Dare 2 Love Yourself and Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast
While art professionals – and lovers – from all over the world did their bi-annual pilgrimage to Venice in summer 2013 to get an overview of the global state of the arts, the seventh Momentum Biennial in the Norwegian town Moss, about a 40 minutes train ride from Oslo, insisted on its regional focus by offering a sample of contemporary art from the Nordic countries for those who prefer a more intimate venue. The biennial has been organized since 1998 – the year when the acclaimed Swiss curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist succeeded in drawing the attention of the international art world to Scandinavia with his declaration of the “Nordic miracle”. The late 1990’s also saw the launching of a new trans-Nordic art magazine, NU (initiated by NIFCA, the Nordic Institute For Contemporary Art), a fusion of the Finnish magazine Siksi and the Swedish Index. But while the attention of the art world has moved on to new shifting parts of the world and neither NU nor NIFCA exist today, the Momentum Biennial has established itself, at least in the Nordic region, as a vector not just of the currents in contemporary Nordic art but also – and maybe just as importantly – as an indicator of the curatorial praxis.
Moss is far from being the eye of the storm and it might appear a little random to place an art biennial in a bashful small Norwegian town. But then again, the concept is precisely not to be a “centre”. The Momentum Biennial has the specific advantage of being located in an old industrial site in the district Møllebyen in the old part of Moss. The Momentum Kunsthall, where the main exhibition is presented, is a former brewery, and although this legacy can hardly be detected inside the building today, this choice of location brilliantly reflects the Zeitgeist of the art world today. It is surprisingly coherent with the current resurrection of site-specificity and valorisation of the architectural frame that we see in some of the most innovative exhibition formats, such as the recent Museum of Everything which, originally installed in an abandoned, dilapidated school in Paris, is a world-travelling alternative art space directed by the former head of Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Marc-Olivier Wahler, whose stated objective is to “re-enchant the world”. Ironically, the place and its atmosphere seems to become charged with new meaning in this latest phase of the digital age – maybe because the internet has taken over the neutral white cube art space that used be common practice in galleries and museums.
An exhibition space such as the Momentum building in Moss offers exceptional opportunities for creating a dialogue between different periods and cultural significations, taking advantage of the particular ambiance of the place and for presenting works and formats that would be difficult to integrate in a more traditional art space. Although it undoubtedly has been part of the considerations of the two curators, Power Ekroth and Erlend Hammer, to exploit this potential, the intentions remain somewhat unfulfilled because several projects proved unrealisable. However, a well-functioning examination of the site-specificity is the installation by Sex Tags in a lower separate part of the building, a fusion of place with “street art” and sound. The installation consists of industrial electronic music played in a trashy, tagged cave-like space from which the visitors are prevented access by a fence. While this kind of installation usually does not translate easily to an art space, it feels authentic in these ancient industrial surroundings that would be the perfect hide-out for joint-smoking young escapists.
Inside the Momentum building, one’s attention is immediately directed away from Moss and the industrial surroundings as the soft pink wall that leads from the entrance into the exhibition’s lower floor, uncovers a cacophonous and a wonderfully kitsch installation of light boxes with bright coloured photographs of exotic birds and waterfalls. The Tower of Babel, created in 2011 by Goran Hassanpour, is the idealistic-utopian ouverture to the Swedish-Norvegian curator Power Ekroth’s half of the biennale. There is an air of potentiality in her exhibition with the evocative and slightly self-contradictory title Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, and many of the presented works are examinations of reality, subjective perception and sensibility. An example of this is Hassan Khan’s Muslimgauze R.I.P. (2010) that pays tribute to the experimental British musician Bryn Jones. The latter took a strong position against the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and positioned himself as an important renewer of electronic, industrial music by fusing it with oriental rhythms – and yet lived his entire life in the same house in Manchester and never traveled to the Middle East. Or the disquieting Direct Approach by Stine Marie Jacobsen, where nine random persons describe a horrifying movie scene that has marked them for life and afterwards re-enact the scenes in new stagings that are in several cases actually more frightening, in their non-explicit, understated portrayals of violence, than the original film versions.
The potentiality aspect is not only reflected in the actual, presented works, but also in the descriptions of projects that for different reasons were unrealisable; the most remarkable being Cevdet Erek’s idea of making a sound installation – an auditory timeline – in a nearby empty, industrial space and Johan Zetterquist’s highly conceptual proposal to tow a giant oil tanker on to the deserted industrial ground neighbouring the Momentum Kunsthall and place it upside down (Proposal No 29 A Monument Celebrating the End of Capitalism as We Know It, 2013). According to the text, the latter project was, not surprisingly, too ambitious for the biennial budget, but the descriptions of this and the timeline proposal nonetheless suggest another imaginary dimension to the exhibition that extends the delimited physical exhibition space.
Ekroth’s eclectic mix of media and subject matters and her labyrinthine spatial sequence with separating walls and built-in video rooms stands in stark contrast to the rigour and clarity of the exhibition in the other side of the Momentum building, curated by Norwegian Erlend Hammer. While this biased approach might ensure a certain cosmological order or “feng shui” in the biennale, the two conspirators have seemingly not made much of an attempt to install coherence and consistency between the two parts, rather the contrary; they make a virtue of their complementarity.
Hammer’s inciting catch-phrase title, Dare 2 Love Yourself, alludes to popular culture and the television reality and talent shows, but the exhibition is more implosive than extroverted and assertive. While the mediation and narrative occupies a prominent position in Ekroth’s exhibition, there are no accompanying texts in Hammer’s section and the artists’ names, titles and years of creation of the works are to be looked up in the paper sheets that are discretely placed next to the entrance. And with a systematic logic that would be worthy of a factory, the different artistic medias are divided into separate sections: one for paintings, one for sculptures, and a small suite of separate rooms for videos and installations. On the other hand there are no separations between the individual works in the two large main rooms, and the aesthetic and material correspondence between the works exhibited here appears to be one of the fundamental, underlying principles. The curator turns himself into producer of a new coloristic formalist synthesis. Each of the two main halls are dominated by a large, colourful construction. The hall with paintings of a large box-like structure, painted on the inner walls in four different colours that match the colours of the paintings that are presented on its walls. The box is open towards the entrance and the back of the exhibition room and stages a surprising and original dialogue between the modernist paintings, made over a rather large time span – from the 1920’s until the 1950’s – by the artist Charlotte Wankel and the coloristic paintings by the contemporary artist Bjarne Melgaard. The box further serves as a perspectivist frame for the poetic, existentialist paintings Choreography of Species: Rosa Tannenzapfen (2013) and Our Lifestyle is not up for negotiation (2012) by Paolo Chiasera. The upstairs room is defined by Knut Henrik Henriksen’s semi-circular green painted wooden construction Villa Savoye redrawn with an Opel Astra (2006) that alludes to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s influential modernist chef-d’oeuvre in a Parisian suburb. The geometrical volumes of Le Corbusier’s concrete building have here been reduced to a vividly coloured outline as a humoristic-ironic radicalisation of the modernist dogmatics.
The Nordic as a unifying concept for the biennial has throughout the years been abandoned a few times by the various curators chosen to head the biennales, with the rationale that the nationalist or regionalist discourse has been out-dated. And although this year’s curators follow the Nordic lead with a particularly large representation of Norwegian artists, they do not seem to have taken the concept too seriously. Besides the large number of artists from Norway, the selected artists represent as many countries outside Scandinavia as within. Iceland and the Baltic countries are, however, perhaps somewhat surprising, not represented even though both regions have a strong presence on the current international art scene. The Nordic denominator is rather subtle if it even exists, but for a biennial that wants to be regional and (site-)specific more than all-embracing and omnivore this actually makes quite good sense.
Moss, Norway, 22 June – 29 September 2013