The Nieheim Sack Museum (Home of the SackSmacker) and its Bitter Rival, ‘FlourWorlds’

Let me start this post with cliché: Germans like to collect, organize, and classify things. If you have a problem with this “stale cliché”, then you’re at the wrong blog. Here, we fully embrace the science, which shows that most clichés have a sound basis in reality. Besides, calling an observation about some social group a stale cliché is itself a stale cliché. Touché, bitches.

If you’re still with me, I’d like to highlight one of the most delightful fruits of the German passion for organization and preservation: ludicrously specific museums. Today, it’s the Nieheim Sack Museum (g), located in the no-doubt-charming 6,250-person town of Nieheim in Westfalen, Germany. Located in a handsome red-brick former agricultural products warehouse, the museum promises entry into “the world of old and new sacks”. Here are just some of the back-to-back stacks of slack sacks you can admire:

But sacks are only the tip of the seed-storage iceberg, so to speak. There are also exhibits devoted to sack-making, sack repair, and even a Sackausklopfmaschine: A “sack-smacking” machine.

There’s also a local history museum run by the local-history group (the Heimatverein), and a historical kitchen, in which you can take “cheese seminars” and learn how to make local Nierheimer cheese. The Nieheim Sack Museum also landed a curatorial coup when convinced the nearby Westfälisches Kulinarium to host a permanent exhibit devoted to the local cheese.

Nieheim may seem like a rural idyll, but there’s trouble in paradise. You would think Germany is far too small to host two sack-related museums, but you’d be wrong. So very wrong. Hundreds of kilometers to the east, just a decade after the Nieheim Sack Museum was summoned into being, another sack museum (g) was created, in Wittenburg. This new museum is devoted to flour sacks.

But does this museum call itself what it is — a sack museum? Oh no. Not by a long shot. You see, this museum has a “curatorial concept based on the experience of flour”, whatever the f**k that means. You can tell by its name: MehlWelten — “FlourWorlds”. The museum opens with a work of art made from a flour sack. Then you move into the “SymbolRoom”:

This isn’t just a bunch of flour sacks. This is an interpellation — an interrogation, if you will — of the Deleuzian/Guattarian “assemblage” which problematizes the synthetic and contested crux of commerce, banality, food, and anguish. “FlourWorlds” even has a “sackotheque”:

A “sackotheque”, for Chrissake. The Wittenburg Flour Sack Museum — oh sorry, I meant “FlourWorlds”, also has its own English-language website, a sure sign that city folk with too much book-larnin’ are involved.

Now, I don’t want to sound too jaundiced here. Let a thousand sack museums bloom, I say! But if I had to choose between one of the two sack museums, I think I’m going to go with the one which has the simple honesty to call itself what it is: a sack museum. Nieheim, here I come!

German Word of the Week: Retortensiedlung

A while ago, I needed to get a document from one of the “citizens’ offices” (Bürgerbüros) in Düsseldorf. There are about ten of them. You request an appointment online, and get pointed to whichever office can give you an appointment the soonest. This time, it was in the neighborhood of Garath.

Yes, Garath. At the mention of these two syllables, Düsseldorfers will hear ominous string music — or perhaps a song from a band with a name like Nahkampf or Erschießungskommando.

Garath is a neighborhood at the very southern tip of Düsseldorf, a 13-minute S-Bahn ride from the center. It’s the dark-gray bit in this map of Düsseldorf. Its basic design was laid out inLage im Stadtgebiet 1959 by the notorious (and notoriously auto-friendly) Düsseldorf architect and city planner Friedrich Tamms (think of him as the Robert Moses of Düsseldorf) as a planned community of medium-rise apartment buildings, 8000 apartments capable of housing 30,000 people. Because it was largely a designed community, critics call it a Retortensiedlung — a test-tube town, as opposed to a neighborhood which grew up organically. Tamms’ plan, with many modifications and additions, was realized in stages during the 1960s and 1970s. The overall style was mild Brutalism, described (g) as an “explicitly solid and respectable style which affords no room for architectural experiments or reforms.” In other words, cheap buildings for workers.

Today, Garath is a solidly working-class section of Düsseldorf. It’s mostly white, with a percentage of foreigners of only 12.5% (g), well under the city’s average of 19.2%. There seemed to be a strong Eastern European and Russian presence — they wouldn’t affect the foreigner percentage, since many of them would be Russians or East Europeans of German descent (g), who are entitled to German citizenship.

Garath has a reputation as one of the social burning points of Düsseldorf, a cluster of sterile pre-planned buildings stuffed with the resentfully unemployed. There are stories of rabid football fans, right-wing violence, mass fistfights, urine-soaked undergrounnd passages, the whole nine yards. But people from Garath tend to be loyal to it. It ain’t fancy, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous or desolate as its reputation. People know each other and help each other, and there’s plenty of green space and even a small castle (g).

Garath city center is like a small throwback to the idea of a socialism-infused, egalitarian model of German society. There are large paved squares with benches where local day-drinkers can soak up the sun:

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There are also funky small modular orange shops under the train overpass, looking as if they were plucked straight from 1974. One of them houses the “Altschlesische Speisekammer” (The Old Silesian Pantry), a which sells Polish food, including delectable sausage:

There’s a bunch of government offices right next to the main train station, and right next door, a “Leisure Center”, made of modest red brick, where people can go spend time for free, or at least a modest fee. This building was designed by Olaf Jacobson in 1974. It’s made of interlocking cubes of different sizes stacked on top of and next to one another, faced in handsome red-brick. Inside, pathways lead from one modular cube to the next, creating interesting, inviting spaces.

When I stopped by the auditorium, there was a group of at least 80 old ladies settling into their seats for some sort of concert. The local library branch is located inside the building, and offers this inviting reading nook:

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On the side of the leisure center is a quote from Heine about Old Düsseldorf’s funky nooks and crannies:

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Of course, there’s an ice-cream parlor:

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And a little bit of urban decay:

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But also delectable fruits right across from it:

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And a bar next to the train station with this oddly charming…whatever it is:

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And is there public art? Yes, the “Sunwheel” by Friedrich Becker, erected in 1976 (obviously):

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Behind it you can see the housing blocks typical of Garath. They’re nothing special, but at least they’re not Corbusian nightmares. Facing the train tracks, there’s “Countdown”, by Hans-Albert Walther:

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There’s too much concrete in the heart of Garath, a common problem with 1960s and 1970s town planning. But still, there are some interesting buildings, and a bit of funky pre-planned quasi-socialist charm. Infinitely worse things have come out of test tubes.

Itten’s Enemas, or: Bauhaus Kooks

I’m reading James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia, an erudite broadside against the International Style and Brutalism in 20th-century architecture. One of the many refreshing things the book does is provide a non-hagiographical account of the Bauhaus. When I was growing up, it seemed that Bauhaus was universally revered as the most important design movement of Modernism, if not in all of human history. A famous band named themselves after it! Young female Bauhaus students looked so ahead of their time!

Bildergebnis für bauhaus girls

Bauhaus’ progenitors were described in hushed, reverential tones, and their many glaring faults ignored. (Nobody mentioned, for instance, that Ludwig Miës van der Rohe was born plain old Ludwig Mies, and added the diacritics and extra words out of pure affectation.)

Curl is having none of that. He acknowledges Bauhaus’ many achievements, but also holds it responsible for many of the most regrettable aspects of 20th century architecture: sandwich-like buildings with horizontal windows, flat roofs, a puritanical ban on ornamentation, soulless prefabricated cubic “machines for living”, etc.

And he points out that many people associated with Bauhaus were, not to put too fine a point on it, kooks. Case in point, Johannes Itten (from pp. 94-95):

He was a devotee of Mazdaznan, one of a great many mystical or quasi-religious cults that flourished in Germany at the time. It was related to the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, and therefore tentatively associated with Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (though any connection with the philosopher’s ideas was hopelessly corrupted). It held that the world was a warzone between good and evil, and that what is perceived as reality is really only a veil that hides a higher existence that can only be achieved by rigorous physical and mental exercises, a vegetarian diet (featuring huge doses of garlic), fasting, and regular enemas. Mazdaznan macrobiotic dishes became de rigueur in the Bauhaus canteen, and some students adopted Itten’s garb (a loose robe) and shaved their heads.

Some, of course, regarded him as a saintly figure, but many, probably more accurately, saw him as a charlatan. Itten would accept students on his ‘intuitive judgement’ without even looking at work or asking questions. One of the many problems that emerged from this régime in malnourished, bankrupted, demoralized, defeated Germany, was that dishes like the garlic paste insisted upon by Itten caused students to look rather ill, with grey-green skin: furthermore, apart from the enemas, peculiar rituals such as ‘purification of the body’ involved pricking the skin and anointing it with oils, so that the pin-pricked areas began to suppurate: resultant infections caused illnesses.

The Langen Foundation Museum by Tadao Ando

Easter is a four-day weekend in Germany, so it was time for Art. I biked to the Langen Foundation, a splendid little museum on the outskirts of Neuss, just west of Düsseldorf. It’s part of a loose network of cultural organizations in the area which includes the Museum Insel Hombroich, the Raketenstation, a former NATO missile base converted into an artists’ colony, and the newest addition, a small ‘Sculpture Hall‘ created by the Düsseldorf artists Thomas Schütte to display his and others’ works. These cultural institutions are all housed in small, carefully-designed buildings scattered around farmers’ fields and meadows.

The Langen Foundation houses art — mainly Japanese — collected over decades by businessman Viktor Langen and his wife Marianne. They commissioned a building from the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who is known for his minimalist designs in concrete and glass. The building consists of a long, narrow, enclosed exhibition space above ground, with two large halls built underground. It’s all in rectilinear, unfinished concrete, surrounded by a carapace of glass. The lines are crisp and clear, almost clinical. It’s a building that discreetly steps out of the way, so that your attention can rest squarely on the art inside.

The current exhibition begins with the installation ‘Japan Diary’ by the Düsseldorf artist Anne Pöhlmann (g), documenting a 2017 fellowship (g) in Japan. She combines photographs, designs, and textiles, some hung on the wall, some draped over plinths on the ground. The exhibition proper features Japanese art from the collection: a few sculptures and lacquered objects, but mostly silk scrolls and screens with landscapes, still lives, and portraits of the Buddha and various deities. Many are extremely well-preserved, with colors that still pop.

They’re presented without any identification, which is typical of the curatorial style in this “cultural area” (the Museum Insel Hombroich also has no identification next to the works). Most of the scrolls are hung directly on the wall, without any guardrails or glass, allowing you to get quite close to them and inspect the details. It’s this intimacy which marks all the museums and galleries in the area. You have to seek them out, which means they attract a more sedate and sophisticated kind of visitor. There’s no intrusive security or announcements or loud tour groups or bored children.

The Langen Foundation is one of the many discreet jewels of cultural life in and around Düsseldorf. And if you go there by bike, you’ll ride next to the picturesque Erft canal.

Langen Foundation General View of EntranceLangen Foundation Side AisleLangen Foundation Detail of 'Japan Diary' by Anne PöhlmannLangen Foundation Detail of 'Japan Diary' by Anne Pöhlmann Rocks05-Langen Foundation Detail of 'Japan Diary' by Anne Pöhlmann Girl Making GesturesLangen Foundation Interior View from Second StoryLangen Foundation Detail of Landscape PaintingLangen Foundation Abstract TreeLangen Foundation Painting PersimmonsLangen Foundation WaxwingsLangen Foundation PeacockLangen Foundation - Ogata Korin, Chrysanthemums and Bush Clover by a RiverLangen Foundation Elephants Supporting the BuddhaLangen Foundation Portrait of the BuddhaLangen Foundation Interior View with LionLangen Foundation Death of the Buddha Detail Distraught MonksLangen Foundation Death of the Buddha Detail Distraught Dog(?) Offering FlowerLangen Foundation Death of the Buddha Detail Tiger and Leopard Offering FlowerLangen Foundation Statue of Buddha with Radiant Crown and Wish-Granting JewelLangen Foundation Detail of DeerLangen Foundation Lion and ScrollsLangen Foundation Approach Path

 

 

Ars Publica Düsseldorf

Düsseldorf is a an art town, and has a long history at the forefront of artistic innovation, from the Düsseldorf School of painting in the 1830s and 1840s to the Expressionist circle around the portly patroness ‘Mother Ey‘ to the ZERO movement and, of course, Josef Beuys, who for years was a professor of ‘monumental sculpture’ at the Düsseldorf Art Academy.

So you would expect Düsseldorf to be stuffed to bursting with museums and art galleries, and it is. You might also expect plenty of art in public spaces, and you’ll find that, too. You wander through the city and see a saint in a corner niche, a giant blue lock hanging from the side of a 19th-century pile, a massive, hideous bronze with scenes from city’s history, a field filled with clocks, or an equestrian statue. And you may ask yourself: Who created these things? Not all of them are identified by plaques or signs — and that’s especially true of the older artworks found in churches or in modest middle-class neighborhoods.

But now there’s a book that explains everything, and I mean everything, about every piece of public art in Düsseldorf. I’m referring to this gigantic 3-volume compendium: Ars Publica Düsseldorf (g), which I recently bought:

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Local graphic designer Wolfgang Funken devoted 5 years to the research for this massive project, visiting dozens of artists in their ateliers, combing through dusty archives, tracking down historic photographs, and following works of art as they were moved from place to place accommodate a changing cityscape. It’s truly a labor of love, and a beautiful thing, laid out with elegance and precision and richly illustrated.

Funken provides much more than dates, though: he delves into the unique history of each work: who commissioned it, how much it cost, which techniques were used, what its symbolism signifies, how it was received by the public, whether it was denounced or destroyed during the Nazi era, what controversies it evoked, what rumors and myths and superstitions have grown up around it. There’s something surprising and fascinating on every page.

To his credit, Funken goes far beyond the big prestige projects well-known to every city dweller, to explore the humble, the local, the often-overlooked. Curious who created that strangely expressive wooden pieta in your local church? Funken found out. How about the tiny sculpture of the little girl with the goose in a workers’ housing settlement from the early 20th century? That has its own entry. Why does there seem to be a big piece missing from the “Fairy Tale Well?” Funken tracked down the whole story. To call this a labor of love is an understatement.

The book appears to have had a limited print run, and is now hard to find (I picked up a copy at the local city archive). However, Funken has created a website (g) devoted to the project. There are categories for new pieces which were created after the book’s publication in 2013, for “works which have disappeared”, for “unsolved puzzles”, cemeteries, memorial plaques, religious works, and background stories and reminiscences from some of the many artists he personally visited during the course of the book. There’s even a section devoted to “magical places and trees”.

It’s all in German, of course. If I had unlimited time, I would translate it all into English as a labor of love about a labor of love, but I have to earn a living. Nevertheless, I will pick some of the most interesting stories from the book and website and blog about them here in the coming months.

‘New Metallurgists’ at the Julia Stoschek Collection

One of the many advantages of life in one of the world’s most cultured cities is that, in addition to the ‘official’ public museums and galleries run by the city, there are dozens of exquisitely-run, professional-standard small private museums and galleries to explore.

When Julia Stoschek inherited millions from her family’s auto-parts business, she did what many wealthy Germans do: she began collecting art, focusing on contemporary video and installation art — or, as the promotional material for the collection puts it, “time-based” art. By all accounts, she’s a thoughtful and dedicated connoisseur (or is it connoisseuse?).

Just over ten years ago, she converted a former factory built in 1907 (g) in the tony suburb of Oberkassel to house her collection, with a nod to Beuys at the entrance.

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Oberkassel, with typical Gründerzeit townhouses and a signature Düsseldorf gas lamp

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You’re missing an ‘e’ there, but we forgive you ‘cuz you art good

The Julia Stoschek Collection is open to the public for free every Sunday. It has a theater in the basement for showing art films and films about art, and several exhibition floors designed for video installations. Some of the rooms are open, others are closed inside glass walls to limit sonic bleedover and enable better concentration. This means views within the museum offer layered reflections of several different pieces at once:

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The current exhibition is ‘New Metallurgists’, featuring recent works by Chinese artists.

The reference to metallurgy is derived from some bit of Deleuze/Guattari foofaraw which need not detain us further.

Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’m rarely impressed by contemporary Chinese art. Too often, it combines an obligatory shout-out to China’s Rich Cultural Heritage™ with a cheeky reference to contemporary ‘social issues’. Yang Yongliang‘s traditional landscapes speckled with building cranes and half-finished housing developments, for instance, or basically anything by Ai Weiwei. Snarky juxtaposition only takes me so far. Maybe it’s the German in me, but art doesn’t get its hooks into me unless it has a seam of the ineffable/oneiric/eerily sublime buried in it somewhere.

Some of pieces in ‘New Metallurgists’ don’t get far beyond the snarky juxtaposition, for instance a piece tracking the many interim owners of a mid-sized airplane scattered about the globe, or an three-part video display tracking hundreds of players in a World of Warcraft game.

Other pieces were less on the nose. Fang Di was represented by three cheeky, trippy works the length and style of music videos, the most interesting of which was Triumph in the Skies, in which three cyborg flight attendants with creamy, soft plastic sex-doll faces cavort in a sort of post-apocalyptic cave bar.

Warm Spell by Shen Xin is a 35 minute long (many of the works are around this length) exploration of a Thai tourist resort, stripped of all conventional narrative. The effects of mass tourism are hinted at, but the film is mostly an moistly atmospheric, meandering, hypnotic exploration of jungle, sea, and people working. There is a bit of narration, in broken English and Thai, by a native, some of which is translated, some of which isn’t. Other pieces that caught my eye were the 9-minute Ecdysiast Molt (what a title!) by Yao Quingmei, an impossible-to-categorize work in which an amateur choir sings and recites odd bits of philosophy and song while a traffic cop seems to guide an ecdysiast (striptease artist, that is) through her performance.

And then there were two pieces by Wang Tuo, the most interesting being Smoke and Fire, which juxtaposes an elliptical portrayal of a migrant worker’s revenge killing filmed in color with grainy black-and-white interludes depicting fragments of Chinese revenge and ghost stories. It all hangs together, and falls apart, in an agreeably dreamlike way.

Overall many sharp, provocative pieces in an interesting space. It seems churlish to complain about a free museum, but the bare benches in many of the rooms were too uncomfortable to sit on for the longer pieces, and the headphones were too loud, although that might have been the artists’ specification.