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The Monument Is Invisible, the Sign Visible Author(s): Werner Fenz and Maria-Regina Kecht Source: October,

The Monument Is Invisible, the Sign Visible Author(s): Werner Fenz and Maria-Regina Kecht Source: October, Vol. 48 (Spring, 1989), pp. 75-78 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL:

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The Monument is Invisible, the Sign Visible



translated by MARIA-REGINA


Robert Musil's remark that a monument is immune to public attention, thus "invisible," is an old and hackneyed phrase.' But as it bears on the issue of art in public space, the remark gets to the core of the matter, even when taken out of its historical context. His remark is even more apt when the issue is considered within the broader framework of visual cultural production in general of the past two decades. Recent "open air exhibitions," such as portions of Documenta 8,

Skulptur Projekte in Miinster (1987), Century87 in Amsterdam, or the nese events Freizone Dorotheergasse and Querfeld I, have brought art

spaces back to the center of attention. Until recently the tradition of permanent or temporary sculpture parks, from Middelheim and Basel to Geneva (to men- tion only European examples), has been overshadowed by the hectic activities in galleries and major exhibition spaces. Even events such as the Risch Art Prize for art in public places, which has been awarded regularly since 1983, have received hardly any attention from journals or the general public. In Austria itself, the interest in "public art" has been kept alive, at least in some places (even if limited to small groups of cognoscenti, some of whom have even raised the issue of our conception of democracy). There are various examples of such "art-on-site" projects; one of the most controversial and provocative was the design of the Vienna conference center, and, of course, there was the media debate about the antifascist monument by Alfred Hrdlicka. The discussions about artistic inter- vention in an already visually polluted urban space are, in fact, political. They are political, intensely so, because suddenly an area of creative potential that has traditionally belonged to museums and galleries now escapes their control and establishes itself in places where different norms have been in effect for a long time: namely, in the world of urban renovation and restoration, of the postmo- dern, functional architecture of banks, insurance companies, and government

two Vien-

for public

in GesammelteWerke (appearing in volumes classified by prose,

dramas, and letters), Hamburg, 1957,

in Eine Geschichteder Kunst im Wandel ihrer Funktionen, vol. II, Munich, Funkkolleg Kunst series,

1. Robert Musil, "Denkmale,"



Quoted in Hans-Ernst Mittig, "Das Denkmal,"

1987, p. 532.



buildings -government buildings are a bit more ornate and not entirely avant- garde, because the vanguard has long been building abroad. And there is also, of course, the proudly presented municipal decoration -most of it quite ugly.

After all, the city simply needs garages, busstops, systems of ordering and direct- ing people, advertising spaces. Whoever would dare to raise a voice against these objects would expose him- or herself to the accusation of undermining the "system" through disorder, uncertainty, and confusion. The city is an organism supposedly functioning for the benefit of us all. At best, the aesthetic quality of

these things is at the level of ordinary contemporary

repeated. It is only the eternal skeptics who are not interested in confirming what

is claimed to have grown up organically, and who question the basic necessity of

such conventional constructions and/or

ever, on the level of so-called public space, with all its conflicts, and not in the arena of artistic expression itself. On both sides of the conflict, it is ultimately a

series of misunderstandings and contradictions which contribute to the reactions. On the one hand, there is the repeatedly and intentionally maintained fiction of a public space, which, in fact, has already long been occupied by private interests, so that "the public" supports something that it lost long ago. As Peter Weibel, building on a similar premise, has put it, The space left to the individual by the relentless terror of public signs of state and industry has become so constricted that, without any question, formal [formal?] doubts are appropriate regarding the ex- tent to which the invasion of corporate signs and trademarks is com-

their specific forms. This happens, how-

visual culture, endlessly

patible with the fundamental rights of a

The overt

logo-terror and the covert state terror call for the individual to take over public space in order to reassert the claim to the basic democratic

rights which the state denies.2

On the other hand, there is the artist's frequently unsuccessful attempt to occupy public space with designs that originate in the orbit of museums and that adhere to conventions of art per se, conventions not necessarily transferrable to public space. As an example, let me refer to a project in Kassel:

In 1985 Eberhard Fiebig created an abstract sculpture of steel plates welded together and mounted on a concrete base in front of the new gymnasium of the Martin Luther King school. The twelve identical plates form the framework for an imaginary octahedron and are invisibly screwed to the base in such a way that a viewer gets the impression that they are floating in the air. The stereometric sculp-


Skulpturen," in Freizone Dorotheergasse (exhibition catalogue), Vienna,






im 6ffentlichen




The Monument is Invisible, the Sign Visible


ture constitutes a carefully designed unity with the base and harmo- nizes well with the background of the gym roof, provided that the angle for a photograph is chosen correctly. If one looks at the sculp- ture from the school yard, its signifying function is about zero be- cause, in that case, the well designed trash cans and lighting fixtures dominate. The symbolic message of the sculpture does not come across; it merely refers to itself-as a modern museum piece.3

As this example suggests, there is a difference only in appearance and degree between the seahorse fountain and the abstract sculpture, if one bears in

mind the function of a "public work of art," and this (mis)proportion is also to be found in entire exhibitions in open spaces, particularly in urban space. It cannot be a matter of using art to make up for some aspect of the urban environment or as a counterpoint; nor can it be a matter of assigning art some public quality by merely placing it - without roof or walls - in front of or next to some building, or by forcing it into the remaining free space, which, in fact, has been cluttered by the urban "furniture" mentioned above. And it can surely be even less the

purpose of such presentations

which, even when opened,

in a clearly defined public space must be related to that space. It must derive its

form and its contents,

its appearance and its stance from this new forum of

action, must be made accountable there, which is to say that it must confront different perceptual and evaluative criteria. This does not mean that art must adapt itself in the sense of superficial sensationalism, but rather at the level of concrete social relations. Only when art confronts the public space as such can it become effective within it. To act effectively means, however, to be partisan, to

make and justify decisions concerning the intended sphere of action, which can certainly be seen as educating but not necessarily as didactic. We can talk about

art in public space only when the work of art is committed to something that corresponds to its function at that specific location, whether it is there temporar- ily or permanently: namely, to manifest a means of understanding nature, his- tory, and society.4 Points of Reference has committed itself both in artistic aim and in execution to this sort of interpretation of public art. The occasion -the annexation of Austria by Hitler fifty years ago-and the locations-important offices and


places of propaganda of the Nazi regime -presented the artists with

contexts in which to define their own field of endeavor. Thus, they were to

to turn the perceptual realm of art inside out,

is ultimately hermetically closed. Art that is presented

3. Veit Loers, "Aucheine

catalogue),Muinster,1987, p. 316.


Geschichteder modernen Skulptur," in SkulpturProjekte(exhibition

with the general considerationsWerner Busch has

in Kunst und Funktion-Zur

Einfuhrung in die

My view of this

problem corresponds


in his essay "Kunst und Funktion,"

Fragestellung, Munich,Funkkolleg Kunstseries, 1987, p. 1.



assume responsibility toward history and society. Whoever interprets such re- sponsibility merely as a constraint considers art as a closed system of rules outside of social relations. Whoever randomly attributes the overused term of engaged art to this project thereby restricts art's communicative function to the four walls of a gallery. Whoever sees the freedom of art jeopardized by this project thereby banishes art to spaces free from society, which is to alienate it from society, for free spaces are empty spaces. Points of Referenceaims, however, precisely to fill this empty space, filling it not through thoughtless acceptance of the battle cry "art into the streets," which caused some confusion even back in the '60s, but rather through creating a new web of relations between art and urban structures, without trying to smooth out potential contradictions. The specific reference to "Nazi locations" entails, however, more than exclusively historical dimensions. It was precisely the use of art in public spaces that, under the Nazis, was subject to a finely worked-out system of strict ideologi- cal rules. However, not only the ideological but also the aesthetic levels of this use constitute historical, as much as art-historical, facts. The monuments of that time, whether they still exist or are reconstructed, are certainly not invisible, especially because our historical consciousness no longer allows complacency concerning the Nazi era.

From this point

of view, the contribution of Points of Reference will, through

the provoked and provocative dialogue with space and time-present,


visible as signs.

past, and

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