Reviews called it “pandemonium,” “the most curious and perhaps the most difficult of Kassel’s postwar spectaculars,” and the “biggest, costliest version yet of the behemoth of contemporary art exhibitions.” With 195 artists and more than 1,000 works, documenta IX was gargantuan in scale. Taking place in the post-Berlin Wall reality of 1992, Jan Hoet, the show’s artistic director, described having the sense that “almost everything is available.” This access to “almost everything” Hoet saw as a consequence of the development of information technology and the effects of globalization, which extended his purview to production beyond the Euro-American-centric axes of the art world, and facilitated the exposure of diverse forms of artistic practice. But documenta IX’s “almost everything” also included generous funding; at the time, it was the most expensive documenta to ever have been realized in Kassel. With so much at hand, the show was expansive, heavy on spectacle, and proved alluring enough to inspire vast crowds. Visitor numbers far exceeded expectations. For the first time since documenta’s inception in 1955, more than half a million people—615,640 to be precise—visited the exhibition.
Most conspicuously, the show revealed a predilection for site-specific installations, and the use of industrial materials, avowing Hoet’s belief in art as an “instrument that can make us conscious of our individuality—of our identity in a technological era in which people are of little importance.” These works exemplified what Hoet calls ‘manoeuvre’: the capacity to navigate around problems, “in order to go further […] to break loose.” Rather than articulate a clear concept or methodology for documenta IX, Hoet wrote:
My exhibition is an offer and a challenge; it is an invitation and an argument that can be experienced through the individual encounter with art. […] The ninth documenta is a documenta of places; its topography is the framework that supports it all. But it is also a documenta of artists; for they alone create the spaces within the framework.
For this “documenta of places,” Hoet succeeded in adding a large number of exhibition spaces that had not previously been occupied by documenta, extending the exhibition into seven buildings and many locations throughout the city. The Fridericianum, the main site of documenta from the beginning, was filled from floor to ceiling, as was the Orangerie. A considerable new site, documenta Halle, which has since become the show’s main annex, was constructed expressly for documenta IX. But this was still not sufficient. Beyond the exhibition grounds, venues stretched throughout the city: into the Kulturfabrik Salzmann; the Kulturhaus Dock 4; the Neue Galerie; up the staircase of the AOK health insurance company; through the Ottoneum (and its natural history collection); behind commercial shop windows; and into parking lots above and below ground. Still, there was enough overflow to justify the construction of five temporary structures designed by the Belgian architects Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem in the outer reaches of Karlsaue Park.
In the tower of the Fridericianum was a small manifesto-cum-exhibition also curated by Hoet. Entitled Collective Memory, it included Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 masterpiece, The Death of Marat, lent by the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, along with one work each from James Ensor, René Daniëls, Paul Gauguin, Alberto Giacometti, Joseph Beuys, Barnett Newman, and James Lee Byars. These canonical works are another example that shows how “almost everything” was available for Hoet, including the auratic remnants of key artists from documentas past. In documenta IX, an exhibition based on pluralism, critic Christopher Knight called it the “Tower of Babel.”
A public program enacted over the course of a hundred days—which included jazz, boxing, and baseball, an open-air video festival, and even techno raves—accompanied this accumulation of art. It was an extension to fuse art and life (or perhaps to ‘artify’ almost everything), and an effective promotional strategy. With its many locations and accessible program, documenta moved the city of Kassel into the event, bringing art to the people, or immersing the people into the exhibition. T-shirts, baseball caps, watches, earrings, umbrellas—almost everything was sold with a documenta logo. Even cigarette boxes read, “Art has no ready answers, only questions” leading critic Kim Levin to argue that “instead of Beuys’s 7000 trees, Hoet’s documenta has a ‘limited edition’ of 900,000 packs of cigarettes—which, in keeping with the rest of the manic hyperbole, may just be the biggest, most cancer-causing multiple in history.” Smokers, too, were made aware of Hoet’s thoughts on art engagement: art will not provide answers for passive absorption; one must be open to the encounter.
It would have been nearly impossible to see everything that comprised documenta IX. In attempting, the visitor would certainly be lost, physically or in the act of trying. Amid the pageantry around the exhibition, and its occupation of massive swaths of the city, the exhibition became a ‘must-see’ event. But were the many artworks included subservient to the spectacle of documenta IX? Or were these artworks able to find a way out of the labyrinth of the mega-exhibition? To posit a response to this question, a few of the works included will be described in the following, with particular attention to how they would have been encountered while winding through the show.
For Hoet, making the visitor aware of his or her subjectivity was fundamental to prompting what he described as “displacement”: “Shifting things out of their accustomed contexts […] the destabilization of one's own standpoint.” Under this logic, objects were showcased in alien and unsettling contexts in order to create disruption. The visitor would thus be prompted to think not only about the objects, but to think through them, about the surrounding conditions, and the act of encounter. Given its timing in 1992, the character of the art displayed in these locations was attuned to the aesthetic, historical, or contextual specificities of the sites. The works in the Neue Galerie, for example, were installed in relation to, or as a commentary on, the existing collection. One would find Zoe Leonard’s work installed there amid the collection: a series of black-and-white photographs of female genitals alongside moralistic 18th-century German paintings. Through this juxtaposition Leonard addresses the familiar critique of painting in terms of the ‘male gaze,’ inserting sex, and the reproductive power of women, into a traditional, restrained, bourgeois narrative.
Meanwhile Cady Noland, in the darkness of an underground parking lot, made an exhibition of her own. Nolan interspersed framed selections of an essay she had written on “the tactics of psychopathic manipulators” on the walls with photos of lethal accidents; in the center of the room were two smashed American vehicles found by the artist in a German junkyard. Beyond her installation she presented works by fellow artists who were not invited to documenta: among them Joan Wallace, Peter Nagy, Steven Parrino, and Jessica Diamond, whose works also dealt with damage and destruction. Noland’s effort to invite fellow artists, and to arrange an exhibition underground, in the subterranean bowels of documenta, shows an urgency to exert control over the conditions of display.
Works like these, which could be framed under the umbrella term ‘installation art,’ are precisely the form that most exemplifies the “almost everything” approach of documenta IX as noted by the art critic David Batchelor. Installation art encompasses the visitor in a context shaped by the artist, in recognition of the effect “of the container on the contained.” It is only logical that artists would seek to exert control over the container in this case, particularly when that container was one of the most promoted exhibition events of the decade. Installation art is particularly apt in this context. It serves to wall off, or occupy a space against the totalizing nature of the mega-show, to build a clearing in the forest, an opening in the labyrinth. In his “Politics of Installation,” Boris Groys argues that this conflict lies at the heart of installation art: the installation is a battleground over sovereignty. It envelops the visitor, directs behavior—just as a labyrinth would. Yet in the context of documenta IX, even installations risk the potential of becoming yet another attraction, another ride in the theme park.
This was particularly a threat for works in the Fridericianum. It was full, floor to ceiling, with installations. Suddenly in the center one encountered a bar, with tables and chairs, an artificial palm tree, and soft piano music. A respite where you could sit down, read, and watch. But this was, of course, another installation, and the room included five screens that played footage of people telling stories about the past while also sitting in a bar. Old coats hung in a cloakroom with dusty suitcases that could be glimpsed through a hole in a retainer wall. Transit Bar, by Vera Frenkel, it would become apparent, was about people who had to leave their countries of origin never to return. Into another space, one would meet Peter Kogler's computer-generated Ants (1992) running over the walls of a constructed gallery, manic wallpaper. Inside, Bruce Nauman’s Anthro/Socio (1991), on several monitors featured the spinning head of a bald man, upside down, shouting “Help Me! Eat Me!” Perhaps the call is a plea: to rescue the work from its entrapment in the crowded labyrinth, or to put it out of its misery and simply feed it to the Minotaur. Amid the installation art, there were also paintings and sculptures in the Fridericianum, arranged in such a way as to serve not as attractions, but as periodic stops amid the installations.
Hoet proclaimed that his curatorial vision for documenta IX was determined solely by “art, artists and their works.” He asserted that no concept was used to “fram[e] the point of departure and set the course of further reflection.” The justification for this ‘formlessness’ was that it would be impossible to wrap a theme around such an increasingly disparate field of artistic production, and that any limitation in focus, or drawing of boundaries, would misrepresent the state of art in 1992. Yet this ‘no concept’ concept was a concrete force behind many decisions. Not everything can fit into one exhibition, not even “almost everything,” no matter how massive or meandering. Selection is required. The contradiction, then, is that the haphazard arrangement of the exhibition, and the disorientation that would be felt by the visitor, was largely an effect of purposeful curatorial choices. The winding, ceaseless cacophony of works, crawling up the walls and to the ceiling, covering the floor, down the hallway, around the garden, behind the windows; to get truly lost in the labyrinth of documenta IX was a factor of the massive number of works included, as much as what Batchelor identified as “deliberately contrived conjunctions of disparate works.”
That is not, however, to assert that artists did not capture visitors in their own particular spaces of exhibition, despite their position in a mega-event. For the installation Die Toilette (1992), Ilya Kabakov constructed an exact replica of provincial Soviet outhouse—as might be found in bus and train stations, connected to a two-room apartment. The installation was in the courtyard behind the Fridericianum where the live-in toilet invited visitors into a reality completely distinct from the structure in whose shadow it stood. Installation, in this case, is a political form, bent on shaping the conditions of the visitor’s experience, of shifting the rhythm of daily life, to create a space for slippage to occur that might incite new perspectives.
Encased, not by a self-erected structure but by the documenta Halle, Cildo Meireles’ work had similarly political lines. Like the ‘supra-sensorial’ installations of fellow Brazilian artist, Helio Oiticica, Meireles’ installations in Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s encouraged tactile experiences that might rouse the visitor from the repressive conditioning of the country’s fascist dictatorship. While not created until 1992, Meireles’ work for documenta IX, Fontes, works in the same tradition, immersing the visitor in accumulated measurements of time, all in vivid orange. He underlines the relation of space and time, the subjective experience of it, and its futile nature—insights all the more pertinent in a labyrinth. Some artists ventured further to find a quiet space at the edge of the labyrinth. Franz West’s installation of seventy-two kilim-upholstered divans, called Auditorium, created a respite in a parking lot above ground, which completely contrasted with its utilitarian setting. Tadashi Kawamata sought a calmer site to build a labyrinth of his own: a shantytown along the waterside beyond the temporary structures in the Karlsaue Park called People’s Garden (1992).
These works suggest that a labyrinth need not only be a trap; to lose oneself can also be a liberating act. The intentions behind the creation of a labyrinth as an exhibition is to activate the visitor, to put her in a position to participate in the production of meaning, to break free through an experience of subjectivity. This desire to activate the visitor is particularly in line with the ambitions of installation artists in the 1990s, in opposition “to the passivity of mass-media consumption—and to induce a critical vigilance towards the environments in which we find ourselves.” But the installations in documenta IX also engulf or shield visitors from the larger labyrinth of the mega-exhibition that surrounds them. Unlike an exhibition in which the artists work together to create a dynamic whole, overarching labyrinth—as was the case with Dylaby (Dynamisch Labyrint) (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1962) or Hon – en katedral (Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1966)—wandering through the installations of documenta IX would be like jumping from one planet to another.
As such, documenta IX shows deference to “the romantic spirit of the individual producer,” a holdover from the 1980s, acutely visible in Rudi Fuchs’ documenta a decade prior. Hoet’s curatorial persona, as a flamboyant, would-be boxer in the service of art, evokes a romantic image of an impassioned servant who cannot quell his calling to serve as art’s warden. His overwhelming presence as the face of documenta IX is undeniable, despite his fully qualified curatorial team that included the Italian art critic Pier Luigi Tazzi (b. Florence, 1941), the art critic, theorist, and renowned polyglot Denys Zacharopoulos (b. Athens, 1952), and Hoet’s colleague from the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, art historian Bart de Baere (b. Ghent, 1960). One need only glance at the cover of the book, On the Way to Documenta IX—a promotional account of Hoet’s vision for the exhibition, and of the path that paved the way—to get a sense of the iconic status of the curator. Spanning the full cover is a black-and-white photograph of Hoet in a button-up shirt, leaning forward nonchalantly over two wooden planks. Whether the planks are material support, or a work itself is unclear. Inside are copious photographs—several of them by prominent art world photographer Benjamin Katz—of documenta’s soon-to-be director: leading museum tours, chatting with Joseph Beuys, sorting slides, putting out a cigarette.
It goes without saying that there are power plays at work in the realization of exhibitions. In an exhibition with such a high-profile persona, the subject of the work of several artists was Hoet himself. Amid the paintings of the Neue Galerie, a towering structure displayed Jan Hoet’s personal collection of knick-knacks, brought over from Ghent, and arranged by Haim Steinbach. Two painted portraits of the curator by Marlene Dumas were included. Most notably, in considering the labyrinthine quality of documenta IX, was Guillaume Bijl’s wax museum of documenta history, which featured a wax figure of the curator (for which he posed personally) alongside figures of Arnold Bode and his wife, and Joseph Beuys: exceptional figures in the canonical past of documenta. Looking inward, to consider the elevated significance of the present documenta, and its curator, counterintuitively acknowledges the world outside the labyrinth, asserting that the exhibition and its promotion are self-inflated, and self-affirming.
In this line of argumentation, critic Peter Schjeldahl’s warning against the blaring effects of tourist economics on such an exhibition is on point. The most expensive documenta yet, the spectacular nature of the event was the main attraction. But was it the case, as Schjeldahl argues, that Jonathan Borofksy’s work Man Walking to the Sky (1991-1992), which proposes “transcendence” through the exhibition “experience,” was a false promise? Can the visitor, activated through encounters, escape the labyrinth for the vast open space of skyward transcendence? If the transcendence is symbolic of escape from the labyrinth, then the audience of documenta is the Minotaur, trapped in a labyrinth for its own acculturation, awaiting refinement to be awakened. Getting lost in the labyrinth is therefore a contradiction—entrapment to enable escape.
Borofsky has provided insight across multiple editions of documenta. His work chosen for inclusion in the aforementioned 1982 documenta was Hammering Man. Several faceless silhouettes, generic workers, hammered away in a gallery of neo-expressionist paintings, alluding to the work required to protect what Rudi Fuchs extolled as the fragile spirit of art. Fuchs’ vision, which favors the beaux arts of painting and sculpture, concerns itself with the lyrical quality of art and purports that art should be safeguarded in its museum temple, shielded from the effects of the media and politics, to be contemplated through its materiality. But Hoet’s documenta is different, and so is the Borofsky chosen to represent it. It features an emblem for potential transcendence through the art encounter outside the confines of the museum: an individual man, with his own unique features, heads unimpeded for the sky.
For Hoet, the encounter with the greatest potential is one that elicits displacement, to be removed from a worldly rhythm. This is not, however, to be done strictly within the confines of the museum temple; art should be encountered everywhere, spread outward, over almost everything. The experience sought is disorientation: getting lost, creating slippage, to allow one to see the whole world anew. If it is true, however, that “the best installation art is marked by a sense of antagonism towards its environment, a friction with its context that resists organizational pressure and instead exerts its own terms of engagement,” as Claire Bishop writes, then one installation among a documenta of installations loses much of its power. While it may be possible to temporarily contain the visitor in an installation, subsumption by installation is not a fail-safe strategy to insulate the visitor, or the work, from the mega-exhibition. Therefore, it may be concluded that while both the artworks and the visitors may have gotten lost in the labyrinth of documenta IX, transcendence was unlikely.
Angela M. Bartholomew is a researcher, writer, and lecturer. She is a doctoral candidate in art history at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where she teaches courses on the forces that shape art’s production and presentation and on the strategies artists employ to subvert systems of control. Her dissertation research, The Mediation of Critique: Strategies of Subversion in the Exhibition of Contemporary Art in the Low Countries, 1982-1997, is supported in full by an esteemed award from the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). She has also held research positions both at the University of Amsterdam and at the Stedelijk Museum. Before moving to the Netherlands, she studied and worked in San Diego, California, including for several years at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. She is co-editor of an upcoming volume on Sculpture Communism, a body of work by the Belgian artist Jan De Cock, has published in journals such as Stedelijk Studies and Metropolis M, and is an editor and frequent contributor to Kunstlicht. In her capacity as a performance artist, she also occasionally gives lecture performances that parody the instrumentalization of art by corporate and political interests.
 The budget of the exhibition is quoted as approximately US$11 million, or 16 million Deutschmarks. See: Peter Schjeldahl, “The Documenta of the Dog,” Art in America 80, No. 9, September 1992, p. 90; Nande Janssen, “Ohne Titel Een onderzoek naar de visie en receptie van documenta 7, 8 en IX,” Doctoral Thesis, Universiteit Utrecht, August 2000.
 According to the documenta Foundation and the Museum Fridericianum GmbH. See: “documenta IX: 13 June - 20 September 1992.” Accessed 27.01.2017. http://documenta.de/en/retrospective/documenta_ix#.
 Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen, “Jan Hoet. The Belgium museum director explains why his Documenta will ‘unfold itself like a dream,’” Flash Art News (insert in Flash Art International Edition) 145, March/April 1989, p. 3.
 These structures later were moved to the Netherlands to house the Museum De Paviljoens in Almere, until it closed its doors in 2013 as a result of budget cuts. See: Roberta Smith. 1992. “A Small Show Within an Enormous One.” The New York Times, June 22.
 Christopher Knight. 1992. “Look for the American Label: Global pluralism may be the theme of Documenta 9, the latest extravaganza at Kassel, but the show gets its bite from American artists.” Los Angeles Times, July 12.
 Kim Levin. 1992. “Jan Who? Docu What?” Village Voice 37, 28, pp. 95-96, as quoted in Janssen, “Ohne Titel Een onderzoek naar de visie en receptie van documenta 7, 8 en IX,” p. 89. This common credo of Hoet was written on the boxes in German: Kunst bietet keine klaren Antworten. Nur Fragen.
 Boris Groys, “Politics of Installation,” E-flux, January 2009. Accessed 24.02.2017. http://e-flux.com/journal/politics-of-installation.
 Claire Bishop, “But is it installation art?”, Tate Etc., Issue 3, Spring 2005. Accessed 01.02.2017. http://tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/it-installation-art. Exemplifying this aim in terms of mass media consumption is Dara Birnbaum’s installation of micro-sized monitors entitled Transmission Tower: Sentinel (1992). The viewer of documenta IX was invited to piece together the events of the student protest of Tiananmen Square through scenes of news broadcasts. Birnbaum writes of the work: “Within this installation, the distribution of these images on micro-sized monitors prevents an immediate, singular reading of the events in Tiananmen Square. Rather than positioning the viewer as another point of reception, she or he is encouraged to become an active participant in the reconstruction of meaning by choosing a plan of interaction with the images on each monitor.” Documenta IX, vol. 2, Edition Cantz, Stuttgart, 1992, p. 52. Exhibition catalogue.
 Rudi Fuchs, “Introduction”, Documenta 7, vol. 1, D + V Paul Dierichs GmbH & Co., Kassel, 1982, p. XV. Exhibition catalogue. Titled simply, A Story, Rudi Fuchs’ stated aim as artistic director of documenta 7 was to “reaffirm the autonomy of art against the incursion of the world around art,” which he described in his letter to the participating artists of documenta as “the customs and architecture, politics and cooking,” which are “hard and brutal.”