An Arranged Marriage

Juxtaposing Simon Evans and Öyvind Fahlström at Kunsthal Charlottenborg is not a particularly good idea. However, it offers an opportunity to finally experience Fahlström’s poignant Pop politics in Copenhagen.

Öyvind Fahlström, Green Pool, 1968/1969. Variabel struktur. Tempera og blæk på vinylelementer fæstnet på flamingomed blyvægte i en plexiglas-pool med farvet vand. Foto: Anders Sune Berg ©Sharon Avery-Fahlström/Copydan Courtesy Aurel Scheibler, Berlin.
Öyvind Fahlström, Green Pool, 1968/1969. Variable structure. Tempera and ink on vinyl element attached to polystyrene foam fitted with lead weights in an acrylic glass pool filled with coloured water. Photo: Anders Sune Berg ©Sharon Avery-Fahlström/Copydan Courtesy Aurel Scheibler, Berlin.

Duo exhibitions are difficult, and yet the genre is used by many major Danish art institutions. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art may be the one museum to use the format most frequently – staging Munch vs. Warhol in 2010, and later this year we will see Jackson Pollock vs. Asger Jorn. ARoS also jumped on the bandwagon earlier this year with no less than a trio exhibition featuring James Lee Byars, Anish Kapoor, and Yves Klein. The distinctive trait of such exhibitions is that they are not group exhibitions featuring just a few artists; rather, they are a kind of solo presentations within a shared exhibition framework. Selected works from the two artists’ oeuvres are compared and contrasted, and we see – or, more accurately, are encouraged to see – affinities and differences. In rare cases the juxtaposition of works sheds new light on an artist’s work, illuminating previously unnoticed aspects. However, such undertakings are at risk of ending up a little too much as mere museum education exercises; at worst they even impede or disrupt the experience of the individual oeuvres.

Simon Evans, Symptoms of Loneliness, 2009. Foto: Andrea and José Olympio Collection.
Simon Evans, Symptoms of Loneliness, 2009. Photo: Andrea and José Olympio Collection.

Charlottenborg’s small-scale duo exhibition, originally developed for Kunsthalle Düsseldorf by Elodie Evers and Magadalena Holzhey, brings together a dead world-famous star, Öyvind Fahlström, and the work of a living contemporary artist, Simon Evans, while focusing on a shared penchant for mapping things and for cartographic presentations of everyday life and consumption patterns (Evans) and high-stake politics (Fahlström). The similarities are particularly obvious in the first two rooms, which present works on paper and canvas – here, the combinations of image and text constitute a kind of “mapping” executed in a cartoon-like style rich in detail.

Evans in particular makes minute and nitty-gritty details a point in their own right, using many layers of small pieces of adhesive tape and paper superimposed on top of each other, with tiny writing and drawings scribbled on top. Whereas Fahlström focuses on mapping out power balances associated with culture, economy, or geopolitics, Evans is more interested in slogans, bon-mots, proverbs, or simple words, often combined in surprising constellations with small, stamp-sized illustrations, e.g. in the work Life Garage Sales (2010) with its plethora of statements, e.g. “Military look as a look” accompanied by a drawing of a green shirt; “Madame Bovary” accompanied by a picture of a dildo; “Human Error” on a bottle of perfume, etc. These are small, ephemeral bubbles, peculiar juxtapositions of words and images possessed of the same silliness as David Shrigley, which also leaves you somewhat fatigued with all the quaint cultural critique after you have read the first 15 “slogans”.

Simon Evans, R.I.P., 2012. Foto: © Simon Evans, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery New York/Shanghai og Galeria Fortes Vilaca.
Simon Evans, R.I.P., 2012. Photo: © Simon Evans, Courtesy James Cohan Gallery New York/Shanghai og Galeria Fortes Vilaca.

Only few artists would be able to compare favourably (or even adequately) with Fahlström, but the decision to compare them was not mine, but the exhibition’s own. And even though the cartographic affinities may be obvious, the question is where this – mainly stylistic – observation actually leads us. I am happy to immerse myself in Fahlström’s incisive, pop political takes on our world order – whereas I take a rather more fleeting interest in the map of London’s underground system subjected to Evans’ “I love married love”, “I love Emo boys”, and similar statements replacing the names of train stations.

Perhaps it is also true that Fahlström’s reading and interpretation of the world is so idiosyncratic and radical, certainly in its own day, that he might not be the best choice of artist for this kind of exhibition tango. Fahlström’s work is characterised by its extremely courageous approach to the artwork’s form, and his complex mixture of pop, politics, and poetry has always made it difficult to carry out a traditional Pop art reading – whereas Evans can, to a far greater degree, be seen as a derivative of such an approach.

Indeed, it seems as if Charlottenborg’s presentation takes this imbalance into account by devoting two of the four exhibition rooms almost exclusively to Fahlström treasures. One room presents one of his famous variable paintings with movable magnetic motifs, World Trade Monopoly (1970) – the other is entirely empty, lit only by a single Charlottenborg lamp that beams magically down upon a transparent acrylic glass container filled with synthetic grass-green water. Entitled Green Pool (1968), the work features painted paper counters depicting big cats and soldiers floating randomly on top of the liquid, their smooth, languid movements determined by wind and movement around them, by political and poetic circumstances. As Sharon Avery-Fahlström, the legendary artist’s widow (in many senses of the term), succinctly put it at the press preview: “It’s the panthers and the paramilitaries. It’s the same today.”

Öyvind Fahlström, Black House, 1968. Foto: ©Sharon Avery-Fahlström / Copydan Courtesy Aurel Scheibler, Berlin.
Öyvind Fahlström, Black House, 1968. Photo: ©Sharon Avery-Fahlström / Copydan Courtesy Aurel Scheibler, Berlin.

Sometimes, however, you are happy to see past all kinds of well-intentioned curating and various arguments about dialogue between artists and all that jazz. That is exactly how I feel about this exhibition. For the simple fact that it is now possible, on Danish soil, to experience strong and important works (works that may stem from the artist’s very best period) by Fahlström, a Swedish artist who has never been exhibited to any great extent in Denmark – probably because he was rather too sophisticated for Danish dictums demanding that he should stick with either poetry or politics rather than both at once – is in itself a sufficiently strong argument for staging an exhibition. Even so, there can be no doubt that both artists would have been better served if they had been allowed to dance separate solo parts in separate productions.