Scandinavian Dasein


Left: “Eclipse” curator Magnus af Petersens. Right: A view of the Moderna Museet. (All photos: Kyle Bentley)

People were growing impatient, waiting to deplane at Stockholm-Arlanda as a faded red carpet was being unrolled, laboriously, across the tarmac. The preview of the Moderna Museet’s exhibition “Eclipse: Art in a Dark Age” would soon be starting, and I should have been on my way to the hotel, but I was still in seat 14B. Outside rippled an American flag. Two snipers were positioned on the roof of Terminal Five. Eventually a reedy man descended the portable staircase, and the passenger seated next to me whispered, “It’s the what’s he called? Like the president of the UN. That Korean guy.” It was then, on the Thursday morning before last, while United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon was shaking hands and being photographed, that it became apparent that the museum’s fiftieth anniversary and the opening of “Eclipse” would be, in terms of civic to-do, overshadowed by a UN-sponsored conference on Iraq.

This seemed to support the show’s point. That weekend’s strong bureaucratic presence—hotels were filled, police deployed, central streets closed regularly (apparently whenever Condoleezza Rice was coming through)—served as a felicitous backdrop to the picture that exhibition curator Magnus af Petersens sought to paint. “Today,” he said, when I finally did arrive, “there is a general air of didacticism, with the right pushing the ‘war on terror,’ the left ‘political correctness.’” In the catalogue, he quotes Toni Burlap, the fictional third “curator” of the 2006 Whitney Biennial, quoting the show’s actual curators, Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne: “The opposite of ‘right’ is not ‘left,’ but ‘wrong.’ Since the world seems to be moving inextricably to the right . . . to be wrong is to be the opposition.”

Left: Robyn (right) with a fan. Right: Moderna Museet director Lars Nittve with Victoria, crown princess of Sweden, and David Elliott, former director of the Moderna Museet.

So visitors are shown nine artists who, in making fictive work “free of didactic claims,” are so “wrong” they are right. An equivocal dissonance rings throughout, darkness here meaning both the didacticism obscuring some romantic past (which is bad) and an unknown into which the artists bravely “venture” (which is good). But more confusing is the show’s insistence that the artists undertake such a journey at all, when actually most seem interested in working within a set of worldly givens. “It was primarily about the language,” artist Lucas Ajemian said.

The opening that night included a series of musical performances, the first of which was by “prog-rock” band Fläsket Brinner (whose name translates roughly as “The Pork Is Burning”). The group are apparently favorites of Moderna director Lars Nittve but found their biggest fan in the older gentleman dancing enthusiastically by himself in neon-green socks and a white suit screenprinted with, it seemed, self-portraits as Andy Warhol in drag. Better received by the younger guests was Swedish club darling, and Moderna board member, Robyn. Her catchy pop, tuned so perfectly as to occasionally cloy (maybe it’s cultural; think ABBA), electrified the museum and received such a fervent response that if, unlike the flamboyant Fläsket Brinner fan, you didn’t feel like dancing onstage with Robyn herself, then you got lost in the crush.

Lucas Ajemian and his brother Jason both closed out Thursday night (by instigating, and then winning, a break-dancing battle at an afterparty in Östermalm for the art academy) and opened Friday evening, by performing their work Out of Nowhere/From Beyond in the airy church next to the museum. Consisting of a backward version of the Black Sabbath song “Into the Void” conducted by Jason, sung by Lucas, and played by an orchestra of young local musicians, the performance took place that weekend a number of times, each yielding favorable responses but, regrettably, no satanic messages.

Left: A view of Lucas and Jason Ajemian's Out of Nowhere/From Beyond. Right: Artist Jason Ajemian.

“Artist, friends, and—I haven’t checked you all, but I think—ladies and gentleman,” began the jovial Nittve, the first speaker of many during the subsequent dinner celebrating the museum’s anniversary. Victoria, crown princess of Sweden, appeared in white on the large flat-screen TVs displaying live feeds, while Nittve thanked the guests for enduring the traffic and “fighting Condoleezza Rice,” which got a hearty laugh. Soon came the evening’s central event: an auction benefiting the museum (a rare event in Sweden, where the lack of tax deductions renders the value of donating moot). Marie Douglas-David, the perky president of the American Friends of the Moderna Museet, which organized the event (and has raised sixty-five million dollars for the museum over the past few years), introduced the proceedings. Then Hans Dyhlén, the auctioneer, stepped behind the podium sporting an orange tie, handkerchief, and circular glasses. “It’s your turn to let the crocodiles yawn,” he announced. “Open your purses!”

Next up in the string of museum well-wishers was Pontus Bonnier, of the Swedish publishing, collecting, and philanthropizing family. Bonnier had already helped finance the museum’s acquisition of a Josiah McElheny glass installation and Mike Nelson’s “Eclipse” contribution, AMNESIAC SHRINE or Double Coop Displacement—a labyrinthine chicken-coop-like structure whose parts are presented as sculptural “reconstructions” of the patchy memories of the Amnesiacs, a fictional biker gang of Gulf War veterans. “A quite scary thing,” Bonnier called it. He had also funded the new Pontus Hultén Study Room on the museum’s lower level. Designed by Renzo Piano, the space houses a computer whose system is linked to thirty mechanized panels, on which hang works from the seven hundred donated by the late Hultén, the storied curator and first director of the Moderna, on condition of their being not hidden in storage but made publicly “accessible.”

Left: Artist Dana Schutz with dealer Zach Feuer. Right: Artist Nathalie Djurberg with curator Power Ekroth.

Now, Bonnier announced, his family had one final “birthday gift” for the museum. At that, a young girl threw back the heavy fabric from the large object she had been holding, and Picasso’s last portrait of his second wife, Jacqueline, was revealed to the guests. Gasps and applause sounded throughout the room, while an astonished Nittve raised two thumbs high and swigged from a nearby wine bottle. “A complete, total surprise,” he gushed.

On Saturday, an artists’ talk was held in the museum auditorium. Ellen Gallagher discussed her collages in terms of “physicality” and the “inability to ascribe identity.” Dana Schutz spoke of using fiction as a “framework” in order to “to get information from the paintings but also to find limitations.” Tom McCarthy, primarily a novelist (who for “Eclipse” has subjected assorted texts to a Burroughs-like cut-up and is relaying the resulting pastiche over local radio), closed the talk by smoothing the distinction between “theory and intuition.” He noted that, for Heidegger, language is not something used to describe or interpret the world but “an event, a kind of tsunami that comes over you and overwhelms you and kind of ravishes you and makes you—brings you—into the world.” He mentioned the philosopher’s usage of Hölderlin’s line “Soon we will be song,” and this seemed to make people happy. “That’s where we’re going,” he said, “toward song.”

Kyle Bentley

Left: Artist Carsten Höller. Right: Artist Mike Nelson and novelist Tom McCarthy.

Left: Auctioneer Hans Dyhlén. Right: Bonniers Konsthall director Sara Arrhenius and curator Camilla Larsson.

Left: Artist Clay Ketter. Right: Moderna Museet's Maria Morberg and artist Jockum Nordström.