The Homogenous Community

The notable exhibition series Game of Life at Kristiansand Kunsthall concludes with a masterful, if sombre dissonance.

Game of Life IV: Prospektkabinettet, installation view. Photo: Tor Simen Ulstein.

Kristiansand Kunsthall welcomes visitors to the opening of Game of Life IV: Prospektkabinettet (The prospect cabinet) with a new bar built out of cardboard for the occasion. Picking up a plastic cup of wine, I walk towards the automatic sliding doors that lead into what may be Norway’s finest exhibition rooms, complete with large windows, views, and excellent lighting. Architect Jonas Høgli Major has filled the gallery with scenography : visitors are led into a kind of passage between two buildings made out of cardboard and carved with classic ornamentation, almost as if the audience were being taken through Strada Novissima at the architectural biennial in Venice in 1980. Høgli Major’s buildings extend from floor to ceiling, and small children run and play between the passages and the arcades, sneak behind the colonnades, discover small doors that they can creep into and hide.

The Game of Life series is curated by artist Jan Freuchen and writer Sigurd Tenningen and has been developing since 2012, with each exhibition presenting different artists. Besides Høgli Major’s cardboard sets, this fourth and final instalment features sculptures by Kristian Øverland Dahl, several installations and a video by Nora Joung, as well as paintings and prints by Tom Lid. The curators refer to the exhibition as an installation in itself. As yet, each exhibition in the series has been accompanied by a truly excellent publication, and the year 2020 will see the launch of a book encompassing the entire series.

Kristian Øverland Dahl’s sculptures are presented as residents of the exhibition. Standing alone or in small clusters, these dolls do not have bodies, just grey, matte faces draped in packing tape and coarse tissue paper. A restrictively narrow cardboard corridor leads visitors into a closed-off screening room showing video of a flute player perambulating the exhibition space. The soft sound made by air and metal flows out of the corridor, creating a counterpoint to the grey-brown unity of packing tape, moving boxes, cardboard arcades, and children playing. Soon, the flute player enters the gallery space in the flesh, performing the melody from the video. The curators open the exhibition, the crowd applauds, and the dolls stare vacantly ahead.

“As in a chord, one can choose to follow the individual voices separately, or look for the harmony in an at times dissonant choir,” the curators state in the pamphlet, suggesting that the exhibition can be understood as a space-based musical composition – I would call it a fugue – where the four artists each play their own distinct melodies, representing different modes of expression. The voices mingle as if sung by an over-excited choir, everyone singing simultaneously without waiting for the others to complete their melody. Still, like in a fugue, the different voices are variations on the same theme.

A slideshow featuring inspirational images from compact and efficient apartment interiors plays on an iPad in Joung’s installation Habitus (2019). The iPad is placed on a retro-inspired chair enclosed within a large moving crate. An opening allows audiences to look inside the box, while light emitted by a red lamp makes the installation seem like an overgrown egg incubator. Joung’s closed box forms a contrast to Tom Lid’s airy brushstrokes. For this occasion, Lid’s abstract prints have been cut up and assembled into collages that encircle his paintings, extending across walls, towards the ceiling. In this way, the work breaks open the delimited format of the canvas, and with its open, loose compositions, stretches out towards the trees by the Kristiansand Cathedral, which can be glimpsed from the gallery. From the screening room, we hear the distant tones of the flute player mingling with the music of Joung’s video work Vy (View) from 2019, where a dream-like synth loop accompanies blurred images from a construction site.

Nora Joung, Underleverandør, 2019. Photo: Tor Simen Ulstein

Major’s monochrome cardboard designs form the democratic framework of Prospektkabinettet: affordable to build, easy to pack away. The sets are described as “commons, arcades and pavilions,” and the title of the work, Folly (2019), refers to a type of architecture with a purely decorative function, such as ornamental buildings in aristocratic baroque parklands, or miniature copies of historical monuments. However, the cardboard arcades in Kristiansand Kunsthall do not look like such classical constructions; their crooked angles and misplaced, carved ornaments create a discontinuous sense of unity, reminiscent of fragments from the postmodern style of La Tendenza (Italian neo-rationalism).

A recurring theme in the exhibition series has been Kristiansand, both the city in itself (the porosity of the membrane separating public and private spaces) and its inhabitants (the curators and many of the artists have local affiliations). In 2012, Etter rutenettet (After the grid) addressed the art and cultural history of Kristiansand’s city centre, arranged in accordance with a square grid; in 2014, Knust i offentlig rom (Crushed in public space) addressed Southern Norway’s strained relationship with public art; and the 2016 Juliusvariasjonene (Julius variations) looked at various methods for domesticating the human animal through a focus on the Kristiansand Zoo and Amusement Park, specifically its famous former denizen, Julius the Monkey. All these exhibitions examine the consequences of a homogeneous social structure in which the city, the people, and the system are becoming increasingly uniform.

As in the final part of a fugue, the themes of the first three Game of Life exhibitions are repeated in Prospektkabinettet: a triumphant finale. But just like a fugue, the exhibition is both grandiose and somewhat predictable when you know the format of the composition and the themes already introduced. Although the voices that perform Prospektkabinettet are distinct, the themes are more entangled than in the earlier exhibitions, and the harmony between them seems more ambient: an ecology of architecture, democracy, play, and atmosphere. The exhibition series is capped off in a crafty, clever way that returns to its beginnings.

A second gallery contains Prospekt, a work unattributed in the accompanying pamphlet – perhaps this constitutes the curators’ signature on the exhibition series? Here, a grid made out of cardboard dust covers the floor. The outer boundaries of the rigid grid are gradually loosened up, then sprawl outwards in an uncontrolled manner. A miniature building complex, also made of cardboard, arises from this unbridled dust. The word ‘prospect’ encompasses different meanings, and in Prospektkabinettet the curators draw on all them: city view; brochure; finances; and outlook.

Game of Life IV: Prospektkabinettet, installation view. Photo: Tor Simen Ulstein.

In the exhibition catalogue for Etter rutenettet, the architect Martin Braaten draws on Rosalind Krauss’s interpretation of Modernism’s grid as a centrifugal form – an open-ended web sprawling away from a centre – when he points out that Kristiansand’s city centre, based on the square, has expanded to the point where it has now reached the industrial park known as Sørlandsparken. Urban development follows a centrifugal logic, and thus “paves the way for its own expansion,” states Braaten.

The Game of Life series engages in speculation about this centrifugal form, not just as an urban structuring principle, but also as an analogy for the structure of our social reality – a centrifugal structure: When and where did the structure emerge? What material imprints does it leave? What are the processes and mechanisms driving this centrifuge and where does art belong? Freuchen and Tenningen have examined these questions through four exhibitions, showing how Julius the monkey and art in public space can be understood as variations on the same theme, given that they belong within the same centrifugal structure.

In keeping with the literary and intellectual references found in the publications associated with the exhibition series, the future envisioned by Freuchen and Tenningen is bleak. The first exhibition catalogue shows a photograph taken by Freuchen, depicting the construction of Kristiansand’s waterpark Aquarama. A banner shows the facility’s motto, “One place. For everyone.” It is the homogeneous community and the place of art in this community that Game of Life orchestrates: harmony in a time of uprooted placelessness reverberates in the air.

The pervasive gloomy dissonance breeds a sense of discomfort. I want to get out of these cardboard rooms, away from the houseplants, ornamental vases, and grout, away from the uniformed doll bodies; the velvety tones of the flute are on a loop, I search for the exit. But just as the Game of Life series has demonstrated, this dissonance that fills the exhibition space penetrates the walls and spreads out into the city, up the E18 highway towards Dyreparken and beyond.

Game of Life IV: Prospektkabinettet, installation view. Photo: Tor Simen Ulstein.