'Twenty Seven Senses' at Kunstmuseet KUBE, Ålesund

Reviews / 19.05.2009

In 1937 Kurt Schwitters fled Germany, fearing arrest by the Gestapo, and travelled to the northwest coast of Norway. He lived there for the next three years in a small hut on the island of Hjertøya, opposite the town of Molde, overlooked by snowy mountains. The hut itself is the type of place to keep potatoes in - unheated, dug into the side of a hill, made of two closet-size rooms whose walls Schwitters covered in places with newspaper clippings, images, handwritten notes and pages of Norwegian literature he read whilst there. Schwitters's Wikipedia entry, at the moment of writing, lists this hut as his fourth Merzbau - after the grotto-like constructions he made in Hanover, outside of Oslo and in Cumbria, north England - but this isn't accurate. It is a living collage, perhaps, but mostly a document that has for the past seventy years been left to the elements.

Last April, the London-based commissioning agency Electra organised a show around this hut, investigating Schwitters's work as an artist and poet and the circumstances of his exile: the climate of war and threat of persecution, the interdisciplinary nature of his practice and its movement towards synaesthesia, or specifically a 'lifelike experience' of the arts. Focusing as much on Schwitters's sculpture and collage work as on his sound poetry, the exhibition took a direct experience with the hut and the living conditions in Hjertøya as the starting point for an examination of the relationship between Schwitters's work and its dramatic geopolitical context. Stories of Schwitters in the area fed into and buttressed the project: performance was key in this respect, with a day of poetry readings at Hjertøya itself, as well as an exhibition in the Kunstmuseet KUBE in nearby Ålesund. Curated by Lina Dzuverovic, the show included work by Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Jutta Koether, Eline McGeorge and Karl Holmqvist.

Standing in the sun by Schwitters's hut, von Hausswolff recited Schwitters's Dadaist mock love poem 'An Anna Blume' ('To Anna Blume', 1919), reading it through an outdated microphone and speaker system that blasted crackles over the bay. (He followed it with a poem of sneezes, performed with pre-swine flu gusto.) Goldsmith, a poet and the founder of ubuweb, which has some of Schwitters's sound poetry online (www.ubu.com/sound/schwitters.html), read out a poem written by Schwitters about the Nazi invasion of Norway. Goldsmith followed this with a reading of an ABC News radio broadcast from midday on 11 September 2001, before it had been established that the World Trade Center disaster had been a terrorist attack. That crucially judged choice forced an opposition between an exemplar of particularity - that short window of confusion - against the vista of water and mountains that mimicked the eternal sublime. In a dirge-like voice made for Latin masses, Holmqvist sang a poem composed of quotations from current pop songs - Beyoncé's 'All the Single Ladies', Rihanna's 'Umbrella' and others - and his own petitions for world peace and anti-capitalist communitarianism; it was extraordinary.

Karl Holmqvist, Kurt Schwitters + All the Single Ladies, 2009, performance. Courtesy Simon Wågsholm

Such conflicting registers and use of language as a ready-made seemed in keeping with Schwitters's collages of high and low material, but the examination of language as disseminated and non-authored communication was also echoed, and movingly so, outside of the 'official' performances, in the attempt to retrace a partial history of Schwitters in the region. Stories of the invisibility of his legacy in western Norway were passed like ghost tales: he gave many paintings to locals, but kept no record of them; the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, where Schwitters lived in Germany, is currently seeking them out. He bathed and ate a proper meal once a week in Molde's main hotel, and in return he periodically gave them works as well; this hotel was bombed by the Nazis during the war, and all the paintings destroyed inside. He gave works to tourists, mainly from the US and Britain, who travelled on the cruise liners up the coast; reportedly he sold them traditional landscape paintings, and gave them a collage for free - an ad hoc education in modern art.

The main part of the exhibition was in the Kunstmuseet KUBE of Ålesund - a city that has its own story: it burnt down in 1904, and Kaiser Wilhelm II was so moved by the loss that he offered to support its reconstruction. And so it is, a perfectly German town on the Norwegian coast, with an unusually large number of buildings built in Jugendstil. The unreliability of these stories - the gifts to the hotel, the tourists on the cruise-ships - seemed in keeping with the remoteness of the location, a total fallacy of course: Ålesund is only remote to those who don't live there. But the exhibition in many ways traced this idea of exceptionalism, or the interaction between man and context (geographic, economic, social) that leads to his or her reaching different paths than he or she would otherwise.

For his contribution, von Hausswolff 'nominated' another as an artist, showing a film made by his friend Staffan Lamm about Selmer Nilsen, a Norwegian who during the Cold War was imprisoned for being a traitor. Nilsen lived in the far north of Norway, which was liberated by the Soviet army, who were looked on as heroes after the Nazis burnt everything as they left. Apparently, Nilsen's ruse was his job as a travelling circusman, moving from town to town to put on fairs, and in the evening drinking with the local townspeople: he inebriated the locals, extracted their secrets and passed them on to the KGB. He was tried by the state and sent to prison, after which his family and friends disowned him. In 1971 the Swedish film-maker Lamm interviewed him for a film, and it was this footage that van Hausswolff presented in the show. In the film, titled The Fire, Nilsen barely says anything of his past; he smokes cigarettes, looks out the window and at one point stands up, walks outside and sets fire to his barn. As he returns to the house, walking away from the flames of this Tarkovskian action, he blends into the landscape, his clothes and hair matching the main house in the flattening blue evening light. He goes inside and lies down, and says nothing further.

Such an explicitly Romantic construction of the artist was echoed by another example given by Goldsmith, an archive of signs, perfect examples of nonsense that he had found on the streets of New York and which he included in the exhibition. On one wall were reams of concrete poetry made by the outsider artist David Daniels, a man who, following Goldsmith's account, at one point in his life took a vow to always say 'yes'. The rest of his life was simply the following through of the consequences of this decision. He said yes to anyone who wanted to come into his house; he said yes to prostitutes and drug dealers; he said yes to the prostitutes' offers of marriage; he said yes to fathering their children; he gave whatever anyone asked for. The refrain echoed like Barack Obama's 'Yes we can' in Goldsmith's incantatory retelling of the story: 'And David said yes'. The tale ends with the layabouts and druggies whom David said yes to becoming Internet millionaires in Silicon Valley, and setting their old friend Daniels up in a vast California house. There he worked obsessively on outdated Microsoft Word systems they provided for him, to make the concrete poetry that Goldsmith put on show in Ålesund. Legends are built on less - or, they are built exactly this way.

Schwitters left Norway in 1940 and was interned in a camp on the Isle of Man, and his Hjertøya hut was left largely as it was - this intelligent exhibition was one of the first attempts to access it and its legacy, drawing out historical, art-historical and mythical significance.

- Melissa Gronlund