THE ART WORLD IS A TRIP. With the Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennale, Documenta in Athens and Kassel, and Skulptur Projekte Münster all coinciding in one “süperkunstyear,” it’s hard for even the most veteran art traveler to keep up.
Over the weekend, the venerable Skulptur Projekte Münster began to draw crowds from Documenta or those en route to Zurich and Basel for its fifth edition since its inception in 1977. Skulptur Projekte’s unique model—new sculptural commissions installed mostly in public spaces every ten years—makes for a provocative scavenger hunt of public art. The show is deeply indebted to its two founding curators, Klaus Bußmann and Kasper König, and at Saturday’s jam-packed opening celebration at the LWL–Museum für Kunst and Kultur, König invited Bußmann onstage to rousing cheers.
More than four decades prior, Bußmann enlisted König to curate a section of a modern sculpture exhibition, which evolved into the show we have today. It was originally a pedagogical response to a maelstrom of criticism in the local Münster newspaper against the abstraction of George Rickey’s 1973 kinetic sculpture Three Rotating Squares. “We aimed to put the people of Münster in contact with the international scene,” Bußmann told me, “a local event on the highest level. In 1977, it seemed like Kasper and I were the only people who liked it—university students even tried to throw the Claes Oldenburg sculpture in the lake. But public opinion has completely changed over the years and people in the city have come to embrace the show.”
The charismatic König has been central to each Skulptur Projekte, and the energy of the exhibition continues to derive in part from that early idea of exposing Münster to cutting-edge art. This year, König served as artistic director alongside curators Britta Peters and Marianne Wagner, and Skulptur Projekte featured thirty-five new projects, free of charge.
Works by Jeremy Deller and Ayşe Erkmen, social as much as sculptural, are noteworthy for their local engagement. Ten years and two Skulptur Projektes in the making, Deller’s Speak to the Earth and It Will Tell You, 2007–17, takes as its subject the Schrebergärten, communities where German families are allotted twenty-by-twenty-meter garden plots for leisure time. Deller provided these families with a diary to fill however they like, with the understanding that the contents would eventually be made public. Over the decade, dozens of families participated, and the books can now be viewed in the Mühlenfeld garden colony. It’s a moving record of German life told through personal entries and pictures. While walking through the quaint community, I recognized teenagers whose family events were chronicled in one of the diaries, and I felt an uncanny sense that I knew them.
Crowds were so excited about Erkmen’s work that I could hear the commotion from around the corner. For On Water, Erkman installed an underwater bridge of steel grates—approximately twenty feet wide and two hundred feet long—across Münster’s inland harbor, so that it appeared as though the throngs crossing it were walking on water. I watched as nearly one hundred visitors playfully traversed back and forth. Curator Rick Herron spoke of On Water’s “generosity,” saying it “brings people together across communities and allows them to experience their city anew, through their bodies. The work itself disappears, and the only thing left is everyone engaging it. It’s deep, literally and figuratively.”
Indeed, over the past four decades, Skulptur Projekte has made Münster into one of the world’s leading sites for public art, attracting international crowds that bike from one work to the next. The small German town of approximately 300,000 residents expects close to 650,000 visitors to the exhibition over the course of its one hundred days. Sculptures from previous iterations by the likes of Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, Jenny Holzer, and Rachel Whiteread are still scattered throughout Münster as part of the city’s public collection. Montreal’s SBC Gallery director Pip Day reflected on the specific viewing context of Skulptur Projekte, in contrast to its German counterpart Documenta: “Because the works are not set to a distinct curatorial agenda, and it takes time to move across the city from sculpture to sculpture, there is a different relationship to the art, which is best considered both in and of itself and its particular location.”
The exhibition’s highlights include sculptures whose sites are constitutive to their meaning: Mika Rottenberg integrated a pointed yet playful video about global trade—specifically a massive plastics market in Yiwu, China—within a defunct Asian bazaar. Hito Steyerl’s ongoing investigation into the aesthetics of information circulation is reflected in her sleek sculptures and automaton videos set within the futuristic lobby of a technocratic bank building. Nicole Eisenman’s nude, figurative fountains in bronze and plaster bask in queer frivolity while sprinkling water alongside the Promenade, adjacent to a historic gay-cruising space dating back to World War II. And Ei Arakawa composed his performative LED “paintings” by citing pastoral landscapes, setting them, naturally, in a meadow on the outskirts of Münster, best viewed around sunset.
Wherever so much public art lands, contention seems to follow. The lead up to Skulptur Projekte 2017 involved controversy surrounding two historical works situated adjacent to the LWL–Museum für Kunst and Kultur, the exhibition’s anchor. One of Henry Moore’s outdoor sculptures, Die Archer, is on long-term loan from Berlin’s National Gallery in LWL’s central square. Frustrated that the postwar sculpture’s installation extended into the more contemporary-minded Skulptur Projekte timeline, König and others wanted the Moore sculpture gone. Cosima von Bonin and Tom Burr’s collaboration then became a creative tongue-in-cheek response: von Bonin’s flatbed truck also occupies the central square, and when seen from a particular vantage, it appears to have loaded the Moore sculpture onto its rig for removal. Burr’s shipping-crate addition sits on the truck, coyly labeled FRAGILE, hinting at the complex arena of negotiations inherent in public projects.
The sculpture’s alliterative title and corporate ring, Benz Bonin Burr, also references another controversy in the same courtyard, where Otto Piene’s Silver Frequency lights up the exterior of the museum in a gridded composition. In an act of shameless branding, the regional municipal association Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL) has removed ten of the lights of Piene’s sculpture to place their LWL logo. (To be fair, Piene approved the decision before he passed away, though an artist should never be propositioned to compromise their work for logo placement in the first place.) In a guerrilla gesture, a local Münster resident covered the LWL logo with a gray veil the night before Skulptur Projeckte’s opening, and it has remained that way for days since. Atop a building across the street, Ludger Gerdes’s 1989 sign-sculpture—on loan from nearby Marl, site of a satellite exhibition—appropriately reads ANGST.
“We have to protect Skulptur Projekte Münster’s strong track record and good energy by making sure it remains independent and autonomous,” König said about the future of the exhibition. (This is likely his last iteration at the helm.) To this end, he stressed the importance of its decennial rhythm as a deceleration of contemporary art. He also seemed surprised that I hadn’t made it to the opening party Saturday night, when the artists and hundreds of young locals descended on Club Favela for an all-night bacchanal. “You didn’t go? I was there. Fantastic DJs, very friendly and subtle,” he said. “Perfect for dancing.”
When our conversation turned to the past, particularly the controversy around the 1973 Rickey sculpture that, in a sense, started it all, König seemed pleased that, decades later, the sculpture remains in the State Park in Münster’s center. He and colleague Jana Duda laughed that its slow-moving kinetic energy and abstraction—once derided against with rallying cries—is seen as poetic, calming, and even meditative. “People eat picnics there now.”