“Skulptur Projekte” in Münster und Marl pushes the boundaries of the public space. It used to be controversial. Does contemporary art still hurt anyone these days?
As hard as it tries: contemporary art isn’t a street urchin any more. Not here, not in Münster. On the opening weekend of “Skulptur Projekte”, the major event for art in the public space, people were queuing to get in. Pensioners rolled up their beige slacks while law students gathered up their skirts to walk on water at the invitation of Ayşe Erkmen. The former professor at the Münster Academy installed a mesh in the dock basin so that people could walk from one side to the other and only get wet up to their knees. The dock area lost its rough character a long time ago, its banks are packed full of cafés and restaurants. Art isn’t dangerous and unsettling here, it’s poetic and inspiring. It lures people from their caves, puts them on their bikes and leads them on a scavenger hunt around town. It would seem logical for health insurance companies to fund the sculpture projects as well as banks and the Federal Culture Foundation – as a precautionary measure.
The citizens of Münster used to object to the event, which is held every ten years. The first two shows in 1977 and 1987 were accompanied by massive criticism; all this modern stuff seemed to upset the comfort zone that had become established in the little city since it was rebuilt after the war. But now Münster residents and hordes of guests embrace “Skulptur Projekte”, in the same way that the whole country is currently hankering after the sense of anarchy, physical presence and so-called anti-commercialism exuded by state-funded contemporary art.
Art is rebelling against this in order not to be suppressed – but it does not evoke the same levels of distaste as before. Thomas Schütte has placed a mini nuclear shelter in the park, and its rusty red harmonises with the blooming garden. Alexandra Pirici has taken over the historic town hall, in which the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648. Her six young performers commemorate this and other key occasions, including the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo, through posed images. Visitors appreciate it, nod and photograph the group of actors in front of a wood-panelled backdrop. After all, world history is only a tourist attraction.
The project’s foray to Marl escalates complacency to obscenity
At the tattoo studio run by the American Michael Smith, potential customers over 65 receive a discount. The generation that once banned its children from having too many ear piercings is now invited to go under the needle itself. The motifs on offer are not exactly flattering: “Older Lady”, reads one script, another “do not resuscitate”. But not even this age discrimination protects the art from enthusiasm. Elderly gentlemen stand in line patiently in front of the shop.
Kasper König, Head Curator of all the “Skulptur Projekte” exhibitions so far, realises the risk that too much complacency could cause the art to become meaningless. “Art does not replace toothbrushes”, he laments at the press conference, which is probably supposed to mean: food (and dental care) come first, followed by morals. You can only forget that if you have nothing to worry about. That’s why this year’s “Skulptur Projekte” exhibits have also populated Marl, an ailing industrial town nearby that enjoyed its heyday from the fifties to the seventies. In those days the town consisted of an avant-garde collection of the town hall, a museum and lakeside shopping centre, all fringed by modern sculptures. Today there’s barely enough money to put water in the fountain in front of the town hall. It didn’t help the town that the powers-that-be in Münster have now put all their old designs from past “Skulptur Projekte” into the museum cellar for storage and reassigned a few sculptures to Marl. Here it becomes apparent how smart it was of Documenta not only to nominate Athens as an additional location to Kassel this year, but also to give it equal status. This decisiveness has been missing from “Skulptur Projekte”. Visitors come to Marl for an afternoon and experience barely anything more than a shiver of pleasure: you see, that’s the effect of a half-empty shopping centre and a museum where they can’t even splash out on new info boards for a major event.
Art has the ability to bring people together in physical places
This campaign does not thwart the sublime status of the Münster residents (and more generally West Germans), it elevates it to the ridiculous. How much more of a surprise would it have been to make Marl the second main location? OK, you can’t get a decent meal there, or lock up your suitcases at the railway station, and you won’t find a cinema. But if there had been two exhibition sites of equal status, things would have had to change, at least for the summer. As things are, you can’t really blame the people of Marl for not turning up in droves as they have in Münster. The video projects on display in a local school are so contrived and second-rate compared with the impressive works in Münster that you would almost think there was a supreme authority gloating over the regional disparity.
Meanwhile Münster is benefiting from the sculpture swap. Ludger Gerdes’ neon script entitled “Angst” featuring a golfer and a church tower normally hangs in Marl’s office of public order, but now it hangs resplendent in Münster opposite the logistics centre for “Skulptur Projekte”, the LWL State Museum of Art and Culture. Even this seems no more than a sigh: how amazingly revolutionary were the times in which the world and this town still feared aesthetic modernism. Now there’s a risk of art entertainment to which even Gregor Schneider, the master of all things spooky, has succumbed: his labyrinth of doors built into the outside of the museum provides a few manageable moments of horror for people who think ghost trains are too stupid.
Now art has the ability to create experiences and bring people together in physical places. One thing that makes “Skulptur Projekte” stand out from events such as football matches or theme parks is the fact that this happens without commercial pressure. It allows artists as well as visitors to try out new forms in public places. A number of works in Münster have been delightfully successful. American artist Oscar Tuazon has installed a fire building in the docklands that people can use themselves. Argentinian Mika Rottenberg lures visitors to an Asian shop into the excessive world of plastic found in Chinese stores on the Mexican border. And Hervé Youmbi from Cameroon has hung panels embroidered with glass beads in the trees overlooking an old graveyard. They are not there to depict some pre-colonial virgin state – they invoke motifs from pop culture such as the mask inspired by Edvard Munch’s The Scream, taken from the horror film entitled Scream.
The most impressive intervention in the urban environment is by French artist Pierre Huyghe. He ripped up the floor of the abandoned ice rink. This opened up a primeval mud landscape, which is populated by bees, peacocks and a device allegedly containing human cancer cells undergoing cell division, and this in turn is supposed to affect a small aquarium. It’s almost as though Huyghe is experimenting with life after the end of human civilisation. And that really is a new experience.