“ARS 83”

Despite its modesty, Jannis Kounellis’ diagonal wooden palisade covering one half of a wide arched window in this neoclassical building touched on some of the central issues raised by Ars 83, the largest exhibition of contemporary art ever shown in Scandinavia. The palisade worked as a membrane, bringing the exhibition room into visibility relative to it while also both distinguishing between and linking the show’s artistic context with its wider one. Out there lay Helsinki, with its peculiar mixture of Western and Russian features; the rustic gray stone walls of the Finnish National Theater, framed in the open half of the window, both evoked the period of Finnish artistic creativity at the turn of the century (when Aksel Gallen-Kallela and Jean Sibelius, for example, were active) and reminded one of Kounellis’ own walls in stone.

I had expected Helsinki’s specific quality as a city bordering on the East to be a curatorial focus, particularly after the post-Documenta 7 discussion of the European yearning to resume contact with Byzantine-derived Russian culture. But the selection and installation were more concerned with the introduction of a “representative selection” of 90 artists (20 of whom showed site-specific installations) to the Finnish public than with ideas. Unfortunately, Helsinki’s peripheral position was reflected chiefly by the fact that some artists—or their dealers or collectors—contributed inferior works. For reasons difficult to account for, this was particularly the case with those artists referred to in the catalogue as “today’s painters”— Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Nicola De Maria. Interestingly, this tendency was pointed up by the effort of many artists with Arte Povera, minimalist, or conceptual roots to give of their best to an audience unfamiliar with their earlier work.

Joseph Kosuth, for example, showed Hypercathexis 14 and 15, 1983. In both works two horizontal panels behind glass, one above the other, in frames of beautiful Finnish fir, each contain enlargements of sections of the oldest Finnish writing. The lower frame is differentiated from the upper by the addition of six smaller photographs of other “Ur” texts, linked to one another and to their larger relative by a system of colored crosses. Two separate, smaller frames show the pages from which the Finnish text is taken. The seductive formal composition of the two works invites the viewer to look at each one as a self-contained unit, while also revealing the Finnish text as a fragment of an unfathomable greater whole: the boundless field of Writing. Thus the Finnish starting point shared by Kosuth and Kounellis disintegrated as the scope of Hypercathexis shifted from being expandable to being boundless.

Ars 83 was most memorable as an exhibition of articulated silence. Individual works, even though quiet and placed apart, seemed to pervade the building. As one walked to and fro on the worn fir floor in front of Jim Turrell’s Avaar, 1976, this soft gray rectangle of empty, interior-lit space seemed to become a place where light was material. Pondering how presence emanated from absence, one walked over to Wolfgang Laib’s nearby installation: through an open door one saw a room occupied by a large, brightly lit square of pine pollen, its color intense. The medium’s rich material connotations were not so striking as the way the pollen seemed transformed into a cloud of light, inverting the course of Avaar, where light seemed to become material. The boundary between material and immaterial—and between East and West—was dissolved.

Among those contributing to the organizers’ desire for an exhibition that would be both representative and a stimulus to Scandinavian art were Giovanni Anselmo, Mario Merz, Sol LeWitt, Ellsworth Kelly, and Joel Shapiro, all of whose installations were outstanding, and Robert Ryman, Bernard Kirschenbaum, Richard Tuttle, and Cy Twombly, who showed impressive separate works. Among the few Scandinavians present, Bård Breivik, Jan Håfström, and Olle Kåks made notable contributions.

Lars Nittve

Translated from the Swedish by Lars-Håkan Svensson.