Bergen Assembly 2019 is titled Actually, The Dead Are Not Dead. Like so many other contemporary art biennials and triennials, it’s more than an exhibition. It is also a process, a platform and a number of workshops, discussions, and so on. Even so, in this review I will take the liberty of relating primarily to the sixty-odd artists and artists’ groups presented at the five exhibition venues Bergen Kunsthall, KODE 1 Permanenten, Entrée, Hordaland Kunstsenter, and Bergen Kjøtt until 10 November.
Of course, this in itself is more than enough to be getting on with. In each of these places, we are presented with a multitude of deeply engaging human and political stories. In Bergen Kunsthall, for example, the body is a sub-theme. Here, we find: Robert Gabri’s fragile engravings based on his father’s prison tattoos (The Blue Heart Series, 2016); Imogen Stidworthy’s lingering video portrait of the Swedish author, therapist, and autist Iris Johansson (Iris [a fragment], 2018–19); Annette Hoffmann’s elegant presentation of historical audio recordings of migrants who came to Germany as participants/exhibits in ‘ethnic exhibitions’ (Foreign Subjects, 2019); and John Barker and Ines Doujak’s large narrative piece in the form of a carpet which, according to the curators, forms a lexicon or cosmology of “politics of death” (Economies of Desperation, 2018).
Note the concept of politics of death. This very idea inspired the curatorial group to put together Bergen Assembly 2019 as a massive discursive and political exhibition. Of course, it is hard to disagree that such a politics dominates in many parts of the world, whether in the form of capitalist exploitation, industrial destruction, or dehumanising immigration control. Against this, the curators posit an idea of “reclaiming life” and, moreover, of taking responsibility for “those who are no longer, or not yet, here.” In short, they issue a call for all of us to widen our perspective and seek new political inspiration in an era that may indeed be summed up as a time of ceaseless killing: destruction of our fellow human beings and the environments in which we live.
However, Bergen Assembly 2019 also leaves itself wide open to accusations of embodying the two main problems of political art. Firstly, the tendency to always speak on behalf of someone else. In this exhibition, this not only extends to the dispossessed and the oppressed, but also – in almost parodic fashion – to the dead and those who are not yet born. Secondly, the tendency to instrumentalise art.
My first response upon entering the exhibition derives from the latter. I experience a slight sense of boredom, almost annoyance, at seeing so much art that is all about presenting political information. As if all the books, newspapers, libraries, universities, documentaries, seminars, and political processes in the world are not enough. Contemporary art, too, must disseminate information on race biology (Minna Henriksson, Nordic Race Science, 2016), Sámi resistance (Niilas Holmberg, Jenni Laiti, and Outi Pieski, Moratorium office: advisory service for decolonialist self-determination, 2018, and Kiss from the Border, 2017–18), colonial currencies (Nina Støttrup Larsen’s, Mercurial Relations, 2016–19), biological alignment (Åsa Sonjasdotter, Cultivating Stories, 2019) and migration crises (Banu Cennetoğlu, 07.06.2019, 2019), to cite some of the works presented at the exhibition’s other main arena, KODE 1, where the underlying theme is the museum as a colonising institution.
On the other hand, it feels quite reasonable that artists and curators should be interested in politics. Why shouldn’t they be? What else would they be concerned about? We live in precarious times, and large-scale exhibition formats offer an opportunity to discuss and deal with political issues in an historical and interdisciplinary way while scrutinising the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of politics. This makes the political space of art an entirely necessary supplement to other political arenas.
Moreover, the two key concepts of ‘the Other’ and instrumentalisation no longer mean quite the same as when Hal Foster wrote his seminal text, ‘The Artist As Ethnographer’ in 1995. Foster wrote his text at a time when American neo-avant-garde art and postmodernism were historicised and idealised as art that actually managed to be political in a way that was not about the ‘the Other’ and which did not deplete the concept of art. Today, it no longer seems quite as self-evident that the academic-commercial amalgamation which carried aloft American (and international) art history from the 1960s to the 1990s represented some ideal halcyon state of art. Perhaps the community-based, anthropological, and radical projects which took place during these decades did not represent the art institution’s ‘other’, but rather an alternative and more inclusive art institution? What if all these ‘others’ are quite simply us?
I believe such a state – beyond representational politics – is what the conveners of Bergen Assembly 2019 imagined for the exhibition and the events taking place in Bergen during 2019. This evokes a porous art institution that, for example, makes no distinction between professionally trained artists and invited representatives of Bergen’s self-described “people of colour,” as in the project Oi! (2019). The problem is that Foster’s concepts still echo in the exhibition rooms. Furthermore, the new ‘we’ created within this porous and political art institution only includes those of us who can navigate and master this new institutional structure.
All this gives rise to a feeling of consensus, one that will undoubtedly elicit a happy sense of community in many. For me, it fosters the suspicion that new exclusions are in play. Or, to put it another way: If we are to stop the politics of death, I think we need a politics for all those who have yet to master the politicised art institution.
Observing who is excluded from this new ‘we’ makes for interesting viewing. The Dead are Actually Not Dead expresses solidarity with virtually any and all underprivileged and non-normative bodies. However, it seems that some bodies still generate revulsion and cannot be accepted: provincial bodies. In other words, any artist or curator who happens to live in Bergen (or in Norway) and strives to become part of an international art conversation. Among all the political issues discussed in this biennial, this is the one in which the curators themselves wield direct and executive political power. In this important area, the conveners Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler act with no small measure of arrogance. Admittedly, they have found room for one partially Bergen-based artist in their network of twelve conveners: Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, who also contributes to the exhibition. Apart from her, only one Norwegian artist is included. That artist is Siri Hermansen, who shows Apology (2014), a documentary about the Norwegian king’s apology to the Sámi people in 1997, issued as an expression of regret for the many years of Norwegianisation policies.
So, what about the nature of political art? The exhibition teems with art that is dense with information, ultimately to fatiguing effect. Would it be more interesting to see more art approaching the political realm via aesthetic means? The answer is no. For example, when perusing the exhibition’s third main arena, Bergen Kjøtt, Valérie Favre’s small paintings of suicide scenarios (Selbstmord, 2003–13) are not among the exhibition’s strongest works. Quite the contrary: the almost pathetic painterly gestures seem shallow, achieving little more than pointing to the underlying image searches. Surprisingly, a presentation of Crip Magazine stands among the most vital presentations at the venue, despite the fact that it simply consists of enlarged magazine articles glued onto the walls. Their impact has something to do with the journal’s theme: launched in 2012, Crip opposes the idea of the ‘normal body’. More than this, however, it is the gesture, the self-assertive attitude, the naïve aesthetic, and the absence of any effort to adapt to the biennial format that imbue this presentation with its distinctive energy.
Insofar as something is missing from Bergen Assembly 2019, it is not an aestheticised political art, but a more broad-spectered political art: art that is capable of liberating itself, of positioning itself and voicing critique of society in general, of its immediate context on the art scene, its own appearance, and its relationship with the viewer. Of course, this does not mean that such art must engage with and activate all these dimensions simultaneously, but it must – whether in small fragments or a larger gesture – articulate a type of idiosyncratic independence that not only conveys a political message, but also contributes to a critique of the very idea of political art.
One example of this kind of multidimensional political art would be political parties, an exhibition within the exhibition. Here, María García and Pedro G. Romero, two of the twelve conveners, have taken the liberty of actually acting as traditional curators, putting together different types of material – drawings, prints, photographs, films, and more – that point to the historical and cultural connection between the political and the celebratory, especially as it appears in Andalusian flamenco and Roma culture. The result is a brilliantly vibrant and rich presentation. political parties also makes some detours to the North, including to August Sander’s photographs of Vienna’s orgiastic Lumpenbälle (tramps’ balls) in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as to the Hungarian-Norwegian painter Charles Roka (1912–99), represented here by one of his ‘gypsy girls’ loaned for this occasion from a bar in Vågsbunnen.
Berlin-based Hiwa K’s video documenting the performance Pre-Image (2017) and Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s photographs of the exhibition Impressions from the Colonies at the University Museum of Bergen come closer to a traditional artistic discourse. Retracing his journey by foot from Kurdish territories in Iraq into Europe, Hiwa K carried out a series of walks during which he balanced a several-metres-long stick on his forehead. The motorcycle mirrors mounted on its tip turned the contraption into a visual prosthesis. We do not get to see the multifaceted mirror image the artist used to navigate by; rather, we witness the artist’s balancing act. This creates a strong sense of identification, and we realise that his performance is about producing a narrative, thereby generating autonomy. One can hardly imagine anything more valuable in the encounter with hegemonic European culture.
A similarly kaleidoscopic or fragmented gaze can be observed in Wolukau-Wanambwa’s photographs. In these images, the artist explores the exhibition at the Cultural History Collections with a flowing, dreamlike, layered, and repetitive gaze, as if understanding colonialism required an entirely new way of looking, not just more facts.
Minna Henriksson’s wall drawing Unfolding Nordic Race Science demonstrates, with all the clarity you could possibly desire, the wildly proliferating branches of race biology in the Nordic countries before and after the dawn of the 20th century. We may imagine any professional or political network being portrayed in this way, and that is precisely the point. The work insists on the accountability of all the individual participants and contributors in such networks, indeed in all social processes.
A similar study of the effect of information can be found in Banu Cennetoğlu’s publication of The List in the newspaper Bergensavisen in July, three months prior to the opening of Bergen Assembly. The list contains information on the deaths of 36,570 migrants en route to or within Europe after 1993. The exhibition presents this edition of Bergensavisen alongside several other Norwegian newspapers published the same day, bound in a book format. The result is a simple, but powerful information sculpture that interweaves the fates of these people into everyday life in Norway.
At the opposite end of an imaginary scale ranging from text-based to sensual modes of expression, we find Pauline Curnier Jardin’s film Qu’un sang impur (The impure blood, 2019). The work is based on Jean Genet’s texts and his classic Chant d’Amour (Love Song, 1950), a dialogue-free film about gay love set in a prison. Jardin imagines what this movie would have been like if it were shot using ageing bodies. Simultaneously sensual and alienating, the story demonstrates how strongly we as viewers are influenced by social conventions. We don’t own our gaze, but films like this one can help us reclaim it.
In other words, in this instalment of Bergen Assembly it is perfectly possible to find examples of significant political narratives that have found a genuinely artistic form. Unfortunately, just as many have not, appearing instead as mere accruals of information. There is something repetitive and consensual about the way in which death politics are addressed, revealing a lack of faith in art’s own politics. Does this mean that The Dead Are Not Dead has failed or that the Bergen Assembly fails to honour its mandate? On the contrary, the fact that films like Qu’un sang impur and Iris [a fragment] are screened here at all is a gift to Bergen and the Norwegian art community. Despite my objections to this specific instalment, I also find the Bergen Assembly’s curatorial structure highly productive. The triennial has successfully imbued the terms “assembly” and “convener” with actual meaning, no matter how mannered they came across when first launched. It makes a genuine contribution to the international exhibition discourse, which is a major feat in itself.