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Radical Public Art That Comes Close To Vanishing

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007

SOME WORKS OF RECENT PUBLIC SCULPTURE: TWO SHODDY PUBLIC BATHROOMS, HIS AND HERS, ALL SPRUCED UP AS ART; a forklift that, every day for 107 days, carries a handful of stones or bricks to a different urban spot; a long path worn into some exurban fields; a few cheap plastic dolls, umbrellas, chairs, seemingly abandoned in the square beside a church; a length of fishing line floating 15 feet overhead, forming an almost invisible circle above eight miles of a city's streets; a kind of room divider, maybe 6 feet by 10 feet, made of beige cloth, pale concrete and a narrow mirrored strip, sited in a public parking lot where it's at the mercy of bumpers and graffiti; a film screened in an abandoned movie theater, its cryptic plot set in the seedy streets directly outside.

All these were part of this year's Sculpture Projects festival, held once a decade in Muenster, Germany.

I know these "sculptures" may sound less than thrilling, but that's the fault of this describer. In the context of a summer full of wishy-washy shows that made art feel like shop goods, the Muenster projects seemed to take a principled, radical stand. They also may represent a subtle tendency, almost more felt than seen, that runs counter to the mainstream in today's commercialized art world.

"No more useless art," says the work of Hans-Peter Feldmann, a veteran German conceptualist who did the bathroom renovation. It's enough for public art to make the daily life of Muensterites a little better. (Feldman did put a colorful little chandelier into each loo.)

"No more posh commodities" is what the forklift seems to shout, as British artist Gustav Metzger sends it off around town. He's replacing standard art production, and its fancy products, with the minimum of what might count as an artistic act. What Metzger's art loses in impact and immediate appeal, it gains in determined modesty. A Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany, Metzger has had a long career of activism and provocation on the far left of the art world.

Like Metzger and Feldman, Polish artist Pawel Althamer also refuses to put more pointless stuff into our crowded world. Instead, the modest rural path he made for Muenster can wake us up to pleasures already there in our environment, just by aiming art at them. That's sort of how landscape painting could function in its early days. Several art lovers who walked the path said it was the most involving work in any of this summer's shows. (I felt the same, until I discovered that I'd accidentally taken the wrong path, through quite different fields; it was pretty good, but I can't imagine that it measured up to the fine artist's work.)

Even the plastic junk of German artist Isa Genzken, which has graced the elegant spaces of our own Hirshhorn Museum and sells for a fortune in New York, made more sense, and had much greater power, when it was getting dirty and tattered out on Muenster's streets. It looked like the leavings of some homeless person's life, and it had the most complex interactions with the people passing by. It didn't demand the hands-off reverence art gets when it's kept apart. From tired old assemblage art (shades of Picasso and Rauschenberg, many decades on), Genzken's work became an invitation to performance by its viewers in the street.

If nothing else, all these sculptures -- as well as that length of fishing line, the parking-lot minimalism, the site-specific film and most of Muenster's other works -- refused to add to the confused mass of stylish objects that are out there for the buying. There seemed to be a principle uniting a whole show, and some shared attitudes toward current life and problems in and out of the art world.

This art represents a bold anti-market stance that has, it must be said, been tried for at least 50 years. The irony is, these days that kind of thing can sell quite well.

More Articles in this Series:

"Welcome to Babel" | "Reverting to Form" | "It's Still 'Contemporary'"

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