“Some ways of presenting art are more valid than other,” says the Norwegian director/curator Erlend G. Høyersten at Aarhus Art Museum in Jutland, Denmark. Is it possible to create an exhibition that is neither historically nor thematically chronological, and which does not leave the public in the middle of a cloud without instruments?
ARoS Aarhus Art Center in Denmark has taken the challenge by presenting the exhibition Out of Darkness- The exhibition runs through December 31.
Some ways of presenting art are more valid than others. The most widespread are modelled on traditional art history and structure their presentation according to date, geography, schools of art or relationships. We talk of this as a historical and chronological approach. It is based on the Darwinist idea that art undergoes a development to which there is a beginning and an end.
In the western world’s homogenous view of the world and culture as having relatively few outstanding figures, as was the case during the 15th-century Renaissance or the 17th-century Baroque period, this makes sense. Indeed, even far into the 19th century this is an appropriate way of describing and presenting the artistic cohesion. Today, however, there are not many who would be inclined to view developments in the history of art purely in this way. Both the world and art are too complex for this. There are various currents and counter-currents, breaches and developments that at times are related to each other and at other times bear no relationship to each other at all.
A series of different explanatory models – social, economic, gender related – are used to gain an understanding of the creative force behind that thing we call art. In the light of this, the chronological approach emerges as something of an ana- chronism. And yet it nevertheless makes sense. So many museums, including ARoS, still choose to present art as a series of connected events. Picasso always comes after Cézanne. Why? Because we need structure and systematism and because we need meaningful stories.
Although there is a great difference between the first Wunderkammers (in which every conceivable kind of curiosity could be brought together in a single room) and the colossal museums of today containing millions of objects, it is all about the same thing: understanding the world by catching hold of the world. It makes sense to understand context by means of a story.
For the last 20 years – alongside the collapse of the grand narrative – curatorial approaches have been based on a fundamental idea or a theme that has become the guiding principle behind an exhibition. Chronology has become less important, although it is still fundamental when presenting “the political 60s”, “gender and identity”, “art and sport” or “art and urbanism”.
To present art without structure is like flying into a cloud without flight instruments. We have too little to help us find our bearings. Conceptual exhibitions provide a clear structure, but within the concept it is left to the individual to pick and shop and zap.
Human beings have always told each other stories. About creation, about heroism, about events. All great religions derive from a story of creation. A transformation from nothing, a word or some primal force into a world, an order and a harmony.
When the world has been created, it is in constant conflict between harmony and disharmony, between light and darkness, in an everlasting search for balance. Just as life is for all of us. The attempt to recover control and balance is the dominant principle in all great narrative art, whether in the form of religious texts, novels, drama or film. Some people will maintain that the narrative is the basis of all understanding: the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Genesis, The Suffering of Christ, the final stories in the Koran, Hamlet, A Doll’s House, Death of a Salesman, Star Wars, The Matrix,
The Wire, The Bridge, My Struggle, House of Cards. All are based on the same fundamental structure: a beginning and an end, conflict and change.
In our exhibitions, we strive to create a framework that drives the experience on – in just the same way as an author drives a story on. With its large, clearly defined galleries, narrow corridors and passages, the architecture of the exhibition represents a series of formal tactics. The same can be said of the use made of light and darkness. The selected artworks are the content, and they are open to interpretation both individually and as a totality. Each gallery has an entrance and an exit. The public is not left to its own devices – there is an authoritative structure to the exhibition. Each gallery is unique, but at the same time it is related to those preceding and following it; like the chapters in a book, like scenes in a film or like one of the seven days in Genesis. This means that the experience of the artworks becomes a collective event rather than an individual happening. A formal game? Yes. An attempt to achieve something more? Yes, to make visible mankind’s everlasting and universal search for meaning.
The question now is: How does one create meaning and understanding in a world lacking cohesion, a world that is going through a dramatic process of change? This question could equally well have been asked by Søren Kierkegaard and Schiller as by Casper David Friedrich and J.C. Dahl. The conflicts between the cultural currents and thoughts of the Enlightenment and Romanticism in the decades around 1800 were about many things, including faith and doubt, regarding the place of mankind in Creation. The throbbing sense of being on the threshold of something new and at the same time recognizing with some melancholy that the safe world with which they were familiar was irrevocably a thing of the past must have been striking for people of the Enlightenment.
In the same way today, many look on the world in hope and despair. But the consequences of this ferment are far greater than was the case 200 years ago. In many respects, our age is defined by the fact that for the first time in the history of the world we are standing in the face of a global challenge and a collective fate; a potential abyss or a potential new way of living.
“We promise our visitors a most beautiful view at the top of the mountain. But they are not to have everything served on a plate; they must themselves make an effort to reach the top,” says Erlend Høyersten.
ARoS is an internationally oriented museum of art in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city. The 17,000 m2 cube-shaped building was designed by the architects Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen and opened in 2004. In 2011, the world-renowned Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s large-scale installation Your Rainbow Panorama was unveiled as a permanent decorative feature of ARoS. The museum is open all year round Tuesday to Sunday and visitors have access to Olafur Eliasson’s work at the top of the museum.
Action film and the Bible in Denmark, source: ARoS Aarhus Art Museum, Denmark