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Documenta '92 report: If art is dead, is the artist a zombie?

It's heavily influenced by the work of Joseph Beuys and shows the near and distant past rather than the present, with plenty of conceptual appropriation

Jan Hoet, Documenta director, with his assistants Denys Zacharopoulos, Pier Luigi Tazzi and Bart de Baere, have created an elaborate show of sounds, colours, dimensions and movements that stuns visitors as soon as they set foot in the ninth Documenta.

Austrian entomologist artist Kogler's ants crawling around the atrium of the Museum Fridericianum are more like giant black termites as they stand out against the white walls, forming their kaleidoscopic geometry; meanwhile, a bald head by Bruce Nauman of no less disturbing dimensions howls messages as it rotates and spins from side to side and from top to bottom. After that initial ear-splitting shock, glancing in the direction of Friedrichsplatz one notes Jonathan Borofsky's precarious sculpted man boldly climbing up towards the museum along twenty-five metres of steeply inclined fibreglass pole. Not to mention the cyclopic eye peering at us from the top of an oblong igloo covered with grass, or Thomas Schütte's multi-coloured people who have been turned to stone on the pronaos of the Rotes Palais opposite.

Nauman's head is particularly reminiscent of Beuys: the great man's influence flutters, both in spirit and in the exhibits, over this quinquennial show which will be open for the traditional one hundred days until 20 September. Leaflets show him ten years ago digging the very grass which covers the many-windowed igloo (could it be the dead saint's anxious born-again pupil?) by the Korean Keunbyung Yook. We also know that the German Sigmar Polke refused to take part in Documenta for the umpteenth time on the grounds that it is little more than a Beuys apologia; could that be the reason why even Kounelis made it abundantly clear that he would not turn up at the last minute?

A memorial to Beuys has been put up in the Zweherenturm, the tower that overlooks the Fridericianum: the artist's paraphernalia can be seen behind a glass door, together with his materials and alchemical potions lying on shelves in his workshop. According to the show's supporters, the Zweherenturm is the site of the "collective memory", but it is an imprisoned memory like the genie in Aladdin's lamp, ever willing and ready to awaken if called upon. In fact, there are eight genies. On the first floor, Gauguin's Tahitian women, a self-portrait by Ensor and David's "The Death of Marat" seek to illustrate some stages in the artist's moral, civil, political and existential awareness; on the floor above, in the small room next to Beuys's Sancta Sanctorum, Giacometti's "Le nez" (1947), Barnett Newman's "The Moment I" (1967) and a painting by René Daniels dated 1989 are intended to exemplify in three historic moments the vitality of research into new spatial dimensions and the great heroism of the four explorers. The "Memorial" concludes with a stela by James Lee Byars - in the manner of a memorial of the Enlightenment and lying somewhere between Boullée and Piranesi. The tower is a monument to the ethics and morality of the artist: a hugely austere beginning, and a past as weighty as the three volumes of the exhibition catalogue.

Life is a punch-ball

Beuys's influence has come full circle and now defines one of Documenta 9's most important themes. It offers a present which is more than ever steeped in social condemnation and political commitment on the part of young artists, many of them belonging to uncharted artistic territories. A case in point is the Cuban, Ricardo Brey, who has ravaged a room on the second floor of the museum with mud and trenches, and invites people to enter a Central American "Guernica" through broken rolling shutters and voodoo fly-swatter fetishes. The intentions of a Cherokee Indian, Jimmie Durham, are similar, but for the lovers of the theatre or squalor, of the Ruggieri brothers' "Cincico TV" and "Storie di Croda". Lastly, a visit to the multiple latrines in Friedrichsplatz, which have been converted into dwellings down to the last detail by the Russian Kabakov, is an absolute must.

The Austrian Flatz has expressed the deprivation of the present through the punch-bags in a boxing gymnasium hung on the second floor of the Fridericianum: one passes through them, striking the bags which immediately return the blows. Then there is a long, gloomy corridor ideally suited to ghostly apparitions summoned up by the medium Gary Hill. Here, you cannot tell where artifice ends and reality begins, or whether those present are visitors or participants in the silent performance. That, then, is the present, without a story, without a past or even a future, and immortalised in its everyday banality by young photographers who are pupils of Bernd and Hilla Becher, led by Thomas Ruff, and followed by the Belgian Suzanne Lafont and the Canadians Stan Douglas and Geoffrey James. It is a succinctly neo-minimalist and neo-conceptual present, one which confirms Artschwager and his angular decompositions, Susana Solano and her metaphysical metal containers, and Günther Förg and his chromatic painted backgrounds. Also on show is the promising English artist Rachel Whiteread, whose rubbery "tongues" might also be construed as lollipops for the children of Brobdignag; Remo Salvadori's environmental decoration and perforated statues; Roni Horn and his metric decimal system blown up ten times; and Erika Rothenberg's Rorschach masks turned into black holders for lapidary statements in the style of Jenny Holzer. In this great 70s revival, there is very little exceptional in the way of painting: a good example is Mariella Simoni who adds to Morris's minimalism, but the meeting of Susan Rothenberg, Per Kirkeby and Penck could well be looked upon as a commemoration of the spent rages of Transavanguardism and Neo-expressionism.

Beautiful and invisible, minimal and subliminal

Jan Hoet wanted to call this Documenta "displacement" because the word could be interpreted in two senses - either transferring or moving things out of position. The result is a non-stop shuffling of artists and their research within a diagram which seems to have lost any intelligible chronological progression. It is an art that revolves on itself for an infinite period of time, just like the swirling perpetual motion of Thanassis Totsiskas' metal columns which greet you on the ground floor of the Fridericianum. The result is the repositioning of any interpretative effort in a historical sense, but it is also a physical repositioning of a work of art which might well remain in any one of a number of unexciting places, like the shop opposite the Fridericianum where Pistoletto sites the stone Roman road which leads to the deceptive - and extremely disappointing - reflection in a mirror.

Mario Merz, the wizard of Neo-futurism

A moment's pause in Kassel's silent one-time theatre revives the spectator before he or she plunges into the pit of the Documenta Halle, specially built by Jochem Jourdan and Berhard Müller for the occasion. The new curved wing, half enveloped by a glass wall and sloping down towards the gardens, gives the impression of having been designed as an anti-museum, and this feeling is strengthened by the madcap furnishings which sometimes make it very difficult to see the exhibits. An exception is Paolini who wisely chose the entrance hall for his "Mnemosyne": the result is a view from above of Zorio's star and canoe complete with creaking windlass and suspended above the cafeteria. It is on the floor below, however, that one's perceptions are most at risk of collapsing. One enters a wide open area surmounted by a sci-fi machine by Ulf Rollof which is echoed by Panamarenko's latest "spaceship" and separated from it by a somewhat mechanistic installation by Matt Mullican. The long left-hand wall is covered by a long line of bundles of sticks and paintings on card, both articulated by neon numbers from Fibonacci's mathematical series. His apprenticeship now long over, Mario Merz emerges as the wizard in a frenzied, crowded, neo-futurist laboratory. In this context, the conclusion comes as something of a surprise: it is a small room given over to arboreal and floral proliferations by Gober-Wool, and acts as a prelude to the tranquillity which the visitor will encounter between the gardens and the Neue Galerie.

Et in Arcadia ego: biodegradable art

A certain amount of unease is experienced when looking at the slave carved by the Senegalese Ousmane Sow. Equally, and assuming no unexpected masochistic tendencies, no Dutch woman will ever put on Marina Abramovic's sculpted amethyst clogs (symbolising poverty and nobility) left lying around in the corridor. The fifth stop on the itinerary is in the middle of the gardens, amid the welcome relief of expanses of green.

Arcadia is housed in temporary pavilions nearby, and is a triumph of green, ecology and environmentalism - issues very close to people's hearts in these parts.

Thom Merrick's contribution is a green table counterpointed by palm trees from a Christmas crib; no problems for Martin Puryear since he always works with wood, or Pat Steir who matches her painting to the environment with coloured waterfalls and fountains. There is also room for more restful types of painting: these include photographs by the god-like Richter, pointillisms by the Australian Tim Johnson, branches of trees by Vladimir Kokolia, and ornamental calligraphy by the Hungarian Mitja Tusek. Even cold, photographic neo-objectivity has a more appealing and relaxed face in the group of old pals painted by Thomas Struth. At the other end of the scale, Kawamata's wooden huts standing among age-old plants decompose with true Japanese biodegradable lightness, and are reflected in the waters of the ancient canal.

The Neue Galerie, an old mausoleum

Gerhard Merz's cubic mausoleum in travertine stone at the entrance to the Neue Galerie is a peremptory warning of a return to more dramatic comparisons. Here, art converses with itself once again, and this time with its history and death more frequently predicted. It is a mute, hermetic dialogue which unfurls between the black cloths and white winding sheets Joseph Kosuth uses to wrap the sculpture and cases in the two main corridors, in a lapidary opposition of positive and negative.

Further investigation reveals Steinbach's worthless rubbish placed on circular shelves, while desecration is the objective of the graffiti and bric-à-brac carefully laid on a broken chaise-longue by Philip Rantzer just beneath an eighteenth-century canvas showing a miraculous conversion on some road to Damascus. There are also quotations, this time by Gericault and Dimitrijevic, and Angela Grauerholz "improves" photographs of urban subjects, thereby harmonising them with the paintings in the museum. Almost hidden, imprisoned inside the Neue Galerie's old pavilion, is Fabro's marble "Venus". Art camouflages itself, merges, pretends, beckons, denies everything and then withdraws like a hermit crab into its shell, getting thinner and thinner all the time to the point of disappearing altogether. It is the Leitmotif of Documenta '92 - perhaps because one work from the museum's permanent collection makes such a deep impression (over and above the atmosphere imposed by the unchanging, ubiquitous, ever-present and omniscient Beuys): that painting is Caspar David Friedrich's twilight churchyard. It is, above all, a triumph of the conceptual labyrinths conceived by the organisers rather than the artists, the layout suggesting places, with the emphasis on the past rather than on present-day works.

The business of the past and the evocation of one or two mad geniuses seems to have been left to Hoet and his staff, who wisely opted for an exhibition whose strength did not lie in untested works. Perhaps also because, in the five years before the opening, they must have realised that the international scene was not particularly comforting. What emerged in the end was the craft (and influence over the young) of the older artists ranging from Italian Arte povera to Minimalism and historical conceptualism, and encompassing Ellsworth Kelly and Kosuth and the revival of Bourgeois and Bacon. Solidly European, but diluted by the overflows of American "neo-pop-kitsch", it is no coincidence that Documenta 9 confronts the visitor with the magnificent dead ants in the Zweherenturm, just as Christian soldiers did when they were terrified by the advancing Moors and, according to legend, all they had to do was show the corpse of the Cid in his armour. There is little more to say: throughout Documenta the organisers have affixed to walls and other available surfaces a multiple of a hand in the style of the Addams Family by Jean Fabre which clutches onto a bracket attached to the wall as much as to say "Hold tight!". But to tell the the truth, in a show featuring 186 artists, there are not all that many jolts to get things moving.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 20 July 1992