An Argument for Cooperation

In his new book, Jonas Ekeberg gives a panoramic overview of the Nordic art world and explains why the art scene failed to counteract the right wing’s dismantling of the Nordic institutions.

Henrik Håkansson, The Monsters of Rock Tour, 1996. Photo: Henrik Håkansson.

The Nordic perspective has long been neglected by art historians in the Nordic countries. All the more reason why Jonas Ekeberg’s book, subtitled The Rise and Fall of the Nordic Art Scene 1976–2016, put out by Torpedo Press, is an important publication. The combination of the title Post-Nordic and the “fall” of the subtitle suggests a sad story. Indeed, the book documents how the Nordic collaboration that led to the establishment of an inter-Nordic art institution with its own journal, its own exhibitions, seminars, and residency programmes was shut down, caught in the crossfire of neoliberal right-wing politics and the simultaneous globalisation of the art scene. This prompted what Ekeberg calls a “neoliberalisation of provincialism.” The late Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowski described provincialism as a condition in which one is fixated on what is going on in the centres, but knows nothing about one’s neighbouring countries.

Ekeberg’s book is unusual not only in adopting a Nordic outlook, but also because it encompasses the total institutional infrastructure of art in the region. It illuminates the interaction between art institutions and art scenes, both locally and at a Nordic level, as shaped by prevailing cultural policies, national and international art markets, artist organisations, and self-organised grassroots initiatives. As Ekeberg himself points out, his study of the Nordic art field intertwines three levels of analysis: art history, art sociology, and art geography. This approach results in an unusually nuanced, wide-ranging and well-argued overview of the changes in the Nordic art world from the 1970s to the present, including general political and ideological trends as well as local circumstances and the activities of individuals. The comprehensive scope of this well-written and easily read book is an impressive achievement.

Post-Nordic opens by explaining why the period 1976–2016 was chosen as the object of study: these were the years when “the Nordic art scene went from being isolated and regional via a process of gradual internationalisation towards an almost total assimilation into the global art field.” The terminology and basic concepts used in the book are also explained here. The Nordic art institution is defined as “a societal institution, encompassing all the ideological and organisational set-ups that make the phenomenon of ‘Nordic art’ possible,” but can also be a specific art institution, whereas the “art scene” denotes the more informal structures of the art world. The author emphasises that the institution and scene are mutually dependent on each other.

Of course, Nordic artists had cultivated international connections prior to this period: painters from the Nordic countries came together in colonies in Berlin and Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, and the Surrealists, Fluxus artists, and Situationists all had widespread international networks. Ekeberg’s timeline differs from this because no common Nordic institutional superstructure existed until then. An introductory chapter accounts for this historical background, concluding with a section on the gradual institutionalisation of the Nordic art world after World War II. When negotiations concerning a Nordic economic union collapsed in 1970, a Nordic cultural agreement was established instead, prompting the establishment of the Nordic Art Centre (NKC) in 1978. Other initiatives emerged out of this: a Nordic studio programme (1981), a Nordic biennial (1983), and a Nordic journal (1986). These institutions established the formalised Nordic collaboration that provides the basis for the second chapter’s description of “Nordism and Postmodernism 1976–1986.”

Excursion to Bohus Fortress during the artists’ conference in Göteborg in june 1881. Courtesy of the National Library of Norway, Oslo. Photo: A. Jonason.

Ekeberg describes the history of the Nordic art institutions and exhibitions during this period as characterised by three distinct but overlapping positions: a late modernist position (essentially, abstract landscape painting), a Marxist position (the objectives of which included working for artists’ rights), and an international position (associated with postmodern theory and the neo-Expressionist art scene outside the Nordic countries). Whereas the early 1980s were characterised by a return to painting and the introduction of postmodernism, which takes on various local forms marked by an opposition of metaphysical and Romantic Nordism as against a more theoretical and critical postmodernism, the Nordic art world enters a new era in the mid-1980s. By then, the Nordic Arts Centre had taken on a more central position, and the Nordic Biennial offered up new ground characterised by individual aesthetic positions. At the same time, the Nordic Art Centre organised two seminal exhibitions: Konkret i Norden (Nordic Concrete Art 1907–1960, 1988) and Nordiskt 60-tal (Nordic 1960s Art – Revolution and confrontation 1960–1972, 1990), which anticipated the rediscovery of the neo-avant-garde that took place in the 1990s.

The first of two chapters on the period 1990–1995 describes Nordic postmodernism as “a hegemonic position,” even if Ekeberg also points to internal contradictions, partly between those who maintain the notion of a distinctively Nordic vein of art and a “Late Modern regime focusing on authenticity and earnestness,” and those who completely reject both. The next chapter addressing the same period describes the “New Art Scenes 1990–1995” where, after the financial crisis and the downturn of the art market around 1990, a new generation emerged. This new generation is the main crux of the book, and obviously has Ekeberg’s sympathy. Nor does he hide the fact that he himself was part of this upheaval as a journal editor.

In the chapters on the 1990s, Ekeberg delves into the new urban art scenes driven by young artists and curators, initially in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Oslo, then in Helsinki, Reykjavik, Gothenburg, Malmö, Bergen, and Aarhus. The new art scenes were, according to Ekeberg, not particularly Nordic in their outlook, turning instead to international examples for inspiration. But they evolved into a Nordic network that created a new artistic paradigm in the Nordic countries: “the period of contemporary art.” While these initiatives started out as self-organised art scenes outside the institutions, centred around small galleries, journals, and alternative exhibition venues, having an established art institution to react against was crucial. New institutions also emerged, such as the Center for Dansk Billedkust (CDB), established in 1995, which were attuned to the new “social” and “relational” installation art arising at the time. Ekeberg offers vivid and nuanced descriptions of the tensions between the local, the Nordic, and the international, as well as the attempts to balance critical-alternative and commercial positions. The fragility of this balance is evident from events such as the closure of the Nordic Art Centre in 1996, a decision based on a report rooted in the commercially inspired ideology of New Public Management, which favours stronger public governance and measurable results. The Nordic Art Centre was replaced by the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art (Nifca), which had a closer affinity with the art of the 1990s, focusing on ‘new’ media such as photography, video, installation art, and conceptual art instead of postmodern painting.

The chapter on “The Nordic paradox 1995–2000” traces these institutional changes. The titular paradox partly concerns how the do-it-yourself spirit of the alternative circles soon became professionalised, institutionalised, and internationalised. The shift from the Nordic Art Centre to Nifca was a symptom of this change from Nordic coordination to the facilitation of individual international networks. The paradox also refers to the fact that Nordic art achieved an international breakthrough during the 1990s, riding on a wave of interest in regional and peripheral areas, at the same time as the autonomy of the Nordic institutions weakened.

Installation view, Ynglingagatan 1 c/o G.U.N. Art Attack, Oslo, 1995. Photo: Ynglingagatan 1.

When the international breakthrough of Nordic artists, the so-called “Nordic miracle,” took place in 1998, the next wave in the Nordic art world was already on the way, infused by a renewed interest in theory, politics, digital technology, and globalisation. This is described in the chapter “The art scene splits up 2000–2006.” By this time, the national art scenes had become professionalised, the leading artists of the 1990s generation had been integrated into the international art market, and the prominent Nordic critics and curators were on their way to take over the established institutions in the Nordic region and internationally. But the pan-Nordic institutional base that had served as their starting point was already being dismantled.

The two positions which the 1990s generation had sought to bring together split into what Ekeberg describes as a “political/discursive scene” and a “commercial/spectacular scene.” Ekeberg’s presentation traces the political/discursive scene in its attempt to oppose the political right-wing turn in the Nordic countries and to radicalise not only the art scene, but also the institutions, including Nifca. The “discursive turn,” focused on political themes such as feminism, postcolonialism, globalisation, and critique of capitalism, clashed with the Danish leadership of the Nordic Council of Ministers, which, based on Danish Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen’s neoliberal agenda, first closed the CDB in 2002, followed by Nifca in 2005.

By this point, we have reached the Post-Nordic situation referred to in the title of the book. Its last chapter is called “After the institution 2006–2016.” In his concluding remarks, Ekeberg sees the splitting up of the Nordic scene as partly responsible for the collapse of a joint Nordic art conversation; this collapse meant that the art community no longer had the strength to counter the political right’s destruction of the Nordic institutions. Clearly, his ideal is the more open and pluralistic art scene of the 1990s.

Since mythological conceptions about the Nordic light and landscape were still prevalent in the 1980s, it is hardly surprising that the successful artists and curators were in a hurry to leave the Nordic enclave and become part of the international art scene. Ironically, some of the same mythologies were part of the reason why the art centres of the world began to take an interest in the peripheries. However, the inclusion of some Nordic artists in the central canon does not mean that the balance of power has substantially changed. In the wake of the vogue for Eastern European and Nordic art, we have seen a similar interest in art from Africa, Asia, and more. I agree with Ekeberg that peripheral areas can benefit from joining forces, partly in order to achieve the critical institutional mass required for an active art scene to flourish (all Nordic artists have benefited from the Nordic welfare societies, for example) and partly because of the fact, well known to feminists and queer activists, that you can see different things from the periphery than from the centre – things which can imbue local art scenes with a distinctive character that is not provincial. Whether you agree with that conclusion or not, the fact remains that Ekeberg takes us on a very instructive journey from 1976 to the present day.

Jonas Ekeberg is Kunstkritikk’s Editor-in-Chief. His book is reviewed by guest writer Tania Ørum, associate professor emeritus at the University of Copenhagen, Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences.Post-nordic. The Rise and Fall of the Nordic Art Scene 1976–2016 is forthcoming in English translation from Torpedo Press in 2020.

Elmgren & Dragseth, Untitled, 1995. Oslo One Night Stand, Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, 1995. Photo: Andrea Lange.