Bergen, Norway

Jan Peter Hammer, Tilikum, 2013, digital video, color, sound, 25 minutes. From the Bergen Assembly. Visningsrommet USF.

Jan Peter Hammer, Tilikum, 2013, digital video, color, sound, 25 minutes. From the Bergen Assembly. Visningsrommet USF.

Bergen Assembly

Various Venues

Jan Peter Hammer, Tilikum, 2013, digital video, color, sound, 25 minutes. From the Bergen Assembly. Visningsrommet USF.

In 2009, the city of Bergen hosted a conference called “To biennial or not to biennial?” Under discussion was a proposal to establish a new biennial in Norway, ambitiously envisioned as becoming the biggest international art event in the region. In the end, the city settled on a project called the Bergen Assembly—An Initiative for Art and Research, and opted for a triennial cycle instead, considering the two-year model rushed. Its first edition, “Monday Begins on Saturday,” curated by the Moscow-based duo Ekaterina Degot and David Riff, was conceived as a rewriting of the titular 1964 Soviet sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, an absurdist satire about a secret research institute dedicated to investigating the nature of human happiness by employing every conceivable method, from biology to witchcraft and black magic. Trapped between their love of scientific inquiry and a Kafkaesque machinery of Soviet bureaucracy, the researchers work ceaselessly, ignoring their social right to rest.

With works by some fifty artists and collectives spread over eleven venues throughout the city of Bergen—including such art institutions as the Bergen Kunsthall and the KODE Art Museums, as well as post-industrial art spaces in the port and a non-art venue, the School Museum—the exhibition was staged as an archipelago of fictitious research institutes with absurdly poetic names. Cheerfully embracing fiction and forgery instead of didactics and discursiveness, the show unfolded as a convoluted narrative in space and time. The search for a blurred socialist past linking Norway and Russia was one leitmotif, but topics ranging from the magical nature of artistic research to the end of the welfare state added to the surreal blend of history, politics, and fiction. At the entrance of each “institute,” one was greeted by a digital clock, a potted plant, and a copper plate featuring a quote from Strugatsky’s novel alluding to its specific atmosphere—a framing device that turned the show itself into a kind of artwork.

The works constituting the Institute of the Disappearing Future at the Bergen Kunsthall questioned the very idea of progressiveness. A beautiful selection of Soviet science photography from the 1960s was juxtaposed with Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Icarus 13, 2008, which documents a fictional Angolan space program whose grand aspiration was a journey to the sun. The mission’s allegoric launch was evoked via photographs staged against leftover monuments of Socialist-era architecture. Chto Delat’s enchanting A Border Musical, 2013, at the Institute of Love and the Lack Thereof (at the artist-run gallery Knip-u), adopts the form of Brechtian singspiel to tell the story of Tanya, a Russian accordion player who marries a man from Finnmark, in Norway’s far north, to escape the impoverished mining town where she sees no future for herself or her teenage son. In an ironic twist, upon arrival, her son is taken from her by social-welfare officials in the land “of impeccable citizens.”

Some of the show’s most surprising juxtapositions included historic works, such as Carlfriedrich Claus’s written drawings from the 1970s in the Institute of Anti-Formalism at KODE 4, or unpublished prints from Karelia by Aleksandr Rodchenko at Østre, a venue for sound art and electronic music, in the Institute of Pines and Prison Bread. Jan Peter Hammer’s Tilikum, 2013, at the Institute of Zoopolitics—fittingly situated in a former sardine factory—leads the viewer on a gloomy dive through the marine entertainment industry and beyond. Taking off from the story of a bull orca that killed two people at SeaWorld Orlando, Florida, the video unravels a bizarre chain of connections between Cold War military research, sensory-deprivation techniques, and fatal neurological experiments on dolphins, with fantasies of interspecies communication and B. F. Skinner’s operational conditioning leading back to Adam Smith’s definition of the free market. Finally, Josef Dabernig’s film essay Hypercrisis, 2011, at the Institute of Lyrical Sociology at the School Museum, beautifully adapts the institutionalized absurdity described in the novel. Shot in the rundown neomodernist architecture of a former recreational home for Soviet filmmakers in Armenia, Hypercrisis centers on the single resident there, a writer suffering from creative block, surrounded by a demonstratively superfluous administrative staff. With these and other highlights, the curators created a parallel universe full of tragicomic poetry and political vision, celebrating artistic magic and casting Bergen as “the last socialism on the planet.”

Eva Scharrer