Power to the People

Dressed in a white shirt and black pants, a man with a large white tuba stood by a driveway, smoking. Behind him were several hundred similarly dressed men, women, and children milling excitedly around a hot parking lot. Was this social sculpture? Not exactly, though sculpture was involved: The uniformed masses were getting ready to carry artworks through the streets of the city for the opening procession of the 10th edition of the Sonsbeek sculpture exhibition.

Last Sunday afternoon, nearly a thousand volunteers who had organized themselves into groups they called “guilds” bore 24 floats through the well-groomed center of the Dutch city Arnhem to the sound of whistles, drums, and marching bands. Townspeople lined the streets, applauding as stuffed donkeys, wooden masks, banners, a wave of turquoise ribbons, and a blown-glass crown paraded by. But while the occasion was festive, there was a slight air of solemnity among the straight-faced, earnest guild members, particularly in contrast to the many humorous sculptures they bore — such as Lara Schnitger’s Miss Universe, featuring plaid, ruffled, and porn-patterned fabrics stretched over light scaffolding in the shape of a mutant female or Charlie Robertss punk Vikings in face paint, dunce caps, and fur capes, throwing peanuts at the spectators.

Processions must be in the air right now. The Indianapolis Museum of Art is currently hosting the exhibition “On Procession,” and the Gwangju Biennial in Korea will include a public parade of artworks in September. These events typically invoke such traditional practices as Catholic saint-bearing ceremonies or Carnival parades, and Anna Tilroe, the Amsterdam-based art critic who curated Sonsbeek 08, came up with the idea for hers last winter after seeing images of a Japanese Shinto ceremony in which people walked together bearing objects of special personal significance. To her, this kind of celebration seemed the perfect method to honor art — a kind of secular answer to the fetishistic object.

The irregularly held Sonsbeek festival started in 1949 to revitalize the city after it had been nearly leveled by bombing during World War II. Though at first wildly successful, the event had deteriorated in the past decade or so and begun trafficking in the worst kind of public “plop art,” depositing esoteric and sometimes aggressive sculptures throughout the city and alienating the locals. For this year’s incarnation, Tilroe sensed it was essential to make the people of Arnhem feel like invested participants, not just reluctant hosts to some elitist art world event. Organizers put out a call for volunteers in the winter, and by April, 24 guilds had formed, including posses of gardeners, hockey players, newspaper readers, the homeless, architects, and scientists. Most of the guilds were matched to an appropriate artist; a group of lawyers was assigned Fernando Sánchez Castillos water-spitting sculpture of Stalin, for example, while the affluent Rotary guild was matched with Serge Onnens Good Table / Bad Table, a giant roulette wheel.

By the end of this week, the artists’ sculptures will be installed in the beech forests, lawns, and lakes of Arnhem’s sprawling Sonsbeek park, remaining on view throughout the summer. While certain artists included their actual sculptures in the procession, others presented miniature or alternate versions of what they will install in the park, such as Tomas Saraceno, whose model of the transparent, multi-sphered ecosystem he will suspend in the trees was carried by a guild comprising architects and children. Some Sonsbeek artists deliberately tapped into older processional traditions, including Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo, whose guild bore portraits of men in uniform, lending the parade a political or funereal slant, or Johan Simons, whose life-sized reclining hermaphroditic figure was carried on a guild’s shoulders like the body of a saint.

While some of the floats looked rather scrappy (although I suppose that’s the aesthetic du jour), the effort to involve the townspeople seemed successful. Tilroe was pleased with the guilds, particularly the way in which they brought people together, minimizing socioeconomic differences in part through the use of the black-and-white de facto uniform. “Sonsbeek 08 is, for me, about collectivity, not about the individual,” she said, adding, "I am especially proud of the guild made up of Christians and Muslims,” which carried Willem Boshoffs colorful banners. The participating artists have embraced the effort as well. As Dutch artist Stephen Wilks remarked, “It’s unusual to be able to really work with a group of local people during an exhibition.”

The guild members I spoke to after the procession were aglow — and it wasn’t just the free beer in the town square. It was that instead of trying to enlighten them, organizers simply wanted to include them.

Sonsbeek 08 is on view through September 21.