Retrospect/Forecast 2016/2017: Kasper König

By Andrew Maerkle

Claes Oldenburg – Giant Pool Balls (1977), Skulptur Austellung in Münster 1977, photo LWL / Hubertus Huvermann 2016.

Since its inception in 1977, Skulptur Projekte Münster has developed into one of the world’s most respected exhibitions of contemporary art. Its distinguishing features are well known: works are installed in public around the city and environs of Münster, and, in contrast to more frequent periodic surveys, the exhibition is held on a ten-year cycle. Although it was not part of the original intent, the tradition is that some projects from each edition are acquired by the city or other parties to remain on permanent display, and artists are often invited to participate across multiple editions of the exhibition – the most famous instance being Michael Asher and his roving Caravan (1997-2007). This expanded approach to space and time means that, with each edition, each of the participating artists has the potential to contribute an opus, and not just a work, in conversation not only with the topos of the city and its people but also with the other artists who have exhibited over time. Through memorable projects ranging from Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Pool Balls and Joseph Beuys’s Unschlitt/Tallow in the first edition, to Katharina Fritsch’s bright yellow Madonna installed in the middle of a busy square and Sol Lewitt’s Black Form – Dedicated to the Missing Jews placed in front of the Schloss Münster in 1987, Fischli/Weiss’s Garten and Ayşe Erkmen’s project ferrying sculptures from the collection of the Landesmuseum (now known as the LWL-Museum fur Künst und Kultur) through the air by helicopter in 1997, and Mike Kelley’s Petting Zoo and Susan Philipsz’s sound installation The Lost Reflection in 2007, Skulptur Projekte has become a laboratory for challenging the definitions of not just sculpture, but art itself.

The exhibition is now approaching its fifth edition in 2017, with Kasper König, who has been involved since 1977, returning as artistic director, and Britta Peters and Marianne Wagner joining as curators. Over the past year or so, artists have already begun making site visits and started work on their projects, even as the curatorial team continues to revise the scope of the exhibition and invite additional participants. The 2017 edition will introduce a number of innovations. There will be a focus on performances and digital media through the inclusion of artists including Alexandra Pirici, Xavier le Roy and the Gintersdorfer/Klaßen group, while the project sites will be more dispersed beyond the city center than in years past, extending even to the nearby town of Marl. Among proposals that have already been publicized include Ei Arakawa’s plan to install a group of singing, LED-screen reproductions of contemporary art masterpieces on a green area next to the Aasee lake, while on the opposite side of the city Ayşe Erkmen will create an invisible footbridge spanning the Münster harbor, enabling visitors to “walk on water,” and Michael Smith will set up a tattoo studio near the central train station, targeting clientele who are 65 and older.

In October 2016, ART iT editor Andrew Maerkle was in Münster as a contributor to the production of Koki Tanaka’s project for Skulptur Projekte 2017, which will center around video footage of workshops held with a group of local participants drawn from diverse backgrounds. While there, Maerkle spoke with König about the history of the Skulptur Projekte and its implications for art’s place in society.

Skulptur Projekte 2017 will be held from June 10 to October 1, 2017.


ART iT: In Japan over the past two decades we have seen a wave of new exhibitions that are loosely modeled on Skulptur Projekte. Many of these exhibitions are staged in areas where populations and industry are shrinking, and empty schools, factories and houses are being turned into venues for multi-site art events. But these projects also have an explicit link to the state, which supports them with the objective of regenerating the local infrastructure and economy. One thing that makes Skulptur Projekte different is that in the beginning it had a more antagonistic relationship to the public and the administration of Münster. After 40 years of involvement with Skulptur Projekte, what are your thoughts on the issue of art’s instrumentalization by the state?

KK: In the case of Münster I think “antagonism” is a relatively harmonious word. There was an enormous aggression toward us. We had no idea how deep it would be. It was more of a coincidence that Skulptur Projekte should become a recurring exhibition held once every 10 years.
First of all, the break between World War II and the young generation really happened in the late 1960s. In West Germany, this was the time of Willie Brandt and Ostpolitik, acknowledging the trauma of history but at the same time looking forward – life goes on. The first edition of Skulptur Projekte was in 1977, so there was a lag of about 10 years, but in this context there were two other factors involved in Münster: the university, which on a certain academic level pretended that it was not so dependent on fascist power games, when in fact it was very much so; and a civil society of businessmen who just wanted to make business. Both played a role a few years earlier in the controversy over George Rickey’s sculpture, Three Rotary Squares, when it was installed in public in 1975. In response, Klaus Bußmann, who was the curator at the Landesmuseum, felt that it was necessary to educate the public at the highest aesthetic level about the history of modern sculpture, from Rodin to Calder. He organized a historical survey at the museum, and then, although we didn’t know each other personally – I lived in New York at the time, which explains why there were so many American artists – he asked me to do the contemporary section and an in-between section of “autonomous sculpture,” with modernist sculpture placed respectfully in a neutral park. So there were three parts: the historical survey, the autonomous sculpture, and the interventions where the artists decided their own sites in consultation with us.
In any case, it was not originally intended to be a long-term project, and one reason I am still involved is that after a few successful editions the province and the city, which financially support the exhibition, wanted to do Skulptur Projekte every five years, on the same rhythm as documenta. In 1987, documenta was delayed a year so that it coincided with Münster for the first time, which profited Münster immensely. After 2007 I said, if you do it every five years, I will take you to the highest court. You are not allowed to do it. I’m not sure I had a legal basis, but they backed down, and then I said, ok, I’ll do it myself and build the team for it. A slowed down 10-year interval is the best way to examine changes taking place in sculptural approaches, as well as in relation to society.
Münster is also unique in that 90 percent of the inner city was destroyed during the war, but then was rebuilt on the same plan as the preexisting city. The British bombs destroyed the houses but the sewage system remained intact, and therefore it was economically practical to rebuild it that way. People always think it was an ideological decision, because Münster is so conservative and Catholic and so on, but that’s only a kind of propaganda argument. It was just the easiest thing to do. The rebuilding was post-modernism before post-modernism. It’s a Disneyland. But in the meantime, after 50 or 60 years, the patina creates a fake sense of history. And Münster strangely enough is growing, whereas many of the cities in the Ruhr district, where the mining and steel industries were concentrated, are shrinking. So it’s a complex, contradictory situation.

Left: Donald Judd – Untitled (1977), photo LWL / Roman Mensing. Right: Herman de Vries – Sanctuarium (1997), Skulptur. Projekte in Münster 1997, photo LWL / Hubertus Huvermann 2016.

ART iT: And of course with each edition of Skulptur Projekte some of the works remain and become integrated into the city.

KK: I think that makes it interesting. I would say most of the remaining works have a high artistic quality, but neither are they macho, look-at-me works. They go to sleep and then suddenly wake up again. It’s important that the city does not become a museum. When artists make proposals, we insist they should have the mentality that the works will exist only for the exhibition period, and not beyond, because otherwise they start to make concessions to give the work a better chance of survival, and that’s not good.
I always like to quote the 19th-century Viennese art historian Camillo Sitte, who argued that the snowman is the ideal public sculpture. He was referring specifically to the north of Italy – Tuscany and so on – where children made snowmen. Imagine a town with a church and a piazza. The snowman would not be put where people crossed, because then it would get pushed over. So it was always positioned off to the side, and it could exist only when there was snow, everybody recognized it, and children made it. It was a kind of seasonal memory – and what’s interesting about Christianity is that so many of the symbols, from the Christmas tree and the snowman to the Easter rabbit, have been incorporated from archaic, heathen cultures. So it has a ritual momentum. You recognize it, and then it disappears. The sense of time is the most important element of the work. That’s why an artist like Marcel Duchamp is so interesting: it’s all about time. His ego is in relation to time. What you do not do is more important than what you do. So as the organizers of Skulptur Projekte, we have to take big risks and encourage the artists we invite that we share in their risks. That’s all we can do.

ART iT: Far from being a museum, the city strikes me as an anti-museum. Iconic works like Claes Oldenburg’s pool balls or Donald Judd’s rings are covered in graffiti, and there’s trash inside Hermann de Vries’s Sanctuarium (1997), but this also gives the work a sense of vitality. Instead of the work being removed from time, it is put into time.

KK: Yes, but for instance Oldenburg did not like the idea of the graffiti. He said, it’s not a sculpture any more, it’s a symbol for tourism and for marketing the city. I said, sure, so why don’t you tell the city that it’s not a sculpture anymore? You might have to repay some of the money they gave you to buy the work, but then you could make a contract to license it like a trademark. They would pay you so much every year for using it. Nothing came of it, but it was a real proposal. In 1977, when there was this alternative hippy situation going on, there was an enormous opposition to Oldenburg’s work, and I think it had to do with his use of concrete, which is such a brutal material. In fact, it’s a very abstract work that responds to the lake and different trajectories. It’s not a question of big or small but rather of scale, which I think makes it elegant and beautiful.
Of course, the controversy before 1977 was all about George Rickey’s piece, which was acquired with the help of a state bank that had moved to Münster. At the time I was amused by it because I thought the work was kitsch, naturalistic abstraction: you see a flower or bamboo in these three squares that move with the wind. But it was completely rejected by the populace, and now I understand it’s something that was made at a given time, even if I didn’t care for it originally. So even though we have to be careful not to have things permanently, in some cases they have a permanence which doesn’t seem to disturb. Either people forget it or it rejuvenates itself.
For example, the De Vries is in a beautiful context because it’s one of the few areas of Münster that is not overly cleaned. There’s a tendency here toward repressive liberalism – everything is groomed and taken care of so much that it can’t breathe. But this is an area which is a little forgotten. George Brecht’s VOID-Stone (1987) is there, too. Brecht liked the fact that the city bought his work, but he said, if you don’t like it anymore, just turn it over and then you don’t have to see the inscription. We spent a lot of time trying to get the right word in German, but it was impossible. Either it would have this Heideggerian metaphysical sense, or it would just be “empty,” there was no in-between. This is interesting also in light of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s epitaph for the romantic poet Annette von Droste-Hülsoff, A Remembrance of Annette (1987), in the cemetery nearby. There is no universality without a local dialect or sense of smell, as it were.
Obviously now our interest is in doing something new. My job is to tell the artists to forget about what’s already there, but they are interested in it all the same. All the artists have either come here as students or at least already know about it, so we don’t have to introduce ourselves. With Koki Tanka I have been impressed by how organized he is. He’s like an anthropologist or sociologist, but at the same time he’s working on site, and that way it has a meaning both for him and for the situation. It’s only good if it means something for the artist to do something new, to take a risk and not just repeat previous works.

ART iT: Has the approach to site-specificity evolved over the years?

KK: Site-specificity became quite significant in 1987. In 1977 it was less of a concern. The Americans had a different attitude then, because for them there is not such a difference between public and private: all the big institutions there – museums, universities – are more or less private, even if they are nominally public. But here there is a very strong difference. For instance, in the 1960s and ’70s people who were into painting were more privately oriented, while those who were into sculpture and conceptual art were more publically oriented. So when Judd made his proposal, and after it was executed, people more or less ignored it for the next 20 years because it didn’t look like a work of art. It looked like something that could plausibly have been made by the geographers or physicists at the university.
Then in the case of Bruce Nauman, the proposal was rejected three times and only realized after he had a reputation. That was very positive for the reception of his work, but in other cases we’ve had incidents where works were damaged and then repaired and damaged again and so on. We dealt with it in a very non-aggressive way, but it would be pathetic if it were to become a perpetual fight. There’s a quote from Robert Filiou which I really like, and only think about in these situations. I made a book with him called Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts. In it, he describes how he and a friend spent a Saturday morning in a café where people kept playing the same song on the jukebox. Filiou and his friend were suffering terribly because they had been drinking all night and were hungover. Then they realized that if they put money into the machine and pushed the button for silence, they could buy silence. He said that was the first time he ever felt there was a positive side to capitalism. He also said that art is too important to take it too importantly.

Clockwise from top left: Katharina Fritsch – Madonna (1987), Skulptur Projekte in Münster 1987, photo LWL / Rudolf Wakonigg; Ayşe Erkmen – Sculptures on Air (1997), photo LWL / Roman Mensing; Bruce Nauman – Square Depression (1977/2007), skulptur projekte münster 07, photo LWL / Roman Mensing.

ART iT: You mentioned “education” earlier with regard to Bußmann and the initial motivation for Skulptur Projekte. Have the people of Münster changed in their attitudes over the past four decades?

KK: In certain ways there is more generosity. For instance, in 2007 Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster made her work Roman de Münster, which was like a flashback of all the previous editions. She had seen two of them herself. She was a student of mine at one point, although she was always interested in Hollywood films and stuff like that. Her idea for 2007 was to write a story about Münster and the exhibition in the manner of Dan Brown and the Louvre, and she ended up making miniature versions of the previous artworks, all reduced to one-third scale, and placed beautifully on a lawn in the inner city. Locals who went to see the work would point out things they remembered to their children or grandchildren – things which they might have been completely opposed to previously – and suddenly there was a kind of nostalgic momentum happening. On the other hand, hardcore art lovers were very upset. They said, this is not something you should do to Richard Serra or Ulrich Ruckriem. I felt it was completely beside the point, because it was not cynical. It had more to do with memory and reflection, but on a surface level. Younger artists today have grown up with the computer. It’s not a question of better. It’s just another way of dealing with the situation.
This time we will also have a small presentation of On Kawara’s “Pure Consciousness” project installing date paintings at kindergartens around the world. The works will be displayed at a local kindergarten, and only be available for others to view when the children are not there. So it has to do with time, and with globalization, but in a non-educative way. No one will tell the children what the date paintings are about.

ART iT: What would you say is the role of art in European society today?

KK: In 1977, when we invited Joseph Beuys he said that to do work in a public outdoor context is “ecological kitsch.” He said it would mess up the environment, so who needs it? And then I said, but then why do you accept our invitation? He said, well, I think it shouldn’t be left to the Americans. He had a completely different way of approaching it. Some of the best works were those that started out very complex and then redefined themselves to become more and more specific. That is what I can contribute as an old, experienced person. I can say, come on, just keep on going. You don’t have to force it. To get back to your question – let’s skip it, that would be stuff for a whole talk in itself.

ART iT: But I always had the impression that art is celebrated in European society, and in particular postwar European society. There is such generous funding for the arts, and public institutions like museums and art centers can be found in most cities. It’s just that now we are starting to see budget cuts and privatization for culture in Europe, too.

KK: Yes, it was very positive after the war. Economic decentralization had a lot to do with it. You have to understand that in the 1960s Germany was right between the two major blocks, communist and capitalist. It was in the middle of Russia, Poland, France, the Netherlands, the north and south, and economically it was too important. With decentralization, for instance, everything that was published in philosophy and theory and so on was available wherever there was a bookshop, and more or less every small town had a bookshop. This is something that also links to the Kunstverein, which is a typical German institution. The Kunstverein predated the empire, and they were opposed to the empire. They were a kind of basic democratic institution, mostly initiated by artists to help themselves, to confront people with new ideas and so on. So again that tradition is continued in Münster because Münster is a city which is easily readable. The center started as a cloister which grew into a cathedral, then came the merchants, and then the city wall was replaced with a promenade – like every central European city wall, it was taken down in the 18th century – followed by the bombardment and reconstruction. It has a very paradisiacal quality which can also be repressive in a sense, but it’s calm. In fact, the province was interested in expanding Skulptur Projekte outside of Münster, so I spent some time in the Ruhr district talking to people and doing research. But they said, who needs it? Come on, let’s have a beer and play cards!
So one has to be careful. Right now we are at a point where the idea of the nation has suddenly become significant and there is a resurgence of rightwing politics, all of that, but we have to deal with something that goes beyond the daily momentum and has another sense of time. Therefore, focusing on aesthetic issues can also be a political stance. The most important thing is our autonomy. To be independent. We approach the artists and we need extra help and so on, but we do not have to justify ourselves. For us it’s not important to say this and this and this very successful artist has to be present. But we don’t say the opposite, either.

Left: Ayşe Erkmen – Project sketch for Skulptur Projekte 2017, photomontage Jan Bockholt. Right: Michael Smith – Not Quite Under_Ground Tattoo Studio, proposal for Skulpture Projekte 2017.

ART iT: Is the notion of public space also undergoing drastic change?

KK: Sure, because the notion of what’s public and private has been completely upended. Although one has to be careful not to generalize – for example, the term that is used all the time, gentrification. But there are certain processes. You can’t stand still or just be nostalgic. But then one should not overestimate art and its effects. It’s only art, and art can only be effective it if has some effect on what art can be.

Retrospect/Forecast 2016/2017: Kasper König – The Remainder is Perfect

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