Germany: Hot Spot For Contemporary Art

Two exhibitions put art on city-wide scales, transforming public spaces

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

This summer, Germany hosts two of the world's largest exhibitions of contemporary art. Kassel offers its 10th "documenta," held every four or five years in this city in northern Hesse. About 90 miles northwest, Mnster, in North-Rhine Westphalia, presents its once-a-decade event, "Sculpture. Projects in Mnster." Both exhibitions continue until Sept. 28.

The older and more renowned event is "documenta," which drew 615,000 visitors in 1992. Kassel's Baroque public buildings have been the setting of "documenta" since its sensational 1955 debut, which showcased Modernist art that had been banned by the Nazis. The first "documentas" were staged in the bombed-out ruins of Kassel's Fridericianum Museum and Orangery. The replicas that have replaced the city's war-torn structures make an oddly opulent setting for the iconoclastic exhibitions.

This year's "documenta" turns the grand halls of the Fridericianum into a frenetic shopping mall of media. A montage of visual images fills walls, video kiosks, and darkened screening rooms. As conceived by the exhibition's first non-German director, Catherine David, former curator of the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, "documenta X" aims to show "the state of art and thought" as the world enters a new millennium. Its panoramic sweep includes a survey of the past 50 years of world art and cultural history.

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Photographs by Helen Levitt, Walker Evans, and Gary Winogrand are posted like snapshots. Yet Levitt's scenes of street life in '30s New York are not lost in the din. Her cleareyed but intimate close-ups contrast with the voyeurism portrayed by Johan Grimonprez of Trinidad in his video, "Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y '97." A soul-music soundtrack accompanies news clips of airplane hijackings.

Some projects explore the capacity of electronic media to connect as well as distance people. The halls of the modern Documenta-Halle are papered with a design of twisting tubes resembling computer networks. An installation by Jordan Crandall of Detroit, "Suspension '97," makes lyrical use of information technology: As people move through the room, computers cast their images on the walls, where they cross like the shadows of strollers meeting in a lively town square.

"Documenta" occupies three floors of the Ottoneum, Germany's first theater and now Kassel's natural-history museum. On the second floor, a set of giant posters by Rem Koolhaas of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, presents a satirical report on urban development in a fictional Asian city: "New Urbanism: Pearl River Delta, 1996." He wields the jargon of urban development as only a practicing city planner can to spoof the soulless, crass aspects of progress.

The exhibition's tour of the millennium concludes at the Orangery, where a stately garden extends to the Fulda River. Here, a hut offers a view through one-way glass of a pig family going about its business.

'Sculpture. Projects in Mnster" was first launched in 1977. More than 70 artists from 25 countries are participating in the 1997 event, the city's third exhibition exploring the "function and role of art in public space." Organized by the Westphalian Landesmuseum for Art and Cultural History and the city of Mnster, the exhibition takes over the entire city center. The installations span the city's 13th-century cathedral square, or Domplatz; the two-mile Promenade encircling the old town; the city's Baroque palace and garden; and Mnster's lake, the Aasee.

Townspeople and visitors mingle as they walk and bike their way through this temporary theme park of the imagination, which invites people to be participants. They may climb a 12th-century tower illuminated with a four-floor video installation; ride a bike that only goes in reverse; or take an audio tour along the hidden canals, gardens, and walkways of the Domplatz.

On weekends, a helicopter descends on the Domplatz with a statue in tow. After circling three times, it deposits the statue on the roof of the Landesmuseum so that it faces the cathedral. Ayse Erkmen of Istanbul devised "Sculptures on the Air" after the cathedral vetoed her proposal to install an abstract crucifix and clock on its western faade, where a wall replaces an entrance destroyed during World War II.

Mnster's former residence of prince-bishops, the last Baroque castle built in Germany, is an elegant backdrop for New Yorker Nam June Paik's exuberant elegy to the 20th century: "32 Cars for the 20th Century: Play Mozart's Requiem Quietly." In front of the castle, he has installed 32 "petrified cars," a pantheon of the pride of Detroit - Packards, Fords, Studebakers, and more - all coated in silver. But the scene loses its luster close-up: Tires are flat, hoods are dented, and interiors are shredded or stuffed with junk.

Jorge Pardo of Los Angeles has constructed a pier and pavilion of California redwood along the western bank of the Aasee, creating new views of both the lake and the city. Peter Fischli and David Weiss of Zurich, known for their precise, dream-like replicas of everyday scenes, have planted an enigmatic garden near the lake.

Some projects become permanent parts of Mnster's landscape. The Landesmuseum and the city purchased Berliner Rebecca Horn's 1987 installation, "Contrary Concert," set in a 16th-century stone tower along the Promenade. The tower became a prison in 1732, and, during World War II, Polish and Russian POWs were held and executed here. Votive candles flicker inside the dark cells, which are silent except for a slow metronome of sounds: Steel hammers pick at the walls, drops of water strike a pool in the central courtyard, and a Van de Graaff generator erupts with a crackling arc every few minutes.

A nearby installation is also likely to join Mnster's new generation of landmarks: New Yorker Dan Graham's "Fun House for Mnster." His structure of transparent and reflective glass captivated a cluster of onlookers. While viewing their stretched and tripled selves on the structure's two-way mirrored walls, they could see through the glass to the people inside the structure, their reflections, and the environs beyond.

Mnster's site-specific installations confirm the power of art to transform a place and make it more memorable. Like good architecture, the sculptures enliven the spirit of the town as well as its landscape.

* The Web sites for these events are www.artthing.de/muenster/ and www.documenta.de/

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