I Did Documenta in a Day

It is not possible to see Documenta in one day, not even if Star Trek-style teleporting becomes a reality, nor if you were to recreate the entire show in your living room using the kinds of holograms that recently brought back Tupac Shakur from the afterlife. One scurries around Kassel from venue to venue. There is just too much art. During the train ride, I’d scribbled this on the top of a page in my notebook: “Do NOT over-art yourself. We’ve been here before.” (Not to Documenta, to the over-arting thing. It’s a bad place, everything kind of blurs together, and the conceptual stuff turns to soup.)

I missed two entire venues, the Orangerie and the Documenta Halle. I wish I could say that my Documenta visit didn’t devolve into slapstick. I wish I could say I didn’t spend my final hour sprinting, sweaty, from artwork to artwork through the vast Karlsaue Park, having entirely forgotten that admonition about not over-arting. I spent too much time transfixed by Brian Jungen’s dog run-cum-sculpture park. (Only seven dogs allowed at a time.) Park-goers coaxed their dogs into playing on his abstract sculptures. The dogs seemed mildly amused. A large one yanked its owner so hard she toppled over into tall grass. This wasn’t prompted by excitement over the dog-run sculptures, but rather over another dog. The dog theme continued with the sleek white canine-in-residence at artist Pierre Huyghe’s plot of parkland, which he’d installed with organic sculpture: a sort of cistern filled with various sorts of fish and crustaceans, and a figurative sculpture whose head had been replaced with a beehive. Counting down the minutes to my train back to Basel was a monumental clock by Anri Sala with an anamorphically distorted face (think the skull in Holbein’s Ambassadors). It’s fully functional; when you stand underneath it, you can hear it tick. People posed around it, taking photographs of one another.

But let’s flash back to a more civilized moment, earlier in the afternoon. Sometimes at these sprawling international art festivals you end up seeing something great only because you happened to run into someone who told you not to miss it. That is how I wound up at what turned out, for me, to be the most memorable experience of the day, besides those princesses. Llyn Foulkes, an American artist in his late 70s, played a strange, one-man-band instrument of his own construction that superficially resembled a drum kit, insofar as Mr. Foulkes was seated behind it and it did indeed involve drums, but it also involved other things like rusty, antiquated bicycle horns and a xylophone. On it, he played a kind of jaunty, old-timey American music and sang a song he’d written. “Everyone loves Hollywood,” he began. Mr. Foulkes lives in Los Angeles. “Because everyone lives in a dream.” As the song carried on, the subject became Mickey Mouse. “Once upon a time there was a mouse. He lived in every house. People did not set traps for him. His job was to keep everyone clean. Run people through his washing machine. … With his patriotic vibe … People think he’s just a cartoon. … He’s that rat that lives in your house. … Please save the children. … We taught them to live in a fairy tale.” There are many themes in Documenta. One of them is, broadly speaking, skepticism: the dream that is sold to you is not necessarily the one that will make you happy. I grew up outside Milwaukee, and now I’ve gone from New York to Basel to Kassel to see an exhibition of contemporary art, where I ran into some nice folks from Chicago and gazed at ancient figurines. I’m glad I did.

sdouglas@observer.com