Monday, May 30, 2016

Sculpture in Bottrop and Marl: Germany's answer to Italian Renaissance Painting

Inside the Glaskasten Museum, Marl

In Bottrop and Marl, cities that are almost at the end of the world, North Rhine Westphalia boasts two of its most exquisite museums. Bottrop and Marl are not high on the tourist list, though they should be. Before stepping inside the Josef Albers Quadrat Museum in Bottrop and the Glaskaten Museum in Marl, I was overcome by a feeling of peace and serenity, as though I had stepped into oases of perfection in the
middle of these former industrial hinterlands. Both museums are encircled by sculpture gardens filled with works behaving like totems imploring our contemplation, engagement and conversation. As I wandered through the two sculpture parks I couldn’t help thinking that the Ruhrgebiet does sculpture like Italy does Renaissance painting. In the same way that a Masaccio or a del Sarto change color and meaning as the sun moves across the sky on the walls of their Florentine chapels, outdoor sculpture in these Ruhr museums convinces me that I can never see it in a white cube again. In fact, their exhibition by these museums is so convincing that the placement of sculpture in the natural environment feels like a return to where it belongs. The magical transience of the day, the changes in light, in the weather, the mood of the trees, give the sculpture a narrative that sweeps both art and viewer into an ethereal other world. The elegant and poignant structures in steel and concrete enter into conversation with the trees, the wind, the rain and the birds that give them a community, making a mockery of the apparent intransigence and rationalization for which their materials are better known.
Alf Lechner, 3/72 Rahmenkonstruktion, 1972

The sadness and melancholy of Alf Lechner’s 3/72 Rahmenkonstruktion (1972), four steel cubes on a hill in the park, in the fading light of the long Northern European summer night, the glinting playfulness of Naturmachine, 1969, finding use as a playground for children, the game of Richard Serra's Untitled,  1972 two steel blocks, one balancing precariously on top of the other on the Rathaus plaza in Marl, all of them convince us they are alive, personified, performing for us. In Bottrop, I sat in the garden and watched a bird cleaning itself, displeased when I sneezed and disturbed its solitude. Max Bill’s Einheit aus Drei Gleichen Volumen 1979 looked on from the opposite side of the pond in which the bird stood on a rock among waterlilies. Donald Judd’s Bottrop-Piece (1977) changes shape and color, and the appearance of its material from stone to steel depending on where we stand to view it. At a distance it could be concrete, up close it is the same corten steel out of which so much of the work in the Ruhrgebiet is made.
Installation View, Quadrat Museum, Bottrop

The indoor spaces of both museums are likewise superbly curated - in Bottrop, room upon room of Josef Albers' color experiments. Homage to the Square in green and gray, orange and red, blue and purple. The Quadrat museum is a veritable retreat cut off from the rest of the world. It seems impossible that Albers’ silent and delicate paintings in what feels like sacred gray rooms could be conceived in the same breath, in the same century, as the coking plant 10km down the road. And in Marl, the collection belongs to the town, paid for with taxes charged to the employees of the one time prosperous mines. The richness of the collection is a reflection of the success of mining and industry in the once wealthy town. The Glaskasten sculpture museum is literally that, two layers of glass constructed around a former thoroughfare. The outside rim offers something like a pleasantly confusing disorientation between inside and outside.  Walking across the original rough-hewn floor, the same surface as the plaza outside, is like a no man's land in which to be restored.  A poignant work, Danzatore, 1954, by Marino Marini sees a woman look up and out through the windows to the sky, facing the plaza, imploring passers by to connect with her. When I stumbled upon Hermann Breucker’s Die Trauernde, a woman in mourning, her face hidden in her hands, in the former cemetery that has become an extension of the sculpture park, I thought Marini’s dancer must have been reaching out to her suffering sister.
Anna Schuster, Continued Landscape, 1997
with Tony Cragg in the foreground, inside looking out

One of my favourite pieces in Marl was a shipping container with video images for windows, placed in the thoroughfare outside the glass box; it forms an obstruction to the world passing by. Anna Schuster’s Continued Landscape 1997, shows images of a passing landscape seen from a train window: we look inside a box at windows that provide a view of an outside where we cannot be. The multiple perspectives of images in motion in a shipping container left to rust outside a museum, is confusing. I thought the piece was like a summary of all the sculptures, like the museum with its unique architecture is an expression of what lies beyond it. Everywhere across the Ruhrtal is an ever-transforming landscape, being looked at and looked from, unlikely perspectives, confronting and changing our view of a world in which the opposite always holds true.

Tetraeder, Bottrop
Though I didn't do this because I was too confused by the train connections, I suspect that a visit to Marl should be completed by a tour of the local Chemical Industry which includes a panoramic view over the Ruhrgebiet. Climbing up a tower to gain a strange re-orientation of a world whose identity was for so many years governed by what was below ground, invisible to the eyes of people like me.  Likewise, in the environs of Bottrop, the Tetraeder is a must. On the top of a slag heap, this steel construction demands so much from us: to look up and at, to look down from, to climb, stand still and let go to a landscape infinitely more filled with secrets than we can ever imagine. The command of the wealth of sculptures in the two museum parks speaks to the industrial and post-industrial landscapes, confronting us with their ephemerality, their transience and reflection back on a natural world that will continue to change, well beyond the immense structural redefinitions that motivate the region’s identity today.   

Monday, May 16, 2016

Zentrum für Internationale Lichtkunst, Unna, Germany

Mischa Kuball, Space Speech Speed, 1998/2001
Unna, a sleepy town in North East NRW has one attraction that makes the effort to get there worthwhile: the Centre for International Light Art housed in an old brewery. The exhibition spaces are built into the underground storage, cooling and change rooms, that is, spaces otherwise cloaked in complete darkness. It is, apparently, the only museum of its kind, devoted solely to light installations. This makes it a big drawcard, and though I enjoyed the visit, I was slightly disappointed. More on that later, first, what’s most impressive is the array of international artists’ whose work is exhibited here. There's no Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman Anthony McCall or Robert Irwin, but many major contemporary international light artists have at least one piece on display in the bowels of the unrenovated Linden Brewery.
Olafur Eliasson, Der Reflektierende Korridor, 2002
Built for the working brewery 120 years ago, no one space is the same as the next, and no space seems to have a natural or logical connection to the next. Accordingly, each art work, exploits this isolation and is contained by its space. Thus, the experience is one of going from room to room, where corridors and transition spaces constitute discrete and often unusual spaces. This is all to say, the experience is not one of wandering through the light installations, but more a series of unrelated immersions in light. Most impressive are those works that engage with the architecture of the building. In one of the most extraordinary works, Olafur Eliasson has us walk across a grated bridge between what at first appears to be a curtain of sparkling light on either side. And then, as we step close to the curtain, our feet get wet. The beads of light are created through spot lights above shining on drops of water as they cascade into the pool beneath the grated bridge. The confusion of what we are seeing, hearing, touching, even smelling, is the most outstanding example of the lesson taught by a number of these sculptural installations. Visual perception is only the first of the multi-dimensions of light art.
Keith Sonnier, Tunnel of Tears for Unna, 2002
Some of the works are confronting, again in ways that surprise. Keith Sonnier’s Tunnel of Tears for Unna installed in a storage space, for example, turns the rough hewn walls, lined with pipes, switches, butts and other paraphernalia into red and blue tunnels. Sonnier plays with the familiar visual effects of opposite colours, so when we are in the space bathed in red through murano glass fluorescent tubes, we look back at a white lighted space and it appears green. And then when we move to the blue room beyond the red one, the white becomes yellow. Most surprising of all is the warmth we experience over time standing in the blue light, and then when we move back to the red, it is harsh, cold, alienating. This is the surprise of Sonnier’s tears: blue and red are supposed to create cold and hot respectively, not the other way around. From Sonnier we also learn that light is an emotional experience. The confrontation of the harsh red light is so unexpected. Furthermore, we are reminded through this confrontation that the seeing is just the beginning of our experience of light.

Image result for james turrell third breath unna
James Turrell, Third Space, 2009
Image result for james turrell third breath unna
James Turrell, Third Space, 2009
Light art, like the stuff itself, comes in many different media or types of light. The exhibition includes a lot of neon, as the chosen material of the -post-Nauman generation of light artists, but there is also a very special natural light art work using the sky over Unna by James Turrell. Turrell has made a camera obscura in the only above ground installation. It’s a simple circle cut in the ceiling of a purpose built room (not part of the original brewery) through which day or night light falls onto a circular marble slab inside. Turrell place lenses in the circular opening, and thus, when inside the room, we look down at the sky as it moves across the opening above. Thus, it is not only the image that is inverted through Turrell’s camera obscura but logic too: we look down to see what is above us. In addition, the clouds in the sky seem to race across the opening, a striking antithesis of their apparent stillness when we stand below and look at them above us. Having spent the last two hours in the catacomb-like spaces below ground, immersed in neon and artificially created spaces, coming above ground to be in the midst of Turrell’s creation, I was amazed by the fact that, all along, nature gives us, afterall, the most surprising art work.

Francois Morellet, No End Neon (Pier and Ocean), 2001

There are many other works - by Joseph Kosuth, François Morellet, Christian Boltanski, Rebecca Horn and Mischa Kuball among others. As we go through the spaces, we are given new perspectives on space, on our body, on the relations between art and nature, above and below ground, all of which we experience through our own movement and senses. My one disappointment in the exhibition was that, even through a large number of works intelligently engage the spaces they occupy, none of them engage the history of the production processes or the work and activities that once took place in the Brewery or its spaces. This, in itself, is not a criticism. However, considering the tendency of public artworks, even those in museums, to engage the history of the region’s past in the Ruhrgebiet, it would have been interesting to see light works engage on this level. Energy, water, light are all key to the industrial production that gives the region its identity, and I would have thought it’s acknowledgment would make this museum more than just the only one devoted solely to light art. Otherwise, once down in the storage spaces of the Linden Brewery, we could be anywhere in the world. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Thomas Struth Nature and Politics, Folkwang Museum Essen

Thomas Struth at Marian Goodman Gallery, London
Thomas Struth, Hushniya, Golan Heights, 2011
For my first ever visit to the Folkwang Museum in Essen, I was treated to a small, provocative exhibition of Thomas Struth’s photographs from the past few years. Small because unlike the blockbusters at major museums in the capital cities I usually visit, the Folkwang has curated 34 images in a themed exhibition. And provocative because the images together bring new meanings and perspectives to each individual photograph. Thomas Struth, Nature and Politics which, had I been charged with titling the exhibition, it would be called, Industry and Humanity, presents work that reveals the disastrous results of human constructions that apparently underwrite social and economic progress. Interestingly, this is only revealed across the 34, superbly hung, photographs that comprise the exhibition.

Thomas Struth, Cinema Anaheim, 2013
As I wandered around, I felt myself falling deeper and deeper into human invention and intervention gone wrong. The photographs show, but do not always represent, the dystopia of a man made world, either through violations of nature or the mess of technology. The chaos is communicated through something as simple as the tangled wires of the Tokamak Asdex near Munich. Even though the machine may be functioning perfectly well, the representation would suggest the confused and chaotic state of technology. Even those images in which the represented world is apparently sterile and orderly--take Cinema, Anaheim, 2013, for example—something is not quite right. Standing before such an image for a period of time, we start to wonder what exactly we are looking at. Is that the screen that consumes the image? And are those steel contraptions on the right supposed to function as chairs? This is Disneyland afterall, but there is no entertainment in sight. And then, by the time we reach Curved Wave Tank, The University of Edinburgh, 2010, the green fumes spewing toxicity into a contaminated--though clinical--space, we need no convincing of the destruction of man’s great inventions.   

Thomas Struth, Figure, Charité, Berlin 2012
The majority of the photographs give the feeling abandonment. Machines or experiments built and, having outlived their purpose, the people have stood up and walked away. The sense of abandonment and decay of the machines is felt through the absence of humans. Though the presence can be registered through a glove, or an open computer screen, even a vague figure dwarfed by the construction, these are worlds in which humans have lost interest. The museum leaflet refers to the fantasy and desire of industry and manufacturing as it is represented in the images. If I had to identify where fantasy and desire is, I would locate it in this sense of abandonment. That is, the fantasy of creation that ends up as the reality of destruction, unfolds in the narrative that I impose on the photographs, a narrative that isn’t in the image.

Hot Rolling Mill, Thomas Struth
Thomas Struth, Hot Rolling Mill, ThyssenKrupp Steel, Duisburg, 2010

The exhibition also brings together images of locations that we, as general public , have no access to. This, together with the unusual angles, the use of distorting lenses and filters, leads us into places that are strange and unrecognizeable. And when we think we know them, through photographic manipulation, Struth reveals worlds that are everything we imagine them not to be. Hot Rolling Mill, Thyssen Krupp. Steel, Duisburg, 2010 is an example. The machinery in the image shows everything that Thyssen Krupp, the ambassadors for the Ruhr region, claim they are not. Here we see the decay, arcane state of industry, machines rusting over, empty bulwark structures that have the look of being deserted long ago. The slick and shining steel objects produced by this machine that feature in the Thyssen Krupp publicity are nowhere to be found in Struth’s image. When this same photograph was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, side by side with museum photographs and other interiors, the machine was seen as charming and beautiful. Here in Essen, the same image, juxtaposed with, for example, the inhuman incarceration of the sick at Charité in Berlin, steps into a world gone wrong, a nightmare from which there is no way out. The body technologized by a mass of wires and machines in Charité shows the danger and horror of technology and industry, and there is nothing enchanting about it. Of course, our shock before this image carries over to our perspective of the Thyssen Krupp machinery. And then, around the corner, an image of the Golan Heights shows a roof collapsed, a world falling apart, extends the nightmare to its most obvious conclusion. Even though there is not a trace of technology or industry in Hushniya, Golan Heights, 2011, we know very well how this happened. The frightening narrative of human invention reaches its most terrifying moment in this images that shows none of the inventions.