Art Exhibitions in Europe and the United States
Sculpture Magazine, May/June 1997
by Carolee Thea
At a dinner party in August, a companion of mine became embroiled
in a heated debate about the state of public arts funding in
America. "The French
were 'fools' to invest so much money in the arts," the gentleman arguing
with him said. "Furthermore," the man added, "if it weren't
for artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, viable government funding would still
exist." Though he wasn't right about much, this man was correct in suggesting
that our neighbors across the Atlantic are more generous to the arts than we
That Europeans have understood
the rewards of art patronage is evidenced by their generous art
budgets, individual grants, residencies, and museum funding.
The most prominent funding in the United States is for blockbuster
museum exhibitions. As a drawing card for tourists, these conservative,
blue-chip museum installations have been successful, especially
with the collaboration of city organizations, for instance, in
the Cezanne exhibition in Philadelphia. Yet these efforts, large
or small, still don't come close to the Biennale di Firenze,
for example, or a variety of events in Berlin in 1996. Both Berlin
and Florence were celebrating a new era in 1996, and for the
sophisticated European, a certain amount of artistic risk-taking,
particularly in the Biennale, was de rigueur.
It was late October in Florence.
This Renaissance city, feeling the pressure to catapult itself
into the 21st century, used its grandeur for an ambitious multi-disciplinary
exploration of the ways in which the body, clothing, essence,
appearance, communications, and style have changed and continue
to change. Though the subject has been a theme for many artists
over the past decade, this is the first major Biennale explicitly
linking art and fashion. The cultural operation cost nine billion
lire ($54,000,000), and occupied 18 cultural institutions throughout
the city using 160,000
square feet of exhibition space.
The organizing forces of the event were Luigi Settimbrini, an
American-Milanese marketing and fashion promoter who has worked
to relaunch the city's textiles and clothing fairs; Ingrid Sischy,
the former editor of Artforum and present editor of Interview;
and Germano Celant, a part-time curator at the Guggenheim Museum
and the new commissioner of the Venice Biennale.
The Biennale di Firenze attempted
to give people a new and more contemporary look at Florence,
to extend the idea of the city and to woo industry, specifically
the fashion industry. For some purists this may have come as
a culture shock, yet the organizers did not mean to contaminate
one's sense of history, but to oblige it. That Florence is not
only about the past but is connected with the future is a humanistic
idea that would not have offended Renaissance thinkers. This
Biennale dressed historic Florence in new and provocative clothes,
while presenting a continuing element of surprise.
The Stazione Leopolda is a converted
century-old train station which housed the first of the installations
that included contemporary art, an exhibition called ýNew Persona/New
Universe.ţ The works here were inspired by the recent discovery
of billions of new galaxies and the unexpected collapse of the
boundaries of the known universe as a result of technology such
as the Hubble telescope. Another theme was the fusion and liberation
of masculine and feminine. Works here by individuals or creative
pairs set out to disturb conventional logic of separation of
gender and class. Here emerged the clone, hermaphrodite, cyborg,
and other "beings" implanted with prostheses of immortality,
whose energies were directly related to the intensity of their
mutant conditions. However, by infusing them with a haunting
presence, the artists questioned the nature and accessibility
of the souls of these techno-beings. One case in point was the
genetically tampered, cross-sexualized, bewigged life-sized dolls
created by the London based team of Jake and Dinos Chapman. A
faux forest called The Island of Dr. Moron was inhabited by four
of these beings, whose skulls were studded with penis-horns and
who shared one fist, four sneakered feet, and one set of buttocks,
with a vagina in the place of the anus. Works by Charles Ray,
Inez van Lamsweerde, and Cindy Sherman also dealt with the cross-sexualized,
cross-dressed, and possibly genetically engineered.
Other works attempted to dissolve
the boundaries between natural and artificial, mind and body,
physical and non-physical. The tools used were TV cameras; heat,
pressure, light, and movement sensors; electronic projections;
and other secret devices. Most interesting among these was an
interactive piece entitled Coro (199S-96), by the Milan set designers,
Studio Azzurro. Projected on a pale carpet were life-sized images
of sleeping couples. Subtle slumber sounds accompanied these
video images, and viewers could control the sleepers' movements
by walking, stamping, kicking, or dancing on them. The interaction
involved in this appealing play briefly distracted viewers from
the implications of intrusion, violence, and control, creating
a memorable tension.
It was fall and the weather in
Florence was beautiful. I emerged from my hotel on the Piazza
Santissima Annunziata, passed the Duomo, crossed over the Arno
on the Ponte Vecchio and climbed the steep hill. The Forte Belvedere
hosted the Biennale's other artist/designer endeavor titled "Arte/Moda." The
broad terraces, the loggiato, and the pallazina atop the city
were all incorporated into the exhibition. The curators here
were Celant, Sischy, and Pandora Tabatabai Ashagi.
On the terrace, the architect Arata
Isozake had designed seven outdoor structures housing paired
superstar artist/fashion designer team projects. Here the challenge
was to hold a mirror between human beings and the universe, connecting
landscape, the sky, architecture, and the city, the inner core
of the psyche and the outer shell of skin.
To compete with the Florentine
skyline is not easy. Isozake's minimally scaled structures, clad
simply in fourty-eight sheets of plywood and painted in primary
colors, were temporary in appearance and reflected on both our
moment in the universe and the brevity of this Biennale. Yet
the housings served the collaborations well. Among the most successful
projects were by Jenny Holzer and Helmut Lang; Jil Sander and
Mario Merz; and Miuccia Prada and Damien Hirst.
At the Holzer/Lang pavilion, one
entered a dark space housing columns suspended from the ceiling,
on which Holzer's messages were transmitted in two languages.
An almost imperceptible scent permeated the environment, representing
Helmut Lang's contribution: "a musky perfume emitted after
coitus," I was told. The sensuous tension between language
and smell was a mysterious surprise. Holzer's phrases from this
installationˇ"I smell you on my skin," "Lack of
charisma can be fatal," "Decadence can be an end in
itself," "I see through your clothes"ˇ had been
projected along the Arno on opening night. The Merz/Sander team,
along with the architect, Isozake, assembled a memorable work
of a different nature. The structure for the project was a cylinder.
When I entered it I had a sense of being inside a large telescope
peering out onto the famous skyline. The work was further activated
by the motorized movement of torn pieces of fabric inside the
double glass, implying an inner storm. The Hirst/ Prada team,
in contrast, created a barn-like structure with a fenced courtyard
containing a petting zoo where live animals roamed. The sounds
of clucks and baas added a note of humor here. This uncharacteristic
and witty piece, arguably more about theater and surprise than
fashion, was "too much" for Prada who withdrew her
contribution, a handbag, before opening day.
Giving over any major city, much
less one with Florence's famous history, to a huge multi-site
event takes commitment and energy. Devoting a good chunk of the
Biennale to contemporary artˇmuch of which challenges the norms
and traditions of the cityˇ takes guts. (Try to imagine, for
example, the mayor of New York allowing pubescent cross-sexual
mannequins to be scattered around the Battery.) The effort allowed
viewers to see both traditional Florence and contemporary art
in new contexts.
In November I arrived in Berlin.
Unlike Florence, this was a city still visibly scarred by the
destruction of World War 11 and the chaotic consequences of reunification.
After the Allies leveled Berlin and won the war, West Berlin
was rebuilt with little respect for the past. But in the former
East Berlin, traces of the Berlin Wall, Communism, the Stasi,
the Nazis, and the Jewish section were left as haunting reminders
of an ignominious past. One day, while waiting for an appointment
at the Martin Gropius Bau Museum, I saw a portion of the Wall
and then stumbled on the site of the former headquarters of the
Gestapo, now a museum called The Topography of Terror. This recently
unearthed place contains photographs of Nazis harassing Jewsˇtame
fare, I thought, compared to documentation that we in the United
States have seen. Yet the exhibit is there for the younger generation
of Germans who were long protected from any mention of this period.
Nearby is a 19th-century Jewish synagogue with a newly rebuilt
and gilded dome. It was closed when I went there to celebrate
the Sabbath, "because of a bomb scare," said a policeman.
On the other hand, the art culturati
were geared to show off Berlin at its best. There were openings,
parties, dinners, and events in both the West and former East
section. The great lure for the world's art elite was the opening
of the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum Fur Gegenwart (Museum of the
Present). Newly refurbished by architect Josef Paul Kleihues,
it once was a 19th-century railway station. Now it houses the
immense post-1960s art collection of Erich Marx. The building
is spectacular if not pompous. At night its facade is washed
in a light blue Dan Flavin illumination. The glass vaulted main
hall displayed Anselm Kiefer's lead book room, Volkszahlung (Census)
(1991). This is the third in a series of his lead book installations,
each dealing with Holocaust themes; this one has walls of lead
books that are stuffed with dried peas and encircle a glass polyhedron.
This object, seen in the Albrecht Durer engraving, Melancolia
1, is a symbol for the postwar predicament of the German people.
Another Kiefer sculpture displayed here is the lead airplane
called, Mohn und Gedachbnis (Poppy and Memory). This refers to
the 19S2 poem by Paul Celan, Death Fugue. (Celan's parents died
in a concentration camp.) Stuffed into the frontal motors and
on the pages between the lead books that sit on each wing are
stalks of poppies and poppy seeds. (Poppies represent memory
and poison.) The plane seems to fly backwards into the future.
Hung on the two flanking open aisles were three or four of Kiefer's
lead paintings, but better suited would have been his paintings
illustrating Albert Speer's halls. Two daunting glass staircases
flanking the main hall lead to a series of gallery spaces: a
connecting stairwell brushstroked in a gloss orange by Merz;
a gallery devoted exclusively to Beuys sculptures; and two notable
exhibition rooms, one displaying the entire collection of Joseph
Beuys drawings entitled A secret block for a secret person in
Ireland, and another with early 60's Andy Warhol drawings. Each
of these more intimate spaces provided a poetic counterpoint
to the heroics. As a fundraiser for a new wing, the garden room
in the rear hosted a buffet dinner for hundreds of people, each
of whom paid 150 deutsche marks to attend the opening.
European Art Forum Berlin, formerly
European Galleries Projektgesellschaft, was founded in Dusseldorf
in 1996 by a group of 14 dissident art dealers from the Koln
Art Fair. They chose Berlin as the city to host the new fair
because the government will move from Bonn to Berlin by the year
2000, making the latter a fast-growing city on the crossroads
between East and West. The forum was held on the outskirts of
the city at convention halls called the Messe. It was small by
traditional standards, with only 120 galleries participating,
representing 16 nations. This was a deliberate move by the founders,
who wanted to keep it more exclusive than its oversized competitor
in Koln. More than half of the invitees were from Germany. The
$15,OOO fee per gallery made it one of the most expensive European
fairs. At the press conference, in response to this "bourgeois" and "capitalist" exclusivity,
a performance artist from Russia stormed the room, squirted a
water pistol at the panelists, and shouted "Batman forever." After
throwing some furniture, he was ushered out. In spite of this
kick-off, the forum proved to be a success. Maureen Paley, director
of The Interim Art Gallery in London, said, "Compared to
other fairs it was very professional and with high standards.
Furthermore, it was a positive experience that I would repeat.
I feel that Art Forum Berlin offers great potential for the future
if it remains small, selective, and of high quality."
The events in Berlin recall Berlin's
golden age as an art marketplace in the 1920s and, like others
to whom I spoke, Rudolf Kicken (managing director of the European
Galleries Project Co.) predicts that "Berlin will become
the major European metropolis, second only to Paris."
The Mitte, located in former East
Berlin, represents the changing art geography of the city. It
is an area where the art cultures of the former East and West
Germany merge. Though it has not yet taken on the importance
of the West Berlin art scene, it is fast becoming its competitor
as a district on the cutting edge. Invitation for Dinner took
place at the Hackeshe Hof, a meeting place, restaurant, and cafe
in the Mitte. Four young galleristsˇJudy Lybke of Eigen + Art;
Friedrich Loock, director of gallery Wohnmaschine; Anton Henning,
the artist who shows with Loock; and the team of Carsten Nicolai,
Remy Markowitz, and another artistˇeach cooked late night dinners
celebrating, in a special "Eastern European" way, the
meeting of food and art. The events were great fun and contributed
to the special mood permeating the Mitte. Anton Henning was also
exhibiting at Wohnmaschine at the time. He depicts his multi-personal
involvement with his art, music, and food in huge cibachrome
self-portraits, doubling or tripling his image.
Another exhibition, the Berlin
Mitte Event, was curated by a young British gallerist, Rupert
Goldsworthy. This exhibition opened to a crushing crowd in a
smoke-filled evening scene not unlike those in Swiss Artist's
Space in the'70s and '80s. The host building was an abandoned
department store put into hasty use for this project. The cost
was 650 deutsche marks, ($500) to the 17 participating gallerists,
some of whom were international and also showed at the Art Forum
Berlin (for example, Pat Hearn, Gebauer & Thumm, and Eigen
+ Art). Both group works and individual emerging artists were
shown. An installation piece by the French artist Michel Francois
dealt with disorientation and stood out in this maze of works.
He juxtaposed a floor of hand-marked clay with a video, filmed
from above, of a whirling, longhaired woman spinning out of control.
This work was compelling in its combination of themes relating
to the body and the speed of information.
The "Bunker" exhibition
was curated by Oliver Schwarz and was held in a World War 1I
bunker. The space was built in 1941 and used as vegetable storage
by the GDR. After the Berlin Wall came down, the building was
awarded landmark status, and it has been used for techno-parties
and culture projects ever since. It was dark, atmospheric, claustrophobic,
smoke-filled and noisy the night of the opening. On the upper
floors were video works curated by video jockey Manuel da Costa.
On another floor, light works echoed the haunted nature of the
building. The effect was further heightened by techno-music playing
in the cellar, reverberating like muffled artillery fire in the
Before the Wall came down, Berlin
was an island of democracy surrounded by the GDR. Subsidies and
grants were used to keep West Berlin a desirable place for a
West German to live e and work. Although stipends handed out
to young artists have been cut by about two-thirds, the budget
for the city's public museums has barely been touched. This reflects
the new attitude being adopted by a city that is becoming the
new capital of Germany. Though this conservatism seems reminiscent
of the recent cutbacks in the National Endowment for the Arts
(NEA), it does not diminish the high regard that Europeans have
toward the arts.
Even with the cutbacks, more money
is spent for the arts in Berlin than the entire visual arts budget
in the United States. One percent of their national budget is
allotted to the arts without the intervention of a federal arts
agency comparable to the NEA. Funding is regionally based and
is fueled by education, precedent, and pride, all of which encourages
patronage. This commitment does not change much with the election
of a new political party, whether conservative or liberal. Regions
compete for quality museums, art institutions and Kunstvereins
(regional, privately sponsored, museum-quality exhibition spaces
for contemporary art which also include residencies with stipends
for individual artists).
The American blockbuster museum
exhibition is valuable, though limited, in its present form.
It enhances the image of a city and brings needed revenue. Safe
and sanitary, it speaks romantically of the past and is a lucrative
way to pay lip service to the arts. But while such exhibitions
are a tool to educate, they cannot compensate for the national
budget cuts in the NEA and in the schools. Such budget curtailments
send out messages denigrating the significance of the arts and
the individual creator.
Most importantly, without education,
the contemporary artist, audience, and patron will disappear.
If we are to learn anything from our European counterparts, it
is that the soul of a community lies in its living creative individuals
as partners in the spirit of the culture.