PRINT November 1993

Sonsbeek 93

Swamped by rain, and not to mention hordes of day-trippers passing through en route to major openings in Antwerp and Venice, the June preview of Sonsbeek 93, in Arnhem, Holland, got the tenth installment of this international sculpture show off to an inauspicious start. The atmosphere was perhaps best captured by the performance by French artist Jean-Baptiste Bruant in a swampy polder zone on the outskirts of town. Spectators calf-deep in mud watched as Bruant dug a hole in the wet earth, let loose a horrific shout into the resulting cavity, and then filled it back up. For those unlucky enough to have missed it, the 20-minute event was captured on video and played several times a day during the exhibition’s 12-week run.

Although the European art mafia closed ranks in support of the “Unité” show in Firminy, France, branding Sonsbeek 93 a fiasco, the exhibition has to be one of the most serious and uncompromised attempts to provide a context for contemporary art that I have lately come across. It’s a judgment that I am distressed to make, if only because I seem to be one of the few people who actually saw the whole thing. According to Valerie Smith, the former director of Artists Space, New York, who organized Sonsbeek 93, the idea was to invite artists to make proposals based on their responses to the city of Arnhem, the history of which includes a devastating World War II bombing and a stigma as something of a border town, with its oasis of legal drugs luring steady traffic from neighboring Germany. There were echoes of at least some of all this in a number of the 45 works by 38 artists and artist groups included.

Unlike most large international exhibitions, which are conceived with a theme but tend to shape themselves according to the curators’ personal tastes and whims, Sonsbeek 93 was permeated by Smith’s faith in process as a dynamic and creative force. Even the 300-page catalogue defies standard format. Following a timeline that runs from Smith’s first notes on the show in September 1991 to the last breathless weeks before the opening some 20 months later, the document incorporates her ongoing interchanges with several dozen artists, many of whom ended up not being in the show (some of the juicier passages reveal aspects of dialogues that the artists might have preferred remain off the record). Brandishing an experimental proposition that rejects the typical curatorial quest for the “perfect” show, Smith’s Sonsbeek had an impact that derived from something more persuasive than the sum total of the works it contained. Spectators were drawn into Sonsbeek 93 as if they were grappling with the same issues as the artists, in the sense that the experience widened the range of their conditioned responses to the problem of art in public places by blurring the boundary between where the site ended and the artist’s intervention began.

If Smith’s selection of artists reveals a slight weakness for well-known names—Michael Asher, Alighiero e Boetti, Patrick Corillon, Mark Dion, Pepe Espaliú, Ann Hamilton, Mike Kelley, Annette Messager, Juan Muñoz, Allen Ruppersberg, Rémy Zaugg, and Lawrence Weiner figured prominently—an important difference from similarly star-studded projects was how much the works emphasized aspects of many artists’ sensibilities that might not have been recognizable even to their fans. Smith’s determination to produce works that reflected the nature of the setting seemed to provoke especially inventive departures from each artist’s repertoire.

For example, Kelley’s contribution consisted of a curated exhibition of artworks, artifacts, and documentation that the artist brought together around the idea of “The Uncanny.” For a first effort at shaping an entire show, “The Uncanny” inadvertently argued that the quality of museum shows might improve dramatically if artists were allowed more input during the curatorial process. Likewise, Hamilton organized a 20-minute barge trip up the Rhine, during which spectators sitting in the hold silently watched a man juggling three onion-like tubers as he stood on a vast pile of them, while in the corner a woman slowly counted beads out loud. Muñoz, a sculptor, contributed a taped radio show that was presented at five each afternoon to whoever happened to be sitting in the Sonsbeek Villa café.

Another encouraging aspect of Sonsbeek 93 was Smith’s prodding of lesser-known artists to produce some of the more ambitious pieces. Blue Funk, a Dublin-based artists’ collective, created a haunting video/slide/sound installation examining the legend of Saint Eusebius (patron saint of Arnhem) for the lobby of a former post office. Keith Piper, an African-British artist whose work often addresses issues of cultural difference, developed an even more ambitious altar-like video installation in a former reformed church that now functions as a tea-house in the city’s red-light district. Dutch artist R. W. van de Wint’s project, consisting of three elaborate earthworks created on tiny islands on the outskirts of town, could be visited only with the artist himself, who brought a handful of people at a time on his motorboat and demonstrated how each piece functioned in relation to the landscape.

Irene and Christine Hohenbüchler, Austrian twins who produce social-collaborative works, spent four months working every day with prisoners in the local jail. Together, they produced a series of paintings and related works and a trio of small, bark-covered pavilions in which the pieces will be kept on permanent display. Israeli artist Eran Schaerf’s elaborate deconstruction of the lobby of the city’s music hall, while not exactly appealing, nevertheless enabled one both to see the original architecture’s flaws and to envision how a more imaginative design scheme might have fared. Finally, after studying the cruising patterns of Arnhem’s gay populace within the park, U.S. artist Tom Burr created a scale model of Central Park’s Ramble, complete with indigenous North American shrubbery and signs discussing the adaptation of the park’s design to accommodate multiple groups of users.

Obviously, a project of this size could not have escaped a few missteps. One of Patrick Corillon’s trademark hyperprosaic narratives, distributed across a trio of lecternlike stands that drew attention to the subject of the historical fantasy—a damaged statue in Arnhem’s center—proved only that this Belgian artist is far too easily satisfied with his own efforts. Liz Lamer and L.A. architect Susan Narduli both underestimated the amount of time needed to realize their proposal of wrapping dozens of trees in an unusual wire mesh; finishing only a few, the artists left behind the uncompleted project as a relic of their shortsightedness.

While Polish artist Zuzanna Janin’s idea to frame in Plexiglas the outlines of a destroyed building was promising, the result was much less interesting. Ken Hardy, an Irish video artist, stretched the bounds of both credulity and poetic license by placing a video monitor at the bottom of a demolition chute. Annette Messager contracted Sunday painters to sit in the Gemeentemuseum and “copy” the landscape from the window, in a half-baked realization of a concept that other artists (Sophie Calle, Maria Eichorn) have handled more convincingly.

For this year’s Sonsbeek, the citizens of Arnhem, a city that boasts more public statuary per capita than any other in Europe, felt unusually free to express their own opinions about some of the works. Unfortunately, their responses, in several instances, took the form of vandalism. British sculptor Marc Quinn’s elaborate glass-enclosed cell, which changed, when triggered by a random electric charge, from opaque to transparent just long enough to reveal a lifesize nude of the artist, sporting an impressive erection and spraying wine-colored liquid from every orifice, was wrecked with a sledgehammer, and “Godless” was scrawled across it. German artist Andreas Siekmann had built a red enclosure around a small, seedy plaza that had been scheduled for demolition. The wall incorporated more than a hundred peepholes, through which one could view drawings depicting alternative strategies for the plaza’s future. Although the work inspired several planning-board meetings to air local views, some Arnhemers repeatedly scaled the walls of Siekmann’s enclosure and either wrecked his peepholes or replaced his drawings with their own. And Polish artist Pawel Althamer’s customized benches for Sonsbeek park had to be chained to the nearest trees to keep them from being carted off.

But even the handful of failed projects in Sonsbeek 93 seemed to have resulted from interesting ideas that simply didn’t pan out, whereas the shortcomings of most large-scale exhibitions are usually grounded in the curator’s inability to just say no. Coming at a moment in which it has become fashionable to doom all international surveys to failure years before they even open, such news is encouraging. It suggests that the missing ingredient in megashows like Documenta or “Metropolis” is not just sensitivity—it’s a convincing and cohesive theme that doesn’t get lost in too much cleverness or pandering to the viewer. For those who made the effort to deal with Smith’s construct on its own terms, the principles that fueled Sonsbeek 93—integrity of theme, openness to new ideas, and the sense to give credit to the audience for more than a minimum of intelligence and diligence—are readily apparent in a show that will not be forgotten quickly.

Dan Cameron is a curator and critic living in New York.