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  • Christian Hain

Formed, Furnished, Forgotten - The Life of a Sculpture; Skulptur-Projekte Münster 2017

(Münster.) Art knows biennials, triennials, quinquennials, and even decennials. Skulptur-Projekte Münster (SPM) might not be Germany’s best known art event, yet it is sometimes considered the country’s second most important. - Those cute Berlin fairs don’t count, you do your business elsewhere, but instruction- and institutional, government-funded, festivals that happen not too frequently, not to exasperate the majority that won’t give a toss about art, especially if it’s contemporary, are perfectly fine around here. SPM sees the light of day, and the dark of night, not oftener than every ten years. The city of Münster is almost comparable to Cassel, calm, quiet, tidy, neat, about three hundred thousand inhabitants. It’s otherwise known for a decent university, and a superlative: Münster is the “bicycle capital” of Germany. Only in Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Peking pedestrians need to be more afraid for their lives.

Remarkably unremarkable, like a sculpture in the open. In 1977, somebody in city marketing first had the idea to show art, and nothing too crazy, but sculptures. Sculptures are fine, everybody likes sculptures. You do. I do. Sculptures are so unobtrusive. Transport might be tricky, but once you dumped them somewhere, nobody cares. Except teenage sprayers thankful for the support. A sculpture blends in with the environment, and people only ever notice it, subconsciously, when a bunch of schoolchildren is blocking the way, loitering around that grey something, smoking, chatting, ignoring an (art) teacher. A sculpture’s importance as a meeting point is overrated. The suggestion, “Meet me at the Venet” (or “Serra”, or anything) will always meet with a blank stare, upon which you choose to elaborate, “that steel thing, rusty, twenty metres high, you know?” - “...” - “Ok, let’s meet Starbuck’s.” Don’t get me wrong, I really, really, love sculptures, but if you believe, they’d matter in any way to people moving about the public space, you’re wrong. Install it inside, or even in a garden, and everything changes, suddenly it gets all the longed for attention, suddenly, it provides an occasion for small talk, or quiet adoration – due to the limited space that underlines a sculpture’s presence, and pushes it to focus. Set and setting.

Organizing a festival like Skulptur-Projekte, the work’s not done with putting art in space. You also hire an army of art history undergraduates to watch those works in what you call a “highly rewarding internship”. Thirtyish new sculptures are spread all over the city, and some of them are bound to stay forever, but Münster citizens won’t feel forced to notice. Contrary to you who came on purpose, for the art, and nothing but the art. So did I. Münster central is one of the train-station-slash-malls typical for German midsize towns. You have a fifty-fifty chance to take the right exit and arrive vis-à-vis a Skulptur-Projekte info booth. There is not much to do here, but taking an important decision: A visit to Skulptur-Projekte is free, but as always, this is a trap. You will think, “No need for a three-Euros-map, I’ll use the website/app.” That’s not smart; that’s a mistake. SPM’17’s website is the most annoying piece of %@#, any parody of a web designer ever dared to present to a client. It’s what you do when at four in the morning, you realize there’s a deadline running out in eight hours, but you’re on your way to a party, so you decide to go there anyway, then, back home at nine a.m., you open a fresh bottle of vodka, and before you start working, you fall asleep, to finally finish the app in ten minutes over breakfast, minus the time for a cigarette. And did I mention, you’re not a web designer, never learned to code, or only ever used a smartphone yourself?

There’s a map. And dots to mark the locations of Skulptur-Projekte Münster‘s sculptures on a second layer. If you scroll the map, the dots won’t scroll simultaneously, but with a delay of several minutes. Until then, they remain where the underlying section of the map was before you started scrolling. If you tap the icon to find your position, the app will zoom out and locate you somewhere in the Atlantic ocean, several miles off the Ghanaian coast. As you slowly zoom in, the dots appear scattered all over Germany and neighbouring countries, then jump – or rather: creep - in place, ever so slowly, “in place” meaning an approximate guess as to where sculptures might or might not hide. Tapping one of the dots will show a picture of the artwork, in theory. In fact, it opens the picture of another work next to the one you tapped, and it won’t close again unless you reload the page.

(editor’s note: the website has been updated since my visit to Münster, there’s only one map layer now. Still, loading times, and design, are suboptimal to put it mildly.)

And yet, the tour started off well. I had invested one Euro less than the map would have cost in a recharge of my 300MB poor man’s flat rate, and the website at least gave me a hint to the right direction, westwards. There was a sculpture: Two granite jigsaw pieces leaning to each other, or struggling apart, contorted like a complicated bone fracture, a horribly burst joint, and thick metal chains running through holes in their hearts. Metal letters provided a clue to interpretation: “1945-90”. Oh yeah, the glorious days, when Saxony was not a part of Germany (say many Western Germans who solemnly hate the Saxon dialect). Suddenly, I doubted the sculpture’s belonging in the context of Projekte 2017. And indeed, it doesn’t. It’s another work, permanent, a leftover from past Skulptur-Projektes, or perhaps not even that. This year’s Projekte commences some metres farther down the road: A fake rock, climbing frame, or -wall. Screws are sticking out, be careful not to cut yourself, and blocks to put your hand and foot on if this were a training ground for mountaineers. The whole block is blowing apart, frozen in mute explosion. Tiny gaps invite to take a look at the frame inside. Half meteorite, half sea-mine, Justin Matherty baptized his work Nietzsche’s Rock for a stone that inspired the philosopher to the concept of eternal recurrence. Possibly, he’s also hinting at the historic genius conception, ideas with explosive power falling from heaven. From certain angles, it reminds of a giant turtle, or rhino.

Not far from here, another sculpture, likewise guarded by interns and thus identifiable as “officially SPM’17”: An oversized earthworm, cruelly cut in three and fastened between metal cramps, royal blue. If your associations are different, please keep them to yourself, this is a family-friendly blog. Artist: Nairy Baghramian.

It was after this, that I started to think more and more of an article I’ve read lately, on a treasure hunt, more or rather less organized by an eccentric antiques dealer who’s hid a million dollars in the Rocky Mountains. So far, three people have died on the search, and did not even find it. For hours, I kept walking through Münster without noticing any more artworks. A book shop/kiosk had no map, no info material on Skulptur-Projekte on offer. The sun was shining, and many times I thought to myself, “now, that’s the Münster munster!”, alas, it was just another church/dome/monastery/art collector’s mansion in the medieval catholic town. Once I espied a Skulptur-Projekte Münster 2017 banner on a church, but the door was closed. It seems that all the region’s cultural institutions seek to profit from the event, by proper shows, or by offering their space to guests. Which, of course, is perfectly normal. Even YLCA, Yvon Lambert Collection Avignon, is vacationing in Münster this year!

The bicycles cycled nearer and nearer, at a side street I waited for what felt like an hour, then closed my eyes and stepped forward, desperate, resigned to the inevitable. The ensuing crash left seventeen bikes - no, that’s silly. They circled around me, and having safely reached the other side, I opened my eyes even wider than my lungs to inhale life and the new found drive to self-preservation.

Somehow I reached LWL Museum with another (the only other) SPM visitor centre close by, and recognized a Henry Moore sculpture in front, not part of SPM’17. By this time, I would have paid three hundred Euros for the map. Not yet did I know about the cruel deception waiting for me, was not aware of the countless complaints about that map in Münster press, had not yet heard every other tourist loathing it, not yet been told by a sympathetic LWL warden how it’s no good at all and I should much rather get a paper printout at the reception desk with a list of at least all five works in and around the museum, had not yet cried bitter tears of desperation.

All this followed once I’d left the visitor centre office again.

See, if you host an art exhibition in an entire city, you have several options. You can order an A6 leaflet with a detailed city map and tiny pictures of all works, while reserving the essays nobody ever reads anyway to a large catalogue that you still offer on the side. Have that leaflet printed in Bangladesh, Belarus, or Greece for a couple cents, then sell it for five Euros. People will buy it, and be happy. You can make some extra cash with ads. Maybe even hire someone to hunt down sponsors for your event, and present these sponsors in your leaflet. That’s what Art Weeks/-ends do.

Or you say, “screw it, we do it once a decade, nobody will remember. And anyways, I won’t be with that shi--y job in ten years, I’ll be curating Documenta, or Venice. Or direct Gagosian.” You go ahead to order a most undetailed city map with a completely arbitrary selection of a handful street names from a local copy shop, A3 folded, i.e. torn when touched the first time, without pictures, and art locations but approximately indicated. That’s, what SPM’17 did.

There still is a “true” catalogue, of the cheapes paper quality imaginable, but at least with pictures and essays.

LWL Museum hosts several SPM’17 works. Looking around, you realize you’re standing in midst a sound installation by Nora Schultz – engines? birds? It adds rather well to the squeaking of the doors behind. And if ever you wonder, why you’re here, have a look at Michael Dean‘s installation in the atrium. It’s a chaotic collection of objects – pebbles, bottles, plastic sacs, typescripts and scaffoldings, as seen countless times in contemporary art before. But in the corridor leading around, cut off from the main part by a semi-transparent plastic curtain with peepholes, you will read “Fucksake” written on barrier tape over a clothes rack. How often that thought crossed my mind: “Ffs, what am I doing here?” Or should it be an expression of the artist’s contempt for Japanese rice wine?

Then have a look at the world’s best stocked museum café/bar. Between this and the lockers, there’s a video to complete Skulptur-/Installation-/Sound-/Video-Projekte Münster 2017; it shows a tour through the museum from ant’s view perspective; a gnome cameraman?

I did not visit Gregor Schneider’s apartment in the museum, not because I couldn’t find it, but for the queue outside. And it was a Tuesday, the city rather calm. But I loved a solemn Ulrich Rückriem from 1985 (thus unconnected to any edition of Skulptur-Projekte).

Rachel Whiteread’s work for SPM 1997, a plaster book shelf, is still here, high on a balcony above Michael Dean’s installation. I saw it on my second visit to LWL, having unsuccessfully tried to detect several works outside. “Marked” in the paper map. At the official bike rental I was told, the (historic) Hans-Peter Feldmann work was a toilet entrance on the square before one more big church. That were indeed the restrooms, but the artist had them built for performances back in the days. Great excuse to enter the ladies’ restrooms. Not for you, not now!

That church has a nice not-a-Pennone inside, a stone saint holding an actual tree branch. Meanwhile, a Chinese (student?) artist had installed ceramics on the stairs outside the museum. Taking a photo of a truck parked as if to take the Moore away, I realized, it was an artwork. A readymade sculpture by Cosima von Bonim and Tom Burr - one rented the truck, the other got the driver’s license? Kunstverein Münster next door hosts a solo show of the same Tom Burr, not bad.

Nobody knew, was it a performance, or a homeless man who had placed his shoes, and parked his own “truck”, a shopping cart filled with half an artist’s studio, next to Bonim/Burr’s; walking around, giggling, shouting.

Continuing the marathon, chances are, you discover at least one of Samly (Samuel Nyholm)’s works. They are all over the city. Just don’t confuse his comic characters with ordinary graffiti. Samly’s work can be fun, if it comes with text. In Münster it doesn't.

There’s neon “angst” beat by a golfer (cricketeer?) towards a pictogramed church. An installation by Ludger Gerdes. Fear outsourced?

A lot of works are left unguarded, making them even harder to locate. And no, there are no signposts, either. I found the first of Andreas Bunte‘s posters in the courtyard of a university building. They feature a barcode that links to a video, you may use a free Wi-Fi connection. In theory. The students sitting on another, more interesting, sculpture, knew nothing about that Wi-Fi network, and there was none active.

Somewhere at Münster castle hide works by Aram Bartholl and Richard Artschwager. If you find them, send photographic proof.

There was also a miniature castle in a park, could be a bus station if there was a road. A music school with open windows added to the ambiance, while a mad gardener was hacking away with a spade, mumbling to himself. No, that was a child, probably expelled from piano class, still might be a serial killer in the making. Allegedly, there was a Thomas Schütte around. And Hito Steyerl. The Schütte I found: A nuclear bunker (Nuclear Temple), oxidized over the years. Does it look like a minaret? It has a small opening on the bottom, and it’s hollow inside, but you could not get in, or only if it was you who filmed that video at LWL. Opposite are only the headquarters of an insurance company, astonishingly modest for that industry and the palaces we’re used to see them build (you need to do something with all that money!). Two sculptures are outside, a collection of tubes (Say “Hito high tubes?) and a bronze group. Neither is from Mrs Steyerl. She did something inside the building.

Upon arrival in Münster, and walking around the city centre, you wonder about all the cafés and restaurants, Münsteranians must love to sit in the sun eating ice cream and drinking coffee. But when later you arrive at lake Aa, looking forward to a well-deserved break, there is nothing but an Italian restaurant with a very limited menu, and no iced coffee, or cake. (No, that’s not an important critique, and not in any case relevant for Skulptur-Projekte.) And then, there are moments, when it’s all done right. At the entrance to a parking lot, a sign reads: “Entrance Skulptur-Projekte”. On that parking lot stands a house, painted on the outside, and with a door to get inside. That’s a sculpture by Peles Empire, a German collective named after a Romanian castle, not the god of football. Opposite, there’s more posters by Bunte, all linking to the same video. Now, the choice of Wi-Fi networks is confusing. The correct connection is neither “Opium den” nor “The spectre of communism”, “I like to shower naked”, or “Asocial network”, but something else that I did not note, deeply awed by Münster citizens’ creativity. Oh, that video? Technical, robotic, artificial hair getting combed by artificial hands. And Peles Empire? Fake, reconstructing fake facades, and print outs. Yes, that’s confusing. But it looks nice, and it feels right.

A such sign is much amiss near LWL. Try a courtyard: They hid some works by Koki Tanaka there, close to a closed “Bible Museum” (it looks really strange – an installation itself?). A photo-sculpture, and videos of a support group, artists anonymous, or a self-awareness workshop, with people walking around, talking, drinking coffee, all very utterly important. Could be a Woody Allen film, minus the laughs, and the characters seem less likeable.

Alexandra Pirici‘s performance in the old town hall has actors singing and posing, first in the entree, later in a historic conference room, the wall adorned with historic exhibits nobody is paying attention to. The actors stubbornly do their stretching where they rehearsed it, and if a unfortunate visitor gets in their way, he must face the consequences. They are singing a capella, and multilingual, I understood “Rentrez chez vous, rentrez chez vous, rentrez chez vous” -“Anytime, Anytime, Anytime”. Might actually be Chinese. They lie down one on top of the other - less sexual than Erwin Wurm’s works, or MMA fights -, go to sleep, wake up again, and continue their wanderings. In between, and most important, they cite historical facts and today’s headlines. ... years ago that treaty was signed; ... kilometres from here, x and y did z. Here we are now (entertain us?), time and space from something. So what? Caution: It gets political.

At this point, I couldn’t go on. Münster vanquished me, I did not have the stamina. If you ask for advice: Buy the full catalogue (15€), but don’t go there. I only saw a fraction of works – but I got that catalogue. It does not include the “historic” works, but that’s a small prize to pay. It will spare you a lot of frustration, sweat, and nerves. And if, despite all warnings, you visit MSP’17, book a guided bike tour for 28 Euros, and pray your guide won’t get lost himself. Note to the art collector: There are no official limousine tours on offer, you'll need to book a flight for Alfred too, and buy a car here.

P.S.: Another missed business opportunity: Segway tours through Münster (if you can stand standing all day long).

Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017, 10 June-1 October 2017

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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