Postcolonialism on the Veranda

The idyllic setting of Momentum 11 threatens to drown out the biennial’s well-meaning gestures towards activism.

Installation view of S-AR’s Cylinder Pavilion, 2021. Photo: Eivind Lauritzen.

Being cyclical events, biennials have a tendency to take it upon themselves to diagnose the present. The 11th edition of Momentum is more interested in looking to the future, announcing a renewed confidence in grassroots initiatives through new forms of participation and ecological practice, perhaps in an attempt to liberate the concept of the popular from the grasp of right-wing populism and outdated left-wing utopias. Activism and opposition to various forms of repression come together under the same conceptual umbrella, which – following the rift and break-up with curator Théo-Mario Coppola just days before the planned opening in June – threatens to collapse under its own grand gestures.

This year, the majority of the exhibition is set on Jeløya island, its picturesque salt meadows and glimpses of water on the horizon making it postcard pretty on a late summer day in August. The gravel paths shaded by monumental deciduous trees are traversed by well-appointed children of the welfare state, sporting chunky Hoka sneakers and the local specialty known as Alby pastry in their bellies. All this makes it difficult to take in the fact that the world is still faulty in its set-up, that we need – as announced by the biennial’s (ex-)curator – to start thinking in new ways and, indeed, effect a paradigm shift to change the oppressive influence of capitalism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and gender normativity on our lives. In a setting like this, where the carefully landscaped period garden of Alby farm is designed to maximise the idyllic atmosphere and render power relations invisible, one needs to shout out very loudly to be heard.

Even though we are on a noble estate of sorts, the headline House of Commons has little to do with the British parliament, and is only distantly related to Marianne Heske’s eponymous installation in front of the Norwegian parliament in 2015. Rather, a press release informs us that the reference points to the American economist Ellinor Ostrom, whose understanding of the concept of “commons” as shared land is quite specific and more ecological, concerning a social and user-driven processing of resources. In 2009, Ostrom was the first woman ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on how, compared to regulation by state and market forces, local management of natural resources such as water and land could lead to more sustainable development. These were controversial ideas in the 1970s when the general consensus was that the people would, if left to their own devices, deplete available resources to the point of exhaustion. There was even a phrase coined to describe this: the tragedy of the commons.

Trinh T. Minh-ha, Naked Spaces: Living is Round, 1985. Still from film.

In Moss, visitors are greeted by a biennial featuring works dominated by incitations of identity politics, memory work, and history writing. Exactly which point of entry or resolution the conceptual apparatus of economics is supposed to offer is not immediately obvious, but I choose to believe the approach aims to anchor the postcolonial perspective in a more appealing and pan-planetary narrative: the colonisation of resources and knowledge is a disease, and local grassroots activism is an anti-capitalist cure. This probably explains the inclusion of no less than two film works by heavyweight artist Trinh T. Minh-ha from the 1980s, Naked Spaces: Living is Round (1985) and Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), shown at Moss Kunstforening. The latter is a key work within what postmodernism used to call ‘autoethnographic’ cinema. Naked Spaces is a sensuous depiction of everyday life in rural West Africa. Both convey women’s narratives with a keenly honed and detailed sensitivity to the power relations inherent in the techniques of documentary filmmaking, yet never collapse into deconstruction. They highlight anti-authoritarianism as a key difference between making political film and making film political. Getting to view these films is usually quite hard, and if you have four hours to spare, they alone are worth the trip.

Kunstforeningen also presents Délio Jasse’s installation J’ai le devoir de mémoire (I Have a Duty to Remember, 2019) comprising a range of silkscreen prints of archival material collected in Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose subject matter pertains to Belgium’s colonisation of the country until 1960. Old maps of natural resources, clippings from the breakaway republic of Katanga’s attempted secession, protest posters with “Belgian cannibals” – all these things insist on a mode of history writing and memory-work that is at best fragmented and incomplete. Outside, the music pavilion is discreetly embellished by Brazilian concrete poet Augusto de Campos’s Cidadecitycité (2021), a new installation of a work from 1963. A long row of letters consists of words that work simultaneously in Portuguese, English, and French, with the common denominator being that they all end in the word for “city,” such as velocity (velocidade / velocité). An ode to the city, playing with different linguistic commonalities and communities. Presumably, the fact that these are three of the great colonial languages is not entirely coincidental either.

Délio Jasse, J’ai le devoir de mémoire, 2019. Installation view from Momentum 11. Photo: Eivind Lauritzen.

The juxtaposition of historical and contemporary works at Galleri F15’s premises in Alby Gård’s nineteenth-century courtyard also revolves around identity as a continuous resistance, but in the context it takes on a somewhat summary feel. In the first gallery, Pia Arke’s video performance Arctic Hysteria (1996) is shown alongside Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s photographic series Untitled (2021). Here, Greenland-born Arke appears more like a representative of Nordic colonial history as she crawls around naked and animal-like on giant photograph from Nuugarsuuk, where she lived during the 1960s. Sepuya enacts a more direct staging of the orientalising gaze through a theatrical and confrontational sexualisation of Black bodies. Cian Dayrit’s embroidered protest poster, Tree of Life in State of Decay and Birth, 2019, depicts a tree made of words such as “capitalism” and “feudalism,” (the roots), “WTO” and “neoliberalism” (the trunk), and “abject,” “poverty,” “ethnocide” (the branches). The repetitive effect is reinforced by the fact that the overall attitude and message is already given rather than being a result of thought processes prompted by the works.

In this context, Hannah Ryggen’s tapestry Ethiopia (1935) threatens to become equally illustrative. A direct reaction to the rise of fascism and Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, the work is one of the artist’s earliest anti-war pieces and was infamously censored at the World’s Fair in Paris by folding over the corner depicting Mussolini’s severed head. However, the distinctive quality of Ryggen’s bulky, burlesque figurations and wondrous use of colour, incorporating locally produced pigments distilled from bark and urine, is too intrusive to be neutralised.

Hannah Ryggen, Ethiopia, 1935. Photo: Thor Nielsen.

In a similar fashion, Frida Orupabo’s video installation, based on her own Instagram account, departs from personal experience to develop a language and mode of activism that exploit the popular. Sharing images is the vernacular of today, and Orupabo seems more than anything to approach the archive as an unpleasant necessity. A tower of three video monitors floods the space with images, audio, and video clips, mostly representations that connote African American or African culture. The rhythm makes the cuts between images as prominent as their content, emphasising physical and temporal framing as an increasingly violent gesture that separates collective memory from oblivion. Ryggen and Orupabo can both be regarded as symptomatic of a re-actualisation of power structures that have infused the art field since, for example, Documenta 13 (where Ryggen was discovered internationally), but which the exhibition also associates with the decolonial impulse of early feminist art. At the same time, the works radiate an explosive will to form that is not shrivelled by good intentions, a merit not shared by all the works presented in the exhibition.

For example, Uriel Orlow’s intricate video diptych about the conflict between traditional medicine and the commercial exploitation of South African plants – such as rooibos – is overtly didactic, placing social and historical facts in the mouths of actors portraying various role-playing scenarios in which the theme is discussed (The Crown Against Mafavuke, 2016 /Imbizo Ka Mafavuke [The Mafavuke tribunal], 2017). Similarly, About the Footprints, What We Hide in the Pockets and Other Shadows of Hope (2021) by the Russian collective Chto Delat quite literally sits us down for a lesson with its video installation showing the performance of a Zapatista-inspired shadow play at a workshop for refugees in Greece. The video has no sound, and it is difficult to keep your eyes from wandering across the Alby interior’s painted stucco ceilings and tiled stoves.

Maria Nordman, Untitled, 1980-2021. Installation view from Momentum 11. Photo: Eivind Lauritzen.

While the term “commons” signals a turning towards the land, towards participation and local knowledge, there are strikingly few links to anything site-specific here. One exception is Maria Nordman’s Untitled (1980–2021), pieces of wood that are scattered around the premises and open to interaction at some level; perhaps they will eventually be assembled to form a larger structure. Out on the fjord, the Bastø ferry doggedly goes back and forth; on 20 August, the legendary Charlemagne Palestine did a special performance here, presenting his Strumming Music Piece (1976) for lorry drivers and other lucky passengers.

The three pavilions built for this year’s biennial can also be said to be site-specific in the sense that they were made out of locally sourced unplaned spruce planks and – perhaps most importantly – serve to draw the biennial audience out for a walk in the Søndre Jeløy conser-vation area’s distinctive landscape. Although only one of the structures – the Staircase Pavilion – comes across as a real pavilion in the sense that it creates new axes and points of view, they represent the exhibition’s most sensuous experience. They are redolent with the smell of earth, bark, and sea while a coastal wind carries in from the southwest, whistling in the treetops. One of the pavilions is intended to serve as a meeting place and space for conversations and exchanges, but at the time of my visit it was unclear how this was to take place. It is perhaps reasonable to assume that this part of the programme has suffered the most from the break with Coppola.

Siri Hermansen, Island of Memories, 2018. Installation view from S-ARs Platform Pavilion, Momentum 11, 2021. Photo: Eivind Lauritzen.

Without indulging in speculation, it has to be said that parts of the biennial seem a bit ‘under-narrated’ and would have benefited from clearer communication and presentation efforts – indeed, the failure to produce texts for the exhibition has been stated as a reason for Coppola’s dismissal. In the inclusion of historical works, for example, the dialectic dynamic may diminish in scope when the original context is underplayed. Additionally, the video works shown in the pavilions by Daisuke Kosugi and Siri Hermansen both have a connection to the Second World War, but their link to the site is not obvious. The forest, beach, and fields mingle with the works, but the narratives are difficult to reconcile. Which spruce trees were felled to build the pavilions – were they in the way of the lindens, oaks, and maples? How do centrally determined measures to protect biodiversity affect the local utilisation of the area’s resources? The landscape around Alby has been accessible to the public since it was bought by the Moss municipality in 1961, but the question of what it may have to offer the mobilisation of the concept of “commons” remains up in the air.

After all, the fleeting feeling of well-deserved privilege that you get while enjoying your coffee on the lawn in front of the nineteenth-century manor house looking out over the fjord – a feeling which threatens to drown out the well-meaning intimations of activism – is by no means accidental, but the result of architectural and economic models deeply rooted in the ideology that not all the people who make up a society have equal value.

Augusto de Campos, Cidadecitycité, 2021. Installation view from Momentum 11. Photo: Eivind Lauritzen.