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Skulptur Projekte Munster and Documenta 14

Last month, the Leeds 2023 Explore Fund allowed me the opportunity to visit two major international visual arts events in Germany. Since 1955, the German city of Kassel has hosted documenta, a major exhibition of international art that in part embodied the country’s desires to come to terms with the horrors of Nazism.

Its first aim was to document the innovations in modern art that had been censored under Nazi Germany as Entartete Kunst (degenerate art). Today, documenta is looked to as one of the major art world events, making visible the concerns that are underpinning contemporary art in relation to global political events. For the past thirty years, another major art event has taken place in Germany every decade.

Skulpture Projekte 2017 is a festival of sculpture (and increasingly objects/ installations/ moving image) that takes place in a diverse range of locations across the small city of Münster. Initiated in 1977 by curator Kasper Koenig, the project seeks to activate, and create, spaces in the public realm through new site-specific commissions by contemporary visual artists. June 2017 thus saw an influx of artists and curators travelling to Germany to attend the opening of both these major events. My visit was a whistle-stop tour of both projects on behalf of Pavilion, the organization I work for in Leeds, which produces ambitious new work by international artists. documenta and Skulptur Projeckte are of particular interest to Pavilion, because of our own work to stage new visual art outside of a single gallery space, utilizing a diverse range of sites and embedding work within our local place.

Koki Tanaka, How to Live Together, 2017. Photo: Gill Park.

I had two primary motivations for visiting documenta and Skulptue Projeckte. One was to have a chance to view a whole range of new and exciting contemporary art practices, with a view to identifying artists we might be interested in involving in our future programme. Secondly, I was keen to take the opportunity for a first meeting with one particular artist – Koki Tanaka – with whom Pavilion will collaborate later in 2017 and who was showing at Skulptur Projekte. Tanaka is a Japanese artist who works video, photography and installation and who is currently preoccupied by the question ‘How to live together’? This was the title of his new work, which was inspired by a visit to a former Cold War bunker (now a Shopping Mall) in the centre of Münster. The notion of the bunker – as signifying the potential to rebuild humanity after a crisis – inspired Koki to work with eight residents of the city through a week-long workshop through which the mixed group of people engaged in a number of exercises including film-making, performance, talking and cooking. Working through questions of what it means to understand one another across difference, and to live in dignity, the workshops led to the generation of filmed material that culminated in a series of short video works. The work was installed in a former laboratory owned by the university and located next to the former bunker that had inspired the formation of his temporary community. The opportunity to talk to Koki in the presence of his work was extremely valuable. Supported by our partners Liverpool Biennial – who last year commissioned Koki to restage the 1985 YTS School Students Strike, our intention is to work with Koki and a group of young people from Leeds to assemble our own temporary community in the city, in order to explore what living together might mean for future generations in Leeds.

Five Highlights

Mika Rottenberg, Cosmic Generator (2017). Photo: Skulptur Projekte

Mika Rottenberg, Cosmic Generator at Skulptur Projekte
This compelling film centres on the towns of Calexico and Mexicali, sat on either side of the US/ Mexican border and the disparity between the labourers and consumers engaged in the global supply chain. An accompanying installation of coloured plastic goods, tinsel and inflatables reminiscent of those cheaply produced in Asia and other low-wage countries added to the video and resonated with the site of the work – the Asianshop Liebensmittel – a former Asian import store on the edge of Münster.

Hito Steyerl, HellYeahWeFuckDie (2017). Photo: Gill Park

Hito Steyerl, HellYeahWeFuckDie at Skulptur Projekte
Through filmed footage of robots being trained to resist physical force, and footage of the conflict in the Turkish town of Cizre on the Syrian border, Hito Steyer’s remarkable installation – in the futuristic former site of the LBS savings bank – is a mediation on the relationship between technology and war.

Skulptur Projekte by bike
The bicycle rental service launched to coincide with Skpultur Projekte Munster meant it was easy(ish) to explore the 35 new commissions dotted within and on the outskirts of the city!

The Society of Friends of Halit, Unravelling the NSU complex! at documenta 14.
In 2006, Halit Yozgat, a Turkish migrant living in Kassel, was murdered in an internet café in the North-Holland district of the city, allegedly by the right-wing terrorist group NSU. Addressing this killing, and other racially-motivated murders in Germany, the mixed-media work renarrates the moment of Halitz death in relation to the structures of institutional racism that foreclose justice for victims of hate crimes.

Hiwa K, When We Were Exhaling Images at documenta 14
Emphasising documenta’s focus on so-called refugee crisis is Hiwa K’s When We Were Exhaling Images, a stack of ceramic pipes, transformed into miniature rooms, and referencing the artist’s own journey from Iraq to Greece in the 1990s when he lived in pipes used for canalization. Relating to this work, the focus point of this year’s documenta 14, which is titled ‘Learning from Athens’ is its parallel programme in Athens, an attempt by the curator to foreground the relationship and tensions between the North and South of Europe.