My choice for the top work in the Venice Biennale, as I wrote in Hyperallergic Weekend last month, was Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler’s video installation Flora; now that I’ve been to Skulptur Projekte Münster, I’d like to single out one piece there. But first, full disclosure: Turkish artist Ayşe Erkmen is one of five international artists in the exhibition Flair, which I curated at Fridman Gallery in New York (through July 21st).
Long acclaimed as one of the foremost Turkish artists, Erkmen enjoys a substantial international reputation and has exhibited extensively in Turkey, Europe, and throughout the world, including representing her home country in the 2011 Venice Biennale. She is not nearly so well-known in the US (this is a rare New York appearance for her), but in my informed opinion — and I’ve been enthusiastically following her work since 1995, when I was introduced to it at the Istanbul Biennial — she sure should be. Now might be a good time to take notice.
While quirky sculptures are an important part of Erkmen’s oeuvre, she is best known for transforming extant sites, both indoors and outdoors, investing them with startling new potential. Some of her works, many of which are temporary, also have an outlandish streak. For Plan B (2011), her sculptural installation in the Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a network of multicolored pipes coursed through the space, and were connected to several reverse osmosis and ultrafiltration modules. This spare, yet visually engaging, apparatus functioned as both an elaborate sculpture and a water purification system, making potable the famously polluted water just outside the Arsenale.
For Kuckuck (2003), her exhibition at Kunstmuseum St. Gallen in St. Gallen, Switzerland, which shares a building with the natural history museum, she transformed the interior into a completely accurate cuckoo clock, in a part of the world that adores cuckoo clocks. Instead of carved birds popping out of little windows, motorized taxidermy animals from the natural history museum’s collection — including an encroaching caiman, vulture, and pronghorn antelope — on model train tracks, appeared at the appropriate hour, surprising visitors.
Erkmen is also a repeat artist at Skulptur Projekte Münster. In 1997, for the third version of this exhibition which commenced in 1977 and has been held every ten years since, she wanted to work with Münster’s famous Catholic cathedral, and submitted one, then a second, then a third proposal, all of which were rejected by church officials. Different reasons were given but many suspected that the real reason was that the church refused to host a contemporary artwork by a woman from a predominantly Muslim country. Erkmen — who lives in both Berlin and Istanbul — is both brilliant and stubborn. She did not give up. She decided to work not with the church, but with the free air above and around the church, after researching German law and determining that the church’s property rights only extend to a certain height above its steeple.
The resulting work, Sculptures on Air, called for 15th-, 16th, and 17th-century figurative sculptures from the storage facility of the Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst and Kunstegeschichte (now rebuilt and renamed the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur) to be fitted into a harness and hoisted through the sky via helicopter, hovering for a while above the church before being deposited on the roof ledge of the nearby museum, where they stood like watchful sentries, staring (and perhaps glaring) at the church. The action evoked the famous helicopter scene at the beginning of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which a statue of Christ is towed through the sky above Rome, as well as paintings of angels in flight, Christian ascensions, and fantastical dreams.
In effect, Erkmen engineered her own miracle, which doubled as an aerial circus act or a daredevil stunt. It was a direct challenge to the church’s authority, which lent it an element of mischief and irreverence, yet it was also exuberant and deeply touching. Incensed church officials denounced Erkmen as a disturber of civic peace and religious virtue and sued the museum. I was there when the helicopter with the first dangling sculpture appeared, and can attest that the feeling on the streets was altogether different. Giddy kids darted about, grown-ups were grinning, and everyone was thrilled by this rift in the city’s routine.
Twenty years after working with Münster’s air and devising one of the most compelling projects in the exhibition, Erkmen now working with Münster’s water, has done the same.
The north side of the city’s modest harbor sports a popular promenade and cafes, while the south side is gritty and industrial Erkmen fixated on how the harbor divides this part of the city into two strikingly different worlds, one mostly about pleasure and the other mostly about work, and she began to wonder how that divide might be bridged.
For On Water (2017), Erkmen built a bridge between these two sides, just not a normal bridge over the water, but instead an entirely abnormal underwater bridge (although one could also call it a walkway or a jetty) a few inches below the water’s surface. Her bridge is made of ocean cargo containers, steel beams, and steel grates, meaning it is a massive construction, but it doesn’t look like that at all; from a distance it is just barely visible as a faint, silvery trace beneath the water, delicate, and almost apparitional. It can, and indeed should, be walked upon, straight across to the factories on the south side and back; when you do this, the simple action of walking becomes marvelous and celebratory. You are aware of every cautious step. You are aware that you’ve never done anything, or been anywhere, quite like this before. You are aware that you are performing a miracle.
This is exactly the kind of innovative project — constructed in the city at large, not inside an art institution — that makes Skulptur Projekte Münster so special and valuable when compared with Venice and Documenta. There are about 120 artists (more if you include the members of duos and groups) in Christine Macel’s Venice Biennale, and way more than that in Adam Szymczyk’ Documenta 14, which is located in both Kassel, Germany, and Athens, Greece. There are a manageable 35 projects in Münster, making Skulptur Projekte Münster, decidedly different, and it has been that way since its inception.
In 1977, curator and art historian Klaus Bussmann, knowing full well that contemporary art was a niche enterprise in Münster — a mid-size, predominantly Catholic city — and that many of its residents were downright hostile to such art, nevertheless got the idea to mount a provocative exhibition in parks, plazas, and other outdoor spaces, where citizens and other visitors would be confronted by contemporary art on a daily basis. Bussmann, assisted by the young Kasper König, who would subsequently go on to become one of the most renowned German curators of all, invited nine artists (all men, alas, which was hardly unusual for the time) to come to Münster, seek out sites, and realize projects. While these artists, who included Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, and Joseph Beuys, are now household names in the art world, they weren’t back then, and certainly not in Münster. For many residents, it was as if objects from another galaxy had suddenly landed in their city.
Times have changed, and the exhibition has changed too. It has become bigger, much more balanced in terms of gender, and it has long since branched out from sculpture to include many other mediums. The biggest change of all is how a once controversial exhibition has become a beloved event, one central to Münster’s identity. Every ten years it puts little Münster on a very big cultural map, temporarily on a par with Venice and New York, London and Berlin, while throngs of viewers, both from the city and elsewhere, delight in seeking out widely dispersed works, which are accessible free of charge. For this fifth version, König, the artistic director, and curators Britta Peters and Marianne Wagner have continued the artist-centric focus that has been at the core of the exhibition from the beginning.
I arrived in Münster and made a beeline for Erkmen’s work; it was the first day of preview time, so there were not yet all that many visitors. I took off my shoes harborside and started across the bridge, sometimes stopping and standing for just a bit. There is something really lovely and thoughtful about being in the middle of a quite deep harbor, with the water lapping at your ankles. The label says that Erkmen’s work is made of containers and steel but that’s not entirely accurate. Water, sky, factory buildings, promenade, the weather, and people parading across the harbor are also prime components. You don’t need to be versed in contemporary art — in fact you don’t need to know anything about contemporary art whatsoever — to appreciate this work, but if you are, you will understand how Erkmen has fashioned a singular mesh of sculpture, performance art, Land Art, and perhaps painting, too, with the harbor as the canvas and the faint, silvery “bridge” transformed into a geometric form upon it. Without being even remotely didactic, Erkmen’s work also feels exceptionally relevant in this fractious time of warring camps and ideologies. Erkmen understood that the two sides of the harbor are polar opposites, and found a most unusual and joyful way of linking them.
Just before I left Münster, I returned to Erkmen’s work, on a Sunday afternoon. The exhibition had opened to the general public and the word was already out. Hundreds of people were clustered around and queuing up to walk across Erkmen’s structure: moms and dads holding the hands of their little ones; young hipsters; outdoor enthusiasts; senior citizens, art world people. A couple of frisky kids in bathing suits dove off and swam to shore. There was an air of frank delight and excitation; Münster people were going on an adventure, not to some exotic elsewhere, but right here, in their familiar city. Erkmen’s project represents the best of Skulptur Projekte Münster: novel, ambitious, and site-specific. . It is also a cathartic force generating rapt engagement and carnivalesque freedom and delight.
On Water (2017) by Ayşe Erkmen continues at Skulptur Projekte Münster through October 1.