Tom Otterness, Überfrau, 1993, 51°57'46.6"N 7°37'53.1"E
Like a guardian over the knowledge accumulated behind her, the colossal Überfrau receives visitors of Münster’s public library as they enter the “Bibliotheksgasse” (library alley) and already have a view into the interior of the building. The sculpture and architecture together can indeed be considered as an entity. The public library located on the Alte Steinweg was built from 1991 to 1993 after the design by the architectural firm Bolles-Wilson und Partner. From the start the architect Julia Bolles-Wilson had included a sculpture in the plans, to be located at the end of the narrow alley between the two building parts. The American sculptor Tom Otterness (born 1952 in Wichita, Kansas), whose monumental sculptures in public space are found, among others, in front of the federal courthouse in Los Angeles and the Battery Park in New York, was commissioned with the work. In a synthesis with the architecture of the public building, the Überfrau was conceived as “Kunst am Bau” (art in architecture). 1
The eight-meter-tall giant is shaped from a scaffold-like construction of stainless steel that has the figure’s legs and torso appear as transparent body parts. In the body’s interior, the bronze rudiments of a circulatory system are discernible: her heart is a roundish pump with many tubes as arteries, reminding more of a boiler room than the seat of one’s emotions. 2 Otterness fully worked out some of the body parts, a foot and a suggested female pubic. Contrasting the construction of the large-scale figure are miniature figures positioned within and around the giant, which seem to be busy with the assembly or dismantling of the immense woman. The comic-like miniatures are staged individually or in groups, handling oversized tools or writing something into huge books with gigantic pens. This interplay between the sculpture’s small and large formats is a determining factor of its appearance.
Otterness has worked in the dynamic tension between art and architecture since the early 1980s. Often serving as a point of departure is the human body, whose diverse sculptural variants he explores while, at the same time, reducing its elements to rudimentary forms. He developed a streamlined body type and postures drawn from various cultural sources. Especially myths of powerful goddesses fascinate him. The Überfrau refers to classical iconography — the female, heroic figure as an embodiment of wisdom and truth. A role which seems to suit the Überfrau quite well in connection with the library, the home of knowledge.
Accompanying the inauguration of the sculpture in 1993, an exhibition was presented in the newly opened municipal library that documented the development process of the giant figure and highlighted its relationship with the architecture. The Überfrau can be considered as a fine example of dialogue-based “art in architecture” that has found its place in Münster as an internationally known reference site for art in public space.
“Art in architecture” belongs to a public contractor’s responsibilities. Already in 1950, the German Bundestag established that a certain percentage – usually around 1 % – of the overall building sum should be used for “art in architecture”. This “art in architecture” is to generate a cultural added value, intended to contribute to promoting culture and financially supporting art and, respectively, the artists.
Nancy Princenthal, “Circulatory System. Tom Otterness’ Prints”, in The Print Collector's Newsletter, Vol. 26, No. 1 (March–April 1995), 8–11, here 9.