And so the day of the Astrup Fearnley Museum’s large-scale European exhibition finally dawned. There is something megalomaniacal, yet also rather unambitious about staging an exhibition where a specific part of the world serves as the only thematic co-ordinate. Indeed, this point also applies to the museum’s former stagings of geographically delimited contemporary art. However, in the case of China Powerstation, Indian Highway, Uncertain States of America, and Imagine Brazil, it was at least possible to acknowledge a grudging recognition of the embarrassing generalisations in the puns provided by the title. By contrast, Europe, Europe evokes associations of someone pottering about, humming along in a compulsive manner in the hope that a suitable metaphor will turn up, but without any luck. To be fair to the curators, the impossibility of representing Europe is duly noted in the catalogue preface. A timely admission, one concludes.
Despite this admission, the motif of Europe will, of course, nevertheless shape the exhibition in some ways. And where words fail, the choice was made to mime Europe’s composite culture, polycentrism, and the nomadic tendencies of European artists through an “organic curatorial model”. The procedure is described in great detail in the catalogue preface: the curators Gunnar Kvaran, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Thomas Boutoux picked out two artists and a correspondent from eight selected cities (Oslo, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, London, Zürich, Prague, and Lisbon). The correspondent then invited an additional two artists from the same city and wrote an essay presenting the city’s art scene. Furthermore, the exhibition has set aside space for a rotating programme featuring alternative exhibition venues, one from each city. As the exhibition moves along, the cities represented will also be replaced.
In view of these rather rigid rules the curating process might be more accurately described as algorithmic rather than organic, as if the selection process had been left up to a piece of software. With its enumerating presentations of the art scenes of the cities chosen, the colour- and imageless catalogue, spanning some 70 small pages, is at times quite reminiscent of a miniature phone book. Dieter Roelstraete’s keenly observant opening essay represents the only attempt at saying something about European art as such besides the point that the artists on this continent are a migratory lot. However, Roelstraete’s concept of European research art versus American entrepreneurial art is not convincingly echoed in the selection of artists made for the exhibition; they represent individual practices that cannot in any way be said to be anchored in a distinctively European trend.
The title of André Romão’s Europa is, then, effectively a kind of pinpointing of the cultural common denominator under which this exhibition cannot in fact be grouped. The installation consists of the painting Enlevo de Miss Europa (1973) by Nikias Skapinakis and a framed text in which Romão uses high-flown, allegorical language and references to Greek mythology to evoke a meeting between Europe-as-personified-by-woman and the beast (Zeus in the guise of a bull). “[Europa] became myth and that myth forges a cultural unity,” say the concluding words of the poem. Romão’s strangely archaic poetry is also a companion throughout the exhibition in the form of a small publication with a marble motif on the cover, entitled Perspex, Marble, Bone.
To the immediate right of Romão you will find Simon Denny’s anything but archaic New Management. Denny himself calls this installation an “unauthorised documentary”, and insofar as Roelstraete’s European “research art” has any offshoots in the exhibition, this is where it is most clearly evident. Denny takes his point of departure in the gargantuan South Korean corporation Samsung’s famous conference in Frankfurt in 1993, where chairman Lee Kun-hee presented his vision of how the company would achieve domination of the global market through the implementation of a business philosophy with a more international approach. In the midst of the installation is a stage-like plateau featuring Denny’s attempt at reconstructing Samsung’s own reconstruction of the hotel room in which the conference was held. (The conference was of such tremendous symbolic significance to the corporation that they bought parts of the hotel interior and brought it back with them to Korea.) Here, the stage has been crowbarred in between two walls fitted with air condition systems signed by the same manufacturer, with cartoon motifs illustrating the new-management philosophy and emblematic slogans like: “Change everything except your spouse and kids” and “Change begins with me”. On the walls the history of the corporation is printed onto large sheets of Plexiglass, and a range of display cases show a selection of Samsung phones from 1994 to 2013. Next to the relatively transparent reading of the wellspring of new-management thinking, and the cavalcades detailing the evolution of the company and of the mobile phone, there are a number of spin-offs in which the same materials have been fed through a more creative matrix.
Denny’s raw and savvy take on information technology’s materiality and immediate history may seem difficult to exceed in terms of aesthetic contemporaneity. But even though Denny takes an exemplary thematic approach to global capitalism, his prominent presence in Europe, Europe also reveals an unappealing imbalance: Unlike many of the other artists featured in the exhibition Denny is already well established, backed by prominent institutions. New Management was created in co-operation with the well-known exhibition venue Portikus in Frankfurt, where it was exhibited earlier this year. By incorporating heavily invested-in projects of this kind, such laid-back and unconnected, rather than co-producing, curating actually emphasises the hierarchies of the marketplace. The shadows are crowded.
Another – not unknown – artist who is allowed to take up a lot of space on the first floor is Camille Henrot. She is represented with two video installations, Living Underwater and Cappuccino, a canoe-like sculpture mounted right through the wall – The Descendants of Pirogues – and a series of abstract prints entitled Horse with no name. All works come from Henrot’s exhibition Cities of Ys held at New Orleans Museum of Art last year. One of the pivotal points of that exhibition was the Houma people, an indigenous people living in a marginalised coastal area of Louisiana and their links to the myth of the city of Ys. The original anchoring in an overall theme is rather poorly presented at Astrup Fearnley. When shown out of context as they are here, Henrot’s complex assemblages – which often stretch the associative method to the snapping point – soon seem arbitrary and impossible to grasp. Our gaze flickers from the Pollock-inspired décor of the canoe to the wooden plaques that partially cover the two screens to the flickering images underneath. Without access to the narratives that motivate such juxtapositions, the dialogue between the individual elements becomes too general in scope.
When 30 artists are involved, it goes without saying that there are quite a few partially lost presentations of the three-little-drawings-in-a-corner variety. Gabriel Abrante’s and Katie Widloski’s Olympia I & II (2006) is one such modest work, shown on a small screen. Taking their point of departure in a staging of Manet’s Olympia they play out two brief, erotic dialogues infused by master/slave and incest themes. Their acting is flat, the lines performed in a rasping, monotone manner in voices that seem to be groaned out through clenched teeth. The work represents a kind of self-portraying YouTube existentialism, a simultaneously aggressive and apathetic form of sex role-play nurtured by a thinly veiled self-disgust.
Amongst the Norwegian participants we find Joakim Martinussen and Halvor Rønning. Their Room Divider is a kind of fence welded together in a slapdash fashion out of rack rails, their white paint burnt away around the joints by the welding torch. Martinussen’s hand-made boxer briefs (Monday Tuesday Friday Wednesday Friday Thursday Saturday Sunday, 2014) have been strewn around the impromptu fence in a random formation, an untidy circle of textile art that may be intimately connected to the body, yet also offers very little expression. The rack rails point towards interiors and storage (e.g. of underwear). Having been transformed into a fence, they shed their function as carriers to become hastily drawn boundaries instead. The conversion re-establishes the boundary suspended by the exhibition’s migration theme, but at the same time it creates a demarcation of individual rather than national spaces.
At the back of the second floor, a lot of space has yet again been devoted to a flagship work by a relatively established artist, Ed Atkins. In the video Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths we find an animated protagonist with hair that seems to have a life of its own; sometimes it hangs down in front of his face, at other times it flows out over him. The video is a kind of showcase for 3D renditions of various textures such as skin, hair, water, and reflected light. The man repeats the same line over and over in a dispassionate way: “I don’t want to hear any news on the radio about the weather on the weekend…” By demonstrating 3D animation’s ability to mimic textures with great accuracy while also allowing a narrative to play out within a changeable and unstable digital environment, Atkins brings humanity into a bleak, post-human echo state. While Denny, one floor down, seems to propose a neutral, symbiotic relationship to contemporary media technology, Atkins strikes a more pessimistic and diagnostic note.
Interesting contributions announced in the auxiliary programme include the Berlin-based New Theater – run by Calla Henkel and Max Pitgeoff, two Americans in exile who have discovered the potential offered by amateur dramatics as a medium. When I emailed the museum to enquire what the troupe was planning to perform, they informed me that the work in question was “a wall text that describes an argument between a couple”, a work which supposedly “problematizes the fact that an alternative exhibition venue is represented within an institutional setting.” The fact that the museum is fobbed off with an amputated, reified version of the intimate chamber drama that is the favoured format of New Theater reminds us that not everything on the European art scene can be easily set free from its local conditions – in spite of all the problems of localising Europe.