Sculpture for a Different Time

This year´s Skulptur Projekte Münster is invested in a socially paralyzed and market-oriented public sculpture not much different from the kind it was once inititated to counter.

Pierre Huyghe, After A Life Ahead, 2017. Photo: Ola Rindal.

“As with Halley’s Comet, most people have never actually seen an edition of Skulptur Projekte,” writes Gerard Byrne in the journal that has released three issues leading up to this year’s exhibition in Münster: “It appears briefly, once every ten years. Even then one needs to be in the right place to see it.” Indeed, one might wonder how many visitors actually managed to see the entire exhibition. The works are sometimes difficult to find and, what is more, this year includes many performance-based works. It not only takes being in the right place, but in the right time as well. In short, visiting Skulptur Projekte requires patience, good walking shoes and no short amount of detective work.

Byrne’s short text reflects on site-specificity, a concept intimately tied to the history of Skulptur Projekte. According to this argument, art should be removed from its pedestal, liberated from the confines of the white cube and take place in the city or closer to the places where people live their lives. Additionally, the place itself should be integrated into the ‘specific’ conditions of the work, as in Michael Asher’s iconic contribution where for a limited time a caravan was moved between different parking lots in Münster.

Alexandra Pirici, Leaking Territories, 2017. Photo: Henning Rogge.

If site-specific art was fundamental to the first editions of Skulptur Projekte in 1977 and 1987, the edition of 1997 was highly influenced by relational aesthetics. Nevertheless, the argument remained basically the same, only now it was functional or architectural sculptures that were to free art from the supposed alienation of being an ‘autonomous object’. For example, Jorge Pardo built a pier that could be used for recreation and hanging out. The innovation of Skulptur Projekte was to consistently apply the notion of site-specificity to public art, which during these years could appear as more radically contemporary than what was being exhibited in traditional galleries and museums. Just taking place outside these environments was sometimes enough to lend public art a special, ‘political’ aura.

In the 21st century, interest in site-specificity seemed to wane, and in 2007 Skulpture Projekte failed to present any new interesting tendencies or critical concepts. The most discussed work was Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s installation, based on scaled down replicas of works from the history of the exhibition. The experimental phase of public art appeared to be over, and was instead replaced by a historicizing and self-reflective tendency. Simultaneously, a new faith was again invested into aesthetic objects and the traditional exhibition form.

Hito Steyer, HellYeahWeFuckDie, 2017. Photo: Henning Rogge.

Such lack of new ideas is at times painfully continued in this year’s fifth edition. Whereas in 2007 there was still a dynamic within the work of recollection, the idea of repeating critical approaches and notions from the past is now more problematic. Like past editions, the exhibition is curated by Kaspar König, this time in collaboration with Britta Peters and Marianne Wagner. The curatorial principle is the same as in 1977, and nearly all of the 36 participating artists have made new works for selected locations in Münster. The fact that the preparations have coincided with the rise of reactionary politics in recent years – which to a large extent was made possible by a structural and technological transformation of the public sphere – is not something that is visible in the exhibition. Although there are several works that deal with how  digital surveillance  affects the ways we think and move in public environments, very few works express  strong political content. This gives a detached impression, which is compounded by the curatorial emphasis on a “heterogeneous” public, while the large majority of the participating artists are from the European or Anglo-American cultural sphere.

The great challenge for visitors of Skulptur Projekte is how to physically address the scattered works. The main part of the exhibition is in the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, located in the city’s historical center. About half of the exhibition’s works are placed here in different historical and public buildings, but also in a parking lot, on the street and so on. There is a ring of green areas and boulevards that extend around the city center where a number of new works have been placed alongside several now classical works for Skulptur Projekte by Donald Judd, Herman de Vries, Ian Hamilton Finlay and others. After that a fringe of around ten works have been situated in abandoned houses, industrial lots and similar places in the city’s outskirts.

Nairy Baghramian, Beliebte Stellen, 2017. Photo: Henning Rogge.

Additionally, a part of this year’s exhibition takes place in the adjacent city of Marl, where Joëlle Tuerlinckx has a work consisting of a line that each day is redrawn on the ground. Meanwhile, Ludvig Gerde’s sign work Angst from 1989 has been brought from Marl and placed on the building opposite the LWL-Museum in Münster. It takes me quite some time to discover the sign, where the word “Angst” has been disturbingly placed between a graphic image of a golf player and a church.

I choose the strategy of beginning with the most remote works, working my way toward the center and the works exhibited at the LWL-Museum. Most spectacular is Pierre Huyghe’s installation, After A Life Ahead, in a former ice skating rink far away from the city center. Since it is impossible to see Skulptur Projekte on foot, I pedal on my rental bicycle to the enormous building whose concrete floor Huyghe has had ruptured before installing a “a time-based biotechnological system”. My initial thought is that site-specific art has finally imploded and turned into its negation. The remote placing, it turns out, hides a spectacular installation of the kind made possible only by the grotesque investments of private galleries, and appears completely integrated with the conditions of the experience economy and the art market.

Cosima von Bonin & Tom Burr, Bonin Benz Burr, 2017. Photo: Henning Rogge.

What Huyghe has done, more specifically, is to excavate a landscape of hills and valleys under the concrete, thereafter planting different biological organisms – plants, insects, bacteria – and coupled the whole system to various “bio- and mediatechnological interventions” in the building. In this way the entire space is said to become one “living” organism with the artist as its demiurge. It might be an unjust comparison, yet I can’t help associating Huyghe’s installation to academic painting in the late 19th century, which increasingly required larger and more bombastic canvases to compensate for its lacking involvement with the social and political upheavals of its time. The result was a paralytic, melancholy art that eventually caved in to an avalanche of new expressions more in line with contemporary social developments. Perhaps something similar can be expected today.

Nevertheless, Huyghe’s work is among the most interesting in this year’s Skulptur Projekte. His installation digs down into the geological strata of the very ground, while opening onto levels of reflection that go beyond many of the other works commissioned for the exhibition. In the case of artists such as Ayse Erkmen, Romanian duo Peles Empire and Cosima von Bonin/Tom Burr, it is actually those site-specific strata of meaning that make the works appear so empty in relation to the present. Von Bonin and Burr, for example, have parked a truck with a large container in front of the Henry Moore sculpture by the LWL-Museum. In this way the artists are alluding to the notion of ‘the provocative public art work’, as well as audience demands for its removal, which is part of the founding myth of Skulptur Projekte – such a conflict was the reason that Klaus Bussman initiated the exhibition in the 70s. Yet this says absolutely nothing about the condition for public sculpture today, and like many other works in the exhibition there is very little which places it in the present. It could just as well have been made for an earlier edition of Skulptur Projekte.

Ludvig Gerdes, Angst, 1989 (2017). Photo: Henning Rogge.

The same could be said about Nairy Baghramian, who has made an abstract, circular bronze sculpture displayed in parts which will be joined at the end of the exhibition – but only if  “the work is sold”. The sculpture is placed next to an historical building in the city center where Richard Serra and others have previously exhibited, and shows us what we already knew: that site-specific sculpture does not automatically resist market circulation by integrating the site into its logic; that it is not enough to break with the ideology of aesthetic autonomy for art to take place in social reality and fulfill its political potential. Quite the other way around, Baghramian demonstrates that this kind of art can be as self-absorbed and market-oriented as the autonomous objects of modernism were accused of being. 

If Skulptur Projekte thereby pushes the limit of site-specific art as critical form, the question is what awaits beyond. More site-specific art is the given answer, although there are tendencies pointing in somewhat different directions. One consists of attempts to connect different times and places through an ‘expanded’ form of site-specific work. In Münster’s town hall, for example, Alexandra Pirici has created a performance in which the performers move through the rooms reciting a text that measures the distance between the actual space and other historical and geographical locations. And in the foyer of the LWL-Museum, Nora Schulz’s comprehensive installation includes an abstract sculpture by Swedish modernist Olle Baertling, which has been brought from the neighbouring city of Marl and now balances on a staircase landing. The placing of the work is utterly wrong – it appears as though the sculpture is about to fall over – which creates an eerie atmosphere in the room. A white carpet covers the floor, and dimmed lighting from the ceiling lanterns hovers hazily in the air. To this has been added projected imagery and a rumbling sound recorded by a drone in the very place where the work is exhibited.

Nicole Eisenman, Sketch for a Fountain, 2017. Photo: Henning Rogge.

While Pirici’s ‘hypertext performance’ at times feels overwrought, Schulz’s installation appears to me as one of the exhibition’s most outstanding. With a few precise operations she captures some of the anxiety caused by today’s high-tech control and surveillance society. Pirici on the other hand, succeeds foremost in showing how the performers relate to one another through choreographed movements generated by the specific conditions of the Town hall.

In the technocratic building complex of Westdeutsche Landesbausparkasses, just west of the city center, related questions about surveillance, robotization and control are actualized. There, Hito Steyerl shows an installation consisting of several video screens, steel rails and walls of corrugated iron. Similar to Huyghe, she demonstrates a certain arrogance towards Skulptur Projekte as an institution. If Steyerl’s installation is site-specific, it is specific to another place altogether, namely the Kurdish city Diyarbakir, one of the main sites of the conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish government. Images of the bombed city are juxtaposed with texts about the significance of the robotization of contemporary warfare. A person called Al-Jazari is said to have invented ‘automatons’ in Diyarbakir in the 13th century. Another part of the installation shows films and objects relating to the current development of robot technology.

Oscar Tuazon, Burn the Formwork, 2017. Photo: Henning Rogge.

Steyerl appears to tell us that the huge investments into a political and artistic public sphere in Münster should be contrasted with the lack of any such privileged sphere in cities like Diyarbakir; that the economical wealth in Europe is related to Turkey’s geopolitical role, including its oppression of the Kurds, and that this should affect how we conceive of contemporary public sculpture in the 21st century. Just as the work is about Diyarbakir, it is about Münster. The prosperous German public is placed against the Kurdish city demolished by bombs. In this sense, Steyerl turns site-specific sculpture against itself, frees it from its historicizing function, and opens it toward a more radical understanding of contemporary political and economical conditions. It becomes a feature that, to an extent, destabilizes and undermines the otherwise complacent atmosphere of Skulptur Projekte as a whole.

Another artist challenging Skulptur Projekte’s self-understanding is Nicole Eisenman, whose Sketch for a Fountain suggests the traditional forms of public sculpture that the exhibition once rebelled against. It is an archaic environment where a group of figures of indeterminable gender are resting by a pool of water. There is a sense of new morning air in the work, which reflects its placement in a public park environment. One of the figures is conked out on the ground, another stares into the distance and a third stretches its back with its eyes turned toward the sky. Meanwhile, the figures are a little torn and leaking water in places. Some are made of plaster and will collapse over the course of the exhibition. Yet it is precisely the tired, old and awkward that contradicts the inhumane and totalitarian ideology now gaining further ground in politics. Instead of active and perfect bodies, Eisenman shapes an idea of rest and a rudiment for a truly heterogeneous and human political community. 

Ayse Erkmen, On Water, 2017. Photo: Henning Rogge.

What unites Eisenman with artists such as Alexandra Pirici or Oscar Tuazon – who has erected a concrete sculpture in an abandoned industrial lot in the city’s southern part – is how the idea of an artistic and political public sphere comes to be about closeness, touch, rest and bodily community. Tuazon’s sculpture is built around an oven where passersby can warm themselves, a generous gesture in a cold and inhumane time. The sculpture’s robust form gives the impression it will stand in this place for a long time, in contrast to Eisenman’s sculpture. Both works point toward a precarious life at a distance from art’s global circulation. A new primitivism, perhaps.

The opposite tendency consists of public art that is integrated into or subsumed by a circulation beyond its specific place in the city. It then becomes a part of the privatization that divides people’s attention and shatters the possibility for a local political community. In some cases it appears to be only the amount of invested time and money that separates site-specific sculpture from what the curators describe as the other, “exchangeable” biennial art. These conflicting tendencies have perhaps always been part of Skulptur Projekte, whose history coincides with the rise of neoliberal hegemony from the late 70s to today. This period was marked by a lack of political alternatives, while art had to make do with social or historical corrections. That contemporary politics has been radicalized and has even reestablished its link to utopian temporality remains invisible in the exhibition. Is this perhaps the result of the curators’ notion of a sensible art with modest political demands? If so, that is the program of an increasingly conservative art with its roots in a time we have already left behind.

Ei Arakawa, Harsh Citation, Harsh Pastoral. Harsh Münster, 2017. Photo: Henning Rogge.