PRINT May 2007

International News

Elizabeth Schambelan talks with the curators of Skulptur Projekte Münster ’07

EVERY TEN YEARS, sculpture’s still-expanding field maps itself across a particular geographical terrain: the streets of Münster, Germany, where Skulptur Projekte Münster was inaugurated in 1977. The show, which brings together a diverse array of practitioners to create projects throughout the city, is at once a kind of think tank for considering the relationship between art and the public sphere, and an ambitious state-of-the-medium report. Two projects from this year’s lineup—Bruce Nauman’s Square Depression, 1977/2007, an “inverted pyramid” incised into the lawn of the city’s Institute of Sciences, and Dora Garcia’s production of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, staged so as to be “barely distin­guishable from real life”—suggest the broad continuum that the exhibition will traverse. Staking out various points along it are some thirty-five artists, including well-known figures (Pawel Althamer, Isa Genzken, David Hammons, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Mark Wallinger) and less familiar ones (Nairy Baghramian, Guy Ben-Ner, Maria Pask). In conversation, the organizers—Brigitte Franzen, curator of contemporary art at the Westphalian State Museum of Art and Cultural History in Münster; Carina Plath, director of the Westfälischer Kunstverein, also in Münster; and Kasper König, director of Cologne’s Museum Ludwig and a founding curator of Skulptur Projekte—cited the radical oeuvre of one participant, underground eminence Gustav Metzger, as a conceptual fulcrum of sorts. Beyond that, they hesitated to posit overarching affinities or trends, refraining from imposing lines of demarcation on the varied artistic topography they seek to survey.

ELIZABETH SCHAMBELAN: Ostensibly, Skulptur Projekte Münster isn’t thematic. Unlike Documenta or the Venice Biennale, Skulptur Projekte doesn’t adhere to an umbrella concept that provides audiences with a frame through which to think about the work on view. But were you nevertheless guided in your decisions by a particular set of ideas?

BRIGITTE FRANZEN: One idea we had from the beginning was to see the exhibition as a long-term study. What’s really distinctive about Skulptur Projekte in terms of those other shows, I think, is its ten-year rhythm. This summer will see the fourth edition of Skulptur Projekte, or its thirtieth anniversary, by which point more than 175 artists will have participated. With that in mind, we invited some artists who had participated before—Thomas Schütte, Isa Genzken, Michael Asher—who could function as points of reference for the show’s changing context.

ES: I know that Michael Asher is doing his “Caravan” project—a regular car trailer, a readymade, that he moves to a different site in Münster each week—for the fourth time. In fact, he has used the same trailer and gone to the same sites in ’77, ’87, ’97—and now this year?

KASPER KÖNIG: Yes, it’s like “Play it again, Sam.” But each decade the project has a different meaning. Michael was suggested to us for the first Skulptur Projekte by Dan Graham, who said, “This guy is on a completely different trip.” And so Michael came and did his “Caravan” project, and of course nobody understood this kind of urbanist California metaphor. Then he did it again ten years later, and insiders thought it was a pastiche of Conceptual technique. The third time around, however, it was taken very seriously. In looking at the project over time, you can see not only how the work’s reception has changed, but how the city has changed—even regarding things like zoning, which obviously affects where the trailer can be parked. This time, Michael spent days and days working out how the parking regulations have changed. Münster is kind of cute, but it’s as complex as any other modern city.

CARINA PLATH: I think it’s important to understand that Skulptur Projekte’s format has very specific consequences for the artist-curator relationship. The curatorial team doesn’t really pre-formulate a set of ideas for audiences, but then, we don’t lay out topics for the artists, either. They have to respond to the situation themselves and develop the projects on-site. On the other hand, we do have a tradition that generates a set of questions about the relationship of art and the public, and about the negotiation of publicness—which is a term you have to think of in the plural and as more contested than in previous years.

ES: How has that relationship—between art and the public—changed since 1977?

KK: Well, it might be significant to note that Skulptur Projekte came about because of a local controversy that had a great deal to do with the changing nature of the public sphere. In the mid ’70s, a local bank was privatized, which upset a lot of people; and so the bank paid for a public sculpture more or less as a gesture of appeasement. And in response, Klaus Bussmann, the curator of the Westphalian State Museum, decided to present a survey of the history of modern sculpture, from Rodin to Calder, along with an exhibition of autonomous sculpture in a park. Bussmann asked me to curate a presentation of public works at various sites within the city. Many American artists were invited, including Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and Carl Andre. Their projects went beyond the parameters of autonomous sculpture, because the artists chose their own sites and did things on a very large—radically large—scale. The works were so big that their size gave them a kind of plausibility in people’s minds, as constructs that made sense.

ES: Do you mean there was a degree of public resistance to the projects that had to be overcome?

KK: Not exactly, since the works were nonaggressive, though very unfamiliar. But certainly, over the years, the relationship between the show and its audience has changed, from the first incarnation to 1987, which was sort of “the year of the figurative”—when Katharina Fritsch’s Yellow Madonna was installed near the Dominican church. Figuration may have been easier for some people to respond to. By ’97, however, a certain art-tourism had kicked in globally, and suddenly the city really loved the international attention Skulptur Projekte got, and was putting a lot of marketing resources behind it.

CP: It is interesting in relation to this question of the public that Mike Kelley’s project this year is a petting zoo in a courtyard right next to the train station. It’s based on the story of Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back while fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah. Now, in typical petting zoos, you have animals like donkeys and goats—and they like salt. So Kelley will make a statue from salt, and the animals will lick it away. On the one hand, the work is really close to the kind of urban entertainment you might find in a shopping center; but it has an underside.

BF: This multifaceted aspect is also reflected in the catalogue, which puts forward an incredible variety of perspectives in the form of a glossary. There is not one big essay that says, “This is now the theory of public art,” but rather texts by some sixty writers using many different discourses that reflect on each other. They come at the work from different disciplines: urban theory, landscape theory, philosophy, and so on. So we envision the catalogue as a compendium. At the same time, while an engagement with those discourses is implicit in our concept, and while they inform the communication we have with the artists, we don’t choose the artists because they fulfill or prove theories around, say, urbanism or landscape. It is more a network of ideas that is created, connecting art to theory, and vice versa.

ES: That raises the question of the selection process. How did you decide which artists to invite?

KK: There were maybe eleven or twelve positions that we agreed on in our first three or four meetings. Then the process became much more complicated. Each project is a kind of world unto itself, so it’s not so much about the question, Is it art?, but rather, What is it, and how complex and worthwhile is it to think about and get involved with?

BF: And our discussions with artists have revolved very much around what works in the city, how you integrate the projects into its urban fabric, and how the works will interact with the thirty-nine artworks from the three past exhibitions that have remained in place.

CP: It’s important to realize when scrutinizing potential sites that the artists are the experts, in a sense.

KK: However, over the course of the past year—we’ve been working together for over two years—certain coordinates have become quite apparent. For instance, Gustav Metzger was proposed by Carina, who had been interested in working with him at the Kunstverein. He ultimately became quite essential for us to include, because, like Michael Asher and David Hammons, he is an artist who, due to his independence and the radical nature of his work, has become an important touchstone for younger artists. This year it seemed absolutely essential to look for artists who are outside of the art-world structure in a kind of affirmative sense, as Metzger is.

CP: I think artists like Pawel Althamer or Maria Pask, to name just two examples from our artist list, try to situate their practices outside the field of art in different ways, working to engage with society without cynicism. To invite these artists with their interventionist and social practices is a challenge for an exhibition format, in which visibility over the course of 105 days seems to be what is asked for.

KK: It is a challenge, but today, in order to make itself plausible, art has to engage in that kind of risk taking or that kind of extension beyond conventional structures.

ES: The term plausibility seems key for you. Could you expand a little on its meaning as it pertains here?

KK: If you go to a museum, you expect art; but if you walk around a town, art isn’t really necessary. So if there is an artistic intervention—say, Hans-Peter Feldmann’s remodeling this summer of the restrooms on the Domplatz, a public square here—there has to be some kind of extra, essential benefit. You have to get something from the banal that you haven’t experienced before. The point isn’t that viewers should be affected in a therapeutic sense. They should be affected in the sense of a challenge—an intellectual or spiritual challenge. The idea is to make things as complex and complicated as they can beautifully be.

BF: It’s interesting that site-specificity itself is no longer really a single culture, and it has become more complex and contested. Therefore we speak mostly of situation-specific works. The idea of public versus private is not as clear-cut, or as easy to respond to, as it might once have been. Artists are reacting to this. For instance, Annette Wehrmann and Dora Garcia, who are in this summer’s exhibition, both approach the issue ironically and seriously at the same time. They play with viewers, trying to destabilize their expectations instead of trying to beautify the city. Because we are increasingly working in what you might call “unpublic” space, the means of action have to be defined newly and differently. So one of the things we’ll be doing is presenting a lecture series, with Miwon Kwon, Peter Marcuse, Hannes Böhringer, and others, under the title “Space Made Unpublic,” to address these shifts.

CP: And concerning the question of plausibility, this is crucial: When artists are working with strategies of spectacle, illusionism, and mimicry, they are responding to what they think might temporarily create or point to publicness in a shifting field increasingly influenced by tourism and marketing. Regarding the works we’ll show this summer, what is or isn’t plausible—what really speaks to the idea of publicness, or creates a form of publicness that is different from others—might not be clear for years.

ES: Is this uncertainty reflected in the work?

KK: Some content reflects, maybe, a sense of agony. You know, living in a very wealthy society where more attention is given to consumption than emotion, in which children are extremely well supplied with expensive sunglasses and designer furniture, for example, but are emotionally undernourished. There seems to be some momentum toward fiction in quite a number of works. The “story” is back.

ES: As in, for example, Marko Lehanka’s project?

BF: Yes. Lehanka is installing an enormous flower on one of Münster’s main shopping streets, which will lure passersby to stop and listen to stories generated by a computer attached to speakers in the calyx. The work speaks to artificial intelligence, although the computer itself is very simple and so generates—with a kind of poetic structure based on mathematics—only simple stories. But these stories also have a certain kind of grotesqueness: Their content recalls fairy tales—old women, children being sold—and they all end in death.

KK: But again, we don’t interpret the artists. We tell them why we’ve invited them, what’s possible and what’s not possible, but we don’t tell them what to do. You know, Marcel Duchamp once made a matchbox for a dinner party—a little matchbox, very elegant, silk with gold printing on it. And it says, “A good host is a ghost.”

Skulptur Projekte Münster ’07 runs from June 17 to Sep. 30.

Elizabeth Schambelan is an associate editor of Artforum.