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.

Fine Buildings, High Culture, No Excuses, No Regrets

Martin Kettle, who proudly calls himself a Germanophile, expresses his admiration in the Guardian for the new Elbphilharmonie (Philharmonia on the Elbe River) concert hall in Hamburg:

[I]n Hamburg on Wednesday evening a substantial part of official Germany – and surely everyone in the city itself – turned out in force for the opening of the dazzling Elbphilharmonie concert hall stretching high into the heavens in the former port district. Germany’s president Joachim Gauck made a witty speech, chancellor Angela Merkel, Hamburg-born before her family emigrated to communist East Germany, sat in the front row of the stalls. The mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz (a social democrat opposed to Merkel), glowed with civic pride….

For sure, Germany is far too deferential for the British taste. It is too respectful, polite, orderly, above all too serious. At times, including in the course of my visit for the Elbphilharmonie opening, even I, a Germanophile, wanted to have a bit more naughtiness and surprise in the proceedings. And no British arts organisation would put seven white men on stage to conduct a press conference about a huge project – the way the Elbphilharmonie did this week – with not a woman nor a black face in sight. On social media, there is this week, certainly, a strong undercurrent of hostility to the Hamburg opening, and the amount of public money it has taken is eyewatering. But the fact remains that Germany’s readiness to spend on a project such as the Elbphilharmonie, though often controversial on matters like cost and the environment, is ultimately a unifying force.

The civic pride and pleasure now that the concert hall is finally up and running was palpable. The tickets are all sold out for the next six months. The aim is that every child in Hamburg will get to a concert within the first year of the opening. The hall has already had half a million visitors before the first notes (by Benjamin Britten, as it happens) were heard in the opening concert, broadcast live on German television.

…But the truth is we don’t care, not enough. Maybe Germany cares too much. But I’d rather care too much than too little. And it really is a stunner of a building in a city that it’s a joy to get to know.

Amen, brother. This is what makes living in Germany a delight: livable cities with bold, interesting architecture and thriving cultural scenes. German politicians all more or less agree that high culture is an end in itself. It is not open to debate whether the state should fund it. They know that many people find it elitist and a waste of tax money, but it has to continue.*

High culture cannot survive without subsidies either from the state or from private donors. And its existence benefits everyone, whether they understand that or not. So Hamburg spends millions to build a glorious new concert hall. And at the other end of the scale, municipal arts councils dole out grants and commissions here and there to small bookstores, avant-garde theater groups, nature education programs for children, jazz clubs, charity projects, and artists of all kinds. Of course there's some corruption and waste here, what government program doesn't have that? But overall, most of the money goes where it's supposed to, and keeps interesting things happening.

It all adds up, and has a subtle, but profound overall effect. This is why I love living in Germany.

* And yes, as Kettle suggests, the audience for classical music in Germany is lily-white, and German orchestras, like orchestras in North America, are 80% white, 20% Asian. Europeans and Asians are just more likely than other ethnicities to find classical music appealing, and to invest huge amounts of time and money learning to play it and building an infrastructure for it. And since they created it and still have a leading role in propagating it, they're going to spend their money to ensure that it survives. And they're not going to apologize or listen to lectures. This is their culture, and they're going to celebrate it.

And you know what? Even fairly progressive Germans generally don't complain about the 'lack of diversity' in classical music. Sure, they will celebrate it when (non-Asian) minorities succeed in the classical realm. They'll also be sure to listen to all sorts of music from other cultures, from samba to Noh to gamelan to Carnatic. But they aren't pushing to force 'diversity' upon the overwhelmingly white classical establishment. They enjoy experiencing other high cultures because they enjoy their own. They have respect for the noblest achievements of other cultures because they admire their own noblest achievements. As the Lady in the Radiator said, "you've got your good things, and I've got mine".

And German high culture is, in turn, admired and respected across the world. Something most Brits and Americans, obsessed as they are on the controversial Austrian statesman, are unaware of.

Street Art is Over. And So Is Berlin.

Every time I visit Berlin, which I do every few months, it seems a bit lamer and tawdrier. More and more of the dopier kind of tourists, more signs of social decay (beggars, madmen screaming at nothing, fights, vandalism, subway stenches, puke puddles), more chain stores. Don't get me wrong; it's still an interesting place, but the 'there' that was there is fading fast. In fact, Berlin's cachet is fading right in sync with street art's cachet. Take it away, Alex Cocotas:

I first visited Berlin in March 2008. The highlight of my trip was the Alternative Berlin Tour. I found the flyer in my hostel; it described itself as an “anti-tourist tour.”

…[T]he tour lasted more than eight hours. We visited artists’ studios in the Tacheles building; we illegally mounted a section of the Berlin Wall; we broke into an abandoned prison and climbed onto the roof to watch the sunset.

Along the way we stopped at numerous street art installations. They were everywhere: on walls, on sheered sides of buildings, wrapping around whole apartment complexes: colorful, political, irreverent. I had never seen anything like it. I took tens of terrible photos to show family and friends.

A few years later Exit Through the Gift Shop came out and suddenly everyone with a stencil and spray paint thought they were Banksy, and social media gave aspirants a platform to distribute their work globally with the meme as their conceptual framework. But at the time, it was pretty unique: a city draped in public art to brighten the day of pedestrians and residents, to give fresh stimulus to dull buildings.

Every time I stumble upon one of these murals or buildings I am always a bit amazed to find this fugitive artifact of memory disinterred from the phantasmagoria of impression. What then seemed so radical is now in the most generic and sterilized neighborhoods of Berlin, places I try my best to avoid. The Tacheles building, which I returned to after the tour and where I happened upon an impromptu concert in an artist’s studio that shocked my somewhat provincial perception of things, now sits empty, awaiting demolition and conversion to condominiums.

Street art was “discovered” and now covers every city with pretensions to cool. Developers use it to raise real estate prices; some artists are happy to go along, others keep their distance. What once appeared as semi-anonymous benevolence on the part of its creators now seems like an intentional act of brand building. Much street art I see today operates at the nexus of tired clichés and exhausted ideas. It sadly waits for someone to take its picture, unable to conceal its lack of joy and hollow origins.

And now it has been institutionalized by Berlin’s city government as the “Berlin Street Art Festival,” undoubtedly the brainchild of some mid-level bureaucrat tasked with dreaming up schemes to financially capitalize on Berlin’s accrued social capital.

 

Ulm Minster “Coated in Urine and Vomit” Thanks to German Videophobia

Piss

The Washington Post reports on the Ulm Minster:

The spire atop Ulm Minster, the world’s tallest church, juts 530 feet into the air above the German city for which it is named. In its 639th year, however, the Gothic structure could be laid low by a gross and unfortunate hazard: Too many revelrous Germans are ducking into the church’s alcoves to relieve their full bladders and queasy stomachs against the ancient walls.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on it for half a year now and, once again, it’s coated with urine and vomit,” Michael Hilbert, head of the local building preservation agency, told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Those charged with maintaining the building, like Hilbert, worry that abrasive chemicals in the bodily fluids are abrading the sandstone blocks that form the church’s foundation. Making matters worse, the potential damage to the stone comes after the church recently completed an expensive renovation….

To stanch the flow of expelled waste, police patrols have increased in the area. Ulm also doubled city fines for public urination to 100 euros, or $110.

But neither the increased fines nor the extra patrols appear to have curbed the acidic eliminations. (Most sandstones are able to weather acids, like those in acid rains, without significant damage, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Certain sandstone types, however, contain carbonate cements that dissolve when exposed even to weak acids.)

This is another instance of the curious German aversion to video surveillance. Like nuclear power, inflation, and debt, Germans have an intense cultural aversion to video surveillance. This is largely explained by the Nazi excesses in monitoring the population, as well as the European culture of privacy, which gives you rights over your own image, even in public. But these legitimate concerns are endlessly exaggerated and hyped in public discussions here, so that there is an organized lobby against video surveillance even where it would be a cheap, obvious, and effective way to solve serious problems.

As here. This is not a hard case. Just set up a bunch of obvious video surveillance cameras and signs where the problem is worst. Post images of the offenders online.

The predictable riposte from Green Party members, the most strident opponents of video surveillance, is that this won't stop everybody from pissing on the church. I've heard this argument literally hundreds of times from Green Party member about virtually every proposed expansion of government or police power. 

One of the strange defects in German debate culture is that almost nobody makes the obvious counter-argument to the Greens: that a measure doesn't have to be 100% successful to be worth doing. We have laws against murder, yet murders happen nevertheless. Some people will still piss on the church after the cameras are installed, but there will be many fewer of them. Perhaps the cameras might catch people who are engaged in innocent activity (although what that might be is a bit hard to imagine). Of course, nobody would see these images except the people who monitor the camera feeds.

The idea that this miniscule infringement of the privacy of people who know they are in a public space outweighs the importance of preserving the world's architectural heritage is, frankly, ludicrous. I'd be willing to bet that all the privately-owned businesses within a kilometer of the Ulm Minster already have video surveillance. The notion that a masturbation video emporium (g) in Ulm can manage to protect itself, while one of the world's greatest Gothic churches cannot, is, well, beyond ludicrous.

Grow up, Germany. We're counting on you.

Iceland’s Comfy Jesus

While we're on the subject of Iceland, a Facebook pal writes: "a friend of mine traveled extensively through the country and came across this fresco of a tanned male supermodel Jesus in a woolen turtleneck sweater. In comparison to this vision of The Utter Beyond, Michelangelo's Last Judgment or Bernini's St. Theresa just evaporate into insignificance. I name it Comfy Jesus:"

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Let’s Draw Better Swastikas!

A Syrian refugee in Bingen, Germany set fire to the migrant shelter where he lived, and spray-painted a few swastikas to mislead the police:

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You call that a swastika? Pathetic.

Take it from me: The secret to spray-painting swastikas is to spray the central cross first. If you're aiming for authenticity, tilt it 45 degrees to make an 'X' — that's now the Nazis did it. Then you simply add some hooks at 90-degree angles. Bingo! It's not called a 'hook-cross' (Hakenkreuz) in German for nothing.

I'll be expecting much better work from now on, Kameraden.