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Always on the move – the versatile Art Museum in Wolfsburg

Blick in die Ausstellung „Jeppe Hein. This Way“ (Copyright: Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg)

Andy Warhol, Neo Rauch, Bruce Nauman – since its opening in 1994, the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg has made an international name for itself thanks to exhibitions showing modern and contemporary art. Major artistic projects or extensive total installations – thanks to its huge exhibition hall with a ceiling height of 16 metres and 3,500 square metres of space that can be freely designed, the Art Museum is transformed into a space for new experiences with each new exhibition – and enriches the city about four times a year with world-class art exhibitions.

Anything is possible – the museum in the museum

From a walk-through light installation conjured up by American artist James Turell in 2009 in two eleven-metre-tall, nested boxes, to the distorted dimensions of Belgian multimedia artist Hans Op de Beeck’s world of art in 2017 – when it comes to designing this space, no challenge is too great for the artistic direction at the Art Museum of Wolfsburg.

Exhibit
Bruce Nauman: Ten Heads Circle/In and Out (1990) (Photo: Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg)

For Turrell’s gigantic field of light called ‘Ganzfeld Piece’, a twenty-metre-long ramp was built which took visitors two floors down into two rooms merging into each other, ‘Viewing Space’ and ‘Sensing Space’. There, things get ‘nebulous’: the rooms are immersed in slowly shifting coloured light by means of thirty thousand light-emitting diodes until contours are lost completely – a spectacular effect.

For Op de Beeck’s exhibition, ‘Out of the Ordinary’, which surprises its visitors with model-like, ambiguous locations, among other things, a nocturnal amusement park, a model of container barracks at a shipyard and the home of a collector were built and set up. From the balcony of that ‘Collector’s House’, the observer’s gaze wanders over the roofs of factory halls and houses on the city’s outskirts, which were constructed true to size, complete with gable roofs.

Nothing remains – flexible interior design

It’s no wonder that regular visitors rub their eyes in fascination, because the museum has once again transformed itself to the point that it is no longer recognisable on the inside. This complete metamorphosis is possible thanks to its architecture: a simple, 16-metre-high exhibition hall with a square floor plan and an area of ​​1,600 square metres in its centre, which can be flexibly designed using a specially developed partition system.

‘Our architectural framework offers tremendous scope for the exhibition architecture,’ explains Dr Holger Broeker, Director of the museum collection. In contrast to most museum buildings, the museum in Wolfsburg isn’t limited by premises that determine the shape of exhibitions. Rather, it can adapt the exhibition architecture to the needs of the artworks that are being shown depending on their content. ‘We reinvent the architecture of our interior spaces for each exhibition,’ explains Broeker, who holds a PhD in art history, with a hint of pride.

Exhibition
View inside the exhibition ‘Shitty Naked Human World and Other Pictures’ (1994) (Photo: Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg)

The spatial dimension and flexible design options are ideal for the museum’s thematic focus on the art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Thanks to this, the still-young museum can already look back on 130 exhibitions since its opening in 1994 – which makes for an average of around six exhibitions with around 70,000 visitors each year. Meanwhile, however, the frequency of exhibitions has been reduced and their duration extended, explains Broeker, so that visitors have a chance to see the multi-facetted exhibitions over a longer period of time.

But the logistical effort is still considerable. It takes about six weeks for an exhibition to be dismantled, the premises to be architecturally adapted and for the new exposition to be constructed. Completing complex conversions smoothly requires the shared expertise of curators, architects, building managers and various craft trades from carpenters to metalworkers. The head of art handling and the restorer take care of the transport, setup and dismantling of the artworks in advance. Of course, as Broeker notes, the planning and preparation phase will take much longer. Depending

Everything grows – from 0 to 500 works

Without a collection, there wouldn’t be any museum – after all, those who want to borrow top-class works for temporary exhibitions must also have something to offer in return. And the museum in Wolfsburg most definitely does. Most recently, it sent the 47 uncarved blocks of cedar wood called ‘Uncarved Blocks’ by American minimalist artist Carl Andre on a tour through the museums of the world. All in all, the impressive collection now comprises 500 works of international contemporary art, beginning in 1968 with works in Minimal Art, Concept Art and Arte Povera.

‘In terms of content, all of the works are concerned with the human condition,’ emphasises Broeker, who is in charge of the collection. As he notes, an example of this theme is the installation ‘Ten Heads Circle’ by American conceptual artist Bruce Nauman, whose hanging wax heads point to our simultaneous closeness and loneliness in modern society.

Based on this concept designed by Dutch founding director Gijs van Tuyl, the Wolfsburg museum created a unique space for itself within a radius of 200 kilometres and started building its collection from scratch. The aim was to acquire the main and key works of artists that would give the museum an international profile.

Everything flourishes – the growth of the collection

And so the exhibition series ‘Tuning up’ was launched: works from recognised artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Rebecca Horn or Bruce Nauman were displayed first, but also those of promising artists like Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst or Douglas Gordon, while at the same time testing the effect and interplay of their works of art at the museum’s own premises. Thanks to this smart approach, the private museum, which is mainly financed by the Munich-based Holler Foundation, acquired, for example, works by the recently deceased Dutch concept artist Stanley Brouwn or sculptor Georg Herold.

 

Most of the pieces in the collection are only shown temporarily in exhibitions. But another key work in the collection can be viewed almost permanently by visitors: Anselm Kiefer’s sculpture ‘20 Years of Loneliness’, in which the German artist piled up what he deemed to be his less successful works from twenty years of artistic endeavour to form a four-metre-high stack. By showing this collection and including further objects, he reveals an ingenious approach to the creative crises artists experience.

Perhaps the most important item today is still the first work ever acquired for the collection. This is the table installation ‘Tavolo a spirale’ by Italian artist Mario Merz, one of the main proponents of Arte Povera. With its basic spiral shape and impressive diameter of seven metres, it symbolises the infinity of growth. Broeker, who was there at the time, explains: ‘This first work was intended to make symbolic reference to the prosperous future of the collection.’ How truly prophetic!