PRINT February 2008


Andreas Siekmann

WITH SOME SIX MONTHS’ critical distance from last summer’s hyberbolic “Grand Tour,” it is now apparent that one of its most notable effects, in terms of the making of individual reputations, has been the increasing international attention enjoyed by the work of Andreas Siekmann. Indeed, the Berlin-based artist was, other than Martha Rosler, the only person represented both at Documenta 12 in Kassel and at Skulptur Projekte Münster 07. No doubt this visibility stems in part from the ways in which Siekmann’s politically engaged work, as it was installed in public spaces in Kassel and Münster, clearly managed to elude both the former exhibition’s curatorial framework of idiosyncratic tastes and pseudomorphologies and the latter’s marketing-minded emphasis on locale (imbued with a general sense of harmless fun). The various reactions—both within and beyond the confines of the contemporary art world—provoked by Siekmann’s evolving artistic practice seem to say much about the (im)possibilities and historically charged methodologies of “political art” today. Whereas critical projects since the 1960s once established site-specificity as the privileged form of a reflexive engagement with spatial, institutional, and discursive contexts, Siekmann’s drawings and installations challenge traditional notions about the democratic nature of public space. While the latter play a foundational role in institutions such as Documenta and Skulptur Projekte Münster and in the ideology of the aesthetic at large, Siekmann points out neoliberalism’s functionalist encroachment on the sites of artistic practice and critique—pleading the case for the continuing, yet decidedly recoded, relevance of an interventionist approach.

For Documenta, Siekmann created Die Exklusive. Zur Politik des ausgeschlossenen Vierten (The Exclusive. On the Politics of the Excluded Fourth), 2002–2007, a carousel that slowly revolved around the eighteenth-century statue of the Hessian landgrave Friedrich II that stands in front of the Museum Fridericianum. Founded in 1779 under the feudal patronage of Friedrich, the Fridericianum was the first public museum in continental Europe; Friedrichsplatz has been a prominent site in the history of Documenta’s public-art commissions ever since Walter De Maria’s 1977 Vertical Earth Kilometer. Taking up this plaza as historical backdrop and institutional context, then, Siekmann’s work put forward a complex allegory of globalization based on the idea of an “exclusive” power that designates certain zones as exempt from international law, so that fundamental human rights no longer apply—the power constitutes, in effect, a fourth governmental category, in addition to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. More specifically, employing a visual rhetoric that combines the documentary with the fictional, The Exclusive maps the impact and effects of governmental techniques of biopolitical and economic exclusion pivotal both to permanent states of emergency and to the operations of global capital.

Attached to the red-lacquered metal frame of the carousel are ten nearly life-size human figures (some with moving parts) and forty-three hexagonal wooden panels mounted with color prints of highly detailed figurative drawings. In this array of pictures and silhouettes, painstakingly produced by the artist with the primitive drawing tools provided in the Microsoft Word computer program, the ghostly contours of Virgil and Dante can be seen wandering through the divine comedy of today’s global capitalism: Among the “circles” depicted are extraterritorial refugee camps, anti-G8 demonstrations, and Southeast Asian sweatshops, populated by NGO activists and International Monetary Fund and World Bank functionaries. (On the last note, it should not go unmentioned here that during German president and former IMF director Horst Köhler’s official visit to Documenta, his route was diverted so that he would not pass by Siekmann’s carousel.) One panel also depicts an open safe filled with passports, visas, and deportation orders from Kassel’s nearby immigration office.

Although this was the fifth venue for the work (with new images and figures), its local relevance was unexpectedly made clear shortly after the opening of the exhibition, when a group calling itself Autonome in Bewegung (Autonomists in Action) firebombed the city’s immigration office. An article in a local newspaper drew a potential connection between The Exclusive and the attack; the paper also published a response from Siekmann, in which he condemned the act and stated that a call to violence is nowhere to be found in his work. Furthermore, as the artist has since pointed out, shortly before the opening of Documenta, Kassel police had stepped up their activity against illegal immigrants in the city, triggering a wave of deportations. Even so, that Siekmann could, in a sense, at all stand accused of intellectual arson—in addition to the fact that the carousel at Documenta was surrounded by a police zone designed to “protect” it (as well as Sanja Ivekovic´’s nearby Poppy Field)—underscores once more the precarious status (or notorious dilemma) of projects that introduce explicit political content into the institutional framework of the art world: On the one hand, the artist is in danger of being made to serve as a “content provider” or, in the worst case, as a kind of political alibi in exhibitions that, like last year’s Documenta, otherwise address societal concerns only in a whimsical and oblique manner. On the other hand, Siekmann’s insistence on art as a relevant medium for communicating political topics opens him up to accusations that he is merely illustrating social issues rather than giving them artistic form. By privileging social criticism over aesthetic considerations, Siekmann’s conservative critics complain, the art becomes pedantic.

This kind of myopic criticism, however, falls into its own trap: It sees only the artwork’s representational content and neglects the particularities of medium, failing to address the way in which the formal parameters of Siekmann’s art play as great a role as its allegedly all-too-transparent “message.” (The absurd climax of this kind of critical omission was a polemic published last July by sociologist Heinz Bude in Der Spiegel, where he objected that Siekmann’s work in Kassel overlooks the “social exclusion in the midst of our own society”—and then proceeded to enumerate different social groups within Germany, from poorly educated young people to unemployed East Germans, ending each paragraph with the statement that in The Exclusive they were excluded from representation once more.)

Siekmann’s critics have rarely noted, for example, that the artist typically avoids familiar strategies steeped in documentary photography, the lingua franca of so-called political art. If anything, his detailed drawings often recall Jörg Immendorff’s consciously naïve work of the late ’60s and early ’70s. And in a project such as The Exclusive, Siekmann consciously omits any depiction of the disenfranchised, presenting them only as outlines or with their faces pixelated. The very medium of drawing takes on crucial conceptual and aesthetic significance, in particular as it concerns the artistic process itself. In fact, Siekmann positions the post-Fordist paradigm of computerization front and center, charting its consequences for the current politics of representation: By (mis)using a popular word-processing program in place of the artist’s hand, he confronts competence with constriction, undermining the idea of an authorial voice; at the same time, he questions the notion that it is possible to reproduce reality veristically in what could be called today’s regime of visibility—where an abundance of imagery nevertheless coexists with significant restrictions on what can be seen. Intimating the dynamics of contemporary visual culture and information technologies, Siekmann culls images from the mass media and translates them into mechanical drawings—including almost cinematic views of locations relevant to international politics and business—and thereby creates scenes so dense in detail that it is nearly impossible for viewers to grasp all of the content provided. The hexagonal shape of the pictures not only recalls the gridwork of chicken-wire barriers but suggests, with its modular form, the endless potential for more components.

The concept and the placement of the carousel also owe a debt to Hans Haacke’s Standort Merry-go-round (Location Merry-Go-Round), 1997, created for the third edition of Skulptur Projekte Münster: Haacke selected a site next to a monument to Prussian “wars and victories,” erecting a wooden cylinder of the same size and diameter, closed on top with barbed wire; through the cracks between its boards, audiences could see an illuminated merry-go-round turning to the tune of the German national anthem, playing high and fast. The work thus spectacularized the nationalistic undertones of the site, stridently commenting both on postwar, democratic Germany’s partial repression of its authoritarian history and on its idealistic aspirations for public art. Siekmann’s carousel is equally critical, avoiding agitprop by putting into question the legitimacy, the inherent contradictions, and the very communicability of political problems in contemporary art, as well as the historical conditions and aesthetic practices linking art and politics. The grim metaphor of a carousel—constantly circling but never progressing—is more than telling in this regard.

If, at Documenta, Siekmann took on the issues of globalization and immigration in the context of an international art exhibition (with far fewer public works than in the past), in his own contribution to Skulptur Projekte Münster last year, he addressed the ways in which public art relates to a public sphere increasingly shaped by global capital and, more pointedly, how site-specific art can address the concomitant forces of marketing and privatization. Trickle Down. Der öffentliche Raum im Zeitalter seiner Privatisierung (Trickle Down. Public Space in the Era of Its Privatization), 2007, was a four-part installation at the eighteenth-century Erbdrostenhof palace; its title makes reference to the economic theory first espoused in the eighteenth century by Bernard de Mandeville and fervently pursued in the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. In the cour d’honneur stood a ball nearly fifteen feet in diameter made of the smashed remains of fiberglass animals, the likes of which have infested hundreds of cities in the past several years—pseudoartistic ornaments that are in fact sponsored by corporations to promote shopping districts and so on. New Yorkers might well remember the parade of cows that mystifyingly overtook their city in 2000, a movement begun in Zurich two years earlier. Other cities have featured different animals—Berlin, for example, had bears. In other words, these city mascots claim their own (derivative) notion of site-specificity, whether in the choice of a heraldic animal with local resonance or with designs that point to nearby tourist attractions. Despite claims of a more critical engagement, Siekmann seems to imply, the terrain occupied by Münster’s decennial parade of contemporary sculpture is not so far removed.

To underline the point, Siekmann painted graphic sequences on the fiberglass animals before destroying them; these same images could be seen on the compactor itself (displayed nearby), on the courtyard wall, and inside the building. As in earlier works of his, some made in collaboration with Alice Creischer, the graphics are influenced by the pictograms of the Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education) system developed by Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz in the period between the two world wars, intended to make economic developments easier to describe and critique. The overwhelming abundance of drawings, visual details, and explications on display in the entirety of the work at the Erbdrostenhof presents an excess of information similar to that found in The Exclusive, and it sets in motion a specific dialectic: Representation critique generates a surfeit of representation; or, rather, the impossibility of an exhaustive portrayal calls forth a series of images that, it seems, can be continued infinitely. As critic Clemens Krümmel has pointed out, Siekmann’s use of ’20s-era graphics from the field of statistics is meant to underline that the problem of representation is itself historical.

Siekmann thus continues Neurath and Arntz’s efforts to create an image of the social order while, at the same time, exposing this modernist project with its universalist claims as a presumptuous and no doubt impossible undertaking. But in place of Neurath and Arntz’s original concern with the statistics of national economies, Siekmann’s appropriation and update of this historical vocabulary of factographic forms illustrates processes such as “cross-border leasing” and the creation of “private-public partners”—a history of how cities have begun to sell off public property (schools, electric and water companies, and so on) to international conglomerates, increasingly corporatizing a public sphere now reserved primarily for consumer activity.

What does it mean today to create public works when the site of their display—whether we understand it, according to the typology developed by Miwon Kwon, phenomenologically, institutionally, or discursively— has become the object of market forces and public management policies? This is the fundamental, unsettling question posed in Trickle Down. If the “lure of the local,” as outlined by critic Lucy R. Lippard, was once able to account for site-specific art’s attempts to counter the increasing homogenization of public space, Siekmann here suggests that even this dynamic is now part and
parcel of the commodified urban landscape.

As such, Siekmann’s investigations are not only relevant to major exhibitions such as Documenta and Skulptur Projekte; they propose a much-needed critical revision to models of site-specificity (despite all attempts to bring them up to date, from “contextual art” and “community art” to “relational aesthetics”). The reference to site in his work is not exclusively physical-phenomenological, as seen, for example, in Richard Serra’s Trunk, J. Conrad Schlaun Recomposed, 1987, a steel sculpture placed at Münster’s Erbdrostenhof; and it is just as little a case of a discursive-genealogical approach to a concrete place and context, as was central to Christian Philipp Müller’s brilliant examination of the artistic history of Kassel’s Friedrichsplatz in Ein Balanceakt (A Balancing Act) at Documenta 10 in 1997. Recognizing that neoliberalism has forever altered traditional notions about the democratic nature of public space, Siekmann explores the broader political and economic contexts of art institutions and their associated local sites—simultaneously defending and calling into question the critical potential of contemporary art under the conditions of governmental techniques of control and deterritorialized capital flow.

André Rottmann is an art historian and critic based in Berlin and an editor of Texte Zur Kunst.

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.