The Spaceship Has Landed

Bergen Assembly 2022 is behavioural therapy for a contemporary art scene that needs to relax.

Shirin Sabahi, The Moped Rider, 2022. Installation view from Bryggens Museum, Bergen Assembly 2022. Photo: Nicolas Rösener.

On the first read-through of the presentation, Saâdane Afif’s approach to the fourth instalment of the triennial Bergen Assembly (BA) came across as rather corny: a fictional curator has put together a seven-part exhibition complex in which each part is personified by archetypes taken from an unknown play. The feeling persisted during the official opening, where Afif enacted a scenario claiming that the curator had disappeared and that he had received a letter from her to read aloud. What were we meant to get out of such a set-up? What did these layers of fiction surrounding the exhibition offer the viewer? Compared to the strict approach which informed the previous instalment of this triennial, with the politics of death as the overarching theme, it all appeared rather frivolous.

All the more satisfying, then, that this year’s exhibition works so well. This instalment of BA comes across as the most relaxed so far, chilled in a way that exudes confidence, both on behalf of itself and the art presented. For the first time, the exhibition’s triple outreach – to the international art scene, to the local art scene, and to the city itself – feels more or less well integrated. Not that things are equally balanced; this is still an international art event, but something fundamental has happened to its dynamics.

Take, for example, the presentation of Venezuelan artist Sol Calero’s La Cantina de la Touriste (2022), a redesign of the Mat og Prat (Food and Talk) café, a municipal initiative which also offers work training for immigrants. It was introduced with a conversation – in Norwegian, no less! – with the people responsible for running the project before the artist was allowed a go. Calero’s project is similar to many other social art projects associated with serving food and drink. The two previous instalments of the BA have featured other variations on the theme, striving to realise ideals such as “radical hospitality” and community without hierarchies. However, these earlier variants were classic examples of how the freedom offered by the art sphere, which was itself a prerequisite for their radical approach, also entails a lack of influence in the long run. That is why it was so refreshing to hear those responsible for running Mat og Prat speak warmly about how important it was for them to relate actively to the curriculum for upper secondary school in the work training they were undertaking. I think I can safely say that never before in the history of the BA has such faith and loyalty to official institutions been expressed from its stages.

Sol Calero, La Cantina de la Touriste, 2022. Installation view from Kafé Mat & Prat, Bergen Assembly 2022. Photo: Bjørn Mortensen

It would be wrong to say that the rest of the exhibition is institution-positive. Still, clearly a quite different, more exploratory and less revolutionary attitude underpins this exhibition compared to the previous BA instalments – and to much contemporary art in general, one might add. Here, explicit political questions are not given a particularly central position. Not that such themes have been left out, but the way that they have been incorporated into the project lets them take on a different meaning compared to more typical politically oriented presentations. Take, for example, the section on “The Professor,” set in the foyer of the Faculty of Art, Music, and Design. This section comprises three very different parts, all of which can be read in the light of three well-known political themes: the rise of fascism, the climate crisis, and issues of identity politics. However, what links the projects here and gives them direction as a cohesive exhibition is how they address the professor’s role within art education and its political relevance: what are the possibilities and limitations of pedagogical action? The approach raises issues, yes, but is miles away from any radical rejection of the educational institution.

This more down-to-earth approach is also evident in the project design and presentation. Afif’s choice to model the triennial on a play is by no means unique; indeed, even the 2013 version of the BA was based on a Russian science fiction novel. But the play Afif has chosen, The Heptahedron (2016) by the French writer Thomas Clerc, is so loosely composed and ambiguous, yet at the same time so richly poetic that the setting becomes enriching rather than constricting. And most importantly of all, the fictional frame sets the curator free from the cumbersome task of having to explain the project based on various master thinkers’ concepts and philosophies, which can, even when done well and with care, feel rather like approaching the aesthetic experience from the wrong end. Having said that, there is plenty of theory here. The starting point is, to put it mildly, abstract. The protagonist of the play, Yasmine, who will become our fictional curator, is looking for a symmetrical heptahedron, a seven-sided three-dimensional figure which is geometrically impossible. Through encounters with seven more or less absurd people (one of them even turns out to be two people), such a figure actually manifests itself. The exhibitions take us on a similar quest for an impossible form.

Art from the Depths of the Mines, vernacular sculptures by coal miners. From the exhibition The Coalman at Gyldenpris Kunsthall, Bergen Assembly 2022. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

While this hunt is not served up on the basis of the kind of extended theoretical apparatus we have come to expect from the BA, this is by no means a simple affair. Certain parts are difficult to fully grasp. How, for example, may we describe the section on display at Bergen Kunsthall dedicated to the character known as the “Bonimenteur” (Huckster)? My guess is that many of those who take in only a small part of the BA will simply drop in at the leading venue for contemporary art in Bergen. However, out of the entire exhibition, this part is the furthest removed from the general aesthetic and expression of contemporary art, insofar as it is even possible to speak about such a thing. Parts of it are, quite simply, provocatively tasteless, although this does not necessarily make it any less interesting. Quite the contrary. It is, of course, no coincidence that it is the Bonimenteur – a character who, in Clerc’s play, speaks only in incoherent fragments of rhetorical phrases – who presents us with a strident light sculpture which, in exaggerated and obvious ways, addresses issues such as myths, community, and enlightenment. Also shown here is a large series of surreal airbrush-like paintings as well as the triennial’s overall visual profile, represented by large images of the seven characters and the curator figure Yasmine. With this, a critical connection is made from the light sculpture’s prototype of a campfire – the heart and hearth of storytelling – to Afif’s own curatorial approach. While these works may not be very strong in themselves, it requires self-confidence and mental flexibility to carry out such a self-reflexive analysis by juxtaposing works in one’s own exhibition – and to land on one’s feet while doing so.

Here, then, we are served with a really good exhibition featuring well-known and unknown names, one with a wider range than we would think possible, yet one which, through the fictional framework, manages to maintain a sense of, if not focus, then certainly another form of less intense concentration. The breadth of the exhibition also allows the coincidences of our current times to create small moments of synchronicity, such as the fact that Claude Debussy’s last work, a small composition written as payment for coal during a coal crisis in 1917, should take on such special significance in a situation where virtually all artists and art institutions in southern Norway are struggling to pay their electricity bills.

The story of Debussy’s work is presented alongside an impressive collection of coal sculptures created by Polish miners, whose sculptural practices originated in connection with a strike; the striking workers needed something to occupy themselves with. Art’s position, poised between freedom and necessity, could hardly be illustrated with greater clarity. When these aspects are further accompanied by the project Nothing More (2022) by Augustin Maurs, a piece of contemporary compositional music that explores the function of the voice and silence, particularly in terms of political struggle and subjectivation, it all comes together very nicely in a distinctive whole.

Ever since the BA’s origins in the biennial conference in 2009, it has been regularly emphasised that the triennial should consist of research made manifest, and that it should grow out of a desire to question what this form of exhibition can be – a claim which may sound great or grating, depending on who’s listening. After all, isn’t every exhibition a kind of experiment? Nevertheless, Afif’s exploration of the impossible form, where the abstract starting point takes on life and fullness without clarifying what is actually happening in any intellectual or cerebral manner, is the most serious and funniest attempt at exploring the biennial format that I have ever seen.

Daniel Buren, Trahisons (Betrayals), 2022. Bergen Assembly 2022. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Translated from Norwegian.