in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 07
Featured in
Issue 104

Sculpture Projects Muenster 2007

This summer, the German city of Muenster will host the Sculpture Projects for the fourth time. Ten years on from the exhibition’s last incarnation, has the role of public art changed?

in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 07

Since its debut in 1977, the Sculpture Projects has been held in the average-sized university town of Muenster in northwest Germany every ten years, and on June 17 this year it will be inaugurated in its fourth instalment. On sites across the city its founder, Kasper König, and co-curators Brigitte Franzen and Carina Plath will present works by 35 international contributors, including artists as diverse in generation and practice as Michael Asher, David Hammons, Isa Genzken, Deimantas Narkevicius, Pawel Althamer, Susan Philipsz and Pae White. From the outset, the exhibition’s agenda has been to debate the parameters of contemporary public sculpture. What makes the Sculpture Projects exciting is that it seeks to prove the continued relevance of a genre that, by and large, we have come to associate with awkward art in pointless places commissioned by city council apparatchiks. Moreover, it has been argued that in times when corporate forces have turned inner cities into shopping zones, art in such areas only serves as a surface dressing that covers up the effective disappearance of public space. Call it wishful thinking, but against such wholesale dismissals I would still maintain that well-considered art interventions can, in fact, cut through the blandness of gentrified urban environments and rescue a communal space for reflection and commemoration from the atmosphere of oblivion that dominates such surroundings. In this light, the potential for testing the relevance of public sculpture today could be seen to lie in a re-investigation of its oldest functions – the monument and memorial with all their attendant, highly ambivalent connotations.

Rosalind Krauss once pointedly wrote: ‘The logic of sculpture, it would seem, is inseparable from the logic of the monument. By virtue of this logic a sculpture is a commemorative representation. It sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolical tongue about the meaning or use of that place.’1 The question, then, is whether we still know how to, or would even want to, evoke the drama of commemorative representation today and, if so, in what way? Undeniably, this drama is in full swing in societies that have recently undergone system change. Two days ago, I was sitting with a friend, Raluca Voinea, on the steps to the back entrance of the former Palace of the People in Bucharest, a grotesquely huge neo-classical building (the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon; to build it, Ceauçescu had an entire neighbourhood flattened). My friend and I were gazing at the vast empty grounds behind the palace, which the Romanian Orthodox Church now claims would make the ideal site for a new cathedral. While pondering the prospect of cancelling out the atrocity of one monumental edifice by the monstrosity of another, we were reprimanded for loitering by a paunchy guard in a parka carrying a two-litre bottle of coke and chased off the premises. Back in the city, we passed the memorial to the 1989 revolution: a tall, slender obelisk piercing an egg-like form. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but then the people decided it looked absurd. So, it’s soon to be dismantled. Maybe this is symptomatic: if contemporary public sculpture inherits the legacy of the monument or memorial, it does so in the tragicomic form inherent to the imposing power yet obvious fallibility of structures designed to be forevermore remembered by all.

But could similar conditions ever be seen to apply to a city as tranquil or innocuous as Muenster? I would say so. Some contributions to the Sculpture Projects have remained memorable precisely because they succeeded in charging their sites with a sense of historical drama, be that in terms of tragedy, comedy or both. In 1977, for instance, Joseph Beuys took huge tallow casts of the cavity between a pedestrian ramp and an underpass, thus immortalising this particularly drab piece of functionalist postwar architecture in several oddly shaped blocks of fat called Unschlitt/Tallow. In the same year, Claes Oldenburg had three big concrete billiard balls installed in the park beside Lake Aasee (Muenster – The 4th Ball Becomes the 4th and 5th) – absurdly out-of-place objects that still dot the picturesque landscape today. In turn, Michael Asher has recreated the same work, Installation Muenster (Caravan), at each of the three previous Sculpture Projects, in which a caravan is parked in a different spot around the city on each day of the exhibition. You can imagine how, compared to the residential architecture of its surroundings, this mobile home looked not just slightly out of place, but also increasingly out of time in ’87 and ’97. All three of these projects dramatize their site by creating an experience of difference; they disturb the homogeneity of the setting: Asher and Oldenburg by inserting incongruous elements into it, Beuys by giving a body to negative form. The sculptures have thereby become anti-monuments for a postwar city that was hastily rebuilt to accomodate the needs and tastes of a newly affluent population, after over 90 percent of its centre and 60 percent of the town as a whole had been bombed into oblivion.

At the last Sculpture Projects in 1997, a work that stood out by virtue of its similar facility to cut right through the present and open up a different perspective to the past, was The Dead Teach the Living by Christine Borland. During visits to the Anatomical Institute at Muenster University’s faculty of medicine, the artist had discovered plaster casts of heads from people of different ethnic origin. The specimens were no longer listed in the catalogue of the Institute’s collection but, given its infamous history as a centre for eugenics and so-called ‘racial hygiene’ during the Nazi regime, it was a fair guess that they must have been part of some physiognomic evaluation scheme. Borland placed copies of seven of these heads on simple concrete plinths in a secluded park in the grounds where the Institute used to be. By presenting all the heads as though they were memorial busts, she individualized these anonymous specimens, made them equal, and thus overruled their former status as racist stereotypes. Less dramatic, but still forcefully anti-monumental in its gesture, was Maria Eichhorn’s contribution, Acquisition of a Plot Tibusstraße, Corner of Breul of the same year. With her budget, the artist bought an undeveloped plot in a residential area. It was a patch of ground overgrown with unkept shrubbery, a piece of real estate with a particular market value, but also a blank spot forgotten in the reconstruction of the city: Eichhorn turned it into a commemoration of a lapse of urban memory. Both works, I would argue, derived their power as anti-monuments from their ability to disturb and to question the way in which the city would otherwise represent itself to itself.

Against my argument you could hold that, by foregrounding the undiminished relevance of historical drama for the discourse of public sculpture, I tacitly pass off a studied notion of historic gravitas as a hallmark of artistic quality. That may be so. Still, in 1997 I could not help feeling put off by the inconsequential coquettishness of works like Raising of Street Lamp for Placing of Tire by Andreas Slominski who had a streetlamp lifted up by construction workers to place a bicycle tyre round it from below or Out of the Blue by Maurizio Cattelan, who sank a human figure in Lake Aasee with its feet cast in a block of cement. I would maintain that, when nothing is at stake but wit, all that remains is a rather dumb attempt at trying to be smart. If you really want to resuscitate a genre as strangled by bureaucratic awkwardness as public sculpture, you have to take a few more risks. Take Franz West for instance, who effectively brought sculpture up to date by mocking the hell out of it. For his 1997 contribution, Etude de couleur, he had a multicoloured pissoir installed on one side of a park lake, at the perfect vantage point from which to view a pink, blob-like sculpture in a clearing on the other side. Admittedly a bit more of a male joke, the work still succeeds in crudely ridiculing contemplative distance while graciously redeeming it by presenting a perfect vista at the same time.

Likewise, I believe, beauty can do with some drama when publicly staged. This is why I adored Isa Genzken’s contribution to the 1997 Sculpture Projects: Vollmond (Full Moon). She had a frosted glass sphere, two and a half metres in diameter, installed on a 14-metre-high steel pole in the park grounds beside the Aasee, and illuminated day and night. Genzken took Oldenburg’s billiard ball, lit it up and made it levitate. The drama of the work lay in its audacious attempt to rival the moon for its beauty. Beauty is one of those cruel gifts that can neither be refused nor returned. Reciprocating the gift of the moon by offering it its own beauty back is a gesture of enormous exuberance, and it was performed by Genzken with the strict simplicity of the most minimal means. I have vague but very fond memories of resting on the grass beside the work with friends, gazing up at the sky with its double moon and, for once, feeling very happy in the presence of a public sculpture. So it is possible. Let’s see what happens in the coming year.

Jan Verwoert is a contributing editor of frieze and teaches at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. He is the author of Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous (Afterall Books/MIT Press, 2006).

1 Rosalind E. Krauss: ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, MIT Press: Cambridge Massachusetts & London, 1985, p.279.