Dominique Gonzalez Foerster, Roman de Münster (A Münster Novel).
Walking in Münster:
Sculpture in the Public Sphere
By Philip Auslander
Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, respectively the director and curator of Documenta XII, on view in Kassel, Germany, expressed their intentions for the exhibition by saying that they hoped to create “a space in which both ‘art work’ and ‘audience’ challenge one another and are qualified” and to pose such questions as: “What is contemporary art? What is a public? What is the present?” They sought to address these issues by “privileging direct confrontation with the art-work” rather than a highly contextualized presentation.
Although I do not feel compelled to add my voice to those who have already pointed to the glaring flaws and failures of Documenta XII, I will go on record as observing that the exhibition does a poor job of achieving the goals set by its organizers. Far from encouraging direct confrontation with the works on display, their exhibition strategies mediate the relationship between viewer and art in heavy-handed and solipsistic ways. As Shep Steiner points out in his contribution to this issue of The Art Section, this edition of Documenta takes curation itself as its subject, as if it were the only means through which art and public interact.
The degree to which Documenta XII reneges on its organizers’ stated agenda was brought home to me by the success of Skulptur Projekte Münster 07, a concurrent exhibition just down the road (so to speak) at achieving similar goals. Every ten years since 1977, the city of Münster has played host to visiting artists who create projects for sites scattered through the town and its environs. Thirty-three projects are featured this time out; since thirty-nine works from previous years remain in place permanently, a visit to Münster provides an opportunity to see a great many, mostly large-scale installations and to contemplate the evolution of the form over four decades.
The definition of “sculpture” in Münster is exceedingly broad: almost anything can qualify. Diamantas Narkevicius’s The Head is a video about a sculpture: the gigantic bust of Karl Marx in Chemnitz (Narkevicius originally proposed moving the bust to Muenster, then suggested making a copy to show in Münster, but the Lord Mayor of Chemnitz refused both requests). Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset take a related tack in Drama Queens, a performance and video in which objects strongly resembling famous sculptures stand onstage and trade quips scripted by Tim Etchells of the British performance group Forced Entertainment. Also related to performance, though in a completely different vein, is Susan Philipsz’s lovely sound installation The Lost Reflection, in which the artist sings a bacarole from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, her recorded voices calling to one another from under the two sides of a bridge that spans the Aasee, Münster’s picturesque artificial lake.
A great many pieces engage directly and topically with Münster’s history and politics. Martha Rosler’s installations remind us of some of Münster’s less glorious historical moments through specific artifacts (the cages used to display the corpses of Anabaptist leaders, the decorative Nazi eagle from a former Luftwaffe headquarters), while Gustav Metzger’s Aequivalenz—Shattered Stones draws a parallel between the destruction of the cathedral at Coventry, UK and the Royal Air Force’s bombing of Münster along with other German cities in response through piles of stones assembled in both cities during the course of the exhibition. With Diffuse Einträge (Diffuse Entries), a dramatic pumping installation that spews water and purifying chemicals into the Aasee, Tue Greenfort points to the ecological crisis occurring within that body of water due to run-off from the meat-processing plants central to the region’s economy. One of the most effective meditations on Münster is Eva Meyer and Eran Schaerf’s film Sie könnte zu ihnen gehören (She Could Belong to You), which juxtaposes scenes focusing on female characters from three existing films set in Münster, two fictional and one documentary, all dealing with World War II and its aftermath, with a seemingly allegorical figure who speaks directly to the audience and may represent the city herself.
This direct engagement with the city, its history, and the issues it currently confronts is mirrored in the visitor’s experience of navigating the Skulptur Projekte with the rather unhelpful map provided by the organizers. The distribution of works throughout the city inevitably leads one to see a great deal of the city and its contrasting areas: the concentric rings of the densely packed upscale shopping district at the center versus the suburban residential areas near the zoo versus the university versus government service buildings, and so on. Whether by design or not, the sculpture seekers become a community within the community, identifiable by their common possession of maps and short guides (that at least have pictures of what you’re looking for) and sometimes huddled together in consultation about which work is to be found where. One becomes very conscious of one’s presence as someone on a quest, in Münster for a specific purpose different from the everyday lives of its residents.
And yet, the community of sculpture seekers overlaps with that of the citizens of Münster because many locals themselves undertake the sculpture hunt. And even those who do not may find themselves interacting with the works of art nevertheless. For example, I observed that Manfred Pernice’s D & F Anlage-Y.E.S.(Ü), a gazebo-like structure situated at the corner of a public park, was used in different ways by different groups at different times of day. Throughout much of the day, it functioned as a work of art to which the sculpture seekers were drawn. In the late afternoon, however, it became more of a resting place and conversation spot for local people using the park at the end of their workday. In the evening, it was taken over by beer-drinking teenagers. None of these engagements has anything overtly to do with the work’s programmatic content: it evokes a center elsewhere in Münster for asylum-seekers awaiting deportation that was once an army barracks. (Once one becomes aware of this referent, of course, one may find occasion to consider the implicit contrast between those who seek to live freely in Germany and those who already are.) Similarly, on a sunny morning, children played on the quarter-scale models of sculpture projects past and present that make up Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s funny and charming Roman de Münster (A Münster Novel), sliding on slopes, running bikes along ramps. Again, this use of the installation had little to do with its status or purpose as art but everything to do with its being a source of pleasure located in public space.
Much more than the organizers of Documenta XII, who confined the exhibition to formal, interior, museum spaces, the curators of Skulptur Projekte Münster 07 succeeded in creating “a space in which both ‘art work’ and ‘audience’ challenge one another and are qualified” and in “privileging direct confrontation with the art-work.” Certainly, the insistence on exploring Münster’s history, especially with reference to World War II, offers a potentially profound challenge to both the German audience and the international visitors. Both groups are invited to ask, “What is the present?” in relation to a very particular history. The exhibition catalog also implicitly documents limitations on the degree to which challenges to the audience are possible in public space. For example, whereas Rosler’s proposal to place an effigy of the Nazi eagle on a busy corner in the heart of town was realized, her proposals to place a menorah in the Aasee and a large image of the destroyed old synagogue on the façade of the current, postwar synagogue were not. I am not reading anything specific into these unachieved proposals: they may not have been realized for perfectly good reasons. They stand, nevertheless, for the many forces and factors that limit what makes its way into public space and, thus, to the audience, and constitute real challenges to work that would challenge the audience. And the audience itself sometimes challenges the work on other grounds by using it in ways that obviate its intended purpose. It seems unlikely, for instance, that the beer-drinking teenagers are pondering their relationship to asylum seekers scheduled for deportation, yet their use of Pernice’s intervention into public space is as significant as any other.
This observation leads directly to the question “What is a public?” Is the public for art made up only of those who treat objects in public space as artworks, or does it consist of everyone who engages with those objects in any fashion (e.g., as social space, as recreational space, as a space for their own artistic expression)? Are any forms of engagement off limits? One of the older works still in Münster, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Pool Balls (1977), appears in photographs on the artists’ own website covered with colorful graffiti. Despite the artists’ apparent acceptance of this form of interaction with their work, the balls were clean as a whistle for the 2007 exhibition. Skulptur Projekte Münster demonstrates clearly that terms such as “artwork,” “audience,” and “public” are contested sites: nothing about their definitions or the relationships among them may be taken for granted.
Martha Rosler, Unsettling the Fragments. Photo: Skulptur Projekte Münster.
Philip Auslander teaches Performance Studies at Georgia Tech.