things are generally different behind closed doors1
Case Studies, Art in Public Space
“The artwork shall adapt to the architecture and to the spatial conditions, it shall connect to the site and address its topic, it shall create identity with the institution and be clearly visible from the outside. The artwork shall mark the place and create an artistic signpost as well as be harmonized with the surroundings. The character and the historic function of the surrounding shall be taken into consideration. The artwork shall be uniquely created for the special situation. It shall be socially friendly, contain aesthetic values referring to the sights of the area and fulfill educational purposes as a piece of contemporary art…” These are just some recent excerpts from various calls for proposals.
Contracting authorities and official quarters as well as the public typically place great demands on art in public space. The expectations generally differ much from art that takes place behind closed doors. Art in public space shall always be more than just a work of art.
So what can art in public space and art on construction add to the public realm apart from being art? Should it supererogatory add anything at all? Does additional content or extra benefit distinguish it from art in an exhibition room? And is the demanded purpose a bonus or is it an ingredient?
So how can public art contribute without superficially being useful?
On the basis of the most typical demands I will describe my approach and exemplify them:
- Art as a memorial
In the political situation in Berlin just after the fall of the wall – while any reminders of the inferior system and of the border were about to be erased as quickly as possible – some wondered about how to put the brakes on this fast oblivion. How could the former border at least be marked without being suspected of raising a monument?
The competition Übergänge (Transitions) in Berlin is an example of the search for new forms of commemorating historical events that took place in Berlin in the 90s.
One of the transitions between East and West was the Oberbaum Bridge across the Spree. Since its construction in 1902, the Oberbaum-Bridge has been one of the city’s most diverse commuting intersections: cars, bicycles and pedestrians, as well as subways and tramways, cross boat routes and regional and administrative frontiers. Demolished in 1945 as a result of Hitler’s ‘Nero’ order and temporarily reconstructed in the 50’s. For 30 years after 1961 any form of commuting came to a complete stop. The bridge became a barricade, through which from 1972 “meagre rivulets of old-age pensioners” …were let out from the East and from the other side… “an even more dismal trickle of Westberliners … was let in” (after paying a toll fee).
As well as becoming a monument to the Cold War, “the Oberbaum-Bridge documents the conflicting desire of late 19th century Berlin’s middle-class and imperial society’s will to move towards metropolitan modernization, despite deeply-rooted conservatism”. In effect, the bridge is “19th century Berlin’s history built across the Spree.” 2
Each aspect of the Oberbaum-Bridge exemplifies a segment of Berlin’s history. It is not only the name, which derives from the pile bridge reinforced with tree trunks that was part of the city limits of Berlin-Coelln during the time of Friedrich Wilhelm I, but also its design, decoration and method of construction were considered to be rather unique, even at the time. Its subsequent destruction, provisional reinstatement and slow decay due to lack of use, before its restoration, and current controversy about its technical adequacy and present use, emphasize each era’s social problems – perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in Berlin.
As a result of the competition Übergänge, Rock Paper Scissors is a marking the former inner-city frontier crossing between East and West in Berlin since 1997 now with a randomized Neon Game.
Two round light boxes are installed in the central spandrel of the elevated railway bridge above the river Spree. Inside each box are three curved neon tubes (yellow, red and blue) depicting the contours of hand movements. These are the gestures of the game Rock paper scissors to which the title refers: the red line forms an outstretched hand (paper), the yellow line shows splayed fingers (scissors) and the blue line forms the contours of a clenched fist (rock). With the aid of a random generator the outlines change in position and color every six seconds.
A game of chance, in a seemingly inextricable situation – two people stand opposite each other – where neither argument, nor violence will bring up a decision. By using this game of chance, the division of the city and the significance of the bridge as a border crossing between East and West Berlin from 1972 to 1989 are put in an artistic context.
More than just marking the former borders of the two political systems, the game questions the historical inevitability. With reduced stylistic means, the work asks to what extent political decisions ultimately depend on chance, i.e. imply a moment of arbitrariness.
Playfulness turns into ironic observations on the apparent inevitability of competition between political systems and its historical significance. Its simplicity or playfulness does not mean to trivialize the situation, but using simple symbols makes it universally comprehensible.
- Art as landmark / place-making
The NETG in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada is an over 500.000 square foot (46.500 m2) transit garage, that will be home to more than 320 workers, from bus-drivers, bus maintenance staff to administrators, supervisors and cafeteria and custodial staff. NETG will accommodate 300 buses, 35 maintenance bays and much more. The project represents a significant investment in public infrastructure in this area in Edmonton. The international call for art asked for a landmark, a sculptural focal element that is recognizable and distinct by day and night, a site-specific, place-making public art and a signature artwork for the new building.
The NETG is a huge elongated building with five large superstructures on top. My intention was not to beautify but to clarify the structure and to tell a story of the place, by taking it to an extreme. I wanted to exaggerate the enormous size of the building, point to its purpose as a building for public transport and pick up the vacancy and the expanse of the Canadian landscape.
Next to the North East Transit Garage leads the Yellowhead Highway, this important East-West link that contributed significantly to the settlement of the country. Like all the major east-west routes of the world, it has a long tradition. Going West has not only always been a dream from a European perspective. And so the hopes and the pledge contained in this route are still felt today - all this is perceptible in this place.
Additionally next to the site there is the Canadian Pacific Railway. Just in sight of the NETG are endless rows of large containers being transported from East to West and back. Standardized containers with their large signs are emblematic of today’s global movement of goods. These containers on the train are very similar in their proportions to the lanterns laying on top the roof of the NET-Garage.
So here begins my story of the building and the long journey to the west: 53°20’N is a collection of five topographic models depicting mountain landscapes from locations sitting on the same latitude (53°20’) as Edmonton in Canada. They will be built in stainless steel in the scale of 1:1.000 and mounted upright on the facing sides of the lanterns on the roof of the North East Transit Garage building.
The models depict locations in five geographic areas: Mount Chown (Alberta), the crater of Mount Okmok (Umnak Island in the Aleutians), Zhupanovsky Crater (Kamchatka, Russia), an unnamed landscape near Dacaodianzi, Heilongjiang Sheng (China) and Mweelrea (Connaught, Ireland).
The artistic concept is inspired by what I call the “globe game” – placing your finger on a spinning globe – an imaginary journey – Where would we arrive if we went in a straight line in one direction, didn’t stop and never turned off? Where and when should we end this fictitious journey? We imagine what it looks like there, what it would be like to be there… extending this east-west route and coiling it once around the globe is about connecting places. 53°20’N was elected in the international competition of the Edmonton Arts Council and the City of Edmonton in 2015 and it is at the moment under construction. It will be completed in summer 2018.
- Art as an indication / art as a patch
Indicating a site and patching architectural or town-planning blunders is also a very common task for art in urban environment.
Watercourses border the Lower Town of Gdansk, this line of the 17th century bastions and the New Motława River and a large motorway to the north. Though part of the historic City Centre of Gdańsk, the district is a clearly defined piece of land, a peninsula, which is harshly cut off from the city by the watercourses and the motorway.
There are only three entrances to the district, two of them are already prominently marked. The last one, the Toruńska Bridge, which was topic of the competition, is rather narrow and it seemed to me not a main entrance, but more like a backdoor to the Lower Town.
But a backdoor is for insiders or only for good friends. There is certain charmingness in entering a place through the backdoor. It has an unofficial, a private character, which I felt is valuable and which I did not want to disturb by an artwork. I would rather add a heartily welcome, a salute to this situation, welcoming visitors with a cordial personal gesture or ceremony
So I developed Pink Occurrence: Crossing the bridge and entering the district from the west will cause an instant signal – a foggy, dense cloud will appear next to the bridge. A cloud of fog, candy-floss-like in its artificial pinkness, rises by the riverbank.
It will form itself instantly by strong fog nozzles and red light to a size of about 3 × 5 meter and will dissolve and disappear with the wind after a very short time.
Not everyone, but every tenth or so passer-by who crosses the bridge going east into the Lower Town District triggers the formation of the pink cloud. The unexpected triggering of this signal becomes an official welcoming ceremony that addresses the visitor directly and at the same time marks this nondescript place. Pink Occurrence is planned to be built within the Outdoor Gallery of the city of Gdansk and the Łaźnia Centre of Contemporary Art.
- Art to create identity / art vs. architecture
The cause for the following work was a competition for a new school building in Berlin. It serves as an example for the request on art to create identity and also for the continual rivalry of art and architectural design in art on construction processes. Artists often face this when entering a competition of art on construction. Which are the possibilities for art to intervene in an already highly performulated environment. How can art unfold and at the same time create identification and involve without declaring itself superficially as participatory?
A newly built primary school in a rather neglected large housing district in Berlin proves that there is a large amount of confidence and belief in the people, in the children, in the development of the district. It is more than just a financial investment; it is an investment in the future and it sends out a very positive signal. Even more so as this school building is costly, richly equipped and very well designed. In fact, the architectural design of the space is so explicit, that there was no space left for art.
24kt – is a work under construction, It will be completed in summer 2018. But even then the work will always be in process. For the amount that is reserved for the art, I bought about one kilo of fine gold, 24kt. From the gold we cast branches and constructed a nest - a very rough birds nest as for example crows build it. The nest of approximately 20 × 20 cm will be presented in a glass showcase built-in the wall in the entrance-hall of the school. There will be no door and no way to open the glass showcase, it will be solidly welded. The showcase is extremely strong built and alarm protected. The golden nest inside is a treasure that the children will watch every day throughout their school years and that they will grow up with. It belongs to them and it actually serves as a foundation for the newly built school and as an investment for future needs, that they may decide on. Part of the work is a fixed agreement on copyright and ownership, that allows the school to open the showcase and destroy the nest and sell the gold after a minimum of 14 years. Condition for this act is the forming of a community of students, teachers and parents in equal parts and a common agreement on the purpose.
So the work consists of three life cycles: 1. the time ahead – it is a time of projection, a dream, while the artwork is protected. 2. the time when the protected period has expired – the artwork is then available, it may be melted and sold any time, it is a time of actual possibility. 3. the time after – the time when the showcase was actually opened, when a common decision was made and in the end something else was bought or financed. The golden nest then is gone, but in exchange there are the proceeds and the community that was formed. The showcase will then stay empty, except a plate that indicates the dates and material.
The given examples show just a small bouquet of requests on art in public space. They show that art – rather than just taking away space – could offer an extra perspective or a theoretical platform and thus contribute to the public realm and to the community without necessarily declaring itself to be participatory. At the same time they illustrate a wide variety of forms and options of expression and none of the works really points to me. In the end it doesn’t matter who the author is. And this again is generally different behind closed doors.
Although there are standardized spaces in the city with interchangeable qualities, many spaces still have their own properties and there are different communities, needs and velocities. To meet these different needs, a variety of languages, methods and tools are needed. While tasks are more and more narrowed and operations become more specialized today, it is the artists that should keep track of the full picture.
A generalist is 1. one who has broad general knowledge and skills in several areas. 2. is a species whose members are able to live in a wide variety of habitats or consume a wide variety of foods. Both apply to artists, at least as long as they do not reduce themselves to match a neat category.
I believe that any specialization in public art is disadvantageous and an individual artistic style is out of place here. Establishing and cultivating one’s own style as an artist working in public is like the cocky presumption that one has found the ultimate tool that matches all, an artistic Swiss army knife or a one-size-fits-all-places solution. Art in public space needs no recognition factor. This is because the rules of the art-market do not apply to the public space – and I think that they should not.
1 Things are generally different behind closed doors is the title of a video installation featuring a Smart (car) and a large cotton wool pad, that have a long conversation about everything and anything in a train restaurant. The installation was presented in my solo show in the Fundacio Museum Miro in Barcelona in 2005.
2 From: K. Schlögel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12/3/1994 and Maria and Prof. Ludwig Deiters from Berlin baut,18.