The exhibition Death to the Curator at Kunsthall Oslo collects contributions from fifteen artist-run initiatives in the Nordic region. These are mainly exhibition venues, but also artists’ collectives and activist groups, most of them run on a voluntary basis. Also included is the artists’ group Gize from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, founded as a result of the exhibition Coming Together at Kunsthall Oslo last year. As the title indicates, Death to the Curator is not only an outcry against curatorial power, but also an effort to point to non-hierarchical collectivist methods of exhibition production as an alternative to top-down processes. As such, it forms part of a series of exhibitions at the venue – Oslo Museum of Contemporary (2017), the aforementioned Coming Together (2020), and Et kollektivt kaosmos (A Collective Chaosmos, 2020) – where social interaction and co-authorship function as both an organising principle and an objective.
The press release discusses the curator as a “neoliberal phenomenon,” a figure that has, ever since its entry on the contemporary art scene in the 1970s, contributed to weakening the democratic tradition of juried exhibitions that was previously central in the Scandinavian countries. In Oslo, the new and expensive museums – Astrup Fearnley, the Munch Museum, and the National Museum – are highlighted as symptomatic of an increasingly hierarchical art scene, where influence and money fall into the hands of a few curators.
It is difficult not to sympathise with the position adopted by Kunsthall Oslo, because it often feels as if the curators of the large institutions primarily function as gatekeepers for the most lavish production budgets and exhibition spaces. Auteur curators producing thematic exhibitions that delve into the key issues of our times are rare in Norway, while curators that primarily operate as networkers, filters in the hierarchies among artists and institutions alike, constitute the clear majority. The question thus raised by the Kunsthall, at least the way I see it, is whether we might manage with fewer such filters.
So what about the exhibition itself? It comes across as somewhat stunted by the pandemic, meaning that it is not the keenly honed argument for anti-hierarchical production, nor the celebration of alternative forms of organising that it could have been. According to Kunsthall Oslo, the original plan was to have artists from each participating organisation travel to Oslo in order to produce a collective work of art, but for obvious reasons this proved impossible. Instead, each participating organisation has contributed a silkscreen print, with the entire set sent to each organisation, ensuring that everyone receives a copy of everyone else’s contribution. In the gallery, this part of the show comes across as too well-behaved and out of step with the playful exuberance that has otherwise been the Kunsthall’s signature in recent years.
Skogen, located outside Gothenburg and described in the catalogue as a “combined workplace and everyday space for artists and art enthusiasts,” contributes a bright green poster with text running along all four edges. The text and visual design alike resist the normative requirement of self-representation; all that is depicted are some translucent geometric shapes, while the text – a self-referential account of the process behind the poster – winds along the margins, partly upside down, in long sentences that are broken up at irregular intervals, making reading difficult.
Oslo-venue Podium also seems reluctant to define its activities: its contribution features a sea of white and black dots, similar to noise on a TV, which forms the background for (indistinct) letters in the elongated root-like style associated with death metal. Others have chosen to plainly present the values that form the basis of their activities, modelling their designs on the political poster art of the 1970s. The poster submitted by Goodiepal and Bananskolen shows a hammer aimed at a clock whose gears represent the uncaring machinery set up to expel asylum seekers in Denmark. The headline “Let us destroy Swiss precision!” leaves no doubt about what should be done.
As it happens, Goodiepal – a Danish-Faroese artist, but also a band, a school, and a refugee organisation – dominates most of the exhibition with a presentation of his rich and diverse collection, which was recently on display at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen. Paintings and drawings are mounted in salon-style hangs, while an abundance of boxes with books, computer games, and CDs are heaped alongside stacks of LPs. Nothing is attributed to specific artists, so one might think of the collection as a collective work of art, not entirely unlike the original plan for the present exhibition. At the same time, this is a collection assembled to be handled and rummaged through. Standing alone among all these objects, I can’t help but read them as a monument to all the interactions lost during the successive shutdowns over the past year.
In several cases, the effort put into running an exhibition venue or a collective has been transformed into new works rather than into publications or traditional archives. Two small wall-hung sculptures by Matti Sumari are cast in aluminium from non-recyclable beer cans, their contents having been imbibed at openings at Alta Art Space in Malmö. Lattice-shaped, the sculptures are decorated with casts of pickled cucumbers and mushrooms. On the wall next to it hangs a screen where one can navigate a meditative game world created by the Danish artist group Manège. This realm of brutalist monumental architecture is filled with cryptic fragments from the exhibitions the group has arranged as well as contributions from artists with whom it has collaborated.
A video programme with contributions from several of the participating venues – totalling approximately twenty works – is shown as a single projection. Several works are about the terms that underpin art production: the social and financial conditions associated with being an artist. Sorbus, a Finnish artists’ group that previously ran an exhibition venue in Helsinki, parodies the network-building curator type in the video The Sorbus Group Show (2015), where the curator states: “I see my practice as being a butterfly. I fly between flowers – and these flowers are artists.”
Death to the Curator presents the argument that artist-run exhibition venues and small institutions are the engines of contemporary art. Accordingly, it seems obvious to place high demands on large institutions such as Norway’s National Museum, which after all costs almost as much to run as the entire Cultural Fund operated by Arts Council Norway. In a text published in the journal Billedkunst about the preparations for the museum’s inaugural exhibition, I call it art (with the authorial use of I, instead of We), Geir Haraldseth, the exhibition’s curator together with Randi Godø, states that the exhibition concept – which is to exclusively show artists not previously shown or purchased by the National Museum based on an open call for submissions – entails “a self-reflective approach as a basic premise. What have we not collected, and why?” But to what extent is this approach truly one of self-scrutiny? If the intention is to be more inclusive and challenge established notions about quality – which Haraldseth’s text seems to argue – there are probably more democratic ways of reaching this goal than relying on just two curators. The decision to imitate the methods of small institutions, self-organised exhibition venues, and the open-call Autumn Exhibition (Høstutstillingen) can be taken as an admission that the curator, including the socially conscious curator, is in many cases superfluous. Should one expect a more ambitious approach from such a large and expensive institution than this lax and arbitrary self-examination? That will be exciting to see when the new museum opens next year.
Unfortunately, the Zoom seminar held as part of Death to the Curator was a missed opportunity to discuss the role of curator in the Nordic countries; instead, it mainly consisted of a series of presentations by the show’s participants. Given the project’s title, the seminar also ought to have discussed what happens when exhibition venues and organisations that are wholly or partly based on volunteer work are incorporated into the programming of institutions – even in those cases where the institutions are small, such as Kunsthall Oslo.