Bergen Assembly: Monday Begins on Saturday

This review of Bergen Assembly, Bergen’s inaugural triennial, appeared in Flash Art:

Bergen’s inaugural triennial did not come out of the blue. First mooted in 2007, the idea was then debated at the 2009 Bergen Biennial Conference, a Bergen Kunsthall initiative designed to give more visibility, on the art-world map at least, to Norway’s second city. Titled “To Biennial or Not to Biennial?”, the conference scrutinized the biennial format as a whole and yielded the serviceable Biennial Reader (2010). The question at its heart was answered in the affirmative. Somewhat perversely, though, the answer took the form of a triennial: the Bergen Assembly – An Initiative for Art and Research.

Entrusted to the Moscow-based curator-provocateurs Ekaterina Degot and David Riff, the first edition of Bergen Assembly at once glorified and poked fun at the notion of “artistic research”. Taking its title from the 1964 science-fiction novel Monday Begins on Saturday by the brothers Arcady and Boris Strugatsky, a satire of scientific research institutes in the Soviet era, the exhibition was conceived as a book in space. Eleven venues, large and small, played host to imaginary research institutes going by evocative names such as “Institute of the Disappearing Future”, “Institute of Lyrical Sociology” or “Institute of Defensive Magic”, each with its own crew of artist “researchers”. A session of the two-day symposium coinciding with the start of the triennial considered the specificity of artistic research and whether research can be conceived as art, but without reaching any conclusions.

The curators’ avowed “shared preference for time-based and time-intensive art” accounted not just for the exhibition’s elaborate literary framework but also for the prevalence of moving image among the artistic media on display. Lenin’s views about the centrality of cinema among the arts were invoked to justify why video and films, some very long and demanding the visitors’ sustained attention, dominated the show to such an extent. The choice of curators also explained why the overwhelming majority of invited artists were from Moscow and Berlin. As Degot and Riff see it, the triennial’s relatively narrow geographical focus opposes the market-driven dogma of representative global “diversity”.

Barring an exception or two, Norwegian and Scandinavian artists were notable by their absence. The shared post-socialist condition that Russia and Norway have in common did lend a certain local flavour to the symposium discussion and to some of the artworks, namely A Border Musical (2013) by the Chto Delat? platform of which Riff is a member. But, by paying little heed to the local artist community, the curators have turned Bergen into yet another art tourism destination.

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