After ten long years, Skulptur Projekte Münster opened its fifth edition in this northern German city, marking the opening with a quick address to press at the old theater in town before offering up coffee and goulash and sending everyone off on bicycles to check out the 36 new public works on a drizzly Friday afternoon.
Those who made the 150-minute hajj by bus from Kassel may have been dreading another marathon press conference like the one that kicked off Documenta 14 a few days back. Those fears were assuaged from the very start, when a cartoon appeared on screen with a man looking at a stone sculpture—drink in one hand, cigarette in the other—saying, “This shit rocks!”
The caption on the cartoon was the last time the English language made an appearance at the press conference, which points to the local pride at play within Skulptur Project Münster—no need for the lingua franca here!—which was founded by the legendary curator Kaspar König. It was quite the foil of the hyper-global, fire-and-brimstone vision of Documenta, and it hummed along quite nicely, punctuated by jokes and a free-flowing playfulness. On stage, the directors, curators and financial backers—bankers, insurance providers—went on with a chatty roundtable, dispensing with the pretense that one may have expected from a once-in-a-decade exhibition opening.
It began with Matthias Lob, the director of the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur in Münster, welcoming the visitors to the city and recognizing that most have come in from out of town and may not be back for another ten years. And he addressed what the translator in my ear referred to as the “monotony” of the environs.
“But this doesn’t recognize how much life and new ideas you find in this region,” he said. “Not everything has to be that serious—it is supposed to be fun!”
This is fun! Even if it’s a little rainy today, Münster is still, as one panelist put it, “the most bike-friendly city in Germany,” not to mention a chill college town with an appropriately youthful vibe. Even discussing funding, often taboo at such events, was addressed in a friendly manner. Putting on a show of this magnitude requires a large amount of cash, hence the presence onstage of Dr. Wolfgang Breuer, who is the chairman of the insurance company Westfälische Provinzial Versicherung We, and Markus Schabel, the chairman of the bank Sparkasse Münsterland Ost.
“We know that our contributions aren’t the most important contributions, and they aren’t the most sexy, but there’s long been a connection between art and money,” Schabel said.
Next to speak was Friederike Tappe-Hornbostel, a culture director for the city of Münster, who said Skulptur Projeckt is like heart surgery (it’s a tricky to pull off!) but not like a UFO (it doesn’t come visit and then depart without leaving a trace). Then she crafted an elegant argument that the city of Münster itself has become a sort of performance artwork: The intervention of the artists has changed the city drastically over 40 years.
Managing director Imke Itzen explained that the process of planning for Skulptur Projeckt began three years ago, and broke down some figures from the budget: There was nearly $8 million spent in total, with the lion’s share going toward funding the artists’ projects, $2.4 million going to personnel, and $1.65 million to publications, education, and public relations.
One highlight of the press conference: a video by the artist Michael Smith about a group of ladies and gentlemen of a certain age going to get tattoos after a day in Münster: biking, walking around, going to a clothing store mysteriously named “White Stuff,” taking selfies with sculptures, and eventually getting tattoos. (For his sculpture project, Smith is operating a pop-up tattoo parlor called Not Quite Under_Ground.)
Curator Britta Peters said that the video acted as a proper intro to the exhibition, as it “brings everything together: the city of Münster, the majority of wealthy white people here, the Claes Oldenburg, the Thomas Schütte, the growing attraction to tourists, and Skulptur Projekte Münster.”
Curator Marianne Wagner spoke next and discussed the exhibition’s devotion to its past iterations, through the work purchased by the city that remains permanently on view. “It always means dealing with the existing and the traditional,” Wagner said, before ceding the floor to artistic director Kaspar König, the man of the hour. At 73, he very well could be back in the saddle in a decade to direct Skulptur Projekte Münster 2027. He spoke not of himself but of the work in the show, embarking on a monologue that zig-zagged between topics such as how his friend encountered racist thugs on the train to town and silenced them; how the architects who devised Münster’s modern look would get drunk pub-hopping and imagine a fresh city; how the postwar mindset in Germany allowed this town to be a pioneer in the conceptualization of public art; how Michael Smith reminds him of Death of a Salesman, which to him is the definitive postwar American text; how the original edition of Skulptur Projekte Münster in 1977 had no women in it, sculpture then being firmly the domain of men, which was “unfortunate”; how a Westphalian journalist somehow ended up as the beekeeper in Pierre Huyghe’s work in Documenta 13 in 2012; and how he had a revelation that morning while brushing his teeth.
“This morning, when searching for toothbrush, I remembered a great quote by Theo van Doesburg during a discussion in the Bauhaus: ‘Art cannot replace a toothbrush,’ ” König said. “This is a great statement.”
Then, despite the rain, everyone mounted their bikes and off they went to see some sculpture.