Sculpture Invasion in Münster: The Art World Goes Provincial

By Cameron Abadi in Münster, Germany

Documenta isn't the only world-renowned art exhibit in Germany this year. The once-in-a-decade Sculpture Projects is on in Münster -- a laid-back show for a town still thrilled by pumpernickel bread.

In 1977, when the American artist Bruce Naumann was invited to participate in an exhibition called Sculpture Projects in the German city of Münster, he submitted a proposal for a work entitled "Square Depression" -- an enormous inverted, hollow pyramid with a 25 by 25-meter square base, sunk into the courtyard in front of the University of Münster's Department of Nuclear Physics. The city took one look at his sketches and told him to forget about it.

But this past Saturday, "Square Depression" made its premiere to wide fanfare. Thirty years late, perhaps, but no less spectacular.

Like Documenta, the modern art event hosted by the city of Kassel, the Sculpture Projects in Münster -- a once-every-decade exhibition of contemporary international sculpture -- is a world-renowned arts event in an unlikely place. Indeed, mini-city Münster, tucked away in north-western Germany not far from the Dutch border, hosted fully 500,000 visitors the last time the sculpture festival arrived in town in 1997 -- almost twice Münster's entire population.

But in contrast to the scarred industrial ruin of Kassel, Münster is a well-heeled Catholic city, with an active university in the center of town and street traffic dominated by bicycles. The pervasive quaintness, though, is not only a reflection of the city's history, but also of its stodgy temperament. "Münster was also destroyed during World War II, just like Kassel," says Briggite Franzen, co-curator of the Sculpture Projects. "But they just decided to rebuild everything exactly the way it looked before."

Some Germans, in fact, derisively refer to Münster as the national capital of the Bildungsbürrgertum -- the conservative, German petit-bourgeoisie. That reputation was further cemented in 1977, when local residents and journalists loudly demanded that the city refuse a sculpture donated by the famed artist George Rickey because they thought it was an eyesore.

Source of Pride

That embarrassing incident was the direct inspiration for the creation of the Sculpture Projects. Klaus Bussman, then director of the Westfalian Art Museum, wanted to educate local residents about the political and aesthetic challenges of modern art. The ensuing outdoor exhibition garnered worldwide attention, and its return every 10 years is a highly anticipated event.

There have been some bumps in the road with local residents, but the efforts seem to have paid off. The city has steadily grown more comfortable with its role as periodical international arts magnet. In fact, 35 works that premiered at previous Sculpture Projects were subsequently bought by the city -- including Claes Oldenburg's "Giant Pool Balls," which was fodder for many contentious city council meetings when it first appeared on the shores of the local Aa Lake in 1977. It has since become a source of pride for residents of Münster.

"Sure, some residents are annoyed by the crowds that come," co-curator Carina Plath told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But locals have become very proud of the exhibition, and the fact that they become an international city. I’m not sure they look forward to it, but they do enjoy it when it arrives."

Kaspar König, a co-founder of the Sculpture Projects, a co-curator of each of its four incarnations and a native of the Münster region, casts Plath's comment in a slightly more cynical light: "Münster is an ideal city for this sort of exhibition," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But, that’s not because the people who live here are an ideal audience. It’s because they agree to give us money and they let us do what we want."

A Calm Confidence

So, what have the co-curators delivered with the city's generous subsidy? The Sculpture Projects once again provides an impressive exploration of the relationship between public space and art. Works from 33 artists adorn the landscape around the entire city, from the Domplatz at the center of the city -- where Hans-Peter Feldmann followed-through on his proposal to completely refurbish the public bathrooms -- to the distant banks of the Aa Lake -- where Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl has created an artificial archaeological dig that reveals the belfry of a 18th century church. And for the fourth consecutive Sculpture Projects, American artist Michael Asher will be showing his installation "Caravan," in which a camping trailer will be parked in various, nondescript parts of the city.

The curators also seem to have selected several works intended to provoke residents of the city. "Münster's History from Below", by Silke Wagner, brings attention to the city's oft-ignored leftist political history, by naming a city square after Paul Wulf, the locally born, and recently deceased, anti-fascist and anti-militarist. The artistic honor puts him in league with Paul von Hindenburg and Kaiser Wilhelm II, both of whom also have squares named after them in Münster, and both of whom were partly responsible for the horrors of World War I. Wagner places a larger-than-life size sculpture of Wulf in the newly named square and drapes him with reproductions of historical documents from Münster's 20th century tradition of progressive politics.

Meanwhile, Martha Rosler's "Unsettling the Fragments" draws attention to the darker sides of Münster's history by placing on the veranda of the Münster public library reproductions of the cages that currently hang from the city's main cathedral -- cages that were used in the 16th century to display the mutilated bodies of tortured protestants.

Thus, while Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, co-curators of Documenta 12, struggle to democratize their exhibition to make it more palatable to the masses, the Sculpture Projects demonstrates a calm confidence about the possibility of truly public art. The curators have simply placed art throughout the city and invited passers-by to look. Another crucial difference: in Münster, there's no entrance fee.

Indeed the hysteria of the art market seems, as a whole, less present in Münster than in Venice, Kassel and Basel, the other stopping points on the Grand Tour of this summer's European art exhibitions. Perhaps that's because few of the site-specific installations are likely to be bought by high-bidding collectors: Naumann's "Square Depression," for one, is unlikely to fit into anyone's living room.

"It helps to really be in a provincial place," König says. "It's easier for artists to focus on society and people." That distance from the market also allows political art to come across with a lighter touch, as in Andreas Siekmann's contribution to the Sculpture Projects: a giant spherical, mashed-up conglomerate of the fiberglass animal mascots that adorn cities around the world.

That's not to say that the dowdy Sunday strollers of Münster are ready to join the jet-setting class of international aesthetes. Some residents confess to looking more forward to the spectacle and the people-watching than to the art itself. Certainly the "culture bag for art pilgrims" sold by a local gourmet food store seems more pitched to residents of Münster than to the stylish visitors of the Sculpture Projects: in the "culture bag" is a luxury picnic for two, with sautéed chicken and hearty bread.

König is unsurprised by the residents' misplaced enthusiasm; he grew up near Münster, after all. "At the end of the day, people here are more excited by pumpernickel than by art," he says with a shrug.

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