a symbol of the triumph of democracy and the freedom of the artist.

This edition, on view to Sept. 20 with 150 artists, feels like a convention with all those funny edges that tell you that, whatever it pretends to be about, it is actually about something else.

Documenta used to be about telling the world, especially the European world, what was significantly new in art. It introduced a still-ravaged Germany to what had been afoot since the Nazis, namely Abstract Expressionism. It went on to identify Pop, Photo-Realism and other movements at early stages in their games.

If it has lost its ability to reveal, it cannot be blamed for that. The art world has long since become instantly knowable thanks to high-speed media and the sphere's now-unabashed appetite for publicity. What Documenta can be blamed for is allowing itself to be taken over by a Good Ol' Boy network.

For years, the affair was dominated by the spirit and person of Joseph Beuys, whose works ranged from teaching politics to a dead hare to planting oak trees for peace. He was a first-rate artist but an artist of a certain odd stripe whose repeated inclusion tended to set a style that perpetuates itself.

Documenta hangs on a coterie of personalities who broadcast the vague but unmistakable aura of "international artist." Among their characteristics are international impenetrability and a tendency to deal with the conceptually grandiose in work either rigorously formal or sociopolitically critical, or both. Christo--who is not included in Documenta 8--may be the very model of an international artist, except he is a trifle too popular. Lesser-knowns like Giuseppe Penone or Bertrand Lavier are better.

The principal symptom of internationalism is aesthetic elephantiasis. Everything is as big as it is smugly self-important.

Beuys' death last year gave Documenta a clear opportunity to weed out deadwood and do what it ought to be doing, staring down the specter of Post-Modernism. Instead, the theme of this extravaganza, organized by Cologne scholar Manfred Schneckenburger, is vague, claiming new emphasis on performance art but also on video, audio, film, theater, architecture and design as well as the more familiar media.

This ecumenical emphasis has, in fact, been typical of the past three editions of the event, which, as usual, sprawls through two converted neoclassical exhibition halls, the labyrinthine Fridericianum, the Orangerie and surrounding formal gardens bordering the sluggish, agreeable Fulda River. A fuss was made about several pieces of site sculpture being installed in the town proper for the first time, but that feels more like local politics than art.

The entire schnitzel feels more like art politics than art, and thereby hangs the pall of routine that envelops the whole.

Why does not Documenta deal in Post-Modernism when that is patently the issue of the moment? Actually, it does deal in Post-Modernism; it just does not say that it does. If it said so, how could it justify all those International Good Ol' Beuys who are not of the Post-Mod generation?

How could it account for that wall of TV sets by Nam June Paik broadcasting a lugubriously sentimental homage called "Beuys' Voice"? Documenta should have settled for Marie-Jo Lafontaine's video sculpture about an Adonis weightlifter pumping iron to operatic music. It is like brilliant student work but vastly clever.

If the show had openly gone after the present, we'd have noticed the anachronism of including veteran conceptualists of the '70s--like Hans Haacke, who lights into Mercedes-Benz's South African connection, or Newton and Helen Harrison, who show Kassel how to shape up its city plan.

If the show had called itself "Die Neo-Welt" as it clearly longs to do, we'd have said, "Wait a second, what is a crusty old Minimalist like Richard Serra doing here with two huge rusty steel-wall works, one of which blocks off a whole city block?"

We might have included Ulrich Ruckriem's immense granite slab encased in a whitewashed wall, and where would that have left the Teutonic home team? You can't expect the Germans to not include themselves when they are footing the old Rechnung .

Well, there is always, thank goodness, Anselm Keifer. Not all the art in the Fridericianum is Beuys-ish, just too much of it. Keifer is in many ways his closest and most legitimate heir, but his painting moves into the past-loving present with a sense of epic tragedy that may make him the same sort of isolated hero of Neo-Expressionism as Caspar David Friedrich was of German Romanticism--a movement with only one real master.

Authentic vibrations hang around Leon Golub's evocations of the pornography of violence, Eric Fischl's gentle visions of household obsession and Mark Tansey's "Masterpiece Theatre" mythology. Terry Allen's installation of an American Indian's stucco hovel behind barbed wire is mournfully moving, but much of the rest is about something else.

Ambition. Robert Longo's room is occupied by a life-size bronze of a transvestite Darth Vader, a flying piston and a red relief spaceship sculpture that does nothing to mask its debt to "Star Wars" model makers. This is not just ambitious art, it is art ambitious to be something else. It wants to make movies and have that larger scale of fame.

Desperation. Apocalyptic exhaustion hangs around the morbid deluges of Robert Morris, the Ozymandius wall of Nikolaus Lang and the Holocaust-haunted room of kids' photos by Christian Boltanski.

Cynicism. Its icy archness abounds here but nowhere more than in a wall of paintings and gewgaws by Kolmar and Melamud titled "Yalta, Winter in Moscow." It includes those faux Socialist Realist paintings for which the Russian emigre artists are known, and it mixes in everything from a chrome orb to a Lolita figure and cartoon animals playing chess.

The ploy reduces all values to schlock and allows art (and society) to follow the advice of Les Levine's billboard, "Exploit Yourself." It's a hip-hustler theme followed by the collaborative Group Material, Ida Applebroog's Neo-Naif cutesy violence, Robert Schole's nasty parodies on style and too much else.

One leaves the Fridericianum feeling that between the flaws of this Documenta and those endemic to the sphere, things are in such bad shape one may be imagining things. Maybe I have jet lag. It has been raining all day, my feet hurt and the catalogue weighs a ton as usual. At lunch, the waitress laughed at my German.

Self-recrimination gets you down the park's grand staircase to the Orangerie and, lo, guilt dissolves. The architecture and sculpture therein are unmistakably energized, full of zing and swagger.

Oh, the name architects pursuing the theme of the Ideal Museum are a trifle silly, like the room by Hans Hollein that reverses the sizes of labels and masterpieces, but he is having a good time, as is Charles Moore.

What really gets your adrenaline going here is the feeling the designers are ready to try anything. Denis Santachiara's robot chair follows you around. Liz Magor makes a room with a maze of upright rolled linoleum columns. Ettore Sottsass' Post-Mod furniture juxtaposes every trashy texture known to man with ironic gusto. Siah Armajani has so much energy he makes a whatnot that is architecture, sculpture and neither.

Gustav Peichl mixes Viennese decor with Indian tepees in a visionary design for a Bonn art museum that is so screwy you almost hope it will get built. Bill Woodrow positively capers through a copper environment of broken harps, votive candles and a leaping alligator called "The Lure of Civilization."

These designers have neither lost their sense of humor nor despaired of being of some use in the world, even if as entertainers. They have the juice, and where that goes, goes the art of a time.

Art is evolving into a baroque form where what is and is not art is not entirely clear and doesn't much matter.

Wandering through the site sculpture projects, it is notable how many are virtually indistinguishable from landscaping or architecture. Scott Burton made a ring of stone benches around a jungle of bamboo. Stephan Wewerkas' work is a walk-in glass pavilion.

The unintended message of this Documenta seems to be that art is out to make a dent in the real world outside bohemia, museums and international backslapping contests. Those who are willing to be called architects, designers or craftsmen feel like they can do it. The insistent artist, mired in history and ego, has grave self-doubts.

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