It may be anti-art, but they're all mad for it

What is it about avant-garde art that so excites the Germans? This year's Dokumenta extravaganza has much to enjoy, but don't expect to understand it, says Matthew Collings

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A strange thing about German people is the way they like avant- garde art so much. We hate it over here, of course, but over there they're mad for it. All over the place there are Kunsthallen and Kunstvereine full of the stuff. There are loads of huge private collections of it, tons of swanky new brilliantly designed multicoloured post-modernist public museums devoted to it, stacks of big annual art fairs selling it, and a horde of sexy, international superstar German artists who since the Sixties or Fifties - or indeed any time after the Second World War - have risen to massive, Oasis-type fame, based on the nation's craving for art that nobody can understand.

The biggest, best, most expensively produced and least comprehensible- by-normal-people international artfest is the five-yearly Dokumenta, held in the otherwise un-noteworthy town of Kassel, an hour or so's very high- speed German train ride from the nearest airport at Hanover. This year's Dokumenta cost pounds 7m to stage. The money comes partly from taxpayers and partly from private sponsorship. That's a lot of Turner Prizes.

As usual, a guest curator has thought up a theme and selected the artists to take part: 250 of them, from all over the world. They range from thundering giants of the genre such as Germany's Gerhard Richter, an art superstar since the Sixties, to bright newcomers on the international avant-garde radar, such as sculptor Siobhan Hapaska and installation/conceptual artist Liam Gillick, both London-based, both Goldsmiths College graduates.

This year's curator, the 42-year-old Parisian Catherine David, who used to organise exhibitions at the Pompidou Centre, has been having a great time over the past few months staging international press conferences and saying nothing that anybody could understand beyond hinting strongly that her Dokumenta would be anti-commercial, anti-galleries, anti-trendy and anti-American. When the Dokumenta finally opened in July, it turned out that the show, at least in its line-up, really is more or less against trendiness, or at least indifferent to it.

Lots of the artists exhibiting are not at the buzzingest end of international contemporary art, nor are they represented by powerful galleries. Many of them have almost unpronounceable names and do not come from Germany, New York, London, or even eastern Europe. Also, many of the well-known participants are far less trendy now than they have been in the past: Richard Hamilton and Art & Language, for example.

Indeed, these two - or three, since Art & Language is a group of two - seemed to be making a comment in their works at Dokumenta about the value of the past. Richard Hamilton showed a multi-part installation that included the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer's famously enigmatic engraving Melancholy (a classical female figure gloomily contemplating some cosmic symbols), as well as a group of his own new ultra-perfectionist oil paintings of mysterious modern interiors. These included veiled references not only to Hamilton's own Pop Art past, but also to the art of the all- time master of mysterious interiors, Johannes Vermeer.

Hamilton also showed a shiny new cube-shaped metal machine thing that could make little cloudbursts. This work seemed like a sigh for the good old days when technology was universally loved for being a good thing both for society and for art. Interviewed by a group of journalists on the morning of the opening, Hamilton said that he was glad to be associated with the first conceptual artist, Marcel Duchamp, but sad that today's version of conceptual art was, in his view, generally too much on the "silly" side.

Art & Language showed a group of objects called "furniture paintings" - chairs and tables made out of small, brightly coloured paintings, each one imprinted with a photocopy image of pages from their own texts - inquiries into the meaning of art - which they've been publishing since the Sixties. A further extension of their work was a performance, staged each evening, involving handsome, classically trained German actors lip-synching to a recording of a conversation between the two Art & Language members and one of their colleagues, the art writer Charles Harrison. The props for this performance were the actual paint-spattered tables and chairs and old paint pots from the duo's studio in Banbury, near Oxford, specially shipped in for the event. This was a weird but certainly compelling pile- up of illusion and reality, with some genuine discourse hiding in there somewhere.

On the morning of the opening, Catherine David gave her last press conference, reaffirming her anti-isms and announcing also that the Dokumenta was more or less about the big problems of modern urban intellectual, cultural and spiritual life, and the way all experience is mediated now through advertising and TV and such-like, and that in this situation "art alone is not enough". And that's why a lot of the art in Dokumenta wouldn't be merely pleasurable or sensuous or beautiful, or in fact not pleasurable or sensuous or beautiful at all, but more like lots of videos and black- and-white documentary photos and film screens and stuff. And also, because of the Internet and the way everything is known about everything as soon as it happens nowadays - or even before it happens, even if it is in Africa - there would be a lot of interactive Internet-type art events put on by incredibly young people.

It would be neat to join in with the widespread carping against the Dokumenta (too elitist, too obscure, too dry, too expensive), and say the really dreadful stuff was the art; but it wasn't. In fact, Dokumenta is a good thing. It began in 1955. The first one was mostly international- style, post-Jackson-Pollock abstract painting. The ones since then have been accurate barometers of the way art is going, and this one, the 10th, is no exception. Art really is pretty strange and difficult nowadays. It's no one's fault, and it's good to be given a chance to look it over and wonder what's going to happen next. For example - as critics are now running around asking themselves - is painting dead again? It's been dead so many times this century; maybe it really has had enough by now.

The Dokumenta sprawls through several big buildings, across open fields and right into the town's centre, taking over parts of the subway and mainline railway station. Nobody could say it is an entirely pleasurable experience. There is frequently the feeling that a lot of exhausting head- scratching and frowning has to be done for not much reward. But even if there is not much actual painting to speak of, there are still plenty of things you can enjoy quite straightforwardly.

Gerhard Richter's installation is like a peek behind the scenes of this artist's official output. Entitled Atlas, it is a huge, eye-straining collection of thousands of the snapshots and news photographs he has used as source material for the coldly scientific paintings he has been turning out for the past 30 years. Just as a documentation of the oddness of everyday life and the way fashions in sideburns come and go, it's an experience. But a lot of the material is very touchingly studio-worn, grubby with paint marks and the remains of bits of masking tape, and, on the whole, there's a warmth and intimacy and curiosity-appeal to Atlas - for all its grand scale - which is often lacking in Richter's finished products.

The Cologne artist Rosemarie Trockl's House For Pigs and People - which she designed with an architect collaborator, Carsten Hoeller - is literally a house for pigs, which people can view through a very large sheet of mirrored glass, so that the pigs, with their newly born piglets, can't see the people.

A sculpture by Martin Kippenberger, another Cologne artist (who died earlier this year, still in his mid-forties) appears in one of the fields outside the main Dokumenta site. As usual with this artist, the meaning is vague, or fluid, or something. A big white metal structure like the entrance to a European metro station with a padlocked gate, it is planted in green grass, as if it might lead down into the earth. It includes a kind of Brutalist, Fifties-style logo in the metalwork - a milky bosom and a hammer. Strange, funny, sad.

Siobhan Hapaska, who was born in Ireland and moved to London from Belfast in the Eighties, has been given a whole, gallery-sized space for three of her sculptures. They mix hi-tech forms with odd, dreamy atmospheres, suggestive of far-away places and sudden changes in temperature: desert, ocean, ice. A lot of this year's Dokumenta is about travel, or more precisely about how ideas of travel can be accessed by modern communications technology without anyone having to go anywhere. In many cases you get the idea pretty quickly - "Aha! Travel!" - but then wonder why it's being presented to you: "Er, so what?" Hapaska's art, which can sometimes seem inhumanly streamlined and mysterious (rather than mystifying), is positively romantic and mysterious (rather than mystifying) in this context.

And what about those videos? Yes, they tended to drone on boringly. But one of them was the most instantly pleasurable work in the show. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is a collage of clips, masterfully paced and edited by Johan Grimonprez, a Trinidad-born artist who lives in Ghent, Belgium. Made over a period of two years, it shows a fabulously jangled and fractured narrative about plane-hijacking in the Seventies and is an exercise in style - the styles of hijackers, of air hostesses, of hair, of guns, of political rhetoric, and of TV ads, stings and jingles. Strange, funny, kitsch, brilliant, labour-intensive and kind of pointless. But worth seeing.

`Dokumenta 10' runs to the end of September.

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