documenta X - home June 21 - September 28, 1997
Introduction by Catherine David in the Short Guide
(distributed as press-info)
What can be the meaning and purpose of a documenta today, at the close of this century, when biennials and other large-scale exhibitions have been called into question and often for very good reasons? It may seem paradoxical or deliberately outrageous to envision a critical confrontation with the present in the framework of an institution that over the past twenty years has become a Mecca for tourism and cultural consumption. Yet the pressing issues of today make it equally presumptuous to abandon all ethical and political demands.

In the age of globalization and of the sometimes violent social, economic, and cultural transformations it entails, contemporary artistic practices, condemned for their supposed meaninglessness or »nullity« by the likes of jean Baudrillard, are in fact a vital source of imaginary and symbolic representations whose diversity is irreducible to the near total economic domination of the real. The stakes here are no less political than aesthetic - at least if one can avoid reinforcing the mounting spectacularization and instrumentalization of »contemporary art« by the culture industry, where art is used for social regulation or indeed control, through the aestheticization of information or through forms of debate that paralyze any act of judgement in the immediacy of raw seduction or emotion (what might be called »the Benetton effect«).

Overcoming the obstacle means seeking out the current manifestations and underlying conditions of a critical art which does not fall into a precut academic mold or let itself be summed up in a facile label. Such a project cannot ignore the upheavals that have occurred both in documenta's institutional and geopolitical situation since the inaugural exhibition in 1955 and in the recent developments of aesthetic forms and practices. Nor can it shirk the necessary ruptures and changes in the structure of the event itself.


In many respects, the history and the political and cultural project of documenta belong to the now-vanished era of post-war Europe, shaped by the cold war and the world´s division into two power blocs, and brought to a close by the fall of the Berlin wall and German reunification. The specific project of documenta also resulted from the progressive ideas of a local artist, Arnold Bode, and from the «exemplary« situation of Kassel, a city close to the eastern border, and almost entirely reconstructed after the 1943 bombing. 1955 was a time for reconciliation, indeed for expiation and redemption by means of modern art, which may explain the close association of the work and personality of Joseph Beuys with the history of the exhibition, from the third edition in 1963 all the way to Beuys´ death at the time of documenta 8 in 1987.

Documenta also provided an occasion for the necessary reconstruction of the modern tradition and the history of the vanguards, condemned by the Nazi regime with the exhibition of Degenerate Art in Munich in 1937. But this reconstruction remained incomplete, skipping over dada and the radical forms that emerged in the Weimar period to concentrate on the most recent developments of abstraction, which had reached their apogee in America. Thus the early versions of documenta appeared as a cultural showcase for the Marshall Plan in the country that had become the privileged centerpiece of the newly forged alliance between northern Europe and the United States.

In the 1960s documenta became the largest international exhibition of contemporary art. Harald Szeeman transformed the exhibition into a hundred-day event attending to the aesthetic »forms« and »attitudes« of the period; but his striking synthesis of the major proposals of the 1970S did not succeed in reversing the directions that documenta had taken. The versions that followed struggled to conciliate an aesthetic demand with the imperatives of the culture industry, and, soon enough, with the new economic and geopolitical situation of Germany and of Europe in the context of globalization.

In reality, the «new world disorder« commenced in the 1970s with the oil shock and the transition to what the geographer David Harvey describes as an economy of »flexible accumulation«. Nonetheless, it is 1989 that symbolically marks the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era of »hot wars,« in Gunter Grass's phrase. The visible division of the world into two blocs has been replaced by a complex network of exchanges in which American hegemony is relativized by the European Union and the rising power of East Asia, while the future remains uncertain for the former USSR, China, and most of the Arab, Muslim, and African countries. In Europe, the globalization of markets exacerbates the economic and social dysfunctions brought on by the crisis of what Etienne Balibar calls »the national social state« that developed after the war; the result is an upsurge of nationalism and identity fixations.

In this new context, the city of Kassel, now located in the center of reunified Germany and seriously affected by the current recession, can appear as the »exemplary« site of an entire range of rifts and displacements, and as the focus of a political and aesthetic inquiry that we have attempted to inscribe in the very structures of documenta X.


While making no concessions to the commemorative trend, the last documenta of this century can hardly evade the task of elaborating a historical and critical gaze on its own history, on the recent past of the post-war period, and on everything from this now-vanished age that remains in ferment within contemporary art and culture: memory, historical reflection, decolonization and what Wolfgang Lepenies calls the »de-Europeanization« of the world, but also the complex processes of postarchaic, post-traditional, postnational identification at work in the »fractal societies« (Serge Gruzinski) born from the collapse of communism and the brutal imposition of the laws of the market.

Facing these problems also means reconsidering, from a timely and even programmatic perspective, certain major proposals that appeared in the 1996s in the work of artists who were born before, during, or immediately after the war, some of whom died prematurely (Marcel Broodthaers, Öyvind Fahlström, Gordon Matta-Clark, Hélio Oiticica), and almost all of whom began their work around the time that the first documenta opened (Gerhard Richter, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Richard Hamilton, Aldo van Eyck). For most of these figures, the critical dimension appears in a radical questioning of the categories of the »fine arts« and of the anthropological foundations of Western culture, through a subversion of the traditional hierarchies and divisions of knowledge: a critique of the primacy of the visual and a projection of language and its games into three-dimensional space with Broodthaers; an exposure of the economic perversion of spatial operations with Matta-Clark; an inversion of center and periphery though the emergence of «marginal« values with Oiticica; an extraordinarily playful dramatization of political and economic power relations with Fahlstr6m; a poetic transformation of dogmatic, reductive modernism through the critical reactivation of the formal and spatial solutions of non-Western architecture with Aldo van Eyck.

At a time when advertising, television, the news media, and the digital sophistication of virtual worlds are »swallowing the real in its spectacular representation« (Gruzinski), it seems particularly appropriate to foreground the processes of analysis and distancing at work in the practices of drawing and of documentary photography since the 1960s and sometimes even before (Maria Lassnig, Nancy Spero, Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Robert Adams, Ed van der Elsken). These practices find significant (if indirect) developments in the works of Martin Walde, William Kentridge, Jeff Wall, Craigie Horsefield, James Coleman, Johan Grimnoprez, and Anne-Marie Schneider, who have been able to discover contemporary forms of non-spectacular dramatization.


Since 1955, documenta has always unfolded in a spatial relation to the city of Kassel, contributing greatly to the spread of the model of the exhibition-promenade developed in the late sixties as an acceptable compromise between traditional museum presentation and the extension to a mass public of the idea, the practice, and the consumption of the artistic vanguards. Today, while we witness the (final?) dissolution of the museum and of public space into the »society of the spectacle,« the strategies that attempt to contrast institutional space with an »outside« appear naive or ridiculous, as do »in situ« interventions which turn their backs not only to the current transformation of the Habermasian model of public space, but also to the new modes of imaginary and symbolic investment of places by contemporary subjects.

To combat the promenade or »rummage sale« effect, it seemed necessary to articulate the heterogeneous works and exhibition spaces -the old sites of the Fridericianum and the Orangerie and the new sites of the railway station, the Ottoneum, and the documenta Halle- with the «here and now« context of Kassel in 1997, by establishing a historical and urban parcours or itinerary, attentive to history as embedded in the city itself. From the old railway station to the Orangerie and the banks of the Fulda, this itinerary lays the accent not only on the spectacularly restored tokens of the baroque era (the Friedrichsplatz and the Fridericianum, the Orangerie and the Auepark), but also on the recent past of post-war reconstruction: the old station, partially unused and currently being remodelled for commercial and cultural purposes, the underground passageways deserted by the public and destined for closure in the not-too-distant future, and the Treppenstraße or »stairway street,« a model of the pedestrian street conceived in the fifties to conjugate promenade and consumption (the first of its kind to be built in Germany, and as such, an official »monument«). In the era of globalization, with all its local repercussions -including the highly visible recession in the city of Kassel- the marks of reconstruction and the failure of the political, economic, social, and urban project that they reveal can appear as »recent ruins.« We have not sought to make these artefacts into museum pieces (not even for the time of an exhibition) but rather to identify and specify them through confrontations with recent and somewhat less recent works by artists such as Lois Weinberger, Jeff Wall, Peter Friedl, Dan Graham, and Suzanne Lafont.

This parcours is also a real and symbolic itinerary through Kassel in relation to its possible »elsewheres,« the cultural and urban realities of a »Whole-World« (Edouard Glissant) that documenta cannot claim to convoke or even to »represent« in Kassel. That said, the city and urban space in general -its circumstances, its failures, its architectural, economic, political, and human projects, its conflicts, and the new cultural attitude and practices to which it gives rise and which it spreads throughout the world now clearly appear as the privileged site of contemporary experience. In these respects, Kassel today, at its own scale, in its singularity as well as its archetypes, can be regarded as »exemplary.«


The extreme heterogeneity of contemporary aesthetic practices and mediums matched by the plurality of contemporary exhibition spaces (the wall, the page, the poster, the television screen, the Internet) and the very different, even irreconcilable experiences of space and time they imply -necessarily oversteps the limits of an exhibition held »entirely« in Kassel, just as art now oversteps the spatial and temporal but also ideological limits of the »white cube« which constituted the supposedly universal model of aesthetic experience, a model of which documenta, even in its »open« version, is a willing or unwilling offshoot. The universalist model is limited and limiting with respect to the (re)presentation of contemporary aesthetic forms and practices in all their diversity, and also with respect to the local fulfilments of a complex and now »globalized« modernity, which henceforth lacks the »exteriority« of the authentic, the traditional, and the pre- or antimodern despite a lingering nostalgia for exoticism, at best, and colonialism, at worst.

Indeed, the object for which the white cube was constructed is now in many cases no more than one of the aspects or moments of the work, or better yet, merely the support and the vector of highly diverse artistic activities. At the same time, the problem of universalism also arises with respect to non-Western cultural zones where the object of »contemporary art« is often no more than a very recent phenomenon, even an epiphenomenon, linked, in the best of cases, to an acceleration of the processes of acculturation and cultural syncretism in the new urban agglomerations, and in the worst, to the demand for rapid renewal of market products in the West. For reasons which have partially to do with interrupted or violently destroyed traditions, as well as the diversity of the cultural formations that have sprung from colonization and decolonization and the indirect and unequal access these formation have been given to the forms of Western modernity, it seems that in many cases the pertinence, excellence, and radicality of contemporary non-Western expressions finds its privileged avenues in music, oral and written language (literature, theatre), and cinema forms which have traditionally contributed to strategies of emancipation.

This observation is pragmatic rather than programmatic; it makes no claim to anticipate the course of developments in the future or the possible evolution that can already be glimpsed in the works and attitudes of younger generations, but it does lay the accent on certain strong alterities of contemporary culture, particularly the Arab, Muslim, and African worlds, which are very much present during the »100 Days - 100 Guests« lecture program.

In full awareness of these limits, we have sought to provide a multiplicity of spaces and a broadened platform of discussion and debate, in and outside Kassel, for highly diverse cultural expressions and publics whose horizons and expectations are vastly different. To complement the exhibition in the city we have published a book which situates artistic productions from 1945 to today in their political, economic, and cultural context of appearance and in light of the multiple shifts and redefinitions that have now become manifest with the process of globalization.

Finally, in the framework of the »100 Days - 100 Guests« program we have invited artists and cultural figures from the world over -architects, urbanists, economists, philosophers, scientists, writers, filmmakers, stage directors, musicians- to Kassel in order to debate, according to their fields of specialization and their orders of urgency, the great ethical and aesthetic questions of the century's close: the urban realm, territory, identity, new forms of citizenship, the national social state and its aftermath, racism and the state, the globalization of markets and national policy, universalism and culturalism, poetics and politics. These daily interventions will take place in the auditorium of the documenta Halle, specially configured as a space of information and debate; they will be typed out and transmitted over the Internet, recorded on cassettes made available to the public by Bund Media, and broadcast daily in abridged form by Arte, in collaboration with HR, WDR, SWF, and the Goethe-Institut.

Throughout the »100 Days« there will also be screenings of the seven films produced by documenta, Sony, and several TV channels, and a three-night theatrical marathon presenting the »sketches« proposed by ten directors who have been invited to explore the minimal conditions of a contemporary dramatic situation.

Other artists´ projects circulate in Kassel and far beyond: images posted on the billboard spaces of Deutsche Staedte-Reklame and radio plays produced and broadcast by Hessischer Rundfunk. In conclusion, I would like to thank all the partners who accompanied us with great confidence and generosity during the often difficult work of preparation. And of course, I would like to extend my warmest thanks to all the participants in documenta X, who each in their own way have helped make this project lively, diverse, and exciting for everyone.

© Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art

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