Public Art Interventions on the 2017 Contemporary Art Grand Tour

Volume 9, Issue 2

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Public Art Interventions on the 2017 Contemporary Art Grand Tour

By Annie Dell’Aria

Summer of 2017 witnessed not only a rare solar eclipse but also a unique art world alignment: the overlap of the Venice Biennale (May 13-November 26), documenta 14 (April 8-September 17), and Skulptur Projekte Münster (June 6-October 1), major international art festivals that occur every two, five, and ten years, respectively. Many art world professionals, enthusiasts, and tourists flocked to this unique “path of totality” to experience this once-in-a-decade opportunity. While each host city is completely transformed by the influx of art pilgrims from all over the world, much of the action in Venice and at documenta was kept inside of art institutions and spaces accessible only with a ticket. How can public art open up new means of entry to these major cultural events and even potentially critique the systems and privileges that allow the circulation of so many of the world’s cultural elite in a contemporary Grand Tour? With this question in mind, I survey below selected public art offerings in Venice, Italy, Kassel, Germany, and Münster, Germany that stood out during my tour of the art fairs for their ability to generate critical reflections on access, mobility, and privilege.

The 2017 Venice Biennale, undoubtedly the largest of the major art fairs, features a curated group show and an overwhelming array of national pavilions and related “collateral events.”

Christine Macel curated this year’s group show, Viva Arte Viva, which Holland Cotter in The New York Times described as “bland, soft power” and was held together with a rather thin narrative. The national pavilions and collateral events offered some of the strongest work at the Biennale, with some of the best work questioning the notion of the national pavilion in the twenty-first century. Viva Arte Viva and a number of national pavilions were inside the Giardini and the Arsenale, the Biennale’s two main venues, and accessible only with a paid pass, though the Arsenale did feature a number of works in an outdoor sculpture park. The events scattered throughout the rest of the city were mostly free and stumbled upon by surprise—qualities I associate with the some of the most effective forms of public art.

The Tunisian Pavilion made explicit political use of its public location, not only breaching the usual divide between art viewing and touristic navigation, but bringing to the forefront the hypermobility afforded the art tourist and denied to so many others around the world. The Absence of Paths, a project completed by an artist collective and curated by Lina Lazaar, was housed in a structure mimicking a tourist information kiosk. Attendants inside the structure asked curious passersby if they would like to get their “Freesa.” If the passerby took the bait, the attendant offered an official-looking application that asked the participant, “Where do you belong?” and to circle “home” on a nearly illegible image of the world, with all landmasses lumped together. Once the participant added their fingerprint to a booklet resembling a passport the attendant declared “access to the world.” With kiosks placed in busy pedestrian areas around Venice, many people I observed approached The Absence of Paths expecting typical tourist information and were instead invited to imagine the utopian potential of a world without borders, a stark contrast to the current refugee crisis and anxiety over national borders. The Freesa booklet extended the performance and acted not only as a text and souvenir, but also as a potentially political act in itself—the booklet contained parts fabricated by a company that produces actual security papers, and can be placed inside real documents to interfere with security scanners in a sign of protest.


The Absence of Paths. curated by Lina Lazaar. Photo credit: Annie Dell’Aria. 2017.

The political situation of refugees and migrants around the world recurred as a theme throughout the many artistic voices in Venice but was a central curatorial concern for this year’s documenta, an event split between Kassel and Athens for its fourteenth iteration. With Adam Szymczyk’s outwardly political curatorial hand much more present at documenta 14 (compared to the projects in Venice’s diffuse pavilions), the potential for provocation afforded by public art’s placement outside the gallery was a significant strategy used by many artists in Kassel. At the center of Kassel’s documenta was the recreation of Argentine artist Marta Minujín’s monumental The Parthenon of Books (1983), a structure in the shape of the ancient temple in Athens, documenta’s other site, but built with metal framework and a plastic-wrapped skin of books. When Minujin first erected this piece in Buenos Aires in 1983 it was comprised 25,000 volumes that the Argentine military dictatorship censored. documenta 14’s volumes were gleaned from a wider definition of banned books and crowd-sourced internationally. The structure dominated the center of Friedrichsplatz, a site formerly connected to displays of military power and de facto epicenter of documenta activities and venues, but lacked the political power of the original installation’s immediate connection to a censored archive, especially as I noticed numerous copies of the popular novel Twilight. At the bottom of Friedrichsplatz, Iraqi-born artist Hiwa K’s massive sculpture When We Were Exhaling Images (2017) prompted viewers to peer into rows of clay pipes to see micro living spaces, imagining what it would be like to live in such extreme confinement. The structure’s form suggested construction materials on the move, but inside each delicately decorated tube were pillows, books, tea cups, and other domestic items delicately arranged like a bizarre microhotel.

Some of the most provocative public sculpture was outside of Friedrichsplatz. Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe’s Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument (Monument for Strangers and Refugees) (2017), a concrete obelisk installed in the busy Königsplatz in the center of town, appeared traditional and even conservative at first glance. Its translation of the words from the Book of Matthew, “I was a stranger and you took me in,” into English, German, Turkish, and Arabic on all our sides made its message painfully relevant to 2017. Though the monument was awarded the Arnold Bode Prize by the city of Kassel, it did not go without some conservative backlash from a far right politician who called it “deformed.” Oguibe’s activation of an urban monument usually connected to either the mourning of powerful individuals or the celebration of military conquests inverted the obelisk’s frequently nationalist narratives with empathy for strangers and celebration of cross-cultural migration.

The Glass Pavilions on Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse similarly offered surprising encounters with public art away from the center of documenta. The street is traditionally a border itself, bifurcating Mitte and Nordstadt, the commercial and immigrant sections of Kassel. Some pavilions hosted individual artist’s installations, such as Argentine artist Vivian Suter’s large, unstretched canvases that draped, bisected, and animated the space of one of the few pavilions enterable by spectators. Norwegian artist Joar Nango worked in collaboration with artists and performers from the Circumpolar North for European Everything (2017), a performance space and installation accessible to viewers only by peering through the glass walls. Unlike many of the performances of documenta that were easily missed by viewers not privy to opening week,

European Everything was ongoing, and even if it was missed, the installation offered plenty to the viewer through its tableau of Scandinavian trees, North American indigenous crafts, animal pelts, and signs proclaiming “People Not Papers.”

Naturally Skulptur Projekte featured the most public art. This decennial exhibition is completely free and, since its origins in 1977, has been rooted in questions of public sculpture. Through its various incarnations, the international selection of artists at Skulptur Projekte has highlighted the shifting definitions of site and place in contemporary art as well as the expanding notion of sculpture itself. Notably this year’s show featured a number of video installations, including works by Mike Rottenberg and Koki Tanaka that connected to the themes of mobility and immobility echoed in the public projects of Venice and Kassel. Installed in a closed Asian goods store, Argentine artist Mika Rottenberg’s utterly bizarre work Cosmic Generator (2017) explored hyper-capitalist “shadow economies.” Screened in the back of the defunct market, the video featured a seductively colorful and surreal exploration of a massive plastics market in China strangely connected to a US-Mexico border town. Street vendors, businessmen dressed as tacos, and a host of other comical characters navigated through otherworldly tunnels between these disparate global spaces, echoing the viewers’ passage through the closed store and alluding to global capitalism’s unofficial channels of flow. Similarly site-specific was Japanese artist Koki Tanaka’s Provisional Studies: Workshop #7: How to Live Together and Sharing the Unknown (2017). This multiscreen video installation featured documentation of a diverse group of Münster residents invited to participate in a nine-day workshop in a vacant modernist market complex and underground parking lot connected to the screening location. The videos featured moments of exhaustion and boredom as well as communication and dialogue between the participants, highlighting the intricacies and challenges of living together with others.


Koki Tanaka. Provisional Studies: Workshop #7: How to Live Together and Sharing the Unknown. (2017). Photo credit: Annie Dell’Aria. 2017.

From the street-level kiosk to the underground parking lot, many artists of the 2017 art fairs asked visitors to engage with and challenge their own notions of urban space and international mobility. While international biennial culture has in many ways accelerated the forces of globalization and exacerbated the ills of the art market, the opportunity to reach a broad and international art viewing public was not lost on artists seeking to disrupt these circuits. By placing works in public spaces, many of the artworks discussed above asked those on the Grand Tour of contemporary art to stop in their tracks and recognize the vast inequalities and injustices of the contemporary geopolitical moment, and even to imagine other, more just potential worlds.

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