Successful Launch of Three-Stage Canonization Rocket

Norwegian artist Siri Aurdal’s exhibition at Malmö Konsthall is an essential corrective to the male-dominated art history of late modernism in the Nordic countries.

Installation view from Siri Aurdal’s exhibition Continuum at Malmö Konsthall 2018. Photo: Helene Toresdotter.

At the end of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s interview with Siri Aurdal, the Norwegian artist talks about “movement.” “It’s something I’ve been thinking about. We have all those expensive crazy sports in the television and media, and I’m thinking one could move in a much more rational way.”

What does it mean to move in a more rational way? Continuum, Aurdal’s exhibition at Malmö Konsthall, suggests an answer to that question. The exhibition consists of two groups of works that engage the full volume of the art center’s grand, magnificent, wide open exhibition space, as well as a small section with images, documents, and models. By the entrance, along the room’s glass façade opening onto the park outside, the two works Conversation and Interview are installed. The latter is from 1968, the former from 2018, but they form one seamless whole, which simply neglects to acknowledge the fifty-year gap between them.

The rest of the exhibition space is occupied by the sculpture group Onda Volante. It consists of large fiberglass pipes, cut off diagonally, halved lengthwise, and then bolted together forming giant, undulating bodies which draw up wave patterns in the space. Aurdal created the first version of the sculpture group for the exhibition Omgivelser (Environments) at Kunstnerernes Hus in Oslo in 1969. The version now shown at Malmö Konsthall is, just like the version which was on display in the Nordic pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, newly produced, and yet is a direct continuation of the older piece. Here too the historical distance is simply denied.

Installation view from Siri Aurdal’s exhibition at Malmö Konsthall 2018. Photo: Helene Toresdotter.

As a model for a more rational movement, the ConversationInterview group is the more obvious candidate. By slender metal wires, cut-out sheets of plexiglas hang at straight angles to one another. The surfaces, with round, curved and wave-shaped contours, are to different degrees transparent, and have different colors: nuances of blue and orange for Conversation;  red and green for Interview. The sheets are arranged tightly and regularly, suspended at the same height as normal windows. They form a kaleidoscopic whole where new patterns and color combinations appear depending on how you move between the gently swaying shapes.

When the sunlight falls in through the glass wall, the experience is almost hypnotic. The reflections and the shadows, the play of transparency and opacity, the projections and the prismatic refractions create a sense of spatial disorientation where the limits between inside and outside, reflection and body, I and other become blurred. You move cautiously, carefully, so as not to bump into fellow visitors or artworks. The beauty is stunning, and very photogenic. There is intense instagramming.

In the book Siri Aurdal by Eline Mugaas – which was produced for the exhibition Aurdal/Mugaas at Kunsterernes Hus in 2016 (read Erlend Hammer’s sharp review of the exhibition here), but which serves as the catalogue for this exhibition as well, and mainly consists of Eline Mugaas’s photo documentation of Aurdal’s studio and archive – Aurdal repeatedly quotes Newton’s first law of motion, the law of inertia: a body remains in its state of rest or constant and uniform motion, unless acted upon by a force. At another place in the book, in connection to documentation of a sculpture named Inerthia (early 1970s), a female torso on which Newton’s law of inertia is inscribed, Aurdal asks: why are the good weak?

Installation view from Siri Aurdal’s exhibition Omgivelser (Environments) at Kunstnerernes hus, 1969. From Siri Aurdal by Eline Mugaas, Primary Information, 2016.

Conversation-Interview can be understood as an attempt to create another politics of motion, that is: to separate the order of the law of nature (where a strong force acts upon a weaker one) from the order of ethics (where some forces work for the good, while others do not). Aurdal’s space for aesthetic interactivity breaks the correspondence between dominance and community in favor of a model of participation and care. It asserts the “more rational” priority of ethical motion over the “natural” normality of oppression. That the search for an alternative to the “constant and uniform” motion of dominance for Aurdal also has a feminist dimension is underlined by Inerthia – which is unfortunately not included in the exhibition. In a fantastic photo in Siri Aurdal by Eline Mugaas, the heavy stone sculpture stands toppled against the hood of a car, the emblem of uniform motion and masculinity.

The most apparent art historical precedent to Aurdal’s twin work is Lawrence Alloway, Richard Hamilton, and Victor Pasmore’s exhibition/installation an Exhibit, shown at, among other places, the ICA in London in 1957 (where it was also recreated for the large Hamilton retrospective in 2014). Just as Conversation-Interview, an Exhibit consisted of colored, opaque and transparent plexiglas sheets hanging freely in the exhibition space, so that new combinations of forms and colors appeared relative to the position of the spectator. For Alloway, Hamilton, and Pasmore, the arrangement’s simple, proto-cybernetic model of co-creation, where every configuration of gaze and object gave rise to a unique version of the work, amounted to an argument against the authority of the sovereign artist-subject and the passive spectatorship of the museum space. Instead, everyone should be a co-creator, everyone should participate. The same could be said regarding Aurdal’s twin work.

Siri Aurdal, Havbølger, Trosterud Elementary School, Oslo, 1972. From Siri Aurdal by Eline Mugaas, Primary Information, 2016.

But to describe the politics of Aurdal’s Conversation-Interview in this way is also to establish its limitations and lack of contemporary effectivity. To put it bluntly: in itself, participation means nothing. It may have done so in London in 1957, or in Oslo in 1968. Then, the interactive macro-kaleidoscope of an Exhibit could mark a sufficiently strong contrast to still dominant, conservative notions of culture and museum policy. Then, the careful prism of Interview could serve as a figure of democratization, where the possibility of participating signalled an ideal of generalized participation, participation as a social model. But today this ideal is empty, worn out, radically insufficient to serve as a contrast to – or exert any kind of critical effect on – the postdigital culture industry’s most basic feedback-driven modes of consumption or control.

Aurdal’s Onda Volante, and the different versions preceding it, is also consistently described as a participatory and political work. Often, Aurdal’s use of industrial materials is emphasized: in the first version of the work, from 1969, the giant fiberglass tubes supposedly came from Norway’s then burgeoning oil industry; in later versions too, factory-standard pipes have been acquired and modified. With its vast, gray volume rising in soft folds toward Malmö Konsthall’s distant skylights, and its gracious, as if organic undulations, the sculpture group is reminiscent of aerodynamics, of the streamlined, and suggests the velocity of the airplane, its interplay with air as an element and a force. A responsive, flowing movement in dynamic balance with its surroundings, rather than a constant and uniform passage from point A to point B.

Installation view from Siri Aurdal’s exhibition at Malmö Konsthall 2018. Photo: Helene Toresdotter.

The affinity between Aurdal and the American minimalist tradition has been discussed in some detail in recent critical reception – in Hammer’s review, in Will Bradley’s excellent essay in Siri Aurdal by Eline Mugaas. One might note that a version of Aurdal’s sculpture group such as Greetings to the Lucas Workers from 1979 – the title marks solidarity with a group of pacifist workers at an airplane factory in the UK – places the work in correspondence with the most political moment of minimalism in the late 1960s, when artists such as Carl André and Robert Morris sought to place their abstract forms in the service of striking cultural workers, the civil rights movement, and labor struggles, thereby enacting the most fundamental contradiction of post-constructive sculpture, that between autonomous form and political use value.

The same contradiction is at work in Aurdal’s practice, in more or less productive ways. It is often emphasized that different versions of Onda Volante in fact invited participation. At Kunstnerernes Hus in 1969, visitors were encouraged to write on the giant tubes – which, judging by images from the exhibition, they did, with great enthusiasm. Most commentaries that mention this seem to assume that all participants were naïve hippies who happily took advantage of the freedom of participation in order to spread messages of love and peace. But in the images reproduced in Siri Aurdal by Eline Mugaas, less evidently world-improving phrases such as “Vietnam-Nam” or “God is the best” seem to dominate. There were trolls even in hippie-era comment sections. Already in 1969, the invitation to open, irresponsible participation was seen equally as a provocation to be met with irony or nihilism.

Richard Hamilton, Victor Pasmore and Lawrence Alloway, an Exhibit, 1957/2014, installation view from ICA in London 2014. Photo: Mark Blower.

Aurdal has also made a version of the work that functioned as a play-sculpture for a school-yard in Oslo (Havbølger, 1972). As Bradley points out, it is here that the contradiction between autonomy and use value becomes the most apparent. Images show groups of children spread out across the billowing forms, which rest on slender legs, as if hovering just above the ground. The connotations to an airplane body, or even a parked fighter plane, are clearer than ever. The formal language borders on the aggressive: the silhouette of the work is sharp, swift, and suggests the menacingly purposeful – at the same time as the halved tubes are painted in cheerful primary colors and are the site of children’s play, the ideal type of a free, non-instrumental practice. Is it here in this incomplete, unreconciled synthesis – between the aggressive trajectory of materials and forms suspended in sculptural autonomy, and the work’s direct, pedagogical function – that Aurdal’s “more rational” movement can be found? If there is one aspect of Aurdal’s practice one might wish that she’d had the possibility to develop, it is this.

Is Continuum an exhibition of contemporary art? The question is not unreasonable. Siri Aurdal is an artist working today who produces new works. At the same time, the parameters for her practice appear to have been set long ago, and the exhibition makes no attempts to relate the tensions and contradictions of her practice to a contemporary social, cultural, or technological reality, either as actuality or anachronism. The distance between the first date of creation of the sculpture groups and the production of the new versions remains unmediated. The politics of Continuum is therefore primarily a historiographic one – and in this respect it is both valid and relevant. The exhibitions at Kunstnerernes Hus in 2016, the Venice Biennale in 2017, and now Malmö Konsthall in 2018 form a three-stage canonization rocket which launches an essential corrective to the male-dominated art history of late modernism in the Nordic countries.

Installation view from Siri Aurdal’s exhibition at Malmö Konsthall 2018. Photo: Helene Toresdotter.