The director of Bergen Kunsthall, Martin Clark, has now held his chair for eighteen months. The exhibition The Noing Uv It – featuring thirty international artists and one from Norway – is his first thematic group show in the city, which makes it something of a programmatic statement. Curated in co-operation with the artist Steven Claydon, the exhibition follows in the wake of other recent shows that have sought to establish a relationship between contemporary art and the so-called neomaterialist school of thought within philosophy. Kunstkritikk has discussed examples such as Documenta 13 (in 2012), an interview essay [in Swedish] about and featuring Graham Harman (in 2013), and the Danish Im-materialities trilogy (in 2014).
Thoughts about a new, materialistically founded perception of culture have appeared on the outskirts of the Nordic art scene since the late 1990s. In 1998 the Stockholm-based online journal Art Orbit published Manuel De Landa’s essay “Deleuze and the Genesis of Form”. Here, the Mexican-American artist and philosopher discussed “the other Deleuze”; the Deleuze who was as interested in physics and mathematics as in language and art. According to De Landa, we can only meaningfully ask the question “what is a painting?” when we have understood the Deleuzian world of materials and energy flows.
Over the course of the 2000s, neomaterialism manifested itself in the form of two new concepts: Object-oriented philosophy and speculative realism. According to the philosopher Graham Harman – who contributed an essay
to the Documenta 13 catalogue and took part in a panel discussion in Bergen – the core of object-oriented philosophy is a non-anthropocentric perception of objects. It is a mode of thought that supports the ecological argument that humanity is not the centre of the natural world, but it is also a school of thought that has, quite understandably, resonated strongly with those parts of the art scene where the idea that “things talk” meets with intuitive approval. The fact that the philosopher’s concept of the object is more wide-ranging than that of the art scene is of minor importance here. The two concepts share a kinship insofar as they state that objects have autonomy, memory; perhaps even some form of consciousness.
Art’s interest in these theories has been strengthened by the fact that neomaterialism was formulated in explicit opposition to the linguistic turn found in the humanities. There can be no doubt that the great idea about how critique of power begins with language has been a productive force in the field of art for several decades. Over the course of the last ten years, the limitations inherent in seeing everything as language have become more apparent. What about sensory experience, many artists ask. What about the consciousness of the things themselves, we may now add. To many artists these new questions have had a liberating effect, offering a way out of the linguistic games, into a new, close relationship with materials and matter; a kind of New Object Art.
The curators Clark and Claydon have avoided presenting The Noing Uv It as an illustration of object-oriented philosophy. Instead, the curators have picked the title and shaped the concept in dialogue with the 1980 book Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban – a novel about human society 2000 years after an apocalypse. As a result, social aspects remain a theme in the exhibition despite its non-anthropocentric antecedents. However, this is a precarious sociality; an idea of a human form of existence at its most basic, most vulnerable and exposed.
The apocalyptic mood is accentuated with great gravitas in this exhibition. In the first room visitors walk right into Sarah Lucas’s J1 from 2013. The work consists of a large shelf carrying 100 industrial building bricks, cut and collected as if for long-term storage, or as if they were about to become cultural-historical artefacts.
Further in, a Toyota engine sits on the floor. Right next to it hangs a luminously green painting of a lump of concrete covered in moss. Once again we find a conversation between culture and nature, but in this case the human presence remains tangible. Simon Ling’s painting Untitled from 2011 is dedicated and pastose, as if insisting on the acutely pressing need to preserve human activity – represented here by the colourful painting. Into the tubes of the engine, also called Untitled, from 2008, Roger Hiorns has inserted brain tissue from a cow. Once again we seem to find ourselves in a post-historical situation where objects – whether natural or man-made – have lost the function that we humans have traditionally attributed to them.
We could read object by object in this manner throughout the exhibition, which is ambitious and densely packed. One cannot help but appreciate this, even though the presentation is in no way elegant. It truly seems as if the curators want to tell us something, as if they have discovered something important and meaningful. Here, they want to convey their full message to us all at once.
THE ART OBJECT AS RUIN
The main exhibition room at Bergen Kunsthall is teeming with art objects: readymades, casts, figurations and abstractions amongst each other, sometimes combined in a single object. Allan McCollum presents two casts of the famous “dog from Pompeii” from 1991. Yngve Holen presents more recent casts of chickens placed inside dismantled washing machines. Holen also shows an animal carcass made out of marble, placed on a kind of dissection table. Martin Westwood’s fired clay sculptures look as if they have been pushed or pulled from a template. Here, the object has become a portrait of the forces that created it.
Stone, concrete, ceramics and clay seem to be materials of urgent relevance in this exhibition. One of the finest works is Bill Woodrow’s vacuum cleaner encased in concrete from 1979. Here it lies meticulously placed on the floor, forming a long line, demonstrating some of the potential inherent in the perspective on time and objects that is revealed in this exhibition. For what is this vacuum cleaner if not a contemporary ruin, a relic of a lost context? Edward Ihnatowicz’s SAM, the remnants of a sound sculpture from 1968, also represents a memory of itself. It is difficult to envision exactly what state of non-functioning this sculpture is now in. Is it still the same sculpture it was back when it worked? Is it still a work of art? Should it be restored? If so, to which of its past states?
On the end wall Haim Steinbach’s outrageous word sculpture Yo from 1991 dominates the room, threatening to puncture the entire exhibition with a sharp injection of popular culture, unsuccessfully. In this context, even the hippest of utterances becomes ahistorical. The one work to most clearly anchor the exhibition in a social context is Jenny Holzer’s Survival Series. When we arrive at the signs saying “The Beginning of the War Will Be Secret” and “Go Where People Sleep and See if They Are Safe” we are reminded of the human perspective which does, after all, underpin the exhibition: the idea of the human being as threatened, vulnerable. Human desperation is most explicitly expressed in Mark Leckey’s LED board Transformer (RGB) (2012); a flickering depiction of a scene from Pinocchio in which a boy is transformed into a donkey. Other than this, the human dimension is mainly bound up in minerals and organic materials that – so the narrative goes – will all decay and transform to once again become part of nature.
This exhibition is unusually rich in experiences for any spectator who accepts its premise. Paul Sietsema’s 35mm film projection of rotating, digital pieces of cardboard with letters punched into them is a sly contribution to the established genre of critique of civilization. “Porcelain Soldier”, “Autumn Landscape”, “Pointed Waterfall”, “Multicolored Divider” – these are all descriptions of objects found on the online auction site eBay. Other, similar constructions of the memory of a culture include Michael Dean’s drily witty combinations of concrete lumps and twisted books as well as Magali Reus’s subtle metal cabinet with its relics of human activity (a plastic knife, a jacket submerged in liquid, wires, metal shavings).
Perhaps certain forms or strategies are repeated a little too frequently within this post-apocalyptic universe, as if art is supposed to create meaning out of chaos. There are particularly many casts and replicas: Yngve Holen’s and Allan McCollum’s casts of animals have already been mentioned here, but there are more. Seth Price shows casts of Bomber Jackets, Richard Hughes shows a cast of parts of a cardboard box, Alex Durderoy presents casts of old computer equipment, and Hannah Sawtell shows 3D-prints of various objects, including an Apple Wi-Fi station and a human heart. There is even a cut-up cast of a coke can inside a Magali Reus sculpture.
Photography is another kind of replica, but unlike many of the other objects in Bergen Kunsthall, photography cannot turn its back on its viewers. James Welling’s photograph of muddy shells on a beach shows us life as a liminal state. It is an entirely non-spectacular image, and one of the most delicately sensitive works in the exhibition. By contrast, Wolfgang Tillmans’s photograph of a car light demonstrates the greedy gaze of consumer culture. It is one of the most hope-less works in the exhibition. Nothing could be more useless on the day of judgement than having LED lights on your car.
The Noing Uv It also contains, as you would expect, a number of artefacts from the realms of natural and cultural history. For example, The Museum of Natural History in Oslo has lent a few fossils to the show, and the American company IBM has lent a video showing a naïve video animation based on atoms that are being moved around. The exhibition also includes a building block made out of moon sand, signed by the ESA (European Space Agency). The inclusion of such non-art is presumably intended to remind us of the limits of art; of how it is bordered by science on one side and nature on the other. However, the truly striking thing is how little conflict we see between these disparate relationships: spacecraft technology and large-format graphics signed by Matt Mullican? No problem – both are functional forms that relate to natural forms, and both are easily accommodated by the art institution. A trilobite watching a video work? That’s fine, too – who knows? The video work might be looking back.
AN ANGLO-SAXON PERSPECTIVE
The Noing Uv It is entirely dominated by an Anglo-Saxon perspective. The one Nordic artist featured in the show – Yngve Holen – is the exception that proves the rule. From a purely artistic perspective this is actually quite enriching; many of the works belonging to British art history would in all likelihood only be familiar to a British curator. However, the fact that this theme is not discussed is a major weakness. The omission makes it seem entirely natural that a British curator should be curating entirely on the basis of his national perspective in a Nordic setting. Nothing could be more alien to the concept of neomaterialism than such old-fashioned cultural imperialism.
All in all, the one thing that interests me most about this exhibition is not the insignificant cultural-political objections, nor the impressive number of important works brought together in relatively little space. Nor am I interested in the philosophical point of departure as such, but rather in how this perspective is addressed within the field of art. Some may well claim that this ambitious exhibition has arrived too late now that a number of similar exhibitions have already been held around the world in recent years. However, it does take time for new modes of thinking to sink in, and in this case we are talking about an entirely new art that has a remarkable parallel within contemporary philosophy. It represents an approach which will, for many viewers, offer a sense of liberation compared to the postmodern perspectives that have been dominant throughout the last 25 years. Neomaterialism is in the process of establishing itself as a relevant and productive approach to representational and non-representational art alike. It is a small revolution in itself to experience how this new perspective is gaining a foothold, with or without the theory that goes with it. Viewed from this perspective the exhibition has not arrived too late, but just in time; at the very point in time when New Object Art begins to have an impact that affects a wider part of the art scene.