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William Wood

A Circular Insanity: Documenta 8

Vanguard, Vol. 16 #4, October 1987.
[ 4,649 words ]


As Man must rise up in order to continue to exist, so Art must arise in order that it does not disappear - Beuys.
                                      Billboard at 'Documenta 8'

In Germany commitment often means bleating what everyone is already saying or at least secretly wants to hear.
                                   Theodor Adorno, 'Commitment'

I came to Kassel expecting Beuystown, some tribute to the dead, some attempt to account for Beuys's disappearance. This expectation was fuelled by 'Documenta' director Manfred Schneckenburger's promotional lecture at the Art Gallery of Ontario in February. He spoke of how Joseph Beuys's notion of 'social sculpture' became the 'anthropological complexity' forming the governing concept for 'Documenta 8'. In addition, Schneckenburger detailed the links such thinking had with the behaviour-oriented art displayed at 'Documenta 6', which he oversaw in 1977. Slides of projects from the past mingled with those of the future: 1977's post-minimal investigations of somatic experience contrasted with 1987's ominous vision of a dystopic social fabric. The new works were presented coupled with coy interventions planned for 'neuralgic points within the city' — an attempt to balance an immediate social space with general social concern. This ensemble of images and concepts could easily form a tribute to Germany's revered late-modernist, including the latent 'boyish' note struck by the gender ratio of three men to every woman artist selected to exhibit. In a similar vein, European art from east of the West German border was excluded. It is obvious that some critical 'anthropological complexities' were discounted by the 'Documenta 8' director when it came to constructing an arena for his vision of social art.

Yet Schneckenburger did not speak of Beuys's previous 'Documenta' appearances in detail. No mention was made of the forums for 'social sculpture' he enacted in the Museum Fridericianum: the Free International University conference at 'Documenta 6', or his 'Documenta 5' contribution of a Direct Democracy office that culminated in his famously boffo Boxing Match For Democracy. The projects for 'Documenta 8' discussed had none of the elements of participatory democracy that Beuys's events had both mustered and run aground on. Indeed, as Schneckenburger spoke, he appeared to pay no heed to the problem of representing the social. Rather, he blithely assumed that such content was overtly expressed in the art of the 80s.

Instead of pondering the social, Schneckenburger spoke of 'Documenta 7' and described the 7000 Trees Green Party action that Beuys began there; he proceeded to make the last action of Beuys in Kassel into the bridge to his second try at the exposition in 1987. Thus, it was not the presence of some living artist, nor the continuity of Beuys's 15-year contribution to the event that he wished to celebrate — it was the last tree he stressed, the last greening of Kassel. So the opening day festivities centred on the planting of that tree, number 7000 — planted in due course by the widow of the artist, surrounded by a chattering crowd and television crews recording the event for transmission away from the soggy green expanse in front of the museum.

In a sly way, much as he took that planting to be the type of social intervention typifying his 'Documenta 8' concept, so Schneckenburger effaced what became a major question in this year's exhibit. For Beuys's tree action was in service to another vision, to Rudi Fuchs's much-denounced poetics of noble art and subjective dignity. At a press conference prior to 'Documenta 7', Beuys had ironically acknowledged Fuchs's authority by giving him a crown. That ironic spirit was not totally absent from Beuys's piece of urban oxygenation; 7000 Trees was a transparent gesture towards the social, a tropological gift of greenery in return for the right to publicly display his artistic pre-eminence. An environmental shaman at 'Documenta 7', Beuys offered a cure as opposed to a critique, irony and piety serving his undaunted belief in artistic nobility.

Schneckenburger was given no crown, and the work he selected dealt so half-heartedly with its aesthetic status that honours and irony were out of the question. Debate would have to settle whether Schneckenburger's version of the social possessed enough authority to engage its purported social content. And so the pick-and-shovel work of completing 7000 Trees had a didactic point congruent with 'Documenta 8'. Marking an end to a project that, even for Beuys, effected a withdrawal from polemics into the literal work of social beautification, came to be emblematic of patching up the past so that the present could assume some depth. Small wonder, then, that Eva Beuys was called out to do the actual digging — eliding at once patriarchal fervour with eschatological decoration. Such terms come swiftly in response to 'Documenta 8', and come to refine the idea of Beuystown: not a wake or a tribute, but a place and an exhibition formed in (almost) parodic effigy of history and social concern. A memento mori for masters and mastery which, in calling up the idea of the end, still manages to comfort the living and their insatiable will to master. (1) 

Kassel is an ugly town, defaced by the last war and reconstructed under Marshall Plan logistics to fit a drab international-style architecture; North American-standard windows and concrete supports shore up every vista. Beuys too had his reconstruction in those post-war years as he went from the mental lassitude of a veteran's confusion into studies in monumental sculpture. War-pain, war-horror generated the apologia for his art, from the Auschwitz works in sausage and fat to the political actions and mythic pretensions that marked his later production. That alteration, or development, is also related to post-war. West German history — specifically to the growth of a renewed middle class which, as Benjamin Buchloh has noted, provided 'a new art public for an artist-hero who will provide the images for a new cultural identity'. (2)  Serving as representative to this group, the theme of healing reiterated by Beuys speaks to a particular belief in a numbed, mute, forgetting, but recuperable audience. We may conclude that this was the implicit audience for 'Documenta 8'.

Of course Beuystown did not arise for me, nor for Kassel, but then neither was Beuys given proper mourning. The Beuys installation in the Fridericianum touched on few of these thoughts, and signalled allegorical ponderings instead. Lightning Bolt with Stag in its Glare is an unactionable work; contained behind a cordon, it denies participation and even excludes speculation at some levels. A composition of clay, wood, and iron, later cast in bronze and aluminum (and issued in an edition of five), the work capitulates history by hunting down the pre- and un-social, the pre- and un-historic. An originary scene is figured, unruly nature sending a lightning bolt to illuminate a collection of Primordial Animals with a shiny Stag among them. To either side are non-participatory forms — a cast trolley with an axe attached to its bed, a dead potted plant's roots and soil set on a sculpting stand. This work presents Beuys at his most discombobulated, figuring the ancient, first in clay and then in the foundry, adding not just myth and modernity but also un-knowing and mystic reckoning to his iconographical formula.

In this context, complete with a woman weeping over the installation the first day I was there, the unknowing calculation of the primeval is twisted into that other unknowing in our midst. It is death, of course, but not mortality, that is summoned up by this work. Beuys's imagery finds high expression in the stuff of monumental culture — the bronze of age, weight, and molten malleability, perfect for conveying distance and decay. Yet it asserted a near-religious authority shown so purposefuully in reaction to his death and conflates that death through the cast, editioned, residual nature of an installation redolent of mystery rather than anthropology. Choosing it over the near-mocking tomb-work Palazzo Regale, ostensibly the last work Beuys executed, displays a need to hide what Palazzo Regale cannily suggests: that the corpse requires protection from grave-robbers. (3) 

The death-defying aura of Beuys's presentation was indicative of a major strategy in this 'Documenta'. Arousal without engagement became a repetitious, deadening call to resign power to grand effects, to spectacular, simulated gestures of commitment. As well, reference to the body as site of mortality, coercive power relations, and sexuality — even sensual pleasure — was virtually absent. This may reflect some refusal to picture the body, the individuated consciousness, as opposed to the social milieu, but in combination with spectacle it damages all sense of the struggles over meaning and institutions that characterize resistance to coercion. Nam June Paik's homage, Beuys / Voice, is a case in point, for, in representing a Beuys performance in a multi-screened video-wall with computer graphics, Paik cleverly produced the artist as resurrected rock-hero — a cutting comment on dematerialized immortality. Yet the gallery audience was relieved not by Paik's play in the rock-video genre, nor his exquisite transposition of Beuys into alien technology. They came and piously sat, going over the last glimpse of the beloved, the traces of the master. They took the lure and, after all the deconstructive work was done, got hooked on fetishistic nostalgia.

This type of movement was repeated across the exhibition, contaminating content in certain works and elevating effects in others. The trip through the galleries became a dulling jaunt in a prettified schizo-landscape of reactionary, cosmetic interest. The social milieu it constructed in that process is a diagnosis without treatment, a home for trumped-up events and well-wrought materials — precisely reflecting Beuys's shortcomings and, in that, constructing a ghost town on the grounds of Beuystown.

                               II

The most remarkable peculiarity of melancholia, and one most in need of explanation, is the tendency it displays to turn into mania accompanied by a completely opposite symptomatology...that regular alteration of melancholic and manic phases which has been classified as circular insanity.
                                    Sigmund Freud,
                                    'On Mourning and Melancholia' (4) 

All the problems surrounding Beuys at 'Documenta 8' could be written off as part of the work of mourning; yet he was not the only strong (in Harold Bloom's terms) figure undone in Schneckenburger's scheme. Gerhard Richter was a major disappointment. His titular evocations of subjects as fulsome as Claudius and Courbet were no match for the superficial and tonally garish set of abstractions on display. The grace-note of a representational canvas — depicting a heavily cropped view of a cathedral — held on for indicating the sallow look the present passes on a history deemed inaccessible. Robert Morris also showed propensity for the tawdry and saturnine with paintings of fiery colours in mucky brushwork dedicated to containing thoughts of catastrophe within relief-frames cast from death camp offal. Robert Longo's horridly adolescent constructions provoke a similar chill. The hideousness of these pieces is only sensible if you take them on faith; their brave look into disaster is grimmer once one examines the nihilistic obviousness of their theme. One sees in them a dread of reacting intelligently to content; an anxiety supplanted by pseudo-hysteric rendering.

With such work in the exhibit, the scent that something was off in painting became unmistakable. No doubt in direct response to Fuchs's combining of neo-expressionist painting with the dregs of conceptualism and arte povera in 'Documenta 7', the curatorial committee chose mostly tired, facile canvas to hang. Younger painters such as Rob Schöltte, Joseph Nechvatal, and Mark Tansey proved equal to this need, presenting sarcastic, exhausted views, as in Schöltte's image of a wind-up clown drawing the outline of Munch's The Scream. Placed alongside these works, Belgian Niek Kemps summed up the mood in his Even Light Cannot Escape. Here, ground-glass sheets give way to occasional slits through which one spies distorted vistas of battles and supernovas. Such middle-school Baudrillardian ideas of implosion were presented to guide us away from looking into the image, as if in fear of some power lurking within.

Maybe Anselm Kiefer illustrates the reined-in force these paintings avoid. The painted books he displayed are formed of heavy lithographic plates smeared with earthy pigments to obliterate the possibility of the intelligible word. They suggest that order assembles itself outside of language, in the creepy-crawly work of a history figured in the mythopoeic vision of his paintings. Those in Kassel showed a temple and a step-pyramid worked up in globby oils, with shards of pottery and a reconstructive numbering device drawn from archaeology as a system to at least grab hold of the ruins of the past. This pathos-ridden project begs comparison to Leon Golub's attempt at contemporary history painting. The two were out of place in this 'Documenta', for both attest to a critical uneasiness with their means, combined with a stringent sense of pictorial discipline. With Golub, another kind of pre-literacy is posited, as there is no analysis of the place of painting in rendering the oppressed, but he concedes analysis to the oppressors, choosing a grand style of presentation to display the work of torturers and police-thugs in South Africa. The image-as-painting is drained of Kiefer's divine perspective, but is left to the dogs of conscience to be torn apart and left for dead. Golub's work performs the strange work of evacuating its pretense while still tugging at humanist empathy. The wonder of it is whether a return to such values applies or simply marks a minor improvement over the despairing cult of Master Dread. An appended bridge between these figures is present in Astrid Klein's massive and detailed photo-enlargements; Cyrillic script and runes float in an airy scene of blacks and whites, as if lost to conscious perception and full of longing to reappear.

The preceding digression into the disturbances in painting counters the cheeky consensus found in a good deal of the sculpture. A major component of both the outdoor-sited works and the gallery objects was informed by elements of clean manufacture, over-design. Once again sarcasm and low-grade anxiety are figured, focusing primarily on an attenuated muteness and (purported) imploded quality. This is pursued in answer to concepts of industrial hegemony and consumerist instinct. This is best found in the instrumental collage of John M. Armleder and Bertrand Lavier, as their light hands finesse anxiety with utter nonchalance — a glowing vertical space heater atop a file cabinet is Lavier's attempt to be sinister. Yet, with the wooden gears of Stephan Huber or the dysfunctional constructivist ironies of Zvi Goldstein, there is a feeling of excess, as if such works were too happy to look good at a bad game. Their cuteness as mildly thoughtful bibelots prevents any critical power from disturbing the play and confounds interpretation. This diversion of a collage strategy divested of any disruptive force is cynical; it can keep up the illusion of 'ready made' work without sacrificing the (debased) notion of genius fuelling speculation and purchasing in the big-time industrial action of the consumerist art world.

Hans Haacke was oddly silent on the art world. Considering his recent examinations of (and in) painting and the corporatization of the museum system, his Continuity mobilized an older strategy of advertising-imitation. Given pride of place in the museum, the amateur researcher turns up details of Mercedes-Benz and Deutsche Bank dealings with South Africa and evidence of a continuing will to support the apartheid regime. He scores big with a post-war U.S. military government document discussing the close ties between Deutsche Bank and the Nazi regime. Haacke finishes with a photomural of a black South African funeral set up behind large-scale fabricated logos from Benz and Deutsche Bank, reminiscent, it doesn't need to be said, of insignia once prevalent in Kassel. In this appropriation there also lurks a wry comment on the 'new geometry' with its source-work in abstract devices and its promulgation of post-industrial dead-endgames.

Inhabitation is key here, as Haacke joins Golub in 'good faith' melancholia. But against the mania of the sculpture already discussed, this conscientious work is a salve. One could pursue this line to Barbara Kruger's billboard-sized works proclaiming 'We Don't Need Another Hero' over a movie marquee, and 'In Space No One Can Hear You Scream' over red, white, and blue paint covering the globe. Her mix of populist sentiment and art politics almost equates Beuys to Reagan, Star Wars to Neo-Geo. It is as if the tables have been turned and Haacke and Kruger play nature and culture to become the 'social grease' necessary to run Schneckenburger's 'bleating' operation. Ange Leccia and Krzysztof Wodiczko prove the worth of this insight by dealing with Mercedes-Benz as well. For Wodiczko, the logo appeared on the lapel of a standard office worker projected on the side of a church steeple across from the Fridericianum; the museum itself was blind to this, as he cast the image of a closed eye on its façade. Leccia, in camp with the cynics, put the latest Mercedes design on a revolving stage in the Orangerie, exposing the indistinct and as yet undrawn line between corporate support and inhabited critical art. With this work, Greenberg's complicit 'umbilical cord of gold' comes back to link advanced art to the culture industry — a point made quite convincingly by Group Material's The Castle, a collaborative, circular 'boutique' of small works by premier (and lesser-known) New York artists featuring Muzak, plush carpets, and consumer packaging hung alongside the art. Begging the question, the Kafkaesque title was underlined by a quote from his novel, insinuating, with pessimistic futility, that the late-capitalist Castle is never to be escaped.

If I want to characterize this exhibition in terms of the alternation of mania and melancholia, it is because both the art on display and the administration of the event intimate the convoluted instability found in Freud's 'circular insanity'. He located the vagaries of this condition to psychic processes of ambivalence, wherein the patient vacillates between (melancholic) identification with a once-loved object and intense (maniacal) differentiation from that same object. In either case, misrecognition promotes repression and propels new identifications for the melancholiac and deeper and more destructive repudiations for the maniac. This cycle is unlike the processes of mourning because there the loved-one is truly lost and the therapeutic operation is a matter of reality testing and grieving over a specific object. With mania and melancholia, however, the identifications and differentiations are manifold and the vicissitudes of overcoming them makes the work longer and more difficult. Freud concludes that the cycle perpetuates until 'the fury has spent itself or the object is abandoned as no longer of value'. (5) 

For 'Documenta 8' the list of former loves is legion. The counterculture, the avant-garde, modernism, Beuys, Warhol, the social itself — each was brought up and sloughed off without definitive engagement to resolve identification. Even the interrelations of the exhibition's parts — indoor and outdoor sites, a videotheque and audiotheque, performance venues and a design / architecture / art conglomeration — project investments in disparate objects which lack coherent rationale. Such an arrangement encourages unease because it replicates what so much of the artwork seemed so entrapped within: the (rebarbative) notions of information overload, evacuated subjectivity, and societal paranoia. Accepted as a ruling concept, this 'post-modem condition' effectively became a screen for maintaining (and misrepresenting) the lost-loves of contemporary art. Where ambivalence figures most strongly is in the passage of negativity onto (temporary) figures of authority — the state, imperial powers, the mute Beuysian audience. The goal of this passage appears to be an exteriorizing and pacifying of anxiety rather than any identifying and working through of unhappiness.

Schneckenburger's remark in the press material that 'in the 80s there are no new strategies, only new combinations' can be read as the positive version of the avoidance and maintenance strategy. The result, both in exhibition 'combination' and artwork, is alternation between (undeserved) elation and empowerment followed by severe (narcissistic) bouts of self-derision and long-winded confession. Such alternation was made sensibly affective in Richard Serra's Spiral in the rotunda of the Fridericianum. Approached from one end, a tall curving sheet of steel blocked passage to the exit while permitting a vista of floors below and open skylight. From the other side, one encountered a steadily narrowing corridor, until a body-panicking sense of entrapment prompted withdrawal.

                               III     

The other end of this infernal cycle — at least as far as I could witness in the plastic arts displayed — lies in examining the formation of subjectivity and subject matter. Artists who work to problematize their relation to the construction of meaning encounter ambivalence in the very formation of that work, and it shows, to varying degrees, in their production. In 'Documenta 8' this was prevalent in photographic and installation work, such as that by Alfredo Jaar, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Wall and Terry Allen. Jaar's 1 + 1 + 1 runs counter to the object / sculpture category, by placing ornate frames on the floor and light-boxes with images from the Third World on the wall. The relation between the pictured and the 'framed' is politely demonstrated through having the photographs placed upside down, and the floor work configured as follows: one frame is empty, the second puts frame within frame in a concentric pattern, the third features a mirror partially reflecting the 'right side up' image of starving children. The close link between placement and politics made this work succeed where others were sullen or shrill.

Similar was Holzer's installation with two marble sarcophagi bearing text and two vertical sign-boards repeating the text in flashing, bright, quickly moving lettering. The text contains the typical Holzerian cadence of fear, subjective extremity, and social / sexual violence, yet the repetition is a conceit on the fundamentals of textual work: as language, the text is both instrumental tool for coercion and epitaph for the potential speaker. It is evocative of an abusive social reality and the subjective death-sentence passed on those submissive to its force. Here as well belongs Terry Allen's China Night: a kitschy mock-up of a New Mexican bar with a haunting soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix intercut with narrations of Vietnam veterans' 'return' to American society. This record of mental displacement and social disappearance mourns in an exclusively secular manner for the tertiary victims of state aggression.

Wall's backlit transparency of Native Indians in The Storyteller is further example of the marginalized subject becoming critical subject matter. His acute placement of the figures in conflicted poses from art history epitomizes the empowerment of picturing as a tool, while also registering the disjunctive result of this process in the flickering fluorescence of a 'near-living' corporate apparatus. Mixed video, audio, and installation works by Klaus von Bruch and Ingo Günther put forth additional visions of the interrelations between the construction of subjectivity and that of meaning. Günther projected satellite-intelligence images of Central America on a marble plinth, and the fascinatory appeal of the imagery suggested the conceptual idealism and instrumental violence of the use of such information in the logistics of domination. Von Bruch's Coventry War Requiem placed two video monitors on high columns in an unfinished room in the Fridericianum tower. While Britten's music played, images of a patrician gentleman and a young man revolved on the screens, alternating between moving in formation and independently. The piece worked subtly, with the high melancholy of the requiem, alluding complexly to the patriarchal legacy of imitation.

Given the hard look into ills that these works undertake, they were anomalies at 'Documenta 8' — unlikely glimpses of worldliness amid obtuse clutter. However, there were other works of interest, particularly if the overwhelming sense of illness is to be worked through. Ian Hamilton Finlay's A View to the Temple, in the garden of the Orangerie, comprised a series of four guillotines framing a baroque pavilion a distance away; texts written on the blades reflect on the word 'terror'. Denis Diderot, Robespierre, and Poussin are quoted, and Finlay adds his own gloss, drawing out the word in the light of its trailing idealism. The conceptual collusion Finlay elaborates is precisely what informs the clamour raised across 'Documenta 8 ' — the fear and exercise of terror inhabiting each aesthetic and political move towards the social. What A View to the Temple performs is the (almost) cathartic reentry of the social in terms that acknowledge the Enlightenment assurance (and arrogance) intrinsic to the process of making address to the social body. This is the starting point Schneckenburger refused to articulate or critically address in the exhibit; it is also the point Beuys chose to obscure by mythic appeal.

More therapeutic than Finlay's death-machines were Les Levine's billboards around the site. Exhorting the spectator to a number of commands in both German and English — 'Hate Yourself', 'Charm Yourself', 'Exploit Yourself', 'Sell Yourself'— the group was framed with the overall title Forgive Yourself. This couched reference to healing traces the circular path from melancholia to mania and comes out calling for madness to cease. The evocation of self-effacement and even kindness here sublimes the attempts of those devoted to compromised spectacles and involuted object-making, yet avoids false assurance as well. Instead of magical healing or desperate mediation, Forgive Yourself prescribes insistent examination with the hope of becoming content, if not exactly happy.

As with Finlay's contextual readings, Levine's homeopathy marks a starting point or missed opportunity for 'Documenta 8'. That I am finishing with beginnings and began with the end is indicative of how the event operated and how much of the art looked — confused, wrong-headed, insipid, and upset. And this may reflect Schneckenburger's basic mandate to reflect the past five years of art production, for the mania of the market and the melancholy of strategic exhaustion has certainly figured prominently since 'Documenta 7'. But to take that malaise and pass it on to the world through reference is to draw the most facile of analogies. It stems from a poorly thought-out concept of the social, but does reflect contemporary art's disaffection with its antecedents and its ingrained honour of mastery. In a sense 'Documenta 8' enacted all of Levine's imperatives except the governing call to well-being, and this was its greatest failing. Everyone came dressed for a feast, but the putrefaction left them gagging. Now that it is done, perhaps the fury has passed.


Vanguard, Vol. 16 #4, October 1987.

Text: © William Wood. All rights reserved.

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