BY Ina Blom in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42


BY Ina Blom in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

Finland may be the land of a thousand lakes, but Norway is the land of a zillion festivals. Film, theatre and music of every denomination abound - there's even a seafood festival and a grandmother festival. Festival culture is the revenge of the little cities - now you have to actually visit them - and the new Momentum festival of contemporary art in the small and smelly industrial city of Moss is a case in point. This year the main exhibition - named Pakkhus after the empty factory that housed it - chose to zero in on the new Scandinavian art scene in the good-spirited and slightly unfocused way that befits a festival. No big theories were offered from the all-Scandinavian curatorial team, but then to claim innocence of what's happening is synonymous with Nordic romanticism. Yet certain trends did seem to surface.

It was a fine moment, for example, for Scandinavian design. In the first place, the somewhat unfortunately named 'Elephant Prize' for best work was given to the Danish artist collective N55, whose highly functional work for healthier and more democratic living seems to fit straight into the design category. Did the judges buy the package? Or did they get the joke? Was there a joke? With N55 it's hard to know. Their pieces are certainly very attractive, as if designed to mainline into the consumer vein of the 90s person. There's a sleek stainless-steel hydroponic unit for growing vegetables in your own apartment. It shines, it works, and emits a fluorescent light to match your trainers. There's a fridge-like stainless steel structure that is actually an air-purifier (but you'd want it even if it did no more than store your socks). There's a chair that moves like a continuation of your spine, and a system of lightweight steel units with which to build dwellings that need little heating or maintenance. However, all this eco-slickness is framed by a neo-Concep-tualist piece of art theory, based on a merciless step-by-step logic of the kind that can easily lead to stupid or dangerous conclusions. As airy and democratically multi-purpose as the designs, the initial thesis is: to talk about art one has to talk about 'persons and their meaningful behaviour with other persons and things in concrete situations'.

If it's hard to believe in N55 as a new generation of Beuys-democrats minus the dust and the sticky substances, it is precisely because of the shimmer and gleam of their product, which in fact distances it from their stated purpose by miles. But this design hysteria picks up a theme that runs through a number of other works in the show. It's present in the sound-sculptures of Tommi Grönlund and Petteri Nisunen, who have specialised in concentrating and refining the feeling of redundant ecstasy evoked by the hums and vibrations of the most rational of technologies. In a somewhat different vein, the duo Elmgreen & Dragset designed two square, freestanding bar areas for the ground floor: one for normal public use, the other, as stylish as the first, turned inside-out. As in an inverted or hysterical economy, the flow of beer runs on the outside, while the paying public would have had to be trapped on the inside, had there been access. As usual, the inside is an inaccessible phantasm - all you get is surface. In Michael von Hausswolff's Thinner Bar (1998), more Minimalist stainless steel surfaces set the scene for self-service substance abuse of the most humiliating kind. Giving reality to the notion of being elegantly wasted, it was another case of strict design economy springing a leak.

Lars Nilsson epitomised the whole thing with his way-larger-than-life 444-lightbulb chandelier, suspended near floor level and madly heating up the surroundings. Entitled The Triumph of Style (1998), it wittily projected the uncomfortable Nietzscheanism of Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will onto a design object whose will to (electrical) power made it grow out of all sensible proportion. But this, as Nilsson well knows, is precisely the uncanny vernacular of style: always 'a triumph', it leaps out of bounds, it outshines itself. And in a sense many of the works in this exhibition seem to brush an economical design heritage against the darker victories of style. Consider, as extreme examples, the camp attitude worn to a slow and painful death in the works of Stig Sjölund and Tobias Bernstrup respectively. Or the whiff of voyeurism and violence in the photographs of Annika von Hauswolff, who brings the stylistic mannerisms of Helmut Newton to scenes peopled with mundane female characters - a case of high-concept scenography meets everyday indeterminacy. What her photographs lack in gloss, they make up for through their particular sense of closure, their secretive refusal to communicate. On the rather less inspired side were the hostess-like frolicking of the all-girl Icelandic Love Corporation.

Such 'triumphs of style' in no way sum up the whole of the exhibition, but N55's shaky meanderings between raw stylistics and ingenue idealism seemed like its decisive moment.