Kasper König (curator): Before the Law: Post-War Sculptures and Spaces

Contemporary Art Museum Ludwig, Cologne

Kasper König is retiring following a career as one of the most highly regarded European curators. He was co-initiator of Münster Sculpture Projects, which takes places every decade and has revolutionized our idea of sculpture, public art and the monument since 1977. It is, therefore, not surprising that the focus of this swan song is sculpture, and that Penelope Curtis (former director of the Henry Moore Institute) is one of the authors of the catalogue. The post-war theme is also understandable when König’s associations with Münster are brought to mind, but probably owes more to the function of the show as summary of a curatorial lifetime.
Museum Ludwig is, of course, rich in post-war art, but the American Pop Art for which it is famous doesn’t feature very prominently, despite the fact that Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol were the first two artists König exhibited in the 1960s. George Segal, the most pensive artist of that generation, is included and sits well in the show. Before the Law’s combination of Modernist with contemporary work is not as unprecedented as the unique occasion would lead one to believe, but this current trend for programmatically diachronic exhibitions has found in this instance a steady curatorial eye that combines well the ‘threads’ and emaciated torso of Germaine Richier’s Le Griffu (1952) with Bruce Nauman’s cast cadavers, suspended from a macabre Carousel (1988) and the support of Zoe Leonard’s Tree (1997/2011). The occasional glimpse out of the building onto Cologne Cathedral and passing railway line, mementoes of Germany’s War-time destruction and subsequent – belated, but generally earnestly undertaken – work of mourning, confirm the venue as the ideal site for the show. The earnest tone is obviously one that again resonates with contemporary practice (pace the fresh, superficial, careless air of Carla Black’s work).
The gruesomely powerful Jimmy Durham installation, Building a Nation (2006), which exposes the racist foundations on which the USA is built (doubtless bought by König in order to counter-balance the all-too-uncritical American self-confidence emanating from much of the core of the Ludwig collection), initiates a series of invitations for international and diachronic comparison or transferability of issues. William Kentridge expands the topic into the international realm. Far from letting the show become a re-run of Documenta11, however, the strong presence of Wilhelm Lehmbruck with Seated Young Man (1916/17) – here ‘post-war’ means ‘during WWI’ –attempts a reconsideration of the importance of certain enduring, though non-heroic war memorials. The catalogue highlights the failures inherent in post-war sculpture – i.e. its paradoxical solidity, its undecided hovering between sublimation and action – arguing for a renewed engagement with it. Alberto Giacometti has a central role to play in this regard and is present with Le jambe (1958). The viewer may associate that aesthetic, and the post-war theme, with Beckett, but Kasper König’s reference is Kafka.

Installation view, Before the Law:Post-War Sculpture and Spa ces of Contemporary Art. Foto: Achim Kukulies. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011 and Zoe Leonard.
Installation view, Before the Law: Post-War Sculpture and Spaces of Contemporary Art. Foto: Achim Kukulies. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011 and Zoe Leonard.

This is where this exhibition’s surprise may lie. If it didn’t already do enough in intertwining life-, art- and curatorial history as a farewell to and plea for the museum – as site of a public art collection and playing a vital part in recording and forging the cultural memory and identity of a society – it also suggests that König’s brother Walther’s bookshop in the same building is not just a coincidental money-spinner for the institution, but a necessity for a museum that understands itself as a driver of discourse concerning important societal issues. That König began his career as professor at Düsseldorf and Frankfurt Academies goes some way to explain his desire to draw exhibition-goers into engagement with various texts. For the present viewer, there could hardly be a clearer ‘case study’ of the currency and strength of the European tradition of ‘literary art exhibitions’. The Before the Law catalogue is an admirable addition to this tradition, and the beautiful and important volume documenting Paul Chan’s staging of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, on display in the bookshop, provided a particularly successful example of the extension of visual art into the realm of the discursive, existing beyond the exhibition.

To include Kafka in a visual art exhibition is to point to certain intellectual roots: Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of ‘minor literature’, for instance – immediately political, de-territorializing and community-forging. Contemporary artists have often found this to be a liberating conceptual framework – hence (to put it too simply) their interest in literature and the now obsolete form of the book. Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, ‘plateaux’, ‘rhizomes’ etc., have frequently been employed for exhibitions, thought of in Deleuzian terms as a temporary coming together in a thoughtful, rhizomatic knot, only to disperse again. There was even something like an explosion of Deleuze and Guattari references in the mega-exhibitions of 2001. To deploy the intellectual tools of guerrilla warfare in multi-million euro art events is problematic, of course, and the new, engaged institutionalism characterized by this conflation is also clearly aspired-to here in Cologne. The reference to Kafka, therefore, enabled König to curate a temporary ‘rhizome’ of intellectual credibility, while at the same time ‘taking flight’: the Deleuze and Guattari reference is rendered indirect through the foregrounding of Kafka, thus faithfully/unfaithfully signalling independence, and possibly re-instating the ‘minor’, too. Quite a shrewd move!
What is missing from this show? Sculpture (when even remotely figurative) places emphasis on gesture (there is also the reconstruction of an exhibition on the pathosformula by the concept’s innovator, the art historian Aby Warburg, to be viewed in Cologne at the moment). One could have imagined performance art as a valid addition and counterpoint to practice addressing post-war matters – or am following too personal a predilection? Boris Nieslony lives in Cologne, but is absent from exhibition and catalogue. In her text, Penelope Curtis elaborates on the role of sculpture in ruined, German cityscapes (Documenta 1), focussing particularly on Cologne and Heinrich Böll’s keen interest in ruins. She does not, however, mention Declan Clarke’s Cologne Overnight (2010) which curator Regina Barunke has nevertheless already shown here at Kölner Kunstverein.
To refer to Kafka explicitly in an exhibition is to represent the curatorial undertaking as tentative and probing. This is desirable: despite all the logistical and legal manoeuvring needed to bring a large exhibition such as this to fruition, in the final count no engagement with art can make claim to perfect control and comprehension. Art ‘skims along the edges of what is permissible’, as the exhibition guide tells the viewer. In this case, König’s Kafka reference is of fortuitous complexity: on the one hand a humility trope, it becomes a canonical reference on the other, giving the ‘group show’ blockbuster qualities (the English language catalogue has already sold out). It also contains an argument for art’s appropriateness and strength in dealing with difficult subject matter, while simultaneously displaying art’s productive weakness. It may also be a slightly nostalgic gesture towards the ideals of König’s youth around 1968. That Kasper König can foreground through Kafka the tentative, unfinished and ‘edgy’ in his last conceptual exhibition honours him, and it is only slightly ironic that – unlike the writer – a curator can never bring his works to the public posthumously.
Before the Law: Post-War Sculptures and Spaces of Contemporary Art. Exhibition catalogue ed. Kasper König, Thomas D. Trummer et al. Museum Ludwig, Museumsdienst Köln: Köln 2011. Before the Law ran from 17 December 2011 – 22 April 2012.