Maja and Reuben Fowkes:

Degrees of Modernity
Arctic Hysteria (Ludwig Museum, Budapest), Mi Vida (Mucsarnok), Altermodern (Tate Britain)


Since there is an argument that we are now living at the ‘zero hour’ of a new modernity, in which information is available simultaneously and transterritorially, new possibilities are opened up for comparison in contemporary art. The three exhibitions discussed all deal with the phenomenon of national representation within a globalised art context. Arctic Hysteria is a show of Finnish art curated for an international audience, Mi Vida is an exhibition based on a Spanish collection of international art, while Altermodern is the 2009 edition of the British art triennial that trespasses national borders.

The curator of the latter is Nicolas Bourriaud, who offers not just an ambitious exhibition, but a provocative contribution to current thinking about globalisation and the position of contemporary art within it. The term ‘Altermodern’ is at the same time the title of the exhibition and an attempt to describe the period that followed postmodernism. It has roots in the idea of otherness, multitudes of possibilities and alternatives to a single route, and is related to the more widely recognised notion of ‘alterglobalisation’, that refers to the ‘plurality of local oppositions to the economic standardisation imposed by globalisation.’

The starting point for reading the present, according to Bourriaud, is the ‘death of postmodernism’ for which he offers an insightful analysis of its two phases. The first phase belonged to the 1980s and was characterised by the ‘eternal reversions of modernist forms’, this was succeeded after 1989 by a ‘multiculturalist mythification of origins’, expressed through the question ‘where do you come from?’ and identified with genre, ethnicity, sexual orientation or nation. Although the ideas that characterise the ‘altermodern’ are themselves open to question, they can provide useful keys to understanding the present moment of contemporary art, including the issues raised by the two exhibitions in Budapest.

Arctic Hysteria, as essentially a national show, relates to what Bourriaud calls the post-modernist ‘neurotic preoccupation with origins typical of the era of globalisation’. The Finnish show, camouflaged behind a larger geographic entity - Arctic - which covers only a narrow northern strip of the country, takes as its starting point the exploration of national clichés. This is to some extent itself a cliché in curatorial approaches to national survey shows, however, Arctic Hysteria manages to go beyond this frame of reference by pushing its clichés to an extreme in order to appeal to the international audience at PS1 New York, for which Arctic Hysteria was originally conceived.

The most resonant works in the show are those that refer to globally recognisable issues, such as Ilkka Halso’s series the Museum of Nature, which depicts views of the natural wilderness getting ‘museumised’. Mika Taanila’s film is about futuristic living pods that already in the 1970s probed the limits of the modernist technological imagination. Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen’s Complaints Choir is itself a transnational work whose formula has been popularly employed from Budapest to Singapore.

A common reaction to Arctic Hysteria in Budapest was ‘what would Hungarian art look like if given the same treatment’ and if so, which national stereotypes would be available for curatorial repackaging? This however is a post-modernist trap, as it is a submission to the homogenising standards of the international art world. In this sense, Arctic Hysteria is one degree less contemporary than Altermodern, which instead privileges local difference and opposition to the globalised art model.

Mi Vida is from the point of view of exhibition design better produced than many recent shows in the Mucsarnok and manages to break up the cavernous space by blocking off communication along the side wings and for once resisting the temptation to fill the walls with unjustifiably massive projections. The four smaller projection rooms accessible through dark passages create appropriate environments to appreciate intimate works such as Kimsooja’s poetic film A Laundry Woman-Yamuna River, India and Jesper Just’s emotionally-charged video No Man is an Island, although the pitch black in some cases makes it impossible to read the wall labels. Candice Breitz’s Mother familiar to many from the 2005 Venice Biennial, remains a faultless post-Freudian incantation of the cinematic tropes of the mother daughter relationship and is a good counterpart to the previously mentioned film.

The major drawback of Mi Vida is connected to its origins in a collection of a ‘Museum of the Present’. When contemporary works are uprooted from their original setting and reduced to a bare state of objecthood, for which the only context that counts is their financial value, they very often lose some of their ability to communicate and directly affect the viewer. Bourriaud in his text for Altermodern is convincing about the dangers of the hyper-marketisation of contemporary art, when he warns against making art into a ‘secondary type of merchandise in a system of values entirely oriented towards this ‘general and abstract equivalent’ that is money.’

The several works in the show that represent the horrors of war come across as voyeuristic and exploitative through their presentation within a purely visual and aestheticising context. Likewise Marina Abramovic’s Balkan Erotic Epic functions in this objectified setting as a spectacle of self-colonisation for the Western gaze with its sensationalist reinterpretation of the erotic secrets of South Slav folk culture.

Thinking in terms of modernity, this show of a famous international collection exemplifies the Mucsarnok’s current devotion to the laws of the art market, which is expressed through the prominence it gives to the Budapest Art Fair, offering the entire space to private collectors, and foremost in the fresh practice of VIP private views. By seeking to adopt the forms of the global art market’s structures at the cost of diminishing the best of local art traditions, such as democratic rules for exhibition openings, the institution scores less on the scale of modernity, since it fails to question the unconditional rule of the art market.

Altermodern as a show disappointed those brought up on the glamour and spectacle of the Saatchi era. Generally Bourriaud did not go for the celebrity artists, but rather for ‘alter-celebrities’, such as Gustav Metzger. Subodh Gupta’s gigantic mushroom cloud Line of Control made out of aluminium cooking pans and Ruth Ewan’s giant accordion Squeezebox Jukebox in a sense push the clichés of British art over the edge. While Walead Beshty’s installation of Fedex Sculptures, damaged glass cubes fedexed around the globe, points to the critique of the overproduction and overcirculation of contemporary art, one of the most compelling works is Nathaniel Mellors’s Giantbum installation, which takes the viewer on a coprophiliac journey inside the hermetic netherworld of modernist obsession.

3. April 2009.