SQUARE DEPRESSION AND GUARDIAN ANGELS
Within the radius of Documenta the art-world goes provincial in Münster and Paderborn with two ambitious projects, which examine the interdependence between art, the city, and the public, and thereby engage us to think about art in public space and one of the truly complex questions it manifests: WHAT RELATES ART WITH THE PUBLIC?
by Wiebke Gronemeyer
Apart from being thrilled by pumpernickel bread and proud of having an exceptional large and strong community of Catholics, the cities of Münster and Paderborn, located in Westfalia in Midwestern Germany, share more than 1200 years of common European history and this year are in the scope of contemporary art-lovers because of two ambitious projects for which contemporary artist from diverse countries were invited to create new works.
You might have heard about Sculpture Projects Muenster 07 if you are aware of the Grand Tour D’Europe’s travel schedule, which makes its last stop at Münster after Venice, Basel, and Kassel. For the fourth time the exhibition opens this summer and runs parallel with Documenta. The ensuing outdoor exhibition gathers worldwide attention, and its return every 10 years is a highly anticipated event. But how would one come across Paderborn’s Scene of Crime: Earthly Authorities and Heavenly Power, an exhibition, for which twelve artists were invited to examine the relationship between a site-specific historical engraved tradition and today’s social and cultural challenges? As you drive through the heart of Westfalia from Münster to visit this years Documenta in Kassel you inevitably pass through the cathedral town of Paderborn where one can perceive the peculiar existence of competing spiritual and secular authorities.
Both exhibitions have in common that they rely on characteristics, which are essential in order to present public art, also determined as site-specific art: the exhibition takes place in the public domain, accessible to all, and overall perceivable, without any kind of spatial or temporal restrictions. The term public art properly refers to works of art in any media that have been planned to be executed with the specific intention of being sited or staged in public spaces. In order to come across public artworks it is most often not necessary to affirmatively decide to sacrifice some time for the arts, as one does deciding to visit a museum space. One can get involved and interact with this kind of art incidentally while taking a walk or doing some shopping. Many various and ambiguous reactions on the artists artworks come together reaching out from ignorance and disregard to admiration and consent.
Most often exhibitions with public art gain attention and attendance when negative reactions and controversy discussion amongst the habitants of a particular town about the integration of the work into the fabric of the city come alongside any peculiar project. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in New York City has clearly set a negative example about how public art could exist (or not) in the public realm and how the community dealt with it.
However, Sculpture Projects Muenster is an example that such controversial discussions can come to a happy end. In the mid 1970’s the local residents aggressively opposed a sculpture donated by George Rickey that had been installed in the city centre. On the occasion of this argument Klaus Bussman and Kaspar König organized an exhibition of sculpture with works by such preeminent artists as Claes Oldenburg, Donal Judd, Joseph Beuys, Walter de Maria, Richard Long, and Richard Serra. The efforts of testing the ground for outdoor sculpture in 1977 seem to have paid off and the city has steadily grown more comfortable with its role as a periodical international arts magnet to such extend, that 35 works that premiered at previous Sculpture Projects in 1987 and 1977 were subsequently bought by the city, including Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Pool Balls, which still remain on the shores of the local Aa lake, this year next to and interacting with Tue Greenfort, Rosemarie Trockel, Annette Wehrmann, and Valérie Jouve, who all chose this beautiful site for their sculptures and installations. This year’s artists once again provide an impressive exploration of the relationship between public art and the urban field by means of engaging not only with the city’s specific site, or the people’s stodgy temperament, but also referring to the Sculpture Projects’ own history, tradition, and meaning, as for example Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster does. Her Roman de Muenster quotes past and present sculptures and installations, inviting the visitors to walk through them and experience what she calls “articulation of differences”. Similar in the concept of staging sculpture Elmgreen & Dragset installed Drama Queens in the local theatre, which is a play without actors: “Seven 20th century superstar sculptures find themselves trapped on a theatre stage and out of their usual context. The drama unfolds through a series of clashes and crossovers between the various ‘isms’ and aesthetics which these sculptures represent”, as it says in the foreword of the video that shows the performance that took place at the opening weekend of the exhibition in June.
The exhibition serves several purposes. On the one hand it is still a testing ground for outdoor sculpture, which at its first time in 1977 had a very Conceptual orientation. This year, following a slight trend from 1997, there are far more artists which animate the environment and by so doing invite to participate in an experience of time and space. On the other hand, it encourages visitors to tour and learn about Münster through the different ways of understanding and forms of interpretations of the town, region, and the people the artworks provide the visitor with. One could probably apply both ideas to Bruce Nauman’s Square Depression, an enormous inverted, hollow pyramid with a 25x25-meter square base, sunk into the courtyard in front of the University of Münster’s Department of Nuclear Physics. Nauman was already invited to participate in the exhibition in 1977 for which he submitted the proposal for this work that could not be realized until now, 30 years later, but no less spectacular. Another example for the examined peculiarities of this provincial place, and therefore an example of a creative dealing with the public and its space, is Martha Rosler’s Unsettling the Fragments, a choreographed multiple installation of Münster-specific memorials and symbols, either of military or economic importance or of cultural or spiritual significance, which are located at different key points in the city: all of them contribute to Münster’s identity which Rosler leaves uncertain and arguable.
All of the artists came to Münster to deal with and examine various ideas of how their artwork could relate to the space and public; some artists act site-specifically, others refer to a certain point of the city’s evolution through a time-specific approach and thus enrich the questionable relationship and understanding of public art in the public realm with a discussion about how art can reflect its own part of the public life and even interact with it. There are particularly two artists who explore this question to an extend, where their ideas and projects gain importance for the city’s development and gather most of the public’s interest. For the second time Thomas Schütte inspects a local town square where he already mounted his Cherry Column in 1987. Michael Asher’s Caravan still changes every week its parking lot and moves on to several public parkings, which Asher chose back in 1977. Isn’t it significantly interesting that this year the caravan has to remain in his parking garage outside the city for more than five weeks, as some of the parkings do no longer exist? Those artworks integrate and continuously recapitulate the city’s development, similar to a long-term study project, for which realization Kaspar König, who again co-curated the 2007 show, describes the artists’ situation, under which one has to work, as ideal: „It helps to be in a provincial place, it’s easier to focus on society and people.“
Ingrid Raschke-Stuwe, curator of Paderborn’s exhibition, had those same thoughts when she invited twelve national and international artists to be inspired by the relationship between earthly authorities and heavenly power, whose competing existence has not only been dominating the city’s history but also its townscape: next to the cathedral one of Germany’s first imperial palaces was constructed in 800 a.C., celebrating the meaningful resolve of a defensive alliance between the pope Leo III. and the Carolingian sovereign Karl I. that had lasted more than 1000 years and during its long run both spiritual and secular authorities struggled for power. Last summer the comprehensive scientifically structured exhibition Canossa examined one of the most important quarrels between the church and the empire in the early Middle Ages with great success, in which the empire for the first time disobeyed and resisted the pope’s orders. Sequential to this past exhibition this year’s invited artists somehow continue investigating the relationship between both powers. But this very thematic orientation does not affect the artists creativity in a restrictive way as one could think. Instead it is a clever and sensible chosen testing ground for public art that adjusts to the city and its residents, which are not as familiar with the appearance of public art as their friends in Münster, who were already looking forward to this summer’s event in order to watch the jet-setting class of international aesthetes that is strolling around the city, but are used to and even open-minded towards exhibitions and projects which investigate their own history and tradition.
The artists deal with this cultural heritage in many different ways with all kinds of materials and media; some oppose spiritual and secular traditions to adjustments and challenges of a city in the 21st century, others let the visitor experience the enormous weight such cultural heritage comes along with. Tadashi Kawamata, who repeatedly participated in the Documenta, chose to build a huge platform to provide the local residents with a view point terrace, elevated next to the city’s administrative council building over the local river’s wells, from which they could perceive the city’s ongoing development. Does this space provide residents and visitors with an opportunity to approach the heavenly powers for assistance with daily temporal routines? If one likes to rely upon such illusions one should better consider buying of one Ottmar Hörl’s gold Guardian Angels, which he understands as providing the ideal connection between celestial and terrestrial authorities. Forty of them are located at various spots in the city centre and some of them experienced a very aggressive assumption of power by local youngsters who forced some of them to swim in the local river before the exhibition even opened.
With their works the artists consider how and by whom power has been executed over the past and still is in the present. Many faithful residents become angry and dislike Henrik Plenge Jacobsen’s admonishing bell near the cathedral, on which he quotes Nietzsche: “ God is dead! God remains dead! And we killed him! How do we take our comfort as murderers of all murderers?”. Others pass by it without even noticing the quote or thinking about its meaning, maybe because they are not interested in either Catholicism, or Nietzsche, or both. Younger visitors and residents like to walk in and around Joep van Lieshoet’s Wellness Skull, an over-sized plastic skull, which on the inside features a little spa with a pool and a sauna for relaxation. This bizarre joint venture of transitoriness and personal body care evokes diverse reactions and interactions. So does another installation that requires to walk over it in order to experience it: Horst Gläsker painted each square of his Campo Santo, a church’s front-court, differently and again overpainted it with a labyrinth of words such as asceticism, cowardice, or voluptuousness.
The reactions upon the artworks vary from ignorance, angriness, interactive energy, and happiness. However, most of the people just walk by an artwork, sometimes stop for a moment, sometimes walk around it or look at it from a greater distance. Consequently in many situations a reactive behavior is not observable. It doesn’t tell us much about the impression the artwork had on the visitor but it unveils an essential characteristic of art in public spaces: the coexistence of art and life. It brings together peculiarities and trivialities, the singular and the universal, the public and the private, even without necessarily relating to each other.
Articulating various possibilities of a coexistence of public art in the public realm is a thing Münster and Paderborn have in common this year. As it may be easier for artists to focus on society and people in a provincial place, it also might be easier for an audience, unfamiliar with contemporary art, to live and even interact with public art than visiting a contemporary exhibition in a museum space. The impressions and associations the local residents might have co-living with these artworks for several months and in the case of Münster for many years are neither only site- or time-specific, nor solely referring to the artist’s focus on the city’s history, tradition, or its townscape. As the residents live in this city and visitors sequentially come back (even if only in the period of 10 years, as it is in Münster’s case) they might share many private moments with the public art.
In contradiction to Documenta’s attempt to democratize art for the masses, the exhibitions in Münster and Paderborn deal with the public without overstraining both the artworks and the public. Both curatorial teams seem to believe in the conditions and characteristics of public art and trust the possibility of truly public art which serves several, undetermined purposes and provides many possibilities to link up with; and if all that should fail for some reasons, by the end of the day the sculpture or installation simply is there, coexisting with a daily changing routine, to which the artwork opposes a stubborn permanence.
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