Have you ever heard the old comedic adage, “to put a hat on top of a hat?”It calls a great image to mind, if nothing else. A second hat is the most unnecessary of accessories. There is also that great scene in Dumb and Dumber(1994) where Lloyd reveals that he was wearing gloves on top of gloves all the while Harry’s fingers were gloveless and freezing. Writing a review, in many ways, is the act of sifting through the stack of possible interpretational hats that is presented to you before the actual encounter with, for instance, an exhibition. Frameworks on top of frameworks.
In small cities like Oslo, art world encounters can get complicated. Whether it’s that ex you’re critically trying to avoid, or perhaps that friend/curator/committee member whose hat you spit into while in a drunken stupor (and whom you are definitely not yet ready to face), the cringey encounter is bound to happen sooner or later when you’re out werewolfing the night. The result is a continuous breach of socio-professional boundaries. It is the modus operandi of the art world, especially in the tiniest of art capitals.
Consider my own messy existence: I am one of those multi-hyphenate artist-writer-curator types. Talk about which hat to wear. I have been asked to review the efforts of what some might call my peers in an exhibition curated by an artist-run space, inside a larger art institution, which also happens to be the building that houses both my studio and the offices of this journal, Kunstkritikk. Money is at least always clarifying: my practice is as congruent as an apple and a chair, but when it’s for hire, it is a small fabergéegg of ‘cultural value.’My editor sees me as a “scene-person,” hence pointing to this value in order to hire it. It’s really not that complicated.
The encounter is taking place. I am at Kunstnernes Hus in the exhibition titled Destiny’s Gratinée, curated by the young ingénueart space Destiny’s Atelier just a few blocks away. I am walking through the exhibition, letting my eyes follow what they are most attracted to, and find that I am unable – or perhaps unwilling –to look at anything for too long. Along the floor, there is a brittle-looking row of sculptural sailboats made of marble and blue resin by Aljoša Erakovićthat makes me long for summer. Another small sculptural grouping by Beatrice Alexanian includes a video that slowly scrolls through blurry images of buildings and surfaces of concrete, tile, and other rubble. Next to the monitor is a small mesh-like steel object and an institutional conference table. There is a simple, knitted rug on the floor that depicts a scene with clotheslines hanging against buildings.At the opening, a friend leans in and says, “it’s about architecture.” I look around and see that Roddy Bell’s paintings also suggest classical-leaning Grand Tour-type architecture. I think to myself, “maybe.”
The truth is that it is difficult to care, and I find it annoying. I am sitting inside the cafe of Kunstnernes Hus drinking my slightly discounted coffee and looking at the exhibition text, which includes a poetic line and Destiny’s own readings of the artworks. Sometimes, we forget that this obligatory addendum to any and all exhibitions first became a thing on the 90s commercial gallery scene. Before this, it was only large museums with communications departments who found it possible and necessary to make such small visitors guides, which function to establish the credibility and value of both the exhibition and the artworks. Two scenarios may be true: either we are scared that the work can’t speak for itself, or we suspect that the visitor is too dumb to understand what it says.
Yes, I am indeed annoyed by this piece of paper; I am annoyed by the title (Gratinée – the baked brown topping in French cuisine?) and by the provided interpretational texts. “Though the artists in Destiny’s Gratinée aren’t rich romantic nobles, they certainly know how to travel through history.” The text in itself is an unnecessary hat, and the word “travel” is another, revealing itself as a superficial nod to the functional manoeuvre that is Kunstnernes Hus inviting a smaller artist-run space into its belly. Traveling never comes without complication. Destiny’s, though economically precarious, is culturally wealthy, and, much more, it represents an entire scene (as evinced by the turnout opening night). Moving Destiny’s to Kunstnernes Hus—the bigger, badder, older, fuddy-duddier art house—does something. The insertion by the curators of a superfluous framework to the exhibition only works in opposition to the artworks, as it positions the majority as small (even in scale), timid, self-expressions.
Perhaps not all hope is lost. On the wall opposite the entrance, there is a work titled Nedenfor opp (Below up, 2019) by Ane Kvåle. Mounted almost at ceiling height, it is a reproduction of a ceiling oculus from the 15th century. This particular image is lifted from the Camera degli Sposi, a “painted chamber” by Andrea Santegna commissioned by the ruler of Mantua (Italy), in order to raise the cultural value of the city. Depicted is a foreshortened scene: a circular balustrade against which lean several adult figures, a plant teetering on the edge, a peacock, and playful, winged, cherubic putti. It is evoked here through modest means: printed A4 sheets held together with little strips of yellow tape. Aside from an architectural structure in the center of the space – a reconstruction of a curved archway at the entrance of Destiny’s own space (another surface prop to signal displacement) – the oculus demands the most visual attention. Perhaps Kvåle, more than the curators, is signaling a self-awareness of her own co-optation, and that of her peers. As the oculus transforms the room in Mantua into a room of prestige and wealth, of exclusiveness for special guests and close courtiers, so does Kvåle’s oculus in the Camera degli Gratinée.
Let’s return to hats. The act of putting on the hat of an artist-run space is about choosing which art world rites you want to re-perform and which you, perhaps, want to stand against. And even once you’ve picked a hat, you still have to decide if your bowler hat is that of a Droog, àla Clockwork Orange, or a modest Bolivian Cholita. Donningthe semi-professional hat of an independent gallery is tricky business because it tends to represent a whole scene. While the invitation from an established art institution may be alluring and promise “exposure,”the collective cap requires you to think about the collective you, the value you bring, and howthat value mightbe instrumentalised. That little sheet of paper at Gratinée talks about other stuff, but I say that this show is just as much about a scene as it is about the artworks. And being a scene is notnothing. Without an honest reflection on the political and material implications of accepting an invitation such as this, I get the feeling that Destiny’s Atelierhas, for the moment, become a sort of contemporary “painted chamber” for Kunstnernes Hus.