ESSAYS Mousse 68
TO SPEAK AS IF IN CAPITAL LETTERS
by James Taylor-Foster
Necessarily messy in their making, exhibitions have the capacity to crystallize and disentangle as much as provoke and contradict. When space meets objects and objects meet minds, the exhibition as a place and an event can take incremental steps toward richer understandings of contemporary life.
In 1966 Hon – en katedral (She – A Cathedral) opened at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Only a matter of weeks prior, no one involved had any clue what it would present to the public. “The idea was that there would be no preparation,” Pontus Hultén recalled in a 1997 interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist.1 Hultén, the museum’s director, who later became the founding director of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, had convinced the French American artist Niki de Saint Phalle and the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely to make the trip to Sweden and triangulated them with the Swedish artist Per Olof Ultvedt. Beyond that, the plan was to have no plan. They would improvise. This eccentric collaboration between curator and artists—often ambiguous and, by all accounts, particularly so with Hon—resulted in something extraordinary. The meeting of minds conceived the figure of a recumbent woman, roughly twenty-three meters wide and six tall. Occupying the museum’s main gallery, a former naval drill hall that today forms part of ArkDes (Sweden’s National Centre for Architecture and Design), Hon was a “building” in a building. Over the course of three summer months, visitors walked around and between its spread legs into an otherworldly, entirely habitable space. The steel skeleton and papier-mâché skin accommodated a milk bar in its left breast and a planetarium, depicting the Milky Way, in its right. There was a cinema, a slide, a gallery of imitation “fake masters” made by Ulf Linde, and, protruding from its pregnant belly, a peephole offering the disoriented visitor an apex view over the whole affair.
With a tight grip on the “publicness” of the museum, Hon offered all of the ingredients for a fun weekend excursion. As a sculpture, or a structure, or a piece of public art, it carried as much critique as it received. Hon’s creators gave symbolic and substantial life to the idea of the dynamic museum, a place inexorably entangled with the world it was a part of. It was as challenging as it was unaccountable, engineering an inclusive bodily experience for visitors while asserting the local controversies that beleaguered it. As a project it represents an unexacting attempt at unifying space, art, and performance, proving that these overlapping spheres really can make excellent bedfellows. (Although, perhaps, complex lovers.) Hon was as much a piece of infrastructure as it was a humanoid resplendent; as much an architectural intervention as a collaborative work of art. It dwelled in the museum with sincere intent—but did not take itself too seriously.
Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Per Olof Ultvedt. Sketch of Hon – en katedral (She – A cathedral), Moderna Museet, Stockolm, 1966. © Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Per Olof Ultvedt
The most serious of topics are best framed in a playful way. The lighthearted does not always equate to the frivolous and can provide a point of access to otherwise challenging ideas. In 2017, Fondazione Prada presented in their Venetian venue Ca’ Corner della Regina The Boat Is Leaking. The Captain Lied. The title, referencing Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson’s 1988 hit “Everybody Knows,” only hinted toward the darker themes that the exhibition pursued. In a framework eerily comparable to Hultén and Hon, and almost precisely five decades later, the German curator Udo Kittelmann embarked on an intensive collaboration with the stage and costume designer Anna Viebrock, the sculptor and photographer Thomas Demand, and the writer, philosopher, and filmmaker Alexander Kluge. When they had begun the project some years prior, none had a clear vision of what the exhibition would ultimately say or contain. Against a wholesale backdrop of social fragmentation and cultural disenchantment, the only thing they did know is that they wanted to interpretively unravel the more shambolic side of contemporary life. In an online interview published by Mousse shortly after it opened, Kittelmann articulated the show as a panorama in excerpts and scenes that would describe a world caught up between storm and calm, threat and hope, standstill and transition, truth and falsehood. “Don’t expect a white cube,” he declared. “It will be the very reverse.”2
The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied installation view at Fondazione Prada, Venice, 2017. Courtesy: Fondazione Prada. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti
In the intricate choreography between ideas, people, and their work that followed, the group claimed the grand and uneven rooms, corridors, and stairways of the foundation’s Venetian palazzo as an uninterrupted scenography. Among the film, art, and theater media on display, a visit to the show unfolded the dialogue that had led to their seamless, or consciously fractious, interactions. The arrangement of the works within the rooms, their proximities, and the interaction between built “sets” and the palazzo proper conveyed a very real sense of unease. Encounters with image, space, and sound oscillated between the background and the fore, demanding your attention for a moment before appearing to dissolve entirely. This yawning, seesawing performance of curatorial control and spatial spontaneity was disarming and disorienting.
La Strada Novissima, installation view with the facade by Hollein, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice, 1980. Courtesy: Paolo Portoghesi. [Paolo Portoghesi’s La Presenza del Passato (The Presence of the Past) opened in the Corderie of the Arsenale in Venice on July 27, 1980. Comprising seven sections, all preceded by a monumental yellow, blue, and white entrance portal designed by Aldo Rossi, bold, bright form above all symbolized a sense of restitution: that the vast complex of rooms it heralded had been repatriated to the city as a semipublic, cultural space. It stands to the notion that the best exhibitions make sense of their moment.]
Hon and The Boat Is Leaking. The Captain Lied both attest to the fact that exhibitions happen as much to your body as to your mind. As regimes of attention, and in different ways, they deal holistically with the interplay between space (a room), things (an object), and audience (a body). The root of this idea is not mine; I have borrowed it from Kieran Long, my colleague and the current director of ArkDes. In 2013, Long, alongside colleagues at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, published “Curating for the Contemporary: 95 Theses,” a series of straightforward statements that questioned the received wisdom of curators, and curatorship, in public institutions. The concluding statement—that “a museum is not a refuge” but “a place to encounter the world in a state of heightened attention”—is an observation that rings ever truer as my understanding of what exhibitions have been, and could be, evolves.3
Nordic Pavilion drawing from memory, Nordic Pavilion, Giardini Della Biennale, Venice, 1959. [The central installation of the Nordic Pavilion representing Finland, Norway, and Sweden at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice, was a truncated step-pyramid, or ziggurat, built from Swedish pine. Designed by Marge Arkitekter (Stockholm), it occupied Sverre Fehn’s iconic twentieth-century exhibi- tion hall as an inhabitable display. Throughout the course of the Biennale, visitors climbed its steps to meet the building’s delicate concrete lamellae face to face. The London- based architect Gabor Gallov penned this sketch from memory during the vernissage. (It found its way to me by way of Laura Iloniemi.) As a rendition of a memory much is lost and much is gained but, at the core of the illustration, is depicts a bodily experience. ]
I do argue, however, than any exhibition is performative. If we accept that it comes to a visitor as much as a visitor comes to it, this reciprocity constitutes a valuable relationship. Curatorial work should focus on cultivating conversations, and then maintaining their energy. “Storytellers,” Walt Disney is purported to have said, “restore order with imagination.” At some negligible level, the generation of an exhibition—which commonly represents the distilled, visible tip of an iceberg-size collection of flotsam and jetsam—is not dissimilar from the work of a Disney-bred Imagineer. Exhibitions instrumentalize “things” from history and the now—ideas, words, objects, individuals and groups, et cetera—to tell and trigger stories that ripple outward or resonate forward. At their best they are immersive and inclusive, having whisked such “things” out of the ether, or unearthed them from the ground, and then contextualized them into a narrative. An exhibition that is simply an interface, or an attempt to provide a window onto a different world, misses the point. An exhibition should not anaesthetize the complexities that it deals with, but act as a vehicle to understand the world.
Andrea Fraser, Little Frank and His Carp (still), 2001. © Andrea Fraser. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin / Cologne. [In 2001 the U.S. performance artist Andrea Fraser created Little Frank and His Carp (2001), a six-minute-long single-channel video that followed the artist as she walked around the atrium of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao while listening to the institution’s official audio guide. Frank Gehry’s great billowing building is the protagonist, and Fraser is instructed by the guide to touch a sinuous limestone-clad pillar. In the words of Tate Modern, which owns the work: “She lifts her dress to rub herself against it in a sexual manner, revealing her white underwear, as cutaway shots show a crowd of people watching with surprise. Fraser then composes herself and walks away.” ]
I once heard someone remark that in order to write the briefest of labels for an object in an exhibition requires research at the scale of a book. Reflexively I scribbled the following sentence: “TO SPEAK AS IF IN CAPITAL LETTERS.” While it might seem hazy or obscure at first glance, it’s a sentence I return to time and again. Capital letters were the written format of telegram transmissions, for example, in which messages sped around the world often in fewer than fifteen words. Today we might use capital letters when we fill out a form. Writers might use them emotively in a script to emphasize a voice. Sometimes they can indicate a raised voice and, when taken out of context, might appear wholly rude. But capitals equal clarity. Like the marks of an editor’s red pen across a manuscript, they are self-edited and concise, unambiguous and clear, and still embody all the gradations and complexities of language. There is not a great distance between an emphatic approach and a didactic one, of course; the latter runs the entirely unproductive risk of alienation. And yet, with that in mind, an exhibition is at its best when it quivers between emphatic and nuanced communication. (In different ways, Hon and The Boat Is Leaking. The Captain Lied trod this tightrope deftly.) At a time defined by a tender self-obsession, in which it is increasingly difficult to avoid things or facts over feelings, exhibitions do have the potential to bridge and clarify, provoke and contradict and go some way to piecing together the formidable complexity of what it means to live today.4 Any idea that they can change the world, however, is an illusion. They should be capsules, not monuments.
 Pontus Hultén interviewed by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “The Hang of It,” Artforum, April 1997, https://www.artforum.com/print/199704/the-hang-of-it-32879.
 Udo Kittelmann interviewed by Giovanna Manzotti, “‘The Boat Is Leaking. The Captain Lied’ at Fondazione Prada, Venice,” Mousse, 2017, http://moussemagazine.it/boat-leaking-captain-lied-fondazione-prada-venice-2017/.
 Kieran Long, “Sinister Objects Demand Attention Just as Much as Beneficial Ones,” Dezeen, September 12, 2013, https://www.dezeen.com/2013/09/12/opinion-kieran-long-on-contemporary-museum-curation/.
 “What it means to live today” is the strapline of the quarterly contemporary culture magazine Real Review, published by the REAL foundation in a creative partnership with OK-RM.
James Taylor-Foster is a writer, editor, and curator working in the fields of architecture, design, e-culture, and technology. He is the curator of contemporary architecture and design at ArkDes, Sweden’s National Centre for Architecture and Design, in Stockholm.
Originally published in Mousse 68