Tor und Stele

There are few media that Günther Förg has ignored during his artistic career. He achieved international fame largely with his abstract paintings, but this German artist has also distinguished himself as a photographer, sculptor and graphic artist. Since the early 1970s, he has produced an extensive and varied body of work comprising paintings, photographs, sculptures, murals, assemblages, mosaics and reliefs (a relief in neon by Förg decorates the ceiling of the Kunsthal café in Rotterdam). Förg reinterprets the abstract expressionist canvases of Barnett Newman and the Minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd and Carl Andre. His work is about such concepts as scale and space. As a painter he sets down dark areas of colour onto the canvas with rough brushstrokes and as a photographer he sometimes blows his prints up to several square metres. Above all, a work by Förg is monumental.

The two site-specific artworks designed by Förg for Rotterdam’s public space are again anything but modest in size. These are sculptures that impress because of their scale and which occupy a prominent place in the Rotterdam cityscape. In 1988, as part of the Sculpture in the City exhibition, Förg installed two metres-long walls of mirrors in Eendrachtsplein tube station. The work, popularly known as ‘The Double Agent’, was intended to be semi-permanent and could possibly be removed after three months. However, because Förg’s addition to the station’s architecture was well-received by commuters, it was retained until the autumn of 1999. Then Rotterdam’s transport company RET suddenly decided to replace one of the mirror walls with a so-called green-and-white tiled ‘Millennium’ wall bearing personal messages and wishes from the people of Rotterdam. Thus, half of Förg’s artwork was demolished, thereby rendering it meaningless, since it was the spatial effect of the double images that gave his mirror walls their power. Commuters walking along the long tunnel to the platforms could see themselves reflected ad infinitum, so that the passageway seemed to stretch on for hundreds of metres. When you looked in one of the mirrors you saw a vast space similar to a low, immeasurably deep hall, with endless rows of columns and identical groups of people moving always at the same distance from one another. The claustrophobic underground tunnel was thus changed by Förg’s simple intervention into a monumental, almost classical colonnade – a public space which was pleasant to be in.

The interaction between the viewer and the artwork has always played a major role in Förg’s work. In the early 1980s he made his so-called Alubilder – assemblages of aluminium sheeting onto which the artist had painted linear patterns or portrait photographs. Viewers saw their own images in the reflecting surface overlapping the depictions on the artwork. A similar effect was achieved in the photographs Förg made in the 1980s of Italian architecture from the Fascist era. These have been placed behind glass so that the reflected surroundings merge with the photographic scenes and create an alienating layeredness.

The work Tor und Stele (Gateway and Stela) that Förg made in May 1994 near the entrance to the police headquarters at Haagseveer refers in a different way to an historical setting. The work comprises three parts: a bronze sculpture in the form of an obelisk with a flat top, a rectangular arch made of black, smoothly polished stone and various rectangular areas of brownish yellow tiles set into the pavement along which old-fashioned style streetlamps have been placed. The various components have been arranged in a line, along an imaginary axis through the Doelstraat. The quickest route from Haagseveer to Coolsingel goes through the arch, straight across the pattern of tiles and then past the bronze obelisk.

As with Eendrachtsplein underground station, the Doelstraat is a nondescript space only accessible to pedestrians. It is a dreary piece of no-man’s land, bounded on three sides by high-rise buildings. The space is a result of part of the old police station being demolished. By installing a rhythmic section of vertical elements, Förg has emphasized the Doelstraat’s corridor-like character. At one end of the corridor the gaze is drawn to the Delft Arch by artist Cor Kraat built at Haagseveer in 1995. In the opposite direction the black arch acts as a frame for part of the neo-renaissance town hall, in a way that evokes Förg’s architectural photographs. Moreover, the shape of the arch echoes the rectangular form of the arcade the police headquarters.

For this artwork Förg was clearly inspired by classic triumphal arches, steles and obelisks. Steles are grave-pillars, common in Greek antiquity and decorated with inscriptions and reliefs. By way of ‘inscription’ Förg has left traces of his handling of the bronze visible in his ‘stela’ – a personal signature that contrasts with the monumental approach to the space. Förg’s arch and stele are reinterpretations of an ancient triumphal arch and obelisk. But more than the very first use of such symbols in ancient Egypt and Rome respectively, they recall urban Baroque or nineteenth-century monuments like the Arc de Triomphe at the Place de l’Etoile in Paris. An urban symbolic language that we have put behind us for good and which – certainly in Rotterdam – has made way for a more fragmented way of filling up public space with relatively modest, individualistic sculptures. Förg’s monumental Tor und Stele on the Doelstraat relates to earlier times, yet due to its somewhat constrained siting in an unimportant leftover space and its relatively small size, it is also a parody. As a whole, the work evokes something of the monumental and grandly alluring, as well as the emptiness of the large designed squares to which it refers.

Sandra Smallenburg

Hooff, J. van der, F. Kauffmann, L. Schröder, Politiekunst, Rotterdam 1994. / Exhib. cat. Günther Förg, The Hague (The Hague Municipal Museum) 1988. / Exhib. cat. Günther Förg, Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum) 1995.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015