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A version of this article first appeared in the
New York S
un, April 22, 2004
under the heading "A Treasure Hunt for the Avant Garde"



Isa Genzken Untitled 2007
mixed media, dimensions variable

In one key respect, Sculpture Projects Münster stands apart from the other legs of “The Grand Tour,” Europe’s four art events this summer. Visitors might have felt bombarded by an immense overload of images and sheer stuff at the Venice Biennale, with its countless national pavilions and fringe events, at the art fairs crowding Basel, and even at the relatively calm and orderly Documenta, the quintennial that opened last week at Kassel, Germany. At Münster, however, finding the art is often a treasure hunt (or wild goose chase, depending on what you think when you find it).

Sculpture Projects, which will run concurrently with Documenta this year, takes place every 10 years: It was founded in 1977 as a response to opposition to modern sculpture in the local community. Some of the pieces from earlier installments were permanently sited and can be viewed — if you are determined and have sharp vision — around this idyllic, prosperous university town. A Donald Judd and a Claes Oldenburg from 1977 can be found, a Daniel Buren and a Dan Graham from 1987, and brick constructions by Per Kirkeby from 1987 and 1997. This year, a work conceived by Bruce Nauman for 1977 has finally been realized: “Square Depression,” an inverted, shallow pyramid in white concrete set amid science buildings of the city’s university.

But even though the event has always been committed to sculpture at its most definition-stretching avant-garde extreme, within these three decades there has been a discernible shift from object to intervention. Increasingly, sculpture is conceptually subtle to the point of being barely visible. You need the map not just to say where it is, but that it is.

That would be the case with Pawel Althamer’s “Path” (all works 2007), a dirt track starting and leading to nowhere in particular, set by the Aasee in one of the city’s extensive parks. So too with Mark Wallinger’s “Zone” at various locations, a wire demarcation inspired in part by the Jewish eruv, within which various Sabbath observances can relaxed. Other works are carefully calibrated to be unobtrusive: Susan Philipsz’s sound piece, “The Lost Reflection,” a recording of the artist dully singing an Offenbach aria from “The Tales of Hoffmann,” is heard under a bridge that crosses the Aa. Pae White’s “my-fi” consists of various low-key interventions. She directed the marzipan modelers at the venerable Café Kleimann to sculpt their confectionery into a couple of taco trucks familiar in the artist’s native Los Angeles, along with sweet simulacra of the Mexican dishes they serve.

The chief curator of Sculpture Projects since its inception has been Kasper König, this year joined by Brigitte Franzen and Carina Plath. More than ever, the organizers have no truck with traditional forms of sculpture: Carving, modeling, and assemblage are out, for sure, but even sculpture constituted from the found object is thin on the ground. Isa Genzken’s untitled work — from distressed looking, kitsch-colored deck chairs and umbrellas strewn about, among which are broken dolls — is probably the most sculptural work on show in terms of a visually informed, expressive treatment of materials considered in the round.

Other works with some kind of material facture are invariably at the service of debunking any idea of the monumental rather than contributing to that genre. The French sculptor and curator Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s “Münster Novel” is an arrangement of scaled-down replicas of past Münster favorites. The Norwegian collaborative team of Elmgreen & Dragset staged a theater performance, “Drama Queens,” in which various “superstars” of the sculpture canon were the protagonists, among them an Arp, a Barbara Hepworth, and a Jeff Koons. And the Belgian Guillaume Bijl contributed, as a surrealistic joke, a subterranean piece, “Archaeological Site (A Sorry Installation)”: When the viewer peers over railings into a deep pit, the spire of a church is exposed.

The preference is for antic over object — an event or an interaction with the public. In this mold can be counted Maria Pask’s “Beautiful City,” in which the Dutch artist has erected a tent in the grounds of the Schloss, with hand painted carpets and library stands, displaying a wide miscellany of religious texts, including a dialogue between Jürgen Habermas and the present pontiff, who had studied at Münster. Each week during the course of the exhibition a lecturer from a different religion will come to speak. Ms. Pask has chosen marginal rather than orthodox members of each faith, and will even host a lesbian wedding officiated by a nun who faces excommunication. Jeremy Deller, the British artist who was the last winner of the Turner Prize, has a work entitled “Speak to the Earth and it will tell you,” which takes the form of diaries kept by locals at one of the city’s allotment gardens, which are to be maintained for 10 years and collated at the 2017 Sculpture Projects. The American Mike Kelley has a “Petting Zoo” in which visitors may stroke various animals, which in turn are able to lick a salt statue emulating Lot’s wife from the Old Testament.

These various projects indicate a new worthiness in contemporary art. The “interventions” recall the radical, subversive, iconoclastic happenings of the 1960s and 1970s, but are now married to a somewhat earnest sense of public service — reflecting, some might argue, the changed circumstances of sculpture made to order and sponsored by municipal authorities and public institutions. An institutionalized avant garde, in other words.

Public service is taken to a further extreme by the German Hans-Peter Feldmann, whose work is a restroom in the Cathedral Square, last upgraded for a Papal visit in 1987. Mr. Feldmann, working with the town hall, has gone for cheerful tile work and classy fixtures, and has insisted that the facilities be free. While he takes debunking the idea of public sculpture to a utilitarian extreme, his countryman Andreas Siekmann vents a certain anger at the demise of public sculpture in “Trickle Down: Public Space in the Era of its Privatization.” In front of a baroque palace he has placed a crushed ball of several of those infuriating plastic animals (like the cows sited in New York a couple of years ago) authorities periodically litter around towns, along with the compactor in which they were compressed. The result is actually quite sculptural-looking, which might have been an intended irony.

One work that combines new technology and some kind of sculptural form is “Flower for Münster” by Marko Lehanka. The petals of this flower are made from bisected surfboards, while a monitor in the middle has been programmed to invent fictional characters at random (drawing names from the city’s phone book) and subject them to strange scenarios ending in death, spewing out the tales in text and audio. The calculated weirdness inevitably draws a crowd. Another video, a melancholy, rather poignant film tracking winter walks around the city by a cast of characters, is Valérie Jouve’s “Münsterlands,” which is imaginatively sited in an underground walkway in front of the Schloss, to which two rows of cinema seats have been added. Unlike many of the charming and popular sites in which sculpture is, so to speak, inflicted on the public, this is a place where a work was sorely needed. And the piece is genuinely site-specific, drawing meaning and value from its placement.

This work and the restroom in the cathedral square prompt a thought. The city’s medieval churches were gutted in World War II, and sparsely decorated on reconstruction, yet none of the sculptors proposed projects for an ecclesiastical space. Is this simply lack of faith, or avant-garde antipathy to the Church, or are contemporary sculptors short of the requisite skill and humility to make effective devotional art?

Until September 30, 2007











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