The Kunsthal Aarhus sits in the multicoloured shadow of Olafur Eliasson’s installation Your Rainbow Panorama (2006–11), the elevated circular walkway that graces the roof of the ten-storey ARoS museum across the street. Nearly 100 years old, the Kunsthal started as a local artists’ association. Thanks in part to the arrival of new Artistic Director Joasia Krysa, it has recently embarked on a more ambitious programme, setting up a series of four smartly curated group exhibitions on a single theme over the course of a year.
Now in its third instalment, the ‘Systemics’ series, the exhibition guide explains, departs from the theory that ‘all things are connected as part of the wider system’. The first two exhibitions explored the relationship between humans and machines, and the production of knowledge, respectively. The third show, ‘Against the Idea of Growth, Towards Poetry (Or, How To Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later)’, looks at ‘our reliance on algorithmic logic, and how artists might present alternative economies and “different models of value”’. Inspired by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s 2012 manifesto The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, which proposes that the language of poetry can suggest an alternative to our capitalist system, the show extends the metaphor from poetry to visual art as a way of positing systems that may not have a definitive logic or use value, but which at least allow us to envision other ways of organizing the world.
The works in the show are positioned between two major pieces, one personal, one political: the lo-fi world of Song Dong’s everyday items in Waste Not (2005) and the high-tech future represented in Mika Taanila’s The Most Electrified Town in Finland (2004–12). Between these two poles, each art work suggests a drive toward accumulation, exponential increases and a sense that progress continues unimpeded but without direction. Song’s vast installation fills the Kunsthal’s basement: bird cages, floor mats, pots and pans, dusty chairs, oil cans, bicycle bells, plastic bags are categorically grouped and neatly arranged so that every item is visible. The piece is a collaborative project by the artist and his mother (whose belongings are on display), which Song began as a means of helping his mother cope with her husband’s death. In a lengthy wall text, Song describes the ‘burden’ of his mother’s ‘waste not’ philosophy and tendency to save everything. Ironically, it’s a strangely impersonal accumulation. This collection of bottle caps, keys and remote controls does not provide a revelatory or voyeuristic look into the mother’s emotional world, but seems to be more about the artist’s own grief and compulsions.
Mika Taanila’s three-channel video installation The Most Electrified Town in Finland maps the overpowering need to extend our resources. It documents the construction of the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear reactor in Eurajoki, the third of these to be built in a town of 6,000 people. On the central screen we see time-lapse footage of the reactor taking shape, from the construction of the external skeleton to the careful installation of the reactor cores, whilst the others show footage of high voltage power lines, street lamps at twilight, and the fragile countryside. Combined with a powerful soundtrack, the piece speaks of the crushing impact on people and the environment of our attempts to ‘stay connected’.
For How To Build a Universe that Falls Apart Two Days Later (2014), Jacob Kolding created eight posters that were placed in stacks on the floor and arranged in a collage on the wall. The fragments of black and white images on white ground in the posters seem like stock imagery: part of a dollar bill, highways, street demonstrations. Though some pieces seem to fit together when placed edge to edge, other patterns fall apart as a result. As in language, or poetry, the elements here are wholly contingent on the overall system. The system in Mogens Jacobsen’s 360 (2014) is also imperfect, and ultimately, incomplete. The artist created a full-scale model of the IBM System/360 computer, launched in 1964. Jacobsen (a pioneer of net art) has adapted his model so viewers can control its buttons and knobs. Inside, an algorithm combines words and phrases from texts about Marxism and capitalism and then prints or tweets them. The text my knob-twisting generated read, in part ‘it yet instead of disheartening young people seem fit for use …’ Like the nuclear reactor in Taanila’s film, the computer is meant to promise progress, but the artist suggests that what it generates is not productive or efficient.
Together, the works in the show subtly but successfully evoke the problems that come with mass production and the streamlining, improvement, extension or modernization of our modes and models of production and consumption. The impliction is that they have failed us. But art is a system too – one that, if it fails, has consequences less easy to quantify.