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.

#DüsseldorfMatters

A fine English band, Teleman (a conscious play on the composer’s name) wrote a song about the most attractive, sophisticated city in Germany. And the song’s a winner, too.

Well, not really about Düsseldorf, but related to Düsseldorf. And with the city’s name as title — spelled correctly. And pronounced correctly in the song. And with some actual German inside. Not bad for a bunch of lads from perfidious Albion!

They sing other fine pop songs. I like to think of them as an Anglo-Saxon Erdmöbel.

Three Hours of Brother Theodore on Letterman

Behold Brother Theodore (g), German Jew, Düsseldorf native, Holocaust survivor, philosopher, metaphysician, podiatrist, inventor of “stand-up tragedy”, and subject of the documentary: To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore.

In the early years of David Letterman’s talk show, Letterman invited Brother Theodore to harangue and insult the audience at least once a month, and some fine man has put them all together with good picture and audio.

Watch the first five minutes, and you’ll know whether you ‘get’ Theodore’s shtick. If you do, then you’re in for 180 more minutes of unsafe, unclean fun.

German Word of the Week: Thingstätte

This GWOW amuses English-speakers because it begins with a false friend. But then it gets very German, in all senses of that word.

A ‘Thing‘, Wikipedia tells us, was “the governing assembly of an early Germanic society, made up of the free people of the community presided over by lawspeakers.” In other words, a sort of proto-parliament, usually held outdoors at a symbolic grouping of stones or large tree (perhaps a Gerichtslinde or “court linden”). There are very few records of Things left, and few ruins which can be positively identified as Thingstätte (Thing-places, pronounced approximately TING-steh-tuh). Nevertheless, they were important institutions — many Scandinavian parliaments have some form of the word “ting” in their official title.

But Germanic Thingstätte had a disturbing second life, as with so many things Germanic. The völkisch movement in Germany, and later the National Socialists, decided to revive the ancient tradition of the Thingstätte. The new versions weren’t supposed to be parliaments, but rather outdoor gathering places where the faithful could assemble to revere nature, the Germanic soul, and other nationalist topoi*.

Party groups, or the Hitler Youth, would assemble at the Thingstätte for Thingspiele, multi-disciplinary events which might feature torchlight processions, speeches by academics or ideologues, choral singing, patriotic dramas, sporting contests or similar collective celebrations of things young, healthy, vigorous, and Teutonic. Nazi-era Thingstätte in Germany — of which 400 were planned, but only 40 built, are often huge, with oval-shaped amphitheaters with seating for thousands, usually set on hilltops. This means they’re quite hard to get rid of, and still generate controversy, since they are massive and indelible reminders of the Third Reich. They attract visitors from the unsavory right-wing fringes of German society, as well as from people who want to revive ancient Germanic traditions such as Walpurgisnacht (there is some overlap between those groups, but it’s far from 100%). I once visited perhaps the most famous Thingstätte, in Heidelberg, and saw only yuppies jogging up and down its steps.

And today I just learned, from the magnificent ars publica düsseldorf** site, that Düsseldorf had its own Thingstätte, way off in Gerresheim, a working-class suburb in the eastern part of the city. It was built in 1935, partly as an employment-generating measure for World War I veterans. Now, it’s pretty much completely abandoned, and surrounded by privately-owned houses:

It included a big 220-step path up a large hill, at the top of which was a massive boulder with a memorial inscription. I bet a ruined Thingstätte would be pretty interesting to visit (after getting necessary permissions, of course), so it’s now at the top of my list of things to see and do in this endlessly-fascinating city. Continue reading “German Word of the Week: Thingstätte”

‘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.

Giant Cavernous Halls, Pointless Niches, Frozen Death-Slides

My post on German universities attracted a great comment from an insider called “Hausmeister” (building superintendent):

As someone who works in one of these and is deeply familiar with the technical building details, I doubt that they were build the way they are to save money.

– buildings tend to have large, unusable, multi-story, inside spaces that are the result of poor alignment of lecture rooms and outside features of the buildings. Huge amounts of space are wasted.

– nearly every part is completely custom. Windows, -grips, balconies, ceiling tiles etc. are all custom designs. You would think it would be cheaper to design a building around off-the shelf items and dimensions, but this hasn’t happened. Germany pioneered the DIN norms that have become the template for most of all international norms, but at the same time, we constructed buildings that did not follow any of the preferred dimensions or recommendations of these norms.

A big issue for us today, because we can’t get replacements for anything.

– a massive amount of space went into architectural statements instead of utilitarian buildings. Look at military barracks, they are build to be cheap. But this is not what German universities look like.

There are some 50s buildings that were constructed under much more severe constraints. These are utilitarian, square, have small rooms that are a bit claustrophobic, they are built cheaply – but surprisingly, they are much more pleasant to work in and still have a lot of charm.

In the 50s, no architect would have wasted space and money for the multistory pillars and the balcony in the picture above, all for a space that is already painful to look at that I cannot imagine to sit on.

Another overlooked factor is the so-called “Kunst am Bau”. Most states have laws on the books that state that a certain fraction of the building’s cost has to be spent on art.

Sounds great till you hear that this was explicitly done as a subsidy for artists with the proper political connections. There was never any requirement that this art improve the functioning of the building or make it more pleasant for the occupants. Most of it does not. There is a famous concrete car blocking a needed parking lot, ugly tiled walls, narrow walkways, sculptures blocking windows, outside concrete stairs that lead to nowhere.

These buildings are the typical outcome of socialist thinking:

– a strong hate for the existing paired with a desire to destroy and be different at any cost.

– a massive lack of talent.

– no ability to actually create anything new.

– a complete disregard of people’s needs, which were seen as far less important than making political/architectural statements.

– massive cost overruns due to incompetence and rejection of established building practices.

– primacy of politics. These buildings were primarily political statements and no one cared about the people going to be housed inside. Anyone raising obvious issues was labeled a reactionary standing in the way of progress.

– the usual graft

This all rings true for the buildings where I used to work, at the University of Düsseldorf. There 1970s buildings feature cavernous multi-story halls which remain gloomy and dark at all times (despite the windows) because they’re made of dark brown tiles and now-stained concrete. The buildings are filled with little walkways and niches which are supposed to be “inviting” places for students to hang out (doubtless this is how they were portrayed in sketches), but which nobody uses, because they’re isolated quadrangles made of uninviting concrete or brick. The “inviting” benches are literally made of brick or metal rods or concrete.

In Düsseldorf, there’s a special bonus: the main walkway which goes through the center of campus is bricked-over. This is fine in itself: it needs to survive millions of feet trampling on it. But the architects were inspired by Hundertwasser, the Austrian oddball artist and architect, who believed that humans were never meant to walk on flat surfaces, because nature is full of hills and valleys.

So the central walkway at the University of Düsseldorf is a bricked-over series of gently undulating hills and valleys. Which means that whenever it rains or especially freezes, the main walkway on campus becomes a giant frozen-over slip ‘n slide, in which you can observe dozens of students falling on their asses, or tumbling from their bikes, when they hit a slippery patch on a down-slope. Count double bonus points for all the times elderly people or people with disabilities have taken a bone-crunching fall.

All of this was totally unnecessary, because Düsseldorf is built on a flat river plain. All of the hills and valleys and stairs which turn into winter deathtraps were added artificially.

As a bonus, here’s an infamous BBC documentary on the Smithsons, a loony husband-and-wife pair of architects who inflicted many hideous Brutalist buildings on England:

The building featured in the documentary, Robin Hood “Gardens”, was finally torn down in 2014. Good riddance to bad rubbish:

 

Graphic Designers and their Goddamn Chameleons

A friend in Düsseldorf spotted this sign offering a €50 reward for the return of their veiled chameleon (which is called a ‘yemen chameleon’ in German):

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It reads “It may sound unlikely, but unfortunately, our chameleon seems to have run away.

REWARD 50 EURO.

He’s probably curled up in a corner of our apartment, but we wanted to cover every base. He’s not dangerous or poisonous, just kind of a punk.”

The little arrows next to the picture say he “likes to eat flies and crickets”,  “moves slowly and is fragile”, and has a “helpless, usually skeptical expression”.

This is what happens when you live in a city full of creative types. (1) They keep foofy-ass pets, and when they lose them, (2) painstakingly craft the most eye-catching missing posters you’ve ever seen.

In fact, I’m not sure this isn’t mainly an ingenious freelancer marketing scheme. (‘Did this missing-chameleon poster catch your eye? Wouldn’t you like your ads to do the same?’).

No-Package Store Opening in the Hood

Ah, the Brunnenstraße (Well Street) in Düsseldorf, my stomping grounds. When I moved in, this storefront contained a regular video store, complete with actual VHS tapes and an X-rated section. Then it became the late, lamented Filmgalerie (g), an upscale video rental store with a massive selection of art-house, classics, anime, and horror from across the globe. And then it was a clothing design boutique named Carmona (g). And now, it’s going to become ‘Pure Note’, a ‘packaging-free’ grocery store:

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Don’t worry, the neighborhood (Bilk) is still ‘diverse’ and ‘vibrant’ in the good way: almost 1 in 4 of the people who live here is a foreigner, like me. But the kooky young kids with their fresh ideas do liven the place up. I will post a report once the store opens.