On Connecting Past and Present: ‘Aarhus Rapport’ at Kunsthal Aarhus

Line Ellegaard

Tags: Journal, Reviews

Reviews / 04.12.2014
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Everyone can participate; all forms of communication are accepted; all submitted material will be exhibited

Who cares about the 1960s art scene in Århus, Denmark’s second-largest city? Not many, apparently. Århus Rapport 1961–1969,1 a small anthology that documents an astonishing amount of experimental artistic activities, collated and published by the artists themselves in 1969, is yet to be fully historicised.2 ‘Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde as Network (or, the Politics of the Ultralocal)’, the current exhibition at Kunsthal Aarhus, however, begins to address this omission, taking the book as a point of departure.3 A move that is long overdue, perhaps, considering that what is now called Kunsthal Aarhus was founded on the initiative of Århus Kunstforening af 1847, the art association that published the book. Even more so when you consider the trajectory of self organisation and documentation that the ‘report’ bears witness to: the numerous happenings, actions, environments, poetry readings, new music, exhibitions, interventions and sculptures in public space that took place across the city of Århus during the 1960s. Edited by Kristen Bjørnkjær together with artists Mogens Gissel and William Louis Sørensen, Århus Rapport highlights these ventures and the artists who were bringing new art forms to what was then the largest town in provincial Denmark. The invitation, reproduced in the book, to take part in ‘Actions, exhibition, performance, agitation etc.’, an exhibition organised by Young Art at Århus Kunstbygning in 1969, for example, reads: ‘Everyone can participate; all forms of communication are accepted; all submitted material will be exhibited’.4 Such events, propelled by the arrival of a few artists with connections to elsewhere, saw visits from national as well as international artists – such as Fluxus artist Takehisa Kosugi in 1967 and George Brecht in 1968. In other words, the Århusgarde, as they called themselves, a group of Danish and predominantly male artists (only one woman, artist Kirsten Justesen, is represented in the book), brought about an avant-garde moment in late 1960s Århus. This, the exhibition argues, was because they were plugged into artistic networks.

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Installation view, ‘Archive Section’ curated by Anne Kølbæk Iversen as part of ‘SYSTEMICS #4: Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde As Network (Or, The Politics of the Ultralocal)’, Aarhus Kunsthal, 2014. All photographs: Kunsthal Aarhus/Jens Møller. All images courtesy the artists and the Danish Arts Foundation

‘Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde as Network’ also draws on the artists’ collaborative and self-organised manner of working as a methodology for exhibition-making. The show is the result of a research project initiated by the Kunsthal’s artistic director, Joasia Krysa, and Lars Bang Larsen, who invited curators, artists, academics and an independent publisher to form a curatorial collective to investigate and reinterpret the original material found in Århus Rapport. These in turn invited other participants and collaborators to be involved in the project. Thus almost every room in the 1,000-square-metre exhibition space of the Kunsthal has a curator responsible for it, and each curator has their own list of artists and collaborators, giving the sense that the Kunsthal has allowed the project to grow and unfold on its own; to become self-organised.5 This lapse in institutional control makes for an uneven exhibition narrative, but one that, perhaps despite itself, reveals continuities and discontinuities between past and present concerns.

The impulse to materialise the past through archival displays and the re-creation of historical works, often those of an ephemeral nature, is well-trodden ground.6 These curatorial practices often seek to connect with past avant-garde practices of an artistic, social and political nature – with a particular nostalgia for the 1960s and 70s spirit of experimentation, collectivism, self-organisation and activism – in order, perhaps, to re-imagine possibilities for the present. With an ‘Archive Section’ curated by Anne Kølbæk Iversen, a ‘Re-enactment Programme’ curated by Bang Larsen and an ‘anti-re-enactment piece’ by a team of artists, computer programmers and curators calling themselves Show-Bix & and responding to the work of Show-Bix (1969–71), ‘Aarhus Rapport’ is no exception to this tendency, which risks fetishising the obsolete.7 Yet additional projects by Dave Hullfish Bailey, Glenn Christian, Jakob Jakobsen, Museum of Ordure, Lea Porsager and the publisher Antipyrine/Mathias Kokholm broaden the perspective of the exhibition by drawing direct comparison with contemporary artistic practices. The show ultimately strikes a balance between a homage to the experimental art scene in 1960s Århus and the artworks that shoot off from this in various ways.8

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Installation view, ‘Inquiries in earth and art’, curated by Antipyrine/Sønderholm, shows board with archival material, photographs, text and what was behind. Part of‘SYSTEMICS #4: Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde As Network (Or, The Politics of the Ultralocal)’, Aarhus Kunsthal, 2014

Kølbæk Iversen’s ‘Archive Section’, a riveting cluster in terms of display, seems to flip the subjective organising principle of Århus Rapport and the chronological ordering of events, to ‘include all excavated materials’ and to create a new web of connections. Alongside documentation of exhibitions, performances and events, catalogues, posters and sound recordings, her display includes original artworks that were documented in the book, such as sculptures, paintings and artists’ films. It offers a foundation for the re-scoring of the book elsewhere in the show, and is refreshing in that visitors are allowed to flip though some of the archival images and artists’ personal scrapbooks laid on tables. In the next room, as part of the ‘Re-enactment Programme’, a minimal display of other artworks originally documented in Århus Rapport are reactivated through a series of questions posed by Bang Larsen, such as ‘How does a contemporary audience perceive a re-enacted piece?’ and ‘When is it meaningful to re-create art works?’; the programme, apart from dealing with a specific historic moment, also seeks to ask how we can experience these works and engage with this material today. Kirsten Justesen’s FOLD SCULPTURE 1968, 1968/2014, a fold-up paper sculpture with a photograph of a cardboard box with the artist inside on it, for example, is taken, quite literally, from the pages of Århus Rapport and blown up to a near life-size cut-out displayed on the wall. And William Louis Sørensen’s Rød prik: By-environment (Red dot: City Environment, 1968/2014), a red dot on small pieces of paper, originally produced as an insert in Århus Rapport, and a recurring motif in the artist’s work from the 1960s, is presented on a low pedestal on the floor. (It has also been adapted as the graphic identity of the exhibition.) At its best the synergy between the ‘Archive Section’ and the ‘Re-enactment Programme’ makes for an intricate comparison between original, documented and re-created and allows one to imagine two different times simultaneously.

this imported concept attempts to overturn the charge of unsophisticated provincialism but does little more than underscore the exhibition’s argument that Århus was at the forefront of the Danish avant-garde scene of the 1960s.

Although suggesting a similar coming together – here of the particular and the general – the wall text centrally placed in the foyer: ‘“Aller a l’universel par l’ultralocal/ Only from the ultralocal can one arrive at the universal” Michel de Montaigne according to Salvador Dali’, seems like an afterthought. Unlikely to be a reference point for the artists active around Århus in the 1960s, this imported concept attempts to overturn the charge of unsophisticated provincialism but does little more than underscore the exhibition’s argument that Århus was at the forefront of the Danish avant-garde scene of the 1960s. As Bang Larsen explains in the introduction to the accompanying seminar ‘Avantgarde as Network’: ‘The term ultralocal, as opposed to provincialism, presents a neutrality of value, and displaces the notions of avant-garde centres and peripheries. In fact, one could say, there are ultralocals in both centres and peripheries.’9 This skewing of centre / periphery dichotomies is also an attempt to reconfigure both the decentred writing of art history undertaken by the editors of Århus Rapport and an endeavour on the part of the Kunsthal itself, following the lead of the connectedness of the local 1960s artists, to re-plug into the circuits of the current (art) network.10 The second part of the exhibition title ‘(Or, The Politics of the Ultralocal)’ seems to find a deeper resonance in the contemporary artists’ responses to Århus Rapport. For most of these are spun from engagements with ‘ultralocal’ sites that are not Århus but various rural areas in Denmark, China and the US, exploring forms of self-organised communities and alternative social models. Antipyrine, for instance, set up camp at Sønderholm farm, north of Århus, in order to explore a variety of themes around rurality, urbanism to utopia, which resulted in the exhibition and seminar ‘Inquiries in earth and art’, made in collaboration with the community living on the farm. This exhibition, curated by Antipyrine/Sønderholm, was installed in the basement of the Kunsthal and includes remnants of the project – a pin board shows scraps of papers, photographs and newspaper clippings that tell the story of the farm, juxtaposed with texts on ‘Ruralitet–Urbanitet’, the anthropocene11 and a short story by Lydia Davis, alongside works by artists. Chinese artist Ou Ning’s notebook and documentary film Bishan Commune: How to Start Your Own Utopia (2010) tell the story of his utopian project started in a Chinese village in 2011, where he now also lives. This critical response to the super-urbanisation and industrialisation of agriculture in China, and its resulting depopulation of rural areas, is shown next to other reconnections with the soil, such as a series of photographs titled Jordarbejder (Efter Smithson) (Earthworker (After Smithson), 2014) by Lasse Krog Møller, which documents miniature spiral jetties made in pools of mud and plays on the notion of working with the earth as an aesthetic rather than agricultural practice. The neighbouring work, Working Model (2014) by Hullfish Bailey, also makes reference to a community of artists who have relocated from the urban to the rural landscape. Taking up the majority of the basement space with a three-armed MDF-structure that resembles a geographical model, and several other three-dimensional models with photographs, text and accordion-folded maps placed on tables and pallets, this work is Hullfish Bailey’s extensive reimagining and idiosyncratic mapping of Drop City, a late 1960s experiment in rural Colorado by young American artists who sought to create a total live-in artwork. This mapping-out of a distant locale might only tangentially tie into the avant-garde influences of 1960s Århus, but his methodology of subjective enquiry and selection mirrors that of Århus Rapport.

The presentation of these new works under the banner of the ‘Avantgarde as Network’ raise questions of how applicable the concept of the avant-garde is to today’s practices.12 If avant-gardism implies a rebellion against established forms in order to secure a new social order of progress, or to attack the establishment of art, this propels a linear trajectory. Whereas this kind of contemporary artistic practice – instead of severing bonds with the past – actively tries to establish them so as to reinvigorate their promise of the new and resistance to a capitalist (art) world.

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Lea Porsager, Soil Solarization (a.k.a. the Sønderholm Experiment), 2014, installation including video projection, ferns from the jutlandish forest, wool from the jutlandish ruminant mammal with a thick coat, wooden poles, coiled aluminum fern, mutated aluminum fern and aluminum quantum ant-egg megaspores

The work of Lea Porsager, whose practice involves extensive research into and experiments with esoteric and occult systems of ideas, posed similar questions. Porsager’s Soil Solarization (a.k.a the Sønderholm Experiment), 2014, taps into the spirit of the historic avant-garde with specific reference to Georges Bataille’s Surrealist text ‘L’anus solaire’ (‘The Solar Anus’, 1931), documenting a day-long ‘“constellation work” with ants, ferns, wool, wooden poles and people’ that took place as part of the Antipyrine project in Sønderholm.13 Colourful bits of text punctuate the projected footage to which a solarisation filter reversing the colour tones is added, with statements such as: ‘Ultra glad nostalgic avantgarde’, ‘environmentally friendly method’, ‘ultra local touch’, ‘L’anus solaire’, ‘down to earth’ and ‘staying with the trouble’. The title of the work refers to an environmentally friendly method where transparent polyethylene is used to trap solar energy to promote growth and control soil-borne pests; the same transparent material covers the floor of the gallery space, and beneath it one can see extant elements, such as a long roll of wool, that are used as part of the rituals in the projected film. Despite these ironic-seeming textual shenanigans the work and the consciousness expanding experiment – conducted on the Sønderholm community – are sincere. Both embracing and disavowing in its approach, it tries to retrieve something from the past, or, in its phrase borrowed from Donna Haraway: ‘to stay with the trouble’ and effect change here and now rather than reminisce.14

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Dave Hullfish Bailey, Working Model, 2014, multimedia installation including found objects and photographs

A vibrant piece of Danish art history unfolds from within the pages of Århus Rapport, revealing trajectories both linked to the city of Århus in particular and the city in general as a site with potential for experiments.15 By contrast, the string of newly commissioned works pulls the exhibition narrative to an almost antithetical position that presents the retreat of artists and communities to rural settings in order to experiment with art and alternative social models. In this juxtaposition it seems poignant that the contemporary works, rather than experimenting with new forms of art as was the case for those artists active in 1960s Århus, attempt to tackle urgent (non-art) questions regarding how ‘we organise ourselves in the world’ and touch on topics such as environmentalism and urbanism. Whilst the Århusgarde were experimental, they were not (yet) politicised in their actions.

Connecting with the past in order to re-approach the future might seem an attractive alternative to the current landscape, deplete of any new social visions beyond global capitalism.

‘Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde as Network’ is at once a historical exhibition, a research exhibition, a collaborative exhibition and an exhibition of contemporary art, and it is also an exhibition within an exhibition from within a series of exhibitions.16 If principles of inclusivity and collaboration shine through, however, it is in the strategies employed rather than in the content of the works. This approach, with its broad definition of network (as both pre and post-digital), avant-garde (historical and current) and ultralocal (peripheral and central), results in an exhibition that is more of a container, gathering all that results, than a curated argument. ‘The Avantgarde as Network’ suggests a curious reconfiguration of the temporal logic of the avant-garde, with its negation of past forms and contract with the future, through a coming together of different temporalities. Indeed one might not think of time as chronological, as the linear form of Århus Rapport does, but the space, the exhibition, as a coming together of different times, different forms of presences and different manifestations of temporality. Connecting with the past in order to re-approach the future might seem an attractive alternative to the current landscape, deplete of any new social visions beyond global capitalism. Such a methodology risks nostalgia yet might spur the reimagining of time to come. Something is certainly sprouting from the ‘avant-gardish notions’ underneath the transparent polyethylene plastic in Porsager’s installation, only it is too soon to say exactly what. Meanwhile, to the rhythm of ‘Ahhh’ and ‘O Luminous Annulus’ the ants go marching on.

Footnotes
  1. Kristen Bjørnkjær, Mogens Gissel and William Louis Sørensen (ed.), Århus Rapport 1961–1969, Århus: Århus Kunstforening af 1847, 1969. A facsimile of Århus Rapport 1961–1969 was published by Forlaget* in 2013 as part of the research for and as a supplement to the exhibition ‘Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde as Network’.

  2. ‘The book still awaits its review’ writes W. L. Sørensen in ‘Once Upon a Second in the Far East, Sorry West’, in Ivar Anders, Birgit Hessellund, Helen Lykke-Møller (ed.), 1847/1997: Historien I Glimt, Århus: Århus Kunstforening af 1847, 1997, p.64. (Translation the author's.) And according to a paper by Danish art historian, Tania Ørum (presented as part of the seminar ‘Avantgarde as Network’, at Aarhus Kunsthal, 27 September 2014), no Danish art historian has looked at it until now.

  3. ‘SYSTEMICS #4: Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde As Network (Or, The Politics of the Ultralocal)’, Aarhus Kunsthal, 27 September – 31 December 2014. See http://kunsthal.dk/en/programme#overlay=en/programmes/systemics-4-aarhus-rapport-avantgarde-as-network-or-the-politics-of-the-ultralocal

  4. Invitation reproduced in Århus Rapport, Faksimile-udgave, Viborg: Forlaget*, 2013. (Translation the author’s.)

  5. Joasia Krysa acknowledged this, and in her opening speech called it an ‘unruly exhibition’, noting that it basically ‘curated itself and that names were added to the list of participants until the last minute’. J. Krysa, opening speech for the exhibition ‘Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde as Network (or, the Politics of the Ultralocal)’, 26 September 2014. The programme for the exhibition also includes a day-long seminar on the ‘Avantgarde as Network’, two book launches, film screenings and a satellite exhibition.

  6. A key example here would be ‘Materialising “Six Years”: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art’ at the Brooklyn Museum in 2011, which used the catalogue of works in Lucy R. Lippard’s book Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 to structure the exhibition.

  7. Often overlooked in Danish media art history Show-Bix was an artists group active around 1969-71 consisting of Gunner Møller Pedersen (composer and sound artist), Paul Ib Henriksen (photographer and artist) and Per Højholdt (poet). A team consisting of Sebastian Frese Bülow (teacher, artist and hardware programmer), Mogens Jacobsen (artist), Matin Luckmann (who works with interactive design and art) and Morten Søndergaard (independent curator/creator) named themselves Show-Bix & and riffed off five of Show-Bix’s ‘anti-happenings’ to create an interactive audio-visual installation. Documentation from the original ‘anti-happenings’ – sound recordings and slides used in the events – were installed into slide projectors on pedestals and a speaker system and wired up to a ‘hacked’ rotary phone placed at the centre of the room. Visitors were then invited to dial a number from the phone which activated the slides and the sound, reconfiguring the original work. In literally having to ‘call up the past’ the piece complicates the relationship between then and now, original and re-creation, but it also blocks any real understanding of what the original pieces were. In this sense the work chokes on another question posed by Bang Larsen ‘How does re-enactment affect the reading of historical work?’.

  8. Jakob Jakobsens’ project The New Experimental College Tabloid, 2013–14, a publication which collects testimonials from people involved with the New Experimental College (NEC), an experimental educational institution based in the north of Jutland in the 1960s, had not been launched at the time of visiting.

  9. J. Krysa and L. Bang Larsen, ‘Introduction to Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde as Network (Or, the Politics of the Ultralocal)’, as part of ‘Seminar: Avantgarde as Network’, Aarhus Kunsthal, 27 September 2014.

  10. In recent years a number of Danish art institutions have changed their names to ‘Kunsthal’ as part of a process of updating their spaces, and perhaps also in a bid for international recognition. Århus Kunstbygning changed its name in 2013 and this is, perhaps contradictorily, conflated with the desire to reconnect with its history on its website: ‘As part of the process of reconnecting its history and future vision, Århus Kunstbygning has been transformed into Kunsthal Aarhus.’ See Kunsthal Aarhus website: http://kunsthalaarhus.dk/en/about#overlay=en/history

  11. A geological term for the epoch in which human interventions have significantly altered the nature of life on earth.

  12. This question was also raised by Jacob Lund (Associate Professor of Aesthetics and Culture at Aarhus University) in his paper ‘Avantgarde and Contemporaneity’ as part of the seminar ‘Avantgarde as Network’, Aarhus Kunsthal, 27 September 2014.

  13. Systemics #4: ‘Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde As Network (Or, The Politics of the Ultralocal)’ (exh. guide), Århus: Aarhus Kunsthal, 2014, p.66.

  14. See Donna Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble’, 9 May 2014, as part of the Anthropocene Conference: ‘Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet’, 8–10 May 2014, University of California, Santa Cruz, US, available at http://vimeo.com/97663518

  15. It should be noted that the ‘Re-enactment Programme’ consists of three exhibitions presented consecutively in the same space over the course of the ‘Aarhus Rapport – Avantgarde as network’ exhibition, with new commissions and new versions of selected works from Århus Rapport 1961–1969. Only the first exhibition is covered in this review.

  16. The exhibition was the concluding installment of ‘Systemics’, a four part series of exhibitions (presented from 2013–14) focusing on ‘how all things are connected’. The programme borrows the idea of ‘systemics’ from Austrian cybernetician Heinz von Foerster’s who used it to describe all things as being connected as part of a wider complex system.