frieze No. 32, January February 1997

fast nichts/almost invisible. The Transformer Station, Singen

Over the last few years, the art world has tried hard to develop its public by presenting work in places that were not intended for it. Trying to keep up with all this effort has been almost boring. But despite these attempts, work has only rarely been sited in such a way that the desired effect (of reaching "normal" people, conquering "new" spaces and suggesting that art is important) has been any greater than the thrill derived from existing ways of installing art.

"fast nichts/almost invisible" is different in many ways, perhaps most importantly because it is sited in the small southern German town of Singen, near Lake Constance. Singen does have an art museum, and it did organise and finance this show, but the little town does not boast metropolitan art connoisseurs who are used to seeing contemporary art in picturesque dockland sites or disused factories (or warehouses, or underground railway tunnels). Without wishing to brand the good citizens of Singen as guinea pigs hitherto untouched by the contemporary art scene, there is a good chance that this group exhibition will achieve two things: it will bring new, interested people to new art, and they will discover an unfamiliar space on the edge of their community.

The exhibition is housed in a disused transformer station, a building that was never intended for public access. On the contrary, it was sealed off for safety reasons, accessible only to a few employees. The two-storey building dates from 1912 and was decommissioned in 1970. Long whitewashed corridors run through the building, and you can still see cut-off cables, old-fashioned porcelain insulators, transformers and switchboards with inscriptions that are puzzling to non-electricians. Some parts of the building are closed, but the sheer height of the ground floor makes an overpowering impression, while the upper levels feel cramped and somewhat claustrophobic.

As the title suggests, the works by 21 international artists are tiny, inconspicuous, almost imperceptible. Anyone moving through the building without the proffered plan would have to be extremely good at sniffing things out to find the art. But that is one of the charms of this exhibition: looking at Small Bucket (1994) carved in polyurethane by Peter Fischli & David Weiss you feel that it might have been left there on its bit of protruding wall by workmen doing some renovation work. This is one of the works that snuggles into the space without having been made specifically for it. Bertrand Lavier's painted fire extinguisher, Extincteur (1981), is another. Curator Jan Winkelmann had very little time to prepare the exhibition, and these items make it clear that this was not necessarily a disadvantage. Most of the artists had no chance to look at the space and then prepare works to relate to it directly. Thus, in most cases, Winkelmann had to use pieces that had already been shown elsewhere. But this very factor meant that he could select specifically, enabling the initial concept to succeed in practical terms.

The intention was not to concede yet again that art is capable of taking away the particular qualities of the space in which it is shown, thus making the viewer aware of art's real position, which is usually implied to be loftier. As you walk through the exhibition the transformer station shimmers between presence and transcendence (and thus distantly reflects the theme, "Current", suggested by the local energy company who sponsored the show). The unusual and once functional interior can crush our perceptions of this unassuming art, but the building recedes almost totally when we discover works like Erwin Wurm's Dust Sculpture (1996), Gerwald Rockenschaub's transparent sheet of perspex Untitled (1990), and Karin Sander's white Brushstroke (1994), small and simple on a white wall.

Even the works created specially for the show are respectful rather than polemical: Mario Airo's Dark at Heart (1996), a black light replacing a lamp in one of the darker corners; Andreas M. Kaufmann's spyhole, Untitled (1996), inconspicuously installed so that we can look through into part of the building that has been closed off; or Mathis Neidhart's Security (1996), security passes that visitors have to pin on as they come in. Simone Westerwinter and Rirkrit Tiravanija explored other aspects of the exhibition title, relating to the time that things last. At the opening, Westerwinter forced the curator to drink a whole bottle of Jack Daniels with her, while Tiravanija asked him to cook a local noodle dish Schupfnudeln for the guests. Both works are still around in the form of unwashed crockery and cutlery, Untitled, 1996 (Schupfnudeln) and an empty whisky bottle, Untitled (1996), as evidence of a communicative act that lasted for a few hours.

The security company responsible for the building made a similar contribution. One evening they discovered Maurizio Cattelan's knotted sheets Una domenica a Rivara (A Sunday at Rivara, 1992) hanging out of a second floor window. Believing it to be evidence of an art thief's getaway, the security guard immediately searched the building, couldn't find any art, and thinking it had all been stolen informed those responsible on site. Fortunately, after a short explanation they were able to reassure him that he had not failed in his duties.

Martin Pesch

(Translation: Michael Robinson)

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