This first survey of Bruce Nauman’s work in Scandinavia, which coincides with the artist’s seventy-fifth birthday, is a fitting choice for Copenhagen’s newest contemporary art space. Rather than serving as a retrospective, the show demonstrates how relevant and timely Nauman’s challenge to viewers’ perception is today. The twelve pieces on display date from the 1960s through the 1990s and cover almost all media in which the artist has worked, from his neon word plays and experimental videos to his major installations. Set within cavernous halls lit by large industrial windows in a former paper manufactory, Nauman’s installations in particular resonate with a multitude of sensory shifts that activate both the surrounding space and the viewer’s interaction with the work. The cold light emanating from Green Light Corridor, 1970, along with the glistening reflections on the walls of Copenhagen’s inner harbor, illuminates one hall. Just as the work draws visitors in to encounter its confined interior space, it provides glimpsed vistas of the historic Nyhavn streets through the massive windows the passageway faces. Hanging Carousel (George Skins a Fox), 1988, also plays with dissonance, its dangling casts of taxidermic animal parts elegantly revolving around a video screen depicting a hunter skinning a dead fox. What at first appears playful and childlike becomes a grotesquely morbid wheel of life. Such monotonous repetition is carried even further in the most recent work in the show, Setting a Good Corner, 1999. The movie-length video records the countless mundane activities that went into the artist’s construction of a fence on his ranch. Shown on a continuous loop, both the video itself and the activities it records are analogous to the many unseen dull efforts that go into the creation of a work of art. The exhibition forms a dynamic foil to the other interactive installations on display by artists Ragnar Kjartansson and Pettersen & Hein, highlighting how deeply Nauman’s early experimentation with sensory effects and viewer involvement has resonated with younger artists.
Coinciding with Iceland’s election week was the opening of the second iteration of the Cycle Music and Art Festival in Kópavogur, an extensive program of concerts, performances, and lectures accompanied by a longer-running group show titled “That Time,” curated by Eva Wilson. Derived from Samuel Beckett’s one-act play, the show’s title refers to how art and music exist differently in time. The festival attempts to defy habitual approaches of presenting art and music as separate fields through a strong emphasis on collaboration and interdisciplinary practices. It presents work by about fifty artists, both local and international; some participate in the exhibition through ongoing radio broadcasts and performances. Standout works include David Levine’s Sepulchral City, 2016, a performance by actors who recite Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as they move freely through various spaces in the museum. The actors perform for everybody and nobody, yet always for themselves, allowing for the audience to wander in and out of the work and to listen while engaging with other pieces. In contrast to this is the installation Surface Costumes, 2015, by Rachel de Joode. Here, the Dutch artist has photographed and then reworked tangible surfaces such as clay, paint, and stone through an extensive technique in Photoshop. By making these images into costumes, she turns these materials back onto themselves, creating a strange feedback loop. Beyond how temporal awareness is composed and utilized through art and music, the title of the show refers to a time and a world beyond our human perception, which in the geological wonder of Iceland seems a little closer to grasp.
Inaugurating the newly opened Museum Voorlinden (an initiative of Dutch collector Joop Van Caldenborgh) is the first posthumous Ellsworth Kelly exhibition, which features the painting Blue Ripe, 1959, one of Caldenborgh’s earliest purchases, as a central work. Presenting an impression rather than an overview of the artist’s oeuvre, “Ellsworth Kelly, Anthology” nonetheless includes eighty works—both paintings (from Atlantic, 1956, to White Form over Black, 2015) and works on paper. Curator Rudi Fuchs arranged the works in the galleries with the ease of someone molding wax, creating a spatial unity throughout while following a largely chronological hanging.
The first two rooms present a two-fold introduction, establishing both “Line Form Color,” 1951 (Kelly’s series of forty ink-and-gouache pieces on paper) and a selection of leaf drawings from 1949 to 1992 as groundwork for his oeuvre. The former shows the twenty-eight-year-old artist as a resolutely analytical researcher of the development of line into plane and color, and the latter taps into the life-long inspiration he drew from natural forms.
The exhibition’s spatial concerns are also evident––for instance, Fuchs lets the visitor obliquely approach the red Broadway, 1958, creating a three-dimensional effect, as if Kelly’s shaped canvases from later in his career are already waiting to burst forth. Meanwhile, his dramatic turn from the analytical to the lyrical is emphasized in the last room, where the grand Series of Five Paintings, 1966, and Blue, Black and Green, 2000, are juxtaposed. It is Fuch’s coup de théâtre, allowing the viewer to experience, in a single glance, two aspects of the same painter.
“The nation is, like new Western brands of tinned food, as little touched by the human hand as possible,” wrote the lauded Bengali poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore in response to the advance of British colonization in Bangladesh. Tagore’s reading of how capitalist technology dehumanized politics gains new, brutal significance in our current era. The poet is the shadow figure behind “The Missing One,” an exhibition of twenty-two artists from the Indian subcontinent. Titled after an 1896 science-fiction tale written by writer and scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, the show considers the role of speculative fiction in contemporary art from this region of the world.
Resurrection, ca. 1922, a gouache-on-paper painting by Gaganendranath Tagore (Rabindranath’s nephew), provides a historical anchor. The composition places a saintly figure and cross at the center of a quasi-Cubist rendering of billowing clouds, evoking both sublime ascension and spectacular violence. The other works here have all been made since the late 1990s and are separated into three categories: “Staring Up at the Sky,” “Alienation,” and “Light Blindness.”
Spirituality meets rationality in the sky-gazing section. Works such as Lahore-based artist Mehreen Murtaza’s photograph on copper of a comet, perched on a fluted wooden base (Comet Bennet over Delhi, Humayan’s Tomb March 1970, 2013), express a collision of technology and tradition. The exhibition’s strength, however, lies in the pieces that relate a South Asian aesthetic to Afrofuturism. These include Aamir Habib’s spectacular photo, acrylic, and LED sculptures and Mariam Suhail’s There were sightings . . . this will be a significant year, 2007. The latter, a video, depicts figures in Tyvek suits at the then-new National Art Gallery in Islamabad, Pakistan, examining artworks as though they were extraterrestrial specimens. Tejal Shah’s Landfill Dance, 2012—a video created as part of her Documenta 13 project, Between the Waves—infuses sci-fi with a pop twist, as otherworldly white-clad figures dance through a junkyard.
Consider a screen showing what appear to be DIY recordings of military life. The seven projected vignettes each give a short glimpse into the life of war as seen through the lens of a 16-mm camera: military vehicles camouflaged in the Vietnamese jungle, silent moments of reading letters from home, swimming in rivers. Something, however, confuses the analogue and historical surfaces of the film: Virtual fruits appear on the screen, rupturing the reality of the original.
This work, Division Movement to Vungtau, 2016, a digital video made by Benjamin Crotty in collaboration with Bertrand Dezoteux, is installed in the middle of the exhibition space, where one can view the four minutes and twenty-seven seconds of transferred archival material from the Vietnam War, found by the artist in the US National Archives. At the back of the gallery space, five small images of typewritten texts, layered with pictures of food, are installed on the wall. This series, “Menu No. 1–15,” 2016, displays archival records of meals eaten by President Harry S. Truman. The exhibition emphasizes that the archive is no longer a dusty room filled with endless folders and documents, as Hal Foster has written. Instead, as archives themselves, the works manifest a different approach in a world where human beings are not the only ones capable of memorizing, desiring, and perceiving.
Adding digital subjects to archival footage or information, though, does not demolish the history of the Vietnam War. Rather, it stresses the biopolitical concerns of bodies and objects. Here, the filmic image is not a surface—or film per se—with an indexical relation to the Real, but instead a complex assemblage where concepts of memory, reality, and life itself are under investigation.
A ferocious noise assaults visitors on the top floor of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. It stems from a film in which men in gray uniforms shout fragments of speeches by Tito and Mussolini while wartime imagery flickers behind them. The film is of a concert at the Ljubljana Novi Rock Festival in 1982 by the group Laibach, who established the Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) art collective two years later with the artist groups IRWIN and Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre in post-Tito Yugoslavia. Never before has an exhibit explored in such depth NSK’s vast output of writing, films, posters, and paintings. Co-organized with the Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana, where it originated, the show traces NSK through 1992, as it probed the deadlock of modern utopian projects at the end of the Soviet era.
Guiding the exhibit is NSK’s “retro” principle: The horrors of the past must be addressed rather than brushed aside. The work brims with images and sounds from the Soviet avant-garde, the punk scene, pop “authoritarians” like the Beatles, the region’s socialist present, Slovenian nationalism, and its fraught historical encounters with German fascism. NSK excavated its world in order to roughshod the fault lines of conformist societies.
This process of flouting tradition, of pressing life’s more severe bodily and psychic limits, of embracing and rejecting the arrival of Western capitalism and its international art market, unleashed fierce creative energy. Signs of this are everywhere at Garage, in woodcuts of bodily mutilation, in the collaboratively painted “Was ist Kunst?” series, and in the globally minded State in Time project, which since 1992 has issued fourteen thousand membership passports to the “non-territorial” artist community. Through the manifestos that paper the show’s walls, we follow NSK restlessly seeking forms alternative to itself, lending the pursuit of alternative forms of governance a rare and bracing urgency.