text Ursula Panhans-Bühler
Art in /of Public Space(s)

My way to school as a ten year old led me daily through the center of Freiburg, past the Salzstrasse, by a Baroque palace where only the facade remained. I knew that next would come the rounded gate with the plump putti and their pudgy dimples on the console of the side column. Of art in public spaces I had little knowledge, though on occasion was made queerly curious by this vacant facade, likewise was the row of empty window frames, portal and putti miraculously spared. Then, at age 16 in school, we carried small folding chairs through the city and landed facing a sculpture which was located in front of the seminar building at the university: a Reclining Nude, by Henry Moore. I sketched her many times, fascinated by the repeating empty spaces, bulbous shapes and concentric lines, at the completely new type of projection it made on paper, and was proud when occasionally students and young people would look over my shoulder. It was not until much later that I learned that this was Art in Public spaces, that sometimes 2 % of funds for public buildings can be taken away from architects and given to their poor cousins the painters and sculptors.

On trips to neighboring cities, to Basel, Colmar or Strassburg, the streets and squares appealed to me, all looking untouched, something that at home was found only in small areas, those undisturbed by war. On other trips in neighboring European countries, spaces seemed to me like a single open-air museum, turned inside-out, whether museum, city hall, church, train station, restaurant, hotel or pedestrian passageway.

When I took an art-related trip to the USA, the country which catapulted half of Germany to the victorious Western side after WWII, I noticed astounding similarities to our own countryside. Conglomerations of skyscrapers, bungalows, construction sites, gas stations, empty spaces, parking lots, apartment buildings, street lamps, fire walls, fast streets, snack bars, garbage dumps. Naturally, I knew that this formless chaos was not a result of war but rather the result of market mechanism; still, the similarities were baffling.

Art on buildings found itself mostly in bleak post-war architecture, the modernity of which sometimes caused windows to be arranged as erect military columns, as a fig leaf to the banishment of painting and sculpture from the architectural ensembles of cool, rational functionalism. In the end of the 60's, Alexander Mitscherlich's book "Our Uninhabitable Cities", was an important signal, especially because the author was neither and architect nor a city planner by profession, but rather a psychoanalyst. The question was asked, which uninhabitable city picture is imprinted on our souls, and how does that effect the souls and actions of those who dwell in them. Many, having money, retreated to the countryside, to their roomy, free-standing own homes. Fortunately the engaged art historian, Heinrich Klotz, brought the debate about the new flight from public spaces to the fore, with visual examples, in his book "Die röhrenden Hirsche der Architektur" ("The Screaming Stags of Architecture"). This completed the picture of the "Deutsche Michel" (average Fritz) garden gnom as the pastoral ideal.

Art in Public Spaces appeared as ambitious architectural projects, after all, at one time architecture was the Queen of Art. At the age of 13, I came to Berlin for the first time and walked through the freshly built Hansaviertel, and found the first high rises, very American. My Berlin-born mother told me that earlier in that are, there existed just such rows of streets and buildings as in Charlottenburg, Wilmersdorf and other areas of Berlin. The perfectly manicured squares of grass disappeared for a moment and I imagined a tableau of huge cellars, electrical wires and sewers, a picture which never leaves me. The houses above them seemed nothing more than a deception. Later, I experienced how cities were cleared of war ruins and were filled with sometimes more or less impressive new buildings. When Robert Venturi began, at the beginning of Postmodernism with his ideas and diagnostic of Collage City, I thought it is actually regrettable that the still-standing ruins, the large houses of large cities, are not renovated with modern collage pieces integrated into the whole. Surely such a connection to history would produce many unpleasant memories but perhaps such a material connection, Art in Public Space, would help in others. In the 90's, the renovations in Berlin-Mitte were coupled with tradition which, by demolishing history, produced a look as if nothing had happened. Architects were required to simulate original street traffic, the height of the "Traufhöhe" (eaves), stonework on the facades and window-shapes, in order to preserve that which had been long been forgotten. This was a regressive conservatism, one which brought Rem Koolhaas, then on the jury of the planning of Potsdamer Platz, to angrily and rightly remove himself from the commission.

The 60's led artists to a paradigm change, and also brought a period of self-doubt, a new post-war understanding of Art in Public Spaces, namely Art 'on' Buildings. The restrictions on artists to produce Art on Buildings was fed to them as if they would benefit from the generous social help. Art itself went beyond the classical boundaries of painting and sculpture. Happenings, Actions, Performances, "Fluxus concerts", Installations and Environments first took place in closed interior spaces such as concert halls and exhibition halls. Next, artists began to re-think the exhibition space and the venue of their products. The classic White Cube, museum or gallery, was brought into question as spiritually and physically inappropriate. Because of their closed interior spaces, factories became popular venues, even if they had just been cleared of production materials, as did open-air venues. Land Art and Earthworks demanded their audiences to take long trips to otherwise neglected locations. The civilized entropy was identified in New Monuments, according to Robert Smithson in his "Monuments of Passaic", neglected industrial conveyor belts with which Roman ruins appeared to have nothing in common. Joseph Beuys initiated in the 70's the project of a "Stadtverwaldung statt — verwaltung" (City planting instead of city planning) and layered 7000 basalt blocks during the 100 day "documenta" art exhibition, first as a rocky pile on the huge Exerzierplatz in front of the Friedericianum, and later to accompany the newly planted oak trees in the inner city.

Art in Public Spaces distanced itself partially from the idea of permanence. Disruptive transitory presence was realized in autonomous group projects or in institutionally planned art forms in which many connected artists participated from a distance. In Berlin in the late 80's, a project was realized on each side of the Wall, in which a group of internationally renowned artists were invited to explore the idea of historical memory in the city. In East Berlin, Christian Boltanski found an empty space of ruins between two apartment buildings and placed on the side walls the names of its former occupants and professions. The "Skulpturenprojekt Münster" brings art very directly into the public every 10 years, even though most of it will be or should be removed shortly thereafter. The zoo-like post-war open-air museum for sculpture was brought back and spread about the city. In many cities, such projects are being emulated and imitated, such as in Hamburg.

Since the beginning of civil life, art has led an uncertain existence having been tolerated, celebrated, fought against, instrumentalised, recognized, criticized, and admired but never simply considered a piece of reality and yet at the same time is its reflection, as in earlier times. This split between Avantgarde and Affirmation always presents itself anew - not by chance Marcel Broodthaers fought the "vector of decor(ation), in which the art establishment tries to consent the art, a strategy which the art doesnt refuse itself eo ipso as art. That artists often bristle against a monument in public spaces, is a new quality that makes public spaces considered more seriously than ever before.

At the same time, the borders between private and public space are being reconsidered, in that there are now choices between not only open space or museum, but also between public and private space. Jan Hoet's project in Ghent in the 80's, "Chambers d'amis", invited artists to exhibit in rooms of the city's private houses, opened to the public once a week. The art worked so at a sensitive interface. Would the curiosity about private rooms pulled spectators into the exhibits for the first time? Should the right to art and communication about it be promoted in this way? At any rate finds this project meanwhile imitation in smaller, more intimate places; whether the standard is yet established is questionable. The displacement of openess shows, the need to oppose the interference(s) and thereby use the potential of art.

The claim on public space has two sides, material and symbolic, and how it is filled and experienced and also permanently changed on both levels. The question of preservation, the defense and reconstruction of the urbane allows us to connect the questions of Art In Public Space with Art as Public Space. This should be no argument for the old fetish of the complete works (Gesamtkunstwerk). A formed room in which social form is established and developed can, as a prosaic goal of its blandness, give back to art its many-sided place and function. Art would then be truly a piece of reality and this precisely in public space.


Ursula Panhans-Bühler
from: Art in /of Public Space(s)
(Kunst im/des öffentlichen Raum/s)
A contribution to the weltfragen Europabuch
Berlin 2001

© Panhans-Bühler 2001


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