BY Lars Bang Larsen in Reviews | 01 JAN 01
Featured in
Issue 56

Circus, Circus

BY Lars Bang Larsen in Reviews | 01 JAN 01

In Douglas Coupland's novel Girlfriend in a Coma (1997) a paramedic wheels a zombie with green, peeling skin, and a blonde dressed up as cinnamon candy, into casualty. 'China White. OD'd at a Halloween party' the paramedic informs the nurse. This scene takes place when the apocalypse is imminent. The narrative voice has just shifted from Richard (dressed as an astronaut) to that of Jared, a dead friend of the main characters, who is now a ghost. At the moment when Richard's girlfriend wakes from her coma of 17 years, not even the most precocious reader could have anticipated the book finishing on a note of L. Ron Hubbard-esque transfiguration.

Douglas Coupland's tableau of Generation X'ers with dissipated identities was echoed in the atmosphere of 'Circus Circus', a group show curated by Carl Frederik Hårleman, and artist Stig Sjölund. However, by taking the family circus of art to the extremes of chaos and sensationalism, 'Circus Circus' had the potential to delve deeper than Coupland's critique of a consumer-paralysed 30-something civilisation. In their catalogue texts, the curators claim that the idea of the circus has art historical precedents (such as Alexander Calder's miniature circus over which he was the lifelong impresario), and that it is present in the cultural studies of post-post-Modern (un)reality - for example, the casino 'Circus' in Las Vegas.

'Circus Circus' emphasised relations between the body, movement and technology. The opening night included performances, the video documentation of which was subsequently shown on monitors throughout the gallery. Artists included Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom's hypnotic staging of Hårleman & Sjölund's classy magic tricks; Marnie Weber's formidable beast taming; Annika Eriksson, who organised a local teen Black Metal outfit to perform serene forest noises; and Paulina Wallenberg Olsson, who sang Swedish folk songs in national costume.

Obviously, visitors who came to the show after its opening night missed out on some pretty important action, although the video and sculptural works saw to it that the gravy didn't separate between one evening of live acts and the month-long exhibition. In fact, the bonkers, melancholy trip that was 'Circus Circus' was accentuated by the missing performances that could only be seen on the noisy documentation video. Highlights were Marnie Weber's Hieronymous Bosch-like, cartoon imitations of animals displaying traits of human frailty, Poor Them (2000) - 'with broken down bodies in pain they know the show must go on'. Her performances also included Tiger Woman with her head in a cage and Poodle Girl in an ambulator.

As you might have already guessed, humanity as a structuring principle was thoroughly displaced in 'Circus Circus'. Bigert & Bergström's First Number (2000), a short video-loop of a rabbit humping a teddy bear as only a rabbit can, is a Mike Kelley-esque fever dream, a meta-commentary about much of the art of the 1990s. Henrik Håkansson's The Lure 1 (2000) is a portrait of misplaced desire: flies stuck to an adhesive sugar cube are displayed with entomological hyperbole - proof that desire is at once ancient, and a perpetual dream-like energy source.

Anders Lindgren's sturdy mechanic dolls, Lotta, Eva, Kajsa, Sara, Erik, Thomas, Magnus, Nicklas (2000), buzzed around the gallery until they bumped into objects in their path. Michael Joaquin Grey showed his type of Space Lego called Zoob, a creative and scientific medium to supplement activities from art to zoology. Samples were provided to enable visitors to create their own circus acts and quasi-mechanical toys. Despite all the funny Zoob creations on display, the workshop was tinged with a therapeutic unheimlich you might otherwise find in less leisurely institutions than art galleries. So, after being confronted with wicked rodents and artificial catastrophes - such as Via Lewandowsky's sculpture Beyond Equilibristic Practice (2000), a section of a spectators' enclosure tilted at a 90 degree angle and precariously fitted between the floor and ceiling - 'Circus Circus' wanted you to play! When you're offered such a plastic coloured break from traumatic reality, you're more likely to break down and cry.

Gooey epiphany is never far away in a Douglas Coupland novel, be it worldly or quasi-religious. Epiphany of any kind was a long way away from 'Circus Circus', a salutary concept only heard as a peristaltic lapse somewhere on the horizon of civilisation. Debasement dressed up like this sometimes feels really cathartic.

Lars Bang Larsen is a writer, curator and director of artistic research at Art Hub Copenhagen, Denmark.