The Concept of the Exhibition

The sixth Momentum Biennial in Moss struggles in vain with its own lack of conceptual coherence. « »

Simon Dybbroe Møller, Man, 2011. Photo: Jonas Ekeberg.

The central space on the ground floor of Gallery F15 – one of two main venues of the 2011 Momentum Biennial – contains a group of works that all seem to address the theme of time. Four of Eadweard Muybridge’s famous chronophotographs, in which lapses of time are represented as a series of simultaneous moments, hang on the walls. On a table near one of the walls is a poster with a text by the Long Now Foundation, which presents the foundation’s project to build a clock that will stay active for 10,000 years inside a mountain in Texas. In Katarina Löfström’s Infinite Impossibilities, pieces of unused fireworks rest in a corner on the floor, calmly referring to the moment of their possible detonation. Daniel Medina’s Birdcage (Facade) hangs from the ceiling in the middle of the space. Different maps are intricately woven into the cage’s structure. With a certain degree of benevolence we can find time here too: the political maps describe territories and borders that are historically specific.

The exhibition’s thematic coherence, however, begins to dissolve when looked at more closely. Muybridge’s photographs analyze brief lapses of time by breaking them up into separate moments, rendering visible phenomena and movements that otherwise would have remained invisible (Benjamin’s well known «optical unconscious»). What relationship does this have to The Long Now Foundation’s attempt to remind us of our short lives and our long historical responsibility? Why even show Muybridge’s pictures from the 1880s when the exhibition in general makes no attempt to thematize the genealogy of cinematographic technologies? Is there more than just the concept of  «time» – after all, a rather comprehensive term – that connects this to the suggestive representation of potentiality in Löfström’s work, or the combination of maps in Medina? The works in the other spaces of Gallery F15 do not answer this question in any more of a precise manner. Many of them, however, are excellent in themselves, such as Simon Starling’s complex, historical mask play Project For A Masquerade (Hiroshima) or Ann Lislegaard’s curious, time-traveling fox, Time Machine.

Ann Lislegaard, Time Machine, 2011. Photo: Jonas Ekeberg.

Imagine Being Here Now is the title of the exhibition. The five curators (Markús Thór Andrésson, Christian Skovbjerg Jensen, Theodor Ringborg, Aura Seikkula and Marianne Zamecznik) play with the possibility of stressing different words in the title (for no biennial title can be unambiguous): it speaks of time (Now), but also of imagination (Imagine), existence (Being), and place (Here). According to one of the exhibition’s texts, it is «the sincere aspiration of the curatorial group and the participating artists that the exhibition explores the human experience and its spatial conditions and that it discusses contextual time where imagination is a key feature in producing, sharing and experiencing». What does this mean? Or rather, what does it not mean? It is conceivable that the extreme openness of the curator group’s project descriptions is a result of diplomacy: with five curators, each of their desires and interests must avoid interfering with one another. But things do not become any clearer when we read the curators’ individual texts in the Momentum Biennial’s The Reader: this exhibition is «an experimental venture into bifurcating time [that] appropriates the methodology of a time capsule» (Ringborg); its «curatorial goal is to reflect on human experience and its spatial conditions in a contextual time» (Seikula).

It would seem, then, that the vagueness of the constellations of artworks at Gallery F15 corresponds to the vagueness of the exhibition’s concept. Of course, a group exhibition must not have an overbearing or governing concept. On the contrary, in recent years a clear curatorial tendency has been to avoid general themes and programmatic statements in order to avoid the homogenizing violence of the authoritarian concept and instead allow for the artworks to «speak for themselves». Such techniques, however, merely seem to shift the problem to another level: Don’t curated group shows without concepts also run the risk of having a homogenizing effect? With or without a vague theoretical superstructure, an exhibition still must be able to justify its mode of composition and its standpoints. Imagine Being Here Now presents a number of big concepts without giving them any specific significance. While, at the same time, the works seen as a constellation remain too vague to be able to generate any distinct meaning or articulate any particular problem.

Oliver Laric, Versions, 2010. Photo: Jonas Ekeberg.

The most clear criticism of this approach is in fact formulated by one of the Exhibition’s participants, the Danish artist collective Wooloo (whose contribution was never realized because of protests from local inhabitants). In a mail correspondence with one of the curators, published in The Reader, the group writes (and the paragraph deserves to be quoted here in full): «We actually found your approach to the concepts of time and place very provocative. The invitation we got was very academic and abstract and filled with sweeping statements about temporality and spatiality, which in effect could apply to 95% of the world’s artistic practices. Also, when we first read your invitation to Imagine Being Here Now, we felt that you were expressing yourselves from a place populated only by politically and financially free individuals who not only can imagine being precisely where they want to be but also have the physical means to be there, and that you weren’t relating critically to this.»

If the vague constellations of artworks at Gallery F15 correspond to the vagueness of the exhibition’s conceptual framework, the general curatorial technique at the Momentum Kunsthalle – where about two thirds of the exhibition’s works are shown – instead seems to be an attempt to create a mode of exhibition-making that precludes all expectations of strong coherence. A drastic decision, artist Øystein Aasan and curator Marianne Zamecznik have created an exhibition architecture that shatters the spaces of the Kunsthalle, dividing them up into several smaller spaces that host separate, isolated artworks or installations. Here, the atomization of the exhibition spaces corresponds to the lack of a general conceptual or theoretical context; no clear relations are established between the different artist’s contributions. It is a brave and consistently carried out technique – but it too is problematic.

Lorenzo Scotto Di Luzio, Untitled, 2011. Photo: Jonas Ekeberg.

Why? To begin with, for the apparent reason that one of the attributes of a group exhibition in general is that it can establish relations between artworks of different media, by different artists, from different time periods and divergent places, as a means to compare or contrast them to each other, point out historical genealogies or subterranean connections, alienate or contextualize, suggest philosophical conditions or generate critical confrontations. Such relationships are in principle excluded from the Momentum Kunsthalle. And the alternatives that Aasan and Zamecznik propose are not fully convincing: that the labyrinthian organization of the spaces should force the spectator to remember where she has been, so that she may create her own relations between separate artworks or installations; and that a studio-like atmosphere is created so that each isolated work can come to its full right in some sort of «pregnant moment». I did not walk around in Momentum Kunsthalle remembering earlier artworks; I walked around attempting to understand a number of separate installations (without experiencing «pregnant moments»).

The result of Aasan’s and Zamecznik’s technique is therefore instead that the group exhibition is reduced to a very dense accumulation of smaller, separate exhibitions. A number of these separate exhibitions are very good: Bruce Conner’s two films, Report and Crossroads, depicting the assassination of  Kennedy and the nuclear bomb tests in the Bikini Atoll; Lorenzo Scotto di Luzio’s large, homemade digital watch, made from cardboard, aluminum foil, pieces of wood and strip lights; Oliver Laric’s video,Versions, with its wild combinations of manipulated images; Mandla Reuter’s disorienting installations and architectonical interventions; the graffiti group/artist duo/record company Sex Tags’ Moss (før og nå), subversive and subtle, interwoven readings of the history of their own practice and that of the city Moss, etc. Shattering the exhibition spaces into many smaller, individual booths, however, is not a sufficient way to make up for the lack of conceptual coherence in the Momentum Biennial 2011, but rather clarifies the shortcomings of the exhibition instead.