in Frieze | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

The Human Zoo

documenta X

in Frieze | 10 SEP 97

documenta X may come to be seen as the most far-reaching of the entire series. Certainly, it demanded an almost impossible amount of preparation on the part of the curator, Catherine David. Politics/Poetics, the accompanying 800-page book, was published to help to explain the exhibition's contents and significance: through images and historical background material, it attempted to define the state of world art at the approach of the millennium as well as problems of politics and cultural representation, not

least the depiction of everyday life. Multi-disciplinary artists were favoured, ideas of globalisation were invoked and performance and film - both particular to our century - were represented throughout. New media were also in evidence. Yet none of this was allowed to eclipse straightforward issues, such as poverty, dealt with by comparatively simple means. Sigalit Landau from Jerusalem, for example, in her work Resident Alien (1996), gave visitors an idea of what it was like to live in a metal container, with Arab music playing on a radio, while Slaven Tolj from Dubrovnik took two lamps from a church and installed them in the local train station.

Such apparent simplicity was never allowed to jar with the sophistication of much of the other work, such as that of Rem Koolhaas, but in essence the philosophy underlying documenta X closely resembled that of any late 60s hippie. One major factor suggesting this was the prevalence of collaboration. Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley worked together, though they failed to complete their opera about Mata Hari with blues music, steel bands and a string quartet. ('We left it too late.') Richard Hamilton worked with Ecke Bonk, and Craigie Horsfield made photo-graphs with a group of people under the collective name La Cuitat de la Gent. Homage to the late 60s did not stop there. Studying Aldo van Eyck's beautiful plans for children's playgrounds in the Netherlands, or touching what remains of the erotic clothing of Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, at least a little of the excitement of another, braver period is transmitted, not to mention a sense of what has disappeared. One of the greatest losses, the curator suggested, may be the sense of play for its own sake. Despite museum surroundings, play should still be possible, since it is an integral part of life. So Art & Language designed a bar, while Franz West made seat covers for the chairs in the auditorium used for the daily 100 days - 100 guests event, a sequence of daily talks. In other words, an attempt was made to consider art as a resource for daily living... The result was hit and miss. Who else would have included Marko Peljhan from Slovenia, with his MAKROLAB (1997)? Described as an 'auto-nomous modular solar and wind-powered communication and survival environment' which could provide life-support for three people for 40 days, this temporary building was based on the writings of Velimir Khlebnikov, the Russian poet who devised theories of the meaning of numbers, talked to birds to try to learn their language and imagined an identical glass dwelling unit for every person in the world, in order to make travel easier.

David appeared to be suggesting that important moments are those of germination not completion. Idealism matters most. So it came as no surprise to encounter early work by Alison and Peter Smithson or the collages of Archigram's Ron Herron whose Instant City of 1969 envisaged an ideal future environment, referring to walking on the sea-bed, circus acts, children's games, cartoons, rock bands, Russian Revolutionary trains and Letatlin in flight. These themes of space and environment, both in practical and theoretical terms, ran throughout documenta. While the housing problem was seen to be an issue, solutions put forward remained idealistic in the extreme.

History reminds us that ideals can be tarnished. From top to bottom of the Fredericianum ancestral voices were heard, if not prophesying war then at least reminding Germany of the dichotomy between its recent past and its cultural heritage. Playing continuously in the attic was Cave of Memory (1997) Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's sound and vision complex, considering once more 'the Hitler in us all' but also celebrating the achievement of Schleef, Kleist, Goethe, Raimund, Mozart and Beckett. At the bottom of the building another monument - this time to one person's past - was on display: Atlas, dated 1962-1996, by Gerhard Richter. Since 5,000 photographic images on 600 panels represented the inner life of one German between 1945 and the present, the choice not to edit seemed crucial. The result was sometimes shocking. Fotos aus Büchern, for example, showed concentration-camp atrocities while, nearby, pornographic photographs were displayed. If the aim seemed irresponsible, it was redeemed by invoking a long-term process: catharsis. In the same way Cave... was a study of the overlap between collective memory and private history, with Syberberg, who made Our Hitler, exploring German culture by homing in on single, poignant images: two photographs of the actor Oskar Werner, for example, one as a magnificently handsome, blond figure in the stage production of Kleist's Prinz Friedrich von Homburg and another taken just before his death. But that is mere illustration. The issue is what happens to a culture when its ideals have been lost. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthes' magisterial essay defending Syberberg, reprinted in Politics/Poetics , praises him for his willingness to go too far. Nazis simply made use of art, Lacoue-Labarthe maintains, and were even more determined to regard people as artworks. In the wake of Hannah Arendt, he decided that Nazism was 'the truth of Romanticism' and had been since the end of the 18th century. (Arendt's classic essay 'The German Question' was also reprinted.)

The use of more recent history - the history of documenta itself - was investigated in another complex historical work. 'Retroperspective', David's fictitious noun to describe documenta, hinted that only with their demise are things ripe for analysis. Following this line of enquiry, Christian Philipp Müller hunted for remains of Walter de Maria's Vertical Earth Kilometer (1977), and the first and last of Joseph Beuys' 7000 Oaks (1982), both of which had been sited in the Friedrichsplatz in the centre of Kassel. With the construction of a car park in 1996, however, the symmetry of the square had been altered for ever. Müller chose a small space overlooking the Friedrichsplatz, where he displayed details of the funding and production of both works. Finally, he placed a six-metre rod on a base - part brass, part oak. A video showing Müller in the role of the great tightrope-walker Philippe Petit revealed that the rod was not meant to be read as pure abstraction but rather as an element of a performance. Müller walked a wire stretched between the sites of 7000 Oaks and Vertical Earth Kilometer; Petit had walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York seven times before being arrested and was secured a place in history. Deliberately diminished, Müller's own role was as an archaeologist of the recent past, a 'retroperspectivist' eager to remind residents of the wonders they had been foolish enough to lose.

Martin Kippenberger's final sculpture, Transportable Subway Entrance (1997), is a large, awkward object. With its entrance pointing up, not down, and its back to the river, it looked like a beached whale. But it also looked like other things: a hammer and a cobweb formed part of the design along with a clock, a sunrise motif and a pair of breasts. The sculpture forced one to realign one's own sense of direction, and since the part designed to be underground was lying on the grass, from most angles it passed for pure abstraction. For the last few years Kippenberger had been planning a worldwide project of such works, stretching from Greece to Alaska (both completed). Under construction at his death was another exit in Leipzig, a transportable ventilation shaft shown in Münster and plans for others the world over.

Not far away in the Karsaue a concrete building had been constructed, one half open to the weather, the other protected by a picture window facing a ramp on which visitors were welcome to lie, for as long as they wished, in order to watch a group of pigs. Yes pigs, made into a form of tourist entertainment by the artists Carsten Höller and Rosemarie Trockel, who may well have meant to satirise art and its protocols. But perhaps they did not mean that at all. A humanist would argue that time spent with animals is a sentimental education that makes us more caring human beings. A designer would stress that it was an ideal home. A purist would insist that animals should run free, as they once did in the forests of Germany. But that is asking too much: the wild boar of yesteryear survives only in heraldry. So have the pigs of today gone soft, with their Postmodern, state-of-the-art sties? Next to me was a tall, lugubrious man. Something was obviously on his mind. As he left, he gave me a straight look. 'The pigs of today are the sausages of tomorrow,' he said, and wandered off.

In 1994, Andrea Zittel began making units like updated caravans, which could be towed from place to place and decorated according to the wishes of their owners. Later, she changed their title to A-Z Escape Vehicles. For 'escape', read 'escapism', since, logical as her project sounds, the insides of these living capsules have little to do with daily life but everything to do with fantasy. Of the six on view, one is filled with water, another contains a garden, a third a white chaise longue, a fourth offers champagne, a banquette and a radio playing New Order, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chilli-Peppers... Oddest of all is a room with a desk, a cap, a guide-book, a purple dressing-gown, marbles and wooden racks. In short, a homage to Joseph Cornell, who would have loved it. Unashamedly perfect, Zittel's works occupies a territory which lies between haute couture and customisation. Christopher Marlowe's phrase, 'infinite riches in a little room', describes the result perfectly. But is the room in question a prison, a sepulchre or a place to dream? 'A-Z', she has said, 'is not an ideology, nor is it a strategy. It is a mission to learn more about our values, our needs, and how we choose the roles that we play.'

'To make a long story short...' Maria Lassnig writes on one of her paintings. Fortunately, she never does. The result is an experiment in existential portraiture in which nothing remains certain or permanent: the very concept of working in series seems to impel her. Self-Portrait as Gardenscissors (1969) looks more like a louse, but no matter; the lines will make their own way. In another 'self-portrait' from the same year, two hot-water bottles on a bed try hard to make a third. That way madness lies. Brains are displayed on top of the head. So are wires and wigs, masks that become beds and electric fires. Finally, in 1996, a further self-portrait emerges - toothless, bonneted and blind - as well as an image of a bird looking straight into the barrel of a gun. If Lassnig's art depends on self-analysis and ways of finding a language to express what she discovers, William Kentridge, no stranger to documenta, does the same but with a wider perspective: his home country, South Africa. Part of the beauty of Kentridge's cartoons derives from the slowness of their making and the number of drawings used. This gives an effect of continual change which meshes with the subject matter: the alteration of fortune. Large cities turn to empty townships and Kentridge's hero Felix - whose name is a pun on what he wants to be rather than what he is - registers their rise and fall. A bathroom tap becomes a universal force, releasing a flood of images one after the other; a surge of water becomes an eye, inside that eye the word LOVE appears... When the dead body in the entrance hall of his house turns out to be the woman he loved, Felix finds himself naked in a room of water, which becomes a field, then an arid landscape. Kentridge is peerless, as much in his technique as for his ability to tell the truth as he sees it. Above all, he is never afraid to move his audience, even to make them cry. And in South Africa there is plenty to cry about.

Filmed in 1945-6, Helen Levitt's The Street: East Harlem concentrates on a single road in New York - a poor place, but this is not the quality she accentuates. At one point, two children, prevented from playing in the street, are seen in a window pressing their noses and tongues against the pane. For them, the street is the best place in the world. They might well be right. It holds beautiful women like the one in a black dress, whom the camera follows, her brisk walk turning each man's head. Even in mourning she cannot help being sassy, unlike her older counterpart, a lady of the night, unforgettable for a few seconds as she adjusts her hat, shakes her fur stole, puts on her gloves, picks her teeth then sallies forth once more into the early morning. By day, life continues. Tots who can barely walk kiss each other, do it again and laugh. Two others, scarcely older, dance together on a doorstep, watched closely by their tiny brother, dressed in a girl's frock. Suddenly he joins in with a solo. It may well be the first dance he has ever attempted - nothing will ever be as much fun and he knows it. Meanwhile, there are sights to see: festival days with masks; the way one neighbour rolls her hips as she walks up the street and stops with a lascivious loll; a lady with a bird on a string, taking it for a walk; a lad with a corked moustache; a moment in a street fight when all the boys throw themselves into the fray, just to make matters worse. But what is the film about? Merce Cunningham once commented on the 'dancing - and yet not dancing - of children glimpsed from a window, playing in the street'. Such subtle indecision impels the rhythms of the film, helped greatly by piano music that hovers between blues and Ravel: unintrusive, parallel to the action without imitating it, as perpetual as the activity on the street itself.

Two series of Walker Evans' photographs were selected for documenta: 'Many are Called', published in 1960, and the lesser-known 'The Athenian Reach' from 1962-64. Both have those riddling titles that Evans loved, and both are imbued with his legendary reticence. Using a hidden camera of his own design, he rode the New York subway, taking surreptitious photographs at moments when passengers had sunk deep inside themselves. Perhaps the result could be described as an investigation into the 'truth' of photography, if 'truth' is the word. After all, when our expression changes a hundred times every hour, how reliable can a photograph be as an accurate likeness? Evans was a shy, solitary man with a powerful sense of wrong-doing. 'A penitent spy and an apologetic voyeur,' he called himself in the preface to the book, but not apologetic enough to kick the habit, and rightly so. For artists there is no such thing as voyeurism; at the moment when the button is pressed, good behaviour must be forgotten or redefined. On the subway, Evans persuades us, a strange loss of selfhood takes place. And in the graveyard, where 'The Athenian Reach' was photographed, not even the idea of a 'self' holds sway.

The high, vast room reserved for Siobhan Hapaska contained three of her works. Here (1995) is a large, shell-shaped opalescent bath in which water circulated around a fluffy white rug in the centre; clear plastic breathing apparatus was supplied to cover the nose and mouth. Hanging on another wall was Heart (1995), a black form in the shape of a heart but stretched and slightly curved, emitting sounds of sea and foghorns in the distance. Finally, Stray (1997) consisted of a dead tumbleweed with a polystyrene cup caught up in its branches. All three elements moved or made a noise: the resulting atmosphere was mixed. If hints of Barbarella and Blue Velvet were inescapable, with their overtones of drugs and kinky sex, so were suggestions of travel for travel's sake. The bath hinted that the owner could have it all, but without company. The reference was to Romanticism in general, but with subtle, timely alterations. For example, in Hapaska's revised version, the Lady of Shallot does not abandon all hope before floating down the river to her death. Instead, she inhabits a world so governed by artifice that she can have anything she wants, as long as it takes simulated form.

The German artist Mariella Mosler worked for months in a small room. In the Zwerenturm a floor and a window partly dictated the three-dimensional pattern she made in sand on the floor. The aim was perfection, nothing less. And the means was pattern, in this case stylised waves across the floor, changing with the light. Mosler's secret lies in the high degree of the work's organisation. Pattern has existed in different forms throughout civilisation. Its principles seem to change and are as crucial as a heartbeat or a pulse. Seen from above, a video of Samuel Beckett's Quadrat I & II (1982) managed something similar. Two shrouded figures moved quickly along and across a square, missing each other by a split-second. The resulting emotion, as so often, was first a sense of futility, then a kind of wild hope. The largest piece of pattern-making at documenta, however, was undoubtedly Peter Kogler's vast expanse of black and white wallpaper for the documenta-Halle. The result could have been called a labyrinth if not for the fact that the tubular pattern left the viewers outside not inside the shapes - an attempt to disturb by means of the impression of closure. Digitally generated, the writhing tubes of different thicknesses - symbols of information networks - disorientated visitors. Both Kogler's patterns and Mosler's were made for specific spaces, one as vast as the other was small. And neither will be a permanent artwork.

'Shouldn't death be a swan dive?' asks the narrator of Johan Grimonprez' video Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y. (1997), 'Leaving the surface undisturbed?' A plane swoops through cloud to a runway. The lights are on and inside the aircraft all seems well, but a second later the cockpit explodes, the contents are sucked out through the windows and the pilot is dead. We watch as the plane bursts into flames. Images of small animals are shown - weightless, twisting in mid-air. The letters of the title then appear one by one, with footage of houses blown through the air projected to the insidious rhythm of The Hustle (1975), a theme that quickly comes to resemble a disco equivalent of The Funeral March. 'All plots tend to move deathwards,' the narrator states. 'This is the nature of plots.' Ancient debates about fiction and lies are then rehearsed. We see television footage of early hi-jackers like the Italian Raffaele Minichiello, who was treated like a movie-star, crowds mobbing his chic, yellow car. Following the principle of deathward movement, we are told, terrorism becomes more extreme by the day. 'We make and change history minute by minute,' the narrator informs us. 'Terror makes a new future possible.' Tell that to the victims of the 16-day siege in Larnaca, Cyprus, where a body was dropped onto the runway simply as a threat, or the mother reeling from the loss of her daughter in New York in 1988. Tell it to the victims of Lockerbie. They will be fascinated to learn that 'Death is a quality of the air; it's everywhere and nowhere'. Is this entire film a spoof, with the dead and wounded lying about simply to provide cheap thrills? (A young man complains about his stomach. 'What's in your stomach?', someone asks. 'A bullet', the boy replies, and drops dead.) Finally, when The Hustle theme strikes up once more, with its increasingly insidious chorus 'Do it!', it becomes harder to distinguish between satire and seriousness, gratuitous bad taste and elementary facts recited for historical reasons. Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y.'s breaking (or misunderstanding) of every moral rule of traditional documentary feels like an abuse of our natural sense of fairness.

Based on The Sandman (1816) by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Stan Douglas' film of the same name explores childhood fears and their reappearance. A young man reads a letter aloud, and as he does so the camera pans around his huge, cluttered loft. He has decided to stop travelling, he says, in an attempt to return to the scenes of his childhood. But he is confused. Something seems wrong. 'A few days ago I was walking by the large colony where we used to live when I was suddenly seized by an overwhelming sense of dread, its cause ... an old man working on an allotment. It was as if I saw it all before...' The man sent him on his way but the memory lingered. 'I do know now that my uneasiness has its origin in our childhood. This is why I am writing to you. Who is this strange old creature to me?' As the pan-shot continues, the viewer realises that the left-hand side of the screen is slightly darker than the right. In fact, as this figure speaks, a vertical wave passes across the screen as if it had moved around the room in a circle only to glide over the image of the narrator, a little like turning a page or being in shadow. His friend writes back asking how he could have forgotten; in their childhood no one scared them as much as Herr Coppelius, in his allotment on the roof. And he is reminded of the cruel tale he had heard from his brother. Asked what kind of a man the Sandman was, the answer came: 'O, Lothar, don't you know that yet? He comes to children when they won't go to bed and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes until they bleed and pop out of their heads. Then he throws the eyes into a huge sack and takes them to the far side of the moon, where he feeds them to his own children who sit on a nest and have crooked beaks like owls. I confided in you... We knew Coppelius was the Sandman.' One night they even met him, and he cursed the boys and their families. A second letter is read by a female friend, and as the circular movement continues, still at the same pace, the allotment, with an old man pottering in it, comes into view. A female friend writes to the narrator about their youth. As a boy only two things frightened him, she says: 'This Sandman of yours, and the water-heater igniting. The whoosh of it was like the devil. Lothar has already written to tell you that what you saw ... was nothing more than the old gardener Coppelius, who thought he could grow asparagus out of season ...' But she points out another link with the Sandman. On the same night that you snuck out with Lothar,' she points out, 'Mother was called from home. She woke us up to say that Father had been killed. Now you know why you cried so desperately: 'It's all my fault, it's all my fault!' A double homage to Freud and to German fairy stories, The Sandman is a miniature detective story, its theme being memory and fate.

'When you look at the paintings, it's not the confusion you're looking at but a simultaneity of events in time. That's the layering in the paintings. It's being able to circumnavigate through the painting, where there is something horrific and really silly, disturbing and very buoyant.' Lari Pittman's tour de force, titled Once a Noun, Now a Verb (1997) resembles a board game with rules of its own. Skyscrapers appear in the distance, powder blue against a dark pink sky, and - high up - a face with lipstick and plucked eyebrows, sporting a 30s hairstyle and smoking a hookah. Along it a tiny circus performer is making his way, hand over hand, as androgynous movie stars gaze out from billboards. They have eyes of different colours and heads that look like root vegetables just pulled from the ground. The hookah, in turn, becomes a shower, then a sink and plumbing. A sinister gymnast looks on in mid-air, clutching a severed head. A ready-made audience has been there all the time, smoking and admiring the view. At home, not surprisingly, the living-room is in the centre. But there is no centre. In one corner, at the end of a subway ride, is another head and a pile of defunct lightbulbs, included in a real painting superimposed on the larger one. (Three other such 'paintings' are hanging in the same way: bland abstractions to make visitors feel comfortable.) So where does anything begin or end? Can roses really be green? Hybrid, bitchy, bisexual, Pittman's work makes daily life so theatrical that it resembles a private language. But what is the point? 'SALT, PEPPER, AMBITION' read the labels in the kitchen. Perhaps the very act of manoeuvring through situations which are delicate at best gives a sense of achievement, like the tightrope-walker or the spider on its web.

Robert Crumb's Zap Comic no.0 (October 1967) contained a strip called Meatball. In a New Jersey dime store two women are fighting. Suddenly a voice shouts 'MEATBALL!', a meatball hits one of the women on the head and she becomes a celebrity: 'America's favourite mother'. As years go by, more meatballs fall. Famous people are hit - Bertrand Russell, Kim Novak... Then one afternoon the cry 'MEATBALL!' was heard again and thousands of people are hit simultaneously. Rioting and looting ensues. No one knows when the meatball will drop again. In March 1969 Öyvind Fahlström was shown the first issue of Zap comic, and from that day onwards he never swerved from his belief that Robert Crumb was a great artist. Indeed, only a week after seeing the magazine, he decided to make Meatball Curtain. Despite the element of homage, however, as always Fahlström's new departure developed from ideas in his notebooks. These have survived, as idealistic as they were far-reaching. 'Consider art as a way of experiencing a fusion of "pleasure" and "insight" he wrote in 1975. 'Reach this by impurity, or multiplicity of levels, rather than by reduction.' Drawings for Meatball Curtain show the results. His work, he wrote, stood 'somewhere in the intersection of paintings, games ... and puppet theatre'.

Somewhere in midtown Manhattan, with Gary Winogrand watching them, three men are walking up three concrete steps to street-level. But while the two figures closest to the camera are stepping quickly, the third is trying his best to stop them by explaining what is in his hand and exactly why he wants them to accept it. As he does so, he tries to turn his body so he can look them in the eye. Several factors prevent this. One is the speed at which they are moving, another is that the others seem to be enjoying a joke of their own, the third is that they may not even have noticed him and the fourth is his embarrassingly bad toupée. He stands no chance; the haste of the day's events is accentuated by the tilt of the camera. In the foreground, a man in a hat gazes at the threesome as if he would like nothing more than to be with them. It will never happen.