An Unforgettable Year

Few will feel any great desire to look back on 2020. Even so, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic provided some memorable artistic highlights in the Nordic countries.

Ways of Seeing Collective, WOS-TV, 2020, still from video. Photo: Birgitte Sigmundstad.

2020! What to say? It’s certainly a year that will be remembered, no matter how fervently we may want to forget it. A year which spawned a worldwide pandemic, COVID-19, which has not only taken lives, but also curtailed our opportunities for normal social interaction and travel, trailed unemployment in its wake, and laid waste to the life’s work of many. Artists and culture workers are among those who have been – and continue to be – greatly affected by restrictions and lockdowns, and although a range of compensation schemes on varying scales have been launched here in the Nordic region, you will still find people and projects that have fallen outside the scope of such aid. Now, at the very beginning of 2021, the question of when museums and galleries in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark can resume normal operations remains fraught with uncertainty.

Ever since 2011, Kunstkritikk has rounded off each year with an advent calendar, asking twenty-four writers – a mix of our own critics and editors joined by other figures from the art world – to share their favourites from the past year in art. For the 2020 advent calendar, we adjusted the concept’s focus by emphasising that we wanted the listings to consist of three exhibitions presented in the Nordic countries. Applying a total focus on exhibitions is, of course, debatable given that art comes in so many other formats, and the choice may seem slightly tone-deaf in a year when museums and galleries had to close their doors for long stretches at a time and rethink their activities. However, the urge to experience art in physical spaces was part of the reason why we wanted to prioritise exhibitions.

At any rate, you will always find some participants taking certain liberties when faced with a strict concept, so even though this year’s ‘best of’ procession mainly comprises a selection of exhibitions, some of our contributors have made sure to include other art-related events that had an impact on 2020. It almost goes without saying that the geographic limits imposed were less restrictive than they might have felt in a more typical year: few have ventured outside their own home country during the past nine months.

The distinction of being most frequently mentioned in the advent calendar goes to the Ways of Seeing Collective from Norway. It was highlighted three times: twice for the YouTube series Ways of Seeing-TV, and once in connection with the trial of Laila Bertheussen, the partner of the former Minister of Justice, which took place this autumn – an event which WOS-TV covered in its own distinctive way. Leif Magne Tangen, intendant of Tromsø Kunstforening, described the project as quite simply “the best Norwegian TV has to offer in 2020.”

The fact that the Ways of Seeing Collective, which takes an interdisciplinary, collective, and activist approach to its work, and focuses on calling attention to right-wing extremism in society, is the most frequently mentioned not only says something about the impossibility of fully calling our advent calendar contributors to order; more than anything, it also speaks to how important and relevant its project has been ever since the play Ways of Seeing premiered at Oslo’s Black Box Teater in 2018.

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää / Áillohaš, Sketch, 1983. Photo: Lásságámmi Foundation.

To the extent that Kunstkritikk’s advent calendar can be considered a ‘best of’ list, second place is shared by no less than seven exhibitions, each of which was singled out twice. The only Norwegian exhibition among them is Henie Onstad Kunstsenter’s large retrospective featuring Sámi artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, Áillohaš (1943–2001). Commenting on this exhibition, artist Synnøve Persen said that it “will be an excellent point of entry for those who do not know Sámi culture very well,” adding that it “will also give Sámi visitors new insights about themselves, paving a way into their own culture through art.”

Three Danish exhibitions were mentioned twice. This includes Anna Weile Kjær’s group exhibition Ghosthouse at the Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art in Copenhagen. Kunstkritikk’s critic Louise Steiwer described it as “the freshest and most innovative exhibition format of the year,” reporting that “between ghouls and clowns, kitsch and absurd murder scenes, a genuinely unheimlich energy arose, one that lingered in the body for several days.”

Goodiepal’s wildly proliferating solo exhibition Unboxing the Goodiepal Collection at Statens Museum for Kunst was also listed twice. According to Kunstkritikk’s Danish editor, Pernille Albrethsen, Goodiepal showed “what an exhibition can be, how a conversation about art can be conducted, and – not least – that we actually have quite an experimental national gallery in Denmark.”

Ursula Reuter Christiansen’s To the Blue Hell at the artist-run venue Bizarro in Copenhagen, an exhibition described by artist Tal R as “monuments at knee height with little mother-of-pearl-coloured women calling out to each other, to themselves, and to secrets in general,” was the final Danish exhibition to appear twice in the calendar.

Goodiepal in his private collection at the National Gallery of Denmark. Photo: SMK.

Three Swedish exhibitions joined in sharing the second-place podium. Michael Rakowitz’s The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Room G) at Malmö Konsthall and Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm, addressed the destruction of cultural artefacts from early Mesopotamia. “Here it became clear how these important examples of humanity’s creations can never be remade; they are truly lost. However, something else happens in their reconstruction: authenticity shifts, new insights and realisations arise, and memories are awakened,” said the Danish artist duo Hesselholdt & Mejlvang about Rakowitz’s show.

Writing about Johanna Gustafsson Fürst’s Graft the Words, Whip my Tongue at Accelerator in Stockholm, Kunstkritikk’s critic Valerie Kyeyune Backström said: “The movement, resistance, and musicality of Gustafsson Fürst’s sculptures as they came up against issues of native tongue and language policy will stay with me for a long time.” The exhibition, which addresses the ‘Swedification’ (forcible assimilation) of Tornedalen, was also among the highlights chosen by Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen, who wrote a strong and personal review for Kunstkritikk in January 2020.

Lappalainen is also one of two contributors to mention Éva Mag’s There Is a Plan for This at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. “People as scrap; scrap as carrier of intimate relationships. In all this, the difficulty of being together in an everyday life defined by the relationship to production. The exhibition was incredible,” he wrote.

Fourteen of the exhibitions featured in the calendar are group shows, while more than thirty are solo presentations. In terms of the solo shows, painting predominates (including Miriam Cahn, Lena Cronquist, Faith Ringgold, Runhild Hundeide, Calle Segelberg, Lina Bjerneld, and Windy Fur Rundgren), but most media are represented. There is also a narrow majority of women artists in this year’s calendar, and the picture presented of Nordic contemporary art in 2020 is relatively diverse. Twenty-one of the exhibitions mentioned were reviewed in Kunstkritikk during the year.

There are notably few major museum exhibitions among those selected by the calendar contributors – the main emphasis is on kunsthalles and galleries. This may, of course, simply reflect the interests of our various contributors. But it also seems reasonable to attribute this to the fact that most museums have had to close down for parts of the year, cancelling or postponing parts of their planned programme. As far as Norway is concerned, the lack of museum exhibitions in the calendar is quite obviously a consequence of how the new National Museum, which was due to open in 2020, remains an impregnable fortress – which is not solely due to the pandemic.

Johanna Gustafsson Fürst, L/anguish–But if the Word Gags, Does Not Nourish, Bite it Off, 2019. Photo: Christian Saltas.

Bergen Kunsthall tends to describe its annual Festival Exhibition – which in 2020 was awarded to Sámi artist Joar Nango, an event I highlighted in my own contribution to the calendar – as the most prestigious assignment a Norwegian artist can be awarded in their native country. A few years ago, this assertion was debatable, as having a major exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art was also quite the thing. But it’s been a while since Tori Wrånes’s magical solo show took over the old museum’s halls before they permanently closed in 2017.

Now, the opening of the National Museum has been postponed until 2022 – a scandalous situation, and one which affects the entire Norwegian art world, not least Norwegian artists. Four to five years without a functioning museum of contemporary art has a palpable impact. Although the National Museum seems to be a black hole that gobbles up money and professional competence, the Norwegian art scene is, fortunately, full of life, and despite the pandemic a number of new exhibition venues popped up in 2020. Of course, the artist-run scene, smaller institutions, and private museums such as Astrup Fearnley and Henie Onstad cannot and should not perform the role that ought to have been played by the still-absent National Museum.

Regarding our contributors’ deviations from our request to stick to exhibitions, these fall into two main categories. Unsurprisingly, one consists of various digital formats such as the aforementioned YouTube series WOS-TV, as well as Finnish artist Jaako Pallasvuo’s Instagram Avocado Ibuprofen, and British-Danish artist duo Sophie Carapetian and Jakob Jakobsen’s podcast Social Crisis! Mental Crisis! The second category consists – also unsurprisingly – of activist manifestations such as the major Black Lives Matter rally in Oslo on 5 June, as well as another BLM-related protest: the so-called ‘bust action’ in Copenhagen, which saw a plaster bust of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ founder, Frederik V, thrown into the Copenhagen canals and destroyed.

Considering the relevance of these events, it is appropriate that the contributors did not do exactly as we asked. Although digitalisation is nothing new, our dependence on screens has defined the experience of 2020. And the global spread of the Black Lives Matter movement was clearly one of the year’s most significant happenings, one that will undoubtedly continue to be an important force both in and outside the realm of art.

For all contributions to Kunstkritikk’s Advent Calendar 2020, see here.

Faith Ringgold, American Collection #1: We Came To America, 1997. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Art by Women Collection, Gift of Linda Lee Alter.