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The fifth column*
The Explosive Power of a Smith Corona

With Danh Vo’s reconstruction and simultaneous deconstruction of the Statue of Liberty, Kunsthalle Fridericianum is once again paying tribute to the eventful history of its building as an icon of German Enlightenment – a history than can be assessed in different ways. According to a statement made by the artist, it was the spacious rooms of the Fridericianum museum that incited him to produce a work that exceeds the dimensions of contemporary sculpture and that recalls, when put in a historical context, the colossal sculptural works of the early Egyptians. Just as important are the analogies between certain dates, the similarity between certain philosophical orientations, and the comparable aura of the Statue of Liberty and the Fridericianum as unique features of their epoch in the respective geopolitical sphere.

Let’s start with the dates. 1776 was the year that the United States declared independence. In 1779, the Fridericianum opened as the first public museum building in continental Europe. In 1886, the Statue of Liberty was inaugurated to mark the 110th anniversary of American independence. Now let’s add some historical and conceptual observations to these numbers. Landgrave Friedrich II financed the classicist museum building, which had a strong impact on contemporary art activity since the first documenta in 1955, in large part through income generated by renting mercenaries to the English for their battle against the American freedom fighters. Incidentally, the creator of the Statue of Liberty, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, may well have been inspired by the colossal copper-plated sculpture of Hercules in Kassel created in 1717.

Dissected into its individual parts, Danh Vo’s WE THE PEOPLE extends across the Fridericianum’s vast exhibition space, which now features a 1970s industrial architecture style. Calling to mind a terrorist attack, a chaotic forest of inconspicuous and prominent, abstract and figurative, bulky and aesthetic copper sculptures are scattered across the space as if there had been an explosion. The terrorist attack on September 11 fuelled fears of further assaults. As a result, all of the iconic buildings and monuments in the USA were mapped so that they can be reconstructed in the worst case. Danh Vo’s reconstruction of Miss Liberty also alludes to this. Terror is present in another part of the exhibition too: in the form of the original Smith Corona typewriter of the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski. The concept expressed by the nostalgic device unfolds an imaginary explosive force which transforms the 31-ton copper skin of Miss Liberty into a fascinating modern sculpture park. With all its dissected monumentality yet delicate “thin skin”, which is only about 2 mm thick, WE THE PEOPLE conveys a sense of the universal fragility and musealized eternity of today’s condition humaine.

In my first column in 2008, I said that the art on view in the Fridericianum should be “human” and make “a plea for the prerequisites for a 21st-century humanity that still have to be formulated.” In the fourth column in 2010, I supplemented this demand with a reminder of Malraux’ condition humaine as an allusion to an existential positioning within the global continuum of time. Especially with large exhibitions such as those of Christoph Büchel, Thomas Zipp, Teresa Margolles and Danh Vo, this discourse comes full circle. Danh Vo focuses in particular on freedom, on its facets and on different interpretations of the term. In an existential sense, freedom also implies the burden posed on man by the responsibility arising from being endowed with reason.

Vo’s exhibition entitled JULY, IV, MDCCLXXVI is the programmatic closing statement of a first series of solo exhibitions, all of which deal with current human existence – which is at the same time universal – and its nature. Christoph Büchel, Pawel Althamer, Thomas Zipp, Klara Lidén, Latifa Echakhch, Navid Nuur, Matias Faldbakken, Teresa Margolles, Andro Wekua and others have “energized” and “performed” the oldest museum building in continental Europe. Vo's preoccupation with freedom, revolution, utopia and terrorism functions like a negotiation with some of the fundamental aspects of this historical site, placing Kassel at the centre of global politics.

In 2012, the dOCUMENTA(13) exhibition will occupy the Fridericianum and Kunsthalle Fridericianum is taking a break. During this time, I will curate an exhibition entitled The New Public at the Museion in Bolzano and will pursue different teaching appointments at colleges and universities, in order to get ideas and inspiration for the next period. A book documenting the years 2008 to 2011 is in preparation. In 2013, the Kunsthalle will go back into operation. At that time, I would like Danh Vo’s current statement in the Fridericianum to be followed by electrifying investigations of the human condition.

Rein Wolfs
November 2011

* At irregular intervals the Kunsthalle Fridericianum is publishing a web column. This fifth column was written by the artistic director Rein Wolfs.

Danh Vo, JULY, IV, MDCCLXXVI, 2011
Photo: Nils Klinger

Rein Wolfs

Since January 2008 Rein Wolfs is the Artistic Director of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum. From 2002 until 2007 he was the Director of Exhibitions of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. In 2003 he curated the Dutch pavilion at the Venice Biennial. From 1996 until 2001 he was the first director of the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich.

Among his most important exhibitions were shows with Douglas Gordon, Maurizio Cattelan, Angela Bulloch and Cady Noland at Migros Museum and retrospective exhibitions with Bas Jan Ader and Rirkrit Tiravanija as well as large shows with Urs Fischer and Erik van Lieshout at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. At Kunsthalle Fridericianum he curated major exhibitions with Christoph Büchel, Pawel Althamer, Teresa Margolles, Thomas Zipp, Monica Bonvicini and Danh Vo and shows with Klara Lidén, Latifa Echakhch, Cyprien Gaillard, Nina Canell and Navid Nuur among others. For 2012 he is preparing an exhibition with the title 'The New Public' for Museion in Bolzano.