Copenhagen

“NowHere”

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

The Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, just twenty miles north of Copenhagen, is a uniquely Danish combination of art collection and leisure park. Founded in 1958 by industrialist Knud W. Jensen, it is meant to serve as both a semiurban nature retreat and a center for classic Modernism. Every year 600,000 stroll the garden at the Louisiana and take in its 10,000-plus square meters of holdings, including works by Francis Bacon, Alexander Calder, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Jean Dubuffet and accessible outdoor sculptures by Max Ernst and Henry Moore—and all this with a seaside view. It is this very Danish utopia, reconciling Alfred Krupp and Joseph Beuys, that the show “NowHere” had to contend with. Although many of its artists are involved in practices that question the workings of the gallery system and attempt to problematize the underpinnings of cultural institutions, nearly every installation fit snugly into the Louisiana’s harmonious setting.

For “NowHere,” museum director Lars Nittve invited a team of international curators to put together a “sort of mini-Documenta” of contemporary work by more than one hundred artists in five sections (“Incandescent,” “Get Lost,” “Walking and Thinking and Walking,” “Work in Progress,” and “?”). For this one-time experiment, the Louisiana relegated its celebrated collection to storage and gave itself over entirely to demonstrating the diversity of contemporary positions. Curiously, despite the promises of variety, the works in the show tended to fixate on the inner workings of the art trade or to strive to reach the outer limits of pop culture, only to return again in the form of fancy video work or trash-culture photos. But perhaps rather than what Nittve described (in the January 1996 issue of Artforum) as contemporary artists’ attempts to “find material forms that . . . suggest a state outside or beyond our culture’s hierarchies,” the show was more insightful in the view it offered onto the sociology of the curator. What was most apparent here was the imprimatur of the curator—and the neophilic taste for the social, political, institutional—with the result that the art seemed preslotted for the occasion and secondary to a particular “theme.” And despite the temporal rhetoric mobilized by the word “contemporary,” what could be more ahistorical than forcing all the works—even pieces like Gerhard Richter’s Sekretärin (Secretary), 1964, and Bruce Nauman’s Live Tape Video Corridor, 1970—to reconcile under the ’90s rubric of “NowHere”? Seen in the context of the six curators’ will to thematize the “present,” the pieces on display ironically became more nowhere than “now” and “here.”

Too often the artists represented seemed to serve primarily as illustrations for the curators’ own stances. Laura Cottingham’s “Incandescent” concentrated primarily on the inequity women face within the art industry. The result was an overview of three decades of feminism and gender theory that was merely underscored by the objects represented. The predominant model for Cottingham was women’s self-assertion in art, as she indicated in the introduction to the catalogue for the show, with no ambivalence admitted to the definition. What she mounted, though, in “Incandescent” was a reverse mechanism of exclusion that was far removed from the idea that “works of art should serve the community, and not just the already informed,” as Jill Johnston wrote in the catalogue. Of the invisibility of women beyond the confines of the art world, we learned little. Symptomatic of Cottingham’s curatorial misstep was Howardena Pindell’s video Free, White and 21, 1980. A fictional interview in which Pindell makes herself up as a white woman, the piece is meant to document the invisibility of and discrimination against African-American women even in feminist art discourse. Yet the work lost its power placed next to Cosima von Bonin’s disturbing knitted quilt Untitled, 1996, of men’s handkerchiefs and carpet, and Deborah Kass’ self-portrait photo Altered Image, No. 2, 1994–95, which in its parody of Andy Warhol as a drag queen wound up as a self-serving exercise in generational squabbles between artists.

For “Get Lost” Anneli Fuchs and Lars Grambye arranged a series of videos and installations that illustrate a ’90s blend of club music, neo-psychedelia, and body art. Set to a techno “soundtrack” (produced by actual club acts for a special “Get Lost” CD), the works on view eventually degenerated into a collection of special effects. In Stan Douglas’ Overture, 1986, trains enter a tunnel in Freudian fashion, while in the next compartment Jane and Louise Wilson flitted through a “House of Horrors” in Crawl Space, 1995, before the trip takes us to Willie Doherty’s description of conflict in Northern Ireland in No Smoke Without Fire, 1994–96. Intended as a knockout collection of dazzling effects, “Get Lost” somehow fell flat—a messy overall of fashionable, strange videos.

Not even Bruce Ferguson’s “Walking and Thinking and Walking” got beyond merely duplicating metaphors. Viewers moved past pictures, environments, and mechanical objects, in which various artists address movement or indulge in thinking. In Performance Still, 1985–96, Mona Hatoum drags a pair of combat boots behind her, but one never got a sense of the meaning of the actual performance. For Pictures from a Floating World, 1995, Barbara Bloom built a poetical bridge in a Japanese garden teeming with allegorical plaster castings of Renaissance busts, and for Janet Cardiff’s Louisiana Walk No. 14, 1996, the museum’s garden was described over a Walkman. By way of an ending, the museum café featured a video of the Talking Heads running—“We’re on the road to nowhere.” The theme wore out pretty quickly, perhaps hastened because Ferguson made no distinction between biographical pieces (e.g., Marina Abramovic’s Boat Emptying\Stream Entering, 1988) and politically motivated material (e.g., Krzystof Wodiczko’s Alien Staff, 1993; Dominique Blain’s Colonial Box, 1989). In this way he covered seemingly every position without having to take one himself. Even the working class got its place in the museum, if only in the form of an Engels quote about its inability to unite: “They rush past one another as if they had nothing in common . . . ,” as we see written in delicate penmanship in Rebecca Solnit’s Quotes on Walking, 1996, in a windowpane. Class conflict with a seaside view.

At least Iwona Blazwick’s “Work in Progress” was convincing in its wide focus on process art since the ’60s. Chronologically beginning with Eva Hesse’s 1967 drawings, Blazwick moved on to Hanne Darboven’s monomaniacal diary Birthday Gift, 1987. Even Raymond Pettibon’s untitled drawings linked up to an individual diary, in which commentaries on death in America or surfing function according to the narrative patterns of the “serie noir.” More strongly than in his Basel retrospective, one realizes here how Pettibon’s motifs recur in fuguelike fashion.

Ute Meta Bauer’s theme in “?” was the exhibition’s status as an event and its relation to the history of the Louisiana as a liberal-bourgeois institution. The central figure in this section was Joseph Beuys, whose Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz (Honey pump at work site, 1974–77), first set up at Documenta 6 in 1977 and purchased by Jensen for the Louisiana, filled an entire room of the exhibition. Space was also allotted in book vitrines and on video for the curatorial background on Honigpumpe. The rest of the course around Beuys’ Soziale Plastik was mounted by a team of younger artists. Yvonne P. Doderer reconstructed “children’s houses” that were part of the Louisiana’s original plans but later shelved. The plaques and wallpieces in Fareed Armaly’s Sign System, 1996, functioned both as a logo and as an “info” sheet in which artists reflected on the place of their various initiatives in the art world: as a dissident, you’re still always a part of the system. Which, after Adorno, isn’t exactly news.

At the opening, some of Bauers’ artists whose work features DJing performed in the section’s ersatz Fluxusstyle party, but the desire to import the club world into the museum would have to be judged as a failure, given the reaction of those in attendance. The public soon left to go dance downstairs, where they apparently preferred the offerings served up by the more distinguished, full-time DJs on hand for the opening. Upstairs, those few who remained got drunk together, like a big dysfunctional family. Despite the curator’s ambitious attempt to present and problematize the mechanisms of “NowHere” and the Louisiana, it was precisely in “?” that the problems of “NowHere” were most apparent. For all the focus on the contemporary and all the rhetoric about turning the museum into something else entirely, the exhibitions seemed like pale versions of Pop gestures, Fluxus intimations, and Conceptual winks, all wrapped around a banal, ’80s-style notion of the artist as club creature. Artists still make pretty lousy DJs.

Harald Fricke writes for TAZ in Berlin and is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.