From Counter-Bourgeois to Context-Oriented

Amateur–variable research initiatives 1900 & 2000. Göteborgs Konstmuseum, 20 May – 17 September 2000.

Curators: Charles Esche (SCO), Mark Kremer (NL), Adam Szymczyk (PL). Artists exhibited: Eija-Liisa Ahtila (FIN), Pawel Althamer (PL), Tacita Dean (GB), Maria Eichhorn (D), Hreinn Fridfinnsson (IS/NL), GLOBE (DK), Jens Haaning (DK), Susan Hiller (GB/USA), Job Koelewijn (NL), Edward Krasinski (PL), Maria Lindberg (S), Kirsten Mosher (USA), Dan Peterman (USA), Børre Saethre (N), Gregor Schneider (D), Anika Ström (S), Jörgen Svensson (S), Kathy Temin (AUS), Thorvaldur Thorsteinsson (IS), Richard Wright (SCO).

The exhibition entitled Amateur – variable research initiatives 1900 & 2000, held at the Goeteborg Konstmuseum and at the neighbouring Hasselblad Center and Konsthallen, is a significant embodiment of the current tendency to “mine the museum,” that is, to demystify its ideological role, and to expose its firm roots in social and political domains. Intended as a symbolic link between two turns of the century – the year 1900 and the year 2000 – this exhibition has been created by an international team of curators, namely Charles Esche (Scotland), Mark Kremer (Netherlands) and Adam Szymczyk (Poland). The exhibition consists of two interrelated parts, the historical and the contemporary, where the former prefigures the latter. The effect they produce together resembles opening the self-enclosed and inaccessible museum-space to the outside world, turning the inside out.

“The amateur,” reads one of the entries in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (i.e., someone who engages in an activity solely for his/her own pleasure, without an interest in mastery, or competition; amator = one who loves), “the Amateur renews his pleasure. He is anythingbut a hero (of creation, of performance); (…) he is – he will be perhaps – the counter-bourgeois artist.” Exploring the social context of art in Sweden around 1900, the curators of Amateur do some careful research into the complexities of the bourgeois and counter-bourgeois antinomy. Adam Szymczyk focuses on the archaeology of the building, that is, he pursues the history of the Goeteborg Konstmuseum starting from its very inception. The museum originated in the Pontus Fürstenberg collection, which had been established by a wholesaler from Goeteborg in the 1880s. At first situated in a private art gallery, the Fuerstenberg Collection was made accessible to the public in 1885, then was donated to the museum in 1902 and eventually, in 1925, it was moved from its original location to the imposing Goeteborg Exhibition building. The collection itself consisted mostly of works by prominent representatives of Swedish Symbolism, such as Carl Larsson, Per Hasselberg, Emile Soldi, Ernst Josephson. Often referred to as the “forest of nudes,” the Fuerstenberg Collection illustrated an attitude of disengagement and disinterested connoisseurship, which at the time was programmatic for the bourgeois experience of art. In his display, Szymczyk retraces the original settings and arrangements of paintings and sculptures, thus revealing a network of mirror-like correspondences between them. His juxtapositions, instead of confirming a sense of the works’ autonomy and detachment, transform them into narratives, putting them back into their original architectural, biographical and social context.

The Fuerstenberg Collection’s display thematises the notion of private art collections and museums as figures for the home.Domesticity and habitation are the leading motives of the Amateur exhibition. The social significance of art is further explored in two other displays that belong to the historical part of the exhibition. The critical stance of Ivar Arosenius, a Swedish artist who in his grotesque imagery records moral and cultural aspects of society’s transformation at the turn of the centuries, is featured by a display by Mark Kremer. The collection of furniture and paintings related to Ellen Key (composed to a display by Charles Esche), a Scottish social worker and writer who lives in Sweden, reflects her ideas on the role of art and design in the social and cultural emancipation of the working class. The interior of Ellen Key’s country house, the exhibition’s Newsletter reads, “shows a mixture of avant-garde vision and a wish to hold onto certain aspects of bourgeois life. It is an illustration of the contradictoriness that accompanied the end of the nineteenth century in Sweden, where society was in a state of flux and new paradigms were emerging.”

Nowadays, a century later, being the counter-bourgeois artist does not seem to be much of an issue. Recent art practice retained, however, a sense of amateurism, as conveyed in Roland Barthes’ writings; for him, it is the field of photography which escapes the rigours of professionalism and expertise and may function as a domain of disinterested passion. Rosalind Krauss suggested that all art following Duchamp, being indexical, is photographic in character. It is small wonder, then, that the majority of site and context related works in the contemporary part of the Amateur exhibition seem to develop, and refer to, the guiding idea of amateurism.

In his work, Joergen Svensson (Sweden) attempts to neutralise the splendour of the Konstmuseum’s facade and to connect its inside with the outside environment. He does so by attaching a large Pizzeria sign to the wall over the seven arches of the building, and addressing the issue of ‘communication’ between the cook and a guest waiting for his pizza in a video installation placed inside the building. The view of the museum’s facade is also supplemented and subverted by Pawel Althamer’s (Poland) pigeon loft, which is located on the museum’s roof. Althamer’s work seems toappropriate the limitless outside of the museum as a space for a generation of art and the distribution of its messages. His project is paralleled by the earlier House Project (1974) by Hreinn Fridfinnsson (Island/Netherlands), whose idea it was to reverse the domestic space of a small mountain cabin inside out, turning the outside in.

The ambiguous borderline territory between the inside and the outside, private and public, is further explored in a socially oriented project by the Globe group (Denmark) who investigate “models of resistance” against instruments of social control in public spaces. Gregor Schneider evokes the destructive power of surveillance in his Hannelore Reuen piece, which is a contemporary employment of the Smithsonian site/non-site dialectics, whereas Job Koelewijn (Netherlands) unearths layers of collective memory in his slide projection installation in which black/white images of tomb inscriptions are projected onto the ceiling. The museum-turned-mausoleum is investigated in precise terms by Maria Eichhorn (Germany), whose project consists of measuring the circulation of air in the museum’s space. Edward Krasinski (Poland) invalidates the power of the 19th century modes of display prevalent in the museum by substituting the paintings of one of the rooms with their black/white photographs and encircling the space with a stripe if thin blue tape at a height of 130 cm. With his wall painting, Richard Wright (Scotland) aims at exposing the heterogeneity of architectural surroundings, attempting to familiarise a space which would otherwise remain indecipherable.

The Amateur exhibition may be interpreted as a reflection on the direction that transformations of art, including its status and role in society, took during the course of the 20th century. Being open structured and avoiding any strict thematisation, its cultural, social and historical implications are potentially limitless. Charles Esche, Mark Kremer and Adam Szymczyk set into motion this grand proliferation with competence and imagination.