in Frieze | 05 SEP 93
Featured in
Issue 12

Into The Trees

Sonsbeek 93

in Frieze | 05 SEP 93

Entering the park by an obscure bridge was my first mistake; though deep ponds, waterfalls, even the edge of a deer park could be glimpsed, trees were so leafy, the path so winding that my simple map proved useless. Lost, in a valley of high trees with branches forming a giant arbour overhead, their trunks like pillars in a vast cathedral. Some way off, l spotted a tree bearing a white plaque. As l stood reading it, a voice rang out through the entire forest area. 'Temples and wild lands will be mine when l name them with my tongue according to the proper ritual words. Of whatever type that fruitful tree is which l have heard pronounced by my own voice, temple and wild lands will be mine place, observe and interpret.’ The absence of a speaker only increased the ritualistic value of the claim and the promise the claimant made. Interpretation proved unnecessary; the spell cast by the voice both conjured and precluded ownership. And to either place or observe was impossible; whose property is nature but the gods 'them-selves? Mario Airo's in cantation implied that it belonged to no one, or even that ownership is fruitless. On my way to the villa at the top of a nearby hill, l came across another work about dominion. Tom Burr's miniaturised re-creation of the Ramble in New York's Central Park lay in close proximity to one of the cruisiest clumps of trees in Sonsbeek Park. Labels made ironic use of the Central Park guidebook, playing on the similarity between the two spots: their 'delicate flavour of wildness' (to quote its architect, Frederick Law Olmstead); heterosexuals' perverse obsession with its intricate antics; its potential dangers; its ritualistic aspect; not least, the impossibility of policing desire. A strangely self-absorbed display to be situated so close to the headquarters of a major European sculpture festival, perhaps. Yet, like every other artwork at Sonsbeek 93,it was designed to look inwards and out at the same time.

Using not only the Park but the neglected southern side of the city; the prison; an old folks' home; a cemetery; the river Rhine; a restaurant; a bridge; the marshes on the city edge, and many other sites, Sonsbeek's curator, New Yorker Valerie Smith has made an analysis of the city of Arnhem which would not disgrace a professional sociologist. Yet Sonsbeek 93 was also a study in ethics and curatorial procedure, for Smith's innovatory cata-logue contains correspondence, notes, diary entries, plans, conversations, reports of dealings with every artist included plus those who fell by the wayside, indeed the entire process by which her selection was made. That a 300 page catalogue should lack critical writing was strategic; Smith tacitly hints that decisions about quality are made as an exhibition takes shape, and that artists should be treated as craftsmen, not geniuses, an attitude they seemed to welcome. (Given the chance to hold recorded conversations with anyone at all they chose a novelist, a philosopher, a musician, a playwright; in one case even a bus conductor...) Presenting an account of her preparations also explains apparent oddities in Smith's plan. Unlucky with female artists, she was rebuffed by Cindy Sherman and herself rejected the Irish artist Dorothy Cross. Two Liz Larner projects failed to materialise. Only Annette Messager, Christine Assman, Ann Hamilton, Zuzanna Janin and lrene and Christine Hohenbüchler remained,and the Hohenbüchlers decided to display not their work but that of prisoners in Arnhem jail.

This year sees the 50th anniversary of to Battle of Arnhem, that heroic but unsuccessful attempt to begin landing troops who would eventually conquer Berlin. Standing on one side of the bridge where their plan was thwarted and reading the tribute to the British by the local citizens, visitors to Sonsbeek 93 can look down into an unusual monument by Miroslav Balka: a low, round, brick wall at street level, in which a cast of an open parachute could be seen as if looking up and not down. At its centre, in the deepest part of the pit, a powerful searchlight had been placed, projecting a perpendicular shaft of light up into the night air. The demise of monumen-tal sculpture in the 20th century is a common complaint. Balka's work denies this view completely. With a father who was a monumental mason, he was brought up in Poland, with ideas of art and death intertwined. Years later, this is still the case. Just outside the Arnhem cemetery, he constructed what resembles an open grave for two, in cast concrete, and on one edge two rectilinear seats perched side by side, while in the downstairs room of an empty house in a quiet street near the centre of town, a bulky, metal form provided a positive to match its negative. The height of the street - it overlooks railway lines far below - only increases the sense of pathos, accentuated by the thin white fabric cover of this strange double bed, and the warmth beneath, for it is kept at body heat. Back in the Arnhem cemetery, though it could be anywhere, another memorial was on show: Allen Ruppers-berg's Siste Viator (Stop Traveller), a display of reprinted editions of European bestsellers from the war years, works representing popular fiction from the four nations involved in the Battle of Arnhem: Poland, Germany, Britain and the Netherlands - five from each country, one in five printed in its entirety, the rest with blank pages, all with ex-libris labels inscribed with the name of soldiers who fought at Arnhem. While half the books were on sale in a bookshop, the remainder was displayed in a purpose-built caravan, standing, appropriately in the cemetery. The vehicle hints at the untethered status of these relics of popular culture. 'Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,' wrote Noel Coward. Cheap fiction might be the same, for, oddly, it is neither the contents nor the books as objects on which Ruppersberg focuses, but either the Zeitgeist they are meant to distil or their very failure to evoke a past. Great literature they are not. So what exactly are they? Working with banality may prove more tricky than it seems.

In a former post office, the Irish group Blue Funk had made an installation about the (supposed) tongue of St Eusebius. Enshrined in a nearby cathedral, this relic prompted research which led to an unexpected discovery: that history records not one but 70 saints of the same name. Not one tongue but a plethora of them, not a single hagiography but many... Babel, truth as plural (hence devious) and the post office, a place of exchange, as a crossroads where differing messages collide briefly in one place have obvious relevance to an artists' group and its workings. The darkened building, with the circular glass windows of telephone booths, open at an angle now, mirroring and translating the conversa-tions taking place (one imagined as a lump of mercury, eminently malleable another; as a dan-gling, inert hand); wartime films projected on the wall overhead, a reminder of the part played Irish politics by the Dublin Post Office - above all, the dismembered Eusebius, that prophet of lability himself, became cues for a complex study of faith, truth, history and the sinister connections between them. Meanwhile, in the heart of the Spijkerquartier, Arnhem's red-light district, a building that had previously been a church allowed Keith Piper the opportunity to make an elaborate slide-tape installation called Exotic Signs. In his proposal, the term 'exotic' was associated with the sexual 'other’, the male gaze and the traditional lure of the slave--market in 19th century art. In fact, his giant screen, constructed in sections from floor to ceiling, resem-bled a medieval altar. As black and white men's heads confronted each other from either side like donors, the face at top centre changed from moment to moment, its colour shape and features leaving no distinct impression except an image of smiling, female beauty in all its variety. Meanwhile, below it, another moving image appeared of a kitsch model of the Virgin Mary pirouetting gaily before an illuminated screen. Pipers critique of prostitution turned into an example of what a contemporary religious icon might be: strange, affirmative, power-ful, joyous, multicultural and multivalent.

Marc Quinn's work engages with his own body and little else. With a random timing mechanism and a new type of glass which changes from transparent to opaque at the flick of a switch, Quinn made a fountain in a square surrounded by bars. With the glass in its clouded state, the structure was easily ignored, for its only visual interest lay in the streams of red liquid falling on the glass faces from inside. Yet momentarily, when the surface became trans-parent, a nude male figure was visible, with wine shooting out of its orifices. In the past, art about the joys of drinking was not unusual. These days it could more easily be construed as a metaphor for creativity, a permanent brainstorm in both positive and negative senses. Here inspiration and death were closely aligned; no longer 'an amazing lumi-nous fountain', Quinn, bleeding constantly like some miracle-working martyr, was presented to worship-pers and rabble alike, a vision of art in extremis.

Such automata are the stock-in-trade of Mike Kelley, whose Sonsbeek contribution, The Uncanny, consisted of an entire exhibition based on his own collection, augmented by loans from elsewhere. Realistic shop-window dummies with glass eyes and human hair; a photograph of Oskar Kokoschka's life-size doll of Alma Mahler, with whom he was obsessed, and which was ripped to pieces by the drunken throng at a party given after his interest in her had abated; a sheik who moved to Beverley Hills and filled his mansion with pseudo-classical statues, all painted realistically, including the pubic hair; ventriloquists' dolls; sex aids... For Kelley, the source of sculptural creativity lies in infantile play, focused on the doll or any 'transitional object'. Effigies, idols and surrogates are crammed into the museum, like the fairground attractions they so often are. Death, or the illusion of life or death is the theme of the catalogue, which ranges from the use of the mannequin in Surrealism to Egyptian funerary sculpture; sex with corpses; the Forest J. Ackerman collection of objects from horror and fantasy films; the misnamed 'figurative sculpture' of the 20th century and other topics dear to Kelley's heart. 'The thing about death is its sheer materiality', he tells Thomas McEvilley in the Sonsbeek catalogue. Half funeral parlour, half fairground attraction, The Uncanny proved as strange its title.

Pepe Espaliù's three pieces for Sonsbeek seemed part of a train of thought in which ritual and accident vied for pre-eminence. Discovering a painting by the Dutch artist Pyke Koch in the Gemeentemuseum, he requested that it be considered as part of his own contribution. Koch depicted an old-fashioned French urinal, with a conical roof and curved metal sides. Despite the surrounding darkness, a light glows inside, making it seem welcoming and warm. Once Paris contained many of these comforting buildings. When the authorities began to demolish them, Parisian homosexuals were up in arms, parading through the streets in thousands and laying wreaths around the doomed structures, a farewell not only to fine architecture but also to an entire way of life. Now only two of the double, dark green structures remain. With heavy irony, Espaliù plumped for the pissotiére in the shadow of what was one of Paris's largest jails now a police headquarters. Then, having decided that they should all be male, homosexual writers with experience of sex in public places, he invited four friends from different countries to come to Paris, stay in different hotels, visit the urinal in question at pre-arranged times in the course of a single morn-ing, and leave messages on the wall. Later the writers would meet and talk about 'cottaging' (to use the charming English term), a talk which would be printed in the Sonsbeek catalogue. Espaliù’s own description of urinals in the catalogue is fascinating: 'a prolongation of ourselves as an organism, as a language, a movement codifying the displacement of the users, a vision and smell of an opaque density and humidity ...the habitat of a whole collective that has passed these years turning around it and building it.' And in the course of the conversation with his quartet of cads, Espaliù outlined his next venture, a performance in the garden of the Gemeentemuseum in Arnhem, where a high tree could be observed through a huge window. Every day for eight days, he climbed up a ladder to an octagonal platform high up in the tree-top, removed one of his eight pieces of clothing and walked an increasing number of times around the trunk, making a kind of nest as the piece went on. The dual influence of San Juan de la Cruz and Rumi, arguably the greatest mystical poets of the Western and Eastern world - Espaliù was born in Cordoba, where the two traditions meet - resulted in an idea of approaching God by means of ritual activity, involving divestment of goods, home, and above all preconceptions. 'A zero point of tradition would interest me very much,' he once told Jose-Luis Brea in an interview. To do so by weaving together traditions, high and low, Western and Eastern, is one way forward. Art about AIDS often appeals only to placard-carrying demonstrators, disillusioned intellectuals or sympathetic well-wishers. Espaliù is particularly aware of the dangers of aestheticising sickness. One recent sculpture consists of five crutches fixed together, leaning against a wall, their tops forming a pure white staircase which not only goes nowhere but also robs the crutches of their potential usefulness. They too have become sick, perhaps because they were never meant to become symbols. New drawings by Espaliù focus on a similar problem, one which the tree performance anticipat-ed. The straight choice that faces viewers is whether to construe his work as deliberately transcendental or simply mundane: within a border, he has drawn nothing at all.

Journeys need endings... In search of a dying fall, l encountered only artworks with the accent on the 'work' and its transitive terminology: 'installation', 'intervention', 'performance'. My visit had begun with a voice. It ended with a burial. Ln the polder, on the edge of the city, Jean-Baptiste Bruant staged a funeral. He dug a pit then emitted a sound and buried it as quickly as possible. Blanchot would have applauded loudly. Perverse, political, this rite of abnegation signalled an end of pride, falsehood, possession, even self-possession. So many Sonsbeek visitors had come to tell locals how to behave - Art Orienté 0bjet with their prissy AIDS sermon in the red-light district, Andreas Diekman n preaching city-planning - that only a positive statement would do. Bruant's positive negativity hinted at the restitution of animism. First a declara-tion of dominion over the landscape, then a vow of renunciation. L had arrived in Arnhem at one end and was leaving at the other.