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by Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock

Who Needs Art, We Need Potatoes

Our art is based on dialogue between two artists with mutual and different interests, passions and cultural background. It is principally devoted to exploring how the introduction of new media encourages different modes of seeing and experiencing one's surroundings, and how the intrusion of art into the sphere of everyday life exerts psychological influence on an audience.

Through our art interventions in public space we invite urban dwellers to develop another consciousness about their immediate surroundings. For us, urban space is the ideal forum for public art as social sculpture; the passers-by are guided and exposed to figurative connections and social networks that may change their attitudes and accustomed points of view. Our work has been shaped by interdisciplinary studies of how art and memory relate in the social sphere and how they are reflected symbolically in the space of the city. In public space, much like the internet, a general audience can be reached and involved in disputes on aesthetics, culture and politics, beyond the secluded formal arenas of art.



Photos: Stih & Schnock, Berlin / VG BildKunst – ARS NYC


Part of our artistic methodology is working with museums, collections and archives in the field of institutional critique, based on research, investigation, interviews, ethnographic research and so on. The methodology is breaking into social and aesthetic orders, acting often in opposition to universalized Western global art trends, analyzing social dynamics, observing concepts of conduct in a field or location, transforming the findings into subjective, engaging art installations.

Our goal is to reposition subjects in new spaces and contexts in ways that not only question dominant masculinist hierarchies and discourses, but also demand dialogues about the very concept of borders within Western cultural institutions, such as Western and Oriental, civilized and primitive, evaluating post-colonial and human rights issues in relationship to collections and their display: If the art object and the aesthetic experience of the art object contains a truth-content, in this sense a non-prepossessed view of the facts will create new dynamics between the exhibits and spectator and his personal experiences. The transformation and transgression of the obvious makes the obvious look exotic and the exotic familiar, creating a contemplative, transformed environment. That way the display will lose its aesthetic innocence, just as the viewer gains a critical consciousness exploring the art statement.

Looking at museums as inhabited by collected memories of civilizations, we are questioning their content in relation to past and contemporary habits of collecting and display in order to restructure and change the role of museums as containers of memory play in society.

With Show Your Collection – Jewish Traces in Munich Museums, a project with 16 institutions and their curators, we give an insight into closed structures, examining taken-for-granted categories of cultural identity, cultural transmission, and cultural memory by drawing new links among the arts, sciences and social sciences.

LIFE BOAT addresses diverse topics through things related to boating throughout cultural history, creating a discourse on the subject of art and gender, memory, and cultural mobility. When looking at ships as metaphors for longings and projections where dreams and nightmares fuse into each other and provide telling examples of social and political hierarchies, it is obvious that boat and civilization are closely linked to images of survival and wars of conquest. Creating a material collection of multiple subjects, using prints and drawings, maps and letters, pictures and sculptures, photos, fiction and documentary films, newspaper clippings, videos and advertisements,- models and - ship relics, we encounter elements of familiar places in the most unlikely of territories and discuss cultural conversion in relation to cultural mobility. By using and exposing diverse material we represent the spherical projection of the geography, crossing physical boundaries. Counterparts from different times and cultures cross paths, providing new insights on aspects of societies. This encounter of naval topics and objects is a Wunderkammer, a model of the world in mini-ature, which exposes cultural hybridity in an abstract kind of travel.

The environment Who Needs Art, We Need Potatoes was commissioned by the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart in 1998  as a centerpiece in front of the classicist wing and its Cour d'Honneur. The installation connects history and the values, possessions and tasks of a museum, referring to a proverb and a story in the early 19th century, when the brothers Boisserée offered an outstanding collection of German medieval Art, altarpieces and masters around Dürer, to Wilhelm I., King of Württemberg. Because of a recent famine in the country the king's advisors opposed the acquisition by saying: "Who needs art, we need potatoes", a proverb used in Swabia until today, quoted whenever there are short-sighted discussions about spending money for the arts. Instead the Bavarian King Ludwig I. bought these outstanding artworks, which then became the foun-dation of one of the most precious museum collections in Europe, the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.


Photo: Stih & Schnock, Berlin / VG BildKunst – ARS NYC


We combined the existing traditional artifacts with unobtrusive additions and the use of electronics, creating a dialogue between art, nature and technology. Two round potato beds, framed with golden acanthus leaves, are laid out on the green grass, next to the equestrian statue of the King of Württemberg. After the annual potato harvest the two golden frames stay empty until spring. A red carpet on the stairs is leading up to the portico where three electronic screens are installed in between the columns right above the entrance. The red carpet links the view and the steps of the visitors to the red text on the LED screens, guiding them into the museum.

The bright light of the screens displays the names of the artists and their art works on the façade in a continuous flow, bringing fragments of the collection to light, and reinventing the traditional habit to attach the names of great artists to institutions dedicated to the Fine Arts. Counterparts from different times and cultures cross paths, providing new insights on aspects of art and society, challenging the spectators’ cultural recollection. This questions art and life, the role of art as catalyst for social and cultural developments, our tolerance and our capacity for new visions. The potatoes got planted and harvested every year until the new museum director Sean Rainbird destroyed the installation in 2008.

For many years we have been questioning the complex issues around memorials and commemoration in Germany; well-known examples are "Places of Remembrance" in Berlin-Schöneberg and the BUS STOP concept (see http://www.stih-schnock.de).

"The Art of Collecting - Flick in Berlin" is a project that we started with a study group linked to the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (NGBK) in Berlin in 2003. During a press conference in January 2003, the Berlin state museums announced the coup made with the art collector Friedrich Christian ("Mick") Flick: "We have spoken with all important people of the city. The alliance is forged." One was faced with a fait accompli, the seven-year loan contract was signed, no talk about independent, critical curating at all. The official lender of the "Friedrich Christian Flick Collection" is a mailbox company on the island of Guernsey - a so-called tax haven in the English Channel - and the Berlin state museums must cover around seven million euros in operation costs with tax money.

No gifts were made on the occasion of the opening on September 21, 2004. Indeed, it fits together like chalk and cheese, when the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder demanded that tax evaders be ostracized, while on the other hand heartily congratulating the tax-saving Swiss-by-choice Friedrich Christian Flick during the exhibition opening at the Hamburger Bahnhof, the museum of contemporary art in Berlin.

Friedrich Christian Flick inherited his money from his grandfather Friedrich Flick, who made his fortune as an industrialist during the Nazi rule, abusing more than 50,000 slave laborers and concentration camp prisoners. The grandfather, a convicted war criminal, had always denied any responsibility for atrocities and the grandson went along by not contributing to the Slave Labor Fund, which the German government and German companies had set up in 1998 to give compensations to survivors.

To calm down criticism in Berlin, Friedrich Christian Flick established a foundation against racism and xenophobia in Potsdam instead of paying into the slave work fund. But the press replied: "Wouldn't the last surviving slave laborers have deserved the money more than radical right-wing youths in Brandenburg?" Our goal was to spearhead a discussion with our art activities in public space, hopefully forcing "Mick" Flick to pay into the Slave Labor Fund.

Initially Friedrich Christian Flick had planned to build his own museum in Switzerland for his collection of around 2000 works of contemporary art. But in March 2001 Zurich's town council had passed the following resolution, causing F.C. Flick to drop his idea: "In an official statement, the town council made it clear that in regard to the compensation fund, it would have come to a different decision. Apart from that, the city president, in a personal conversation with Friedrich Christian Flick, pointed out that large parts of the Zurich population would welcome the participation of the Flick family in the compensation fund of the German industry. This would be a visible sign that Friedrich Christian Flick takes into account the historical responsibility of the Flick family." Even though it was about establishing a private museum, the inhabitants of Zurich attached to it the demand to compensate the former slave workers.





Photos: Stih & Schnock, Berlin / VG BildKunst – ARS NYC


In an interview with the Neue Züricher Zeitung (April 27, 2003; see http://www.stih-schnock.de/flick_in_berlin.pdf) Friedrich Christian Flick made it very clear that he saw no obligation to give money to former forced laborers, since some former Flick companies had paid into the compensation fund. Indeed, Hungarian forced laborers in Friedrich Flick's ammunition companies each received a one-time compensation amounting to 2000 marks from the Deutsche Bank - after it had acquired the Flick consortium.

"The Art of Collecting - Flick in Berlin" was placed straight into the urban environment. http://www.stih-schnock.de/Flick_posters_invalidenstr_.jpg. First, we created two posters and installed several of them on billboards in the immediate vicinity of the Flick Collection at the Hamburger Bahnhof, right before the opening. One of them looked like an upside-down German flag, depicting the museum Hamburger Bahnhof and our slogan: "Free admission for former slave workers." The other billboards displayed a floating zeppelin with the label: "F.C. Flick Collection." The headline said: "Tax evaders, show your treasures." The installation caused an instant stir, covered by the media in Germany and abroad. Students with "Gretchen"-wigs handed out invitation cards at the art fair and in front of the Hamburger Bahnhof for our public discussion. A mobile version of our posters, mounted on trucks, drove around Berlin's museums, along Unter den Linden and around the chancellery all week long, causing "thumps up" activities among Berlin's citizenry. On September 25, 2004, during the evening of the packed, lively public discussion the trucks were installed in front of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin-Tiergarten.

The title of our background publication is "The Art of Collecting" (ISBN 3-926796-91-X) and it deals, roughly speaking, with the eroticism of money. The motif on the cover – titled "Art Lovers - Flick in Berlin" - is from a red light district that makes an unmistakable reference to Bruce Nauman, whose works were purchased in large numbers by Friedrich Christian Flick. Of course, we were especially delighted that the museum made a work by Bruce Nauman the leitmotif of the opening exhibition. What is revealing is the incorrect translation by F.C. Flick of Nauman's title, "Double Poke in the Eye", on the invitation card: he calls it "Faust aufs Auge" [literally: fist in the eye - a German idiom for: like chalk and cheese]. But what is the finger supposed to point at here? Is it really about art opening one's eyes - in the sense of Paul Klee? "Mick" Flick proved that the innocent belief that art substantially contributes to educating enlightened, better people is nothing but a pious hope. All that counts is that the show must go on – ethics aside.

The size and mass of the Collection are incessantly mentioned as features of quality. Raving comments on the length of the transformed shipping storage are reminiscent of games of pubescent boys fiddling around with a measuring tape. By adding the basement as exhibition space it even surpassed the Documenta in Kassel by a few square meters!

The former director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Tom Freudenheim, contributed his essay, "The Purging of the Past (Die Säuberung der Vergangenheit)." He describes the origin of the Frick Collection, residing in a plush mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York, and states: "When we view a work of art, the former owner rarely plays a role in our aesthetic perception, but the collector is always present in the background. Such collectors and their collections convey the impression of an elegant masquerade - an attempt to raise oneself above the profane, lowly spheres of everyday life. Perhaps it is time for art museums to adopt a new trademark taken from the iconography of the Western world: the image of Pilate washing his hands in innocence."

Marianne Theil sheds light on the activities of grandfather, uncle and grandsons, in her documentation "La Methóde Flick", where "taking care of the political landscape" in favor of tax breaks, fame and influence is a proven behavior in every generation.

Finally, public pressure made Friedrich Christian Flick pay six million euros into the slave worker compensation fund in 2005.




Photos: Stih & Schnock, Berlin / VG BildKunst – ARS NYC

© images & text: Stih & Schnock, Berlin / VG BildKunst – ARS NYC


Frieder Schnock received his PhD in Art History and is a former curator at the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel. He also teaches Art History to film students in Berlin. Together they have taught at numerous European institutions and American universities, including Princeton, Harvard, Chicago and Brown. They live in Berlin.

Renata Stih has taught Art and Technology, Film and Media at the University Applied Sciences in Berlin for many years; she has also been writing on film and reporting from film festivals.


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