Wndow Work - Page 1

WINDOW WORK, Denis Masi in Bremen

Angela Weight

Bremen is the smallest citystate in the Federal Republic and is surrounded by the Land of Lower Saxony. The city is less well-off than other states because many people work in Bremen but live in Lower Saxony, which collects their taxes. Bremen is not a big, fashionable art centre like neighbouring Hamburg or Frankfurt or Cologne but it supports a thriving community of artists, many of whom are graduates of the city's own art school, and five main public museums and galleries. Its Renaissance centre and some fine 19th century buildings escaped the attentions of British bombers in the Second World War, leaving the city with some visible roots in the historic past amid the characterless redevelopment of the postwar years. There are other contrasts, such as the drunks and homeless people who occupy the sunlit arcade of the fourteenth century Schutting (Merchants' Hall), while the local bourgeoisie sit at the cafe tables on the opposite, lower side of the historic central square. I wondered whether this scene was much as it would have been in the Middle Ages, when beggars, merchants and noblemen would have thronged the square, or whether the social divisions are more marked now.

The river Weser runs through Bremen; on the north bank is the city's Kunsthalle, its fine classical rooms untouched since the 1950's, so that to enter there is to step into a timewarp - an experience not without its charm. Nevertheless, the state of the Kunsthalle comes as a surprise because we English expect every German museum to have its brand-new extension - after all, we spent the 1980's being envious of France and Germany for their willingness to throw money at cultural institutions. In fact the gallery's air of neglect is not the result of local indifference but is connected with the city's political and economic relationship with the other federal states, which would like the four poorest states, Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, to amalgamate into one big state so that the rest of Germany does not have to pay them a subsidy.

The Neues Museum Weserburg was set up in a former industrial building owned by the city of Bremen on a small island in the Weser, between the city centre shops and the huge corporate headquarters of Beck's Bier on the south bank. Like a four-storey Saatchi Gallery (vast white spaces, grey floors and metalwork), the Neues Museum Weserburg displays modern art in depth - not one Gerhard Richter but several - from private collections, and takes touring shows on the ground floor - on this occasion, the American minimalist James Lee Byars. The collection, though very good in parts, has that air of having been bought in bulk, the good and the bad together, without much historical discernment.

The Museum reeks of corporate discretion. It's anonymous and slightly intimidating: this is essentially a private not a public space. You may ask where the toilets are but you may not enquire who owns the art and what are its terms of lease? Who funds the operation, who runs it and to whom are they accountable? (It reminded me of a visit to a private warehouse collection in Los Angeles with an American friend. We were on the point of leaving, a few minutes past the official closing hour, when a panic-stricken female employee suddenly appeared from an office, crying "I'd forgotten you were still here! He (the owner) has just arrived, it's his visiting hour, you must go please!" and we were bustled down the back stairs to avoid him seeing us.) We are a Powerless Audience.

Across a footbridge from the island to the south bank is the Galerie im Kunstlerhaus, an alternative space set up by a group of artists and arts administrators in a building donated by the city on condition that they paid for its renovation. The artists have studios here and there is an excellent restaurant which draws people from across the river. The exhibition space is uncongenial, being neither broad nor tall but long and narrow with square windows all along both sides. It is on a north-south axis, so the windows look east and west. The nature of the space and its situation on the unfashionable bank of the river inform the Kunstlerhaus policy of taking risks and promoting experimental work by local and foreign artists.