Bruce Nauman’s Square Depression (2007) is located in the grounds of the University of Muenster Centre for Natural Sciences, a Modernist development on the outskirts of the city. An inverted pyramid of white concrete and glass embedded into the ground to a depth of 2.3 metres, it is an immaculate visualization of abstract, negative space (not to mention complex engineering and drainage issues), one that sets in motion physiological and intellectual contortions relating to the staging of the body and art. From above it looks like the template for Rosalind Krauss’ diagram of sculpture in the expanded field: ‘(not-) landscape / sculpture / (not-) architecture’.
Square Depression was proposed by Nauman for the first edition of Sculpture Projects Münster in 1977, yet was finally realized only this year. His work appears so authoritative today – ironic considering that 30 years ago the state building authority expressed misgivings about its radical construction. Engineering technicalities cleared up and its status as art assured in 2007, it is classic public sculpture, parachuted in from the 20th century. Framed by ‘science’ and campus architecture seemingly unchanged since the 1960s, Square Depression has a curious doubling effect, as you experience the sculpture not only through its own history but also through a contemporary set of concerns, as a self-consciously performative, conceptual spectacle – art work as event.
Nauman’s sculpture provides a narrative thread to Sculpture Projects and embodies many of the exhibition’s most pertinent ideas regarding the status of sculpture, site-specificity, art and the public, civic authority, time and history. Sculpture Projects does not present a heavy-handed curatorial thesis, and the artists appear to be given space to develop their ideas. Most of the 33 artists in the exhibition, ranging from the well established to relative newcomers, are familiar on the Anglo-Euro-American exhibition circuit, which is both a strength and a potential weakness in terms of stretching curatorial models and geographical representation. The show is a little old-fashioned, but, crucially, in comparison to the other big exhibitions this summer it has pace – a fluid rhythm to the way you encounter the works, played out through contrast in scale, medium and location.
The centre of Muenster was destroyed during World War II and subsequently reconstructed as a faintly kitsch but not un-charming model of its prewar self. It now has a buoyant heart built round the regenerated old town and pedestrianized shopping centre. Apart from the refreshingly feral train station, it is clean, leafy and affluent. The location and framing of works – whether they are by a shopping market, underpass, theatre, field or science park, in the centre or in the suburbs – becomes all-important. In searching for the new commissions you encounter those from previous instalments of the show; historical echoes providing further counterpoint. Across the road from Square Depression, for example, hidden behind some shrubbery, is Matt Mullican’s Sculpture for the Chemical Institute. Commissioned for the 1987 exhibition, it consists of black granite floor-plates covered with sandblasted symbols. Today the plates are cracked and crumbling. It’s shockingly sad, like suddenly encountering a dead animal on the road.
In a field further up the road Maria Pask’s Beautiful City (2007) is in session. Taking her cue from the 1971 musical Godspell, Pask has programmed a series of talks by ‘religious/spiritual figures/teachers’ about notions of difference and dialogue, faith and religious belief. The talks take place weekly in a large white tent, and the site has a quaint village-fête-cum-festival-style atmosphere. Visitors are encouraged to stay there and engage in discussion. Although, in contrast to more traditional forms of sculpture, it is textbook relational aesthetics, I appreciate what the project represents: registering dialogue and collaboration. Perhaps the disconcertingly cultish overtones are unintentional, but this touches on the passive–aggressive tendency at the heart of a lot of persuasive spiritual rhetoric – and much ‘collaborative’ artistic enterprise.
Deimantas Narkevicius couldn’t execute his original proposal. The huge bronze Karl Marx monument he wanted to transfer from Chemnitz, in the former East Germany, to Muenster for the duration of the exhibition still sits in Chemnitz. Instead Narkevicius presented The Head (2007), a film of found footage documenting the construction of the monument, created in 1971 by Lew Kerbel in high Socialist Realist style. Another proposal to construct a replica of the monument was rejected by the mayor of Chemnitz’ office on the grounds that the monument is only ‘authentic’ in the specific location for which it was commissioned. Strangely, the failure of Narkevicius’ project creates another layer of ideas about civic pride, political wrangling and attachment to history.
Both Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Martha Rosler’s contributions deal specifically with the city and memory. Gonzalez-Foerster collapses the entire history of ‘Sculpture Projects’ into her ‘novel’ of Muenster: a selection of sculptures from past ‘Sculpture Projects’ exhibitions reproduced at 25 per cent of their original size. Set in an open green space, Roman de Münster (A Munster Novel, 2007) can be viewed from a distance as a wonderfully light tableau that plays havoc with your sense of perspective. Up close it’s brutal. Great art is reduced to Dinky toys. Rosler confronts the city’s postwar reconstruction and erasure of its uncomfortable past in a series of architectural interventions. For instance, replicas of cages once used to display the corpses of medieval Anabaptists are suspended from the façade of the municipal library. Rosler proposes a memory game as an alternative way to read the city. Gonzalez-Foerster does what Rosler’s piece resists in real terms – theme-parking history as a single narrative – but Gonzalez-Foerster’s is simple and playful, telling history from a cockeyed angle.
Elmgreen & Dragset’s play Drama Queens (2007), with a text by Tim Etchells, features seven remote-controlled ‘superstar sculptures’. These figures include a blousily English Barbara Hepworth Elegy III, an irritating, wisecracking American Jeff Koons Rabbit and a lost, ethereal Alberto Giacometti Walking Man. The sculptures glide and jostle across the stage of Muenster’s Municipal Theatre, trading insults and gossipy exchange about their status in art history, storage conditions in museums and the audience gawping at them. Art history is hijacked as a gossipy in-joke, but with just enough intelligence and perceptive humour (humour and Pop notably absent from Venice and documenta) to balance silliness and puncture pomposity. Essentially Drama Queens is a play about performance, competition and the status of objects; it is reductive and, frankly, not very nice, but, in the context of ‘Sculpture Projects’ self-reflexive narratives, the piece worked.
Clemens von Wedemeyer’s film Von Gegenüber (From the Opposite Side, 2007) depicts the area around Muenster railway station – a run-down plaza in contrast to the Disneyland-esque city centre. Using a hidden camera, the film tracks actors (themselves Muenster citizens) and passers-by in a documentary–fiction hybrid. The transitional space of the train station and those who use and inhabit it is mirrored in the odd pace of the film, which conveys the awkward performance of public life through both raw intimacy and cool dispassion. The crux of von Wedemeyer’s project turns on its screening in a disused cinema, adjacent to the same station. Exiting the cinema creates a sense of displacement – a doppelgänger effect emphasizing the peculiar atmosphere of the station itself and shifting the viewer’s sense of reality. Von Wedemeyer’s doesn’t invite you to participate: you do so anyway.
Jeremy Deller similarly employs the citizens of Muenster for his work Speak to the Earth and It Will Tell You (2007–ongoing). Deller has invited 54 allotment associations to record their daily life in and around the gardens over the forthcoming ten years, and to present the diaries of their community at ‘Sculpture Projects’ 2017. Visiting the allotments on the outskirts of the city, there is little for an art audience to ‘see’, apart from, of course, beautiful and meticulously ordered gardens. Rather, this is a work in progress, a portrait of the city created by the citizens themselves.
Walking back along Pawel Althamer’s path S´ciez˙ka (Path) (2007) from the middle of a field to the main road into town, I bumped into other visitors walking in the opposite direction. ‘Is there anything at the end?’ they asked. With so much art competing for attention it was a pleasure to be able to respond, ‘No, it’s right here, just walk along this path.’ Althamer’s path starts near Lake Aasee, crosses Münster’s city limits and cuts an irregular route through wheat fields until it peters out, leaving you to decide in which way to go. If Nauman sites a theatrical experience of art firmly within the centre of the object, looking out, Althamer makes the art almost ungraspable, encouraging you to look at the world just a little differently and to take off in another direction entirely.
In the introduction to the catalogue the curators ask how one is to respond when ‘faced with the inability of a society virtually fenced in by its own consumerism to actually negotiate the public sphere and the position of the art within it in a way that permits productive conflict?’ As European city centres become increasingly over-determined, and biennial exhibition models increasingly functionalized, perhaps the challenge and success of Sculpture Projects is its ability still to discuss such questions and to assert artistic autonomy in these kinds of cities. It is the artists who are most attuned to these questions that create important work and articulate the contradictions of the public realm. They do so by foregrounding the potential of imagination in sharp relief to its context.