in Frieze | 04 SEP 92
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Issue 6

Almost Everything Is Available

David Batchelor's review of Documenta IX from issue 6, September-October 1992

in Frieze | 04 SEP 92

The title is taken from the pen of Jan Hoet, architect of Documenta IX. It comes as a small, unstressed aside in the middle of a Mcluhan-esque flourish which makes up a part of the bigger flourish which is his opening catalogue essay. It's a good phrase: optimistic, expansive, sociological sounding and a bit political too; a little dangerous, threatening, even subversive perhaps. And almost entirely meaningless. Or rather better than meaningless, for it can mean as much or as little as you like. It's a feeling, a mood, in here, out there, above, below, an atmosphere, a vibration, a scent. Or something.

Above all 'almost everything is available' is a great as if. Imagine putting together an exhibition of contemporary art in the belief that 'almost everything is available'. What would it look like? Well, quite. Documenta IX was put together as if almost everything was available. It was helped in this by the fact that a very large amount of money actually was made available to feed this idea. The press material kept harping on about this aspect of the event. Not just the money but the whole logistical wagon-train of materials, machinery, merchandising, sponsorship, shipping, intercontinental deals and the general quantifying excess of it all. This was to be expected. After all, Documenta is not really the sum of its particular parts, not just an exhibition of so many artists. It is a thing in itself with its own internal momentum; a great lumbering beast which rises up out of hibernation every few years, bellows out, gorges itself for a hundred days (terrorising the good folk of Kassel in the process), and then slopes back to its cave until the next time. In this respect the art really doesn't matter that much, it's just so much stuffing which can be extracted and replaced as the beast tires and dozes off. Consequently, it's difficult to judge Documenta against anything else - so it tends to get judged mainly against previous incarnations of itself: D.IX was bigger than D.VIII which was more pluralistic than D.VII which is not as conceptual as D.V and so on.

In another way the stuffing obviously does matter, and it's all that matters. For a start, it fuels endless argument on the theme of why-him-and-why-not-her, about the arbitrariness of various inclusions and exclusions. More generally it's quite difficult not to get caught up in trying to make some sense of the exhibition as a whole, to locate some rudimentary organising principle, some set of priorities, some focus which holds all the stuffing in place. The most common comment you tended to hear, one which often and easily acquired the tone of a complaint, was that there was no theme and little apparent focus to this Docu-menta. Jan Hoet's comments were cited as evidence of this. He was typically vague in an evocative kind of way, citing 'feeling' or 'the body or 'freedom' or 'almost everything' as points of orientation. Several other essays in the three volume catalogue (modelled an the Greater London telephone directory: vol.1, business and services; vol.2, artists A-K; vol.3, artists L-Z) were equally self-conscious, and read like almost-accidental transcripts of some private conver-sations between an artist and his unruly creative psyche.

But in some important respects this moody and atmospheric kind of talk was not indicative of a lack of structure and focus so much as the opposite: it may be taken as evidence of something quite specific, strategic, and rather traditional: a form of romanticism. If, historically, Romanticism placed the individual in the face of the awesome, ungraspable, limitlessness of Nature, then at a time when Nature has become all too clearly limited and all too often grasped, a number of man-made alternatives may act as working substitutes. Chief among these is the awesome limitlessness of the media. At least, this seems to be the thinking behind Hoet's premise that 'almost everything is available'. Available not, perhaps, in the sense that we may consume it, but that it may be overwhelming and consuming us. Add to this the kind of political anxiety which (understandably) tints most of the writing in the Documenta catalogues - a sense of the conventional structures of power dissolving into a kind of formless but potentially apocalyptic flux - and this Romanticism begins to assume a reasonably distinct, if not exactly pretty, psychological profile. Part Caspar David Friedrich, part Marshal McLuhan, part Boris Yeltsin. And part Mike Tyson too, for Hoet's romanticism was also formed by a self-image of the artist/curator as lone (male) force-of-nature carving up the manicured lawns of polite bourgeois society. (There was a rumour that Tyson had been invited to the opening ceremony by Jan Hoet.)

The apparent formlessness of Documenta IX was not accidental; nor was it idle. It was the appropriate form for a world in which 'almost everything is available' (except Mike Tyson). If the exhibitions and their layouts left the visitor feeling battered, disoriented and overwhelmed, then this must count towards its success. Any other form, any sharper focus or sense of here the boundaries lay, would be a misrepresentation of the real state of things. Or so the argument seems to go. The paradox, of course, is that there are many well-established conventions for representing the unrepresentable, many well known devices for showing the unknowable, and many well-trodden boundaries within which the boundless may be depicted. And this had something to do with the overall bathos of Documenta IX. There was, unavoidably, some very predictable, very familiar, very conventional work on display. If a sense of disorientation was created, it was largely an effect either of the sheer quantity of material, or of some deliberately contrived conjunctions of disparate works. That is to say it was more obviously a feature of the curatorial organisation than an intrinsic property of the art.

If there was a single, prevalent, type of work in Documenta, one which seemed to reflect in microcosm the curatorial ambitions of the organisers, then it went under the broad label of Installation. This was effectively confirmed in the layout of the show, with two of the key sites immediately inside and outside the main exhibition hall being occupied by Bruce Nauman and Jonathan Borofsky respectively. Installation is the type of art where 'almost everything is available'. That at least has always been its promise, a promise made, during the 60s,in the face of the apparently stifling limitations of Modernist painting (and to a lesser degree sculpture). To the same extent that moves in painting are always highly constrained by physical, technical and historical conditions, Installation appears almost limitless in all these respects. Almost anything becomes a potential 'ready made' to be grafted onto almost anything else almost anywhere you like. In the case of Documenta IX, anywhere included the walls, floors, ceilings, windows and doors of the exhibition halls; inside, outside, above and below the galleries; the ponds, gardens, rivers, car parks, lifts, shopfronts, roofs, parapets, trees, towers, statues, museum displays and lamp-posts of Kassel.

Within the generic category of Installation were grouped a few rather classy and a great many very trite works. The worst tended to exploit a range of sub-Beuysian, late-surrealist, sort-of poetic conjunctions of incongruous bits and pieces. There were primitive materials and there was modern technology; there was expensive and there was cheap; there was big and imposing and there was small and all over the place; there was smelly and there was slimy and it rarely seemed to make that much difference. For all the hyperactive scurrying around for strange materials and sneaky places to stick them, the results were often depressingly same-y. But then exotic collisions of everyday things has become as academic as the seamless fini of 19th Century Salon painting. The 'unexpect-ed' has become so terribly familiar these days, not much more than a kind of parlour game or form of polite conversation-piece.

The better installation-based work tended to avoid relying on the armadilloand-toothpick type of conjunction and clever placing for its effect. It opted instead for working with a limited range of materials and technology, and worked its materials in particular and deliberate ways. Gary Hill's silent video installation made immaculate use of its technology - and, unlike many other video-works, made its technology seem necessary rather than merely ornamen-tal. Some of the more successful works took as their starting point the existing architecture or installations of buildings and museums in Kassel. Dan Graham, Rodney Graham, and Joseph Kosuth sought, each in very different ways, to re-tune or detourne aspects of their chosen buildings or displays. These works had in common with Hill's an aversion to the bombastic, domineering and ludicrous-ly overstated - not something you could say for the work of Nauman, Borofsky, and Mario Merz. Or indeed several others, such as Zoe Leonard and Haim Steinbach, both of whom made staggeringly crass 'interventions' into the regular museum of fine art displays. Again, both of these artists relied for their effect on generating a kind of direct, jarring conflict between the existing material and the insertions.

Over the last twenty or so years, Installation has shifted from opposition to the mainstream, a development which requires far more detailed analysis than is possible here. But it is one of the most repeated lessons of art history that strategies, production processes and technical devices which were developed, in part, as critical counters to existing artistic orthodoxy, have a habit themselves of undergoing qualitative changes as the balance of forces shift That is to say, a form of production which, at one particular moment, signified criticism and inquiry, may, at some other time, become the most obedient mouthpiece of orthodoxy. For example, a claim which has often been made for Installation is that, in dispensing with the auto-graphic, studio-based craft of painting and sculp-ture, and by employing new reprographic technology and/or assistants to execute the work, it thereby contributes to a critique of liberal humanist versions of authorship and the centred self. Again, there was a time when this claim had some real force, but it is very hard to see how, now that these materials and means of execution have become a part of the everyday fabric of art making, they do more to negate than positively amplify a number of rather traditional assumptions about authorship, creativity, originality and so forth. Like the pyra-mids, installations may have been built by armies of thousands, but it's generally the pharaoh who gets remembered.

There is more than one history of Installation to be written, and a lot of qualitative and quantitative shifts stand to be unearthed, analysed and evaluated. From the evidence of Documenta IX and elsewhere it seems that there is more than the average amount of seriously minor work to wade through before something worthwhile turns up. This is one of the more unfortunate side effects of an art in which almost everything is available: it tends to mean a lot of bad art is made available. The 'freedom' of Installation all too often ends up as a historical arbitrariness. Within the more accom-plished work of this type there appears to be a more complex range of paradoxical and contradic-tory pressures. There seems, for example, to be a counter-current within Installation which at first runs against its tendency to accumulate, to expand, to absorb - in short to colonise space, materials, people and resources. This other current flows in a rather different direction, tending to shut out, board up and close off - producing a kind of insulated environment isolated from the air, noise, light and other contingencies of the world outside. But perhaps this deprivation-chamber tendency in Installation is just another form of colonisation - this time of the viewers' sensory apparatuses - the aim or effect of which is to withhold from them the opportunity to check their observations and experiences against the world of ordinary, everyday, not-yet-colonised things. The paradox seems to lie in the relationship between, on the one hand, the critical and libertarian claims which are made on behalf of much Installation art, and, on the other, the increasingly coercive and authoritarian form which it has in so many cases begun to take.

In the context of this range of installational work, from the smallest fag-end-and-apricot variety to the most monolithic, steel-doored temple of mystical insights, it came as something approach-ing a revelation to find in Documenta an open, light, white-walled space sparsely hung at normal height with three monochrome canvases. Now Ellsworth Kelly may not be the greatest ever practitioner of late-Modernist painting, but he looked it here. Such painting remains antithetical to installation work, at least in the sense that it continues to work according to the premise that 'almost nothing is available' to make art from. But there was not much evidence in this Documenta that substantial ground had been won through the creation of the singular, contained, discrete work of art. In fact, in the face of the theatrical surprises and colonising tendencies of much Installation art, work such as this, together with certain photo-graphic work and a few free standing sculptures, looked positively radical in its understanding of art history, its practical knowledge of the limitations of its medium, its reference to a studio-based prac-tice, its straightforwardness, economy and clarity. Moreover, the practical recognition of such con-straints also begins to qualify the work for a kind of Realism in the face of the melodramatic illusions of liberty which are offered as alternatives. Which is not to say, of course, that all the painting and sculpture at Documenta was better than the installations. On the contrary, most of it looked like it was there just to present the installations in a favourable light, or was so badly placed as to be impossible to view.

Documenta IX was meant to overwhelm with the availability of almost everything. And so it did in a way. But its actual limitations were thrown into high relief by the presence, or rather the legend, of a single work sited some 25 miles away. It appeared that the whole lumbering beast of Documenta had been utterly upstaged by a truly absurd, 35-foot high puppy, dressed, nose to tail, in 120 varieties of flowering plants. This neo-rococco coup de grace was supplied by Jeff Koons, whose work is not always immune to megalomaniac and colonising tendencies. Nor is it easy to work out where this work differs, in terms of ambition and aim, from the grandiose schemes of, say, Borofsky, or Mario Merz. Yet the results were incomparable. There was an effortlessness to the way Koons upstaged the upstagers - and in this kind of work, as in all melodrama, to be upstaged is to die. That is to say, Puppy highlighted, in its hyper-theatricality, not just the extent to which theatre has the modus operandi of contemporary art, but the extent to which so much of it falls short of or fails to live up to its possibilities. Somewhere in amongst all this, in the way it separated itself from the Documenta main- stream, the work by Jeff Koons began to look like it shared something with the quiet monochromes of Ellsworth Kelly. Admittedly Koons and Kelly make a strange sounding couple. But their work had in common a kind of freshness and a lightness of touch which made much of the rest of Documenta look thoroughly murky and mean-spirited.