Freedom Faded to a Dream

The partial and contested history of the Scandinavian faction of the Situationist International is surveyed in an ambitious exhibition at Kristianstad Konsthall.

Jørgen Nash, Den lille havfrue uden hoved (postcard), 1972.

Made in collaboration with the Mjellby Art Museum in Halmstad, Oenighet ger styrka (which in English translates roughly to ‘Disagreement gives strength’) at Kristianstad Konsthall brings together work from a number of artists and fellow-travellers associated with the Bauhaus Situationists (BS), the unofficial Scandinavian faction of the Situationist International (SI), active during the 1960s and 70s. Contributions from key protagonists Jørgen Nash and Jens Jørgen Thorsen are on display alongside somewhat lesser-known figures like Björn Rosendahl and Lisbeth Hedeager. Also included are a handful of works bookending these years, such as the short film from 1959 by SI co-founder Guy Debord On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time.

Ambitious in scope, particularly for an institution of this size, the exhibition, though not comprehensive, surveys a complex and, from a Nordic perspective, under-examined history. This is due in part to the fact that many of the documents pertaining to the BS, its activities and members, have long since disappeared. An A4 sign near the Konsthall’s entrance soliciting visitors’ “own memories” of the SI, evidences the partial and contested nature of this history. Just so, the contradictory and often dubious accounts given by the protagonists themselves, many of whom have passed away in recent years, point to the challenges and risks of historicizing in such general terms a movement that was, in both an aesthetic and an ideological sense, purposively incoherent.

Co-ritus, poster from Galerie Jensen, 1962.

Though the last decade has seen heightened critical and theoretical attention brought to bear on the Situationists in Scandinavia, for example, in the form of anthologies edited by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Jakob Jakobsen Expect Anything, Fear Nothing (2011) and Cosmonauts of the Future (2013), the exhibition never explicitly addresses such contemporary reassessments. However, a selection of booklets published in conjunction with All the King’s Horses — an ongoing series of publications and events co-organized by Daniel Birnbaum and Kim West — is presented here, propped up inside a vitrine together with various forms of printed matter produced by the SI, including issues of Situationist Times and Ingo Herrmann’s Charles de Gaulle Target (1963).

This visual anachronism suggests that the BS and the SI’s relationships, respectively, to the present moment remain something of an afterthought for the exhibition’s organizers who, with the assistance of artists Carl Magnus, Mette Aarre and Henrik Pryds Beck, have opted for a conservative presentation in large part comprising historical materials such as posters, publications, documentary photographs and artist’s ephemera.

Among these are a number of press-clippings related to the ‘anti-happening’, carried out in the Danish and Swedish press, surrounding the mysterious decapitation of Edvard Eriksen’s The Little Mermaid in 1964. Nash détourned the scandal as a platform for an elaborate counter-spectacle that led police and press alike on a bewildering wild goose chase. It’s charming in its way. Viewed now, this example of ‘fake news’ serves as a reminder of the dialectical approach that the so-called ‘Nashists’ sought to free themselves from after breaking with the SI’s Paris faction in 1961.

Mette Aare, Cow Performance, 1974.

A significant portion of this show is devoted to the circle of artists at Drakabygget (or The Dragon House), a derelict farm near Örkelljunga purchased in 1960 by Nash along with his brother Asger Jorn and Katja Lindell with the aim to establish a colony devoted to experiments in art and living. Despite the formation of another ‘official’ SI faction headed by J.V. Martin in Copenhagen, the farm became a de-facto outpost for the Situationist movement in the region. Within this rural context, Nash and his various co-conspirators — among whom Hardy Strid and Gordon Fazakerley can be counted — implemented practices informed by Johan Huizinga’s ‘homo-ludens’, a concept in which culture has its origins in play. Reified into assemblages incorporating found objects, bold colors and expressionistic gestures, the social dynamics and forms-of-life at Drakabygget anyway remain mystified. The same can be said of the collective ritual actions performed under the name ‘Co-ritus’ (also a reference to a kind of coitus between author and spectator). In this context, the group’s idiosyncratic appropriation of ‘play’ feels less like a means of resisting normative society than it does mere provocation, a game of juvenile transgression whose rules are determined by freeing repressed libidinal drives.

In this regard, Oenighet ger styrka does much to reproduce the established narrative that the BS were the vitalist, spontaneous and experimental counterparts to the Parisian faction, whose theoretical work has been institutionalized as part of art-critical stock-in-trade. Moreover, the show underscores much of what was neither radical nor experimental among the Situationists. Namely, the group’s stance toward sex and gender — attitudes made painfully clear in the trailer for Thorsen’s 1970 film-adaptation of Henry Miller’s novel Quiet Days in Clichy. Mette Aarre’s production and activity at Ubbeboda Art Center are well-represented here, but on the whole, the BS nevertheless looks very much a boys’ club. Sent-up in Aarre’s Cockfilm (1974), a short video featuring a close-frontal-shot of a penis beset by flies, it looks to have been a movement that few women took seriously.  

Oenighet ger styrka, Jens Jörgen Thorsen, 1971–1975. Foto: Evelyn Thomassen.

On a somewhat different register, installed opposite a painting collectively authored in 1961 at the 5th Situationist Conference in Gothenburg, another work from that year Admiration de la reine verte by CoBrA and SI member Jacqueline de Jong seems to embody the tensions that would eventually split the movement over its stance on the visual arts. On one side, the BS who argued for art as an autonomous field of experimentation; on the other, the SI who viewed as an instrument of broader social and political struggles. Certainly, in a contemporary context where the possibilities for living appear just as limited as the possibilities for art, arguments favoring art’s critical autonomy — improbable though they might seem — remain highly seductive. Perhaps this, above and beyond individual legacies or market concerns, is what owes to the recent waves of interest. Yet, at present, de Jong’s painting seems to carry with it an almost melancholy awareness of the futility of such a position. It becomes all the more striking when considering the extent to which the emancipatory — insofar as they pertained to the art and art-institutions of the time — approaches promoted by the BS concerning audience participation currently hold sway. The day that I visited the konsthall, a workshop for families called ‘scent-dérive’ took place in conjunction with a “contemporary art biennial for kids and teens.”

As one of the narrators in Debord’s film remarks, “When freedom is practiced in a closed circle, it fades into a dream, becomes a mere image of itself…at any moment ‘ordinary life’ may prevail once again.” While this might be true at a given moment of time, a historical viewpoint suggests a much more dynamic process unfolding. That is to say, of temporally expanding spheres of influence. Though certainly faded and at times dream-like, this exhibition should be commended for its initiative. Its shortcomings, however, highlight the importance of developing complex and focused understandings of how those images were — and continue to be — produced.

Installation view from Oenighet ger styrka at Kristianstad Konsthall: Photo: Evelyn Thomasson.