Every Skulptur Projekte Münster is shaped and identified by three rather elusive words – “public”, “project” and “sculpture” – whose meanings alter, morph and distort at a faster pace than the ten-year cycle of the exhibition. This means that when you arrive in Münster, you instantly switch on your personal “pattern recognition” function to try to figure out what each of these terms means today. At the same time, as the curators have said,“every decade also raises issues of its own.”In 2017 this means attention is given to the changing nature of “our experiences of body, time and space in times of increasing digitalisation.” Here, curator and writer Valentinas Klimašauskas picks out five projects that demonstrate how the works make this both visible and rather difficult to grasp at the same time.
Xavier Le Roy with Scarlet Yu
Still Untitled (2017)
As you arrive in Münster you might see, for example: a curiously shaped line at the ticket office; a symposium of cyclists in a bicycle lane, which would never usually happen in this rather orderly Westphalian city; a street musician singing only one line in a looped techno manner (“Oh, my darling/oh, my darling/oh, my darling…”) – these all appear like intriguing micro-events that may or may not be part of a project. They also make you think about art in a romantic light and soon you start to detest this feeling. Then you doubt, again.
Artist and choreographer Xavier Le Roy, working with artist Scarlet Yu, is presenting living-sculpture performances that may happen “anytime, anywhere”. They are organising open workshops where participants can practice various embodied sculptures and dialogues that can then be performed at unannounced times, places, according to their own preferences. The sculptures, we are told, “have the potential to go viral like a rumour”. What does this mean, especially on the street? You think of many other living sculptures you’ve seen before, but you also expect something new, something ungoogleable, something more personal than public, more material than just a project and more immaterial than a sculpture. You look around. You see groups of scared rabbits, a fairy-tale fair dedicated to local asparagus. You see others looking for the ungoogleable. Suddenly, an older lady at the bus stop smiles and winks at you. You smile. You know this is not part of the project. Then you doubt again.
Location: anytime, anywhere
Leaking Territories (2017)
For the last few years we have been told that a new geopolitics of planetary-scale computation has overthrown the traditional modes of political geography whose origins lie in the Peace of Westphalia. The decisive moment in establishing this foundation for the modern system of nation-states and international law was the Treaty of Münster, which was signed in Münster’s old Town Hall in 1648. This is where Alexandra Pirici staged her performances with six performers. One of them steps out and vocally pronounces the distance in time or space from the room to some historical event, for example, how many kilometres and years separates us from a particular Jewish pogrom or the Tiananmen Square protests. Then the performers transform into a silent collective bodily monument, translating the event they refer to into a living sculpture. If we understand contemporary urban space as a space of flows, as per the sociologist and cybernetic culture theorist Manuel Castells, Pirici transforms the symbolic space of Münster’s Town Hall into an abstraction, liquefying political history and memory in a graceful and poetic performance.
Location: Historical Town Hall
After ALife Ahead (2017)
This is the largest and probably the most multilayered project in SPM, and it already bears surprises when you stand in a long line to enter and read a sign warning that there are bees present. Pierre Huyghe has developed an environment, aka “a time-based bio-technological system”, which looks like a mixture between a postapocalyptic biotech lab, a computer game, and a cinematic sci-fi space ship crashed in a place where aliens may come back at any given moment. I overheard: “It’s like Stalker filmed on Solaris.” “Or vice versa,” came the answer. You look around and start to grasp why the work has such an endless list of materials: not only has the concrete floor of the ice rink been cut into sections amid deep excavations where puddles of water collect from rain that enters when an automated ceiling structure opens, but there is also an aquarium containing GloFish behind black switchable glass, as well as an incubator where human cancer cells from the HeLa cell line (named after Henrietta Lacks, the long-deceased African American woman whose genetic material, taken without her knowledge, lives on in science labs worldwide) thrive on petri dishes in a controlled and seemingly secure black box. The augmented and virtual here mix on cellular and digital levels, expanding into interconnected geological timescales and sci-fi panoramas. According to Huyghe, the project can be described as a symbiosis of biotic and abiotic organisms, maybe even a new biosphere, even if it is difficult or even impossible to grasp what and how exactly it is controlled by the multiplying cancer cells. However, this biosphere is still young and the chances are it will mature and surprise us again before the project finishes on October 1 – or even after that.
Location: former ice rink, Steinfurterstraße 113 – 115
HellYeahWeFuckDie and Robots Today (both 2016)
Regardless of whatever post-Westphalian and AI-oriented future we are heading towards, the current shortcomings of both technological and our own intelligence are very obvious. Both parts of Hito Steyerl’s contribution to SPM thematised potential and current problems in machine-human relations. The larger of the two works, HellYeahWeFuckDie, is a three-channel video installation/environment whose title comes from the most frequently used five words in the English-language music charts of the past decade. They are spelt out in lettering that also provides light-box seating for visitors to watch videos in which bipedal robots and digitally rendered automatons are tested for their skill in avoiding obstacles and staying erect in stressful situations. There may be a kind of humour to watching an engineer trying to punch a bipedal robot, but the latent violence in such acts makes the work also into a reflection about human nature.
In the companion piece Robots Today, Steyerl asks the Apple software Siri questions, e.g.: who destroyed the Kurdish city Diyarbakir in south-eastern Turkey? Siri says she doesn’t understand the question. The town, as we are also told in the video, is where the renowned scientist and engineer Al-Jazari wrote a book about mechanical apparatuses in 1205. Back in 2016, Siri answers the question “Robot, what do you want?” in a rather “post-truth” manner: “I want to save the world.”
Location: LBS saving bank
On Water (2017)
Flow, circulation, relocation and (re)connection are important aspects of Ayşe Erkmen’s oeuvre. Twenty years after arranging for sculptures from a local museum to fly above the city in a helicopter, Erkmen returned to Skulptur Projekte to build a bridge between two shores of the local canal with a walkway below the surface of the water. Probably the most popular work among locals, the piece instantly gathered crowds eager to cross the otherwise uncrossable canal. On water, like the conversation with the artist in the catalogue, is very present but also paradoxically ungraspable. Through its meshed foundation, the work forms links and associations, but time, which here slows down like canal water, seems to inescapably make the decennial itself problematic. Even if the ten-year cycle makes SPM quite resilient to temporary fashions and trends, its very medium-specificity lends it a certain predictability. While digitisation may have begun to destabilise each of the key terms “public”, “project” and “sculpture”, the structure of the show can also make them seem, as here, oversaturated.
Location: inland harbour / Stadthafen
VALENTINAS KLIMASAUSKAS is a curator and writer who works between Münster and Vilnius.