Hard moon landing

Cross-aesthetic becomes anti-aesthetic in Louisiana’s vastly overhung exhibition The Moon. And with so many good works on display, that is really a pity. 

Carl Julius Leypold, Cemetery entrance, 1832. Oil on canvas. Photo: Germanishes Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg.

The moon is not only beautiful, I’ve understood that much. And like the moon, art also has more to offer than the aesthetic. Or so, in any case, writes Louisiana’s director Poul Erik Tøjner in his introduction to the museum’s mammoth cross-aesthetic autumn show. “Cross-aesthetic” here names an exhibition wherein art is presented alongside other cultural artefacts: Disney films, a space suit, press photography, and meteorites. And such meetings are at times highly generative. In fact, it is often in these instances that modern and contemporary art begins to really make sense: you see what it responds to, which realities and already-existing objects that anchor it.

But as we’ve come to expect, at Louisiana, the walls are hung to bursting, as if the works were evidence in a trial. In a corner of the exhibition’s first room, the case of moonlight in romantic perceptions of nature has been brought to the stand. And in a practically scientific manner, the matter is approached according to the dictum, the more empiricism, the stronger the argument: no less than seven naturalistic paintings from the 19th century, all featuring the moon, jarringly neighbour Edvard Munch’s entirely different post-impressionist one, as well as four enormous photographs by the contemporary British artist Darren Almond, which, so clumsy amidst the clutter, fail to recall much other than adverts for mineral water.  

But what if there was just one, and we actually felt it: one romantic moon painting, and then Katie Paterson’s light bulb. Then I had more likely been convinced – and more than that, I had known, with complete self-evidence, the strange pull of the moon; that special beauty and sorrow contained in its pale white light. In Tøjner’s insistence on art’s “more than the aesthetic” is a lack of faith in the ability of the aesthetic to impart content – to be its own content. As the exhibition stands, I have read the conclusion on wall texts, and consulted the works as footnotes.

The Moon – From Inner Worlds to Outer Space, Installation view, Louisiana, 2018. Photo: Louisiana.

In the next room, the pictures, at least, are as wacky as the curatorial strategy, which I would place somewhere between the salon-style and a cabinet of curiosities. Two paintings by the Spanish surrealist Remedios Varo in particular are wonderfully bizarre. In Portrait of Dr. Ignacio Chavez (1957) fantastic wooden figures cloaked in their own grey manes are fastened to the stars like marionettes, and Icono (1945) shows a winged unicycle en route to the moon. They are well matched by Camille Henrot’s similarly lunatic October 2015 Horoscope (2015), and had not needed anything more to hold the room (except perhaps Alicja Kwade’s sculptures, which would have benefitted from the eccentric company). Unfortunately, another four surrealist abstractions follow – fascinating and atypical works by Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, and Wolfgang Paalen – that are left hanging like unopened thumbnails, before they in turn are replaced by a video projection of Georges Meliés’ film Voyage to the Moon (1902). We understand that the paintings and the film share in a certain formal language, but that is an intellectual rather than a sensual realisation. The lack of space simply kills the potential for resonance.

By the staircase to the first floor is a circular painting by Marlene Dumas in dialogue with a larger work by Kiki Smith on the landing. At the top of the staircase is a smaller turquoise moon, whereby Smith, quite extraordinarily, is granted the opportunity to finish her sentence. With the moon as their theme, Dumas’ piercing portraiture meets Smith’s long-standing enquiry into the mythologies of motherhood and femininity in an aesthetic sequence that actually works. Finally this feels like an art museum. But turn around on the landing, and Malena Szlam’s video projection intrudes onto the wall above the exit of the adjoining room. It is not that Lunar Almanac (2013), as is the title of Szlam’s work, could not partake in Smith and Dumas’ dynamic, but that there simply shouldn’t have been a work in that place. Just because there is an empty space on the wall, it does not mean you have to fill it.

The Moon – From Inner Worlds to Outer Space, Installation view, Louisiana, 2018. Photo: Louisiana.

Among the few works that are given sufficient space are the video installations – notably Hito Steyerl’s ExtraSpaceCraft (2016) and Rachel Rose’s Everything and More (2015) – for the practical reason that they have sound, and require darkness and seating. Nonetheless, Steyerl’s work, although certainly an asset for the exhibition, is weighed down by the context.

I have always been troubled by the German artist’s promise of content, which is interchangeably built and undermined by the concomitant internet-irony. Often the videos rely on her own sharp texts or the poise of the surrounding works to stay afloat, but at Louisiana, Steyerl is at risk of capsizing. Only just separated from ExtraSpaceCraft by a suite of photographs from the Hubble telescope, is Michael Madsen and Jonathan Houser’s preciously installed and shockingly banal iPad-installation The Search (2018). Here, the audience is invited to test their willingness to leave loved-ones in the service of human kind on a dangerous mission to outer space. In such company is it difficult, as Steyerl attempts, to successfully convey an ambiguous point about technological alienation and neocolonialism. 

There are two ways of realising the cross-aesthetic exhibition: aesthetically or through narrative. The best examples of the latter, in our part of the world, tend to come out of Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, where works are routinely sidelined in favour of the culture-theoretical thesis constructed around them. In that pursuit, many of their uber-academic projects end up missing the mark, but in 2013 they were spot on with The Whole Earth, which not unlike this exhibition took the moon landing in 1969 as its point of departure, reflecting on the philosophical and cultural imprint that would follow from having seen the earth from the outside for the first time. But where HKW’s milestone of a show presented complex and original research, the story that the works, at great expense, are made to illustrate in The Moon is just too shallow and trite to justify the aesthetic sacrifice. One struggles to find coherence between the different chapters, which in themselves are too sprawling to find focus.

Fritz Lang, Frau im Mond, 1929. Photo: Horst von Harbou / Deutsche Kinemathek. 

To realise this type of exhibition aesthetically, however, requires less research, time and money, but perhaps more courage; more faith. At the impeccably elegant Kolumba museum in Cologne, an entire gallery can be filled with a quivering constellation of a small Paul Thek painting, a wooden gothic Christ figure, and a group of ancient Roman urns. That’s it. And it’s as breathtaking as it is seldom seen.

In the big room on the first floor at Louisiana, most of the things could go. Left empty, the meteorites in the glass case along the wall could be set free to lie on the floor. The dusty glove worn by Eugene Cernan when he became the last man on the moon in 1972, could stay on its plinth, the newfound spaciousness giving momentum to the astronaut’s moving observation that the most beautiful thing about the moon is, in fact, the earth itself. That would have set the tone for the highlight of the exhibition: Mark Rothko’s black-grey colour fields, painted in the final months of the artist’s life in 1969. Here, Rothko’s otherwise so wellknown hallmark of abstraction would emerge as actually figurative: a picture of the moon. Or rather, the moon, in a completely straightforward sense, is both abstract and figurative, metaphysical and concrete; in Cernan’s words “an overwhelming world of life in the sky,” and the very spectre of death, the place from which life may be seen but not lived. At such a scenario, my heart would have skipped a beat. Just the thought if it! That is what art can do. But that is not what was in store for us at Louisiana – not this time, either.

Georges Méliè, Le Voyage dans la Lune (film), 1902, still, 14:00 min.