‘Neither a parlour game, nor a municipal service’ […] neither reactionary nor communist, neither gratuitous nor political.
– Roland Barthes, ‘Neither-Nor Criticism’1
For the 2013 edition of the Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art, the Momentum Kunsthall in Moss, Norway has been transformed into a labyrinthine space. Long corridors link brightly lit galleries situated over several floors. Between them, multiple doorways lead to small dark cinema spaces. The windows of the building – a vast former brewery – look onto the small industrial city of Moss, located approximately 40 miles south of Oslo. Behind the building is the Peterson paper mill; its logo is an everyday part of the Moss skyline: the name of the city in typography drawn from the shape of an elephant. The elephant in the room, however, is that the mill closed in 2012 and jobs have been lost. For the celebratory graphic identity of the biennial, the artist Bjørn-Kowalski Hansen has co-opted its logo; given a subtly psychedelic treatment, it has been tweaked, multiplied, reversed and inverted. On the banners surrounding the building, each pair of elephants standing back-to-back together now spell ‘MoMenTuM’. Beneath them, the mirror reflection of one of the elephants reads ‘WoW’!
Despite the suggestion in its title, Momentum does not move from centre to centre (or periphery to periphery) by relocating each of its editions as per the European biennial, Manifesta.2 Its stated aim is to draw visitors to Moss to view an exhibition of ‘the most compelling works of art and the most interesting artistic ventures in the Norwegian and Nordic context’.3 Founded in 1998, each edition of the biennial has been put together collaboratively. Lars Bang Larsen, Daniel Birnbaum and Atle Gerhardsen curated the first, and the current edition is by Erlend Hammer and Power Ekroth.4 In a 2007 article considering the effects of the ‘Nordic Miracle’ on the Norwegian art scene, Ekroth wrote about the founding of Momentum at a time when a ‘plethora’ of biennials emerged ‘to boost national credibility and to brand cities’.5 As if acknowledging that the concept of a biennial now needs some sort of inter-planetary stimulant to maintain relevance, Hansen has taken inspiration from Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, a 1952 science-fiction novel where two advertising agencies rule the world and advertising is seen as high art, and appropriated the fictional coffee brand ‘Coffiest’, serving it freely from a pop up bar that overlooks Møllebyen, the old mill town area of the city. The contrast between the social reality of a city like Moss and the flight of the imagination inherent in the creation of future societies in science fiction, and arguably integral to art in general, is the core dialectic of this edition of Momentum. It is contemplative rather than spectacular,6 juxtaposing the moving image with the still, recalling modernist aesthetics and utopian visions.
Culture is a noble, universal thing, placed outside social choices: culture has no weight. Ideologies, on the other hand, are partisan inventions: so, onto the scales, and out with them! Both sides are dismissed under the stern gaze of culture (without realising that culture itself is, in the last analysis, an ideology).7
For Momentum 7, Ekroth and Hammer have not collaborated to curate a show with a unified aesthetic or drawn up a joint manifesto. Instead, they have emphasised their differences with two separate but adjoining shows. The catalogue is also in two parts – open the pink cover and read about Ekroth’s exhibition ‘Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast’.8 Turn the catalogue over and open the orange cover to read about Hammer’s ‘Dare 2 Love Yourself’.9 Both titles hold a challenge. In ‘Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast’, Ekroth takes the imperious Queen’s statement in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871), ‘Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast’ and applies it to an art world that might be lifted from the base realities of economy and production to the realm of ideas. Her essay ‘Notes from the Superstructure’ urges a drop in momentum and asks that time be spent instead in imagining the impossible, ‘an active credo which can fuse resistance or innovation and perhaps even [bring about] change’.10 Despite the disposable twitter-language of the title, ‘Dare 2 Love Yourself’,11 Hammer’s catalogue text is not entirely flippant, but an allegorical essay with undertones of national identity in crisis, focusing on the state of Europe and questions of value:
There seems to have occurred a dip in the resistance against globalisation. Mountain villages, forest regions and remote valleys are places people want to escape from. Yet still, this is where a lot of value has been created, over the course of centuries […] These are the places that matter in Europe, and these are the places that are being sold out.12
Regarding his curatorial approach Hammer writes, ‘Among the many things I don’t enjoy are: a) writing, b) catalogue essays and c) curatorial concepts. […] I curate exhibitions visually. I think about politics when deciding who to vote for, not when installing sculpture.’13 Unlike Ekroth, who writes short essays on each contributing artist’s work in her exhibition, Hammer simply presents documentation with artist’s name, date of birth, place of origin, or work-base (perhaps both), and caption.
What becomes clear at this point is that neither curator has selected artists from solely the Nordic countries, but also from Egypt, Germany, Kurdistan, Italy, Russia, Turkey and the US. This is neither a regional exhibition nor is it explicitly transnational – each curator has simply worked closely with the individual artists best known to or appreciated by them, and selected a combination of works that they hope will reveal either a rich aesthetic or the multiple possibilities of an unlimited social and political imagination.
The first work encountered in the exhibition is Tower of Babel (2011). Ekroth provides a short explanatory text, fixed to the wall, that begins, ‘Goran Hassanpour grew up in a region not so far from the historic site of Babylon, in the country of Iran. His grandfather told him the stories of the tower of Babylon, as well as the legend of the hanging gardens’. Hassanpour’s tower, reminiscent of Tatlin’s in design, functions as the main light-source in the dark room. Made up of light boxes depicting waterfalls that are simultaneously kitsch, familiar and exotic, it evokes a childish wonder that is reinforced in the next room where Hassan Khan’s Muslimgauze R.I.P. (2010) is projected. In this hypnotic homage to experimental musician Bryn Jones and his ‘Muslimgauze’ music project of the 1980s, we watch a child kill time – moving slowly from agitating a textured surface to opening and closing drawers, to kneeling before an occasional table and spinning a coin – in a setting that, according to Ekroth, is based on an apartment in a Manchester housing estate c.1982, the year of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and consequently of Manchester-based Jones’s politicisation.14 Through close-ups and cutaways, considered use of dubbed on sound and repetition, Khan’s film is sympathetic and deeply compelling. As well as the reference to Jones, and therefore to his ambient music and its relation – through political record sleeve notes and titles – to war and conflict, there are ghosts of the perfectly composed and enraptured boy in Jean-Siméon Chardin’s painting L’Enfant au toton (Boy with a Top, c.1738) and the troubled, misunderstood Antoine Doinel, a recurrent character in Truffaut’s films, first introduced in Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959).
An immersive screen- and time-based approach to portraiture and
place binds together most of the works of Ekroth’s show. In
Big Data (2013), Loulou Cherinet offers glimpses of
Addis Ababa, Stockholm and Moss. While in the upper rooms,
Laura Horelli’s A Letter to Mother (2013) focuses on
scenes of Queens in New York, where her Finnish mother spent
her childhood. Both video works use voice-over narratives that
reflect on personal observations or recollections – political
as well as historical. The portraiture of someone absent,
What makes me pause for
thought is the near-impossibility of holding the idea of the
end of capitalism in my head. I would be happy not to be able
to imagine numerous impossible things each morning, if I was
only able to fully and coherently imagine this
one.eloquently articulated in Horelli’s film, is
echoed in Sergei Bugaev Afrika’s Illustrations to the
Russian Book of the Dead (2012), a series of small
photographic portraits that adorn the walls opposite Hansen’s
Coffiest. The plaques, of the type positioned on
graves, were presumably reject versions not selected for the
headstone of a loved one, which the artist recuperated from a
vast quantity originally discarded by a Russian factory. In
contrast to these intimate, salvaged portraits, the multiple
views of the high school interviewees in Clemens von
Wedemeyer’s double-screen projection The Inner Campus
(2008) – shown both in the campus of the University of Santa
Barbara, California and against a black back-drop – lends a
staged, hyper-real quality to their individual statements about
their roles and relationships.
Emerging from Wedemeyer’s cinematic space one has to adjust to daylight and pick up the rhythmic beat of Circular Week Ruler (2011), an installation by Cevdet Erek designed to mark the days of the week, the sound discreetly emitted from a plain white speaker between windows. Here the view outside of the multiple windows – of warehouses and chimneys, foregrounded by a shabby pier and the yellow bottom of a sunken boat – forms the perfect backdrop to Johan Zetterquist’s maquette, Proposal no. 29 A Monument Celebrating the End of Capitalism as We Know It (2013). This is one of several proposals by the artist in a series that most clearly illustrates the idea of imagining the impossible as posited by Ekroth. It is not the unlikeliness of the actual realisation of the proposed public artwork – an upturned oil tanker, broken in two like the petulant conclusion of a game of Battleships – that is profoundly melancholic here. What makes me pause for thought is the near-impossibility of holding the idea of the end of capitalism in my head. I would be happy not to be able to imagine numerous impossible things each morning, if I was only able to fully and coherently imagine this one.
Everything happens as if there were on the one side heavy defective words (ideology, catechism, militant), meant to serve for the ignominious game of the scales; and on the other, light, pure, immaterial words, noble by divine right, sublime to the point of evading the sordid law of numbers (adventure, passion, grandeur, virtue, honour), words placed above the sorry computation of lies. The latter group has the function of admonishing the former: there are words which are criminal and there are others which judge them.15
In ‘Dare 2 Love Yourself’, Erlend Hammer provides no labels, only a gallery plan, which avoids descriptive words and explanations altogether. In the centre of his first gallery space a painted room-size box with boldly-coloured inner walls and a carpet houses newly commissioned paintings: bright, tactile works by Bjarne Melgaard and discreetly textured monochrome canvases by Lars Monrad Vaage. Alongside are portraits and compositions by Charlotte Wankel that date from 1925 through to 1963. Behind them is Paolo Chiasera’s Choreography of the Species: Rosa Tannenzapfen (curated by Elena Tzotzi and Marianne Zamecznik) (2013), a series of small paintings depicting Rosa Tannenzapfen potatoes as if they are small figures, repositioned from painting to painting to suggest movement, and rendered in the subtle hues of a Morandi still life, full of light. Chiasera’s choreographed potatoes recall the studied play of objects in Khan’s Muslimgauze R.I.P. and, by referring to curation itself – Marianne Zamecznik is one of the collaborating curators of the previous edition of Momentum – make the aesthetic ties that bind together the works in ‘Dare 2 Love Yourself’ impossible to separate from the pragmatic and narrative elements of the biennial as a whole.
An eclectic sensibility is evident in the second space in Hammer’s show, dominated by a large curving structure that divides the room (Knut Henrik Henriksen, Villa Savoye redrawn with an Opel Astra, 2006), behind which are further sculptures by Matthew Antezzo, Ane Graff and Sverre Wyller – respectively in ceramic, textile and copper, and painted steel. As with Zetterquist’s maquette against the views of industrial Moss, the rust-coloured draping of Graff’s sculptures contrast with pathos against the twisted and buckled steel columns by Wyller. And, in one of the side rooms, Eve K. Tremblay’s Générations de bibliothèques (Generations of libraries, 2012) again calls Khan’s Muslimgauze R.I.P. to mind. Projected on the side of a stack of books, balanced on a small wooden chair, is a small video image of a boy doing handstands in a library. The books are a selection that have fed more than one generation of readers: Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, among others. Pages from the latter are also framed on the wall, marked up with notations where the artist has attempted to memorise the story, that of a society where books are burned and outlawed works of literature exist only in the memories of dedicated individuals. As dystopian a vision of the future as that presented by Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, and written around the same time.
Coin-spinning, handstands, absence, loss, remembrance, the relentlessness of time, war, conflict, industrial decline, capitalist triumph, the importance of literature, of education, of the beauty of light captured in a brush stroke, the possibility of a different world, and the smell of coffee. These things accompany me to the final work of the show, Mai Hofstad Gunnes’s Bike and Bolex (2012). A black-and-white looped 16mm film, projected against the wall, the scene a park on a sunlit day. Five women on bicycles circle one another, each holding a large Bolex camera in one hand, either pointing down at the ground or at the scenes and details that appear in the film. The loud clattering sound of the projector has a different pace but similarly hypnotic rhythmic effect as that used by Khan or Erek. The identities of the women are not made known. To some they might merely be attractive or charming; to others they may be filmmakers or cinematographers of note. The revolving movements do not have a fixed centre and are intended by Gunnes to reflect non-hierarchical multiple subjectivities. As such we are left with neither statement nor conclusion, but an idealistic and hopeful study of momentum.
Roland Barthes, ‘Neither-Nor Criticism’, Mythologies (1957, trans. Annette Lavers), London: Paladin Books, 1973, p.88. Several of Barthes’s comments on the neutrality of modern criticism strike me as applicable to the similarly ‘neither-nor’ role of the curator of a contemporary biennial. As such, I have used quotes from Barthes's article to frame each of the sections of this review.↑
To date, each edition of Momentum has taken place in Moss, Norway. The current edition runs from 22 June to 29 September 2013. The 2014 edition of Manifesta: The European Biennial of Contemporary Art will be hosted by The State Hermitage museum and the city of St Petersburg, Russia.↑
Momentum has been curated by Lars Bang Larsen, Daniel Birnbaum and Atle Gerhardsen (‘Warehouse’, 1998), Jonas Ekeberg, Paula Toppila, Jacob Fabricius and Ina Blom (‘Park’, 2000), Caroline Corbetta and Per Gunnar Tverbakk (‘Momentum’, 2004), Anette Kierulf and Marc Sladen (‘Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better’, 2006) and Lina Dzuverovich and Stina Högkvist (‘Favoured Nations’, 2009). Markús Þór Andrésson, Christian Skovbjerg Jensen, Theodor Ringborg, Aura Seikkula and Marianne Zamecznik (‘Imagine Being Here Now’, 2011), Erlend Hammer and Power Ekroth (Momentum 7, 2013, including ‘Dare 2 Love Yourself’ (Erlend Hammer) and ‘Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast’ (Power Ekroth)).↑
Hans Ulrich Obrist first wrote of the ‘Nordic Miracle’ in 1998. See Power Ekroth, ‘Pissing on the Nordic Miracle’, artnews.org [online magazine], 3 December 2007, available at http://artnews.org/powerekroth/?t=5794&g_a=essays.↑
According to various notes on the artists’ wall texts in Ekroth’s exhibition, regarding proposals that were ultimately not realised, it seems that some spectacular ideas were planned but proved impossibly expensive when funding for the biennial was reduced, additional funding applications were not met, and health and safety measures were assessed.↑
R. Barthes, ‘Neither-Nor Criticism’, op. cit., p.88.↑
Featuring Sergei Bugaev Afrika, Loulou Cherinet, Jan Christensen, Cevdet Erek, Bjørn-Kowalski Hansen, Goran Hassanpour, Laura Horelli, Stine Marie Jacobsen, Hassan Khan, Gabriel Lester, Lisi Raskin, Johan Zetterquist and Clemens von Wedemeyer.↑
With Matthew Antezzo, Per Christian Brown, Paolo Chiasera, Ane Graff, Mai Hofstad Gunnes, Knut Henrik Henriksen, Ane Mette Hol, Victor Lind, Jared Madere, Bjarne Melgaard, Sex Tags, Eve K. Tremblay, Lars Monrad Vaage, Charlotte Wankel and Sverre Wyller.↑
P. Ekroth, ‘Notes from the Superstructure’, Momentum 7: Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (exh. cat.), Moss: Punkt Ø, p.11.↑
In a catalogue note, Hammer attributes both the title of the exhibition and of his catalogue essay to Jared Madere. See E. Hammer, ‘Dare to be a Student in the Presence of Teachers’, Momentum 7: Dare 2 Love Yourself (exh. cat.), op. cit., p.10.↑
For more on Bryn Jones see http://www.nytimes.com/1999/01/28/arts/bryn-jones-38-musician-known-as-muslimgauze.html↑
R. Barthes, ‘Neither-Nor Criticism’, op. cit., pp.88–89.↑