Sculpting the Town: Sonsbeek 93

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Swamped by rain, and not to mention hordes of day-trippers passing through en route to major openings in Antwerp and Venice, the June preview of Sonsbeek 93, in Arnhem, Holland, got the tenth installment of this international sculpture show off to an inauspicious start. The atmosphere was perhaps best captured by the performance by French artist Jean-Baptiste Bruant in a swampy polder zone on the outskirts of town. Spectators calf-deep in mud watched as Bruant dug a hole in the wet earth, let loose a horrific shout into the resulting cavity, and then filled it back up. For those unlucky enough to have missed it, the 20-minute event was captured on video and played several times a day during the exhibition's 12-week run.

Although the European art mafia closed ranks in support of the "Unite" show in Firminy, France, branding Sonsbeek 93 a fiasco, the exhibition has to be one of the most serious and uncompromised attempts to provide a context for contemporary art that I have lately come across. It's a judgment that I am distressed to make, if only because I seem to be one of the few people who actually saw the whole thing. According to Valerie Smith, the former director of Artists Space, New York, who organized Sonsbeek 93, the idea was to invite artists to make proposals based on their responses to the city of Arnhem, the history of which includes a devastating World War II bombing and a stigma as something of a border town, with its oasis of legal drugs luring steady traffic from neighboring Germany. There were echoes of at least some of all this in a number of the 45 works by 38 artists and artist groups included.

Unlike most large international exhibitions, which are conceived with a theme but tend to shape themselves according to the curators' personal tastes and whims, Sonsbeek 93 was permeated by Smith's faith in process as a dynamic and creative force. Even the 300-page catalogue defies standard format. Following a timeline that runs from Smith's first notes on the show in September 1991 to the last breathless weeks before the opening some 20 months later, the document incorporates her ongoing interchanges with several dozen artists, many of whom ended up not being in the show (some of the juicier passages reveal aspects of dialogues that the artists might have preferred remain off the record). Brandishing an experimental proposition that rejects the typical curatorial quest for the "perfect" show, Smith's Sonsbeek had an impact that derived from something more persuasive than the sum total of the works it contained. Spectators were drawn into Sonsbeek 93 as if they were grappling with the same issues as the artists, in the sense that the experience widened the range of their conditioned responses to the problem of art in public places by blurring the boundary between where the site ended and the artist's intervention began.

If Smith's selection of artists reveals a slight weakness for wellknown names--Michael Asher, Alighiero e Boetti, Patrick Corillon, Mark Dion, Pepe Espaliu, Ann Hamilton, Mike Kelley, Annette Messager, Juan Munoz, Allen Ruppersberg, Remy Zaugg, and Lawrence Weiner figured prominently--an important difference from similarly star-studded projects was how much the works emphasized aspects of many artists' sensibilities that might not have been recognizable even to their fans. Smith's determination to produce works that reflected the nature of the setting seemed to provoke especially inventive departures from each artist's repertoire.

For example, Kelley's contribution consisted of a curated exhibition of artworks, artifacts, and documentation that the artist brought together around the idea of "The Uncanny." For a first effort at shaping an entire show, "The Uncanny" inadvertently argued that the quality of museum shows might improve dramatically if artists were allowed more input during the curatorial process. Likewise, Hamilton organized a 20-minute barge trip up the Rhine, during which spectators sitting in the hold silently watched a man juggling three onionlike tubers as he stood on a vast pile of them, while in the corner a woman slowly counted beads out loud. …