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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:
Accessed: 10/03/2010 09:04
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The Monument is Invisible,

the Sign Visible



translated by MARIA-REGINA KECHT

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), Century 87 in Amsterdam, or the two Viennese events Freizone Dorotheergasseand Querfeld I, have brought art for public
spaces back to the center of attention. Until recently the tradition of permanent
or temporary sculpture parks, from Middelheim and Basel to Geneva (to mention 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 intervention 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 postmodern, functional architecture of banks, insurance companies, and government
Robert Musil, "Denkmale," in Gesammelte Werke (appearing in volumes classified by prose,
dramas, and letters), Hamburg, 1957, pp. 480-483. Quoted in Hans-Ernst Mittig, "Das Denkmal,"
in Eine Geschichteder Kunst im Wandel ihrer Funktionen, vol. II, Munich, Funkkolleg Kunst series,
1987, p. 532.



buildings -government
buildings are a bit more ornate and not entirely avantgarde, because the vanguard has long been building abroad. And there is also, of
of it quite ugly.
course, the proudly presented municipal decoration -most
After all, the city simply needs garages, busstops, systems of ordering and directing 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 visual culture, endlessly
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 their specific forms. This happens, however, 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 extent to which the invasion of corporate signs and trademarks is compatible with the fundamental rights of a democracy. . . . 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-

Peter Weibel, "Spezifische Situationen. Zeichen im 6ffentlichen Raum. Situationistische

Skulpturen," in Freizone Dorotheergasse(exhibition catalogue), Vienna, 1988.

The Monument is Invisible, the Sign Visible


ture constitutes a carefully designed unity with the base and harmonizes well with the background of the gym roof, provided that the
angle for a photograph is chosen correctly. If one looks at the sculpture from the school yard, its signifying function is about zero because, 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 to turn the perceptual realm of art inside out,
which, even when opened, is ultimately hermetically closed. Art that is presented
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 temporarily or permanently: namely, to manifest a means of understanding nature, history, and society.4
Points of Referencehas 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
the artists with specific
places of propaganda of the Nazi regime -presented
contexts in which to define their own field of endeavor. Thus, they were to

Veit Loers, "Auch eine Geschichteder modernen Skulptur,"in SkulpturProjekte(exhibition
catalogue),Muinster,1987, p. 316.
My view of this problem corresponds with the general considerationsWerner Busch has

articulated in his essay "Kunst und Funktion," in Kunst und Funktion-Zur

Fragestellung, Munich, FunkkollegKunstseries, 1987, p. 1.

Einfuhrung in die



assume responsibility toward history and society. Whoever interprets such responsibility 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 ideological 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 Referencewill, through
the provoked and provocative dialogue with space and time-present,
past, and
visible as signs.

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