BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 05 APR 03
Featured in
Issue 74

Fundamentalisms of the New Order

Charlottenborg Exhibition Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark

BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 05 APR 03

One positive development in the art discourse of the 1990s has certainly been a shift in the definition of critical art practice. If you compare the work that thematic shows or progressive biennials such as Manifesta have presented in recent years, it seems fair to say that criticality in art is today defined in terms not so much of convictions and manifestos as of concerns and issues. Instead of foregrounding the radical attitude of the artist, it has proved to be more productive to focus on the choice of a socially relevant subject. These principles were echoed by the agenda of 'Fundamentalisms of the New Order', which was curated by Charlotte Brandt, Lars Bang Larsen and Christina Ricupero under the auspices of NIFCA (Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art). The exhibition offered a topical approach to global politics by bringing together works that portrayed local conflicts through straightforward documentation or artistic metaphor.

A number of works took the cue given by the show's title and interpreted it in terms of religious fundamentalism. Leigh Valentine (1997), a documentary video by Willem de Rooij and Jane Ostermann-Petersen, is about a Christian preacher, a white, blonde hairspray wonder, working herself into a religious frenzy in front of an all black audience. For Adhan Corner (2002) Andrea Lange had the Muslim prayer call Adhan transmitted in a public square at the appropriate hours. She thus counteracted the current demonizing of Islam by relocating the Adhan and highlighting its mundane function as a simple time-check similar to the function of church bells.

In a broader sense the exhibition could be seen to address its subject by embracing a decidedly non-fundamentalist aesthetics. In their arrangement of the exhibition the curatorial team avoided all gestures of authority by displaying the works in loose order and a relaxed atmosphere. As a visitor you felt welcome to roam around the show and maybe pick a video to watch while squatting on one of the tree trunks cut in handy slices that the collective N55 had supplied as modular seating facilities - the trunks were taken from a site belonging to N55's project LAND (2002 - ongoing), to which anyone can contribute by declaring a parcel of land to be a part of the collectively owned territory of the project. Considerable space was given to a stage and auditorium built by Andreas Heuch, in which a series of talks on socio-political themes took place, hosted by Judith Schwarzbart. If the basic message of the show could be understood as a plea for liberal open-mindedness in the face of the right-wing backlash in Denmark, this was probably best summed up by Hilde Rognskog's (unrealized) project Drop (2002). The artist proposed to have leaftlets with the caption 'Ambivalens er en Dyd!' (Ambivalence is a virtue) dropped by plane over Copenhagen.

A critical investigation of Denmark's colonial past was presented in the installation Narsarssuaq/Nuuk (2002), by Mike Bode and Staffan Schmidt. The work is based on research undertaken by the two artists about a major social housing project the Danish government realized in 1972 to create modern homes for the native population of Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, a country that is still officially part of Denmark (though now partially self-governed). The materials on display included historic texts and slides from the housing project as it looks today. Bode and Schmidt left it an open question whether the project should be considered a model for democratic architecture or for colonialist ghettos. This ambivalence is surely a virtue, as the work brought out the controversial quality of its subject precisely by confronting the viewer with the need to judge for him/herself.

As the exhibition succeeded in creating such a democratic forum, however, it also made you aware of the limits of its own discourse. Often the liberal spirit of open discussion can seem strangely toothless when set against criticism barking back with teeth bared. In this sense the animation video Promise Land (2002), by Gili Dolev, stood out from other works in terms of the grim and joyously obscene sarcasm with which it treated its subject: the conflict in the Middle East. It made you think that, now that the art discourse has established a balanced awareness of the new world order and its discontents, it might be about time to get the aggressive edge back into criticism.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.