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Michael Dean - a Theatre of Misfits

Author: Jiang Jun Translator: Jo Liu Dec,2017

Today, public spaces are increasingly privatised, commercialised and segregated by class. In bustling European metropolitan centers, traditional chairs are disappearing from public spaces, and are replaced by pairs of uncomfortable supporting bars. This is not due to minimalist aesthetics, but to discourage homeless individuals from lingering in the public space. After all, nobody can sleep on two supporting bars. They are supposed to be kept out of sight, back to the edges of the city where they belong.    

Are art museums public spaces? Art museums that collect fees are another type of stratified space. Expensive biennale, triennale, documenta tickets became barriers of the levels of hierarchy, classifying the public according to cultural literacy. The Skulptur Projekte Münster, since 1977, embraced the political climate of the 70s and the cultural democratisation movement. Art Museums should not be exclusive to certain classes, but should be a public service that is approachable for everyone.  

The Skulptur Projekte Münster remains free of charge in order to maintain its original intention of artistic equality. The host of the current Skulptur Projekte, the LWL Museum of Art and Culture, also opened up its interior space as a free public space that is connected to its exterior art project. For example, we can see Michael Dean’s large installation in the atrium. Since the first Skulptur Projekte in 1977, the atrium of the LWL Museum of Art and Culture became an exhibition space. The works of Joseph Beuys were exhibited there that year.

The curator of the first Skulptur Projekte Münster Klaus Bussmann remembered how they were rejected the first time they invited Beuys. Beuys thought that any sculpture in public space is a contamination of the environment. Later, in order to approach the American artists who joined the exhibition, he changed his mind. He remade a ramp for the disabled using wax molding, and named it “Unschlitt/Tallow”, which title produces a sense of redundancy and excess. In fact, this ramp is of no use to any disabled person due to a design error, which is also fitting for this association. Beuys discovered this redundant product in the public space. It has no actual function and therefore can be aestheticised and made into art, like Kant’s idea of non-stakeholder. Therefore he made an enclosed mold underneath the ramp and filled it with hot wax. Then, he exhibited the work in the museum courtyard. He remade and exhibited a ramp that is useless in daily life, and placed it in a superior space of the art museum. This poetic gesture is concealing a criticism of the detachment from reality and hypocrisy of the decision making process of public policies, with concealed voices and unseen figures. The work was understood as a catalyst for public debates.    

Forty years later, Michael Dean’s work “Tender Tender” exhibited in the same place. Dean also offers his understanding of the present, and the anxiety of feeling aimless, meaningless and lost. But this work clearly differs from Beuys’s “Unschlitt/Tallow” of the 1970s.

Dean used transparent plastic film as barrier for the museums atrium, creating a temporary construction site. Inside the plastic film are sculptures made with mixed architectural materials such as concrete, metal, cement, and steel bars. They are abstracted into man-height column like sculptures, each becoming a lone island. The audience can walk around them, stepping on scrap papers and plastic packaging that’s been scattered across the floor. This reminds people of the run down city suburbs, streetlamps and rubbish bins. The space installation and neo-classical architecture of the atrium forms strong contract, as if suddenly walking onto a stage. The audience can enter, touch, or even step on the platform of the lone islands. The artist’s words are scattered on the ground, pasted on the wall or onto the sculptures. The texts are filled with helplessness, unfulfillment or powerless cries.  

The whole scene creates a theatre, with the audience as extras. Peepholes are created on the plastic films (the height of these holes are determined by the height of Dean, his wife, and his two children) to provide an alternative view to the space for the audience outside of the space. In this performance, the audience is both the watcher and the ones being watched.  

Compared to Dean, Beuys’s works are much more explosive and intensely sarcastic, pointing directly to the problems of public life. The generation of artists working in the 70s experienced the revolution of 68. The 70s was also a time plagued by extreme leftist terrorism. Beuys was an advocate of “Social Sculpture” (art that can potentially transform the society), with very clear attitude which lead him into politics, and eventually founding the German Green Party as an artist and spokesman.

Differing from the artists of the 70s that attempts to “intervene”, most European artists today have more ambiguous political standings. In the 70s, young people were very clear about what they support and what they are up against. But today their energy seems aimless. In the age of neo-liberal globalisation, the income gap continues to grow, especially after the financial crisis of 2008, which lead the European economy into a period of continued decline. Many young people who cannot see their future are pushed to the edge of society and city, without stable careers, and always in between casual labour. They are becoming a lost generation of “precariats”. Their only political expression is dissatisfaction. They disagree with any political proposition, because from what they can see, the ever present capital would instantly corrupt any suggestion of solutions.  

Dean was one of the four artists nominated by the Turner Prize in 2016. His work “United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children: twenty thousand four hundred and thirty six pounds sterling as published on 1st September 2016”, which exhibited in the Turner Prize exhibition, consisted of £20,436 in pennies. This is also the number for the minimum yearly expense necessary for two adults and two children to survive in the UK, as published by the government. During the installation of the exhibition, Dean took away one penny from the pile, which means the audience directly faces what is below the poverty line. Dean created a unique aesthetic existence. It transplanted a wholesome theatre within the art museum or white cube space, showcasing the life of the rejected, and the living conditions of the lost generation of contemporary European society.

Today, the social criticism of leftist Europe has moved away from “exploitation” and towards “exclusion”. The London riot of 2011 and the riot in Suburban Paris in 2017 are all events that display the desperation of those living excluded at the edge of the city. They are not criminals as described by the official medias, but youths who are angry and dissatisfied about their lives as well as the society. In the beautifully constructed public city spaces, we do not see these characters. The new designs of cityscape also makes it hard for them to linger. They are “supposed” to stay in the city edges and suburbs, the chaotic zones isolated from the prosperity and elegance of the metropolis, where they belong. In Kassel and in Venice, “the excluded” and “the lost generation” have become important subjects in major art exhibitions in Europe this year. Dean placed the unique aesthetics of the excluded into the most prestigious art museum in the city, bringing the once isolated “public” back into view.          

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