Dispatch: Sculpture Projects Münster ’97


In a season of important European exhibitions, this one stands out as particularly innovative and compelling. As with the two previous incarnations of the exhibition in 1977 and 1987, the works contributed by the 70-plus participating artists were either outdoors or at sites otherwise not known as art venues-the whole exhibition, in fact, had everything to do with exploring the oftentimes controversial situation of contemporary art in the public arena. All visitors needed was a map and a bicycle (although they could also walk, for most of the works were located in a circumference around the city’s center) in order to see everything. As visitors progressed from work to work-itself a kind of voyage of discovery-they also necessarily discovered Münster itself, which was bombed during World War II, rebuilt during the post-war years with an eye toward maintaining contact with its historical past, and has now been resurrected as a bustling small city.

Karin Sander, Center of Gravity of the City of Münster, 1997. Concrete, PVC, approx. 1.5 m. Roman Mensing.

The curatorial team-Kasper König, Klaus Bussmann, and Florian Matzner-opted for a broad range of artists, including older luminaries who participated in either or both of the past exhibitions, and younger figures, some already quite well-known and others who were real discoveries. All of the artists developed projects specifically for this exhibition, which resulted in a spirit of freshness, and the works produced were diverse and eclectic. Furthermore, a considerable freedom was afforded the artists-this was not an exhibition that attempted to squeeze everything into a dominating theoretical framework. Thus, side by side, so to speak, with a new metal sculpture by Richard Serra or an impressive construction made of white concrete blocks by Sol LeWitt, there were numerous architectural works, interactive projects, works incorporating video and/or sound, and several pieces that functioned as the sites for normal life activities (for instance, a bar, a boat, and a pier). A number of projects that were not realized, because they were either too complex or too expensive, existed as concepts, models or drawings, but these fit very well into the exhibition’s in-process character. Among the best was a proposal for a new kind of Ferris wheel by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, which was designed to be half above ground and half underground. If built, riders would soar up, ecstatically, into the air, and then descend, disturbingly, into a dark, subterranean grotto.

There were very good works by long-established artists, such as Nam June Paik’s collection of 32 American cars, circa 1920s through 1950s, all painted silver and arrayed in four clusters in front of Münster’s famous castle, where they played Mozart’s Requiem from interior loudspeakers. Paik’s combination of automobile fetishism, European high culture, and street performance was hilarious and visually dazzling. Hans Haacke’s Standort Merry-go round was an old-time wooden carousel surrounded by a tall, circular wooden construction with little chinks and slats that viewers could just barely peek through in order to glimpse the whirling horses. Jauntily, in a carnival way, the carousel played not a children’s song but Germany’s national anthem (Deutschland, Deutschland über allesŠ) and the top of the wooden construction featured coiled barbed wire. This piece was also in dialogue with a nearby 19th-century circular monument commemorating Prussian war victories. A lot was going on here: innocence, whimsy, ferocity, irony, and mayhem. As with his acclaimed demolished floor some years ago at the Venice Biennale, the expatriate Haacke continues to turn his unflinching gaze on his own country’s militaristic, nationalistic, and violent past.

Ilya Kabakov, Looking Up and Reading the Words…, 1997. Steel, 15 m. high. Roman Mensing

Near the edge of Münster’s lake, the Aasee, on a sloping green field, Ilya Kabakov presented a kind of outsized radio antennae protruding upwards toward the heavens, titled “Blikst du hinauf und liest die orte…(Looking Up, Reading the Words…)”. As viewers sat or lay under it, in the green and pleasant place, it suddenly became apparent that the top part consisted of words, a German text essentially saying that as they were lying there, on the grass, in this excellent place, looking up at the clouds and the blue sky, it was very possibly the most wonderful thing they had ever done in their lives. Antennae, of course, catch and collect words circulating through the air in the form of radio waves. Kabakov’s physical rendition of this was both humorous and touching, a miraculous antenna tuned into the language of the spheres, which turned out to be somewhat sappy and banal.

A neighboring work by German artist Isa Genzken consisted of a bulbous electric light made of frosted glass on a pole. Next to a footpath, it was disguised as an ungainly, too-big streetlight, but at night when it was illuminated it made it look for all the world as if there were an additional moon in Münster’s sky. Not far off, there was a walking cane by Roman Signer, from Switzerland, suspended above a canal on a sloping cable which also functioned as a pumping system. Electronically wired, Signer’s magical cane periodically twitched, jerked, shuddered, whipped about in the air and went into attack-mode when it spewed water at startled onlookers. This exhibition was chock-full of inventive surprises.

Some of the best works by younger artists were the ones that took the most liberties with the whole concept of public sculpture. Starting from outside the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, where there was an accompanying exhibition of the artists’ smaller scale works and documentation of their site-specific projects, visitors could go on a walking tour of the downtown area accompanied by a cassette audio piece by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, played on portable Walkmans. The only directions were Cardiff’s spoken instructions, interspersed among her own hypnotic meditations on an absent lover, on her father, and on various objects and scenes encountered during the walk. One false move and visitors could have been hopelessly lost, but when things clicked, the whole piece was remarkable: Cardiff’s storytelling voice, recorded sounds like footsteps or flowing water which perfectly fit each location, and each visitor’s own experience of uncertainly making his or her way through an unfamiliar place were positively enthralling. The tour ended, mysteriously and profoundly, in an obscure bunker at the bottom of some stairs.

Svetlana Kopystiansky, a Russian who lives in Berlin and New York, took black and white photographs of details of the artists’ sites just as they were beginning to work, spare and gorgeous images of a paint brush, paint can, bits of paper, tools, and so forth and displayed them around the city as wheat- pasted placards (Onthology or Things that Might Have Been). Kopystianky’s work subverted the whole context of urban advertising (nothing was being sold and nothing promoted by these deliberately non-glitzy images devoid of catchy slogans), while richly evoking transformation and potential per se-these signs of artistic endeavors about to be accomplished became themselves gorgeous photographic sculptures. Working collaboratively, two Swedish artists, Elin Wikström and Anna Brag, built a series of 11 altered bicycles (Returnity); when riders sat and pushed down on the pedals, the bikes went backwards. All day, both artists, who otherwise hung out in their own cycling clubhouse, gently and patiently helped helmet-wearing visitors through the disconcerting process of relearning a basic skill accomplished years ago as a child. (It should also be pointed out that the piece was next to a busy bicycle path, and furthermore, that whizzing bicycles are pretty much everywhere in Münster, which is like the Beijing of Germany.) Childhood figured in, as did trust and communication, but this quirky project also brought up other associations, for instance, of convalescing patients, and by extension, of Münster’s own catastrophic, up-from-the-ashes past.

Karin Sander, from Germany, was one of the younger artists who, in a sense, returned to the 1977 origins of the exhibition by focusing very specifically on Münster. With the assistance of mathematicians and computer programs, she calculated the exact geographic center of the city and then emblazoned the site with an approximately one-meter-in-diameter red painted dot atop a low concrete cylinder set into the ground (Center of Gravity of the City of Münster). It just so happens that the actual center of Münster is not where you’d expect (downtown, in front of the cathedral, or outside city hall-in other words in one of the recognizable power areas) but in a nondescript neighborhood between an apartment building and a Catholic grade school. Among other things, Sander’s deceptively simple work was a disarmingly literal and physical rendition of notions concerning center and periphery. As the title suggests, this red dot was also the city’s center of gravity. If you imagine the city as a vast, sprawling structure-or as a kind of found sculpture raised off the ground-this is the point at which it would be in perfect balance.

This exhibition also offered the intriguing opportunity to see outdoor works by artists who are hardly known for such a thing. Andrea Zittel, from New York, installed a series of 10 lumpy, Fiberglas islands in a stream in a park, anchored in such a way that they could drift about while still tethered (A-Z Deserted Islands). Each was fitted with a single bucket seat, but the only way visitors could sit in one of these floating, fabricated islands, with their intimations of solitude and reverie, loneliness and alienation, would have been to swim out to them, or perhaps to clamber through the water to reach them. Mixing the artificial and the organic, the public and the private, Zittel’s piece was weirdly elegant and even gorgeous, as the white or tan forms with colorful stripes near the bottoms gleamed in the sun. Douglas Gordon, from Scotland, installed a movie screen in the middle of an underground pedestrian tunnel. On both sides, a mixed-up combination of two movies was projected: The Exorcist (1973), having to do with demonic possession, and The Song of Bernadette (1943), with its saintly main character. Evocatively titled Between Darkness & Light (after William Blake), Gordon’s piece turned the tunnel into an underworld, or between-worlds space, where media images of heaven and hell mingled and combined.

Jorge Pardo, from Los Angeles, was one of several artists who created an entirely functional work, an intricate pier made out of imported California redwood that elegantly jutted into the Aasee. At its tip, there was a hexagonal enclosure (replete with the unlikely, and certainly non-beatific addition of a cigarette vending machine on the wall), where visitors could contemplate the lake and the city itself off in the distance. Further down the lake, the Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata spent a couple of weeks encamped with assistants-the clients and counselors of a Dutch substance abuse clinic. Together, they built from scratch a chunky ferry boat, with a space for passengers, their bicycles, and an overhead canopy of bare scaffolding. When finished, Kawamata’s sculpture/ferry, which did double duty as a site for rehabilitation and cleansing, shuttled people around the lake to other artists’ sites, and as it did so it seemed at once unwieldy and magical, a rickety mythological structure suddenly sprung into life.

Surely the most eccentric work, and also one of the best, was by the Turkish artist Ayse Erkmen. Erkmen had it in mind to work, in some manner, with Münster’s famous cathedral, and to this end she submitted three separate proposals, each of which was summarily rejected by the church. In a kind of gorgeous exasperation, she came up with another, novel solution: to use not the church itself, but the sky above and around the church, over which the church has no jurisdiction. Thus, at set times a helicopter appeared in the sky lugging a dangling figurative sculpture in a harness. The 15th- and 16th-century sculptures were taken from the Landesmuseum’s storage facility. Coming into view, it circled around the church several times, and eventually set the sculpture down on top of the museum’s roof, all the while blasting hats off the heads of onlookers, shaking the trees, and causing a windy commotion. One source for Erkmen’s project was the famous helicopter scene at the beginning of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita; there were also reminders of the flying angels and miraculous ascensions which are so part of the Christian tradition. At once absurdist and challenging, whimsical and poetic, Erkmen’s piece (Sculptures on the Air) was an excellent example of the free-spirited and exuberant approach to public sculpture that characterized this important exhibition in general. -Gregory Volk