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by Abraham Orden
The once-a-decade Skulptur Projekte Münster, June 17-Sept. 30, 2007, has come round for its fourth installment this summer, and it’s sure to make for many a fantastic date, if not for a great Ph.D. dissertation. A sleepy village, bucolic environs, fine weather, plentiful ice cream and a noticeable dearth of schlocky art-world tinsel form the background for a goodly number of high quality, publicly placed artworks new and old. The pace here is on a different register from the rest of the European art-circuit circus, and altogether an unquestionably pleasant visit is ensured for the pious art pilgrims one spots loping about with their picnic baskets.

Nevertheless, a burdensome air of misplaced responsibility and a supporting system of old hat, sociotechnical conceptions of space and culture leave a good part of this first Projekte of the new millennium mired in the debates of the 20th century. For despite all of the re-arrangements in the rhetoric surrounding the "public sphere" witnessed in the past 40 years, much of the art on view here feels well and safely settled within a narrow conception of what is possible. Public art in this context is still conceived as monumental in both scale and subject, socially respectful and politically moralizing.

Perhaps the artists’ positions appear so vanilla because almost all 33 of them are white, or because they all come from prosperous, friendly Western democracies, where one set of values basically predominates. Consider the cases of three German artists, for example: Andreas Siekmann, Annette Werhrmann and Silke Wagner. Siekmann has made a work titled Trickle Down. Public Space in the Era of its Privatization, in which the artist presents side-by-side in a courtyard a large trash compactor and a big ball of broken, pastel-hued animal figures, all covered over in pictographs, presumably demonstrating capitalism at work.

The broken figures turn out to be city mascots that many municipalities have had painted by local artists to display in their towns, a hokey fad that got started in Zürich a few years ago and has since hit every little parish in the U.S. and Europe. Come on, what an easy target -- is it not so kitschy as to be beneath our contempt? Although posed as a critique of capitalism, the work reeks of that artistic elitism which despises anything like vulgar marketing -- which is itself the cliché more urgently in need of deconstruction.

One can’t help but like Wehrmann’s faux construction site, where an earthmover pointlessly digs about in the dirt all day long, under the guise of erecting a foundation for the fictional AaSpa on the shore of Lake Aa, the pristine local body of water. Goofy handmade signage is the only clue that this otherwise perfect simulacrum of a waterfront development is a fake. But waterfront development is no more controversial than kitsch marketing; everyone hates it except those making money from it.

Silke Wagner’s project turns from critique to celebration, a hopeful sign. Her work is in two parts; first is a sculpture in the form of an advertising pillar topped by the clay-colored head of a funny-looking old man by the name of Paul Wulf, a local leftist hero who was castrated by the Nazis at the age of 16. The pillar that is his body is covered over in articles about Wulf’s life and work, as well as histories of the local squatter and anti-nuclear movements, and of political censorship in Germany since 1970, all of which involve the man. The second part of the work consists in uploading a local leftist archive onto the internet. Important? Maybe. Respectable? Assuredly. Safe? Painfully.

To those familiar with the American artist Martha Rosler’s work, it will come as no surprise that she likewise focuses on local history for her piece, titled Unsettling the Fragments. To her credit, she shows a little more chutzpah than the rest in putting a granite sculpture of a Nazi hawk on a stick in the middle of the shopping district, and for putting cages used for 16th-century religious persecutions in front of the library. But again, we can all agree those things are bad.

It’s all too much of a pat on the back. Write me off as an outré Brechtian if you will, but what I’m left craving is an art that moves me politically by giving me a new experience -- of space, of public, of art, whatever. Surely that was the original power of Claus Oldenburg’s giant pool balls, and of Donald Judd’s concentric concrete rings, both of which were conceived for the original 1977 Projekte and are now permanently on view. At first despised or dismissed by the majority of Münster’s citizens, these are now local treasures. Ah, the classic avant-garde!

A high point for the 2007 show is the actualization -- delayed by 40 years -- of another one of those projects from the original exhibition. Bruce Nauman’s Square Depression is a 25-meter square of concrete with diagonal seams, placed into the earth so that the center is lowered about 5.5 feet into the earth at its middle point. For a person standing in the work’s middle, ground level is roughly eye level.

Now that’s phenomenological mind-warping at its best, but it also feels of another time. A subtle and extremely well conceived take on such post-modernist public sculpture in the present tense comes from Rosemarie Trockel, who has installed on the shores of Lake Aa two yew bushes sculpted into adjoining monolithic plinths, each about 15 feet high and with only a small space between, not far from a beautiful field of blooming poppies.

I usually don’t give preference to materials that need a back-story, but there is something powerful about the yew. An old standby in English gardens, the yew can live to be over 1,000 years old. It is extremely poisonous, yet modern medicine extracts a drug for cancer from it. Trockel’s work, however, depends on none of this; its form alone compels. Although it is overtly familiar, it continually undoes our preconceptions. Where we expect stony inertia, there are faunal kinetics; where we read masculine architectonics, there is de-gendered naturalism, and so on.

The most radical conception of what is possible for public art today comes from German art star Isa Genzken, who filled the yard of a church in the middle of the city with her trademark pathetic assemblages. By all rights, it should be striking to see an artist downsize the public artwork into small piles of toys, but from Genzken the gesture reads as thoughtless -- the position is taken by default, since this appears by most lights to just be what Genzken happens to be making right now. The only hint one has that these works are meant for the outdoors -- as opposed, say, to the German pavilion of the Venice Biennale, or to the sales floor of David Zwirner Gallery -- is the umbrella that adorns each sculpture.

Perhaps the most successful works, in the end, are those that synthesize broad social and cultural content with unorthodox forms. The art that achieves this goal has been the most favorably received of the show. Mike Kelley’s installation Petting Zoo is a nice addition to the practice of an artist whose command of history is always stripped of its bookish aura by his talent for garish irreverence. Here we have a petting zoo, replete with goats, miniature ponies and one very large horned cow. Entering their barn, we inhabit the space of these beasts and are face to face with a life-sized, simplified female form carved from solid salt, a statue which doubles, in farming terms, as a salt lick.

In a way in which Georges Bataille could take pride, Kelly conceives of the animals’ licking away of the female body as "the work’s central sculptural act." The supposedly pure and formal process of sculpting is here undeniably lustful and sexually aberrant, a point driven home by the work’s cardinal reference to the Biblical tale of Lot’s wife and the hometowns of Sodom and Gomorrah.

So much more bears mention -- Pae White’s clay church bells deformed by hugs, Jeremy Deller’s community gardening project, Guillaume Bijl’s fake archeological dig -- but it seems fitting to close with the last piece that many will see in town. In the ugliest part of Münster, just near the hauptbahnhof where most visitors arrive and depart, an abandoned movie theater has been reopened, complete with a working concession stand, though without seats. The fulltime feature is Clemens von Wedemeyer’s project, From the Opposite Side, a 35mm piece of first-person cinema verite shot just weeks before the opening in the train station and the surrounding blocks.

In this film, actors have been surreptitiously slipped into reality, but their performances turn out to be no more vivid than the unwitting public’s. The diversity of life on the street, even in such a thoroughly homogeneous place as Münster, is here gloriously revealed by a flaneur filmmaker of true talent and originality.

You leave the theatre to walk the same paths that the camera has traversed, experiencing deja vu, paradoxically accompanied by a giddy sense that everything is different from here on out, now that you are tuned in to just how dynamic and enriching our world is. That the effect has worn off by the time you have boarded your train is perhaps the dreary fact of life lying at the work’s heart.

ABRAHAM ORDEN writes on contemporary art.