Bergen Kunsthall is closed for renovation yet still managed to produce three shows that ran simultaneously in early November. As Knut Henrik Henriksen’s show was closing down, Gabriel Kuri’s opened, followed by Richard Tuttle’s the following week. Together they present three demanding interventions into the public sphere by an unlikely trio of artists from three continents, spanning two generations. It is a great effort, but what does it add up to? Does it even make sense? Experiencing the works requires a bit of traveling but it is warranted for the discovery of a common ground, established in Bergen, but reverberating well beyond the city’s limits.
First up was the Berlin-based (and Bergen-academy-trained) local international hero Knut Henrik Henriksen who produced what is perhaps the most visible work of the three. Echoes consists of a group of ambiguous, hard-edged, black wooden forms mounted on the pale green, simplistic facade of the Kunsthall building, generating a sharp contrast. The installation plays on his by now nearly trademarked works of «architectural frustration», and the distance between an idea, its idealist aestheticism and utopian social potential, the shortcomings of it becoming reality, as well as the tragedy of adhering to pragmatic concerns, adapting and compromising.
Henriksen’s installation echoes defining architectural details of the nearby City Hall, at first glance a straight Le Corbusier rip-off. The architect Erling Viksjø modified the International Style agenda, however, in particular through the application of his patented treatment of concrete, which exposes the pebbles usually hidden in the casting to great visual effect. Attached to the Kunsthall, the physical forms in Echoes are hollow and could be used to cast elements of the City Hall facade, but would thereby create a sculptural ensemble or relief, an echolalia of the formal language of functionalism, potentially freeing the form from functionality, but rendering only its hull, like shadows, or rather, ghosts. It‘s as if the artist was on a mission to manifest, with the idea of frustration, also the difference between functionality and a formal canon of an architectural style – «the modern». Even if this may once have been devoted to a specific idea of functionality, for better or worse, today these aspects of functionality has become obsolete rendering this style of modernism harmless, and precisely therefore incredibly trendy with a specific audience. The inherent agenda of functionalism obviously never goes out of date, and consequently has the potential to pack quite a punch when thought through.
Even if these structures may remain somewhat opaque, slightly unsettling, or even menacing to many passersby, this will change when the second part of Henriksen’s project is realized. In fall 2013 the artist will present new works, making use in his own terms of Viksjø’s concrete aesthetics, by applying them to the City Hall building itself for a temporary public sculpture, thereby leaving the reopening Kunsthall to a solo exhibition by Rosa Barba.
I was going to write that Gabriel Kuri installed works at the local public library a few steps from the city’s museums, but that is not quite correct – he chose to make his pieces mobile, placing them on wheels, and by taking cues from elements of existing library furniture that are usually overlooked, such as wastepaper baskets or small mobile shelves used for restacking books. Mobile sculptures are difficult to take seriously: the whole point of sculpture is to position the viewer in a specific cultural space, say, in architecture, and to display a sense of authority by insisting on this positioning, by staying put, by being fixed to the ground and challenging the higher, or, at least in terms of sheer volume, larger, authority of architecture with its unflinching presence.
In the context of a museum, any sculpture on wheels would lack this insistence, becoming disposable, and in essence a prop that provides comic relief at best, dysfunctional as a challenger, and reinstating the authority of its institutional surrounding. However everything changes in the even more serious context of a public library («Hush, silence please!»). Suddenly the tables turn: now it is precisely the mobility of the works that renders them funny, playful, and even silly, like rogue school children. That the individual pieces are camouflaged by their design, often appearing like temporarily displaced, if slightly incoherent, pieces of regular library furniture (such as the colorful structures made of steel tubes, adorned with spikes, of the kind used to keep birds off windowsills, now used to dispose of paper slips). But what adds impetus to these works is the nonchalance of their placement as they are continuously rearranged by the users of the library, who hardly qualify as viewers, but rather constitute a less involved and rather accidental audience. The single pieces are pushed around, finding their individual locations, appearing whimsically placed, but ending up mainly where they are least in the way of the library’s everyday operations. This (non-)involvement of the audience with the artwork (or pseudo-functional non-sensical furniture) not only mocks notions of interactivity, but could also be regarded as a reflection on the paradox occupied by art in social space as being simultaneously democratic and elitist.
If Richard Tuttle wasn‘t such a heavyweight of contemporary art, and if it weren‘t for the rhetoric of sensitivity, this dichotomy could also be applied to his first exhibition in Norway. Tuttle‘s work is presented on the walls of Lysverket of the Art Museums of Bergen, side-by-side with works from the permanent collection of Scandinavian painting. Two groups of sculptures made of chrome-plated metal tubes, not welded or bent, but held together rather awkwardly with nuts and bolts, form structures reminiscent of makeshift handrails or bathroom fixtures. Their attraction, however, lies less in their obvious displacement in cabinets among cabinets with paintings from the 18th and 19th century, but in the way each individual piece appears to reflect very specific aspects of its placement: be it by appearing as if on the verge of collapsing, where the relation to the floor is open for reinterpretation; or, even more effectively, by means of light, for example, when a cubic wall piece appears to rest on a larger pyramid, which is actually constructed by its own shadow. Hung alongside work that could be regarded as belonging to the Enlightenment, it is difficult to not see this as a bit of a pun, but Tuttle is more of a romantic. His work is poetic in an idiosyncratic way, too much so for an oversimplified reading like this – this is far from over-affirmation. Tuttle is more of a hippie than a punk, so while it is possible to discern the artist‘s easy touch with a subtle sense of humor, any specific reading of his work remains elusive. So maybe what makes his work so interesting today is his confidence, and the stubbornness of producing work that follows nothing but the subjective logic of the individual artist in a negotiation with their immediate surroundings.
These artists draw from entirely different fields. Henriksen plays on the inherent symbolism of modernism, reflecting on the counter-modern aspects of an «architecture parlante», or the idea that there is no such thing as silent architecture, while Kuri maintains that there is no such thing as a silent structure of information. And it may fall to Tuttle to make the case for art in general by showing that the greatest challenge to any institution of power – the museum, library, city hall, but also the viewer – is to relate to works of art on their own terms, and to take art seriously, to try to approach it at eye level. Because it is only by leaving the comfort zone of pre-existing knowledge and its handy commonplaces behind, and engaging in an informed conversation, that any work of culture that claims to be an artwork can produce the kind of distraction from the often overpowering (art) historical narratives that renegotiates the borders of what we presume to be here, real and now. It is precisely this that art can do: unlock the world as an arena of potentiality.