Rooseum, Malmö, Sweden
Size does matter. Big counts. Truism or myth, this goes for the contemporary art world too. The first thing to greet you at the Rooseum is a huge creature that looks like a brontosaurus. Ready to attack, but with limbs made of easily recognisable objects, Jeffrey Wisniewski’s baroque Suburbanassaultvehicle (1995) consists of big boys’ toys: surf boards, a kayak, a mountain bike, a lightweight tent and even a machine gun. Bordering on the ridiculous but still threatening, it is a conglomerate at home in the 90s of hybrids.
‘Nutopi’, with works by Clay Ketter, Dan Peterman, Yutaka Sone, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Jeffrey Wisniewski and Andrea Zittel, is curator Lars Nittve’s farewell to the Rooseum and Sweden before he becomes director of the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. After a series of ground-breaking theme shows (including ‘Trans/Mission’ and ‘Passageworks’ at the Rooseum in 1991 and 1993 respectively, and a series of retrospectives with Allan McCollum, Sherrie Levine and Charles Ray), Nittve is now, for the first time, approaching art made by the generations born in the 60s. This is a rather late awakening and one which is inevitably coloured by an 80s perception of art.
This does not mean that utopia and dystopia have been evacuated from the show, however: Yutaka Sone’s social and existential experiments are filled with touching idealistic hopes about communication and collaboration. Her 19th Foot (1993) is a vehicle, less scary and more edifying than Wisniewski’s, made of bicycle parts and meant to be used by 19 people of different nationalities. As the video shows, this is practically impossible but, like all negotiations, it is a process of trial and error which, at least, is an attempt to do something. The chain of bicycles is a challenging tool for communication; a disarming instrument for sensitisation. This also goes for Sone’s Eyeglasses for Seeing Invisible Sections (1993), a device made of astroturf that covers the parts of the artist’s head which are invisible to him without a mirror.
The idea of improvement is also present in the art of Andrea Zittel, both in Breeding Unit for Reassigning Flight (1993), where she tried to breed chickens that can fly, and the sculptural environments of her A-Z Administrative Services. The latter are modified in accordance with their users’ evaluations in order to become even more functional. But whereas Zittel’s earlier units for compact living retained strong albeit ambivalent ties to the Modern project of progress and social engineering, her pit bed and platform beds at Rooseum are more like objects in a giant, stylish still life.
The kitchen fittings of Clay Ketter, an American working in Sweden, are also exquisite aesthetic objects, but intended to be completely devoid of function: a kitchen equivalent of a fake fireplace with plastic flames in the living room. The two works titled Grey Wall Painting with Corner Bead (1995) conform to the Swedish Building Code, and are both pieces of professional craftsmanship, while at the same time resembling transcendental paintings with utopian pretensions. Ketter’s work is actually one of the more interesting examples of contemporary painting.
Rirkrit Tiravanija stages situations, whose consequences are unpredictable, in which people can gather and do things together. His art is often nurturing and permeating; it gives energy and pleasure. Tiravanija usually cooks meals but, at the Rooseum, he has moved from food to another basic need housing. Two half-size models of the functionalist architect Sigurd Lewrentz’s Single Family Homes have been decorated by children from a nearby day-care centre another product of the social engineering vital to most Swedish parents and this reduction of scale makes the houses appear more human.
Ultimately, ‘Nutopi’ wants to be literal, to be here and now. But where are we at the moment, actually? Judging from the show, we prosper at in-between states where deeds mix with nomadic attitudes. Irony is distant, as is romanticism, and real experience is privileged but goes hand-in-hand with an awareness of power structures. There are standpoints and doubts, much engagement and less universality. There is much pragmatism in ‘Nutopi’ and many things to be tested, but we are left with temporary and ambulatory solutions.
Contrary to what the catalogue claims, ‘Nutopi’ deals a lot more with ‘both/and’ than ‘neither/nor’. It includes both utopian and dystopian elements the ‘art world’ and the ‘real world’ rule but their manifestations are large-scale and general in address. Where are the elements of contemporary art which are small-scale and overtly auto-biographical: the mappings and investigations by simple means which thrive in these ‘in-between’ states? Where are the narratives? What has happened to the ‘starting from scratch’ projects, the ones that attempt to get a grip on growing up and living at the end of the 20th century?
Even though most of the individual projects included in ‘Nutopi’ are interesting, as a constellation they leave one numb. As a show it does not add anything new, neither in the ‘art world’ nor in the ‘real world’. It is as if the grand dimensions of the traditional utopian projects were only a glint in the eyes of the curator. Despite the Rooseum’s impressive space, I could not help longing for something small and everyday.