Museums care for disappearing things. But who cares for the North Pole? This rhetorical trick was the catalyst that sparked the whole idea of the exhibition Arctic. At least that is what the curator and director of Louisiana, Poul Erik Tøjner, tells us on the disturbingly warm opening day in late September.
Archiving the melting cryosphere is definitely no task for the frail, and Louisiana has shouldered the task with true grit and stamina. The curatorial collection of objects, knowledge, and notions pertaining to all things Arctic is nothing short of overwhelming. So if you are fond of immersing, even drowning yourself in vast quantities of information then Arctic is a marvellous Sunday expedition of an exhibition.
Larger than life is the fundamental perspective of the show, and that premise is established from the outset. We are escorted into Arctic by the photographer Darren Almond’s empty icescapes and a huge dictionary reflecting an inextinguishable linguistic and literary dogma: the claim that people living in the Arctic regions supposedly have hundreds of words for snow and ice, many more than people from more temperate climates such as the Danes. The myth has been refuted long ago, but still we are perfectly willing to accept it due to the great sense of poetry inherent in the notion.
We then reach “The Sublime”: giant lightboxes featuring photostats of Arctic landscape paintings from the 19th century, done by Sir Edwin Landseer, Briton Rivière, and other European artists. None of them had ever visited the North Pole, but nevertheless knew with perfect certainty what it looked like. The idea of transforming paintings into entertaining dioramas as if in an old American museum of natural history is a good one. The impact would probably have been even greater if we had been allowed to go without the long accompanying texts dutifully explaining that we are looking at is beauty evoking terror – i.e. the Sublime – just in case we failed to notice it ourselves. The dioramas surround a table half-laid with Victorian silverware as the sublime example of the Noble Failure. The silverware are relics of the travels undertaken by John Franklin, a Victorian explorer who disappeared while searching for the Northwest passage, bought back from Inuit natives in the 1850s. The expedition is interesting because of how it disappeared under the weight of its own cultural burden. Equipped with harmoniums and fine wines the Franklin expedition insisted on the universal superiority of British civilisation, but in the struggle to keep up appearances everything crumbled into cannibalism and pure barbarism.
Civilisatory pride is, then, one of the main narratives of the exhibition, presumably partly due to the sheer entertainment value and partly due to the almost artistic aspect of the seductively mad ideas and monumental, destructive decisions that drove the most hubris-fuelled expeditions. Arctic certainly depicts the grand failure as more sublime than ultimate victory, and those who fail sublimely are repeatedly offset as artist-like figures against the more sober actual conquerors of the North Pole. Of course the conquerors are introduced as heroes, but also as a herd of eminently sensible swots who systematically took the North Pole – scientifically and artistically. By transforming the Arctic regions from a “sublime threat” to a more manageable space of “scientific beauty” they were forever robbing us of a mystery.
Thus, visitors will, as part of a natural shift, progress from the Romantically sublime to a supposedly more rational section devoted to modern art and science. A department of “empirical passion”, as Tøjner puts, which is called “Observations.” Here you will meet the Gladstone Gander of DNA research, Eske Willerslev, who can hardly be said to modestly veil his own greatness. He charmingly claims that his mapping of the human genome based on a frozen lock of hair is the most important scientific result ever seen in Denmark. Indeed, it is important and extremely interesting to know that territorial migrations from Asia took place much earlier than was hitherto believed, but one cannot help thinking fondly of e.g. Ole Rømer, Niels Bohr, and Lene Hau; their contributions might also be worthwhile. Visitors will also be impressed by the ice core of ancient Arctic ice that can now, thanks to new advances in science, be exhibited at a venue such as Louisiana. As a small counterweight to the triumphs of science one also chuckles amusedly at Mark Dion’s touching collection of polar bears from museums of natural history worldwide, demonstrating how the imaginary polar bear has always held sway over the biologically accurate.
From here on in things happen hard and fast as one moves in and out between these alternating themes in the following five “chapters” of the exhibition. First there is “The Wide World”, which is primarily an art section featuring e.g. an audio work by Jakob Kirkegaard, Icefall, which presents the sounds of the polar ice sheet in a black room. From here one moves through the rather more ethnographic “Voices and Faces” in which the Russian photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva documents her Siberian hometown, the by now almost depopulated Tiksi. We move onwards to all sorts of popular and scientific mapping of the Arctic regions in “Conquest”.
The next section “Doom” presents, for the first time ever, a complete collection of exposures of the 93 negatives discovered as testaments to the Swedish engineer Salomon A. Andrée’s ill-fated balloon trip to the North Pole in 1897. The exhibition portrays this as something of a sensation. The question is whether these pictures, a carefully curated selection of which is usually on display at the Swedish Andrée museum in Gränna, become any more interesting by being shown in their entirety. Perhaps we should really view the central position accorded to these pictures at Arctic as a private reference in Tøjner’s hunt for the aesthetic North Pole, a hunt that undoubtedly began in his youth with Per Olof Sundman’s popular novel Andrées Luftfærd (“Andrée’s Journey”) from 1967 and Jan Troell’s film bearing the same title from 1982. The same could be said of Joachim Koester, who shows his video installation Message from Andrée from 2005 right next to the original photographs.
Moving on from Andrée the hot-air balloonist we reach the chapter “Mythologies”, which presents the commercial, entertaining, and cynical celebrations of North Pole heroes and losers found in mass culture and mass media. “Being a polar hero was hard PR work”, as the successful glaciologist and novelist Monica Kristensen so deftly puts it in the catalogue. We also meet critical deconstructors of these mythologies, such as the artists John Bock and Pia Arke. Finally, the exhibition is rounded off by personal video interviews with prominent figures from the Arctic realm, including the always-inspiring geologist Minik Rosing.
Arctic may be trumpeted as a contemporary exhibition about a region facing dire threats, but one soon realises that in fact it is rather more an exhibition about the crumbling sovereignty of the Western world and of the scientific and artistic ideals melting away at almost the same rate. Or, as Tøjner rather more discreetly puts it: “This is not an exhibition about Greenland”. Of course we are not deprived of Greenlandica; here we find Knud Rasmussen’s beautiful, industrious collection of ethnographic objects, Aron af Kangeq’s sad and funny 19th century drawings of folk scenes and of the tragic-comic meeting between the indigenous people and Christian missionaries – and Pia Arke’s deconstruction of the whole thing. What Tøjner is really saying is that Arctic is not about the “Greenland problem”, i.e. about postcolonial discourse, about Arctic victimisation, and about the country’s environmental problems, which hardly verge on extinction.
Indeed, the head curator has never presented himself as a great admirer of thematic curating and critical contemporary art. Arctic is an exhibition built on an old academic dream born in a gentleman’s study, an inner longing for the lost, limitless vistas of thought where art and science meet in ecstatic conversation over Clos de Griffier cognac and Cohiba cigars. Throughout the exhibition one detects a certain rift between the contemporary and political/critical – which seems to be politely delegated to a strange reservation area called “contemporary art” – and the grand, sublime, transgressive mode of thought that is presented as the driving force behind Great art.
Overall, the exhibition is pervaded by a very clear and eye-catching distinction between “contemporary art” and all other art. As the catalogue reveals the director has taken care of the latter whereas the young curator Kristoffer Seeberg Ussing has had to grapple, rather less assuredly, with the former. Seeberg has, however, sought to unite the seeming polar opposites of art and contemporary art in something that he terms “the sublime aesthetics of contemporary art”. A wild ambition, for as the concept itself signifies contemporary art represents an endeavour at anchoring art in its own time and in a specific context, not to raise viewers up into the timeless, weightless (cryo)sphere of the sublime. Thus, the contemporary artist – if indeed such an entity exists at all – is an observer rather than a dramatic, as Tøjner would put it. In aesthetic terms the contemporary artist must be regarded as a passionate empirist in the vein of Eske Willerslev, someone who has a case with which to seduce and persuade the viewer, rather than as a genius who overpowers, mystifies, and conquers his audience.
Unfortunately a regrettable snow-blind spot arises somewhere between the curators’ slightly diffuse distinction between great art and ethical contemporary art. In his text Ussing concludes, undoubtedly correctly, that contemporary art’s agenda on the North Pole and the ice sheet is governed by concern; concern that the disappearance of the Arctic not only threatens our own existence, but will also mentally deprive us of “a final sanctuary on Earth, a breathing space on the top of our globe”. However, he misses an obvious point: that the artistic interest in the Arctic is probably rather more about art itself. The wide vistas of the North Pole can, if anything, be regarded as a geographical projection of art’s own space – it is a specific topos mirroring the notion of the pure, unsullied, weightless space of art that has been art’s dominant figure throughout the post-war years, either positively or negatively. Depending on one’s view of art, the White Cube has either protected art against external sullying, including political and commercial exploitation, or it has kept it hostage to all manner of covert, sinister power games within the institution.
At the same time the Arctic can also serve as a metaphor for a Modernist concept of what art is ideally striving for. For example, white Modernism – where colour, perspective, and illusion have been abandoned for good – is the zero point or endgame of art, having reached a higher state of formal spirituality that Modernist avant-garde artists such as Mondrian strove to reach. In addition to this, almost all artists from Yves Klein to Robert Morris, Joseph Kosuth, Michael Asher, and Hans Haacke onwards to the entire neo-conceptual generation behind “contemporary art” have worked with a concept that adopts either a positive or negative stance on this narrative, i.e. on the issue of the true or illusory freedom of the weightless art space. Several of the artists featured in the Arctic exhibition actually work with these figures, and yet the theme is not addressed curatorially at all. One example would be Jakob Kirkegaard, who exhibits the sound of a white space inside a physical black space that quite inevitably also becomes a game with a classic white cube/black box dichotomy. In popular terms the black box of video projections became contemporary art’s symbolic response to the white cube of Modernism.
When Wolfgang Tillmans flies across the endless vistas of the Arctic ice sheet it is probably not just, as suggested in the catalogue, in order to provide a melancholy depiction of technological alienation towards nature in the vein of Th. W. Adorno. It is, presumably, rather more about the endlessness of the white surface itself, which ultimately never let itself be built or conjured up in paint, but which can now in fact be filmed from a climate-threatening aeroplane. Faintly ironic, one might say, rather than sentimental. Darren Almond’s photographic “monochromes”, Arctic Plate 1-15, might also be regarded as paraphrases or comments on the Modernist utopia of the monochrome. The dual pun in “Arctic Plate”, containing references to tectonic plates and to painting as a flat plane, certainly plays on an abolition of representation, space, and landscape in the painting, but here those things have been captured photographically in nature rather than with paint on the canvas. Correspondingly, John Bock’s narrative about the failed North Pole travellers’ struggle with the elements and technology might presumably equally well be regarded as a parody of modern artists’ power struggles with the white cube of the art institution.
You walk on and read on, hoping that the curators will at some point seize the opportunity to use this obvious story about the weightless art space; a feature that permeates all of Louisiana right out into its architecture and deep into its collection. In fact, telling this story is not just an obvious choice, but ought to be downright obligatory at an art exhibition which is so very much about paradigmatic notions and projections of space. Louisiana is the image par excellence of art’s white, institutional ideal. A modern post-war museum that could reinvent and purge the historical avant-garde – and the Louisiana founder Knud W. Jensen – of the interwar years’ Nazi aesthetics and dalliances with totalitarian ideologies. By placing formerly radical art and viewpoints within a new, reference-free space, ideologies were immediately whitewashed. At the same time a weightless setting for a new vein of democratic, equal and free art that speaks to everybody was established. (White is, as we know, the bourgeois revolution’s symbol of equality).
However, this story is not being told. Instead the Arctic theme is repeated over and over, heaped upon heaps, in the hope that it will somehow form a united whole. It would have been possible to take the formation of the art space as the point of departure for creating a far more precise and, if you will pardon the expression, consciousness-expanding museum exhibition instead of throwing in all sorts of examples of “the Arctic”, a practice which perfectly embodies what curating is like when it does not really work. Art would set a framework and go beyond the merely illustrative, which is hardly a role that art should serve at an art museum. Such a move would also evade a dated distinction between art and contemporary art that may have made sense in a post-modern revolt against the seemingly apolitical and timeless modern art space, but seems out of date today where the concept of “contemporary art” is used about virtually all kinds of art, regardless of its programmatic basis, as long as it is created in our times.
Perhaps the blindness is caused by a kind of inner division in the head curator himself. Tøjner has been cardinal of his generation in his defence of the pure art space, fighting with almost Greenberg-like conviction against all outside intrusions into the realm of art, whether visual, ideological, cultural, or – dare one say it – across generations. First during his time with the weekly newspaper Weekendavisen, then at Louisiana. At the same time he is a punk anti-Hegelian from the 1980s who loves landscapes, associations and cartography more than time, dialectics and chronometry. For seven years he was co-editor of the journal Kritik published by the prestigious Danish publishing house Gyldendal, and at that point the journal was infused by a subtle, downplayed critique of the dogmatic Marxism from the 70s still dominating Denmark’s academic institutions. To put it very simply, history should not be measured out dialectically in periods and isms as in the works of Marx and Hegel; rather, history and knowledge was seen as something that unfolded as parallel projections within a landscape. Cartography and topology became methods of achieving knowledge and a principle that underpinned editorial decisions, One definitely senses traces of this in Tøjner’s current catalogue essay in which he discusses the Arctic as “landscape”, i.e. as a cultural and psychological construct rather than as pure “nature” or evolution. However, the purity of art was still staunchly defended, undoubtedly due to a distaste for the 1970s political dissolution of aesthetics and the artwork in itself.
One might claim that this entire dual-sided programme is expressed in the way in which Louisiana works with two basic formats: the pure and the impure. The “impure” exhibitions are, for example, the museum’s architectural exhibitions where all qualified mixtures of genres are legitimate and possible. By contrast, “pure” exhibitions are art exhibitions in which art is allowed to stand alone and unalloyed. Such diagnoses may seem far-fetched. But it is certainly striking to note how Tøjner has presented Arctic as a – using a dated 1990s expression – “crossover” exhibition in which art, in a major departure from usual practices, has been “allowed” to mingle and merge its identity and meaning with the realms of science, ethnographica, politics, and lowbrow mass culture. And vice versa. “This is something we’d usually only do in our exhibitions of architecture,” as Tøjner said during the press conference. Given that “crossover” is, as it were, the very principle underpinning the concept of independent curating and contemporary art it can hardly be regarded as particularly shocking. Really, the only thing we should wonder at is why Tøjner and Louisiana had not created such an art exhibition long ago. Or, to be precise, within the last 10 to 15 years. For Tøjner’s two predecessors worked quite systematically at turning art in itself into a machine for education and entertainment alike.
One is left to conclude that Arctic is a tremendously splendid and tremendously divided exhibition. Perhaps because Tøjner is seeking to puzzle out an inner ideological equation that he cannot quite make out. An equation that presupposes that art and artistic quality can be measured universally against the baseline of a sublime ideal. As has been described in the above this is not the objective of contemporary art (“samtidskunst”), and here the whole thing collapses rather into an – undoubtedly mostly involuntary – presentation of “contemporary art” as a kind of concerned, parasitic, critical moralist offset by the true edifying and enlightening nature of great art. These somewhat complicated art-historical agendas ultimately become impediments to all the possibilities that “contemporary art” actually have to offer, which includes possibilities for providing new perspectives on Louisiana’s own history and collection.
Nevertheless, contemporary art is being highlighted in press and communication materials as a particular attraction of Arctic. The message seems to be that with Arctic, contemporary art has officially been deemed worthy of being presented at Louisiana. That adds an extra – and interesting – dimension to an exhibition about things melting away, for this must mean that the institution affirms that contemporary art, too, is disappearing and does not represent the new. This is probably unintentional, but an accurate observation nevertheless. Contemporary art arose as a form of punk, anti-hierarchical anti-Hegelianism – associated with the postmodern. We live in a different era now, and in the meantime contemporary art has become an historical category, thereby becoming art.