The last documenta of the twentieth century was the first directed by a woman, the French curator Catherine David. As might have been expected, she was awaited in Kassel with skepticism. Catherine David’s intellectual approach to this major exhibition— whose meaning and purpose she examined in the catalogue— and the critical assessment of the political, social, economic, and cultural issues of the contemporary globalized world for which she appealed, prompted fears about the autonomy of art in advance of the exhibition. The poster, on which the small d is crossed out by a large Roman numeral X, triggered outrage—as it was seen by many as an attempt to question the very institution of documenta. In retrospect, one is astonished to realize how little the critical reception of documenta 10 conveys a sense of the exhibition as a “manifestation culturelle.”
Instead of a genuine attempt to come to grips with the different challenges and discourses to which the exhibition sought to respond—from the debate on postcolonialism (with such works as Lothar Baumgarten’s Vakuum series [1978–80], or the documenta documents) to the various models of urbanism (Aldo van Eyck, Archigram, Archizoom Associati, Rem Koolhaas) to the meaning of the visual image in the media society (as exemplified by Marcel Broodthaers’s Séction Publicité, Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Ailes [Publicity Section, Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, 1968]) to contemporary network art (Heath Bunting, Joachim Blank / Karl Heinz Jeron)— and her curatorial accomplishments, art critics repeatedly cited what they regarded as an “excess of theory,” “intellectualism,” and an alleged “absence of sensuousness.” The latter charge may well have been directed toward Kassel itself, however. Indeed, David presented the city of Kassel—once the most automobile-friendly and thus most modern city in Germany—as a “modern ruin” in her documenta walking course. Entirely fitting were the flourishing weeds—neophytes from southern and southeastern Europe—that Lois Weinberger planted as a metaphor for migration processes along the disused tracks at Kassel’s main railway station, which was relegated to the status of a regional station and converted
to commercial and cultural use as a “culture station” after the Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe Intercity Railway Station was built. The walking course extended from there through underpasses and along Treppenstrasse down to the Fridericianum, past documenta Halle and the Orangerie to the Fulda River. The local blend of different social, economic, environmental, aesthetic, and cultural systems was open to investigation along this axis. The works of art installed there were not conceived as event-oriented “urban furnishings” but were intended instead to intervene subtly into public space with specific questions. Jeff Wall’s Milk (1984)—a light box showing the photograph of a man sitting in front of a brick wall on the side of the street holding a paper bag from which a fountain of milk sprayed forth, a banal scene at first glance that turned surreal on closer examination—was installed in an underground pedestrian underpass. Christine Hill set up her Volksboutique (People’s Boutique, 1996) in another underpass, while Suzanne Lafont’s poster displayed near the railway station laconically traced the migration routes between the major cities of southeastern and central Europe. The course ended near the Fulda with the Metro-Net Skulptur: Transportabler U-Bahn Eingang (Metro-Net Sculpture: Portable Subway Entrance, 1997) by Martin Kippenberger, who had died shortly before the exhibition opened. The entrance to mobility suggested in the title was merely mock-up, however—a symbol of dysfunctional urban networks. Located near the Orangerie not far from there was perhaps the most popular work of art presented at documenta 10: Carsten Höller and Rosemarie Trockel’s Ein Haus für Schweine und Menschen (A House for Pigs and People, 1997). The supposedly idyllic, interspecies setting combined subtly disturbing evolutionary theory with the gruesome reality of profit-oriented mass animal husbandry.
In an effort to fix the position of the documenta at the end of the century, David also conceived a number of “retrospectives” that shed light on significant tendencies of the past postwar period in the sense of a “post-archaic, post-traditional, and post-national“ memory and striving for identification (Marcel Broodthaers, Aldo van Eyck, Öyvind Fahlström, Richard Hamilton, Gordon Matta-Clark, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Gerhard Richter, represented by Atlas [1962–96]), on the one hand, and sought to expose the omissions of Western art historiography (with Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark as representatives of Brazilian modernism, for example). With these “retrospectives,” documenta 10 took up the thread of the founding principle of the documenta once again.
Aside from the film program and the publication of the documenta documents, one of the most important features of the “manifestation culturelle” was the series entitled 100 Days – 100 Guests, to which David invited guests from all regions of the globalized world to talk with her about various matters every evening starting at seven o’clock. The discussions were held in documenta Halle, which had been built in 1992 as a multifunctional venue and recently furnished with chairs by Franz West. The series began with Edward Said and proceeded with Rem Koolhaas (on “The New Urbanism”), Okwui Enwezor (who would succeed her as artistic director, on “Biennials”), Matthew Ngui, Suely Rolnik, and others to Wole Soyinka (“Art and the Ethnocentric View”). In an ironic allusion to the lettering on the neighboring Staatstheater, Peter Friedl affixed the word “KINO” (CINEMA) in large red letters above the entrance to documenta Halle—a promise that consciously anticipated its misinterpretation.