If you live in Scandinavia and happen to be moderately interested in art, then the Louisiana museum will always be your local Utopia. The grass is green, the ocean winks benevolently and a variety of birds sing on command from some dazzlingly creative God. Art sprawls in democratically human-scale buildings set into lovely grounds; it's accessible, understandable, colourful. Melancholia has no place in the museum - even Kiefer looks upbeat. Here, art is a picnic.
The five-exhibition extravaganza 'NowHere' has different ideas: to change the Louisiana itself through a different notion of utopia - a utopia of eternal displacement. Nowhere or now-here: it is a choice - or dilemma - of deterritorialisation. Push aside the permanent collection and reinhabit the place, now just another building. Or allow yourself to get lost in those long, long corridors - ignoring the window walls that survey the landscape. Be nowhere. Down in the basement, where hardly anybody's ever been, a dark structure has been erected that both mimics and negates Louisiana's glass corridors, and in this structure you will, as the curators proclaim, 'Get Lost'.
At first, the feeling is less of getting lost than of being manipulated - 've haff ways of making you watch'. It is as if the curators couldn't get enough of Bruce Nauman's typically coercive Live-Taped Video Corridor (1968-70) and decided to use it as a general principle for art viewing. Sucked into the narrow black channel by the never-ending zoom and void of Fischli and Weiss' Kanalvideo (1992), you are spat out again on the other side through Peter Kogler's similar, computer-animated, undulating black whirlpool. In between, you have no choice but to walk the corridor as the works pull you into their particular perceptual spheres, one by one. 'We have ways of making you watch - differently'.
But then, when are we not coerced? Those eternal questions of context still haunt contemporary art: isn't our whole conception of art a way of negotiating the particular coercion of the white museum space? What about the power of this space to induce feelings of guilt - guilt about your lack of concentration, your failure to take it all in? In comparison, the honest coercion of the black corridor might bring with it a certain freedom. The freedom of a lack of responsibility, of not having to choose or to concentrate. Most importantly, the freedom of a work of art to absolutely ignore the whole question of context. There are, after all, other interests to pursue. A work of art might, for instance, be a concrete world which offers new or different perceptual, cognitive or social possibilities. It might be a world designed to administer such basics as 'feeling' or 'rhythm' or 'ecstasy' - or just plain beauty. And if the links to rave aesthetics may seem too obvious, one should remember that Techno offered the first real transformation in the perceptual and social context of music for a very long time. The links that tie these perceptual experiments to a long tradition in modern art and music were effectively severed by the white space. In the gallery, nobody really has the time for those long repetitive videos, because of the concentration they seems to demand. Art viewers have a name for them: boring!
In 'Get Lost', there is repetition, but repetition beyond boredom and into the zone where everything ends up as excess or overload. It is a real change to see this without an accompanying guilt-ridden, role-of-the-image-in-mass-culture theory. Instead, the show seems to play directly into a different register. Fraught with memories, colourful, dusty spaces split, shut down, open up and flow into each other, as in Jane and Louise Wilson's Crawl Space (1995). The nauseating cutting-edge pain of trying very hard to formulate some memory from the depths of forgetfulness is evoked by Stan Douglas' combining of old black and white clips of precarious train journeys with readings from Proust. Ann Lislegaard's series of veils that block the corridor through which you have to pass always seems to return you to the same place, to the returning vista of another veil. And if Peter Land dances and strips endlessly, it is less exhibitionism than an electronic discovery of a strange sight: strange, because it has not been seen before, and certainly not remembered. It is the recording of a body - the body of the clumsy, heterosexual, unstylised, white, male, dancer. What he may lack in style, he compensates for with energy and will - the will simply to be there. Land's work might have been an emblem both for 'Get Lost' as a concept, and for its utopian replay in the corridors of Louisiana.
Walking and Thinking and WalkingIncandescent
While elaborating his theory of quantum mechanics, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr used to take his colleagues on lengthy walks along the coast between Copenhagen and the small town of Helsingør. For Bohr, walking seems to have been very much part of the intellectual process, and in this he is hardly unique: 'To think while sitting down is impossible', claimed Nietzsche, and I believe he was right.
'Walking and Thinking and Walking', the section of 'NowHere' curated by Bruce Ferguson, can be seen as a homage to Bohr (who, 50 years ago must have walked across the property of the Louisiana Museum many times) and to his fellow philosophical wanderers all over the world. But it is also a show which reflects the activity of strolling through a museum - one walks and thinks and walks and thinks... For a change the artworks seem to be doing the same thing, creating an amusing sense of reflexivity. They are all related in some way to the act of walking: Gerhard Richter's Secretary (1963), is hastening away to a meeting, Marcel Broodthaers' men stumble along with two feet coming out of each trouser leg, while Haim Steinbach's wooden boots rest silently on a shelf. Feet, legs, and shoes are all over the place; in Dominique Blain's installation Missa (1993), no less than 90 black army boots are on the march.
The piece that most effectively captures the idea of the show is Bruce Nauman's Live-Taped Video Corridor (1969-70), in which the viewer's own movements are part of the artwork itself. One enters a narrow corridor at the end of which a video screen shows one's body approaching. Here the famous claustrophobia of Nauman's art is overwhelming and I constantly found myself turning around to make sure no one was blocking the entrance.
While its theme is not bad, 'Walking and Thinking and Walking' as a whole is no great success. The installation is a little irritating, especially the juxtaposition of Charles Ray's mannequins and the Louisiana's celebrated Giacomettis. This happens twice, which is twice too much. But the main problem lies somewhere else: once you've got the point, the works don't add up to anything more than the sum of their parts. No doubt a certain repetitiveness is part of the idea, but 'Walking and Thinking and Walking,' with all its feet and shoes, gets repetitious in a rather monotonous way.
Perhaps it would have been preferable to concentrate on fewer artists; and this goes for 'NowHere' as a whole. In spite of the overabundance of artists, very few new acquaintances make a lasting impression. An exception in Ferguson's section is the Belgian painter Francis Alÿs, whose numerous small, melancholy diptychs are spread throughout the exhibition. They seem wonderfully out of touch with our times.
The issue of pluralism is a common denominator in some of the more interesting theoretical assessments of current art, and this seems to be the starting-point of 'NowHere': in our Postmodern epoch, art movements no longer make sense. But why organise an enormous exhibition, attempting to present the 'Here' and 'Now' of international art, if all it can teach us is that the endeavour is in vain? The only curator who clearly does not accept the pluralist approach is Laura Cottingham, who devotes her section, 'Incandescent', to feminism. While the other themes seem rather evasive, even arbitrary, Cottingham's has the advantage of being thematically clear-cut. She knows what's important, and makes sure everybody gets it. After having compared the number of female and male artists in the Louisiana collection, the only rational response from her point of view was to go all-female.
'Postmodernism', according to Cottingham, 'is a premature coinage given that all the grand narratives that have supposedly unravelled are still very much in place'. The great divide is still there, and therefore so too is the everlasting struggle of male versus female. 'Incandescent' is a broad presentation of women's liberation, feminism and lesbian activism. I would have preferred reading about some of these works to viewing them, because they just aren't visually interesting. And surprisingly, this section is the most traditional as far as installation goes. Cottingham's will to transcend traditional (i.e. male) aesthetics has not led her to any re-thinking of the modes of presentation, which is a shame since the result is rather dull.
'Once upon a time, in the 70s, Denmark had a feminist movement', I read in one of the catalogue essays, and it strikes me that there is a strangely nostalgic tone to 'Incandescent'. There are great young female artists working today, but is the old fighting spirit of feminism still alive?
Work in Progress
During the heyday of Denmark's Nordisk Films Kompagni, one of the world's largest producers of silent films, different endings were constructed for different markets. The Russians, for instance, preferred a tragic, dramatic, finale. Danes, on the other hand, favoured living happily ever after. For the self-reflective, montage-like exhibition '?', German curator Ute Meta Bauer has juxtaposed the Russian and Danish endings of two films to point out the problems with success and harmony, two characteristics of the Louisiana Museum.
Of the five sections of 'NowHere', '?' is the most intriguing in its ambition as well as in its result. The actual show is sparse: it concentrates on activity - mainly circulation and exchange - rather than discrete art objects. Some classic moves of institutional critique are employed: the exposure of storage space housing the little known Danish collection, which was the main focus when the museum was founded by Knud W Jensen in 1958; the juxtaposition of Danish television programs and the stunning views from the southern glass pavilion; and the exchange of elegant Danish design furniture for IKEA products. The mass cultural aspects of Louisiana are almost overstated by 'the living question mark', a theme-park character who strolls around the picturesque park, asking visitors if they have any questions. The only contemporary 'art works' present are a set of fanzines and audio tapes, all commissioned for the show from young women artists.
The centrepiece, however, is an historical work: Josef Beuys' Honey Pump on the Arbeitsplatz, constructed in 1977 for Documenta 6 and now part of Louisiana's permanent collection. In Kassel, it functioned as a symbolic heart in the '100 days of working collective', a meeting point where people with various backgrounds participated in discussions on art and society. For Beuys it was a metaphor for 'the concept of Social Sculpture as a principle of circulation, as a living organism'. In '?' the role of the pump is that of a relic (it was intended only to work at Documenta). It functions here as a parallel to the circulation of mass-media today, as well as a self-critical questioning of what art, and curating, can be.
This inquisitive spirit permeates '?', itself the product of a team, in which collaborators, interns and others have been involved. Since this contextual method and institutional critique are rare in Scandinavia, '?' is a soft yet salutary start. It shows that institutional critique does not have to be bitter and vengeful, as is so often the case in the US. Critique can be made with intelligence and care - and still be piercing. In that sense '?' is, not unlike Nordisk Films Kompagni, sensitive to the Scandinavian context; it chooses reform rather than revolution, co-operation rather than conflict, but without losing its edge.
At first encounter Iwona Blazwick's 'Work in Progress' seems to take an opposite point of departure, functioning as a subjective survey and including an abundance of works in a crowded installation. It highlights art created in more direct ways, suggesting drawing as the most immediate medium of expression. But on closer inspection, the section shares some of the concerns of '?': that the relative stasis and paternalism of a museum like the Louisiana are problematic if you are interested in art as something more than an object of contemplation, and the museum as more than a refuge from everyday life.
While 'Work in Progress' is a generous, if wandering show, '?' questions the preconditions of the project, the very venture of 'NowHere', and its anticipated success. For what, actually, are the implications of emptying out the Louisiana and filling it with contemporary art? Is it another comfortable manoeuvre, helpfully improving the museum's record of showing contemporary art, and in particular young and women artists? Does it bring a harmonious Danish ending, or is it to be continued?
First published in Issue 30