Germany: Hot Spot for Contemporary Art Two Exhibitions Put Art on City-Wide Scales, Transforming Public Spaces

Article excerpt

This summer, Germany hosts two of the world's largest exhibitions of contemporary art. Kassel offers its 10th "documenta," held every four or five years in this city in northern Hesse. About 90 miles northwest, Munster, in North-Rhine Westphalia, presents its once-a-decade event, "Sculpture. Projects in Munster." Both exhibitions continue until Sept. 28.

The older and more renowned event is "documenta," which drew 615,000 visitors in 1992. Kassel's Baroque public buildings have been the setting of "documenta" since its sensational 1955 debut, which showcased Modernist art that had been banned by the Nazis. The first "documentas" were staged in the bombed-out ruins of Kassel's Fridericianum Museum and Orangery. The replicas that have replaced the city's war-torn structures make an oddly opulent setting for the iconoclastic exhibitions.

This year's "documenta" turns the grand halls of the Fridericianum into a frenetic shopping mall of media. A montage of visual images fills walls, video kiosks, and darkened screening rooms. As conceived by the exhibition's first non-German director, Catherine David, former curator of the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, "documenta X" aims to show "the state of art and thought" as the world enters a new millennium. Its panoramic sweep includes a survey of the past 50 years of world art and cultural history. Photographs by Helen Levitt, Walker Evans, and Gary Winogrand are posted like snapshots. Yet Levitt's scenes of street life in '30s New York are not lost in the din. Her cleareyed but intimate close-ups contrast with the voyeurism portrayed by Johan Grimonprez of Trinidad in his video, "Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y '97." A soul-music soundtrack accompanies news clips of airplane hijackings. Some projects explore the capacity of electronic media to connect as well as distance people. The halls of the modern Documenta-Halle are papered with a design of twisting tubes resembling computer networks. An installation by Jordan Crandall of Detroit, "Suspension '97," makes lyrical use of information technology: As people move through the room, computers cast their images on the walls, where they cross like the shadows of strollers meeting in a lively town square. "Documenta" occupies three floors of the Ottoneum, Germany's first theater and now Kassel's natural-history museum. On the second floor, a set of giant posters by Rem Koolhaas of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, presents a satirical report on urban development in a fictional Asian city: "New Urbanism: Pearl River Delta, 1996." He wields the jargon of urban development as only a practicing city planner can to spoof the soulless, crass aspects of progress. The exhibition's tour of the millennium concludes at the Orangery, where a stately garden extends to the Fulda River. Here, a hut offers a view through one-way glass of a pig family going about its business. 'Sculpture. Projects in Munster" was first launched in 1977. More than 70 artists from 25 countries are participating in the 1997 event, the city's third exhibition exploring the "function and role of art in public space." Organized by the Westphalian Landesmuseum for Art and Cultural History and the city of Munster, the exhibition takes over the entire city center. …