Contemporary, All Too Contemporary

This year’s Moderna Exhibition showcases art from the Baltic region, mixing work from different epochs. The result is an exhibition without a guiding idea, so contemporary that it falls out of step with the times.

Henning Lundkvist, SPQR(M)(Roam Sweet Rome), 2013. © Henning Lundkvist
Henning Lundkvist, SPQR(M)(Roam Sweet Rome), 2013. © Henning Lundkvist

It is 2014 and The Moderna Exhibition has moved from Stockholm to Malmö. The exhibition’s budget has been reduced and it no longer solely represents the Swedish art scene. The exhibition’s thirty-eight artists also hail from Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Denmark – all the Baltic countries except the largest: Russia and Germany.

On the whole this quadrennial presents fifty works of art, some over forty years old. As such, it is not primarily a presentation of what artists are doing right now. The selection criterion instead seems to be artworks and artists that the curatorial team – curator Andreas Nilsson, co-curator Maija Rudovska and assistant curator Julia Björnberg – believes to be relevant for our contemporary moment and for the exhibition’s theme, Society Acts, which refers both to ‘acts’ as in actions and to the verb to act.

The exhibition’s first two incarnations were held at the Moderna museet in Stockholm in 2006 and 2010 during Lars Nittve’s tenure as director. In those two shows it was interesting how the shows’ very concept felt so anachronistically nationalistic – as if the format of the exhibition itself mimicked a time that has past, which created a peculiar tension in the Swedish art scene.

Some said this was a way for the Moderna museet to own up to their responsibility as the national representative for contemporary art, while others dismissed it as a grandiose belly flop. When The Moderna Exhibition opened in Malmö, it was not surrounded by any of these discussions or moments of tension. The fact is that at first glance, Society Acts appears to be an exhibition not claiming to show any sort of representative sample of anything at all.

Ugnius Gelguda & Neringa Černiauskaitė, Last Time We Walked on a Frozen River (still), 2013. © Ugnius Gelguda & Neringa Černiauskaitė.
Ugnius Gelguda & Neringa Černiauskaitė, Last Time We Walked on a Frozen River (still), 2013. © Ugnius Gelguda & Neringa Černiauskaitė.

How could this be? In order to answer that question, I think we need to understand how the earlier exhibitions in 2006 and 2010 worked in terms of desire. The strategy of those exhibitions’ politics of desire was to regulate the lack. They forced the audience to think about the ones included and excluded from this  provisional canon, which the country’s largest public institution for contemporary art decided to bear on its shoulders. Complementing this strategy was the decision to by provide a large amount of individual space to each artist in the exhibition.

In Malmö in 2014, a completely different strategy as to the politics of desire applies. Here the organizers have instead started by identifying a lack: Sweden’s close relation to Western Europe and the USA has been at the expense of their relationship with neighboring countries in the Baltic region. Moderna wants to re-establish this relationship by tying it to the 100th anniversary of The Baltic Exhibition, which took place in Malmö in 1914. That said, few works actually deal concretely with the changes in the region. Exceptions do exist, however, like Kristina Norman’s video After War from 2009, where she re-created a bronze memorial to Russian soldiers who died during World War II, the original of which had been relocated from Tallinn’s center out to a suburb.

We do not learn much about The Baltic Exhibition as such, besides that Society Acts creates a horizon for imagining a regional art scene, beyond the Swedish and the Nordic. What is said about The Baltic Exhibition is that it was broad and culturally radical – two precise qualities that no one seems to have the ambition to bring to the 2014 exhibition. Instead, it is a highly comparative selection that also includes a number of earlier works from Moderna’s collection.

The Moderna Exhibition 2014 – Society Acts (installation view). Photo: Anna Rowland.
The Moderna Exhibition 2014 – Society Acts (installation view). Photo: Anna Rowland.

The first work that I encounter is Tadeusz Kantor’s diptych Please Sign! Unlike in 1965, the public is not permitted to scribble on the work’s lower part. Moderna has instead chosen to complement the painting with a protective rope. To contemplate other people’s interaction is also an action.

J.O. Mallander’s photo series Brancusi Study depicts birds flying over the elms of Kungsträdgården in Stockholm in the midst of the Elm Conflict in 1971. This poetic conceptualism also arises in Björn Lövin’s The Confining Father and Den närslutande modern [The Smothering Mother] from 1988. If Mallander’s work draws attention to the possibility of exploring aesthetic sensibility in the midst of a political action, then Lövin’s work points to the possibility of developing one’s own political analysis and simultaneously drawing formal consequences out of a work.  His works are premised on the division of the population into A, B, and C groupings and his sculptures depict the triumph of the C-people. This is a work that is interesting to see historically, and which builds on an analysis of society that is still quite reasonable, but contributes little to today’s art and political analyses. Lövin’s method of drawing attention to formal qualities that cannot be reduced to a representation of its context returns in several works throughout the exhibition. For example, in a typographic break-up of the ampersand symbol in Henning Lundkvist’s work Divide & Rule (&variations).

Johanna Gustafsson Fürst, White Pillars, 2014. © Courtesy the artist. Photo: Anna Rowland.
Johanna Gustafsson Fürst, White Pillars, 2014. © Courtesy the artist. Photo: Anna Rowland.

There are also various works that deal with the popular theme of the interaction between human and inhuman bodies. It emerges most typically in Essi Kausalainen’s three videoworks, A B C, Orchard, and Pine & Bamboo Palm from 2013. Each video contains a scene where people, plants and objects repeat strange movements together. These are well-realized and representative works, so contemporary that their subject matter falls out of step with the times.

In a section ordinary contemporary art works that at least would have been a little bit funny to see if they had been made and shown eight years ago, at The Moderna Exhibition in 2006, is Mika Taanila’s video My Silence. I’m sorry, but to today only cut the dialogue out of a narrative film and show facial expressions during the silence between words in a conversation should barely be allowed into a high school art class. But it is contemporary, all too contemporary. Also methodologically impoverished is Anna Lundh’s Front-time Reworkings #2, a comparative visual study between Öyvind Fahlström’s documentary Revolution Now, about the protest movements in 1960s New York and Chicago, and her own footage from Occupy Wall Street.

Laukasz Jastrubczak’s work compares the alchemist’s ability to generate gold and the artist’s ability to make art out of anything. The parable may seem flat, but in the experimental or almost half-finished quality of Jastrubczak’s work something is present that is missing in the exhibition overall.

The Moderna Exhibition 2014 – Society Acts (installation view). Photo: Anna Rowland.
The Moderna Exhibition 2014 – Society Acts (installation view). Photo: Anna Rowland.

In the museum’s entrance one can pick up a little pin featuring the text «I like Older Women». It proves to be part of Mette Winckelman’s triptych with the same name. The badge is presented as a copy of a badge from the 1970s that the artist found at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. The text is accompanied by a graphic of a triangle, a form that she has since used to create a large sculpture out in the turbine hall, which, in turn, is complemented by the third work in the triptych: an enormous abstract painting. Both the painting and the sculpture write themselves form-wise in a masculine coded modernism, an association that with great humor redirects towards questions about more or less closed communities alongside the heteronormative. The different levels in this work make it one of the exhibition’s absolute best. These games with institutions also go hand in hand with the video documentation of the performance work I am a Helicopter, Camera, Queen, which Emily Roydson carried out at Tate in 2012 and which is streamed on YouTube: 105 volunteers that identify as queer and/or feminist move together with the camera through the gallery space in a way that both recognizes power-relations between the camera and the volunteers, as well as the relative power relations that arise in the continuous reorganization of the bodies. It is a shame that Roydson didn’t make a specific work for Moderna museet.

There is no shortage of exciting works in The Moderna Exhibition, but after spending three hours in the space I am nonetheless struck by the exhibition form’s almost paralyzing effect. Is art actually this boring? Does the art here have such low ambitions? To find the answer to why the exhibition format itself inspires such dejection, I turn to the catalog.

Essi Kausalainen, Orchard (stillbild), 2013. © Essi Kausalainen.
Essi Kausalainen, Orchard (still), 2013. © Essi Kausalainen.

Curator Andreas Nilsson begins the introduction with a famous Michel Foucault quote from 1984, which exists in Swedish translation but is here cited in English. It is about how we now live in an epoch of simultaneity, where concepts like time and history are experienced through a network that connects different points and intersects with its own skein. This is an image that has become immensely popular when talking about art space, not in the least since the rise of the internet. But what we meet over the two floors of The Moderna Exhibition in Malmö is not a group exhibition in network form – not even in some rhizomatic circumlocutions.

Instead, the exhibition’s politics of presentation seems to build on a pragmatic assimilation and random mixing of works with very different modes of expression. It will make me cry out at the exhibition’s pedagogical clarity, but it can be noted that if the aim is that even those who work everyday with contemporary art have a difficult time orientating themselves amongst the individual works, so it is a curatorial success. If this is the point of the installation in the turbine hall, however, then I do not understand how this relates to the theme, or what the point of such a juxtaposition might be.

If earlier Moderna Exhibitions distinctly gave a lot of space to individual artistry, the initial impression of the incarnation in Malmö is rather messy. This is reinforced by the fact that it is easy to incorrectly connect the walltexts with their respective artworks. Another aesthetic affect of this is that the notion of the artist as auteur is toned down in favor of a coherent exhibition. This might be a sensible choice, but it also creates two large problems. For this to be effective, the exhibition must have something to say that in some sense is based on the collection as a whole. The problem is that the selection is very vague. And any clear connection between the exhibition’s form and the artworks is difficult to see. If something «acts» through the artworks, how does the community act through the exhibition? How should we understand The Moderna Exhibition as auteur?  What does it mean that Moderna museet says that they can put together the world however they like, just so that one can come to the historical-philosophical insight that all art is potentially contemporary? Of all the endless possibilities that this freedom suggests, they have also created Society Acts, an exhibition entirely without appeal.

The Moderna Exhibition 2014 – Society Acts (installation view). Photo: Anna Rowland.
The Moderna Exhibition 2014 – Society Acts (installation view). Photo: Anna Rowland.