Münster, Germany

“Sculpture Projects in Münster”

Various Venues

When Tony Smith famously attempted in 1966 to come to terms with the radical changes imminent in sculptural production and perception, he pointed to two seemingly unrelated examples of highly overdetermined social spaces: one a site of the future, a strip of the then-unfinished New Jersey Turnpike, the other a ruin of recent history, the infamous Nürnberg Stadium built by the Nazi government for its Reichsparteitag. What linked the two in Smith’s statement was—we realize in hindsight—the recognition of a crucial moment in the transformation of public space. New technologies of mass organization and transportation altered the conventions of spatial perception and generated radically different forms of social space: on the one hand a totalitarian public sphere in both its fascist and state-socialist formations, on the other, a systematically planned and enforced capitalist consumer culture in the Western countries, which altered public perception in a manner easily matching, despite its fundamental differences, the intensity of the changes brought about by the totalitarian models. The recently united Germany has of course its manifest historical and contemporary share of all three spheres—fascist, state socialist, and consumerist—and one might have imagined that the painful evidence everywhere of this condition would offer the ideal circumstances for sculptural reflection on German territory in the late ’90s.

Judging by their entries, most of the seventy-seven sculptors in this third installment of “Sculpture Projects in Müster” thought about neither Nürnberg nor New Jersey. Instead, it seems, they understood the exhibition to be primarily situated in the simultaneous collective practices of enforced leisure permeating the now-defunct social spaces of public communication. Despite curators Kasper König and Klaus Bussmann’s best efforts to address the increasingly evident contradictions in sculpture, be they physical, discursive, or institutional, the general inability—not least among sculptors—to theorize the meaning of “public space” at the end of the century appears to render these contradictions insurmountable. (This terminological crisis is of course only the epiphenomenon of a much deeper one in the understanding of the conditions of the public sphere and dependent conditions of simultaneous, collective reception that have, after all, been the ideal to which sculpture aspired since its foundation in religious and secular monuments.) This analysis would constitute one model of theorizing sculpture’s epistemic contradictions at the end of the century.

“Sculpture Projects in Münster” gives ample evidence of the fate of contemporary sculpture once the ideological state apparatus has shut the door on sociopolitical reflection, much less practice. Begun as an appendix to a survey of twentieth-century sculpture in 1977 (a moment when the adamant reception of Minimal and post-Minimal sculpture in Germany seemed to promise a revival in the medium), renewed in 1987 and again this summer, the show has come to reflect the production of art as an advanced form of entertainment for an ever-more sophisticated and increasingly bored European middle class, which would not know where to turn without blockbuster exhibitions (a condition necessitated through an overdeveloped cultural infrastructure, with its myriad corporate-, state-, and community-supported exhibition institutions, corporate and private investment collections, and ambitious curators who fancy themselves nomads, meaning they race from city to city in service of the multinational monopoly of the culture industry). These artists seem to take as a given that the function of sculpture is to furnish these compensatory leisure spaces. In Münster—the epitome of a deeply complacent middle-class city—any number of examples can be found: Ilya Kabakov’s radio tower, Fischli and Weiss’ outdoor garden, Jorge Pardo’s pier extending into the Lake Aasee, Bert Theis’ “platform for philosophical discussion,” and worst of all, in their mix of banality and pretense, the supposedly therapeutic devices of Marie-Ange Guilleminot.

The rare exception here are those projects that explicitly reflect on the conditions leisure compensates for, projects that make the structural parallel between the outdoor exhibition and amusement park manifest in their conception. Gabriel Orozco’s Ferris Wheel Half Sunk into the Earth (an installation that, for lack of funds, unfortunately could not be realized), Dan Graham’s Fun House for Münster, and Hans Haacke’s Standort Merry-go Round—three of the best works in the show—all shared a relative trust in the by-now problematic definition of site-specificity, inasmuch as they offered a rather uncanny analogy to the perceptual experience of large-scale kinetic and specular structures in a fun-fair environment by way of a response to the specific conditions of the exhibition’s “publicness.” But beyond a shared skepticism concerning the universal legibility of a contribution to the project, each work introduced a dialectical element against the easy assimilation of sculpture to leisure-time accoutrements. In Graham’s almost neoclassically elegant pavilion, the architecture of amusement (the mirrored “fun house”) was deployed to provide spectators the opportunity of observing themselves being constituted within a seemingly infinite play of differentiation and interrelation, social and spatial interaction. And while we are by now generally aware of the fallacies and transhistorical claims of a purely phenomenological subject, Graham’s work convincingly continues the critical reflexivity of late Modernist art from the ’60s, when the phenomenological legacy could still serve as the foundation for a radical emancipatory project of subjectivity (it thus comes as no surprise that the suddenly apparent neoclassical dimensions of the work remind us of revolutionary architecture). By contrast, Haacke, in his definition of subjectivity, remains steadfast in his commitment to historicization. More than anyone else, he is at home in thinking about Germany’s different public spheres and, in fact, still seems to be trying to come to terms in his recent work with the implications of the belated reconstitution of that fateful nation-state. After discovering in Münster an eerie cylindrical war memorial from 1909 whose figure frieze wraps around the monument like the wooden horses on a merry-go-round, he installed next to it an actual children’s carousel, concealed in a wooden lattice cylinder. Hearing the tinny organ endlessly grind out an accelerated version of the German national anthem and peeking through the wooden cage to observe the empty rotating carousel, one walked away increasingly convinced of the analogous bankruptcy of nation-states and monuments.

One of Alighiero e Boetti’s last works, originally installed in Sonsbeek just before his death, brought the bankruptcy of the monumental tradition to a tragicomic climax: citing the inadvertently absurd convention of Socialist Realist sculptural depictions of heroes in suits and fusing it with arte povera’s inimitable sense of primary matter, Boetti presented a self-portrait in bronze of a figure who watered himself with a heroically upheld garden hose, emitting clouds of steam around his electrically heated head. This grand farce, however, was a rare achievement, and other artists attempting to be humorous did not fare so well. The Warholian dilemma of wishing to comply with (culture) industry standards and yet maintain the avant-garde gesture of refusal to deliver meaning to the apparatus of domination with which culture is inextricably intertwined seems—with a certain delay—to have caught up with France. Its most exemplary exponents in Münster were Daniel Buren and Fabrice Hybert. The former repeats twice: first, a work (another fun-fair decoration, in fact) already successfully installed at Documenta VII in 1982, and second, a local convention of street decoration (featuring hanging pennants) during carnival. And as was the case with Hybert’s prizewinning pavilion in Venice, his idea of equipping the exhibition’s curators and employees with beepers that emit flashing colored lights makes one want to give up on the art world altogether and go to work in a real industry, like rap music (which is paradoxically more involved with and implicated in the real than any of the art-world frivolities of the French fin de siècle).

A second model of theorizing the epistemic difficulties of sculpture would be to differentiate the three frameworks or the three institutional and discursive spaces governing its production and perception: the museum, the sphere of spectacle culture (the “media”), and the anomic agglomerations of traffic, residential and business architecture, and advertisement haphazardly called “public space.” It is considerably discomforting to confront the work of several dozen sculptors who—in their eagerness to position a sculptural product in this city of abundant spatial amenities, amenities that offer a mirage of exemption from the totalizing regimes of production and consumption—have not reflected even in passing on a single one of these frameworks, let alone their complicated interaction. And if some tried, as in Turkish artist Ayse Erkmen’s clever project of removing a sculpture from the museum’s vaults, transporting it by helicopter over the city, and depositing it away from view on the museum’s roof, the work spectacularized the dilemma rather than systematically analyzing these frameworks and the historical origins of sculpture’s contradictions. Of course, there were exceptional projects that did offer such a reflection while manifestly refusing the lure of Münster’s arcadian deceptions. One outstanding example was Maria Eichhorn’s clear-cut and functional proposition analyzing public space as private property. The project “simply” went through the complex operation of acquiring a plot of land from the city for the duration of the show. The means for buying the land were supplied by the exhibition’s production budget, and the resale of the plot to the city after the conclusion of the show will generate the funds to support a local tenants’ association that struggles to protect low-income housing from ubiquitous gentrifiers and speculators.

Another exception, though in a different direction entirely, was Thomas Hirschhorn’s remarkable Precarious Construction, referred to also as a “Sculpture Sorting Station,” in which the work plays through all of sculpture’s registers and its parallel discourses that determine our present experience of objects and matter (e.g., trophies, commercial logos, media representations of sculpture such as a videotape of work by Otto Freundlich). The handcrafted, thrifty, and vulnerable eccentricity of its materials (e.g., aluminum foil wrapped around cardboard cores, even the shaky “pavilion” housing the work itself, constructed from board, plastic, and paper and containing video monitors as much as the “sculptures” themselves) not only generated a condition of temporariness and ephemerality that is seemingly a requisite for sculpture that credibly reflects on its condition of crisis but also constructed a melancholic stage to contemplate sculpture’s lost possibilities and the medium’s current forms of individually motivated opposition.

A third theoretical proposition would be to consider the paradigms of sculpture in their multifaceted transition from an underlying aesthetic of (heroic) industrial production to an aesthetic of archives and statistical administration, and more recently, one of mere representation (spectacle in the guise of fashion and entertainment) that is seemingly becoming the hallmark of the ’90s. Not one of these underlying paradigms is in and of itself superior or inferior to any other (a seemingly incurable problem for artists like Richard Deacon, Richard Serra, or Ulrich Rückriem, who remain fanatically convinced of the superiority of a paradigm of production that is paradoxically legitimated by the institutional authority of the museum). Needless to say, the most complex and confusing oscillations between these paradigmatic formations (which were already in place in the ’20s) are more likely to communicate the difficulties of sculpture in the present than a puristic and insistent articulation of a single paradigm. Undoubtedly, one of the extraordinary features of Carl Andre’s work in the late ’60s was to have subjected sculpture, as a mirage of industrial production, to the rigorous gridding of mechanical and scientific ordering systems; that he would now suggest a project for Münster in which he would collect garbage with residents bespeaks not only his genius at modifying paradigms but also perhaps his projection of what seemed urgent from New York onto a middle-size, middle-class German city where compulsive cleanliness is the order of the day.

Four works articulated brilliantly what hybrid conceptions of sculpture partaking in all the above paradigms can achieve. First of all is Mark Dion’s strangely poetic diorama (and its related drawings in the museum) of a bear in a park, an installation that opened a broad spectrum of reflections, ranging from sculpture as a tamed substitute to the (specifically German?) persistence of mythical thought in the guise of affection for animals in the face of ecological destruction. Second, the young, relatively unknown Russian artist Svetlana Kopystiansky’s surprising installation of innumerable black and white photocopied posters pasted up like illicit advertisements throughout the city revealed the degree to which public life, even in a clean, green city, is thoroughly permeated by media culture. Paradoxically, the objects represented in this clandestine campaign were unidentifiable, volumetric objects made from debris—involuntary sculptures. They resemble traces of an almost compulsive physiological yearning to model matter and objects in terms other than those prescribed by the reigning universe of commodity production.

A third example is the growing metaphorical complexity of Michael Asher’s Caravan, which was part of the 1977 and 1987 installments of “Sculpture Projects in Minster” as well. Changing its location throughout the city weekly, the trailer-as-readymade-sculpture, as a hybrid between industrial product and consumer object, hovers between the museum and the spaces of leisure and consumption. In its eggshell travesty of public space, it denounces the insidious dimension of secluded and enforced privacy that governs those spaces. One could also recognize the extraordinary importance of Asher’s project in retrospect by comparison with the embarrassing one-liners Andrea Zittel and Joop van Lieshout contributed to Münster, artists who seem to assume that, if only sufficiently asseverated, one could forge a new paradigm for sculptural production from the inanity of the conditions Asher’s work annihilated twenty years ago.

A final example is of Lawrence Weiner’s by now almost inevitably magisterial work. For Minster he installed two steel plates, commonly used in road construction, which bore an English inscription and its German translation dye-cut into the steel surface; set on a busy corner, the words could be easily read by pedestrians crossing the street. The ambiguous text, “Dry Earth & Scattered Ashes or Dry Earth & Buried Gold or,” its horizontal position and negative, cutout lettering giving insight into the burial void beneath the plates, ignited a flash of recognition of “public” sculpture’s continuing mnemonic functions—a sudden if only perfunctory perforation of a collectively and publically maintained repression. Yet, as always in Weiner’s work, what was presented was above all a model of language as sculpture. It proposed that sculpture must pass beyond the heroicism of steel-plate production, beyond the false claims of collectively shared public space (all “public” space at this point being privately owned or permeated by totalizing, instrumentalizing private interests of profit maximization), in order to produce if not the solely possible articulation of intersubjectivity, social collectivity, and phenomenological self-constitution, then at least its most authentic version—that is, sculpture defined within the system of language itself.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is professor of art history at Barnard College, Columbia University. His collection of essays, Open Book, will he published by MIT Press in 1998.