Rebecca Farley, researcher in public art at Newcastle University, reviews this innovative German sculpture project.
Skulptur Projekte Münster (SPM) is a unique city-wide decennial celebration of contemporary public art. First held in 1977, 2017 marked SPM’s fourth iteration with 36 German and international artists invited to create new site-specific artworks for the city.
As in previous manifestations of SPM, these new works intervened in spaces and social contexts right across the Münster cityscape. Visiting these artworks on foot or by bicycle (Münster is the ‘bicycle capital’ of Germany) is as much an act of urban investigation as of art exploration. As Nicolas Whybrow (2011) wrote of his own visit to Münster in 2007, SPM ‘turns the entire city into the art house’ in which each visitor acts as kind of cross-pollinator, performing their own physical and interpretive journeys between the artworks.
Although presented under the formulation ‘sculpture’ many of the 2017 SPM commissions were durational and social rather than material. Jeremy Deller’s work for example, Speak to the Earth and It Will Tell You, sited at the Mühlenfeld allotment colony, had been in progress since 2007. Here and in other sites across Münster allotment holders were invited to document the natural and social lives of their gardens through illustrated diaries over a ten-year period. In 2017, the resulting 30 volumes of diaries were collated and displayed in a reading room created in one of the allotment cabins. Meanwhile back in the city, sites as varied as a tattoo parlour, the city’s historic town hall, a 1970s discotheque, and a shopping centre became temporary habitations for new artworks. These included socially-engaged projects (Michael Smith’s Not Quite Under_Ground), performances (Alexandra Pirici’s dance-work Leaking Territories), immersive video installations (Benjamin de Burca and Bárbara Wagner’s Bye Bye Deutschland! A Melody of Life) and digital interaction (Andrea’s Bunte’s QR code-activated film app, Laboratory Life).
SPM 2017 also featured several physically ambitious installations. One of the most impressive was Pierre Huyghe’s excavation of the city’s disused ice rink, After ALife Ahead, where visitors were invited to wander in a controlled bio-tech landscape. Meanwhile in a highly interactive project on the other side of Münster, Ayse Erkmen’s On Water, visitors removed their shoes and rolled up their skirts and trousers to paddle across a new submerged water bridge across the south harbour of the Danube-Ems Canal. Built from shipping containers topped with a metal mesh platform sunk some inches below the water surface it was the human adventure of the crossing that made the sculpture visible. Given her ongoing fascination with water and waterways (see Erkmen’s 2001 work Shipped Ships and the more recent Plan B for the Turkish Pavilion of the 2011 Venice Biennale) it seems natural that Erkmen would have sought out this liquid corner of Münster for her contribution to SPM 2017.
On the other side of the city, in a park alongside the Münster Promenade, Nicole Eisenman’s figure arrangement, Sketch for a Fountain presented a rather differently watery experience. Here, in a classical glade-like scene five naked figures disported themselves around a shallow pond, some of them happily spouting their own mini-fountains into the pool. At the time of my visit Eisenman’s Fountain clearly proved alluring for many Münster sculpture-hunters but over the summer this work was subjected to several public attacks. In July last year, the art media reported that one of the plaster figures had been decapitated. Regrettably, this incident was followed up by further vandalism in September, this time including the daubing of swastikas and other far-right graffiti. Whether it was Fountain’s relatively fragile materiality, its siting, or its imagery that attracted such antagonistic interest is perhaps hard to judge, but certainly such episodes serve to highlight the vulnerable nature of public art practice, even in the seemingly benign and liberal environment of leafy Münster. Led by art dealer, Maria Galen and sculptor, Sandra Silbernagel, local residents now aim to raise 1.2 million euros to buy the sculpture and half of the funds required will come from them. A traditional local brewery Pinkus Müller has developed a special ‘Fountain beer’ with a label designed by Eisenman. For each crate sold, one euro will go towards the fountain fund and the company will match it.
Alongside Erkmen’s and Eisenman’s watery contributions, another personal favourite from the array of artworks offered in SPM 2017 was Michael Dean’s museum installation, Tender Tender in the central atrium at LWL State Museum in Münster (which acts as a hub for the whole event). Tender was first encountered blurrily through walls of plastic sheeting before revealing itself as a kind of half-made builder’s play garden. Hito Steyerl’s robot-world and text-based take-over of the ground floor of the LBS West Münster bank headquarters (HellYeahWeFuckDie) was equally impressive. Both installations encouraged a longer stay for me, with Steyerl’s looped video of tumbling-stumbling robots somehow being particularly pleasing.
It is important to say that SPM is more than just an art event however: it is also a major (and growing) public art collection. As I followed the 2017 route around the city I also came across sculptures, installations and interventions from previous SPM editions. Many of these are significant pieces. Claes Oldenberg’s Giant Pool Balls (1977) on the bank of Aasee Lake has become a major city landmark and meeting place. Some of these older sculptures remain in pristine condition while other works have started to gather a patina of natural growth and graffiti as they are gradually reabsorbed into the cityscape.
As an art collection, SPM has also generated a fascinating archive of artists’ proposals, models and curatorial correspondence, going back to the 1970s. This is held and managed by LWL. A project to develop wider public access to the archive is currently ongoing. In SPM 2017, the archive exhibition (‘Double Check’) focused on documentation from one project, Michael Asher’s Caravan. In this work, a small caravan was parked and photographed in different locations across the city, changing location in each week of SPM. Initiated in 1977, Asher’s project has been re-created in each subsequent SPM, seeking out the same parking locations. Each year these have become more difficult to source due to new city parking restrictions and urban redevelopment. Presented as a long-term photographic series Caravan presents a visual and conceptual conversation with Münster’s changing cityscape. In so doing Caravan, along with Deller’s Speak to the Earth, stands as a curatorial symbol of SPM’s slowed-down durational ethos.
‘Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017’, Münster, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 10 June – 1 October 2017, co-curated by Britta Peters and Marianne Wagner. Negotiations to find funding for SPL 2027 is already underway.
Further information about the artworks mentioned, the SPL collection and archive.
Main image: Nicole Eisenman, Sketch for a Fountain, 2017, Skulptur Projekte 2017 (photo: Henning Rogge)