Morten Straede
AROS, Contextual Amber Lumps

Exhibition galleries are neutral and await the arrival of objects to orchestrate their space. At ARoS, the art collections are each encapsulated in their own historical context in a way that also opens to interpretation. This is good news in a museum context.

An event, considered quite natural by modern man is to visit a museum to reflect ourselves in the works of times past. This is a special and quite ideological notion, which bestows a great importance to the past, here in the present, both in terms of resources and knowledge as well as providing a canon.


Every museum and its choice of works represents a contri-bution to the debate on what is worth considering and reconsid-ering in society. Of course, the most important part of the art museum is its works of art. Which works have been bought or donated? Which are exhibited and which are in storage for different periods of time?

However, one cannot ignore the building that these works are displayed in, if for no other reason than the architecture of these spaces has an enormous effect on the works as well as the beholder. At present, we are far from the historical museum concept, that ideally, the art museum should imbue art with a bit of eternity. This idea is expressed in the museum space, which should be peaceful and classic and oriented toward the adage of a stable north lighting. In general, another prevailing element of a museum's charter, is its responsibility to preserve its collections for eternity. The old museums borrowed building elements and spatial effects from the world of antiquity in order to signal, and hopefully achieve this status of eternity demanded by society and the art itself. Many contemporary museums swear to white modernism, which functionally complies with the work and the beholder - with the same consideration. There is even talk of "The White Cube" as an expression of the optimal solution for a museum - the non-contextual space.

Every building reflects a certain ideology, or a special relationship to the surrounding society. The museum is no exception, on the contrary, it is quite clear in its relationship to the prevailing ide-ologies, if for no other reason than it is built to house important parts of society's production of meaning.

It was in this way that the yuppie mentality that dominated the 1980's is also evident in the new art museums, such as those in Germany. These museums reveal at least two things:: That the public sector saw it as their responsibility to give art a dynamic and significant framework to be displayed, and that the notion that an artwork, which has been embraced by the civilian population and later ends up in a museum, is no longer valid. Instead, in many cases, artists of this decade deliver their mon-umental pieces directly to the museums, both here and abroad, with the assertion that art is both large and heavy, both physically and in content, and that it represents a high-level political and financial matter. The museums' spaces have become enormous and have in many cases lost their human scale, which implies that the interplay between the artwork and the building becomes impossible and in some cases detrimental to the art itself. The museums build spaces so large that they encouraged monumen-tal works of art - and the artists were eager to comply. Thus, a direct relation arose between the museum and the new art.

In the 1990's, the new art was placed in the context of spe-cial exhibitions. In this way, a greater activity was achieved to replace the 1980's need for gravity and greatness. This was an advantage for both the museurn and the public, and especially the artists who gained museum exposure. This also implied that the museum's neatly avoided their preservation commitments; quick in and quick out seemed to be the slogan when dealing with contemporary art.

Painting was influenced by other areas of science such as sociology, psychology and artists tried to impose the power of criticism, including the criticism of the artwork's alleged power over the public. This resulted in transient art forms, well-suited for the variability of these changing exhibition spaces. But even though the museums opened to this way of working, it was clearly difficult for them to strike a bal-ance between the argumentative character of transitoriness and the museum's traditional obligation and desire for preservation and stability - canonization. The result of this was that many of the works that were cre-ated for the museum's "activity spaces," and which consciously relied on this framework, were quite simply lost as primary, phys-ical experience, and only survived for posterity in the form of cat-alogues, photos and in articles.

And here we stand facing ARoS, in a Danish context, the latest and most ambitious answer to the contemporary art museum. Even though not many years separate the two most recent, large museums in Denmark: the extension of the National Art Museum and ARoS, There is a huge difference between the two buildings' expression in relation to the art they are meant to display. Where the National Art Museum maintains a 1980's attitude in its firm-ness and scale, and with its X-room and art foyer, reaches far into the 1990's, ARoS seems to move in the opposite direction. Here it is not a question of a grand, striking, architectural expression, as one finds in the other European museums, where spatial effects are so violently aggressive that the art is relegated to a subsidiary function. Neither do we find the pronounced separation of the collections and the public spaces at ARoS, such as the bookshop, cafe and foyer, whose spiral-shaped Guggenheimish monumental stairway and white surfaces and an almost landscapelike vertical incision through the building create an image that forces one to experience the building, the exhibition spaces themselves do not attract much interest. They seem to be waiting for the works to give them life and character. However, these spaces are not with-out identity. There seem to be inlaid "traps" and resistance in order to intensify the experience and soften the emphasis on the works. Most likely with the awareness that the totally sanitized "White Cube's" exhibition spaces do not produce enough counter play in themselves. The north light is barred from entering and the white walls must be activated to supply the necessary dynamics. In a number of co-ordinated rooms, the artworks are given quite different conditions for existence.

On the individual floors, the different art periods are orchestrat-ed in a much closer interplay between the spaces and the works than previously seen in a Danish context. It is almost a kind of room-sampling. Each floor presents its own form framework, which is not always in harmony with the artworks, but always with a clear interchange, which manages to evoke new dimensions to some of the works.

If one is to consider what this implies in relation to the art, then the eternity, which the museums rely on is no longer deposited in a stable canon, expressed in the proportions of the spaces and the fixed plan, which does not encourage, but guarantees quality. Instead, eternity in the context of the museum consists of a con-scious presentation of the relationship between the individual work and its context. This practice does not nullify the art or the stability of the museum, but brings the works into their own contextual amber lump, which ties them to the period of their creation and opens them to interpretation. This is not a question of eternal artistic values, but the ability of the works to answer contemporary ques-tions, deposited as they are, each in their own historical context, which guarantees eternity - or in other words: stability in dis-course.

And in any case, it appears to this observer, to be good news in a museum context.


MS juni 2004