For Issey Miyake-clad curators the world over, 2017 has marked a unique alignment of the stars, a once-a-decade overlapping of Documenta in Kassel, The Venice Biennale and Münster Skulptur Projekte (SPM). While it is safe to say that Venice and Documenta were directed squarely at the art illuminati, SPM was as close to an antithesis of this attitude for such an event: it was a festival that local residents took pride in and that they actively supported by visiting.
More often than not, when festivals of contemporary art are negatively critiqued the criticism comes from the fact that locals have not been factored into the equation. Indeed, the question ‘who is it for’ is thrown around endlessly during site-specific art events of late capitalism. This was perhaps most epitomised by Okwui Enwezor’s 1997 Johannesburg Biennial, Trade Roots which, just three years after the election that officially ended apartheid, was slammed as completely unnecessary in a nation that was still reeling from the effects of decades long racial segregation. Most recently, the Athens leg of the 2017 Documenta (AKA ‘Crapumenta’ as graffitied by one incensed local)1 received similar criticism, brandished as a form of ‘crisis tourism’ that ignored locals in favour of a high volume of fly-in-fly-out cultural tourists.
In stark contrast to these examples, SPM 2017 genuinely accessible and deeply integrated with the city. Every exhibit was free, including those in museums that would usually be ticketed, and the exhibition catalogue was priced at a very reasonable 15 Euros, as opposed to the ridiculous 85 Euros charged for that of the Venice Biennale. I do not reel these facts off flippantly: contemporary art festivals are perhaps the most politically charged art events in the globalised world and particulars like these position SPM in a very different political corner to our two counter-studies.
SPM is based upon a unique two-part model where the current set of commissions sit alongside a public collection of sculptures produced for the previous four iterations of the festival, and include works from Richard Serra, Rosemarie Trockel and Martha Rosler. Certainly, the public collection component is telling of SPM’s desire to cater to residents. Pieces including Donald Judd’s Untitled (1977), composed of two massive concrete rings large enough to be scaled, or Jenny Holzer’s five stone benches installed around a pre-existing war memorial (Benches, 1987), have been seamlessly integrated into the public sphere and chronicle the evolution of sculpture over the past five decades. However, the increasing ephemerality of sculpture exhibited in this rendition begs the question – how successfully can the legacy element continue?
Just as painting has recently undergone a renaissance of definition (or, more specifically, an expansion of definition) it seems that sculpture is now following suite. Many artists exhibited at SPM 2017 explored the ways in which an expanded material form of sculpture can respond to themes around neoliberalism, biotechnology and globalisation. Indeed, the calibre of artists included in this rendition was ambitious, if only for the fact that they were chosen to stretch the boundaries of what sculpture can be. Works from Mika Rottenberg, Pierre Huyghe and Gregor Schneider successfully demonstrated a preoccupation with these interconnected notions of form and theme.
Rottenberg’s Cosmic Generator (2017) was by far a stand out. Entering through a virtually empty Asian Grocery Store stocked with a few out of place objects including inflatable pool toys and tinsel, the audience eventually came to a darkened room screening a video focused on Chinese immigrants working in restaurants and cheap import stalls in the Mexican city of Mexicali. On the other side of the border in the USA is Calexico, and Rottenberg presented a very loose, if not psychedelic, narrative about the supposed tunnel that connects the two cities. However, the video also included inexplicable and generally hilarious shots of suited men rolling around perplexed on the plates as though they were spring rolls, or an elderly vendor who mysteriously teleports from one side of the border to the other. Indeed, the political comment in Rotenberg’s video was rife but the comedy removed any sense of didacticism.
Meanwhile, Pierre Huyghe’s After ALife Ahead (2017) was a makeshift biosphere installed inside an abandoned ice rink. Walking below ground level into the excavated rink, amongst earth mounds and crevices filled with foetid water, the biosphere setup gave the impression of intense desperation, clinging onto life as opposed to making it flourish. Included in the installation was an active beehive, a sparsely populated fish tank, live human cells and algae. Although these life forms were really barely lively within the vast space of the ice rink, the efforts to augment the space to accommodate these biological elements — including electronically operated skylights that allowed the bees to come and go — were excessive. No doubt, this excess in the name of any amount of progress was central to Huyghe’s prophetic piece demonstrating, ultimately, a version of our not-too-distant future.
The third stand out, Gregor Schneider’s N. Schmidt, Pferdgasse 19. 48143 Münster, Deutschland (2017), was a typically unnerving installation from the German artist. The apartment of Schnedier’s fictional character N. Schmidt was built into a back entrance of the LWL Museum. Entering the space alone, the spectator was faced with an empty apartment made all the eerier by the single sound of the tap running in the sparse bathroom. Progressing through the apartment, I was suddenly overcome with panic, as the space seemed to circle back on itself. Unable to get my bearing (all windows were blacked out to prevent the spectator from locating themselves geographically) I continued to stumble alone and rattled until, eventually, a guard opened a door to let me out. Little did I know that this experience was deliberately created. Schneider’s apartment was, in fact, two apartments mirrored against one another to disorientate the spectator, forcing them to question their own sense of memory and orientation.
At times, however, works that pushed the boundary of sculpture also came off as somewhat derivative. Despite the curators’ apparent attention to the changing face of sculpture, some works appeared too focused on a defiance of medium specificity rather than nuance. One such example was Alexandra Pirici’s performance piece Leaking Territories (2017) which, despite ticking all the boxes for ‘alternative sculpture,’ fell short of actually wowing and instead felt like a vapid facsimile of Tino Sehgal circa 2012 (the year he showed at Documenta 13). Where the discomfort of Sehgal’s work lays in the uneasiness of audience interaction (or lack thereof) with the performer, Pirici’s work was only uneasy insofar as it was all too familiar a model that, by now, many of us had experienced elsewhere.
The paradox of SPM 2017 is that while the strongest works pushed against the medium specificity of sculpture, these works were also the ones that will vanish from the cities topography due to difficultly of conservation, leaving only the more contained, stable and ‘safe’ works as legacies. Certainly is it highly unlikely that the Huyghe or Rottenberg will remain. But it is difficult not to fantasise about what an even stronger collection of works the city of Münster would have if only such pieces could be kept.
Amelia Winata is a writer who has contributed to Art Monthly, Art Guide, Gallery Magazine, Dissect, Memo Review and others.