MÜNSTER, Germany — Once a decade, three significant art events — the Venice Biennial, Documenta and Skulptur Projekte Münster — align in the same summer, prompting the art world’s nobility to depart on a grand tour of Europe. The last stop on this year’s circuit is Skulptur Projekte, the German decennial for public art led by Kasper König for four decades. The ten-year hiatus between iterations and the exceptional continuity of the curatorial leadership means that Skulptur Projekte offers a steady backdrop against which to assess how the technological, geopolitical, and ideological shifts of the past decade have affected public art and its role in society.
When the first Skulptur Projekte was presented in 1977, König and co-founder Klaus Bussmann set out to spread a pioneering idea: contemporary art should not be confined to museums and galleries, but exist in the public domain where citizens would meet and engage with it in their everyday lives. After World War II, Münster’s conservative city government had decided to reconstruct the razed city center as an imitation of its historical self, complete with fountains and market squares as a faux medieval set piece. König and his team wanted abstract sculptures to grate against the city’s polished, backward-looking façade and the exhibition successfully did so. The papers’ editorial sections boiled over; the city council refused to issue a building permit to Bruce Naumann’s “Square Depression,” (designed 1977, realized 2007) and a group of students even tried rolling Claes Oldenburg’s “Giant Pool Balls” (1977) into the lake.
Over the course of the next forty years, the show’s role as provocateur was upended. Today, images of Oldenburg’s concrete balls are found in tourist brochures and in ads for a local bank. The city government and the state of North Rhein-Westphalia support Skulptur Projekte with millions of euros. In the catalogue, the main sponsor (a financial institution) proudly describes how contemporary art attracts new investors to the region. From being a radical thorn in the eye of the establishment, the exhibition has become a motor for tourism and financial investment. One wonders: has Skulptur Projekte conquered the Westphalian establishment, or has the establishment co-opted Skulptur Projekte?
Co-opted or not, the show is a playful, animated affair. For this fifth edition, König and curators Marianne Wagner and Britta Peters have commissioned thirty-five new works spread across Münster’s squares and parks, docks, and allotment-gardens. Biking around the city on the lookout for the sculptures feels like being on a lively, erratic scavenger hunt. In an abandoned cemetery, Hervé Youmbi has hung “Les masques Célèstes” (2017), a series of masks that at first sight recall the animistic African masks that for centuries have elicited great fascination from the Western imagination. A closer look however, reveals a series of figures from Western pop culture, such as Ghostface from the Scream horror film franchise — all part of the complex and multidirectional exchange of myths and images between Africa and Europe.
At Münster’s art museum, Gregor Schneider has constructed a disquietingly compelling maze of an apartment within “N. Schmidt, Pferdegasse 19, 48143 Münster, Deutschland” (2017). Visitors walk through a series of indistinct rooms bathed in a pale, yellow light encountering a grocery-store orchid, the sharp scent of floor cleaner, an IKEA-bland bathroom with water dripping into the sink — before reaching the hallway again. Or so it seems. Like some Borgesian fantasy, the next door doesn’t lead back to the hallway but to an identical copy of the first room, and when I visited, a dazed woman stood frozen by the door, afraid to move along without my company. Schneider’s two circular apartments leave the viewer with a disoriented sense of being trapped in a time warp, and the work’s non-descript cleanness evokes that feeling one gets as a citizen of our post-democratic reality: whether you go right or left, vote blue or red, you always end up with more of the same.
In a schlager discotheque, Benjamin de Burca and Bárbara Wagner manage to engage both Münster residents and art tourists with a series of music videos produced for local cover musicians who make a living imitating German popstars. In “Bye Bye Deutschland! Eine Lebensmelodie” (2017) the presentation of gooey songs, sleek videos, and the strange life as a cover act poses compelling questions about pop culture’s theatricality, and its audience’s need for escapism and sentimentality. De Burca and Wagner skillfully avoid academic references and ironic distance. The night I visited, the bar was full with a group of local schlager fans loudly drinking beer and discussing the videos, and a couple of art tourists wielding intellectualist tote bags happily bobbing their bangs, singing along to an Udo Jürgens ballad.
In the strongest work of the show, Mika Rottenberg also makes use of pop culture memes to engage the audience and display the absurdities of globalization. In “Cosmic Generator (working title)” (2017), a feast of carnivalesque imagery and absurdist storytelling, visitors walk through an abandoned Asian bodega filled with inflatable pineapples, tinsel garlands, and other plastic gadgetry. In a backroom, a wildly original and visually gorgeous video is screened, telling the story of a tunnel leading from a Chinese dollar store in Calexico to a Chinese restaurant in Mexicali. Seated in the backroom theater surrounded by plastic glitter, it is easy to feel like you yourself have walked through a tunnel under the Asian bodega to arrive in a bizarre, hyperglobalized space brimming with overconsumption, plastic products, and cultural fusion.
Other strong works include “Sketch for a Fountain” (2017) Nicole Eisenman’s cartoonish take on the fountain sculpture — that oldest of public art forms — which serves as a spirited contrast to Skulptur Projekte’s many minimalist, concrete jobs from the ‘70s and ‘80s. There is also Hito Steyerle’s “HellYeahWeFuckDie” (2017), a wonderfully confusing installation in a utopian bank lobby, and Pierre Huyghe’s mad scientist’s environment “After ALife AHead” (2017) where the architecture of a skating rink, and the organic lifeforms inhabiting it, are controlled by the growth of human cancer cells. The faint ping heard every time the cells mutate gives a disturbing yet familiar sensation of being marooned in a system governed by opaque, indecipherable rules.
It’s a disorienting decade we live in, this decennial seems to suggest. While the least effective works of the exhibition criticize neoliberalism from an intellectual ivory tower, the strongest pieces effectively engage visitors by inverting the byproducts of neoliberal consumerism. Perhaps the capitalist establishment truly has co-opted the boardroom of Skulptur Projekte. But in turn, the artists of Skulptur Projekte have appropriated the bizarre plastic products, the mass-produced IKEA furniture, the drone-filmed music videos, the ridiculous façade of late capitalism, to vivacious effect.
Skulptur Projekte Münster continues throughout the city of Münster until October 1.