Sculptor and designer Gunnar Aagaard Andersen once said about the basis of artistic work: ”You must love the conditions, because there will always be some”. This could be an appropriate motto for this presentation.
Sculptors are used to positioning our work in a long and profoundly historical perspective. Time filters intensely through the handed down artworks and most stories regarding their creation and how contemporaries received the piece are lost. This loss does not necessarily affect anyone but art-historians. As artists we know that every work of art, from any era, must speak across time in its own voice, regardless of stories surrounding its creation. Only the artwork that is able to be radically open to contemporary interpretations and frames of mind, despite its date of creation, can resist the gnawing tooth of time and the whims of society and art trends. As creative artists we know, that neither art nor art-history can be permanent over longer periods of time. The era in time entitled the Baroque period is a good example of this – this was a style and social epoch lasting approximately 200 years. Less than 100 years ago the excessive behaviour, garish attitudes and superficiality of the Baroque period was considered bad taste. Two centuries worth of artworks, ideas and buildings were for ages placed in the margins of good society, in the shadow of the renaissance and later of modernism.
As a sign of the fickle heart of change, this same period is now granted acceptance into the halls of perpetuity and canon. Today these ideas, architecture, discoveries, music and art have become the object of study almost everywhere. In creative architecture the Baroque is no longer considered an opposition but as kindred to the modernism we find ourselves firmly planted in, despite all attempts to eradicate it. The perpetual artworks live in the consciousness of almost everyone, we find it in museums, but also when the general art-loving public is exposed to contemporary art. These are artworks that confirm being produced by human hand yet defy signs of time and stay astonishingly young and supple, despite dates of creation and our knowledge of the inconsistency in canon and taste.
Artists survive very well in the field of tension between permanence and inconstancy. The zone between memory and oblivion is a significant drive in our work. Each of us does our upmost to secure a place for our artworks in the collective memory. We make the knowledge of other times interact with our own, by referring to artworks of previous eras. But underneath, oblivion acts as a permanent working condition. This is why our collected works and each individual piece demand that we always lift the entire artistic, ideological and social form. This venture severely intensifies our area of work. As German art-historian, Egon Friedell, claims in his writings on European art history from the 1920ies: “Art is constantly converging in ideology”.
But this is the attempts of art to implement the issue of perpetuity and still challenge it. Another issue is how surrounding society manifests its primary demands on art: To constantly relate to major existential issues, society’s grand stories and to the eternal life (of art). Art responses to these demands with: The artwork. Society answers the same question with: The institution, the museum. In many ways museums have been driven towards the same demands: Existence, history and eternal life. But in addition to these comes yet another demand; the demand of the collective memory.
Just as art, through the manipulation of materials, can produce experiences, feelings and perspectives, and possibly as Friedell puts it: Converging in ideology. The extensive museum buildings are also not merely erected in mortar and stone, but profoundly placed in ideology, too. Architecture is the heaviest and most social art-form and the art-form closest to economic and political power. In its outset architecture has features that a strongly influence ideology, and in surprising ways manages to collect all society’s ideologies in its alternating principals and requirements to a museum building. Possibly this is because the purpose of a museum building is to create a frame for the story, society is telling about itself. I will not embark on an in-depth account of museum studies, but I will touch upon a couple of points in museum history. Because the museum, as an institution and a building, is the clearest of all communicators that is able to gather contemporary needs of accessibility, information – and in particular today – the desire for entertainment. It is the museum that defines the canon – as long as it lasts. And the museum secures the vibrancy of our visual and objectified memory. In the museum you can surrender to the brush-strokes of Valesquez, examine bridal chests from West Jutland or pursue your heart desires.
Much can to be said about the different museum spaces and their aptitude to facilitate artworks. Personally I have voiced this in writing and on two or three public occasions, amongst which were the unveiling of the new building at Statens Museum for Kunst and the opening of the AROS museum a couple of years ago. In both cases my task was very clear. I was to assess, form an artist’s point of view, the qualities of both buildings as museums. As an afterthought; possibly it was a little late to ask a representative of the arts to comment, after the buildings were completed.
At the time my starting point in the response to this question was to examine if the buildings were able to unite the exhibited artworks with the eternal untouchable Northern light in a modern canonical context. In the era when art was closely connected to nature this was light celebrated by artists as the best and most permanent. My view on this has however changed with time. I no longer define the relationship between art and the museum as the relationship between an intense, rebellious, fickle and ideological artistic venture on one side, and on the other; a static, ideology-less, permanent institution. Increasingly I’ve discover an exchange between the two forms of consciousness that both struggle for their existence in an open battlefield of contexts and politics. It is therefore more interesting to focus on the relationship between the museum and the artwork, instead of how capable the museum is at providing the expected perpetual egalitarian frame. To rephrase; how does the individual museum effect the artwork or how does the architectural frame effect the statement of the artwork?
Even so, the permanence demands on the museum are found in the collection, conservation and display of artworks, and remain unaddressed in public opinion, and fortunately also in the professional art world. Subsequently the museums buildings display through an emphasis on research, purchases, promotion and entertainment, that they are just as effected by trends, as other establishments, that aren’t under the same demands of permanence. This demand of permanence is in effect rarely implemented. Increasingly I wonder; whether it really is desirable to obtain the state of stability or peace implied in this completion of the demand. In time I have become increasingly attentive to the dynamics that arise between the artwork and the exhibition of it. In addition the dynamic that occurs between the artwork’s mortal material expression and art’s need for the widest span of time. The history of the artwork is in many ways the history of man. And their destinies constantly reflect what we find important, which meanings are significant for an era, which political agendas are shaping society, and which conflicts change the fates of the artworks etc. This history is fortunately written in the wake shaped by meticulous research, because the slow treatment of creative arts is yet another premise for artworks and museums. The time it takes to create a work and its future in the art-world, as part of the dynamics of artistic discourse, differ immensely from the time taken by museums to treat the artwork in a scientific context. I find this fortunate, because this lengthy process possibly reduces the risk of errors and procures, and that time itself makes some decisions that museums otherwise would be compelled to make on the spot. The list of far too contemporary purchases is far too long, in spite of this lengthy process. Not only in little old Denmark, but all over the western world. The museums’ slowness is based on economy (there is not enough money allowing the documentation of every art movement via purchases) and their obligation to performing research.
Before I continue with existing examples of museum constructed in Denmark over the latter years, I’d like to touch upon, how I regard a change of relationship over time between the artwork and their communicative frameworks. The artwork has gone from being an object of beauty to requiring status as a scientific fixture, becoming an enzyme for social and political discourse. In addition I’d like to show, that the artworks possess numerous statuses concurrently today, because the art discourse is vastly diverse and recognises and contains almost all approaches, keeping them alive, as long as they can bring something new to the situation.
If we go back to the 17th Century, museums as such don’t exist. Collections of artworks, examples of peculiar craftsmanship such as cups made of seashells, fans made of human skin and curiosities like a two-headed calf, crocodile hide, shrunken heads etc can be found instead. In this period artworks are perceived on the same level as other excessive and peculiar objects, as they are referred to as “works of creation”. In addition, the artworks presented in their own right, are often more site-specific, like frescos painted directly on the walls, or sculptures placed in open public space. The physical space around the artworks mainly consists of a room big enough to contain the collection.
100 years later art separates itself from the other visual objects and is supplied with its own metaphysics. It no longer needs to bypass natural creation in order to be discussed. Instead the piece is provided its very own, direct, access to metaphysics. Subjects addressed by art have also moved towards abstract mythology. The mythology of Antiquity has caught up with Christian imagery, competing in my opinion, as much for the actual identity of art. On the surface the artworks represent mythological motives from our historical past, but underneath the artworks are celebrating their attained access to metaphysics, and the liberation from religion and its subsequent content. In the same era economy is booming, due to what is later known as classic capitalism. So, the 18th century expresses to the full a product orientation within art that already had reared its head in the 17th century. As always, the artworks become the melting pot of contemporary social dogma. In this case it becomes a mixture of commodity and metaphysics. The collector appears in the shape of a rich man, who, thanks to his money, is able to claim to posses a certain insight. In cases where he doesn’t posses insight, he can still demonstrate signs of spirit through external possessions. It is also at this time the first physical spaces dedicated to art appear. Spaces especially dedicated the “nature” of art.
Over the next 100 we experience how the national state has taken over the collector’s role, in regards to presenting artworks. This becomes linked to nationalism and the collectable artworks support a common feeling of belonging to a specific geographic and cultural region. But a new situation arises. As the artists liberate themselves from these suffocating national expectations, art obtains complete independence, not only as an artistic/ aesthetic category, but as also an area of research. The artistic discourse begins to incorporate bordering fields of knowledge, such as science, anthropology and naturally; political discourses. Art turns itself into a science. Cezanne doesn’t paint firsthand impressions of his surroundings. His painting co-creates the reality that enables him to work with colour, in other words; it takes a step away from depicting mythology and a step towards materialism. Likewise sculptors from the same period went from creating images of life, to working with “the space”. Conditions like the sculptor’s space and the artists’ colour were changed from being working tools to becoming the work itself. Other movements connect aesthetic work with images of freedom and images of other and more dynamic societies. Many artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were communists, probably because this was the only dynamic society of the time. They scorn the establishment and disrespect the museums as an expression of a stagnated and repressive system. The Futurist Marinetti even claims that his futurist eye hurts, when looking at an older work of art. Not because of the work itself, but because it was employed to stagnate the progress of society. Art liberates itself in this period from museums and collectors by categorically rejecting almost every institution. The museums answer back by erecting museums that resemble imperial roman bank buildings.
We take yet another crude leap into our century. Museum buildings recently erected throughout Europe and America are as saturated with ideology, as previously in history. Maybe the museums have become more aware of their own ideological, almost metaphysical, purpose. The metaphysical dimension of the artwork seems to have been replaced with the metaphysical dimensions of the museum. Under any circumstances, plenty is being done to secure the framing of the artworks, which is becoming the primary function of the museums: To conserve, research and present art. Endowed with the same greater historical consciousness shared by most people today, it is incomprehensible to imagine an artwork disappearing from the museum canon due to misguided purchasing policies or oversight of an unimportant branch of the art history. As from a societal point of view the canon is considered very permanent, it becomes easier to change its frame and presentation.
How many people can mention the amount of artworks is exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and who discusses the collection of Tate Modern? Yet we do discuss the buildings and their dynamics as culture houses, and in the case of Guggenheim Bilbao, we also discuss the regional political implications of the museum. This is a good example of our current societal situation. We chose to discuss the frames of our behaviour. We adjust the practical conditions for our lives, yet the foundations remain untouched. Where socially capitalism caused the fall of the Berlin Wall, in museum contexts the fall is caused by canon. Both are considered “natural” and untouchable.
Concurrently there is a sounding silence surrounding the role of culture as a dynamic that redefines our lives and conditions, and words are plenty regarding cultural heritage as an expression of, our identity as individuals or even as a nation. A celebration of things past. Things with edges softened by changing times, though I do agree, that a closer inspection will reveal that some of these classical pieces possess teeth to gnaw at their confining chains. New art and old are provided different frames of interpretation. The frame for new art is called the event, whilst the frame of old art is called canon.
Hopefully, what appears from this rather crude pluck in museum history is that; the objective, clear and eternally illusive permanence made the premise for art, doesn’t exist. My point is that we constantly exist in a dynamic field constantly disrupted - a field always is under political and intellectual assessment and change. In this way the artwork is constantly in an unsettled relationship with its surroundings, forcing the artists not only to set themselves on line in every piece, but also the conditions of the artwork. Yet how museums receive and reflect is beyond the control of both the artists and artworks. Despite endless talks of canon and cultural heritage sculptors have no safe heaven in which their artworks can settle in some form of stabile context. There are still so many connections between the artworks and our own lives that life cannot provide any safe heavens, peace and stability. This opens up the frame of interpretation yet again.
As we’ve got this far it is time to embark on the last part of my presentation. I would like to take a closer look at 4 museums built in Denmark over a short period of time, yet possessing very different significances. Each has very different strategies for and attitudes around presenting art. Introducing the oldest museum first, in chronological order, we will look at ARKEN in Ishøj, Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen and AROS in Århus.Other museums have been erected in Denmark during the same timeframe, but common denominators for these three are that they are big, important museums and included in an international context. All three strive for the same high degree of canonical security that denotes international museums. But this is where their similarities end. By giving a short introduction to each museum I hope to illustrate, that the interplay between building and artwork is as vibrant today, as it was in the times previously mentioned.
Arken (the Ark), museum for modern art, is the oldest of the three buildings.The museum began life in 1966, as an upstart in the museum world. No one wanted to believe that the area between Køge and Copenhagen Southwest would be able to sustain something as highbrow as a museum for modern art. Possibly the museum was situated here to strengthen regional development. Under any circumstances, it became a great public success.
It was conceived and designed in a decade where all significant structures were subject of great discussion in Denmark. The great stories were dead, or so we believed. Human life and cultural life had to take place in a network of fluid interpretations. And it was in the clashes between fluid meanings that generated intensity and providing artworks, culture, economy and dynamics. This was at least a basic ideology of art and its surroundings. The museum was created in a crossroads between a fluid concept of space and a demand for artworks that could verbalise and guide us through the current sense of disbanding. What could possibly illustrate these fluid mechanisms better than turning the vehicle into an image? Arken, the name in itself indicates the need to save two of each art-form before the great flood, and was bestowed mechanical aesthetics. All physical joints and transitions in the building resemble engine-rooms and heavy industry decor. The house and the artworks act as cogwheels in a huge culture machine. A juggernaut churning through the cultural landscape. The desire to create images through the architecture became almost too dominating – and was strongly influenced by international architects such as Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind. The artworks were in hard competition in these rooms that were best designed for discussions of postmodern writing and meaning, but not well-suited for stepping back to make way for artworks addressing the same issue. Artworks that were able to contain, or even outshine, this very momentous and eclectic framing did very well. Whereas artworks that didn’t share this outset became oddly dislocated from their original intention. Provoking this dislocation is clearly a revolt against the notion that museums should be eternally light, neutral surroundings. To be honest; I personally found that, in spite struggles with the pressures provided by this frame, it still supplied experiences of artworks that I’ve ever tried before.
It takes strong means to monumentalise the fluid space, so the building’s major problem has been the proportions of the rooms. They are too big to emphasise the artworks’ relationship to the body. In sculpting this element is vital; the sensing of the artwork. The size and dynamics of the spaces manage just to serve the purpose but in many cases they push the sculptures too hard.
Shortly after Arken opened Statens Museum for Kunst (the National Museum of Art) decided to renew itself and expand options for modern collections. Statens Museum for Kunst is the mother of museums in this country, born from the curiosity cabinets of the king and the later collections of art. It has undergone several changes and renovations over the years. The two latest were; the extension in the 1990ies and the completion of the refurbishment of the old building.
The extension concept was in many ways as obvious and ideological as the Arken building. The understanding of the role of art and the good artwork had changed in the intervening years between the two building projects. This new building project was not merely to be an expansion of the “main museum” with an implied need to “go classic”. I regard this building as a decidedly artistic choice. It was decided to split the museum in two. The modern and the old, joint by an artistic no man’s land that can be utilised for important new museum functions, such as acting as backdrops for weddings, sermons and conferences. This function distanced itself vastly from the artistic heroism of Arken – going from museum to culture house – and turning art into a pragmatic and reliable background for family gatherings.
In the 1996 extension, the relationship between artwork and museum becomes very clear. As time progresses everyone has grown accustomed to this building, slowly broken in by various exhibitions, and as the previously desolate entrance halls gradually become populated with artworks. Habit plays a great role in our use of exhibition spaces, for the audience as well as the exhibitors handling of new spaces.
The extension is planted as the final tribute to a development that began in the mid-80ies within sculpting and its social function. This is a building for heroic artworks, pieces that in physical and artistic ways challenge the greatest stories of civilisation. During the 80ies the so-called “museum pieces” gained territory fast, and the museums erected in the same period met their demands. Where as Arken attempted to address the identity of contemporary art and create spaces that possessed the same radical approach and openness as the artworks themselves, Statens Museum for Kunst chose another direction. In some of the spaces it is possible to sense that this museum basically was built on the same principals as Arken. The ends of the new building turn into very pointed spaces that resemble Arken’s spindle-shaped “culture axis”. Yet the extension is more complex and the connecting spaces are more labyrinth-like than Arken’s, in spite the obvious sensation that the classical museum gallery is lurking just under the surface. In Statens Museum for Kunst the high-tech industrial solutions of Arken have been replaced by quality materials known from our living rooms. The open, fluid, empty space has made its way home and sown roots in the heart of culture – manifesting itself as a classic museum space. Classic with a twist: Many of the rooms resemble the anonymous white cubes but with warped proportions. Several rooms are twice the normal height, some are very long, narrow and low, others only are fitted with electric lighting. An additional sign from postmodern fluidity is found in the main axis. In a classic museum we will find the masterpieces in a long gallery. Yet in this museum we find the main axis empty and serving the purpose of directing traffic. So this building wasn’t totally swallowed up by the classical period after all.
The entire layout is constructed as a staged experience. Walking through the old building’s Potemkin-like backdrop you gradually advance on the actual art. Before doing this, you are tuned into a solemn frame of mind. The beholder is signalled that we are amidst the sacred halls of art through the immense volume of the building and the vast, airy stronghold of the sculptural axis. Attention is paid to the spaces directing focus to the great masterpieces; artworks that physically follow the lines of Delacroix and others in the great French salon. Only artworks that posses a visual sturdiness can compete with these rooms. It is a blessing that the builder was so intensely in awe of art that he chose to challenge the monumental, but this dramatic staging has a price. More understated pieces, works that convey fine distinctions or subtly play with transitions of expression and materials, are severely tested in these spaces, that culminate in rooms of double height, facing the Østre Anlæg park.
The spaces are strongly divided into very large spaces and very small ones. Yet a survivor of postmodernism is the labyrinth. At the opening of the new collections a criticism fell on disorientation, though this was directed at the hanging of the pieces, and certainly not the museum’s direct intention, but it does disclose that chronology and canon is troubled in this building. In this context; I find this a positive feature.
As a consequence of the refurbishment a new exhibition form received its own space. This is called “The X-room”; a space designed specifically to contain various exhibitions of contemporary art. Only a miserable sculptor would not rejoice at the prospects for new art the museum has provided with this space. But it’s important to be critical - and I’ll take this upon me in a time, where critical thinking is considered grumpy and leftwing – this room does reveal how contemporary art is regarded vis-à-vis the collections. Increasingly museums are dependant on events to maintain the audiences’ attention. Seeing a piece by Rembrandt at leisure is no longer satisfactory. Changing exhibitions are an important element in any museum. Contemporary art would like to exhibit in a museum. It still is of significance for a sculptor to exhibit within these sacred halls. It is a well-defined place to be seen and the aura and perpetuity of the museum might rub off on your work. Only a true battle will be won when contemporary art doesn’t get reduced to events meant to complement the permanent collections. This applies not only to Statens Museum for Kunst, but for most new European museums.
AROS is the latest contributed museum intending to supply artworks and institutions with the best working conditions.
I have attempted to illustrate that societal understanding of art has changed many times over the decade that separates Arken and AROS.AROS takes a different approach from the two previously mentioned museums, which both demonstrate an architectural ambition of clarifying the relationship between building and art. As far as I can tell, in the case of AROS, there is no longer exists one coherent architectural idea supporting the building. Socially we are in a time that believes ideology to be rubbish. Now we just want things to work. No questions asked. You behave sensibly and practically. It seems as if the ambition was to erect the most practical and efficient building for museum activities.
The many floors of the museum are samples of all over the museum world, each displaying a solid choice of space to support the works from various eras. The top floor, hosting the Golden Age collection, is taken from an American Midwest museum. The modern collection is situated in a room that resembles the classic white cube, the café is designed in 1950ies’ Danish modernism, and the entrance is a reversed Guggenheim, New York. Externally the building presents itself very simply, some would say insipidly, like a closed sun-shade that contains audience and artworks.
Yet from the artist’s point of view there are advantages in this super-pragmatic situation. These spaces provide the exhibited artworks with the best possible conditions. The spaces constantly influence the artworks, but in a way that emphasise the differences between them. The backdrop is carefully chosen to accompany the artworks displayed within. This experience dissolves the building. It’s hardly noticeable. The conditioning of the architecture seems almost invisible to us, we don’t acknowledge the different types of spaces, because we are so used to computer samplings and taking leaps in body and consciousness.
AROS is closed in on itself in contrast to Statens Museum for Kunst, that holds on to a context, internally and externally, allowing landscape and society to peer through its windows and interfere in the expressions of the artworks with the changing light and weather. In AROS we find an expression of arts’ total separation from the world, when, after enjoying our coffee in a 1950ies modernist glass café, we enter the hollows of the building to watch art interact with itself. This could at least be regarded as a parallel to art that currently claims to be socially engaged, formless and in touch with everyday life, yet still almost always presented in “the white cube”. But this could also be a resurrection of the initial idea of the museum: Perpetuity. Arken and Statens Museum for Kunst both have conflicted relationships with this factor, this is almost expressed in their approach to light and how it changes. They both attempt to squeeze a constant, natural light from something that changes with the seasons and time of day.
AROS is completely consequent by shutting art off from surrounding society and providing us with a perfectly stabile frame, aided by technology. But not entirely. Over the passed years another change has taken place. As the museum has closed itself off, it also managed to open up in a different way. AROS has reached the minds of everyone, even those, who never entered the building, assisted by the printed and electronic media. For the first time ever this museum has possibly accomplished a greater existence in media consciousness than in real life. This has possibly become a virtual building, living a mirage existence in a soft-wear driven future. It will be interesting to see how this continuous dissolving of reality will be handled in future architectural projects, (not to mention how art will relate to this) without surrendering to cyberspace the conceptual and subsequent financial cornerstone; the physical presence of the artwork. The fact is; whilst museums extend their survival strategies to rely on soft-wear and not just hard-wear, audiences have become increasingly comfortable sitting behind a screen. And screens signal security, because our lives are filled with them. But security generates boredom. People need direct interaction with the world.
Sometimes it does occur that individual pieces in the various collections are strangely able to shake off the museum frame and speak freely. They create their own frame, and forge their own direct connection with people and society – thereby dispelling the pressures of the museum.
Museums and art alike should both rejoice in this fact.
MS January 2007