Mission Impossible – Hans Ulrich Obrist presents unrealized art projects in Basel

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A secretive exhibition in Basel celebrates artists’ projects that never got past the planning stages

The Art Newspaper: “As Neil Armstrong took his first small steps on the moon, Siah Armajani was planning his very own giant leap for mankind. The Iranian-born, US-based artist designed a tower in 1969, to be suspended in outer space but anchored to earth by a cable, and to remain in synchronous orbit with our planet. An opposing cable of equal length and weight would attach to the other end of the structure and balance the pull of gravity with centrifugal force.

The project, entitled A Fairly Tall Tower, 48,000 Miles High, exists today only on a single sheet of paper. It was always an “unlikely” project to be realised, said curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, “but not impossible”.

(Image above: Momoyo Torimitsu’s “Disposable Mine Detector”, left, and Armajani’s space tower)

Armajani’s space tower is one of around 500 unrealised artistic proposals documented and collected by Obrist over the past 25 years, a selection of which are going on display in Basel this week.

“We know much more about unrealised architectural projects than artistic ones,” said Obrist. Buildings that exist only in the imagination of architects are often published, said the curator, whereas “the unrealised projects of even the most famous artists are unknown”.

For instance, the late French sculptor Louise Bourgeois designed a wooden amphitheatre in 1978 in the shape of an “upside down dome”, which she wanted painted sky blue and white. She called it The World is a Theater and We Each have a Role and she envisioned a small figure standing in the building’s centre as a metaphor. When asked why it was never made, she said: “complicated and too expensive, but never discarded”.

While some projects were too expensive, others, like Cildo Meireles’s Southern Cross, 1969-70, were too impractical. Meireles’s sculpture is a cube with each side measuring 9mm. It consists of two transverse sections—one made from pine and one of oak, trees that, according to the artist “represented mythical beings in the cosmology of the Tupi Indians”. The minuscule cube is intended to be displayed on its own in a space measuring at least 200 sq. m.

Another unrealized project: The Palace of Soviets (Dom Sovetov). O.Iofan, O.Gelfreikh, V.Schuko. Sculptor S.Merkulov. A Version of the approved project. 1934
Schusev State Museum of Architecture Moscow: The Architecture of Moscow from the 1930s to the early 1950s. Unrealised projects

Curatorial obsession

Obrist has spent his entire professional life documenting artists’ unfulfilled ambitions. It started when he was 18 at the very beginnings of his career as a curator, triggered by a conversation with the late Italian conceptualist Alighiero Boetti. “He remarked that artists are always asked to do the same thing; they’re asked to do museum shows or gallery shows or sometimes commissions but very often the projects they would really like to do don’t fall into any of these categories,” recalled Obrist. “He suggested it could be interesting for a young curator to focus on this.” So Obrist did.

Over the past 25 years, as he has interviewed some 1,000 artists, he has asked all of them about their unrealised plans. Working alongside him in the 1990s was the French curator Guy Tortosa who worked for the French ministry of culture when Obrist first met him. “He made the observation that in public art, the most interesting projects are systematically unrealised,” said Obrist. “He had an archive of them.” Together the duo published a book in 1997, Unbuilt Roads: 107 Unrealised Projects (Hatje Cantz).

Read on at The Art Newspaper or download the brandnew Art Newspaper Art Basel 2011 Special as a PDF over here!

The exhibition on unrealised projects is part of a wider e-flux initiative. To find it, “look for a large clock at Messeplatz, make a left and walk to the end of the fountain, look for a currency exchange sign,enter door on the right.