Special Effects

Left: Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija at the Absolut Art Awards. Right: Artist Michael Joo (second from left), Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum, and dealer Burkhard Riemschneider at the Moderna Museet.

JOKINGLY, BUT WITH EARNEST UNDERTONES, the return of the Swedish art world’s lost son Daniel Birnbaum came with expectations some dubbed the Birnbaum Effect. Between the anticipatory chatter, newspaper articles, and subterranean hearsay, the Moderna Museet’s new director comes off as a nearly celestial being from whom most anticipate miracles, and the continuous question on everyone’s lips is, What is he going to do? Naturally, in light of the international status Birnbaum is enjoying in the wake of his accomplishments at the Venice Biennale and Frankfurt’s Städelschule, a palpable suspense is alive in Stockholm, reminiscent of the time,
nine years ago, when the Museet’s former director Lars Nittve returned
here from Tate Modern. The scarcity of Swedish curators and museum directors who have become distinguished abroad is evident, and when one of the few victoriously returns from battle it is cause for much celebration and expectation. Coinciding, earlier this month, with the week when Rirkrit Tiravanija was awarded the second annual Absolut Art Award, Birnbaum’s first week on the job was an eventful one.

On his fourth day as director, an impromptu panel was organized to take advantage of all the luminaries in town. Museums don’t usually act with such spontaneity, so this may be a clue to Birnbaum’s new approach. Birnbaum and Christine Macel, chief curator of the Pompidou, took part in a conversation moderated by Molly Nesbit that drew a small crowd and centered for the most part around what museums in fact are. The exchange, which loosely addressed that persistent question of Birnbaum’s plans for his new institutional home, concerned more experimental shows, alluding for instance to the exhibition “She” curated by legendary former Moderna Museet director Pontus Hultén, and also interrogated the contextual circumstances of contemporary art in institutions blessed with prominent historical collections. The conversation indicated an openness to other, future extemporaneous events whenever an opportunity presents itself, which may now occur more often thanks to said Birnbaum Effect. Equally important, longtime Moderna Museet curator Ann-Sofi Noring was presented as the first-ever vice-director of the museum, which will no doubt be attended by its own splendid Noring Effects.

Left: Artist Arto Lindsay at the Moderna Museet. Right: Curator Nicolas Bourriaud (center) and artist Mai Ueda (far right).

The Absolute Art Award was bestowed on Tiravanija that same evening. The private dinner inaugurating Absolut’s elegant new space on Drottninggatan was pleasant and exceedingly well attended. Distinguished guests including artists Elizabeth Peyton and Michael Joo; curators Beatrix Ruf and Nicolas Bourriaud; and dealers Chantal Crousel, José Kuri, Brian Butler, and Burkhard Riemschneider had been flown to town to face the imminent Swedish winter and to mingle with a careful selection of invited local arts professionals such as dealer Aldy Milliken, artists Fredrik Söderberg and Christine Ödlund, curator Sinziana Ravini, and Bonniers Konsthall director Sara Arrhenius. Also present were Jutta Koether and Klara Lidén, both of whom were particular foci of attention that evening, given that each would be the subject of a solo exhibition at the Moderna Museet this spring.

The following evening, the museum played host to Birnbaum’s official homecoming party, where Tiravanija, with temporary sous-chef Tobias Rehberger, cooked pad thai with meatballs; Karl Holmqvist read; Mai Ueda chanted; and Arto Lindsay played. Some of the performers were obviously better suited to the festive context than others. Holmqvist eventually overpowered most of the comparatively indifferent guests using the classic trick of, well, speaking up, yet it seemed that some of the attendees still remained oblivious to the wonderful work The Future Home of Chrome. Ueda employed similar tactics of volume to get attention from the failing crowd, but by far the most exorbitant performer was Lindsay, who, toward the end, as he and his guitar produced a spectacular pandemonium, forced some guests out of the room and, furthermore, out of the building. The party offered drinks courtesy of Tiravanija’s award provider, and the performances were, for a number of patrons, clearly less important than the cocktails, while socializing seemed to be the primary objective for almost everyone.

Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tobias Rehberger cook at the Moderna Museet.

For some, this is simply par for the course for the Birnbaum Effect, and the interaction between the local and the international scene at parties is welcome. But does it mean that what happens in Stockholm will echo more prominently beyond Scandinavia, or does it instead suggest that the international circuit will simply come to town more frequently? It might create new prospects for Swedish culture in general. However, engaging projects with local organizations such as Site magazine and the journal OEI, a genuine interest in more experimental exhibitions, and a recontextualizing of the historic works in the collection alongside contemporary art—all tactics that were hinted at during the initial panel—might reverberate more significantly both here and abroad. Now, after the salutary kick-off week is done, and without any awards ceremonies or parties to attend, there is the opportunity to let all the potential sink in.