The Untouchable

Merlin Carpenter gives us the art he thinks we deserve at Borgenheim Rosenhoff in Oslo.

Merlin Carpenter, Mutiny, 2024. Installation view, Borgenheim Rosenhoff, Oslo. Photo: Einar Fuglem.

Merlin Carpenter’s exhibition Mutiny at Borgenheim Rosenhoff in Oslo was preceded by a talk at the Art Academy on the day before the opening where the artist read a webpage out loud, the code included. It took about thirty minutes, long enough that I had time to ask myself what I was doing there, but not so long that it required a feat of real endurance from the audience. Indeed, the question of what we are doing there – as viewers and producers of contemporary art – is a persistent theme in Carpenter’s work, as I see it. It deals with the social and economic processes that consecrate art, that grant it its special value, and, perhaps more interestingly, with how to participate in these processes without giving up more of our integrity than necessary (i.e. our claim to cynical insight).

Carpenter has roots in the celebrated Cologne art scene of the 1990s (think Martin Kippenberger, Michael Krebber, Cosima von Bonin, and Jutta Koether) and should be a known figure to anyone who has kept half an eye on contemporary painting over the past few decades. However, despite his position in a recent canon, it doesn’t feel all that strange for him to suddenly crop up in an artist run space in Oslo in 2024. Mutiny is made in collaboration with the nomadic exhibition platform bbberlin, run by artist Mickael Marman. The connection to precarious production networks like this nourishes the image of a more idealistic activity taking place outside the rarified commercial and institutional circles in which Carpenter also moves. Carpenter hints at such a severance or duality within his own practise in an interview with Isabelle Graw (in her 2018 book The Love of Painting), where he describes his painting proper as a means to support “intellectual freedom.” In short, it seems he wants to deploy painting as a kind of sensual-rhetorical apparatus to persuade the capitalist class to hand him their money, so he can focus on writing complex Marxist treatises on value creation in art.

Markedly stingy with painterly gestures, the exhibition at Borgenheim doesn’t pander too overtly to collectors. That, of course, doesn’t rule out the possibility that it is bait for other forms of investment. The gallery has temporarily moved back into the raw concrete loft where it initially resided. Five carefully stacked plinths of empty cardboard boxes on square wooden pallets are spread out in a sober arrangement. The boxes were made to the artist’s order by a recycling facility, and have previously been shown at Centre D’art Contemporain la Synagogue De Delme in 2020. Technically not readymades, they still operate safely within that established vocabulary. In Delme, thousands of boxes crowded the exhibition space. Additionally, a huge red forklift was parked outside the entrance, as a punchline. The comedy is more subdued at Borgenheim, which looks like an abandoned storage unit with a few forgotten items. The careful placement of the pallets evinces just enough intention for the gently illuminated objects to appear on display. On the wall is a black and white poster with the show’s title set in a jovial angular font and, above it, two downward-pointing arrows. That’s all, apart from the intrusive smell of damp concrete.

Merlin Carpenter, Mutiny, 2024. Installation view, Borgenheim Rosenhoff, Oslo. Photo: Einar Fuglem.

The exhibition is part of a series of events listed on the webpage Carpenter read aloud, under the heading Rahmenprogramm (framing/supporting program). Most of them sound pretty fictitious, although the criteria for determining degrees of realness here are hard to decide: “Activist Zentrum Occupy Lørenveien 68, Mutiny, reclaim your life. All summer, 2024”; “Sobriety lifehack estate agent teambuilding gruntout at Kon-Tiki Museum Bygdøynesveien 36, Oslo, all welcome, May 31st, 2024. All day,” etc. The Tourette’s-adjacent jargon is reminiscent of the announcements circulated by artist Victor Boullet’s enervatingly active Institute of Social Hypocrisy (which supposedly is host to one of the events, according to the Mutiny website) a few years back. The announcement is a magic formula that bestows a sheen of formality and intention on even the most trivial happening. The rabid tone of Carpenter’s announcements, however, is also symptomatic of a manufacturing of events that has gone off the rails, become viral, and, as such, anticipates a future as spam.

Carpenter’s box stacks are, in a way, sculptural equivalents of junk email. They belong to a rehashed iconography of art that wants to make a Warholian statement about its proximity to mass production. Packaging is part of the infrastructure that undergirds and makes possible the work’s circulation and display. Its appearance disrupts our interactions with art with a reminder that the aura that sets the work apart is a pure fabrication. In terms of value, the problem with the readymade is the risk for inflation that dovetails with production costs that are too low for the artwork to obtain a special economic status on its own. This is compensated for by trusting the selection mechanisms of the art institution to ensure scarcity. Carpenter’s hectic event calendar – his Rahmenprogramm – suggests a proliferation of producers with the authority to elevate the trivial into art. Eventually, the licence to consecrate is spread too thin, undermining the art world’s power to distinguish its objects. 

This would also destroy the institutional authority that props up Carpenter’s own position. Presumably, it is this attack on his own banner, so to speak, that the term “mutiny” alludes to. The image of the artist biting the hand that feeds him brings us back to the notion of a severance between an idealistic and an opportunistic mode in Carpenter’s practice, and the attendant questions of whether such a model is at all possible. Can churning out market-optimised painting credibly shelter autonomous intellectual activity? Or are the artist’s intellectual endeavours bound to eventually be subsumed by his commercial activity, ending up as  rhetorical devices equal to painterly effects, but aimed at a different, more erudite sensibility? I don’t know, but I find the idea of an artist willingly submitting to market incentives and simultaneously acting and thinking against their own economic interests is an equally romantic construct as the bourgeois subject who gets worked up over the tactile qualities of painting – and who Carpenter appears to despise while he feeds it.

It boils down to a question of whether intention can be thought independent of its consequences, that is, whether we attribute value to the artist’s critical reflections as a moral virtue independent of its (probable) commercial and (less probable) political functions. Something like that needs to be the case, I think, for viewers to accept such a raw deal as the stacked cardboard boxes at Borgenheim, which aspire only to remind us that the encounter with art is a proxy for a transaction that only tangentially has anything to do with aesthetic experience. The evacuation of the artwork’s aesthetic surplus is a seductive art in its own right, with a genealogy that Carpenter (among others) has been a central contributor to, and we’re liable to get carried away by his coquettish play with absence and inflation. But if we are being honest – a mode that Carpenter’s skeptical ethos seems to encourage, after all – what is the affective state engendered by his cardboard boxes? Uncertainty? Confusion? Indifference? Contentment (in being assured of our place in a community of the cynically enlightened)? Whatever we may feel, it is a clear premonition that anything of true value is elsewhere.

Set-up for Merlin Carpenter’s talk at the Art Academy in Oslo, Wednesday 10 April. Photo: Kristoffer Cezinando Karlsen.

Translated from Norwegian by the author.