Social Sculpture

Andreas Hapkemeyer

The idea of ‘social sculpture’ that Joseph Beuys developed in the 1960s is one of the most momentous innovations in art in the second half of the 20th century. It meant that the emphasis in modern art moved from the traditional focus of art, namely the artistic object, and towards social processes that take on the status of art. The thought process behind this change, which was already developed around 1920 in Soviet times, was that the greatest work of art was a renewed, fairer and substantially creative society. According to this the artist is no longer someone who lives separately and subjectively but rather someone who uses his creativity to establish the new society together with many others.

One artist who is practicing the idea of social sculpture in a radical manner today is Jochen Gerz.  His approach is that people in a world based on the division of labour delegate the functions of art and creativity to the artist, who acts on their behalf. By buying the objects that he produces the customer participates indirectly in the creativity, imagination, spirit of adventure, sensitivity etc. that the artist has invested in the object. Gerz works on turning this relationship around. He sees the artist’s function in activating the observer and bringing him out of his observing passivity to put him in the role of the player.  The artist has the role of the stimulator or producer; he provides a framework in which the former observers become players – or artists.

We live in a time in which works refer increasingly to the peripheral, subjectivist positions of individual artists. Despite all the economic successes of art on the market and in art museums it is impossible to overlook the gulf between (avant garde) art and the general public. This is where Gerz, or an artist who works in a similar manner, comes into play as he does not direct his initiatives only to an expert audience but rather consciously to a public that is far removed from museums and art. The aim is to activate a person’s creativity so they become co-authors in this concept.

This is also the starting point for artists like Hannes Egger, who comes from a philosophy background. The aim is to communicate with exhibition visitors but also time after time with people outside the artistic context. Egger is certainly not concerned with objects that act as a kind of document for actions that have been carried out, even if these are created again and again. Thus, for example, his four-day event ‘Krisenrezepte – Rezepte gegen die Krise’ (‘Crisis recipes – recipes against the crisis’) from August 25th to 29th, 2009 included discussions with some selected personalities that were held in a public gallery room during a meal of home-made food and in the presence of visitors. The subject of the discussions was the economic crisis, which was on everyone’s lips at that time; the discussions were supposed to lead to possible (individual) proposals for a solution. The location was Galerie Prisma (Bozen), which had been transformed for several weeks from a presentation room for works of art into a production and research space under the title ‘KunstLab’. On the last day of the event there was a wild herb exhibition during which everyone gathered plants in an area close to the gallery and later came together to cook and eat them.

The presence of some visitors who sat together at the table and expressed their thoughts lifted the event out of the private sphere and into the public sphere. A photographic (and acoustic) document aims to produce the relic-like objects as references to the processes. There are no systematic recordings of the discussions but there are scraps of paper with individual statements, which are stuck to a wall and then photographed there. This partial documentation makes it clear that the actual centre of works like this lies in the action, in the passing moment, in the experiences of those who participated. Art has moved away from the object and back into the person.

It was also in 2009 – for South and North Tyrol the commemorative year for the freedom struggle in 1809 – that the work ‘Fühlst Du Dich frei?’ (‘Do you feel free?’) was realised. Eggs with a height of more than half a metre were set up in various cultural locations, including in the Museion in Bolzano, each of which with a slit in the top into which people could post their answer to this question. Initially the work comprised the act of reflection that each person underwent in order to participate. The collection of answers/messages then in a way represents the materialisation of this process. Hannes Egger sums up that the answers often associated a feeling of freedom with trips into the mountains.

An event like ‘MARK – Pissing dog’ goes back to 2009; in 2010 there were the ‘Aktionstage Politische Bildung – Lana’ (‘Political education event days – Lana’), which also included a contribution by Egger under the title ‘Solidarität und Zivilcourage’ (‘Solidarity and civil courage’) in the form of a table. This table, which can be borrowed from the artist for events, is intended as a point where social processes are crystallised. I could continue this list of events. But what are the decisive factors when it comes to the success or failure of the events? It doubtless begins with the formulation of the question by the artist: is it clear and provocative enough to raise the interest of potential participants? With which emphasis and with the help of which media (newspaper, radio, leaflets, word of mouth…) can the artist draw attention to his project? If the first point is conceptual then the second is organisational. This is where the participant’s role begins: do they feel they are being addressed? How seriously do they take the question or the topic? How much time are they willing to invest? For the second part the artist is at the mercy of his public. Only the third section returns again to the artist: he must evaluate the reaction of his public, whereby he cannot falsify the nature of the answers in the interest of his own event – even if the containers he set up as part of a public work contained mostly garbage rather than serious answers. In contrast to a work of art that might cause displeasure the answer to Egger’s events is always present. It might force the artist to change his concept next time. This kind of work demands dialogue. The decisive thing here is to stay in discussion. The actual centre of the work lies in this fact; from this perspective the objects are just waste products. The conventional relationship between the production process and the object is turned on its head, or we could also say from its head onto its feet.

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