Close on the heels of this summer's European triple-header -- the Venice Biennale, the Basel art fair and Documenta X -- comes the last in this series, Kasper König's Münster Sculpture Project, an event held every ten years in Münster, a small city in the Rhine valley near both Cologne and Frankfurt. Sponsored by the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, the show runs June 22-Sept. 28, 1997. Perhaps the happiest event in a frantic month of power-handshakes, networking, hors d'oeuvres and art-watching, this year the Münster Sculpture Project opened the day after Documenta, and many art-world visitors hopped from the social and political melee of Kassel to the security of König's more sublime event.
Münster was launched back in 1977, when curator König and Münster museum chief Klaus Bussmann organized a show of public art in the city. It featured nine artists, including Josef Beuys and major U.S. Minimalists (Andre, Judd, Nauman and Serra), and was greeted as a seminal event. Ten years later the show was repeated, expanded this time to 63 artists, including the original group as well as students of Beuys: Stephan Balkenhol, Lothar Baumgarten, Katharina Fritsch, Isa Genzken and Reinhard Mucha. From the U.S. came figures of the moment: Dennis Adams, Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer and Jeff Koons. And from Arte Povera were added Giovanni Anselmo, Luciano Fabro, Mario Merz and Giuseppe Penone. For many, Münster 1987 was a landmark show, marking the coming-of-age of a certain generation of German artists, as well as indicating at last the proper place of Conceptual art -- outside the museum.
Now, in the 1997 installment, a third generation of artists has arrived, a group that numbers 74 people (including 20 graduates of previous shows). Only about 65 percent of the proposed projects are actually realized throughout the city; the rest are presented in the City Museum. Since the collapse of the art market in the early 1990s, many younger artists appear to be making less commodifiable, more public work. There's something about König's vision that has brought out the best in all the artists involved. Münster 97 was an inspiring event.
Visitors attend the exhibition by circumnavigating the city by bike or on foot. Cycling through the city armed with a map, you come across works such as Hans Haacke's Standort Merry-go-round -- a boarded up merry-go-round topped by barbed wire, like a concentration camp. Peering through the gaps in the boards, the horses can be seen going `round as the forbidden part of the German national anthem plays (forbidden to be used after Nazism), a reminder of the conveniently blocked-out (nostalgia for the) past.
Rebecca Horn takes over an abandoned tower, installing thousands of tiny electronically sequenced hammers that slowly tap it to bits in a piece called The Contrary Concert. Daniel Buren makes a brilliant intervention of stripped bunting across the main street. Isa Genzken makes a piece to be seen at night, a giant orb-like lamp that turns into a surreal second moon over the lake.
Perhaps the most spectacular piece of all is by Ayse Erkmen, a Turkish woman artist. Every day a helicopter lands on the museum roof, collects a classical sculpture from the museum's holdings and flies it suspended over the city for an hour. Erkmen radically puts into practice the original concept of the Münster project, artwork leaving the museum to go into the public space.
This idea is also discussed in an essay in the catalog by Daniel Buren titled "Can Art Get Off Its Pedestal and Rise to Street Level?" Overall, the Münster project carries out the Futurist tenet that "the museum is the graveyard of art" and also puts the ideas of `60s Conceptualism into reality, that is, to move out of the stasis of the museum context into real public space. It would appear that with König's scheme, a group of artists have found the go-between.
Of the `60s generation of artists newly included are Conceptualist Lawrence Weiner and Fluxus artist Nam June Paik. Arte Povera has a lesser presence, notable primarily for one beautiful piece by Alighiero e Boetti. It's interesting to notice a shift in the work from the utopianism of the `60s artists to the deconstructivism of the `70s-'80s generation, from the poetics and surrealism of Fluxus to the darker meditations in Rebecca Horn's piece. This motif continues through many of her generation, in Olav Metzel's piece concerning an endlessly crashing car, or the younger Maria Eichhorn who bought a lot of land for the 100 days of the exhibition to highlight civic structures concerning ownership. The middle group seem a much more skeptical generation. In Catherine David's introduction to the Documenta X book, she talks about the later `70s being a period of dissidence, ambiguity and regression. It is interesting to see how these words are somewhat borne out in the work of the 25 or so artists of that generation included in this year's Münster project.
Of the `90s generation König has included a mix of mainly European and American artists, including Stan Douglas, Ayse Erkmen, Douglas Gordon, Gabriel Orozco, Jorge Pardo, Andreas Slominski, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Rachel Whiteread and Andrea Zittel. No particular tendency is favored. One might say that it is a group of artists who have a particular level of visibility in European institutions currently, often due to König's immense power in German cultural politics.
What is fascinating in the structure of this exhibition is how younger working methods fall into relief, away from a Utopianism, or Deconstructivism to a greater plurality of practices. They appear to fall into two camps. The first is those involved in socially engaged practices, stemming from the performance in the public sphere of `70s artists like Gordon Matta-Clark. This you can see in the "selflessness" of the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, who builds a puppet theater in a park, and hires the local schoolchildren to perform a play performed in the same location in the 19th century. Or Tadashi Kawamata, who builds a ferry to transport rehabilitated alcoholics from their center across the lake to the city center, or in Erkmen's work.
Other artists like Douglas Gordon or Andreas Slominski seem concerned with using the artwork as a more literal metaphor. Gordon uses a darkened pedestrian subway to project two classic films, The Exorcist and The Song of Bernadette, back-to-back on one screen in a piece called Between Darkness and Light (after William Blake). The pedestrian subway becomes a kind of virtual purgatory through which to pass. In a more Dada-esque move, Slominski uproots a lamppost in order to place an abandoned tire around it. The tire was then later stolen. Both artists use Minimalist gestures to produce a more emotionally charged hybrid Neo-Conceptualism.
The structure of the Münster project highlights many levels of Conceptual practice and its developing stategies over the last 20 years. One wonders what it will be like -- whether the German economy could support such a venture -- in the united European economic system of 2007. Meanwhile, this is the landmark international show of 1997.
RUPERT GOLDSWORTHY is an artist, gallerist and writer, based in New York and Berlin.