This weekend will see the end of one of the most formative art projects of recent years. The Robert Walser sculpture by Thomas Hirschhorn in Biel sets new standards as a Gesamtkunstwerk.
by Max Glauner
It fits, is harmonious, beautiful, in Swiss German said, urchig. We are talking about one of the most spectacular and aesthetically and socio-politically sustainable works of art of recent years: Thomas Hirschhorn’s Robert Walser sculpture on the station forecourt of Biel. Tomorrow Sunday is the end of the day. The dismantling will take about a month. Then none of it will be visible any more.
Everyday life will return to the highly frequented traffic junction in front of the Doric temple front of the Biel railway station from 1923 – the last bourgeois gesture of intimidation in the cityscape before modernism also spread to Biel. Only a few hundred metres further on, the Volkshaus expressively (1932) and the Hotel Elite art-déco-modernist (1931) demonstrate where the social and architectural plans were to be implemented shortly afterwards.
But against such structural eternities, the Hirschhorn, born in Bern in 1957, sets a lively, temporary wooden architecture, more a stage than a dwelling. For 86 days, from 10 a.m. to 12 hours a day, he succeeded in doing what only the artist could really believe in at the beginning: a forum of fundamentally egalitarian exchange and togetherness. The project is strongly anchored locally, but sets standards far beyond Biel and Switzerland.
What has there been to hear and see over the past few months? That is also a question of genre. Hirschhorn has given his project the title Robert-Walser-Skulptur. But he is irritating. Isn’t it rather an installation, a theatre stage, a public academy or a social project? Yes, it is all that. And none of all that.
What can be seen with a glimpse when walking from the train platform to the bus stop is more like a slum or a subcultural wagon park: if the passer-by leaves the station concourse – long since barred from its service function and prepared for the mere passage – he can go straight ahead unhindered into the distance.
But if he wants to take the fastest way to the right or left, he is denied that. While defiant to the right, emphasizing the cheapness of the construction, pressboard walls with sprayed-on Robert Walser statements frame the new way to the taxi stand, the left side opens up to the fast food chain: here a ramp leads up and into a toilet container. At the corner to the bridge passage a seemingly spontaneously furnished pop cultural memorial attracts attention: photos, banners, shoes, candles, plastic flowers.
The name of the dead person remembered in this way: Carl Seelig. A click on Wikipedia would betray him as author, publisher, patron, friend and guardian of Walser, who died in 1962. Is it necessary to know that Hirschhorn’s work has always featured these seemingly improvised shrines for long-dead people like Ingeborg Bachmann? No, it’s enough to understand that the artist here is playing a trick on the usual attention economy, trying to direct light on a man who stands in the shadow of the great, remembered Walser, who for his part was underestimated and made small, stood outside the canon for a long time. Surely there were quite a few visitors who only considered this corner to be Hirschhorn’s Walser sculpture.
The dusty term „sculpture“ in Hirschhorn’s title is part of the tradition of the „Swiss Plastic Exhibitions“, the „Expositions suisses de sculpture“, which have been held every four to five years in Biel since 1954. In doing so, the artist consciously claims air sovereignty for a conceptual and socio-politically committed art that appeals to people’s will to change rather than to the art business and its market under the slogan „Social Sculpture“ – it comes from Joseph Beuys.
Hirschhorn and Beuys share their social commitment and the principle of physical presence during their actions. Throughout the project, Hirschhorn was present on site as patron and contact person, but unlike Beuys, the closed art shaman, he approached the people, researched Biel and the surrounding area for three years, and spoke with the people, especially those who live on the margins of society – the unemployed, migrants, the homeless, alcoholics, and junkies who use the station forecourt as a meeting point. He calls this field research.
However, Hirschhorn is not a caretaker, but a facilitator who lets the recruited participants and institutions do their work within the set framework. He invited them, along with many others, to participate in the project, which only experienced its structural manifestation with the wooden construction. Supervised by the artist, each participant was able to furnish the stalls on wooden pedestals according to their own needs and respect for the other participants. The cooperation with the curator, institutions like the Robert Walser Archive and the authorities resulted in a collaborative in which Hirschhorn acted as Princeps inter pares.
Hirschhorn had already gathered a lot of experience in this respect: the „Deleuze Monument“ (2000) in Avignon, the „Bataille Monument“ (2011) for Documenta 11 in a Kassler workers‘ housing estate, or the „Gramsci Monument“ (2013) in the Bronx of New York. These works have always focused on the local people. Instead of placing the socially marginal in the medial light of consensus, Hirschhorn enables a relaxed encounter of divergent groups. In contrast to previous projects, however, in Biel he did not bring the „center“ into the neglected suburbia, but rather allowed it to look into the center from the edges.
That’s why he created the raised wooden construction, which opens up invitingly to the city centre with a reading stage. This is why Robert Walser, who was born in Biel, is the literary marginal and exceptional figure of the intellectual epicentre. Hirschhorn does not place him on a pedestal as a bronze statue, but in the form in which he is alive for all of us: in his texts (as graffiti), in books (there were bookshops and libraries), in readings, lectures by scientists, laymen, literary women and discussions with the public in the open air.
On the last level of the amphitheatre, the bar and snack bar provide food and drink. The Walser tributes have hardly been limited in any other way, a strange world peace activist advertised Esperanto courses in his shack, a retired dominatrix exhibited her tools in another, and Geneva art students – Walser the passionate walker – documented their walks in the surroundings.
The literary scholar and director of the Robert Walser Institute in Berne, Reto Sorg, spent an average of four days a week at the sculpture in Biel. His institute moved to the provisional location with around four employees from Berne. It provided the philological know-how in advance, then carried out everyday office work on the sculpture, received colleagues, held meetings and organised part of the podium programme with specialist lectures.
Sorg is astonished in the conversation about the respect with which people met here. So he not only talked to die-hard Walser fans, but also to people with a completely different educational background. „I was impressed to be approached and taken seriously by alcoholics and junkies. That would be unthinkable in an academic context. I became more curious every day,“ says Sorg. „Closeness to the public and transdisciplinarity actually happen here. Elsewhere they are only talked into.
In contrast to theatre formats that rely on „experts of everyday life“, no one plays anything here. Reto Sorg is certainly on location in his role as director of the institute, as is Thomas Hirschhorn in his role as artist and patron. In this function, however, he not only instructs the participants, looks for the right or sorts the microcables, but is also directly accessible to everyone.
This stage enables real encounters. The Robert Walser sculpture is not, as has often been assumed, the monument to a shattered society, but the lived sign of hope for a democratically better one.