Kunsthal Aarhus Brings Its A Game in Diagnostic Exhibition

With Post Institutional Stress Disorder, Jacob Fabricius offers an empathic diagnosis of our present day, and challenges the exhibition medium with aplomb.

Installation view, Post Institutional Stress Disorder, Kunsthal Aarhus, December 2018. Photo: Kåre Viemose.

A new ailment sweeps the nation. Haunting the halls of Kunsthal Aarhus, it has been diagnosed by the venue’s artistic director, Jacob Fabricius, as ‘Post Institutional Stress Disorder (PISD)’, which is also a group exhibition bearing the same name. The term is a riff on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but instead of being induced by war or violent trauma, PISD is a symptom of complete impotence when interacting with the various institutions of present-day society.

Fabricius himself has a considerable amount of art institutions under his belt, amassed during former stints as director of Kunsthal Charlottenborg and Malmö Konsthall, and curator of CNEAI in Paris and Center d’Art Santa Monica in Barcelona. He has also headed a number of exhibitions, self-organised projects, publishing houses, and publications, including KBH Kunsthal, Pork Salad Press, and the newspaper Old News. Right from the outset of his career, Fabricius’s curatorial work was characterised by an action-oriented practice in public spaces, staging interventions in collaboration with artists in Denmark and abroad.

Now, he intervenes at more local levels. Post Institutional Stress Disorder boasts a strong array of artists in a cumulative exhibition format boosted by new works every week, culminating in early February this year. The exhibition got off to a severely pared-down – yet still subversive – start in March 2018, by presenting a single, simple slip of paper: a form that visitors could use to withdraw from society altogether. This open invitation to denounce society was issued by Jes Brinch with his work Udmeldelse af samfundet (Resignation from Society, 1993), which was the only work in the exhibition at this stage. The room was darkened; in the centre of one long wall, illuminated by a single spotlight, hung the withdrawal form flanked by a stand with copies to which visitors could help themselves.

Adrian Piper, My Calling (Card) #2, 1986, Post Institutional Stress Disorder, April 2018. Photo: Kåre Viemose.

Right from the beginning, the exhibition was also accompanied by a couple of institutional embellishments – such as a dispenser of hand sanitiser for visitors to clean their hands before and after their visit. The exhibition room also includes a mobile communication/information board and a rolodex with data on the works exhibited.

Since then, a wealth of artworks have been added to the show. The lights have been switched on, things have been reshuffled a little here and there, and the information board is now covered in texts and pins indicating the position of the various works inside the room, offering brief accounts of each artist’s practice, and a little something about the starting point of the exhibited works. A great, eminently practical way of handling regular updates – and an excellent way of avoiding clumsy signs.

If we go through the list of participating artists, any observer will be struck by the sheer quantity of contributors – as of now, no less than thirty-one artists appear (more may be added later) – and by the number of international superstars found in the mix, including Adrian Piper, Andrea Fraser, Harun Farocki, Julia Scher, Mike Kelly, and Stephan Dillemuth.

 The first strong announcement is made right at the entrance to the exhibition. Adrian Piper arms the visitor with My Calling (Card) # 1–2 (1986) – stacks of business cards that visitors are welcome to pick up and take with them. The cards read: ‘Dear Friend, I am not here to pick anyone up, or to be picked up. I am here alone because I want to be here, ALONE. This card is not part of an extended flirtation. Thank you for respecting my privacy.’ – a message conveyed in a friendly, but firm tone that offers no room for misunderstanding. You also enter the exhibition with a buzzing in your ears, courtesy of Carolyn Lazard’s A Conspiracy (Contracted) (2018), a series of sound damping installations that, due to their large number, end up emitting a noise signal instead.

Lazard’s piece is not alone: several of the works in the exhibition act as furnishings or equipment of sorts while also having a disruptive effect, or causing a jarring compositional break in the space. One example would be American artist Julia Scher’s sound work featuring an exasperating telephone switchboard service with zany undertones: the automated response constantly points out how important the customer’s body is to them. Elsewhere, a new arrival by Henrik Plenge Jakobsen consists of a hanging pitchfork (an homage to Duchamp’s snow shovel). In yet another place, we find a cast of one corner of the exhibition space lying on the floor, a crumbling interior created by Henrik Olesen. There are many more examples, too numerous to mention. Taken as a whole, the exhibition is reminiscent of a large, restless mobile. On the one hand, I perceive this increased awareness of normative and institutional control as reaffirming art’s critical sting, but on the other hand it also prompts a sense of institutional walls closing in.

Ayoung Kim, Porosity Valley, Portable Holes, 2017.

Combining various footage, Harun Farocki’s mockumentary Leben – BRD (1990) demonstrates institutionalisation taken to an extreme: a group of people engage in role-playing exercises in order to learn how to live in accordance with West German lifestyles. The film engages directly with the expectations of West Germany as a land of plenty after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but also as a place that requires indoctrination; not much different from what was expected of the children of the Eastern Bloc.

A work with much greater impact, perhaps because it is simultaneously dreamlike and realistic, is the film Porosity Valley, Portable Holes (2017) by Korean artist Ayoung Kim. Employing a post-internet shampoo-ad aesthetic, the film portrays the life of a geological lump, the film’s main protagonist, which lives a quarantined existence interspersed by regular interviews with a case officer who will decide its fate. The migrant metaphor is immensely powerful here, sending shivers down my spine as I watched the film. The work evokes, with rare eloquence, the helplessness of not knowing whether you are in or out. 

The pun in the exhibition title (replacing traumatic with institutional) tempts me to equate the two. However, institutions are not by definition traumatising. It would be seriously bad news if they were, given that there are institutions everywhere. Still, institutions can certainly produce stress – and trauma too – in a reality characterised by a ceaseless honing of everyone’s competitive edge.

Even though many of the works possess great gravitas in their content and statements, I still think that Fabricius has managed the feat of giving this exhibition a lightness of touch. This is furthered by works such as American artist Dena Yago’s mural Boring from Within (2018): done in pastels, it shows three of Snow White’s seven dwarves going on strike at a Tesla factory.

Dena Yago, Boring from Within, 2018. Photo: Kåre Viemose.

Overall, it’s hats off to this cumulative and process-oriented exhibition format, which also gave audiences the opportunity to see works actually being created during the venue’s opening hours. Of course, arranging this kind of exhibition is easier when admission is free, as is the case at Kunsthal Aarhus, but it is nevertheless nice to see the venue benefitting directly from that advantage. It makes it possible to think in new and different terms – and, very importantly, it allows real spontaneity to enter the stage. And spontaneity is not exactly widespread on the Danish scene, which often suffers from either having to give audiences bang for their buck, or just from being plainly unimaginative in its approach to the exhibition medium. This is where Fabricius stands out and comes into his own with alternative ways of distributing artistic statements, and seeing him incorporate that into an institutional setting is simply cool to behold.  

So does the exhibition offer a cure to go with the diagnosis? Well, that might be too much to ask. Still, I do believe that the exhibition points out and instrumentalises art and its spaces as a place where issues such as powerlessness and institutional control can be usefully addressed. At the same time, we should not forget that it is precisely because art exists as an institution in society that we, the public, have access to this critical space. Someone just has to go to the trouble of opening the door. Fortunately, Fabricius can be bothered to do so.

The exhibition not only takes the art venue’s responsibility as a social institution seriously, but it also does a check-up of the general overheated institutional reality of which we are all a part. Through his choice of theme and artists, Jacob Fabricius delivers real empathy and an analysis of rare depth and scope, very ably supported by the exhibition format. Seeing the results, I do not hesitate in declaring Post Institutional Stress Disorder an exhibition at the very top of its game.

Installation view, Post Institutional Stress Disorder, Kunsthal Aarhus, 2019. Foto: Kåre Viemose.