Involuntary Readymades

The Munch Museum’s opening exhibition featuring Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch is a melodrama about a subject who has nothing more to give, but keeps on giving.

The Munch Museum viewed from the fjord. Photo: The Munch Museum.

There is a cartoonish silliness to the undulating façade of the Munch Museum with the word “Munch” written in capital letters leaning left like wind-swept hair. Inside, too, the building strives for what we might term the simplicity of the logo. A “second-tier airport” is the description used by Gaute Brochmann in the newspaper Morgenbladet. Indeed, the museum seems designed to funnel hordes of visitors as efficiently as possible (Oliver Wainwright in The Guardian). The vault-like galleries, which have no windows and are stacked on top of each other, make the museum feel more like Scrooge McDuck’s money bin than a cultural building. It has freed itself from contemporary museum architecture’s fetish for naturally lit spaces that bleed into each other. But is this a betrayal of Munch, as Brochmann concludes? The building’s vulgar simplicity at least echoes Munch’s efficiency and contentiousness, the way he captures his object with a few precise brushstrokes and incorporates it into a strong signature that mocks good taste.

One of the questions asked at the press conference was why the word “museum” had been dropped from the façade. Director Svein Olav Henrichsen responded by speaking about the thorough process undertaken in collaboration with the consulting company North. They had inspected the façades of comparable institutions, conducted focus groups and only after careful consideration reached the conclusion that dropping the “museum” part was best. Cultural institutions like to anchor their decisions by consulting with London-based companies and sending themselves around the world on research trips to find out what a first-year advertising student could tell them for the price of a lunch. That the name Munch should stand alone is as irrefutably logical as the fact that the museum belongs in the attractive waterfront where it is now located. The Munch Museum has always been a subsidiary of the Munch brand, and brands work differently than museums. When attractive younger demographics think the word “museum” reeks of Old Spice, brands need to listen.

An interior intended to be experienced via a smartphone while on a skateboard makes other demands than one that has captivated the visitor. The absorbed connoisseur of architecture is as much an ideological construct as the white cube’s ideal observer. Both ideals persist to inform and direct behaviour, but they won’t be around forever. The Munch Museum looks as if it is preparing for a change in the spectator’s mode, away from assuming that art and buildings have their audience’s reverent and undivided attention. Munch’s painting arose as photography was emerging as culture’s most important visual medium, sending painting out in search of a new social role. The Munch Museum finds itself in an advanced continuation of this narrative, where the photographic has infiltrated and reconfigured – via digitisation and medialisation – aesthetic experience as such, including architecture.

Edvard Munch, Sitting Nude: Morning, 1922-25. Oil on canvas, 110,5 x 130 cm. Photo: The Munch Museum.

Predictably, the museum promises a busy live programme. But it also offers the most comprehensive presentation of Munch ever, arranged into six distinct and neatly curated thematic sections. The museum’s main contemporary opening feature is the exhibition The Loneliness of the Soul, in which British artist Tracey Emin enters into a dialogue with a selection of Munch’s female nudes. These connect in an immediate and superficial way to Emin’s subjects, often naked female bodies in exposed postures. The juxtaposition thus takes attention away from other, perhaps more intriguing connections between the two (like their relationship with the photograph and the brand). Emin’s interest in Munch is marked by an almost maudlin degree of self-proclaimed affinity – but this pathos is also Emin’s privilege, or signature. The oldest work by Emin in the exhibition is An Homage to Edvard Munch and All my Unborn Babies (1998), a one-minute long grainy video filmed during a visit to Åsgårdstrand, where Munch’s had holiday residence. Emin is huddled up naked on a pier, backlit; suddenly, she screams, then the film starts over. The short video is emblematic of the impulsivity and rawness of Emin’s work, the thinness of its medium.

The exhibition is presented across two floors in dusky rooms with blue-grey walls. From Emin’s side, it is dominated by a series of watery acrylic portraits about two metres tall, spanning the last two decades. There is also a selection of neon texts, appliqué works, and a handful of small bronze sculptures painted white – as well as one larger unpainted one of a dented body with its buttocks in the air and a half torso leaning on floor (There was so much more of me, 2019). But it is the installations Insomnia (2019) and My Bed (1998), in addition to the video already mentioned, that I think best capture Emin’s oeuvre. My Bed is the artist’s own bed surrounded by dirty clothes, crumpled-up cigarette packs, empty liquor bottles, and more. Also included are two suitcases tied together with a chain, placed a little further back. The work poses as brutally revealing documentary art. The bed, as the setting of absolute privacy, has been ramped up to something entirely socially unpresentable. Emin writes her life, to borrow a naturalistic motto from Munch’s day, and the work is accompanied by a narrative that embeds itself in its reception and reinforces its documentary claim: the artist spent four days in bed during a depressive episode and then decided that the bed was now an artwork.

Emin uses private subject matter to breathe life into the readymade, just as Munch did for painting. But she also takes self-disclosure to new heights; hardly anything is outside art in her oeuvre. In her autobiography Strangeland (2005), she recounts a telling episode. During the installation of an exhibition, one of her assistants brought in a stiff woollen blanket she had found on the street, calling it an “Emin readymade.” Signatures that produce works without the owner’s involvement are strong brands. A somewhat rash historical argument goes like this: the subjectivity which with Munch replaced representativeness as the rule in art culminates in Emin’s installations, where the medium has dissipated, or become something the artist no longer controls. The Emin brand attracts a transparent media machine that produces potential “Emins” everywhere all the time. The reconstruction and remediation that are givens in painting – and therefore always interject something between the viewer and the individual experience depicted or conveyed – are pushed out of sight with the readymade. My Bed is not a window into the artist’s bedroom, but a teleport. It invites a sense of impossible proximity to the artist’s life.

Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998. Box frame, mattress, linens, pillows, and various objects. Photo: The Munch Museum.

However, a heap of polaroid pictures on Emin’s bedside table contradict this simple idea of unmediated ​​access. The immediate social-pornographic appeal is accompanied by a testimony of how a work without visible boundaries uses the artist’s body as a surrogate form via photography. This operation is completed in Insomnia, which puts the photographic theme that is only hinted at in My Bed up front. Twenty-seven photographs of the artist’s face from random angles taken at night with a smartphone are mounted on the wall in a monumental grid. Unflatteringly lit, Emin looks grumpy and haggard, an ageing woman who can’t find peace. The photographs in Insomnia observe mechanically and continually from the bedside, speaking volubly about a self-mediation that has become pure reflex. It is the late-modern melodrama of a subjectivity with nothing more to give, but which continues giving anyway. “More Solitude,” Emin pleads in neon from the adjoining wall (More Solitude, 2019).

Munch’s paintings are, perhaps more than those of any artist before him, characteristic of him. They short-circuit the difference between facture and signature. The brand arises in art with the advent of modernism, creating opportunities for art to free itself from servile relations. Emin’s brand is closely linked with her body. All of her paintings in the exhibition are female nudes shown standing or reclining, most facing us with their genitals bared. Here and there we see suggestions of a bed, and twice a man’s body. Faces are never visible, either because the figure has no head or because it is covered or left blank. The line is energetic and croquis-like; the palette is mostly limited to three or four contrasting colours. Sloppy wet colouring leaves long streaks on the canvas. Emin’s hurry suggests that she is tracing something momentary, fleeting. The title I wanted you to come over me (2019) accompanies one of several images where a white field spreads out like a blanket of semen. Emin’s paintings evoke a postcoital scene, where the self re-emerges after orgasm. They are torn between the translation of private experience to reproducible form and the retention of the singular quality of that experience – between reduction and complexity, pornography and intimacy.

Often incorporating words, sentences or longer passages of text with an earnest or confessional tenor, Emin’s paintings are self-revealing. But at the same time, they revive a protective gesture for communicating individual experience that is closer to Munch’s work than to her readymades and installations. They put the signature back into the artist’s hand via an expressive vocabulary that is historically tried and tested. Her turn towards painting (and bronze) may say something about Emin’s participation in a broader trend in art, of which NFTs are one symptom: a return to a temporal, spatial, and material anchoring of the artwork. Munch broke away from a painting tradition that did not allow a strong subjective form to take root because it had to serve functions from which it was eventually freed by photography. Emin uses painting to make herself smaller than the installation, understood as a work that disintegrates through an insatiable import of external cultural forms (readymades) and thereby places too much pressure on the artist as a charismatic stand-in for the boundaries that the work itself lacks. Munch and Emin stand at the beginning and end of an era when subjectivity was increasingly unprotected. Before Munch and after Emin, art is connected to rules and forms of material delay that limit it in order to spare the subject.

Tracey Emin, Black Cat, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 183 x 152 cm. Photo: The Munch Museum.

The article is translated from Norwegian.