BY Dominikus Müller in Features | 28 MAY 15
Featured in
Issue 20

Still Standing?

Public art in Germany has a long and fraught history. What is its place today?

BY Dominikus Müller in Features | 28 MAY 15

Olaf Metzel, 13.4.1981, 1987, steel, concrete, chrome and pigment, installation view, Joachimsthalerstraße/Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 1987 (courtesy: © Olaf Metzel, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015; photograph: © Hans Peter Stiebing, Berlin)

Münster is a tranquil city in Westphalia. With a population of close to 300,000 inhabitants, Münster is home to Skulptur Projekte, one of the world’s largest events dedicated to sculpture in public space. The project has taken place every ten years since 1977, coinciding with every second Documenta. Walking through Münster in the spring of 2015 during its long off season (the next Skulptur Projekte is in 2017) one comes across a handful of leftover artworks from past events: Thomas Schütte’s Kirschensäule (Cherry Column, 1987), for example, an imposing classical plinth topped with two outsize ripe cherries, or Rosemarie Trockel’s hedge-like plant sculpture Less sauvage than others (2007).

At one end of the Aasee, the long artificial lake near the city centre, stand Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Pool Balls from 1977. People sit on the benches in front of them looking out over the lake, while joggers doing the rounds pass by. Out on the water, small boats with the logo of the local bank sail past; to my left, Münster’s modest skyline is dominated by the new glass towers of LVM Insurance. Someone has daubed the giant balls with graffiti and the turf beneath them has been scuffed by dogs.

Claes Oldenburg, Giant Pool Balls, 1977, installation view, Skulptur Projekte, Münster, 1977 (photograph: LWL-MKuk/Rudolf Wakonigg)

When it was installed Oldenburg’s sculpture triggered all sorts of vandalism – a group of locals once tried to break the balls out of their foundations. In 1977 they had to be guarded at night for the duration of the event and since then they have repeatedly been covered with graffiti. Although graffiti still coats the balls, they have become a sort of city landmark. The attitude of the locals to Skulptur Projekte has changed enormously: by the time of the 1997 edition, the event was finally embraced by both the municipal authorities and local population. The project has become the city’s calling card and its iconic sculptures are used in its marketing campaigns – a distinct advantage in the struggle for attention in times when even small cities strive to be seen as ‘cool’ and ‘creative’. Even a city like Münster.

Art in public space has a distinct history in former West Germany, one that is shaped by disputes, cultural didacticism and ideological warfare. For some time now, however, it seems as if the rise of the ‘creative class’ as the prevailing paradigm and the rush to beautify inner cities has deprived public art of its once critical barb. The hordes of sculptures that now stand in city centres look strangely lost, slightly pointless. I for one no longer have the faintest idea what art in public space can mean today, nor what such a ‘public space’ now is – from Hamburg to Munich, to Münster and Hanover – in a Germany of Starbucks, of gentrification and privatization, of Facebook and the private as public, of mass surveillance.

Interestingly, various recent exhibitions have approached the phenomenon of public art from different angles: Regenerate Art, a show in the autumn of 2014 at Kunstverein München, examined unrealized proposals for public spaces; Moment!, in the spring of 2015 at Kunstverein Göttingen, inquired into the role of monuments today prompted by the controversy surrounding the erection of an empty plinth by the artist Christiane Möbus; and this summer three shows with a joint concept in Bremen – formerly a known centre of public art in Germany – will aim to explore from various viewpoints what the ‘public sphere’ means now (at Zentrum für Künstlerpublikationen, Gesellschaft für aktuelle Kunst and Künstlerhaus Bremen); and finally there was the recent show Passages: Public Art in Hamburg since 1981 at Kunsthaus Hamburg, an exhibition organized by Sophie Goltz, whose job as ‘city curator’ of Hamburg makes her Germany’s first independent curator of art in public space. Passages takes an impressive look back at Hamburg’s Programme for Art in Public Space, initiated in 1981 by Volker Plagemann and probably the country’s highest-profile publicly funded art programme. Faced with this glut of exhibitions taking place, with the exception of Passages, at art institutions (rather than linked to municipal programmes, the usual source of funding for public art in Germany), the question arises: in 2015, does public art, which once claimed to tear down the walls of institutions, now ironically belong in the museum?

Passagen. Kunst im öffentlichen Raum Hamburg seit 1981, 2015, installation view, Kunsthaus Hamburg (photograph: André Giesemann)

On the way to see the Passages show, I make a quick detour to Park Fiction. Created in 1995 Park Fiction is a small park in Hamburg’s St. Pauli district, next to the famous Golden Pudel Club. The park is a near-perfect example of a public art space in Germany after 1989: political, grassroots-democratic, participatory. Initiated by the artists Christoph Schäfer and Cathy Skene, the original motivation was the prevention of commercial development on one of the last vacant lots in the area. In 1997, they submitted their proposal to ‘Weitergehen’, a project organized by the city’s Programme for Art in Public Space. As part of the tender process, they under­-took a project called Wunschproduktion (Wish Production), asking local residents and interested parties what they would like from the park and integrated the results into their submission. In 2002, Park Fiction was even invited to documenta 11. Today, the park has been co-opted by the city as an example of successful artistic social engagement. With its undulating lawns and metal palm trees, on this first warm day of spring there are young people and homeless people alike drinking beer, and a wedding party drinking bubbly out of plastic cups.

Park Fiction also features in the Passages exhibition. With a mass of archival material (press clippings, documentary photographs, correspondence with the city authorities and video interviews with participating artists) as well as a few newly-commissioned pieces, the exhibition showcases various controversies over the city’s public art projects from the past three decades. Details reveal tedious bureaucratic procedures and documents show the public’s reaction to the art as well as the reactions of artists to the at times abrasive criticism. ‘Rather than about an ontologization of art in public space the show is about the material conditions of production’, Goltz says. ‘Among others things, it’s about making visible the relevant cultural policy, and the ways art is made to serve the public. How is the city ‘performed’ in these programmes? How is the public brought forth?’

One learns a great deal about the history of Hamburg’s Public art programme. For his project Gesamtkunstwerk Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg (Total Artwork Free Hanseatic City of Hamburg, 1982), Joseph Beuys wanted to make artistic and ecological use of the contaminated fields in Hamburg-Altenwerder where silt dredged from the harbour had been dumped – first by depositing a half-tonne basalt block on the site, followed by extensive planting, accompanied by an information stand in the city centre. Protests ensured that the project was never realized, and Beuys fought a very public campaign to be paid for his lost time. Monuments to the Holocaust also feature: be it Alfred Hrdlicka’s never finished ‘counter-monument’ to the ‘Kriegsklotz’ (War Monstrosity), a warlike war memorial erected in 1936 by the Nazi-approved sculptor Richard Kuöhl, or Jochen and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s decidedly anti-monumental Mahnmal gegen den Faschismus (Monument Against Fascism) in Hamburg-Harburg that was lowered into the ground little by little between 1986 and 1993. Visitors could also learn about Aussendienst (Outside Work, 2000–01), the most recent large-scale project of its kind in Hamburg, in which curator Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen (then director of Hamburger Kunst­verein) had already begun dealing with the increasing differentiation of the public sphere into many smaller units: different works relied on different ideas of public space and played to different audiences.

It also becomes clear, however, how little has changed since Aussendienst. The 2000s was a directionless period for public art in Germany. ‘In Hamburg during these years,’ Goltz explains, ‘the “Right To The City” movement was very active. Various neighbourhood projects criticized the advancing commercialization of the city and argued against it with alternative artistic concepts. The Art in Public Space programme in Hamburg found it hard to keep up; the artists were otherwise occupied. Things became increasingly disconnected. The socio-critical approach that the programme once stood for no longer held conceptual answers. The old West German canon could not be renewed.’

Prior to reunification, public art in West Germany had the advantage of referring to a space that was (at least supposedly) definable: the postwar West German public sphere. Primarily, however, this was a idealized, implicitly homogeneous public sphere (as theorized by Jürgen Habermas, for example): relatively unaknowledging of migrants (although they had long since begun to arrive) or the formation of parallel societies (although this was already happening); a space for negotiation and community, but not a space of unbridgeable differences. In the immediate postwar period, the main focus in West Germany was on art in the context of architecture (many city programmes in this vein, dating back to the Weimar Republic, had been continued through the Nazi period though adjusted to the regime’s values). This art was supposed to embellish the city and it was realized hand in hand with town planners and architects. The first project not linked to architecture was Plastik im Freien (Outdoor Sculpture) in Hamburg in 1953. But it was just what its title said: a piece of art (sculpture) shown in a park (outdoors) rather than in a museum. Associations with any specific notion of publicness had not yet arrived.

Thomas Schütte, Kirschensäule, 1987, sandstone, aluminium and lacquer, part of Skulptur Projekte Münster, 1987 (photograph: LWL-MKuk/Rudolf Wakonigg)

A specific notion of the ‘publicness’ of public art works only came after 1968, when public spaces were considered democratic arenas charged with the potential for conflict: the squatting movement, protestors against rent increases, resistance to clearance and redevelopment and Willy Brandt’s call for a bold transition to ‘more democracy’. People started thinking differently about urban space, a development prepared and accompanied by bestselling books like Wolf Jobst Siedler and Elisabeth Niggemeyer’s Die gemordete Stadt. Abgesang auf Putte und Straße, Platz und Baum (The Murdered City. Farewell to Cherub and Street, 1964) and Alexander Mitscherlich’s Die Unwirtlichkeit unserer Städte (The Inhospitability of Our Cities, 1965), books that lamented the failings of the urban reconstruction programmes after 1945, such as a ‘functional separation’ that attempted to create different zones for living, working and leisure. The trauma of German society after World War II was echoed architecturally in the poorly patched-up spaces of bombed-out cities.

It was into this atmosphere that the various ‘art in public space’ programmes emerged. At the end of the 1960s, Frankfurt’s secretary for culture Hilmar Hoffmann famously declared ‘Art for all!’ And in 1973, before his move to Hamburg in the early 1980s, Volker Plagemann initiated a similar programme in Bremen. In the early 1970s, Hanover organized its Experiment Straßenkunst (Street Art Experiment), bringing, among other works, the much-loved Nanas (1974) by Niki de Saint Phalle (to an initially hostile reception) that are now part of a ‘sculpture mile’ in front of the Lower Saxony state parliament.

Within these programmes, the concept of public space was shaped by the ideals of social democracy: greater access to decision-making processes, participation in debate, and above all citizens’ commitment to their shared space. Cities were to become not only better looking, but above all, more democratic. The apparent helplessness of today’s programmes for art in public space in Germany is due in part to their origins in this specific constellation of socio-historical factors.

One of the larger public art events in Germany in recent years took place in 2013 in Munich: A Space Called Public / Hoffentlich öffentlich, curated by artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset. Munich has a comparatively large budget for public art, as well as the ‘Quivid’ programme for art in architecture. With Rita McBride’s huge steel skeleton Mae West (2002–11), Munich became one of the few German cities to continue realizing large-scale public sculptures in the 2000s. But Elmgreen & Dragset’s A Space Called Public / Hoffentlich Öffentlich was not designed as a long-term project: ‘We wanted to find a middle way,’ says Ingar Dragset, ‘not a permanent project but also not an event where everyone flies in for a week and then it’s over again. We wanted to stretch it for almost a year, so that it could have a certain presence and continuity there.’

Elmgreen & Dragset had some great ideas, including installing an exhibition in a railway carriage on trains linking Munich with other cities in Germany and Europe. (A proposal rejected by Deutsche Bahn.) The end result was a sculpture tour through Munich’s city centre, with old and new works: Martin Kippenberger’s METRO-Net, Transportable Subway Entrance (1997), a performance involving the handing out of T-shirts by Henrik Olesen (Sexual Categories 1–5, 2013), David Shrigley’s memorial to Michael Jackson’s monkey Bubbles (Bubblesplatz, 2013), Tatiana Trouvé’s Waterfall (2013), a fountain in the shape of a bronze cast of an ordinary mattress. After the event, none of these works were purchased by the city.

Interestingly, it is now temporary interventions and projects of limited duration that seem to work best. Financial liquidity, it would seem, calls for sculptural liquidity; a changing society calls for changing scenery. What once stepped up in a spirit of participation and anti-monumentality to combat the heaviness and dominance of classical monuments erected for eternity is now a perfect match for today’s ideology of flexibility. Conversely, perhaps it is worth noting here that one of the slogans of the anti-gentrification Right To The City movement is: ‘We’re here to stay!’

Christoph Schäfer & Kathy Scene, Park Fiction, 1995 (photograph: Dominikus Müller)

The title Hoffentlich Öffentlich (Hopefully Public) already reveals a degree of scepticism. ‘There is quite a lot of doubt in there,’ says Dragset: ‘People enjoy being outside in Munich, they sit in cafes and visit beer gardens. But what is this, then? Is this public space or not? Because it is, strictly speaking, part of the commercial space.’ Finally, the dividing line between ‘public’ and ‘private’ has long since become so fragile that one no longer knows exactly what’s what. Not only is more and more public space becoming in effect private, but cities themselves view the public space that remains through a marketing prism. Cities now obey a radical form of business location optimization based on what the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, with reference to Michel Foucault, has called ‘cultural governmentality’: a ‘regime’ of creativity. Culture has become part of the mechanism of power. Of course culture has been co-opted in the past, but to different ends: whereas it was formerly tied to political-ideological issues, the new expectations concern the marketing and commercial exploitation of the city. Is this just another pessimistic narrative of cultural decline?

While I was out jogging one moderately cloudy Sunday in April, I ran past Olaf Metzel’s sculpture 13.4.1981 (1987). This work alone exemplifies the history of art in public space in West Germany, telling the story of what this art once was and what it has now become.

Metzel’s monumental tower consists of a tangled stack of outsized crowd barriers used by the authorities during demonstrations to keep people under control. In 1987, it stood at the junction of Joachimsthaler Strasse and Kurfürstendamm, the main shopping artery in West Berlin, the free, capitalist sector of the divided city. Metzel’s sculpture, together with works by Wolf Vostell, George Rickey and others, was part of Skulpturenboulevard, a large-scale project organized by the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein along Kurfürstendamm on the occasion of Berlin’s 750th anniversary.

13.4.1981 referred to a demonstration that had taken place on that date at the same crossroads, which resulted in a large number of broken shop windows. The demonstration was provoked by the announcement in the Berlin media of the alleged death by hunger strike of an imprisoned Red Army Faction terrorist, an announcement that soon proved to be a hoax. Undertaken in the run-up to the senate elections, the hoax was made in order to accuse the city’s Social Democrat government of incompetence in dealing with the extreme left-wing riots that could be expected to follow (and which did indeed obligingly explode). Although Metzel’s sculpture itself did not lead to riots, it did draw massive protests from the citizens of West Berlin. There are photographs that show how this artwork, designed to portray the conflict-laden nature of public space, had to be defended by police in full riot gear during disturbances caused by the distribution of some pamphlets (campaigning against the 1987 census).

David Shrigley, Bubblesplatz (detail), 2013, mixed media, part of A Space Called Public / Hoffentlich Öffentlich 2013, Munich (photograph: Leonie Felle)

Even before the official opening of the Skulpturenboulevard, Metzel’s sculpture made a name for itself in the media. In an episode of the popular German television show Wetten dass…? (Wanna Bet?) conservative mayor Eberhard Diepgen promised that as long as he remained in office, there would not be another sculpture event like Skulpturenboulevard. Metzel’s so-called ‘Riot Monument’ was to disappear as soon as possible. This proved difficult due to the terms of Metzel’s contract, but in 1988, 13.4.1981 was dismantled and spent the 1990s in storage under a motorway bridge in Charlottenburg and later in Falkensee. ‘As long as Diepgen was mayor,’ Metzel says, ‘it would be impossible for me to get the work installed in a public space’. And even after Diepgen’s departure in 2001, it didn’t work out. ‘The sculpture was simply too contaminated,’ he continues, ‘I knew it could only be displayed on private land. Which didn’t bother me – after all, the sculpture’s original context no longer exists. People used to take part in demonstrations, now they drink latte macchiatos. But where does the public sphere start, where does it end, in times of public-private partnership? Added to which, it was important to me that the Senate cretins didn’t win.’ Finally, Metzel found a private buyer in IVG Immobilien AG, a real estate company. And today, the sculpture stands on Stralauer Allee, on private land, accessible but hidden from the road behind a fence – pretty much exactly where Berlin decided, in the 2000s, to locate the creative industries of the ‘Media Spree’ quarter.

I stop, take a break from jogging, and look up at the shopping trolley that sits on top of Metzel’s tower of barricades. It contains a large rock. The soft female voice of my running app reminds me that I haven’t moved for 20 seconds. I start running again, back over the River Spree to my home in Kreuzberg, to the former post-1968 biotope of anarchists, Maoists and stone throwers, a district with one of the highest density of migrant workers in Germany. This is where Metzel grew up. On the Oberbaumbrücke, punks drink beer and young tourists hang out at trendy cafes. Recently, the district’s green party mayor complained about the plastic wheels of all the wheelie suit­-cases. They make too much noise on the cobbled streets.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.