LEGACY AND MEMORIES OF CONTEMPORARY ART
——A NEW DIMENSION TO URBAN CULTURAL SIGHT-SEEING
Text / Jiang Jun
Similar to the widely-accepted “Bilbao Effect” in architecture, in the context of discussions relating to contemporary art, there has been a concept of “Biennale Effect” since 1989. Globally, contemporary art exhibitions, in diversified forms such as triennial, lustrum and decennial, have been blooming and becoming cities’ name- cards, recognized as an emerging
trend in driving the tourism economy. On one side, through commissioning site-specific artworks, the historical and cultural legacy and memories of the cities are made accessible to all, enabling a new observatory perspective for the audience; on the other side, this has undoubtedly served the interest of sight-seeing consumptions – offering a brand-new cultural experience.
I will elaborate on the discussions pertaining to Münster – a historic town in Germany – through two cases that connect the past, present, and future through contemporary art. Münster is an exquisite, medieval-styled town. All public art exhibitions staged around the globe, the interactions among cities and outdoor public art, and the “art- hunting” journeys of art-enthusiasts when they travel can be traced back to the Skulptur Projekte Münster (the SPM) that first started in 1977.
The decennial event witnessed its fifth edition on June 10, 2017, since its debut in 1977. Running for 100 days from the day on, the SPM 2017 was staged in
the dreamlike historic town of Münster (a complete replication of its ancient streets that were destroyed by the allies during WWII), offering another hunting ground for public art followers across Europe in addition to the Venice Biennale and Kassel Documenta. Following the maps, the enthusiasts flocked into the city, trying to seek out the 35 public art installations dispersed throughout the town on their bicycles.
Unlike the other two European contemporary art events (i.e., Venice Biennale and Kassel Documenta), all editions of SPM share the same theme – the cultural context of Münster. So, the culture, legacy and memories of the city are the background knowledge that should be considered. At the 2017 SPM, 35 groups of artists were invited to reside in Münster and were asked to select a location for their final artworks. The purpose was to encourage the visitors to go on a “treasure hunt”on their bikes, following their city maps to find artworks installed in the lovely historic town. On-board announcements on buses also included information about the artworks, providing visitors with the introduction of artworks close to particular stops. Since only one piece of work was set up at each location, visitors could take their time to read the guide in detail, enjoy the art, and exchange views with each other.
The Historical City Hall of Münster (Historischen Rathaus Münster), built in the medieval, holds historical significance in the town’s history of architecture. It houses the Peace Hall (Friedenssaal), formerly the town council and court chambers, now a magnet for tourists. In 1648, the Treaty of Münster, a sub-treaty of the Peace of Westphalia, was signed here in Friedenssaal, bringing the Thirty Years’ War to an end. It represented an act of diplomacy that ended a fight extended over 30 years among the Catholic and Protestant states with treaties entered into by and among the Holy Roman Empire Emperor Ferdinand III, the Kingdom of Spain, the Kingdom of France, Sweden, the Dutch Republic, the Holy Roman Empire allies and the free imperial cities. The treaties signed include the Treaty of Münster and the Treaty of Osnabrück. Thus, Friedenssaal becomes a symbol of space for dialogue, representing tolerance among different religions and the emergence of civil rights.
It was also the venue where Romanian artist Alexandra Pirici situated her performance show Leaking Territories. In her previous works, Pirici adopted performance, dance and theatre as main artistic presentations. It was not surprising that she chose Friedenssaal to stage her performance. In Leaking Territories , seven performers slowly moved their bodies, roaming in the space. Each performer narrated important episodes in our history during the performance, framing the past in today’s space and time by beginning the stories with “Here we are. ... years ago, and ... kilometers from here...”.
The performers embodied the news reportersor living search engines in the two parts of the performance. In the first part, performers told historical events as they were broadcasting news. The second part was more interactive. They invited the audienceto provide the keywords for information searching, followed by their Google-like searching and result reporting acting movements.
As the performance was presented in the form of dance and theater, the performers’ bodies served as a medium and interface through which the narrated time and space became the hypertext link in reality. Here in the symbolic venue, History was presented emotionally like a living collage, while the myth and construct of nation-stateswere displayed and questioned. The performance echoes the current dilemma, cultural isolation and dialogue interruption within Europe and discusses the critical historic mission to enter into new interactions and multi-lateral communication.
The daily opening at four o’clock in the afternoon and the sightseeing tour before the performance constituted interesting relevance. Two different versions of the same history at the same venue before and after four o’clock referred to the past, as well as the immediate present and future. It could be interpreted as something nostalgic, but at the same time, also something creative and new.
Already serving as a name card of the city, the SPM is not immune to a growing trend of urban marketing. Seemingly irrelevant of interest, it is impossible to become a compelling case of art autonomy. How can historic landscapes be integrated with contemporary arts so as to create new legends? How the pre-modern legends find their post-modern narration and expression to activate history and the site-specific artworks? What is the take- away from the case of Münster? The 100-day art exhibition has transformed the city into a gigantic art theater – a transient urban heterotopia.
From the very start in 1977, the SPM has been described as a democratic enlightening education project. Therefore, in theory, all its projects should be accessible to local citizens, who are invited to participate for free (indoor or outdoor), regardless of their social classes. Among the SPM 2017 projects, How to Live Together by Koki Tanaka spoke right to this theme and requirement.
In the context of Europe in 2017, refugee was a highly relevant topic.
In the meantime, with Brexit and the return of populism, class solidification has intensified in Europe (typically viewed as the old money), causing communication across classes, races, and languages to melt down. How to live together has emerged as a relevant topic to all.
The same-titled book was based on Roland Barthes’ course of lectures that he taught at the Collège de France. Similarly, Koki Tanaka offered a workshop in Münster to citizens as an art project and generated production notes. He released newspaper ads to recruit local citizen volunteers and organized a “reality show” from October 1 through 9 in 2016, which was also filmed and exhibited. At the exhibition site, the audience could watch a few video installations that documented this project and get a copy of production notes for free.
Eight citizens, including Lina, Tasnim, JoAnn, Rolf, Anna, Annette and Stephan, participated in the workshop. They were called to meet at Aegidiimarkt right across the Münster Museum, a commercial complex built in 1979. From the 12th century to the 18th century, there was a monastery on the same site used as military barracks in the 19th century. There is no doubt that this site responds directly to Roland Barthes’ quest. The underground garage was once a nuclear bunker in the Cold War, indicating prediction and vigilance towards a catastrophic future. Their discussions and filming took place in different rooms in this complex nowadays used for commercial purposes, such as empty groundfloor shops, adult school classrooms, gyms, and underground garage.
These participants came from different cultural origins. In addition to German nationalities, there were people from the neighboring countries and regions. They were brought together for this project as a temporary collective body for a 9-day special mission. Just like a reality show, in an entertaining form, Koki Tanaka rethought the people-to- people relationship via a post-crisis community.
For the Japanese people who survived the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster, the memories of disasters were still fresh. Upon the outbreak of disasters, people would suddenly disregard the previous enmity and enter into a mutually assisting community. However, those special moments could not last for long, as the temporary community would dissolve upon the return of normality. It can also be observed in reality TV shows. No matter the scenario setup is fierce confrontations or competitions, it is fundamentally an ad-hoc community forged by people – as the artist called it, an “emergency” state.
As we have discussed above, it is not just in Europe – in a globalized world, people are segregated on multiple facets into different groups that are regulated by their own set of standards, such as races, languages, occupations, and hobbies. In view of the increasing gaps in our society, should we establish some sort of communication mechanism to enable the understanding of others and establish a certain level of fundamental patience?
These eight participants were situated in a mock “disaster” scenario. In an artificial setting isolated from the outside world, they ate and lived together, cooked wartime recipes, talked with each other, and engaged in other activities. They were required to open themselves up to the other, and at the same time, explore the others. During the process, they also dived deeper into themselves while trying to understand the others and realize a life lived together.
In one interview set up in the garage that used to be a bunker, the group sat together around a string of Félix González-Torres-style light bulbs. Each time, two participants left their seats for a one-on-one interview in a car parked across the room. The artist was in the backseat as the controller, while the others monitored the conversation remotely. Everyone was asked to set their own questions, inquiring about the other person’s life – life as a Münster citizen, life before migrating to Germany, life as a second-generation Turk born in Germany, life in Tel Aviv, life as a driver in Germany, and life as a bookshop owner/amateur sculptor. Koki Tanaka put forward the questions and learned about the person to whom the questions were dedicated in other interviews. Cultural barriers, age gaps, and language impediments were dissolved because of the friendliness and patience, as everyone shared their own stories from the past and the present, as well as their visions for the future, without holding anything back.
In Tanaka’s art, space serves as a unique link, where the events seem to repeat themselves. When Barthes discussed how the medieval priests lived together, it reflects the pre-modern history of Aegidiimarkt – a monastery, a military camp, a bunker and then a commercial complex. Between people, understanding and divergence are and will be repeated over and over again for eternity, as the same dramas have been repeated in history, where they were monks in the monastery, soldiers in the army, and members in a community in the aftermath of disasters, a filming crew of reality shows, or a production team of an artist. Everyone is trying out the possibility of living together under varied social settings.
In the production notes, Koki Tanaka shared an interesting story. During the period of 1946 through 1952, as the Museum of Kyoto was occupied by the US army, one exhibition room was used as a basketball court. Concurrently, the US Army also turned a hall in a into a basketball court. The similarity in the stories is rooted in significant differences in scenarios, as each event stands unique on its own. To me, How to Live Together is the warmest story among all SPM 2017 projects.
A product without a story has little chance to become a best-seller. A city that has no legends is unlikely to be attractive. In the regeneration of cities, culture is the right tool to use in creating legends. The legacy and historical memories of cities could be discovered through contemporary art, regenerating city stories with a new level of fun, attracting more cultural visitors. The post-modern cities are seeking their pre-modern stories constantly for repackaging and regeneration, or creating numerous new legends out of nothing.