KASSEL, Germany — Next to a defunct brewery in a scruffy neighborhood of this mid-size city, two young, architecturally minded American artists who go by the name Simparch have constructed a bit of hip-hop nirvana inside a ramshackle warehouse.
From above, the duo's sensuous, scooped-out skateboarding arena, built from plywood and lumber, resembles a kidney-shaped swimming pool in a suburban backyard. It attracts daring local kids on wheels, pumped up by music blasting from big speakers at the end of the room. The skaters glide and swoop and sometimes crash, maneuvering their boards with varying degrees of finesse.
From below, where skaters (and gawkers) enter to climb the spiral stairs leading up to the suave arena, things look different. The swollen, bolted-and-ribbed form of the bowl resembles the hull of a handmade boat--a contemporary Noah's ark, perhaps, promising refuge from an imminent deluge. Suburban escape performs an artful collision with urban grit. The work is thrilling.
Simparch is short for Simple Architecture--a witty turn on SCI-Arc, an acronym for the Southern California Institute of Architecture--and its New Mexican duo of Steve Badgett and Matthew Lynch titled the irresistible work "Free Basin." Even without the puns, it provides one of the few instances of blissful enchantment in the huge but mostly joyless exhibition Documenta 11, whose several hundred works fill four big buildings and several outdoor sites.
The show has a savvy if familiar political agenda: Relocate art from dominant Euro-American views of the world and toward an authentically global perspective. Its 116 participants hail from 45 countries. The only continent not represented is penguin-filled Antarctica.
The show's migratory effect is perhaps most succinctly captured in the fantastic, visionary architectural model of a Pop-psychedelic Manhattan made by Bodys Isek Kingelez, an artist from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Using brightly painted wood, colored paper and gleaming plastic, Kingelez invents a post-Sept. 11 urban landscape and sets it 1,000 years into the future. (The World Trade Center is replaced with not two but three soaring towers.) Kingelez turns long-established tables. This is the United States conceived as an exotic projection of African imagination--Brightest America.
It isn't the presence of a political agenda, though, that is the problem with this installment of Documenta, which has been mounted every four or five years since 1955 and, since a landmark presentation in 1972, has earned a reputation as the most significant international survey of contemporary art in the world. It's the near absence of diversity that grates. Through sheer numbers, Documenta insists that one kind of art--political art--is most significant today.
Documenta was born of politics. Conceived by local professors Arnold Bode and Werner Haftmann for Kassel's Museum Fridericianum--still the central site of the sprawling exhibition--Documenta is the now-grown child of war.
Nearly 50 years ago, hosting a big international survey of the avant-garde was a means to definitively repudiate Germany's Nazi denunciation of Modern art as "degenerate." Documenta 1 showed the history of European painting and sculpture since 1900. The gesture carried unusual weight because only two other such international surveys then existed in the world.
Italy's Venice Biennale, founded in 1895, had been modeled on the format of a world's fair, with national pavilions displaying their countries' art (rather than their industrial products) in a frankly competitive way. The show's strong nationalist emphasis was useful to Italy, which had struggled for centuries with unification of its fragmented regions.
The following year, American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie established an international art exhibition in Pittsburgh. Carnegie was a social Darwinist. A principal motive of the show was the education of the common citizen, lifting him "higher and higher in the scale of being," as the benefactor put it. For an expansive nation then on the brink of what would come to be called "the American Century," the politics fueling that presentation were blunt.
When Bode and Haftmann launched Documenta, the epochal Second World War had been over for just a decade, and an aggressive Cold War had replaced it. While the U.S. Congress was busy adding the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, in order to distinguish the republic from the godless Soviets, so the German professors were organizing an art exhibition that would do the same with free expression. Kassel's geographic position smack in the center of the country meant that in 1955, Documenta's audacious celebration of artistic freedom was taking place just a few miles down the road from the closed border with East Germany. They could practically hear the lively party going on over the fence.