Little D Big X: Documenta X, the Artforum Questionnaire

By Birnbaum, Daniel | Artforum International, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Little D Big X: Documenta X, the Artforum Questionnaire


Birnbaum, Daniel, Artforum International


"What can be the meaning and purpose of documenta today, at the close of this century, when similar largerscale exhibitions have been called into question, and often for very good reasons?" Curator Catherine David asks this question in the short guide accompanying Documenta X, the current installment of the quintennial exhibition that opened in Kassel, Germany, on June 21. Her own answer can hardly be summed up in a couple of sentences; it must be extracted from the complex event she has staged. Radically transcending the confines of the traditional show, Documenta, ominously abbreviated as a lowercase "d" (with a orangish-red "X") on posters all over Kassel, consists of three main parts: an art exhibition spread out in various venues; 100 days of lectures by a wide range of artists, writers, and philosophers; and finally, The Book - an 830-page Odyssey of theoretical essays, literary texts, and wide-ranging imagery that, according to the editor's preface, seeks to "indicate a political context for the interpretation of artistic activities at the close of the twentieth century." As if this weren't enough, there is also a series of film, television, and Internet projects.

David considers the three parts 'of her Documenta equally important, which makes a swift assessment of the project as a whole impossible - one hundred lectures by speakers such as Edward W. Said, Rem Koolhaas, and Etienne Balibar, not to mention a seven-pound compendium of poetic and philosophical reading, will take time to digest. Since most visitors are unlikely to spend more than a couple of days in Kassel, one may wonder who is really going to see Documenta X fully.

Given the wildy divergent responses from the international press during the first weeks, one does question whether journalists have actually seen the same exhibition. While the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung hailed a highly successful exhibition, "superior to its lame predecessors," and compared it favorably to Harald Szeemann's "grandiose 1972 panorama," others panned the show mercilessly. This year's Hilton Kramer award goes to the critic from The Times of London. Calling Documenta X a disastrous end of the line ("a tragedy is being enacted in the small German town of Kassel"), he denounced the show as a piece of "cultural fascism" and declared, "If I had an effigy before me now of Catherine David, the French exhibition-maker whose role in this tragedy will be described to you in a moment, I would be sticking pins into it."

Of course, like the Whitney Biennial, Documenta is a show many writers love to hate. Still, while David's refusal to announce a list of participants in advance may have fanned expectations, it also exacerbated an inevitably ornery press reaction. The curator's withholding of information in fact so upset the art market that the European Union of Gallerists filed an official complaint shortly before the opening.

In the end, whatever one's own reaction to the actual results of David's endeavor, it's hard to deny that Documenta X broaches some serious questions about the possibilities of exhibiting art and - more important - about contemporary culture as such. With this in mind, Artforum asked me to query fourteen art-world writers and curators about their expectations of the show, its successes and failures, and its likely influence on the future of large exhibitions and art in general.

What were your expectations for Documenta X?

Were they challenged or confirmed?

JAN HOET (artistic director, Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Gent; director, Documenta IX): I expected a quiet and theoretical Documenta. Was it too safe and academic to expect a beautiful museum exhibition, with breathing space, "visual thinking," and poetry?

CHRISTOPH BLASE (critic, Cologne): My expectations, at a deep level, were confirmed - Documenta offered nothing inspiring. It's one big textbook containing only isolated pages of interest.

SVETLANA BOYM (professor of Slavic and comparative literature, Harvard University): I expected Documenta to be grand high-art entertainment and it was exactly that. …

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