Nam June Paik
32 Cars for the 20th Century
Play Mozart's Requiem
Huang Yong Ping
100 Arms of Guan-yin
Wolfgang Winter and
Reading the Words . . .
The Best of All Possible Worlds
Etude de couleur
Joep van Lieshout
Prototype No. 33 . . .
Fun House for Münster
Public sculpture is treated seriously these days, but nowhere more so than in the small Westphalian town of Münster. Since the summer of 1977, when nine artists were invited to make public art works there, Münster has become synonymous with the idea of an international laboratory for contemporary public art. Enlarged to over 50 artists in 1987 and about the same number this summer, the show provides a fair cross-section of the state of site-specific sculpture today.
An exhibition like this might be swallowed up in a large metropolis but it clearly impacts the face of a small town. Easily reached from not-too-distant Kassel, it is curator Kasper Konig's antidote to this summer's major art sprawl, Documenta X. A smaller and more focused exhibition, this incarnation is well worth seeing.
In contrast to the secrecy surrounding Documenta's participants, in Münster the chosen artists are announced the year before. They come through town to seek out sites and investigate ways to realize their ideas. Approval processes are undertaken, and it is not uncommon for an artist's proposal to be rejected by the relevant municipal bodies. As a result, projects are modified and some do not get done on time. For example, I did not see the promising pieces by Richard Deacon and Jeff Koons, which were to be installed in July. Such vagaries are frankly laid out in the catalogue, along with Walter Grasskamp's thoughtful essay Art and the City , which gives an overview of the main issues and summarizes the 1977 and '87 installations.
Naturally there is variability in artists' willingness to engage the public sphere. Some prefer to hunker in the old wing of the Landesmuseum, where Thomas Schutte's Michelin Man-like figures were situated. Rachel Whiteread's architectural placement of cast books, or more precisely, casts of the spaces behind the books on a shelf, fills the museum's courtyard balcony. The work is closely related to her Vienna Holocaust monument commission, and seems to press for the latter's completion. Others, such as Charles Ray's movie trailer, manage to disappear into the urban space.
Not conceding the exhaustion of the monument, Huang Yong Ping's 100 Arms of Guan-yin is an ironic enlargement of and cross-cultural addition to Duchamp's Bottle Rack. Each bottle spike extends a mannequin arm toward the sky, its hand clutching a different instrument. Some items are related to Indian art, others come from our daily life: bells, sticks, an arrow, a skull. This novel 100-armed Buddha is a witty collision of cultures and art histories.
Nam June Paik also transforms Western icons. He took a bevy of vintage automobiles, painted them silver, and arrayed them in front of the Baroque palace known as the Schloss. The 32 antique cars are in four groups of eight, each standing for a decade of production from the 1920s to the '50s. Gleaming in the sun, they are reborn. After sunset some faintly emit sounds of Mozart's requiem, and appear like ghosts of a party at Gatsby's mansion.
Among the most truly public works is the assemblage of multi-colored milk crates by Wolfgang Winter and Berthold Horbelt, an ingenious use of ready-made materials. Their structure in the train station was the first piece I stumbled upon, and it provided free information about the show itself. Pragmatically, it also functioned as much needed station seating, and was in use whenever I passed. Their site in the city center, for which they constructed a building entirely of these milk crates, fulfilled different needs. It became a nightly hangout for local youth.
Among other highlights were Ilya Kabakov's Looking Up. Reading the Words..., an outdoor piece that is a departure from his usual focus on interior rooms. From a distance Kabakov's structure looks like an antenna. Close up, however, its "broadcast" becomes visible: sentences in wire strung 15 meters overhead. They are in German and refer back to the spectator, lying in the grass, looking up into the sky. The effect here depended on the paradoxical etheriality of the text, both physically and conceptually, in a steel structure appearing so durable and functional.
Martin Kippenberger's Metro-Net, a sheet-metal fragment of a subway ventilation system, is incongruously sited in a bucolic park. Periodically it emits sounds of passing subway trains (of which there are none in this bicycle-laden town). Combining a look of Minimal sculpture with a certain anthropomorphism, this "grey elephant" perfectly sums up the late artist's utopian wit: the work is actually part of his imaginary world-wide transit system. It connects -- so far only in an artistic sense -- with a related work, a "subway entry" installed at Kassel.
This reference to transportation systems reminds one of Hans Haacke's unrealized plan for bus posters at Münster in 1987. This time Haacke points to homegrown, historical militarism. Next to a classicizing stone memorial to three Prussian 19th-century military victories, he installed an old merry-go-round, surrounded with a high wooden fence topped with barbed wire. Both sculptures are the same size. The analogy to guard towers and camps is clear, as is the gesture toward the nationalist forces behind the 1909 memorialization. At night the carousel operates behind the planks, with flashing colored lights, a surreal apparition which puzzled me when I first glimpsed it from a passing car.
Allen Ruppersberg also deals with German history, but in the context of individual experience and the private sphere. Ruppersberg interviewed local residents about the most significant event of their lives. Though the histories span the '20s to the '60s, several stories emerged of the World War II years -- a shop bombed, an arrest. Their memories are collected in a booklet, and the related sites marked by round commercial-looking signs, which carry as their logo the image of an eye. These become alternatives to both the spectacle of urban signage and the historical marker or plaque.
In the museum Ruppersberg's room is installed like a travel agent's office. It is presided over by a white-face actor dressed as Voltaire's Candide, who provides the spectator-client with information about the tour of the marked sites, and makes allusion to Candide's exploits. Touring or not, everyone comes across Ruppersberg's eye-pupil sign around town, inscribed with Voltaire's ironic "the best of all possible worlds." It effectively offers a puzzle to be deciphered or pondered by the (wo)man in the street. Those who obtain the guide book and learn the stories participate in incrementally transforming the personal or individual into public history and memory.
Franz West remains a popular artist in Europe and shows half a dozen of his fragile, quirky papier-mâché sculptures in the museum but, unfortunately, none that the viewer may handle. Outdoors, he has placed two pieces at either end of a scenic, willow-lined pond on the promenade ring. Etude de couleur has a multi-colored path of floor panels leading up to a similarly-hued pissoir. The (male) spectator is invited to relieve himself in a narrow trough which clearly feeds into the nearby frothy waterfall. He is positioned to look across the pond to Autostat, a large pink shape that resembles a turd. Thus a normally private matter is brought into the public sphere, improbably, resulting in an odd tension.
The most famous avant-garde urinal was made by Marcel Duchamp, of course, and as West's actualization of the Duchampian gesture indicates, quite a number of artists are interested to challenge the definition of "sculpture." While Rauschenberg focused his Pop sculpture of the '60s on a critical "gap between art and life," the artists of today artists don't perceive any such discontinuity.
Their projects include gardening, foot massage, signage, running horses, illuminating a room, talking to students and a children's puppet play. The artist's advocates say that they are resisting the commodity, but the absence of a discrete art object makes the impact of most of the works fairly negligible for all but the direct participants. In fact, such works heavily depend on being framed by the exhibition context.
Jorge Pardo's wooden pier cannot be distinguished from a functional one, though a walk out along his dock is quite pleasant. Pardo relates to earlier experiments in architectonic sculpture, including Armajani's 1986 Study Garden, which remains in place in Münster. Architecture/sculpture is one predominant mode here, and is presented by Kim Adams, Stephen Craig, Dan Graham, Haacke, Thomas Hirschhorn and Per Kirkeby.
For me one of the most engaging of this type is Joep van Lieshout atelier's caravan of three designed vehicles. House Friend includes his own functioning customized mobile home, a nice base for working on site, plus two additional campers. The encamped Kröller-Müller Home (1995) is vividly colored and attention grabbing. Most striking is its organic, brain-like yellow protrusion which turns out, most appropriately, to house the sleeping alcove. The most recent work, the Spartan military green Autocrat, has facilities for catching rainwater and preparing meat. In other words, it is the perfect base for the self-sufficient, quasi-military man in the woods. These all gain by the association of the caravan as an effective metaphor for the migration and displacement of peoples in recent years.
With the third show, the sculpture project deepens its own institutionalization and history. A crucial and interesting aspect of the project is the town as palimpsest of the two earlier installations, which are documented at the museum. Some of the pieces from those shows have been permanently installed, most recently the Dan Graham and Rebecca Horn from 1987, just in time for this incarnation. The town's funding, and its approval boards, still shape the exhibition, as well as its permanent remains.
And, to some extent, so does the public response: Andreas Slominski's bike tire was soon gone, and two of the cast plaster heads from the anatomical institute made by Christine Borland were stolen from their stone plinths. Thus the piece had to be taken off view. A random act, or someone upset by the connections Borland had made between the University's former medical faculty and Nazi eugenics in the catalogue?
Some well-known sculptors, including honored third-time exhibitors, are too far along in their career to significantly re-engage the site. Andre's "project," for instance, is a call for reduced littering. Yet hot young artists can also seem too preoccupied, as in Venice Biennale prize-winner Fabrice Hybert's fairly desultory museum installation. The result is that some of the most interesting works were done by artists unfamiliar to me, such as Huang, van Lieshout, and Winter and Horbelt.
An appealing part of the town as exhibition space is the treasure-hunt aspect, learning the layout and following your map to (mostly) find the outdoor works. In a sense, the spectator completes the interactive trails the artists have cast into the public sphere. Overall, if the art-tourists boost the local economy enough, these decennial shows may continue (the current incarnation was in doubt at the outset).
Hopefully so, for the aging process of yesterday's select is also interesting to consider. To judge from this current selection of younger artists, public sculpture has a future, especially when it engages the specifics of the site. A dose of skepticism about the traditional monument is useful, but not to the point where the "project" becomes undifferentiated from life at large.
Top Ten tips for the visitor:
1. Sensible shoes
2. Walk at least part of the route. That way you see the town and the terrain, and encounter fellow art pilgrims. Plan another mode of transport (bike or car) for more outlying pieces, and for variety. (Bicycles, and tours, are available at the museum.)
3. See the museum show first. That way you get some idea of many of the outdoor works. (Also you should decide to spare the footwork in some cases.)
4. Buy the catalogue, it's useful.
5. Don't go on Monday. (Museum and attended outdoor works are closed) n.b. The museum is only open until 7 p.m., not midnight as optimistically projected in preliminary materials.
6. Check at the museum for updated schedules of when certain pieces are open or functioning. Pick up a free magazine with map (also available at Winter and Horbelt's milk crates).
7. Bring an umbrella! It's a very rainy summer in Europe this year.
8. Don't expect to find everything.
9. Enjoy the town itself, the parks and streams, the good bookstores near the Hirschhorn piece.
10. Website is www.artthing.de/muenster.
LEWIS KACHUR is New York art historian and critic.