If anything, the group show Down Here at Bergen Kunsthall was very convincing. Accessible, adequate, solid and valid. There was no doubt about it. As a viewer, you got a strong sense that the show was carefully planned, structured and mounted. And yes, come to think of it, when was the last time you had a quality experience like that at a contemporary art event?
What’s more, this rather quiet, solemn and attractive exhibition was not a collection of paintings hung on the wall. No, it was a group show by five artists, with three of them showing video installations. This time, the organizers had certainly thought through, step by step, how to arrange the space and time necessary for each work and for each artist as an individual. An act that has unfortunately been incredibly rare in recent years, especially in shows focusing on new media and video installations.
But what is the point of screaming hurrah hurrah about the way a particular show is constructed? Well, I could point out that, if you seriously need to ask that, what you are waiting for – i.e. your retirement – is already long overdue. But, at the same time, it is worth articulating why it is so important to pay attention to the ways in which shows are put together.
Points one and two are, in fact, different sides of the same phenomenon. This phenomenon is an attitude called respect. A show such as the one in Bergen – carried out with the necessary attention to detail and nuances – addresses both the viewer and the work with due respect. The viewer is given a chance to take the time, to see, to feel, and to ‘think with’. Simultaneously, the works are given the benefit of being treated as individuals. In Bergen, we were not confronted with 1399 works of art shouting at us, not only from too close to one another, but on top of each other. Nor were we bombarded with an annoying flood of works, which, if we really gave them the time they deserve, would demand about a week and half. No, in Bergen we got a reminder of what an exhibition as a focused, solid, styled entity means. We got a taste of how less is indeed more.
Fine, but what about the works on display? What about the chosen artists: Kutlug Ataman, Anri Sala, Salla Tykkä, Miranda July, and David Shrigley? And finally, what about the title, Down Here, which suggests a visit to a variety of personal spheres and universes?
To be perfectly honest, I am not so sure that the show absolutely fundamentally and necessarily had to have precisely these five artists and their chosen works. I am equally unsure about the title of the event, since it is extremely difficult to find any kind of artist or work of art that could not be fitted into the scheme of representing a personal view of the world. However, here we get to the core of the actual experience of the exhibition – and how we have been missing set-ups like this.
In other words, even if the artists as a group and the title as a framing device were not the most convincing thing achieved this side of the Ural Mountains, in the very end it did not matter. The structure and implementation of the show had such power that this overrode all such criticisms and problems. The show had the character, it had the credibility. In short, it had the power to push and to pull; it had the means to give and to take. It had the ways to entertain. And yes, there is a name for this. It is called the pleasure principle. A principle that leads us into the process of enjoying the act of colliding and caressing in relationships.
But hold on. What about the works? Yes, what about the works? This question begs to be posed in a different fashion. Instead of asking whether one or other work is more or less magnificent, it is a question of what attracts and holds your attention. It is about what makes you stop, think, and see. About doing all of this in a slightly different way than usual. It is about works that lure you into swimming, sinking, running and dancing with them.
Personally, I could very easily see the benefits of the work by Kutlug Ataman, but I simply was not touched by it. I can admire the conviction of the obsessed woman with her flowers, but it does not move me. Similarly, what went on between July and Tykkä is really not a lot to talk about or to mention. Again, I think I got the point, but nothing more, or nothing else. Things, however, took another turn in the first room of the show. This was yet another clever move by the organizers, a move through which you were confronted with the framed short stories by David Shrigley.
It was not only that almost all of them could stand on their own, but that they also came together as a whole. It was a kind of mundane wall of voodoo. A wall at which you were not supposed to cry, or to think deep thoughts about how to save the forests and the whales, but something quite specific. It was a wall to laugh with. And yes, while not making too strong a point of it, I am ready to claim that, unless you let out a giant giggle or 22 in front of these accurate everyday observations of the beautiful and the bizarre, I think you should immediately seek medical help.
It is obvious that Shrigley plays a very dangerous game. His anecdotal explorations of our everyday mysteries can be extraordinarily clever and poignant, but they can also come dangerously close to being flat, desperate one-liners that do nothing other than cause embarrassment. But, even if Shrigley is close to the lame underworld of student humour, I think his heart is in the right place, or in the right corner. I don’t know about you, but I certainly think that a drawing of what are, naively put, lines running up and down a single A4 page, combined with the sentence: “How tall does grass have to be in order to be considered as ‘long grass’?” is something I would label a winner. But in what competition, that has to be left open at this stage.
Moving on to the second highlight of the works on offer, on the right and in the Kunsthall’s main gallery, we entered into the deep, dark world shaped by Anri Sala. What we saw was a story. Not a straightforward narrative, but a collection of themes touched upon while the camera focused on the strange and peculiar world of a given Frenchman.
This guy had many faces. He had a deep fondness for aquariums, having built into his flat a huge set of fish tanks with hundreds of fish swimming back and forth. He was also an ex-soldier, someone who had killed other human beings. He was very physical, interested in sports, and in a leisure activity called Playstation. And yes, he was also a very very lonely man.
Sala paints a portrait of this multi-faceted persona with dark colours and a lot of shadows. There is a minimum of lighting in the setting, and also some rather laconic visual images. All of which serve to make us concentrate on the man’s voice. We focus, almost automatically, on the story. A story about what it means to be trained to kill, and what it means when that very unique part of your world is over and it is time to go back to “hypernormal” daily life. A world that is no longer recognizable and which does not make sense. A sensation that is called alienation.
It is a sad story. A story of a man who does not have that many ways of breaking the negative spell and of doing something other than what he does: feeding the fish, going out training, and play play playing along with that Playstation. Bang bang, you are dead.
But I assume that this is the precise point of Sala’s story. A portrait of the life of a man that seems so empty and lonely, but which, then again, is that man’s choice. Perhaps it is not the best one he could achieve, but it certainly seems to be the best he has mastered and managed up to this point – there and then. A story filled with darkness. A kind of darkness, as the saying goes, that is much gloomier that just another night.