Fifteen neon signs bearing the signature of the French artist collective Claire Fontaine and repeating the words “foreigners everywhere” in as many languages, are arranged in diagonal ranks just underneath the ceiling. Below a grid of black chairs stands in front of a small stage where three percussionists are will later perform, followed by a number of formal speeches by local politicians, the chairman of the board and the director, before Her Majesty Queen Sonja takes to the stage to officially inaugurate Kunsthall Trondheim.
As yet, only myself and a few other journalists are present besides the staff of the kunsthall and some of the featured artists. And the son of Claire Fontaine, who dashes around with a camera, taking snapshots of everyone. Eventually a small delegation of what I presume to be bodyguards arrives, there to inspect the rooms in anticipation of Her Majesty’s arrival. They certainly comport themselves in the efficient manner typical of those concerned with matters of national security.
The atmosphere is rather tense in the institution’s new home this Thursday afternoon. Even the art works seem subject to a kind of “dress code”. Director Helena Holmberg curated the exhibition herself, and she has made a cautious selection of artists. With Norwegian artist A K Dolven as the mainstay – the exhibition title, this is a political (painting), refers to one of her works – another four (female) names of some renown have been brought in: the aforementioned Claire Fontaine, Kajsa Dahlberg (Sweden), Alexandra Pirici (Romania), and, providing a historical alibi, Austrian artist Valie Export. A fairly uniform crew, its transgenerational sweep aside. Employing a pared-back, tastefully “conceptual” vocabulary they all address current themes such as work, migration and body politics.
The works are presented across two floors of a former fire station that have been converted into exhibition spaces with an airy, professional feel. The largest room is located at street level, opening up on Søndre gate through a long panorama window. During the press view the room only contained Claire Fontaine’s melancholy neon slogan (Foreigners Everywhere, 2016). Later, after the solemn opening, the chairs were cleared away to make way for Pirici performance Monument to Work (2016).
The work this is a political painting (2013) is comprised of a white coated sheet of aluminium measuring 2.5 metres in length, with the artist’s red fingerprints arranged in long, sinuous lines and gradually decreasing in pigment saturation. The painting is flanked by two display cases, one featuring an open sketchbook, the other a found photograph in faded sepia tones depicting the great-grandparents of the photographer Rune Johansen. Presented in glass cases, these fragments emanate a sense of significance that never reaches fruition. Across from the painting, a personal text has been scrawled directly onto the wall in pencil. Its opening word is “breathe”, and it goes on to detail how the first-person narrator breathes their way through a crisis. In the basement are two more paintings on aluminium by Dolven. One shares the same dimensions as the title piece, featuring handprints made by the artist in the four corners of the sheet (How to reach every corner, 2013). The other, I want to live really long (2013), is considerably smaller, its title written on the work in semi-smeared pencil. Dolven’s paintings report presence, indexing simple, repetitive actions and a naïve longing for perpetuity.
Manual labour is subject to constant demands for greater efficiency. In her video Reach, Grasp, Move, Position, Apply Force (2015) Kajsa Dahlberg addresses the regimentation of the body seen in industrial and digital labour and. Archival materials demonstrating how film technology has been used in the development of such systems of regimentation are interspersed by a number of brief interviews reporting on current working conditions. For example, a translator relates how her working day is governed by time differences between Germany and Japan. The unspectacular images follow each other in steady succession, a uniform flow that reflects the dull rhythms of manual work. An additional challenge for restless viewers is posed by Dolven’s clattering 16mm installation amazon (2015), which is located right next to Dahlberg’s (uncaptioned) video. The sounds from Dolven’s film may well prompt relevant associations to the machine noises associated with the historical site of manual labour, but at the questionable price of silencing the voices of Dahlberg’s subjects.
A full room is dedicated to a selection of Valie Export’s work from the seventies. A row of black-and-white photographs documents the artist’s so-called “body configurations”, in which she adopts poses in dialog with her surroundings – crouching next to a stack of wooden boards, standing on all fours with her back arched in front of a shrub, curled around a column, etc. In some of the pictures the figures’ curves are outlined and echoed by stringent ink lines. Also included in this retrospective presentation are three video works. In Hauchtext: Liebesgedicht (1970-73) the artist films through a pane of glass that she hectically mists over with her own breath. Body Tape (1970) also mediates simple actions through a pane of glass in front of the camera. The video is divided into brief sequences. In one of them, titled “feeling”, Export puts her cheek to the glass repeatedly; in “walking” she does the same with the soles of her bare feet. Body Tape embarks on a charting of the body’s registers of sensory capacities and actions, but one where the two categories bleed into one another, suggesting a levelling out of their difference.
Export’s art seeks to inscribe the human figure and its interaction with its surroundings into a reductive, rational formula. But she also takes ownership of this submission, explicitly so in the photograph Body Sign Action D (1970), which shows her kneeling with a garter belt tattooed on her thigh. Export’s work is the exhibition’s only example of such confrontational exposure of the personal body. The nearest match would be Dolven’s paintings recording, surrounded by intimising formats such as a sketchbook, a family album and diary entries. However, Dolven’s work also has a formalistic and dissociative bent that contrasts markedly with Export’s unvarnished internalisation of repressive systems. The two strategies appear to reflect conditions that are, respectively, indicative of the society of discipline and the society of control: Whereas Export lets herself be cowed and pigeonholed in her performances, Dolven’s confessions from the private sphere point towards the sharing economy’s ever more invasive algorithms.
The only work in the exhibition to incorporate actual bodies – Pirici’s performance Monument to Work (2016), enacted on the opening day – is also the least tangible. At one point, a number of individuals withdrew from the mingling crowd to gather in the middle of the room. I had noticed some of them before because they wore sneakers and were more casually dressed than the other guests, but I did not realise that they were dancers. The group moved slowly in synchronised fashion. They repeatedly lifted a cylindrical object from the floor and appeared to be pushing it into a conduit in the air in front of them. After a few minutes this initial gesture was replaced by another, which in turn was replaced by yet another after a few repeats. So it went, until they had made their way through the entire repertoire and began all over again. During the performance the dancers gradually fell out of synch. The group dissolved, mixing with the audience before coming back together. A member of the audience playfully spun his hat around one of the dancers as he passed. She held back a smile. Apparently the movements in Pirici’s composition were inspired by manual industrial labour, and it was not hard to conjure up a factory-like scenography. However, the small cluster of ghosts floating weightlessly across the floor beneath the neon lights can also be read as an echo of the exhibition’s tentative, dreamy take on the politics of art.
“The body is the site where the individual meets society and must negotiate its existence,” Holmberg eloquently states in her text for the exhibition. However, there is a rather romantic ring to the insinuation that the political mandate of art is linked to its function as a repository for individual bodies. Especially when the bodies referred to constitute a segment as homogenous as Holmberg’s quintet. Isn’t it a more pressing political issue for art today to create collectives across the demographic divides that this exhibition demonstratively reinforces? Perhaps the parenthesises in the title should be moved back a place.