Rather than establishing a common curatorial standpoint, the curators of this year’s Momentum Biennial Erlend Hammer and Power Ekroth have chosen to divide the exhibition space between them. The result is two separate exhibitions whose only common denominator is the complete rejection of any curatorial concept “worthy” of this format. Nor do the two exhibitions – Ekroth’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast and Hammer’s Dare 2 Love Yourself – grapple with comprehensive, overarching themes. Excepting the fact of their location in Moss, both curatorial essays are showpieces of rhetorical evasion on the topic of features unifying the various artists.
In 2011 the Momentum Biennial expanded beyond the Momentum kunsthall and Gallery F15 to include Solbergtårnet outside Moss as well as a performance program in the five Nordic capitals. This year the biennial is almost entirely restricted to the kunsthall itself. Only two works are located elsewhere: one in Heilmann Park, the other at the entrance to Møllebyen. In addition to being geographically centered, this year’s biennial emphasizes classical media such as painting, sculpture (Dare 2 Love Yourself) and video (Six Impossible Things…). Hence what may be considered the reduced scope of this year’s biennial is not necessarily a negative. It is easy to sympathize with the curators’ reluctance to commit to any specific themes and as such themes rarely offer sufficient conceptual focus within a framework as large as the Momentum Biennial (as evidenced by the numerous nebulous references to time, space and existence of the 2011 Biennial). In this respect Hammer’s insistence on interacting with the material in an all but wordlessly sensual fashion is particularly effective, as is his consistent choice of artists with a clearly materialist approach. This is in keeping with what might be termed an underlying reactionary tone: a move away from politics and towards the work as pure material and aesthetic form. Dare 2 Love Yourself is divided into distinct and clearly composed spaces devoted to sculpture and painting respectively. Four small rooms adjoining the sculpture hall on the second story feature i.a. the projection of a film – Mai Hofstad Gunnes’ Bike and Bolex (2012) – band a video – Den drømmende flammen – by Per Christian Brown (2013). Gunnes’ 16mm film is a montage of a group of women cycling around a park filming each other with Bolex cameras. The footage is shot from the seat of a moving bicycle while the filmic gaze is thrown from one cycling woman to another. Thus each participant in this peculiar game is simultaneously in front of the camera and behind it, suggesting the suspension of distinction between observer and the observed – or between subject and object.
The painting- and sculpture halls are dominated by each their own large wooden structure. In the sculpture hall we find Knut Henrik Henriksen’s Villa Savoye redrawn with an Opel Astra 2006 (2012): a curved facade of vertical wood planks about two and a half meters high. The timbers are painted green on the outside and left unfinished on the inside. Three beams, somewhat longer than the other planks and painted in pastel shades of blue, pink and green, jut out over the top at symmetric intervals. Hammer has not compensated the absence of interpretive text with lists of materials and dimensions – as frequently happens when art gravitates towards its own materiality – where empirically verifiable information takes the place of more speculative coordinates of interpretation. The works are presented in a manner all but entirely devoid of information except where it is contained in the work itself – as in the case of the Le Corbusier-reference in Henriksen’s title.
This withholding of information pushes the actual objects to the fore and obliges us to confront them unassisted. This is basically a question of how we perceive them and what we may learn through sensory encounters. The dominating wall with its painted green exterior facing the entrance of the room is an effective image of this poetics of surface. It is a signal – a slash of color signaling across the room, partially blocking the view and enabling a reading of the sculpture as “getting in the way,” dividing front from behind or outside from inside. Ane Mette Hol’s tape measure (2013) – positioned on the right in a low case by the wall – also indicates such measurable and empirically presentable qualities. On the other side of the Henriksen wall we find Ane Graff’s works Slurred, Sluggish and Sung (2013): threadbare, rust-colored textiles fluttering slightly in the draft hang above wood and metal racks offset against Sverre Wyller’s rusty structures of twisted steel from his Miramichi series (2011). Both artists’ work entails the exposure of their materials to stress, thus focusing attention on processual traces.
Dare 2… presents us with a paradox: The radical refusal on the part of the curator to act as an authoritative interpreter also implies the withdrawal of the very information that secures the autonomy of these works. For some of the artists concerned this is not a problem while for others – such as Per Christian Brown with Den drømmende flammen – the absence of information effectively limits the experience of the work. The omission of relevant information concerning materials and methods means that these works are quickly absorbed into a larger Gesamtkunstwerk from which their singular characteristics are difficult to discern. Of course this is partly a factor of the willingness of the audience and indeed most information is available online. Thus it is left to the visitors themselves to decide how they wish to approach the exhibition. The curatorial refusal to simultaneously provide the works and the information concerning them has the effect of a significant and consistent concept in Hammer’s exhibition albeit this averted and nonverbal form is perhaps a shade too demonstrative.
The organization of the painting room on the first floor resembles that of the sculpture room with a large, architectonic form as its focal point: A rectangular space houses a series of smaller paintings by Bjarne Melgaard (all untitled, 2013). The inside surfaces are highly colored. The canvases also feature clear, distinctive colors. The painting is carried out in thick lines and waves: juxtaposed to form distinct fields or blending diffusely into each other and further intensified by their interplay with the walls. Palette and composition are both filled with contrast, interchanging between areas where the colors blend together and others where they are layered to form a blistered relief, constituting a convincingly intense chromatic presence. The inside of Melgaard’s cube affords a view of parts of the surrounding room. The view towards Paolo Chiasera’s Choreography of species (2012) – mounted to the left on the end-wall – is particularly striking. Chiasera’s painting features a monotonous landscape interrupted by elements that seem haphazardly attached, misplaced, half-heartedly integrated into the background. How are we to understand this tableau seen from inside Melgaard’s haptic-chromatic box? It seems conceptually, historically and spatially distant. In a way the open cube in which we find ourselves describes the purely spatial distance between observer and picture thus becoming an architectonic image of the process of beholding. Unlike the sculpture, the painting is not “in the way,” rather it opens the room toward another space beyond. It could be said that Hammer’s painting room renders distance visible: as time, space and motif. In addition to the work of Chiasera and Melgaard the exhibition includes paintings by Charlotte Wankel (1888-1969) the oldest of which – Komposisjon med arkitekturfragmenter – dates back to 1925. Thus the room presents something of a panoramic overview of approaches, albeit with a distinct inclination towards concrete abstraction such as Melgaard and Lars Monrad Vaage’s untitled series (2013) of six quiet, semi-monochromatic canvases occupying the entire length of one wall. Their subdued palette calls attention to the structure of the surface. As with Melgaard the paint has been laid on thickly to create somewhat of a relief-like effect but the brushwork is less distinct. Instead random ornamentations appear that stick out from the paint along the edges: crackled surfaces and runs of washed-off color.
It is difficult to detect any affinity between the two exhibitions. Whereas Hammer is disdainful of narrative in word as well as deed (as evidenced in the curatorial interview in the catalog) most of the artists invited by Ekroth work with quite clear narratives, usually in the film or documentary format. Whereas Hammer offers not so much as a single explanatory syllable concerning the exhibited works, Ekroth’s exhibition is thoroughly described by small plaques featuring presentations of artists and descriptions of works hung beside the pieces. Furthermore the two exhibitions are organized in completely different ways. Hammer juxtaposes the works in open spaces while Ekroth gives almost every work its own physical enclosure.
At the level of the individual work the distinction is less clear. One of the stronger works in Six Impossible Things… is Hassan Khan’s short film Muslimgauze R.I.P. (2010): wordless save for the title and the introductory image text: “Manchester, 1982.” The film opens with an exterior shot of a generic, white apartment block. A shot of a boy in one of the windows leads us into an apartment where the camera carefully follows him through a series of unclearly motivated actions such as taking a large piece of lace out of a drawer only to push it back in, turning a lamp on and off, spinning a coin on the hard surface of a table, or moving a door back and forth. The boy seems governed by impulse, moving through the interior until he returns to looking out the window. Occasionally he slides out of focus. Each action has its own distinct, everyday soundscape, standing out clearly against the oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere. The initial geographic and historical positioning of the scene combines with the use of the word “muslim” in the title to imbue the prosaic narrative with a quality of something left unvoiced, repressed, possibly of historical and political relevance.
Ekroth discusses the potential of art to bring about change in an external, political reality at length in her catalog text. Yet introspection, biographical self-examination and subjectivity seem to be prevailing motifs in her exhibition, which ranges from American students talking about the experience of going to college in Clemens von Wedemeyer’s two-channel video installation The Inner Campus (2008) to Gabriel Lester’s The Blank Stare (2013) – a video montage of staring people – and Laura Horelli’s mining the past of her own family in the visually monotone documentary A Letter to Mother (2013).
In this context Stine Marie Jacobsen’s Direct Approach (2013) – a series of framed black and white posters – constitutes an interesting work. Film titles appear on the posters: original fonts against a black background. The name of the director is featured above the black field; below it we see a brief first-person description of the experience of seeing the film. These are largely films featuring horror or violence and the scenes described have had a traumatizing effect on the person describing them. These brief accounts effectively grasp the issue of how art in a broad sense, including entertainment films, affects us and how these effects are registered. Are these descriptions reproducing authentic effects or do they merely demonstrate how we retroactively imbue such “traumatic” experiences with a kind of biographical meaning to help us construct our identities? The accounts finish with the narrator attempting to identify with either the victim or the perpetrator of the scene, thus revealing the active, self-fictionalizing elements of these retrospective stories.
Perhaps this quantum leap between what art demonstrably is and does and what its communicators claim it to be and do is what Hammer seeks to engage through his presentation, deliberately devoid of intent. Thus Dare 2 Love Yourself is a corrective (complete with ironic teen lingo) of the art world’s frequently abortive ambition to impact a larger political reality. Rather, Hammer seems to say, art is about the positioning of objects in spaces and the simple aesthetic experiences that may arise on encountering these arrangements. The fact that Ekroth seems to take the opposite stance by insisting on the socially and politically emancipatory potential of art makes almost comically clear the difference between the two, hinting perhaps at an underlying controversy. Similarly this dialog between the two strategic extremes indicates a valid, if somewhat banal, issue concerning what an art exhibition can and should be.