It's become something of a tradition: every year or so, the Musée d'Art Moderne invites us ona guided tour of one country's art production. After the angst of German Expressionism and the off-handedness of the yBas, the curators have returned from the Great North. It's all there: set against the background of an exhibition of turn-of-the-century Nordic painters - Gallen Kallela, Munch, Strindberg and Hill - hosted on the ground floor of the museum, curators Bossé and Obrist have set out to explore what they call the 'Nordic miracle' of the 90s through the work of 30 artists from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Whereas the ground floor revealed the predictable image of traditional Nordic themes, with its glut of snowy landscapes, obsessive visions and close identification of man with nature, the subtext of 'Nuit Blanche' exposed the tension between a sense of the national versus internationalism. This was visible from the selection of works in which visual cliché and high tech alternated, and their arrangement into a sophisticated and highly atmospheric layout.
Walking through the exhibition you felt like Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl - each striking of a match revealing a different, dreamlike, glittering world. Strike one match and you find yourself surrounded by stroboscopic light and mirrors in Henrik Plenge Jakobsen's Nuit Blanche (White Night, 1998); strike another, and you are offered glimpses of the real life of the real people of northern Finland, gently portrayed in their natural environment by Esko Männikkö; you can even feel the cool northern air, thanks to Õlafur Eliasson's giant ice cubes, The Very Large Icetep Experienced (1998), displayed nearby in a blue plastic tub. Next moment you are plunged into a thickly carpeted room saturated with white light in which video monitors seem to float; each shows a program of videos selected by different curators.
Perhaps you should save your last match for Ann Lislegaard's video installation Nothing but Space (1997), which is projected through a distorting mirror onto a wall in a darkened room. It depicts figures walking, undulating and dissolving in a white interior. As you move closer to the wall, you feel you could touch them, but they disappear, just like the glittering worlds which successively materialised and then vanished, leaving you with vague impressions of the works rather than tangible images.
A few pieces, nevertheless, escaped the unifying, aestheticising display, confronting the viewer with a strong and sometimes perverse sense of reality. This was the case with Ann-Sofie Sidén's surveillance video monitors, Day's Inn... (1998), scattered around the corners of the gallery. It took a while to understand that the images they presented were not recorded in some hidden part of the exhibition, but in anonymous hotel rooms whose occupants moved about, washing, sleeping or getting dressed, oblivious to this omnipresent eye. You look at the screens almost mechanically, vaguely expecting to see yourself, before backing off, shocked at this involuntary voyeurism.
Eija-Liisa Ahtila's Today (1997) used narrative devices borrowed from the cinema in order to involve and at the same time alienate the viewer. A young woman facing the camera recounts a disruptive event in her ordinary suburban life: the death of her grandfather and the consequent sorrow of her own father. After a while, the screen turns black and the narrative is taken up on a second screen by a lonely-looking, middle-aged woman who, in a very Bergmanian way, faces the camera and offers a few Existential reflections. This second part too ends after a few minutes, and a third screen lights up, bringing new testimonies which supposedly solve but actually complicate the story.
As you are forced into the plot by the display of surrounding screens on which the figures facing the camera tell truths or lies, you are also kept at a distance by the Lynchean atmosphere of the suburban setting. The cinematographic techniques of non-narrative story telling function in close affinity with the work's physical display: three cinema-sized screens placed in a U shape around the viewer. The display and images inform one another to give the film a sculptural quality while enabling the dramatic riddle of the story to take concrete form in space.
Despite the successful convergence of different media in this particular work, the insistence on multidisciplinarity, posited as a guiding principle throughout the exhibition, did not work in many other cases. Kaurismaki's short films and the photographs by Marja-Leena Hukkanen shot during filming, seemed to have little to do with the other works in the show. On another level, Bjork's collaboration with Mika Vainio, Jeremy Deller and Nobuyoshi Araki was particularly feeble. The presence of Kaurismaki and Bjork, in fact, seemed to be intended to reassure a French audience little-versed in contemporary Nordic art, as if they should be glad to find within this beautifully packaged holiday, full of snow, fish and green forests, a bite of international pop culture.