Doubts at Documenta: The 'Olympics of Current Art' Hits a Breaking Point

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Byline: Peter Plagens

When a contemporary art extravaganza announces that it's not limited to art but includes everything from the social sciences to architecture, you know it's going to be a pretty conventional show. At least conventional by today's standards, where art exhibitions are a kind of county fair for intellectuals, and catalogs resemble UNESCO reports on pressing global problems. Documenta 11--the latest edition of what's often called "the Olympics of contemporary art," held once every five years in Kassel, Germany--is no exception. In fact, it might have stretched the convention to the breaking point.

Documenta's artistic director this time out is 39-year-old Okwui Enwezor, a passionate, globe-trotting Nigerian-born curator who lives mostly in the United States. He's got a fairly plausible theory that the current artistic climate is one of postcolonialism--in which, he says, "globalization means the terrible nearness of distant places." In his Documenta, just under half the 116 artists come from outside the usual Euro-American roster of eligibles.

Nevertheless, the work of art that most embodies this Documenta--where art works are spread throughout the city--is by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn. In the yard of a housing project inhabited largely by Turkish immigrants, Hirschhorn has thrown up a snack bar, a bookshop, a big outdoor sculpture of some tree trunks and a lit-tle exhibition room of books, maps and press clippings dedicated to the late French writer and cultural "outlaw" Georges Bataille. "Bataille Monument" is made in Hirschhorn's trademark proletarian ad-lib style: shantytown carpentry crudely reinforced with packing tape and decorated with graffiti. Although its precise point is anybody's guess, "Monument's" heart is with the project residents, who've survived, like Bataille, only by transgressing borders.

Most of the art in Documenta is more traditionally housed in a neoclassical museum, in a kunsthalle that's part of a train station rechristened the "Kulturbahnhof" and in an old brewery. You can see everything from journalistic photographs of apartheid-era South African suburbs to the chicly banal and indifferent oil paintings of Belgian Luc Tuymans, a favorite on the current scene. …