“La Fin de Babylon. Mich wundert, dass ich so fröhlich bin!” – KölnSkulptur 9 at Skulpturenpark, Cologne
Andrea Büttner, Claudia Comte, Jan Kiefer, Eduardo Navarro, Solange Pessoa, Lin May SaEed, Teresa Solar, Pedro Wirz
This edition of KölnSkulptur #9 is a special one since the park commemorates its 20th birthday.
Under the title La Fin de Babylon. Mich wundert, dass ich so fröhlich bin! this edition has been curated by Chus Martínez. Eight new specific works have been produced. Following the opening, a catalogue will be published.
Do you remember the “Tales of A Thousand and One nights”? When Antoine Galland translated them into French from Arabic at the beginning of the eighteenth century, they transformed the imagination of the time. The night of the May 8, 1709, Antoine Galland made a note in his diary about an extraordinary tale the Syrian merchant Hanna Diyab had just told him: “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” That night in Paris was a dramatic one, marked by riots over food shortages. Diyab arrived in the French capital during this period and turned some of the dark nights into true storytelling sessions that changed the course of a “A Thousand and One Nights”; the tales he told were added to the translation and became world heritage through literature.
It would not be accurate to say that the commissioned works for this edition of Skulpturenpark Köln are like those tales, but the park is the perfect grounds to be inhabited by the forces of fiction. Like the character Scheherazade, the wise young woman who tells a story every night to the Sultan in order to survive, Skulpturenpark Köln is a continuous voice that recalls the possibilities we still have to survive, and it does so with art. Expect a park full of jinn (geniuses, spirits). The artworks are not magic, though they all share the idea that sensation is what fuels a new imagination of the world we live in. They all want to animate the nonhuman—nature, metal, wood, earth—and bear witness to a common territory between us and animals, plants and geological life. Though the exercise of merging the realms of the human and the nonhuman is not a metaphorical one. It is oriented towards a reflection on the inhuman, on cruelty and all the means we have to avoid it.
Search for nuts, for animals, for forms merging with the ground, for plants of the desert living in the green, for the marks of wanderers embracing the trees… Rub the park as if it were Aladdin’s magic lamp and become the jinni, the one who is able to face the survival wars that are transforming our world.
The Skulpturenpark Köln is not monumental in scale, and yet it is of enormous importance. Over the last two decades, the park has been the place, the site, and the home of sculptures created for it, for you. The title of this year’s edition of Skulpturenpark Köln—La Fin de Babylone—relates to the dream of a new beginning for culture, and therefore for society. There is no such a thing, and yet there is. On the one hand, we have the life we have, our circumstances are hard to change, our possibilities hard to manifest. And there are times when we believe the past was a better place, and others when we see the time we live in as full of possibility, openness. What determines the difference between these two perceptions is the way we feel our relative importance. Oh! You may say it is economy, but even if the economy thrives, there is no guarantee that it provides a social environment in which we feel relevant to others, influential to our community, able to celebrate and partake in the current course of events… Here, I propose a total exaggeration: to imagine that the production of these eight, new site-specific works join the already existing ones in the parcours is key to the beginning of a new world. What I ask of you is not only to walk through the park and discover the different works but to also see their existence as the wonder that may affect the world order. This is out of proportion, because so is art. And thus the second part of the title: Mich wundert, dass ich so fröhlich bin! This sentence, full of healthy humor, relates not to us but to the effort art makes to be great every time it happens. It is art and artists that produce under the assumption that it is really worth it to intervene, and add to the park not as if it is a piece of land but the whole world. This needed “exaggeration” is what motivates a thinking about the possibility of influence, which is both simple and complex. This may be the reason why the different pieces that comprise this edition are rather unmonumental.
They already embody an enormous ambition to affect the real, to touch us in such a way that every bit of skepticism of and cynicism towards the importance of art might be erased. And once liberated from the burden of doubt, we will all experience a new joy. Solange Pessoa’s sculptures are often made from soapstone. It is a metamorphical material, open to the weather, to the rain, to the sun, to the winds… To say soapstone is to say carving, since the matter is able to take control of the hand, the will to discover a form in it. Arriving from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, these new pieces add something ancient and delicate to the geology of old Europe. Abundant in Brazil, soapstone carries with it its colonial use as pavement but also its artisanal celebration in thousands of objects we may find in the markets. Their texture surely represents the biggest contrast to that of our mid-European nature. And yet, so close to the Rhine, it can be imagined that these abstract forms were shaped by nature, carved by streams. In other words, there is something antimodern in the softness and the whiteness and the formlessness of the work of Solange that refers to a sculptural tradition in materials that is literally of another lineage, another origin far away from ours. They give us the impression of having been submerged and discovered after the water has left us…
Close by, our eyes will need to search for a group of walnuts. Walnuts! They have an effect contrary to Solange’s stones: they truly belong here. It may be the reason why they are now in bronze. Eduardo Navarro has placed them here as if he would place a statue of a father of the nation on his horse. They are a monument to the trees or to the squirrels but also to us, a new way to celebrate new landmarks of the relationship between humans and nature. But I cannot help but think about a quote in a movie, “Cluny Brown” (1946) by Ernst Lubitsch: “Nobody can tell you where your place is. Where is my place? Where is anybody’s place? I’ll tell you where it is. Wherever you’re happy, that’s your place. And happiness is a matter of purely personal adjustment to your environment. You’re the sole judge. In Hyde Park, for instance. Some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels. But if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?” But look, there are more nuts in the park! Not far from Eduardo’s piece you will find a fox. “Thaealab” means fox in Arabic. It is the work, also in bronze, by Lin May Saeed. There is no point in recalling here the importance of the fox. The animal has been inhabiting the forests and the fictions of culture for centuries and represents both nature and wisdom, danger and a challenge to the coexistence of humans and nature. Like escaping from a low relief, this figure found a new life in the park, adding to it a rare dimension in urban nature. He reminds us that we are in the city, but he is also there to urge us to forget about it. Actually, he may be talking to a wanderer, and not to a visitor.
Some trees around the park are wearing a sort of a box. These intriguing narrow containers—created by Jan Kiefer—are hold by straps to the trees as if they belong there. They have a function. They contain schnapps, a liquor. Apparently, in some of the alpine routes in the high mountains of Switzerland one can find similar boxes that provide the liquor to those along the way. Independently of the benefits of alcohol in high altitudes, these are landmarks to the bonds between wanderers. Never should a bottle be empty, never a glass dirty… They are stations of friendship, connecting those who pass by with all the others, creating a group. Different from the likes and the emojis, these boxes physically mark the effort the mountains demand. But here, they introduce something wild, they want us to forget the mildness of this piece of land near the Rhine and imagine the river in the mountains…
Now wanderers and not visitors, we can become pioneers and face the cactus of Claudia Comte. They are perfect, like taken from a Western. Their green color in the desert contrasts with the arid color of the thirsty earth. Emerging in marble from the green grass of the park, they seem reassured that they do not need to cumulate water. The works of Claudia introduce a note of pop culture in the parcours. If Jan Kiefer’s piece introduced altitude, Claudia’s works offer an “inside” in the outside. Their materiality, as well as their scale and possession of form, remind us for a second that we may be inside, that we are in an art institution. The walls may have flown away, and grass may have grown on the pavement, but this is as much of a gallery or a museum as any of the buildings we have created to hold our patrimonies, collections, and temporary interpretations of art by artist.
The same is true of Pedro Wirz’s sunny-side up eggs; they have something irreverent that belongs to the way art often interacts with the institution. Don’t get me wrong: I do not believe for a second these works propose a critique of the park or signal a sense of institutional absence. On the contrary, they actually stress the fundamental transition that our institutional life is facing, the introduction of new values, new ideas of experience, a coexistence with nature and gender and race that is molding our cultural contexts, and which will become even more visible in the years to come. The park is a classic site, we are told in the face of a gigantic and friendly slug, who emerges from a slope to join the party. Teresa Solar’s piece is probably the one that embraces formlessness the most, posing a problem of scale to all other organic forms. It is almost as big as a tree.
Close by is a bowl made of colored concrete for birds to drink from conceived by Andrea Büttner. This play on scale, on figure, on organic life, is different from a modern approach to sculpture in public space. All proposals have a very human and animal scale. What unites all the works is their acknowledgement that they cannot bear a position of power inside culture. They are tamed by the embodiment of an idea of experience and emotion that introduces new parameters to the expectations we have for culture. Never in history as in the last few decades have we invested in more in cultural institutions and structures, but this infrastructural effort has diminished our expectations for art, artists, culture in all its forms to help us find ways to reintroduce virtue in our social life. Virtues are not morals and are also different from values, a notion the industry and bureaucrats use too often to name the need for more norms. But nothing is going to fall upon us, like a jinni, to make us safer or happier or influential. Those nuts on the ground are looking at us, and they are the true and only Aladdin, possessing the complexity of the cosmos and the accessibility of goodness. I forgot to tell you, inside each of these bronze shells there is a true seed.
KölnSkulptur 9 at Skulpturenpark, Cologne
until June 2019