The Past: Not Red But Green, Per Kristian Nygård
ARoS Triennalen The Garden
Curatorial Statement by Erlend G. Høyersten, Director at ARoS.
A NEW TRIENNAL
The number of art museums in the world has steadily risen. So has the number of biennials and triennials. Some survive. Many are unsuccessful. Art fairs also appear to be increasing in numbers. Too many, cynics would retort. Too few, romantics would venture.
Biennials sometimes rest on political ambitions and sometimes on commercial interests. Often, however, it is a bit of both. A vibrant cultural life and quality cultural institutions will tempt tourists and facilitate the process of attracting well-qualified staff and, not least, maintain existing competences. Distinctive cultural institutions in the form of an international biennial can be a powerful branding strategy for an ambitious city wanting to put itself on the map, or for a city in deep desperation.
Then again, museums or biennials sometimes evolve, because people are convinced that it is of paramount importance. That art is important. At ARoS, we know that art is indispensable to a lot of people. We suspect that still more could benefit from art, because art can potentially impact on a person’s outlook as well as his thinking. We believe that art is vital and that it has a strong potential to go even further. Time and again, I find myself describing ARoS as a mental fitness centre, a place to train and develop one’s brain and one’s thinking. The Triennial serves to further develop this mindset: as a platform for mental workout – somewhere to sharpen the critical gaze, the imagination, of gaining a historical perspective on our identity in the world. The ARoS Triennial is meant as a generous gesture and an invitation to everyone interested in art, professionals, and those partial to a surprise.
The exhibition will occupy two galleries in the museum, spread into urban spaces in the city of Aarhus, and continue along the coastal stretch south of the city. The Triennial is comprised of three parts: The Past, The Present, and The Future, each one at separate locations but forming a unified whole.
The Triennial The Garden – End of Times, Beginning of Times will thematise man’s coexistence with and view on nature; how diverse world views (be they religious, political, ideological, cultural, or scientific) have manifested themselves in man-made natural landscapes for centuries. There will be art which intervenes in and uses nature on a grand scale. The narrative will span a period of 400 years and address the past, the present, and the future.
It has been of utmost importance to the museum to introduce a historical perspective in the form of a themed approach and specific curatorial methods. Biennials and triennials are usually linked to contemporary art, reflecting our own times. I would argue that a major problem facing today’s society and our ability to navigate in the world is a general lack of knowledge, not just about distant cultures, but also about the various historical preconditions which form our present lives. For this reason, the time perspective of the Triennial is crucial, not just to recount an interesting story, but also to raise historical awareness.
A PLACE FOR REFLECTION AND ENTERTAINMENT
Throughout history, the garden has been viewed as a place of scientific study, an oasis for solitary reflection, or a place of entertainment. Our culture sees the garden as a meeting place of civilisation and nature; a meditative space between two worlds. The garden meets various needs in different cultural contexts and becomes the perfect image of the diversity that makes up our world – making it ours.
The exhibition basically sheds light on ways in which man, over time, has transformed nature – the underlying ideals for this and what these ideals can tell us about man’s philosophy. We do not claim to be exhaustive; indeed, we would be kidding ourselves if we pretended to be able to deliver the full story. Focus will be on select historical cross sections, giving visitors the opportunity to dip into various elements. This approach requires visitors to actively participate in the conceptual and creative processes. As an institution, we have a duty to nudge people’s interest in art. That is why we differentiate between passive recipients and active players with respect to art and society as a whole.
The exhibition taking place at the museum – The Past – will set the historical framework for the overall focus of the Triennial. With this large-scale exhibition, ARoS will be focusing on the transformation that has taken place in relations between nature and man: how changing historical periods have altered the mutual influence of nature and man, often manifested in art.
The exhibition begins with the baroque landscape architecture peaking from the mid-1600s until the early 1700s. Baroque gardens tend to present nature as tamed, organised according to a Cartesian mathematical design, laid out in straight lines. The baroque garden mirrors the way humanity viewed itself in relation to the universe and, since it is calculated using mathematical coordinates that could in fact continue forever, it can be compared to a grid structure.
The concept of man as a mathematician, seeking to extract meaning and significance with his rational slant on the world, is reflected in the baroque gardens: their unwavering order being a take on the dawning scientific awareness emerging at this point. The baroque garden is an image of the new relationship between man and nature where nature becomes a man-made construct.
The baroque period was overtaken by the rococo with its lyrical gardens, then by the Enlightenment and the English garden, and finally by Romanticism and a sublime view of nature. Romanticism, emerging in the early 1800s in Germany, is often viewed as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment’s insistence on rationality. In the wake of Romanticism came a new perception of the landscape based on feelings. Nature was no longer an ordered entity, but rather governed by uncontrollable forces. Nature is powerful and man is subject to its whims, perhaps best illustrated in Caspar David Friedrich’s classic Romantic picture of an icebreaker about to go down: a symbolic encounter of progress with nature’s powerful forces where the industrial and mechanised world is doomed to cave in.
Focus shifted from the French gardens to the English where the structures were characterised by vantage points, narrow paths, elements of surprise, and an intended experience of untamed nature. Man could philosophise in peace and expose himself to the overwhelming liberating powers possessed by nature, which could open the way to both religious and ethical insights.
The breakthrough of modernism in the early twentieth century brought with it a new diverse approach to nature, spanning the Fauvist celebration of the human animal and the untamed forces – and the assertion by futurism that technology and machines have triumphed over nature – to the surrealist ideas of the natural world being in a one-to-one relationship with the natural instincts and the subconscious of man. Here the natural world became a stage for untamed desires, a place that man could yearn for as somewhere to live out his innermost urges.
Similarly, the gardens were purged of the deceptive Romantic view of nature, giving way to the stringent and functional as in the gardens of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoy and Frank Lloyd Wright’s house Fallingwater where untamed nature is incorporated and absorbed into the architecture.
The land art projects of the 1960s and 70s are iconic works from the conceptual probing of the boundary of art from the 60s, inspired by minimalism. Like minimalism, land art sets out to establish a new relationship between viewers and works via a series of monumental and surprising encounters intervening in the natural world. Land art works were often created in places which were hard to get to and required a detour away from the normal road network. The North American desert is iconic in an American contexts as the Wild West, a mythical place on the fringe of civilisation, wild and impassable, but a suitable backdrop for self-realisation. However, in the 60s, the significance of the desert shifted, concurrently with nuclear test explosions taking place there, to a setting for apocalyptic images.
Land art works are capable of intervening in nature, stressing via their monumentality the fact that man will intrude on nature as he pleases. At the same time, the works show the countermeasures taken by nature insofar that many of the works are perishable. The works cut into the natural landscape, but will eventually erode in line with the premises dictated by nature.
Contemporary art will naturally react to the current challenges faced by society, one of the most pressing being to rethink man’s relations with nature. Art provides a space for reflection where, for once, it is possible to merge often hard-held positions with separate sciences. Contemporary art creates a space for reflection on one’s own position in relation to the historical development, trying to create meaning by stressing the often multitudinous layers of relations and impacts which both individuals and nature are subject to. Contemporary art speaks in a cacophony of voices covering both artistic experiments reminiscent of land art of the 60s and works which extend the activist art tradition.
In the course of the past 10 years, globalisation has accelerated at an unimaginable speed. Information technology and the speedy development of the global market have included formerly isolated parts of the world in the overall global development, which now seems irreversible. The new emerging global situation is best described as a multiplicity and manifold process, characterised by massive demographic changes, diaspora, immigration, global capital flows, and a global cultural circulation, inconceivable only a few years ago.
In the exhibition section entitled The Present, we attempt to capture this manic now, the contemporary, the present moment. We believe there is a need to focus on the accelerating global situation, which currently turns world images, which have helped shape our identity, upside down.
The global present is marked by visibility and mediation, never before presented with the same degree of visuality as is now the case. The idea of a homogeneous and stable world picture is replaced by a kaleidoscopic diversity of views and directions. The barrage of impressions in our global reality cannot be captured by the West’s centralised gaze.
The central element in The Present is the impossible task of capturing the contemporaneous in a fragmented reality where the grand narratives and the illusory idea of being able to contain the world in a collective narrative have foundered.
Where The Present takes stock of the global reality of our lives at this precise moment in time, The Future seeks to unfold the new challenges facing humanity on the threshold of what has been termed the Anthropocene epoch. This is an epoch which punctures our preconception of man’s special position in relation to nature and of nature as a passive romantic entity.
Nature is neither beautiful nor benevolent, nor something we are required to save; on the contrary, we must exploit the powers and potential we have, so far, been unable to perceive, because the preoccupation with nature of former times has veiled and romanticised it. The longing for unblemished nature stands in the way for the inevitable evolution. This new realism is precisely the one we are likely to adopt in our dealings with nature in the future. For this reason, The Future will not be a romantic yearning for the unblemished, but a visionary reality check.
Ideas about what the future may bring and the role of art in this context are manifold. The exhibition will be coloured by a multifarious debate, almost entropic in nature.
WHY A NEW TRIENNIAL?
The following exchange takes place in the play Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):
‘Cecil Graham: What is a cynic?
Lord Darlington: A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
Cecil Graham: And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.’
So the question is at what price and gain, ARoS expects to launch this new triennial?
We decided to launch the Triennial in 2017, the year in which Aarhus holds the title of European Capital of Culture. The Triennial occurs at a time when we, more than ever before, need art and culture to remind us where we come from, where we are today, and where we are heading. ARoS wants to give art the position and show it the respect, it deserves.
The Triennial is intended as a contribution to the artistic ecosystem in Denmark and in Scandinavia. It is a proposal that will shine some light on what we can do for art, in order to give it the respect and position that is due to it. But the Triennial is also intended to show what art is capable of. We know that art is under pressure from a political point of view, that Europe is becoming increasingly polarised, and that cultural institutions are the first victims of cuts. Therefore, we want to turn art into an indispensable part of society, for if institutions wait too long, they may leave it too late to assert their legitimacy, relevance, and place in society. With this Triennial, we want to leave a footprint in a Europe that is going down the wrong path.
The Triennial is our contribution to the dialogue which now proves more important to keep alive and to stimulate than ever before: what does it mean to be a human being among other human beings?