Le Mouvement, as the 12th staging since 1954 of the outdoor Biel Sculpture Exhibition is called, transitions traditional characteristics of sculpture, such as volume, mass and materiality, to the human body, which this time becomes the material for works by a diverse group of international artists. Invited by cocurators Gianni Jetzer and Chris Sharp (contributing editor to ArtReview), they thus create gestures, performance and what some would call live sculpture in various open-air locations within the Swiss city.
I use the term ‘open-air’ instead of ‘public space’ here as the latter has become fraught with contestation. Spaces we once cherished as public – city plazas and squares, streets and parks – have become in recent years privatised and surveilled, increasingly limiting the public’s presence and ability to dissent. And yet at the root of this exhibition is a questioning of the very nature of this contested public space in a democracy, which theorist Rosalyn Deutsche writes, in Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (1996), ‘is produced and structured by conflicts’ (not consensus). By presenting performances in the main plaza, train station, shopping street and numerous other locales normally full of people going about their daily business, it becomes possible to have unscripted confrontations between the public and the art, and this is where ‘a democratic spatial politics begins’, as Deutsche states. This confrontation is nowhere more evident than in Trisha Brown’s Drift (1974), featuring five black-clad performers walking in a line down the street for a period of five minutes, disrupting the flow of the everyday. This disruption elicited a reaction from a passerby who placed himself in front of the walking group, as if to block their path. Art lovers were shocked; but to me that encounter was what completed the performance – that raw, unmediated clash of positions in the public sphere.
The struggle between different publics in public space is also placed under discussion with Alexandra Pirici’s Tilted Arc (2014), a recreation of Richard Serra’s public sculpture of 1981, this time formed of human bodies rather than steel. Her work, like Serra’s, is imposing and demanding on the space, and monumental in the same way. In 1981, the locals working and residing around Serra’s sculpture requested that it be taken down precisely because the sculpture was so imposing. In a strange twist on that situation, Pirici decided to cancel the work’s manifestation on Saturday because other public events were sharing the same area and she felt that her work would not have had the same impact and presence. On Sunday, when the public events were gone, so were the majority of passersby and ‘public’, but her piece was there in all its monumentality.
Private experience in public space is treated by Myriam Lefkowitz, among others, whose work Walk, Hand, Eyes (2007–) is an intimate, sensual encounter with the urban setting. The artist takes one individual at a time on a blind walk, leading them by the hand or elbow, slowly and gently changing her hold while the subject’s senses become increasingly attuned to an environment they can now only experience through smell, hearing and touch. The pace of the walk sometimes increases abruptly and without clear reason, eliciting our own associations with the absurd, fastpaced city. At certain moments the subject is told to open his eyes as his head is positioned in front of a detail, then close them again after seconds of a branch, window, passerby’s face. These moments are priceless – framed details of life that continues and changes without us, but that we can hold on to as images in our memory.
The exhibition creates opportunities for exchange, interaction and even conflict, resulting in surprising social, political, and spatial relations. And like in Lefkowitz’s piece, these ephemeral works become still images ingrained in our memory, taking on characteristics of sculptural works not only because the human form has sculptural qualities, but because human experience itself is spatial in nature.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue