PRINT September 2007

Tim Griffin

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Roman de Münster (Münster Novel), 2007, mixed media. Installation view, Münster. Photo: Roman Mensing.

AT FIRST, to me, it seemed a civic project, the kind of celebratory tableau one imagines a branding agency might dream up at the behest of a few municipal officials’ casting a desiring eye toward cultural-tourism revenue. On a broad, open slope of lawn along the promenade in Münster was arranged a selection of miniature replicas of artworks produced for the city’s Skulptur Projekte since the once-a-decade event’s beginnings some thirty years ago: Here, for instance, was a dollhouse-size octagonal pavilion fashioned after one created by Dan Graham in 1987; somewhat distant on the grounds behind it were renditions of iceberglike “islands” made ten years later by Andrea Zittel. The scene was genuinely amusing—a grand show turned divertissement or, better, amuse-bouche, with a single, sparkling patch of grass conjuring a sense of vast expanse in its play of scale. But it was poignant by the same turn.

For as an exhibition with only the most general directive to consider art in relation to the public—it disavows any claim to a more specific, discursive curatorial thesis, allowing the mere passage of time to create new contexts and meanings—Skulptur Projekte Münster is steeped in questions of spatiality and place. The city inflects the sense of any work, and vice versa. Yet this place set along the promenade, with its Alice-in-Wonderland prospects and scales, was no longer a place, precisely, so much as a suspended microcosm with no bearing on its immediate surroundings. Indeed, the sculptures were no longer sculptures, asking less for any serious formal consideration than for flashes of recognition: That’s an Oldenburg! That’s a Serra! Stripped as well of any wear and tear their models might have incurred in the time since their making, they seemed more like little emblems of their models—summoning them in memory but emptying them of all their history (i.e., their real functioning in context). And so at the very location where the idea of Skulptur Projekte Münster should have been most condensed, with so many of the exhibition’s historical manifestations brought together in one place, it was instead wholly evacuated. Or, more accurately, this array of duplicates seemed to put forward an idea of the show’s idea—a picture, figuratively speaking—and then, as more people were, say, lounging together here on a miniaturized Jorge Pardo pier than on the real one some six hundred yards away, the appeal of the appeal.

On this grassy bank brimming with families, couples, and individuals at leisure, in other words, there was also the palpable unreality of the copy, the stand-in: an exhibition’s collective memory, as it were, filtered through the prism of commerce, rendered legible via the lexicon of the museum-store collectible and the modern design knockoff. (The Vitra Miniatures Collection—tiny aspirational totems in the form of Breuer Wassily Chairs, Gehry Wiggle Side Chairs, Saarinen Tulip Chairs, and Rietveld Zig Zag Stools—specifically came to mind.) In turn, if Skulptur Projekte Münster asks implicitly for some consideration of art’s relationship to both the public sphere and the urban landscape, here one couldn’t help but wonder about the implications for democratic space and access. Or, to put a finer point on the question of this show’s—and its host city’s—posited image of itself: If these objects were copies, summoning an exhibition’s memory only to empty it of all history (thus making it more manageable), was the social space they created not a copy as well?

Of course, my impression was merely a case of mistaken identity. The outdoor installation was, in fact, the work of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, who conceived the piece for this year’s exhibition as a “novel” where visitors, as if turning the pages of a book, “will be able to go from one sculpture to another without having to wait ten years or walk for kilometers.” Yet these words only underscore the fictional quality of her setting and its dramatic contrast to the exhibition in which it appears. If it were a work of literature, this tale of the city would fall into the category of the nouveau roman, devoid of psychology, with space and time compressed to become a world of pure surface.

In a real sense, Skulptur Projekte Münster takes up history as its elemental substance, with its various permanent works, situated throughout the city, providing audiences with a veritable registry of shifts in attitude and ethos within recent art production. But it affords this temporal vantage only when those audiences move out into space and, seeking the present (an unmarked path by Pawel Althamer, a tall hedge rendered passage by Rosemarie Trockel), inevitably stumble upon the past (a stone engraved by George Brecht, a striped gate by Daniel Buren) in a way that creates a pervasive sense of contingency both in the exhibition as a whole and in the experience immediately at hand. This feeling is perhaps strongest when, in the course of one’s fruitless search for a particular artwork, the past suddenly arrives on the scene with a sense of vertiginous transport—as when one rounds a slight bend in a deep, wooded path behind the palace gardens to discover the dark heart of Jenny Holzer’s Benches, 1987, which the artist placed beside an aging, slightly overgrown memorial honoring German soldiers who served in the world wars. (The power of Holzer’s own ambiguous summoning of the past is amplified by an abstract, concrete poetry describing the horrors of battle, which the artist has inscribed on each of her sarcophagus-like objects.) Or, riding along the Aasee, one might come upon the shipwreck of Donald Judd’s untitled sculpture from 1977, a concrete ring-within-a-ring whose open-and-shut case for the autonomous art object has since acquired a funereal air. The ground within its circumferences is patchy and unkempt, while pale hues of weathered graffiti line its interior rims—such that the object as we find it now is hardly a pure reflection of the artist’s notion of self-sufficiency. (Judd’s statement about his sculpture, made for the very first Skulptur Projekte Münster, is noteworthy in this regard: “The categories of public and private mean nothing to me. . . . The circular piece in Münster could just as well be on a ranch.” Of course, one thinks today, if the sculpture were on a ranch, it would change the ranch—making an artwork of it as well.) In such instances, and however anachronistic it might seem to apply the term to Holzer and Judd, the past is rendered picturesque. The phenomenon is no doubt partly indebted to the fact that permanent works are most often executed on the outskirts of this city, in parks and preserves, where they sit largely by themselves and, over time, become part of the landscape. On occasion they even become literal ruins, signaling in their dilapidated states a simultaneous presence and absence, seeming—like the picture of a different time and place in situ—at once near and far, proximate reality and distant notion. (It is something we rarely see in the contemporary-art world: Works that are esteemed enough to appear on a map yet allowed to age; works valued for the way they are “lived in,” the way they persist in the world, rather than for appearing “like new,” as they are in a museum.)

Donald Judd, Untitled_, 1977, cement. Installation view, Lake Aa, Münster, 2007. Photo: Thorsten Arendt.

Which leads us back to Gonzalez-Foerster’s duplicates: What, after all, does it mean in this context to present the idea of the idea of Skulptur Projekte Münster, summoning memory without retaining history? What might be the underlying significance—intended or not—of her work’s obtaining a sense of loss within the experience of Münster (readily grasped, if only by our contrasting a prospect on her grassy knoll to the experience of moving through the city in search of the actual works) even while generating some feeling for its appeal? To answer these questions, we might do well to look beyond the city limits and think of the French artist’s roman in light of a farther-reaching journey by contemporary-art audiences this summer, one that, like her work, suggests a paradoxical entwining of historicity and atemporality: the so-called Grand Tour.

It is tempting, of course, to simply dismiss the revival of this outmoded term as an empty gesture, an overblown commercial ploy—this one, without a doubt, the work of a branding agency—to garner more attention, from a broader public, for the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, Documenta, and, finally, Skulptur Projekte Münster. Certainly, the contemporary experience of traveling along this circuit would seem far removed, at least at a glance, from that phenomenon first described by British author and Roman Catholic priest Richard Lassels. In a 1670 travelogue, Lassels introduced the phrase Grand Tour” specifically to denote excursions across the Continent by aristocratic men who—seeking to put a “finishing” touch on their education—would spend time among peers in the Parisian courts and journey into the Italian countryside to study antiquities, their journals and sketchbooks supposedly in hand all the while. But it is, I think, curiously productive to take the term’s usage today at face value. And lest we romanticize an earlier time, note that the actual Grand Tour, when it expanded in popularity during the eighteenth century, was available as a package deal replete with hotels, meals, and a vetturino for hire to ensure that the tourists and their luggage made it safely from site to site. (In this sense, the online booking options for this summer’s tour seem faithful enough to its precursor.) Almost from its inception, the Grand Tour was enmeshed in the question of the original and the copy, the unique experience and the imitation: Individuals would go abroad, yet more often than not they would visit the same locations as those who had gone before and undertake the same activities—seeking, in effect, to discover what was already known. No less a figure than Sir Philip Sidney participated in this project of cultural replication, writing in the 1570s that “A great number of us never thought in ourselves why we went, but a certain tickling humour to do as other men had done.” It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that this moment—of conventions confirmed even in apparently new experience—coincided with the maturation of the picturesque as an aesthetic concept, as youths scoured the outdoors for settings whose ruddy fields and scudded skies adhered to that which their masters had declared the fitting subject of art.

This linking of the unique and the imitation is, however, completely antithetical to the thinking underlying two of the major exhibitions on this summer’s Grand Tour, the Venice Biennale and Documenta. Indeed, using the picturesque as a kind of theoretical foil for these shows reveals a bond between their respective directors, Robert Storr and Roger M. Buergel—the latter bringing his partner, Ruth Noack, on board as curator—where otherwise they would seem to have little in common. (Who would ever equate the neat professionalism of Venice with the haphazard lighting schemes and fancifully hued walls of Kassel?) Specifically, Storr and Buergel pursue the notion of experience unfettered by theoretical devices—which, they both go on to suggest, would subsequently provide the means by which grand shows such as their own might attain the status of truly democratic space. For his part, Storr asserts in a catalogue essay that “the actual flux of experience far exceed[s] the power of systems, theories and definitions to contain [it]. The imagination is the catch basin into which this overflow spills.” And further, he says, any biennial with this spirit may provide a “relatively democratic substitute for missing cultural infrastructures,” where the polyphony of potential meanings in artwork gives rise to a polyphony of exchanges among its audience: “[Biennials] are places in which virtually anyone within reach can restore the aura that some have feared art has lost forever but which those who are alert can still summon for themselves in the presence of a unique image or form.” (The matter of aura aside, this statement is also striking for the phrase “within reach,” which inevitably leads one to think about those who aren’t in reach—or who couldn’t afford to be.) Buergel, on the other hand, has declared an interest in the “gift of an unpreconceived gaze,” elaborating more concretely on the potential of such unmediated experience when writing in the first Documenta 12 magazine about the inaugural Documenta, which took place in 1955: “Within the context of documenta, the public constituted itself on the groundless basis of aesthetic experience—the experience of objects whose identity cannot be identified. Here there was nothing to understand, in the true sense, no preconceptions, which is precisely why it was possible and essential to talk about everything, to communicate about everything. The exhibition was, in short, an act of civilization.” [For a more detailed discussion of Buergel’s text, see Tom Holert’s “Failure of Will,” pp. 408.]

There was, of course, no shortage of communication at the Venice Biennale and Documenta this summer. But here again, one needs only to look back through history to see how our age often might conform to type. Consider, for example, a description of a prerevolutionary Paris Salon by the French painter and architect Louis de Carmontelle:

The Salon opens and the crowd passes through the entrance; how its diversity and turbulence disturbs the spectator! This person here, moved by vanity, wants only to be the first to give his opinion; that one there, moved by boredom, searches only for a new spectacle. Here is one who treats pictures as simple items of commerce and concerns himself only to estimate the prices they will fetch; another hopes only that they will provide material for his idle chat.*

The Italian pavilion in Venice and Messeplatz in Basel immediately come to mind (as do a few individuals). But of greater importance to my comparison is the character of the dialogue in and around contemporary art on occasions like this summer’s Grand Tour and, more precisely, the ways in which those occasions might allow or disallow discursive space, engendering in turn a culture steeped in either productive self-reflection or else purely the establishment of consensus. What could it mean to operate without “preconceptions,” or that an audience might be able to retrieve some unique moment, some real experience that sits beyond any prior encounter and thus resides exclusively in the “imagination”? To return briefly to the example of the picturesque centuries ago, here the singularity of an experience in the world was, in fact, recognizable only by virtue of one’s preconceptions: The landscape was figured, if only for a moment, in such a way as to match one’s aesthetic or, simply, to match one’s idea of what was there. And so it is by grasping one’s preconceptions, acknowledging their unbudging reality (never pretending that they may be set aside, entirely or even in part), that one takes hold of the simultaneous proximity and distance of any experience at hand—and so actually has one’s experience, regardless of whether it is novel.

The most pertinent question for our time, then, might be whether there is a picturesque that acknowledges its own frame—and, further, whether it is more productive (or interesting) to accommodate preconceptions than to pretend there can be a situation in which they may fall away. I think in particular of Documenta 12, where objects and images from different times and places are brought together as transhistorical and transcultural “forms,” connected in likeness but emptied of all but the most sparing information about their original contexts. Is this not a situation in which, in fact, what one believes oneself to be seeing is what, ultimately, one decides to believe? Contrast this kind of encounter with those of Münster, which might succeed, however inadvertently, where the Biennale and Documenta fail, whatever their grand claims to set aside grand claims. For rather than seek some imperative view or crystallized vision, Münster seems merely to shrug its shoulders—keeping history present simply by showing its own age, inevitably underlining a procession of ideas through art and cultural history by providing audiences with such picturesque moments as a defunct Judd by the lake or an oft-missed Holzer in the woods. There is also, by virtue of Münster’s curatorial repose, always the viewer’s sheer frustration of searching, of getting lost, of not knowing precisely what one is looking for (or at)—and of knowing that, even when a work is finally discerned as such, it might well signal nothing, or else fail to resonate with our present moment. The history that fills memory always reveals its own erosion, or its potential loss, here.

And it is perhaps this erosion that is the real subject of Gonzalez-Foerster’s Roman de Münster, a fiction that announces itself as such. Like Documenta, it, too, is a dense constellation of objects gathered from across space and time; but it does not present itself as dilating outward to contain, or even merely to reflect, our moment and world. Rather, it draws attention to the images, the copies, the conceptions already in our heads, marking the distance between memory and history—paradoxically, even, since it conjures travel by allowing one to stand entirely still—and making apparent the implicit risk of confounding the two. It’s a story bound to be familiar to anyone who took this summer’s Grand Tour.

Tim Griffin is editor of Artforum.