Since time immemorial, artists have turned to the streets. It is a means of creating dialogue and a form of intervention—at times a subtle gesture and at others a Jeff Koons-esque glistening presence that cannot be overlooked. No matter what form it takes, public art creates a connection between a space and the people passing through it to provoke unexpected questions and feelings.
Skulptur Projekte Münster, the public art exhibition which sprawls across the German city every ten years and is now in its 5th edition (which runs until October 2017), is an intriguing insight into the varying ways public environments can be transformed by art to enter into discourses that go beyond the social and economic and into the political and aesthetic.
American artist Nicole Eisenman’s Sketch for a Fountain takes as her starting point the source of life in civilization: water. Historically, fountains were the natural gathering place—the heart of the community, patronized by popes and emperors to showcase the cultural and economic wealth of a society. The often allegorical idealized human figures adorning classical fountains are replaced in Eisenman’s work with an assorted variety of gender-ambiguous human beings lounging around in what feels like an act of defiance against the rigid social ceremonies to which people were bound in the past, but also still today.
Turkish artist Ayşe Erkmen has chosen too to integrate water into her Münster project On Water. By creating a usable bridge from containers just below the water level, connecting Münster's bustling urban north quay with the industrial south quay, she radically alters perceptions of the space. Erkmen raises questions about urban development, and the way water is used as both a means of connecting through trade and as a barrier or border. Her work, once activated by the public using it, becomes a physical manifestation of overcoming existing hurdles in the context of displacement, marginalization and integration.
It’s not just Münster working with water this year: Anish Kapoor’s Descension is installed for the next four months by the Brooklyn Bridge NYC on Pier One and should not be missed (see cover image). Kapoor, who has a longstanding fascination with the material possibilities of water, sculpts a contradictory vortex—all at once: solid/liquid, present/absent, finite/infinite—a “metaphor of the complexity of our present, which is never univocal”, says Kapoor. The perpetually swirling whirlpool is an audacious metaphor for the state of the USA under its current administration; issues of climate, environment and politics are all aflow in the frenzied downwards spiral of river water. Originally, Kapoor considered naming the piece “Descension in America”, but it didn’t seem necessary to spell it out…
Arte Povera artist Giuseppe Penone has graced the streets of Rome with something a little more permanent: a public sculpture entitled Leaves of Stone, commissioned by Fendi and brought about in collaboration with star-curator Massimiliano Giorni. Two bronze trees, once almost 60 feet tall, hold up 11 tons of Italian marble. The materials nod to the Italian capital’s rich artistic history of bronze and marble statues populating its public spaces. Penone’s work has always been about breaking down the divide between art and life, and this work is the ultimate means of doing so – the culmination of years of work.
Winding up back at Skulptur Projekte Münster as a microcosm of international public sculpture this year, be sure to look out for, or rather listen out for, Cerith Wyn Evans’ graceful exploration of human perception. A Modified Threshold…(for Münster) Existing church bells made to ring at a (slightly) higher pitch creates a subtle, almost imperceptible shift in sound and light in an actively used community church and its environs. The energy the installation generates is the catalyst: There’s nothing much to see, what counts is our visceral response to these ever-so-slightly off-kilter surroundings.
Some of the most exceptional moments in recent art history have been public interventions. Take Christo’s Gates (Central Park, New York, 2005) or Maurizio Cattelan’s L.O.V.E. (Milan Stock Exchange, 2010)—with the passage of time, their contributions to society and history have been truly crystalized. It is reassuring that the artists make some precious editions and works on paper as material memories of these all too often fleeting masterpieces.
Skulptur Projekte is a cooperative project of Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe and the city of Muenster, organized by the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur. The installations are on view until October 1st, 2017.
By Minnie McIntyre