Cultural differences

In this essay Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir analyses this year’s Nordic Focus at the Armory Show in New York.

Ragnar Kjartansson: Scandinavian Pain. Photo: André Gali

On entering the Armory Show, guests were greeted by the beautiful lonely torture of Scandinavian Pain. A huge neon sign in bright pink, spelling exactly that, by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson hung above the Champagne bar. The piece was originally shown on top of an abandoned barn in a region of Norway made famous by Edvard Munch where Kjartansson performed playing his guitar for days, many of which not a single human visitor came. The weight of this pain in the background of guests sipping on the bubbly kind of sets the tone for the feeling of separation between two worlds meeting, joining and crashing at the Armory Show.

This year’s fair namely has a Nordic Focus, focusing on art from the Nordic countries, curated by Jacob Fabricius, director of Malmö Konsthall. Fabricius certainly faced a challenge, focusing on a region whose art scene is not ruled by commercial galleries and has a tradition of publically funded art in the completely commercial context of an art fair, of course primarily a venue to sell art work, not to exhibit art for art’s sake. But it is not just Nordic countries meeting New York, it can be seen, oversimplified, as public meeting private and non-profit meeting for-profit. That brings to mind constant struggles, tensions and questions between different elements and raises awareness of prevailing myths. On pure vs. corrupt, public money vs. private money, and so on and so forth.

Henrik Plenge Jacobsen. Performance with girl in cake handing out free lollypops. Photo: André Gali

The interesting part
But let us start by discussing the Nordic Focus itself. It consisted of a Nordic Lounge where galleries chosen by Fabricius were joined in one section, a program of events, talks and performances and a distinctive part of Fabricius’ curation, Posters, Souvenirs and Other FREE Stuff, a section of seemingly endless art freebies. An abundance of artists’ multiples, commissioned for the occasion; posters, pens, toilet paper, badges and more stuff was given away in the Nordic Lounge, so literally free stuff for anyone.

This gesture suggests everything that an art fair is not. Giving away for free comissioned art multiples in a fair that doesn’t even provide water for its guests raises numerous questions. It deals with the exclusiveness of art and challenging that by giving it to the masses. But at the same time it was sincere, just honestly giving work that artists had carefully made. Somewhat in resistance to being put in the commercial context of an art fair, this part was extremely successful.

It broke up the structural pattern of art fitted in white cubicals and, importantly, created a completely different way of people going through the space. An excellent curatorial decision was positioning the stuff mostly on the floor since it made people bend over or even kneel on the floor, taking them out of the reserved traditional manner of browsing through a fair. It generates an unusual physical involvement, making everyone go down on their knees for art. Or for free stuff, both of which is interesting.

The Nordic Focus spread into most aspects of the fair, which gave it a richer feel. The Armory’s Open Forum, curated by Amanda Parmer for instance, presented numerous discussions between New York and Nordic based artists and art professionals.

Fabricius also curated an interesting performance program, including Kreppa: A Symphonic Poem about the Financial Situation in Iceland by Örn Alexander Ámundason, performed by Metropolis Ensemble whose performance poses the question of what a financial collapse sounds like; Amorphous Assemblage, composed by Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen and performed by various dancers, was a living sculpture that appeared in different places throughout the fair emerging from a white cocoon. For a two hour performance at the Armory Show FOS recreated the model of events taking place at last year’s Venice biennial at OSLOO, a floating pavillion under the title: A Collection of Centers.

Performance arranged by Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen. Photo: André Gali

Nordic Focus: The Galleries
The Nordic Lounge’s galleries were kind of stuck in the middle of the supense between these opposing elements – the traditional art fair on one hand and the FREE stuff and performance program on the other hand. The space between these two cultures, the commercial and the non-commercial, was quite successfully highlighted.

The galleries at the Nordic lounge were mostly commercial galleries but also a few non-profit ones, funding their booths privately or with grants. So basically Nordic galleries put together in one section of the fair, but more of them than would have otherwise been accepted or would even have applied, thus opening the Armory to new galleries. It had the traditional booth format, with the crowded FREE stuff in the middle which made it a bit hard to keep focus when navigating the galleries, constantly going in and out of booths and getting caught up in the hecticness in between.

Seeing all these Nordic galleries together makes it tempting to try to map out the similarities and differences between the countries. The numbers were unequal though with 7 Danish galleries, 6 Swedish, 4 Norwegian, 1 Finnish and 1 Icelandic gallery in the lounge.

Most of the booths consisted mainly of paintings, drawings and collages, with a few exceptions and there was an immense difference in quality between the galleries.

The Norwegian non-profit gallery D.O.R. executed a broad variety of work under instructions from their artists, resulting in an interesting show. Fellow-Norwegian non-profit gallery NoPlace presented a well composed booth with work from quite a few artists, installed with playful confidence. They painted the booth’s carpet black half way through, kind of marking their territory, finishing up by stretching the gallery’s arms outside the booth with a fabric sculpture in a non-pretentious way.

The Danes were not quite as playful, with some of the galleries showing very decorative works. IMO, however, showed sculptures of rope, leash and chains by Maiken Bent that were quite interesting. The clean feeling of experiments with color and form by Ebbe Stub Wittrup of Martin Asbaek Gallery was also refreshing.

From the Nordic section. Photo: André Gali

The Swedish galleries had a more lively approach, a painting performance was ongoing at Fruit and Flower Deli and a bizarre kinetic sculpture took over most of Gallery Niklas Belenius. CRYSTAL stood out with a quiet, appealing booth of delicate collages by Daniel Andersson, phtographs of adolescents by Julia Peirone and Johanna Billing’s slide show from the making of the film I’m gonna live without you anyhow until I die.

Iceland was represented by Reykjavík-based i8 gallery, showing work by three Icelandic artists, with Birgir Andrésson’s wall painting, An hour, standing out. Despite Iceland only being represented by one gallery in the Nordic Lounge the tiny nation also had its representative in the performance program, Ámundason, and of course Kjartansson’s center piece neon, acquired by Swedish Moderna Museet on the eve of the fairs opening.

In additon Icelandic Nýló, the Living Art Museum, shared a booth with Danish Overgaden, tucked away in the section for not-for-profit organizations a few booths away from the Nordic Lounge. As well as presenting their organizations they hosted a program of performances and video screenings which was a welcome insight into the practices of Nordic artists based in the US, and some US artists affiliated with Nordic artists.

However, the only Finnish representation in the Nordic Focus was Helsinki’s Galleri Anhava, whose serene mood was very appealing. It oozed a feeling of purity and calmness, showing work by Hreinn Friðfinnsson and Tommi Grönlund. Confidence and faith in the artists’ work is evident, there is no fuss and it feels genuine. It really made me miss not having more Finnish representatives.

In conclusion, it is unrealistic to expect this kind of a setup to depict the entire Nordic art scene. However it was a good opertunity for many of the galleries to have the spotlight on them and it brought a lot more artists and art professionals from the highlighted countries to the fair and generated some interesting events that possibly would not have been on the fair’s radar otherwise.

Maiken Bent. Photo: André Gali

Playing in a different field
Nordic art was not limited to that lounge since there were a few Nordic galleries located outside it. In addition, a welcome take on the Focus was when galleries from other countries highlighted Nordic artists, like the New York Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery did, dedicating its booth to an exhibition of Helsinki School photography as well as using furniture from Finnish designer Alvar Aalto. Paris-based Galerie Anne de Villepoix featured work by Norwegian painter Haavard Homstvedt and Oslo-based artist Charlie Roberts’ work was on view at Richard Heller Gallery (Santa Monica) as well as being in the Nordic Lounge with Danish David Risley gallery. Trine Sondergaard was among the artists at Bruce Silverstein, NY, showing fascinating photographs, recalling classsical paintings with their beautiful lighting. An interesting move was Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Greene Naftali and Galerie Krinzinger (Berlin, NY, Vienna) jointly presenting a solo show by Norwegian painter Bjarne Melgaard. The vibrant paintings were shown in a booth with a luscious red carpet that complimented the works.

Børre Sæthre was given freedom to install his own work at the Parisian Loevenbruck gallery with the starting point of an Alina Szapocznikow sculpture, also on view. He arranged his Ghost Arcade sculptures, resembling arcade games, made of wood in the booth and covered parts of the walls with some protective isolation material. The sculptures are empty on the inside and the material calls to mind depressing IKEA furniture and the emptiness of mass production while arcade games hint at teenagers escaping reality and going into a fake world. The isolation material on the walls continues this feeling of, well, isolation and emptiness, in good contrast to Szapocznikow’s organic sculpture.

Among the Nordic galleries, Swedish Andréhn-Schiptjenko showed paintings and drawings by Julie Roberts and alluring work by Matts Leiderstam, from his series of photographs After Image, depicting classical works of art reproduced in books and catalogues, investigated from a contemporary point of view. Some of these were printed as posters for the FREE stuff as well. Galerie Forsblom from Helsinki had a huge booth, showing many Finnish artists’ paintings and photographs as well as some Tony Oursler pieces.

Børre Sæther. Photo: André Gali

The Dilemma
In spite of the business focus, going to all these fairs for many people is done in the hopeful excitement of finding that purity, that clear ring that the best art has to it. It is done out of faith in art. But there is a certain disdain on art fairs, especially among artists. Being ruled by money they are considered impure and corrupt. However, there is a dilemma because most artists want the work to reach good appreciating hands and do want to get payed for their work and therefore a direct access for people to buy it is agreeable. But being in a context so governed by financial interests, as the fairs are, has to be opressing for creativity, at least to some extent.

That is evident in the extremely rigid set-up of most fairs. Participation requires massive financial investment from the galleries, which makes leaving the safe zone less tempting. At the same time everyone is looking for that free spirit, that breath of fresh air, hoping to discover the next big thing. But the environment does not offer that at all so the organizers have to get that from somewhere else. It naturally raises questions on whether artists are being indirect workers of the capitalist system, putting life into their fairs so they keep an interesting edge. Or if it is just using a valueable oportunity to show their art to some of the pure souls, looking for bliss?

Looking at the Nordic Focus in that context can be interesting, using the oportunity to explore what happens when two cultures meet. It brings up the aforementiones tensions of pure vs. corrupt, public money vs. private money, artists vs. dealers, non-profit vs. commercial etc.

This dualist way of thinking can lead us to rule out one thing in favor of the other, but often it is not that simple that one is good and the other bad. For instance, private money can be used in a non-corrupt way to create magnificent things while a whole lot of publically funded art is seriously compromised. Maybey it is not what is done but how it is done that matters. Maybe it rather comes down to the purity of intensions, be it an artist’s, a collector’s, an art professional’s or a dealer’s. These cultural differences most likely have very little to do with geographical differences – the Nordic countries certainly did not represent the pure and uncorrupt any better than others – but rather a differnce in mindsets and values between people.

Bjarne Melgaard. Photo: André Gali

Symptom or Solution?
Pleasant as the Nordic focus in itself was, it does leave a slightly bitter taste because it had an entertainment feel to it. Making the art fairs fresh and hip in one section so business can go on as usual in the rest. In general, should it not be considered to create framework that allows this breath of fresh air to blow through the entire fairs, instead of causing a tornado in one corner?

Creating an environment where the structure allows for both artistic freedom and the possibility of buying work, benefitting both artists, collectors and dealers. If not, we should perhaps be honest about it and just let business be business.

Art and its systems always reflect the current waves of the world, closely intertwined with it but also looking at it from afar, in a certain way. Is art the symptom of a sick world or the solution to its maldies?

It is a question too big to answer in this little article, but one worth wondering about. Perhaps it even comes down to the same thing as the dualist debate, that it is both the symptom and the solution, just as money can both be pure and corrupt. We just focus so much on emphasizing the symptoms that we forget that we have the solutions, right there in our hands.

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