“That is certainly more than a philosophic Karaoke”
We are living in a time of privatisation of almost everything, from education, social security to cultural institutions. The most stunning aspect of this tendency is probably privatisation of urban spaces. In the process of modernisation of the city, more and more public spaces are being commercialised and redeveloped into better equipped but essentially privatised semi- public venues, not to mention the increasing gentrification of city centres. In the meantime, the natural conditions of our living environment are also being incessantly turned into artificial one, exemplified by new technologies like air conditioning and digitalised presentation panels, etc.
This tendency is not only happening in the developed world of the West. It unfolds at an even more rapid speed in the new developing economies such as China and South-East Asia today. In the process of making a new world for the new millennium, which is the new Europe in the West, and other forms of regional structures in other parts of the world, such a tendency has become a veritable precondition. In a word, this can be seen as a global trend. Contemporary art today is also a global phenomenon. It’s prevailing everywhere. At the same time, today’s artists not only operate globally, but also confront naturally with the equally globalised tasks represented by the new urban conditions. Bert Theis is one of the most sensitive to this issue among them.
Bert Theis has in fact constructed his system of artistic thoughts and actions entirely on the inquiry of the relationship between art and public space, between the “art object” as a personal proposal to the public space and the intervention of the public through their active participation in the making of the final sense of the work. In the meantime, Bert Theis’ proposal has always been specific – site specific and, in his words: “audience specific”, while a big picture of the position of public art in urban space has been developed. While our urban spaces are gradually privatised or semi-privatised due to the introduction of both global capital and new technology, Bert Theis seeks to propose alternatives to balance out such a tendency and hence revitalise urban life itself. In Europe, more and more cities are shrinking and suburbanised. How to conserve and promote the dynamism and vitality of the city centre becomes an urgent challenge for the survival of the urban society. At the same time, it’s also critical to preserve and develop ecologically friendly environment. Facing such an apparently contradictory imperative, Bert Theis and his colleagues have organised themselves into a research institution “OUT – Office for Urban Transformation” and engaged in looking for solutions of “sustainable urbanism”. They have come up with the notion of “Telecity” intending to substitute the conventional image of the city as a “concrete jungle” with an innovative and humane “digital jungle”. What is more significant is that they put forward, alongside with new technologies and ecology, new administrational forms – new communities and self-governance – in order to make the new urban life really relevant and hence sustainable. This suggests a veritable political dimension which can be highly inspiring for the construction of a new European society. And it’s no surprise that Bert Theis is currently working of a celebrating project for Europe – European Pentagon.
As abovementioned, the question of sustainable urbanism is globally important. Working in the art world is also a world-wide business. Bert Theis has also realised some remarkably efficient projects in outside of Europe. In Korea, for Gwangju Biennale 2002, responding to the theme “Pause”, he realised “Russel-Prosthesis 01”, a beach-like, open space with benches and tropical plants for people to enjoy “idle” moments in life in the gap of “junk spaces”. It’s a relaxing place, with certain sense of humour and irony due to its willed irrelevance of mixing up a good structure and an incorrect location, and hybridisation of real and artificial vegetations. In the context of Asian cities that are going through unprecedented explosive expansions and intensifications, this proposal marks a radical but necessary gesture (1) to remind of the importance of critical reflection – as Theis himself quoted, Bertrand Russel’s idea of making efforts to attain idle life is certainly a forgotten virtue. How much has one ever even thought about life can include such a strange thing called “idleness”? However, like “Pause”, idleness represents a real resistance to the logic of the frenetic spiral of global capitalism, which is the very driving force of Asia’s excessive urban explosion.
Shenzhen is China’s most exemplary boom town. It’s been invented out of a tiny borderline village and turned into a metropolitan city of 7 million inhabitants within two decades. It’s also a laboratory for China’s urban development which is now making a great portion of the country into vast urban conglomerations. Highly pragmatic modern buildings and infrastructures are introduced to replace traditional urban forms while the environment is becoming increasingly artificially controlled – represented by the omnipresent air conditioning devices – at the price of the rapid degradation of natural conditions. Shenzhen also embodies such a contradiction of urbanisation. On the occasion of the Fifth Shenzhen Public Art Exhibition, titled “The Fifth System, public art in the age of post-planning”, 2003, Bert Theis came up with a new project “Growing House” in response to such a situation. He spent weeks on the site and researched into the local climate conditions as well as the history of Chinese architecture. An ancient form of dwelling design merged human life and natural evolution perfectly is “nest dwelling” (2). Inspired by such an ingenious invention, he constructed a “growing house” in the mist of a series of palm trees in the centre of a public park. A multi-level platform, painted white, protected by canvas ceilings, provides a fresh platform for the gathering of inhabitant of the city and allows them to rediscover their own city from a totally new point of view. What is more significant is that the structure itself is meant to grow up together, at least conceptually, with the natural environment, namely the woods of palm trees to which it’s attached. This not only creates a space for observation, gathering, reflection and debates for the public. It also offers them a platform to experience directly the harmony between the manmade city and the natural surroundings. This is no doubt a particularly efficient intervention in the context of China’s current urban expansion that “fetishisizes” economic efficiency. Again, how to live “idle moments” in the age of globalisation of urban life is raised as a critical question.
Bert Theis’ works often adopt the form of platforms. They are painted white, expanding into public spaces and embrace the interventions of the public like open arms. They are physical. They are results of deliberately planned occupations of urban territories with strategies of minimalist and even immaterial transformations of the given conditions. They are discreet, firmly anti-spectacular. They provide, in turn, the best spaces for spectacular events ranging from meditation, games, dances, concerts to all kinds of everyday activities. However, these activities have never been planned and organised by the artist. Instead, they are improvised and realised by the public with passion and spontaneous inspirations. This is particular remarkable because it incarnates perfectly the logic of self-organisation and self-governance, the most decisive element in the creation of sustainable urban societies that that is at the very centre of Bert Theis’ artistic concept. He likes to call his works philosophic. They are systematically informed by philosophic works and guide the audience to reflect “philosophically” on life. When Theis comments on his project “Philosophic Platform” for Sculpture Projects in Münster, 1997, he states: “My piece was, to my knowledge, the first philosophic platform in the world. There have been political platforms, but none of philosophical platforms. Philosophically saying, it owns a lot to Wittgenstein and American Pragmatism. Its main quality was to be empty. This was not the platform of ‘philosophers’, but an open device that allows everyone to develop his concept and interpret it in his own way. That is certainly more than a “philosophic Karaoke” (3). Yes, Bert Theis’ platforms, as well as all this works, however spiritual they can be, are radically open platforms for the participations of the public. They imply a clearly social project – a kind of direct democracy for spiritual and physical life. With this, one can imagine and even realise a new form of urban life that is determinately humane, in harmony with nature. They are ultimately political.
With such a political agenda in mind, Bert Theis further ventures into the domain of politics itself. He is currently working on an “official commission” to cerebrate Luxembourg’s new status of European Presidency. By definition, such a kind of commission can only be a paradox for artists with free minds, especially for someone like Bert Theis who is essentially a critic of real politics. How can celebration go hand in hand with critique? However, he understands this can also be a perfect occasion to express his critique vis-à-vis the prevailing political correctness in the process of constructing the European Union. In the current geopolitical climate, almost everyone agrees that the most urgent task for the construction of European Union is to build up a solid defence system, a tightly controlled borderline and surveillance system for internal security. Obsessions with security and safety are engendering a real atmosphere of paranoia across the continent. “Better Safe Than Sorry” is now the very motto for all policies for social, military, economy and culture. And hardly one can hear any contesting voice. It’s against such a paranoia that Bert Theis decides to turn his project into a site of questioning such a political correctness. Calling his project “European Pentagon (Safe & Sorry Pavilion)”, he constructs a pentagon structure to “promote” such a “philosophy of security”. However, shorten the motto into simply “Safe” and “Sorry”, his appropriation of the ideology is in fact a deconstructive questioning of the meaning of the sentence itself. Figuring out the words only from the inside of the pavilion, the public are incited to raise their own questions about the reversed motto itself. Should one choose “Safe” or “Sorry”? Or, should Europe be a Utopia of secured good life? Or a battlefield open to all exciting adventures?
Hou Hanru, Paris 2005
Art critic and curator, born in 1963 in Guangzhou, China, based in Paris and Rome. Former Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and Chair of Exhibition and Museum Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, he was appointed Artistic Director of MAXXI Museum in Rome, in 2013.
- See Bert Theis’s text in the catalogue of “Project 1, Pause, conception”, Gwangju Biennale 2002, p. 248
- see “The Fifth System, public art in the age of post-planning”, the 5 Shenzhen International Public Art Exhibition, Hexianning Art Museum, OCT, Shenzhen, 2003. pp. 174-175
- Bert Theis, « Pavillons et Installations en Plein Air », notes.
Bert Theis. Safe & sorry, Galerie Erna Hécey with the support of BOZAR, Brussels and Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, 2005 (English/French/Flemish)
Judith Quentel, ed. Bert Theis. Building Philosophy, Chamarande: Domaine départemental de Chamarande, Centre d’art contemporain, 2010 (french/english/it)