PRINT October 1987



Discombobulated and cacophonous, with a populist bent, Documenta 8 was almost entirely free of the lofty airs that surrounded its elegant, smug predecessor in 1982, and that to some degree hovered over many of the more ambitious and large-scale international exhibitions in the five years since. Absent, for instance, was any sense of highbrow intellectualism or formalism, and gone as well the sense of giddy congruence with recent commercial, critical, and promotional dicta. Painting, for one, seemed relatively scarce, and while classicism and mannerism, minimalism and expressionism, architecture and design, art including self-conscious appropriation, art involving mechanical and electronic media, and art consisting of functional or decorative objects were all to be found, they were not to be addressed as discrete genres, nor positioned like so many camps at war. One of this exhibition’s most valorous attempts was to dissolve notions of categories and hierarchies in art. In the process, however, almost everything was dissolved, including the excitable nerve endings that transmit impulses. As one of the big ideas of the show—as big as its other big idea, art and life—the storming of the Bastille of fine-art “exclusives” in 1987 was a bit like, well, storming the Bastille long after the heads were off. The revival of cross-pollination in the arts has been news for ten years, even if Documenta ignored it in 1982. The big gong today sounds the need for thinking about these hybrids, not just plucking them and scattering them around: so what about this situation in which there’s more design and redesign in painting than in a thousand Memphises, what about this situation in which the self-consciously painterly flourish seems more at home on a framed mirror than in a painting. These are weird new frontiers, and there is no such thing as being a little avant-garde.

One round through the show and there was reason to think that the organizers of Documenta 8 had it somewhere in mind to propose a great big model for a sort of functioning and communicating, entertaining and hectoring organism—a total esthetic apparatus for living. The exhibition was full of analogies, mimeses, simulacra, plans, and models for the home, the office, the museum, the art gallery, the gym, the X-ray room, the cemetery, the newsroom, the showroom, the rally, the encounter group, the earth, the village, the town, the city, and even nature. Some examples among them: in the central axis of the Orangerie (one of Documenta’s two principal, neoclassical exhibition buildings, the other being the Fridericianum), the conceptualists Helen and Newton Harrison presented an elaborate and thoroughly considered proposal for the improvement of traffic flow, pedestrian access, and public space in Kassel, heavily bombed during World War II and hastily rebuilt after it. Also in the Orangerie, the English designer Jasper Morrison installed a small, crisply efficient newsroom, complete with Reuters dispatches on monitors (Margaret Thatcher had just won in England; Ronald Reagan was in West Berlin); the Corsican artist Ange Leccia’s brand-new blue Mercedes 300 CE rotated on a showroom platform, dazzling us into briefly forgetting the Hush Puppied tread around the art-and-design shrine; and ambulating “Tina,” the “chair robot” designed by the Italian Denis Santachiara, bumped around neurotically in her stylish and pleasantly lunar living room, a room in which the couch, too, had a life of its own. And there was a substantial passage along the buildings transverse for which a somewhat unsurprising list of internationally known architects and designers had devised actual, ideal, or critically pointed models for the museum of the near future.

The organizers of the exhibition, to their credit, were ever mindful of the organism’s need for a memory bank: in one of the Fridericianum’s tower rooms, a fuzzy recording of Benjamin Britten’s Requiem, implying the sound quality of ’40s radio broadcasts, formed an acoustic veil around two video monitors poised on top of cantilevered columns, and showing the nearly motionless heads of two men in their 60s—witnesses of the war, one had to imagine. This was Coventry, an installation by the 35-year-old, Cologne-born Klaus vom Bruch. Elsewhere, Christian Boltanski’s archival photoinstallation of faces, mostly young. was also redolent of loss, and Nam June Paik’s very impressive and somehow creepy homage, a kind of great video altarpiece, was a memorial for the late Joseph Beuys. Hans Haacke provided a second take, less Duchampian than Leccia’s, on the Daimler-Benz corporation—the history of its South African investments, and of the Deutsche Bank’s, set against an older story, revealed at Nuremberg, of the bank’s investment in the Third Reich. In another tower chamber, a perverse and brilliant installation by Jenny Holzer—with electronic message-boards and marble sarcophagi—offered the suggestion, worthy of Poe, that with age truisms come faster and meaner, and that a relentless consciousness can survive its keeper to issue statements from the grave: “I walk in and out of the cracks of my skull when there is nothing else to do.”

Nor did the curators neglect church and state: out of doors, Scott Burton usurped the seat of perspectival power with a centrally placed cast-concrete bench that encircled a grove of bamboo, demanded the fealty of all the other pieces nearby, and preempted one’s ideal view of the park’s far-off little neoclassical temple, while Ian Hamilton Finlay’s grande allée of guillotines, also oriented toward the temple, stylishly threatened to preempt our heads. Away from the main exhibition grounds Ulrich Rückriem’s parking-lot Mecca provided an uncompromisingly stolid but gorgeously granite refuge. In Kassel’s Huguenot church, a continuous tape of John Cage’s synthesized reading of Thoreau’s essay on civil liberties lent the town a welcome spacey ecumenicism.

Documenta 8 seemed to want to be a World’s Fair with big doses of civic awareness, fun, and angst for all. What it was more like, however, despite high points such as some of those mentioned, was a badly managed household: hectically assembled, conflicted in its reasoning, often terribly installed, and, to an eyebrow-raising extent, beyond the control of its busy heads of house. With their emphases on social issues and technology, their political literal-mindedness, and their anti-esthete bias, Schneckenburger et al did not hold up a particularly appetizing carrot to a number of artists, and they were faced with quite a few drop-outs and “take it or leave it” situations. Though named on an advance list of artists, for instance, the very relevant presence of Sigmar Polke could not be secured, and Anselm Kiefer was represented by the replica of his last gallery show, a show that had closed just the month before in New York. All too often work seemed haphazardly chosen and indifferently shown. Paintings by Leon Golub and Eric Fischl were treated as if illustrations of civic-ed and sex-ed seminars, and Anthony Gormley’s mummy figures, which have to do with scale and depend utterly on the space surrounding them, were plopped down like unclaimed bodies after a fire. In fact the whole show had the pompier’s touch to it.

The exhibition heralded itself with scrolls-full of names unfurling under the headings of video, audio, and performance, lists that framed the exhibition with an illusion of bounty, and produced the impression of a newly radicalized democratic attitude toward art as well as toward “people.” But I’m afraid a “videothek,” “audiothek,” and “diskothek New York” do not a democracy make, and as for a democratic self-image, the curators bizarrely seemed more interested in furthering the old, compact-at-the-dinner-table routine, or perhaps that infamous frog motto, L’Etat c’est moi. It would be hard to count the times one caught sight of one’s own image in a mirror or a TV, or felt oneself otherwise being “portrayed.” Buky Schwartz’s rambunctious sculpture/installation in the Orangerie included a closed-circuit video monitor that gave visitors the chance to see themselves peeking through color bars. Oswald Mathias Ungers’ Kafkaesque Museum in der Kiste (Museum in the box), one of the most interesting high-concept boutiques on architect’s row, forced us to peer through our own reflections in mirrored panels opening onto endless corridors. We were invited to see ourselves as callow philistines in Hans Hollein’s lazy, pompously sophomoric Museumsraum, where wall labels were giant and reproductions of great paintings very small; and, outside, Les Levine’s misanthropic billboards, scattered about town like a Benetton ad campaign gone sour, spat out orders to “Seduce Yourself,” “Consume Yourself,” “Exploit Yourself,” “Sell Yourself,” and “Hate Yourself,” though not, inexplicably, simply to go fuck ourselves. The designer Ettore Sottsass’ altogether more charming “portraits”—wittily framed mirrors including Looking at yourself framed as a normal painting, Looking at yourself like a monument, and (for girls) looking at yourself like a temple prostitute—were reliefs from these one-note harangues.

Where the curators failed to impress us with their subtlety, to move us through their sense of beauty, or to galvanize us with their appeals that we see ourselves in a worse light, they succeeded in making a strong case for a notoriously difficult form of art. Video sculpture was the surprise triumph of Documenta 8. In addition to certain pieces already named, mention must be made of the technically complex and beautiful work of Fabrizio Plessi and of Shigeko Kubota. Plessi’s splashy, theatrical installation of monitors face up in a horseshoe formation, showing a continuous image of flowing water, in the ideal setting of a big, raw, reddish, round room at the top of the Orangerie, was titled Roma, and it evoked Rome’s catacombs, and its Colosseum, and the quality of its nights with a kooky aplomb that made one think of Fellini. Kubota’s Niagara Falls was quieter but longer lingering, and despite the cramped stall it was allotted it was one of the few places in this exhibition in which to breathe and not just react. Expensive, cumbersome, and unreliable, hard to make, hard to sell, hard to move, video sculpture has many postindustrial songs to sing.

Among the other media two works could pack the rafters of the postindustrial opera house. Fischli/Weiss’ seriocomic disaster film—its texture evoking Kiefer, its structure Rube Goldberg, and its timing Buster Keaton—is a kind of Così fan tutte for old tires and spare parts. And Robert Longo’s bonzo time-warped warrior is Pagliacci.



The makers of an “art that speaks about social questions,” those who have rediscovered “the original critical and emancipatory function of Modem art,” according to Manfred Schneckenburger and Edward Fry respectively, were the artists invited to participate in Documenta 8. Certain artists with undeniable social concerns were sacrificed in this cleansing of the temple: Jiri Georg Dokoupil’s strategies of insecurity, or Albert Oehlen’s subversions of the banal, make for an indirect form of argument that smolders rather than bums but is none the less vital for that; it was not in demand at this Documenta. In general, when the Kassel salon went beyond the known artists who are obviously integral in the theme to the less-known artists in whom it showed some initiative in its choices, it picked artists who prefer philosophical metaphors that end up solid but uninteresting. They value pathos, both with and without irony. As exemplified by Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s videosculpture extravaganza of body-building, the social context of their work is aimed for immediate consumption. Juxtaposed with the work of known artists whose art addresses social concerns, such as Leon Golub, the ventures into social criticism of these new artists in Documenta 8 seemed quite unproductive.

We already know the extreme points at either end of the scale on which art shows its social commitment. What we need is an articulation of the variety of possibilities in between. Muddying the waters with its selections of bombastic new art, Documenta 8 only obscurely provided such a focus. The artists most revelatory on the issue were already familiar to us. Joseph Beuys, Hans Haacke, and Gerhard Merz marked a kind of Bermuda Triangle of social positions. Beuys, in his idea of a “social sculpture,” was aiming for a reconstruction of the lost completeness of life; his means lay in the complicity he set up between enlightened, emancipatory impulses and archaic experience. Merz’s Vittorio del Sole (Victory of the sun) was a painfully beautiful staging of the alienation and abstraction that are the results of the loss of completeness, a loss Merz seems to see as irrevocable. The work’s title is a play on that of the Futurist opera Victory over the Sun, 1913, for which Kasimir Malevich designed costumes and set; Merz’s paraphrase renounces the Modernist utopia. Did Beuys ever come close to that kind of renunciation? His “direct democracy” piece at Documenta 5 in 1972, his Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz (Honey pump in the workplace) at Documenta 6 in 1977, and the more concrete contribution of the planting in Kassel of 7,000 oak trees which he organized for 1982’s Documenta 7 were all directly committed to ideas of social improvement. But Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch (Lightning with stag in its glare, 1958–85), a piece developed over years and installed posthumously in Documenta 8, conjures up an unpopulated “world of coldness, of irreversible resignation,” as Heiner Bastian has remarked, in which only the goat and the stag symbolize a warm energy and a life force in tune with the cosmos. (In this, the piece recalls Beuys’ Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts [End of the 20th century] in Munich.) Even the dialectical process of transience—the to-and-fro between birth and death whose synthesis is in becoming—that pulses through all of Beuys’ works appears here strangely extinguished: in the shapelessness of the piece’s Ur-animals, beginning and end are the same.

The intention of social change leads, in Haacke’s work, not to a social utopia but to a critical analysis of certain life practices. Here, Haacke illuminated the interwoven political and economic interests through which the Mercedes Benz car company and the Deutsche Bank support the inhumane regime of South Africa, relating them to the bank’s involvement with Hitler. But, as happened often at this Documenta, the social issues dominated the esthetic form of the work, and without the force of artistic shaping, the issues themselves were abstract rather than vivid. In the South Africa piece, the sociological approach diluted the work’s feeling of urgency. (This was not the case with Haacke’s Cartier room, 1986, shown at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, this summer.) The next generation as exemplified here by both Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger go more directly to their subjects and to their viewers in their attempts to reach a public, each in their separate ways—Kruger through her revelations of the vocabulary of the media, Holzer with her sophisticated transformations of a range of public presentations of language. Thomas Schütte attained the same directness with his Eis Tempel (Ice cream temple), simultaneously architecture—a building for the sale of ice cream—and a sculptural object in the Orangerie grounds. Here was one artist making a first appearance in Documenta whose work directly articulated social concerns, and showed a continuity with the work of an artist of an older generation, Scott Burton, whose cast-concrete benches stood not far away on the lawn. Both artists suggested the possibility of a complex but practical art integrated into everyday life.



Everything in Documenta 8 was display.

The rooms in the Fridericianum were like a series of gigantic advertising display cases, but one couldn’t tell what product was being pushed. The show’s images were confused in a vortex of spectacle, yet their rhythm was monotonous, beating on like waves against the shore. In the Orangerie, devoted mainly to design and architecture, one was reminded of those stands where goods left from last season are sold at half price.

There is a saying about the phoenix: “What it is everyone says, where it is no one knows.” Was there some similar mystery in Documenta 8, the show’s “message,” perhaps, whether anthropological, sociological, political, or esthetic? Could it be that what faced us here was a series of large-scale stage sets designed for getting across the message? If so, the intended meaning generally remained ambiguous, suggested rather than stated. What did come through was a predominant curatorial mood that recalled, in its will to persuade, the Socialist Realist art whose principles were laid down by Aleksei Aleksandrovich Zhdanov in the USSR of the ’30s. The goals of Documenta’s organizers were clearly different from those of Soviet state-controlled art, yet the presence of an underlying ideological message was the same. What was latent here was the reality of the West, a reality based on the triad of industrial production, technological development, and mass spectacle. It was as though the organizers were adapting to the idea that it is the means that matter, rather than what is exhibited, and means, as everyone knows by now, are messages.

Accordingly, the art that was collected here made heavy use of electronic media and of the ready-made, the industrially processed, mass-produced object. The readymade received a true sanctification, of an ironically desanctifying kind, in the art of Marcel Duchamp (or of his alter ego, R. Mutt), and today we know a long and glorious tradition based on such articles. But the readymade has become completely acceptable, arousing neither scandal nor unease; as curators by now know, this kind of art brings instant recognition and approval among a show’s public. Documenta 8 boasted such a quantity and variety of the products of industrial technology that it might have invited the envy of the major trade fairs. And it used the electronic media, particularly video, not so much to show new forms of communication and vision as to provide spectacle. The specific meanings of the works here didn’t get much of a chance to matter, for they all ended up disappearing behind the glare and the pomposity of the staging. A clamor drowned out individual voices, and meanings successively canceled one another out, arriving at zero.

The show was full of installations and sets where nothing really happened—empty stages, devoid of the feeling of the living creatures who made them. Everyone’s work suffered. Robert Morris’ works came off simply as bombastic baroque backdrops of the “day after”; Anselm Kiefer’s paintings as primordial Judeo-Germanic epics; Robert Longo’s pieces as the apocalypse of the near future. All these forceful, serious works were installed, practically one after the other, in a bang-bang-bang rhythm. It was as though the problematic, contradictory human presence in ’80s art had been abandoned too, and with it the conscience of the artworks and the consciousness of the viewer, which is in the end the only thing that motivates art’s existence.

The shaman is dead. Joseph Beuys’ absence haunted the show, but the materials and forms of his familiar work became residues without meaning or power, dead plunder that his touch could no longer bring to life. The installation of his Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch, a work that has cropped up several times recently, was the worst I’ve seen of this huge and complex piece. It was no longer a fable like those Beuys used to tell, but had become the staging of one. It had lost its sensuality, its odor. It was abstract, a sequence of inventions illustrating affected, eccentric intentions, lacking in concreteness, uprooted from reality. And when reality is absent, artists can use anything, without discrimination, as Komar & Melamid did; or, like Group Material, they can use anything and give it an elegant installation.

In order to exist, I believe, art must be loved. If love is missing, art withers like an ill-tended plant—it neither grows nor bears flower, fruit, or seed. Documenta 8 felt as if it had no love for art, no care for its fruits. The story is told that a visitor to George Bernard Shaw, noticing that the playwright had no flowers around the house, assumed that he didn’t care for them; Shaw replied that he liked them a great deal, and liked children, too, but wouldn’t cut off their heads to decorate his parlor. In Documenta 8 it felt as if everything had been slightly guillotined; every object could be replaced by another, nothing and no one was necessary. The show was preoccupied with avoiding art that made the curators uncomfortable, however rigorous such work might have been; its affection for art was insincere.

In the name of internationalism, sharp differences in the art of different cultures were once again muffled. (Yet the theme of the show was meant to be the renewal of the relationship between art and society.) The blooming of European art in the ’80s, after decades of domination by New York, was once again submerged. And that was too bad, because American and European art are not in competition today, but in dialogue; New York is still the capital of the empire, but its once-absolute primacy has given way to a variety of voices. This was masked in Documenta 8.

You had to explore the exhibition’s less grandiloquent recesses to find some meaning, a different scale. In a small room off a stair in the Fridericianum, Fischli/Weiss’ Filmzyklus über Kettenreaktionen (Film cycle on chain reactions, 1986–87) could be watched as it followed a series of objects through a series of events and incidents, of sudden bursts of energy, of forthright phantasmagoria. Jenny Holzer’s mortuary chapel had a pair of inscribed sarcophagi and electronic boards flashing phrases from them in a vertical rhythm: “I do not want to be a human,” “I hate the people who consider their sadism repairable,” or “I am crazy bored and familiar with the ending” Leaving the Orangerie and walking away from the main exhibition you found Thomas Schütte’s ice cream shop Eis Tempel, its fearless ugliness tying it to the “revolutionary” 18th-century architecture of Etienne-Louis Boullée and Claude Nicolas Ledoux, and also giving it a concrete impact. This was a presence—it couldn’t be seen as just a papier-mâché backdrop. And even farther away, Ian Hamilton Finlay used a series of guillotines to mark out a perspectival exit from the exhibition grounds toward the world, or toward a temple rendered chimerical by distance. Yet in context even these works were perhaps only the castle keep of the show business or amusement park of culture, through which to stroll for leisure or on a Sunday jaunt.

One made a point of seeing Tadashi Kawamata’s construction in a ruined church in the town of Kassel; the town’s ruin and his scaffolding all made up a whole—they were the same thing.



The question I was left with after a visit to Documenta 8 was just how Manfred Schneckenburger had once again managed to cram so much of the art of today into the straitjacket of yesterday, just as he did when he directed Documenta 6 in 1977. From the art of the ’80s he again conjured the feeling of being back in the ’60s, with Paris 1968 still in the future. Judging by the tone of the whole event, Schneckenburger seems to think that many of us today are following a common path or ideology that he believes will end in disaster. It was under his direction that we were provided with a talking exhibition, as it were, one that lectured us.

On the occasion of the world museum and theater that the Documenta exhibitions provide, and in the face of what Schneckenburger must experience as the unconcern, the pervasive levity, the arbitrariness, and the all-too-explicit irony of actual contemporary art, one could easily imagine him and his team with a desire to put together an exhibition that would reinforce those serious categories from before, when the avant-garde was “pure.” One could easily imagine how such an exhibition might be planned, with a rigorous concept, a strongly articulated moral, and a well-considered theme, all reflections of the faith, which many still hold, in linearity and progress. If only for the duration of the show, an attempt would be made at a construction of meaning, however much at variance with the zeitgeist, that would restore something.

Curatorial cynicism, however, precluded such a result. To me, the structure of the show recalled a labyrinth, the age-old symbol of the struggle to find one’s way and thus of the search for one’s self. In the labyrinth proper, with its confusion of paths and passages, one is thrown on one’s internal resources, unsupported by any of the moralities of the world outside, and one faces the Minotaur, in a combat, as Jorge Luis Borges and others have pointed out, that is a kind of shadowboxing, a fight with oneself. The labyrinth proper is indeed a nonpareil symbol for the fragmentary, chaotic character of culture since 1968. Documenta 8’s labyrinth, however, was the vessel of a closed, fixed moral system.

Using the Kassel inner city as the ground, at strategic points within it the curators enmeshed sculptures, performance spaces, and other kinds of artworks, which articulated approach roads, as it were, to the main exhibition in the Fridericianum. From the outside this is a building of classical symmetry, but the inside, through a combination of war damage and later renovation, is an architectural miscellany. A special exhibition architecture of rooms set a little oblique to the axis of the building displayed a certain limited attempt to introduce order (with a difference—at an angle, for example) into one’s moving through the building. That unimaginative reliance on dressed-down order always brought the viewer back to the sense of marching toward the show’s cumulative message of colorlessness and disaster. Artists such as Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, Robert Morris, and Anselm Kiefer appeared here as the protagonists of the Schneckenburgerian collapse. These participants gave the show a compelling Wagnerian sweep. Morris’ work in particular articulated a sense of tragedy: these paintings-cum-reliefs used photographs of corpses in Nazi concentration camps; their esthetic impact recalls both Delacroix and the Baroque memento mori. But “we don’t need another hero,” read one of Kruger’s pronouncements, as if, in the lobby to the center of the labyrinth, to deliver you over to yourself and to the questions of your conscience. Despite the success of these and other individual works, however, the sound and fury of the installation as a whole signified nothing. Nowhere was this clearer than in the petrifaction of the Beuys piece, Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch: during the artist’s lifetime, each of his installations contained a fertile contradiction, but this one was sterile and cut off.

“Death assumes a weight of its own, beyond the visual and moral effect,” Marianne Brouwer writes in her catalogue essay on Jan Vercruysse, whose arrangements of empty frames, wooden columns, and pedestals drew a lot of attention at Documenta 8. Brouwer ends her text, “Our melancholy is not resigned, our vision is keen, because it is imprinted by sorrow.” This personal formulation expresses our present experience of death more acutely than the show’s large apocalyptic themes. Rather than curatorial violence, a labyrinth needs a heart to justify all the confusion around it; here instead was an excess of visual noise, as if to invite the apocalypse instead of to forestall it.

Fortunately, Documenta did hold some surprises. In the Orangerie, entering the small space allotted to the architect Charles Moore, I was at first unimpressed. Soon, however, I became interested in Moore’s work, and very much attracted to it. The Seven Cities of Cibola is a group of architectural models in a post-Biedermeier style—a miniature, tin-soldier kind of world. As Moore writes in the catalogue, the Spanish conquistadors once believed that somewhere in the wilds of the American West lay a kingdom of Cibola, and within it seven cities of gold. On their arrival, however, the cities were transformed into dusty pueblos. A more immediate reference for a European critic is to the cities that Marco Polo describes to the emperor Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities. (Moore seems to have had both stories in mind.) In these models I thought I found Calvino’s Zenobia, a town high on piles, with houses of bamboo and zinc; Octavia, a town suspended over a chasm by a spiderweb of cables, chains, and bridges; and Eudoxia; with its winding ways, stairs, blind alleys, and hovels. What at first glance had seemed untidy and childish, a doll’s house, became a collection of cultures and cities, a maze of gates and stairways, platforms, columns, buildings, basements, Gothic arcade (in the dolce stil’ nuovo) upon arcade, and embracing arches. Here, in a small room, was assembled what I had unconsciously cherished all along as the image of my ideal Documenta.



Discarding the idea of an exhibition on a single theme, the organizers of Documenta 8 seemed to have decided on an event that would touch bases, would circle round problem areas rather than exploring them fully. And the argument that emerged looked like a string of separate problems, lined up in linear fashion, as if solving one would solve them all. If only things were that easy. The result was like the content of the most popular work in the show, a film by Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

A lighted fuse ignites a rocket tied to a tiny wooden cart. The cart shoots along a rail, and a brick it is carrying hits a valve on a balloon of gas. The balloon deflates, which tilts a seesaw, which causes a chemical to fall into a pan of water with a candle in it, which reacts to make a fire, which eventually results in the melting of a plastic tape, which sends a tire rolling along a sloping ladder to hit another tire, which crosses a ladder to knock over a plank which diverts the tire into a semicircle of paper now flaming from the fire, which sets off fireworks tied to the tire which propel it forward, slowly at first, then with gathering speed, and the process continues. The ultimate in child’s play, featuring items of makeshift equipment, Fischli/Weiss’ film is a chapter of accidents, of objects taking matters into their own hands. They enact a Scheherazade scenario—a prolonged digression, which, like hers, might encompass the whole world if sufficiently prolonged, yet which is so limited by its occasion, by its manic urge to solve an immediate problem, that artistically it risks everything. As a metaphor for Documenta 8 the film was perfect.

The organizers of Documenta 8 seemed to be calling for a recovery of Modernism proper, before its petrifaction. Modernism went wrong, the consensus opinion suggests when it played safe and declined into academicism, when the art object, immured and autonomous, was no longer called upon to take risks. Post-Modem art, the argument might run, abandoned the ideal of communicating with a single clique and tried to function on more than one level simultaneously, charting its course, when necessary, outside conventional institutions and channels. Somewhere between these ideas lies the critical issue of art’s “job.” It should be remembered that the question of audience was in some ways no less vexed in classic Modernism than it is today. The shift from a Modernism engaged with its social context to a solipsistic and elitist one followed a series of disasters—the rise of fascism in the ’30s, the war, the McCarthyist period in America—that art had been powerless to prevent; there were reasons for its turning away from the world. Today, what the earlier Modernism wanted for a while is actually here. (In 1984, for example, 33 million viewers saw a video by Nam June Paik.)

The risk is that of reduction in potency, of all art aspiring to the condition of journalism, abandoning not only its ivory towers but also its undergrounds and operating on some permanent middle ground. Many of the new media outside the traditional territory of visual art—records, television, and so on—have established themselves in a centrist position in culture. And though it is possible to work in those media and to remain on the margins, if that is what one wants, there is more than a suggestion that these forms are being drawn toward the center too, by some independent need of their own. How much of a difference will be retained between work in video as a medium pursued in its own right and work on television practiced as a business, between the music on experimental small-money record labels and chart-busting, overpromoted rock? By working in these media artists are necessarily addressing the question of the mass audience, no matter how “marginal” their work may seem. Art’s attempt to break out of its late-Modernist cage entails a dangerous proximity to entertainment and the fashionable. These are real conditions, states to explore, not avoid.

Art is what a society believes it to be at any given time; the signs are that the complexity of our beliefs about art has been pushing art into an undefined arena. Instead of exploration of these realms, talk of the late-Modernist autonomy of the art object as the great enemy to he defeated once and for all ran throughout the dialogue about and within Documenta 8. (We’ve heard that even at this moment psychoanalysts are working on a name for this antiformalist phobia.) The result is that sculptors make ice cream kiosks or benches in parks, while installation—that reinstated medium—relies on spectacle for its own sake. Some sufferers from the phobia, including those among the Documenta curators, insist on design as the cross to he brandished in the face of belated Greenbergians, either in the belief that design in the future will move forward in unison with “fine” art or on the more plausible theory that the two exist in a state of reciprocity, so that the more “useful” art becomes, the more “beautiful” radical designers will make their work. One exhibition within the exhibition—of imaginary museums—did not suffer from the same phobia. In the fashion of MaIlarméan estheticism, it was comfortable with the idea that art ends up in a museum, and therefore that the museum is the proper space for contextual manipulation.

There was a time when no sculptor would have used a word like “object,” but twenty years after the “dematerialization of the art object,” objects are getting restless. And as Fischli/Weiss’ film loop at Documenta shows us, as the objects keep up their cause-and-effect sequence the audience keeps on laughing, and unfortunately, with this curatorial perspective, the conditional tense never leans toward the present.


Lisa Liebmann, Ingrid Rein, Pier Luigi Tazzi, Paul Groot, and Stuart Morgan all contribute regularly to Artforum.

Ingrid Rein’s article was translated from the German by Charles V. Miller; Pier Luigi Tazzi’s, from the Italian, by Meg Shore; and Paul Groot’s, from the Dutch, by Ernst van Haagen.

Documenta 8 opened in Kassel, West Germany, on June 12, and closed on September 20.