Preus Museum commemorates the fortieth anniversary of Fotogalleriet. Review by Morten Andenæs.
Preus Museum, Norway’s only museum devoted entirely to the photographic medium has put together The Young Lions, an exhibition in two parts, chronicling the forty year long history of Fotogalleriet. Part I traces the lineage of Fotogalleriet, an artists run initiative and gallery founded by Tom Sandberg and Dag Alveng, from its inception in 1977 up to the present. Part II is an exhibition consisting of nine young artists whose work is said to reveal certain aspects of the photographic discourse today.
I’m not going to write a gripping tale of my meandering through the exhibition. Of how I learned facts hitherto unknown to me. Of how I confronted certain preconceived notions about our collective photographic history. Or of my being moved indelibly by an image I had not seen in a decade or two. Whether this show leaves me at times wistful, outraged, offended or merely shrugging my shoulders is a discussion better left to a different setting. Neither will I make sweeping generalisations about “where” photography and its accompanying discourse is at the moment based on the works on display in Part II because doing so would seem antithetical to the issue at hand.
To those of you who are able, go see this exhibition. To those of you who for various reasons are prevented from making the trip physically, read the two texts laboriously written by curators Hege Oulie and Kristian Skylstad.
It is important.
They are important.
The history of Fotogalleriet as a collective grass-root effort to bring photography as a free expression into common parlance is an important one and one that deserves being seen by anyone who considers themselves part and parcel of a photographic or artistic discourse either past, present or future. Though it has been quite a local phenomenon, Fotogalleriet’s existence points to a host of relevant issues that confront each and every one of us everyday, all the time, and it is these issues I’d like, with what limited space is available here, to open for discussion.
In The Price, one of the talk pieces in David Antin’s classic what it means to be avant garde (1986), he talks about the relationship between narrative and identity.
“We desire to be different and what we really desire is that we will be the ones who will be differentwe want to be different but we want to be us”.
Upon rereading these passages in conjunction with seeing The Young Lions, it dawned on me that part of what interests me upon visiting this exhibition is this relationship between identity and the on-going need for a narrative which is made manifest by the markings of this anniversary.
A 40th birthday is a kind of halfway mark for an average human in our part of the world, often inciting all kinds of fears and desperations, the ritual blowing out of the candles signalling the lights going out; overcome by adulthood we are one step closer to death. And yet for institutions, having survived this long often canonizes them.
In 2017 with this exhibition and the elaborate and ambitious scope of exhibitions at Fotogalleriet in Oslo, with lectures, book launches, workshops and archival studies being conducted all year long, I wonder if this need for such an ambitious showcase is symptomatic of something that defines both the gallery and the medium with which it has always been engaged?
Reading through Hege Oulie’s text accompanying the exhibition, I am struck by the frequency with which Fotogalleriet and its sister organisation FFF (The Norwegian Association of Fine Art Photographers) has found occasion to commemorate itself over the years. That such a small organisation and artist-run initiative feels the need to utilize any and all means to get their message out is not difficult to fathom. I too find it important to acknowledge oneself as being part of several intersecting traditions (in fact I had my first show in what I consider my adult life as part of Fotogalleriet’s 30th anniversary), and, I believe its important to give due praise. In an era where tradition and verifiable information stretching backwards through time in a linear fashion has been supplanted by an ever changing and expansive eternal present where linear time itself is rendered moot, it is more important than ever that we retrace our steps in order to get a better understanding about where we ourselves are headed. As a psychiatrist I know recently put it, the most valued therapeutic tool at his disposal was to tell patients and clinicians alike, to go back. Return again and again to a site of contention in order to be able to move forward. In this I commend the job that the curatorial team has made in the first part of the exhibition.
My concern however is this: how can a museum, devoted to a certain medium (in this case Preus), commemorate an initiative like Fotogalleriet which is dedicated to understanding this same medium as an ever-changing, expanding organism, without constricting the very thing it sought to investigate?
Of course this is a problem that any museum faces when attempting to tell a story about a movement; of course presenting the vitality with which a certain movement was and continues to be imbued (let’s keep in mind that Fotogalleriet still exists in Oslo) is a difficult task precisely because of its need to both tell the story of a tradition, and try to do so immediately without putting great distance between itself and the thing in question.
Photography will always be an elaborate set of highly unstable practices reaching from the scientific to the poetic, from the particular to the universal, the supposedly commercial to “the free” and from amateurish efforts to professional endeavours (though as Skylstad points out in his essay for the catalouge, this last distinction has largely disappeared).
However. What defines photography as Fotogalleriet has used the term in the course of its history is as a set of practices that is not aimed at some “other” goal than to facilitate their own expression, expansion and understanding of itself within the culture at large. That does not mean that the “free” or “artistic” photograph can not be politically explicit or motivated, that it can not be the site of subjective positions, that it can not be loaded with art-historical references or discourses or play a part in alternative archiving practices or conceptual endeavours to name just a few of the photographic avenues of thought that have passed through that gallery in the span of its life. It does mean however that photography seen from this perspective is not a full-fledged language or system adhering to certain rules and with an obligation to “be” anything at all, and if we take this to its logical endpoint, then the very idea of institutionalising this initiative is to inflict a certain kind of violence upon it- it is to force Fotogalleriet and its various expressions into boundaries that will always end up reflecting back upon those doing this categorising work rather than saying something valuable about the medium itself, and in this, there is a parallel to one of the central difficulties facing anyone trying to tie photography down.
Fotogalleriet set itself apart from the camera clubs that had grown increasingly popular and which thrive to this day with their competitions and rules; they distanced themselves from the commercial establishment claiming often to have certain artistic aspirations, and also from the museums and private galleries with their heavyset structures and need for simple branding techniques. In doing so they promoted practices in which the works produced did not easily lend themselves to being judged according to certain pre-existing standards of communication or aesthetic principles.
That which can be judged can also be understood and that which can be understood is categorised and filed neatly into place and rendered completely and utterly harmless. Billions of the photographic images we are surrounded by daily follow this logic - they function increasingly like a stupid, amputated, incomplete and yet sadly “good enough” language for an increasingly stupid conversation. We smile or frown and raise our thumbs, we show off our dinners and immerse ourselves for hours as Skylstad points out in an ever-expanding ocean of mindnumbing singularity, in turn treating the photograph as informative bits of text.
Roland Barthes spoke of the wish to create a singular science for each and every photograph precisely because, as most of us working with photography know, their magic often resides in their resistance to being reduced to language.
Fotogalleriet started out as an initiative that constituted and defined a space. It claimed and cleared a space for the photograph along the lines of what Barthes in Camera Lucida would call his desperate resistance to any reductive system. And yet, this desire often bears witness to another need, namely to create a space that preserves the ephemeral or that which can’t be reduced to any system.
The desire to be free and autonomous is always inextricably linked to the need to orient oneself in relation to society at large. It is part of teenage rebellion and often in fact, the misunderstood grounds for a midlife crisis, and this tension we could argue, is made clear by the opposition between the deadpan walls of Dag Alveng and the otherworldly dark silvery holes of Tom Sandberg which function as the exhibitions point of entry and exit respectively. Not day and night, but Dag(Day)/ (something), and Tom, (empty / nothing).
I keep returning to the same point but bear with me because there is a certain contradiction at the heart of the Fotogalleriet project itself. What does it mean to desire freedom as artists and on behalf of a medium, and yet still be tied to a tradition? And in turn, does it make sense to make a museum show about it such as the one that confronts us at Preus?
It makes sense that is.
This first part of the exhibition acknowledges this tension, and even has the exhibition literally revolve around it as in orbit. Through the use of a loose chronology and an immense effort at localising scraps of interviews, early reviews, press releases and the like, the exhibition is a necessary foray into a space which for most of us working in the field today, has had an impact on us whether we are aware of it or not.
In the second part of the show, Skylstad in his essay, makes the distinction between the concept of a revolution as drastic (often political) change and as it is understood in astronomy where a revolution constitutes a celestial body having come “full circle”. In his view, photography has come full circle as it were, astronomically.
This could be understood in two ways.
Photography has come full circle, it has grown up and is now relegated to moving slowly, contently in orbit until it grows old and dies, OR, it has yet again come back to an initial point of contention, it has returned, yes, but returned to confront the same deadlock it confronted in its teens, its twenties and thirties but now, perhaps finally, the crisis is a fact - the stakes are inordinately high, and buying a Porsche or claiming the same nihilism as a decade before is finally understood as equally empty narrative structures that however you twist and turn them, won’t help you. You’re fucked and the confrontation with those same initial issues that have plagued you throughout is inevitable.
Again as David Antin points out, “we want to be different but we want to be us”.
This second part of The Young Lions showcases nine young artists, who according to the press release “reflect the many and highly diverse approaches to photography as an artistic medium” which abound today. I do not doubt the sincerity of this statement nor its intention, and neither do I claim that this part of the exhibition does not reflect a number of possible photographic inquiries for an up and coming, as well as a fairly well established generation. Several of the artists included are already on their way to becoming established figures within the photographic discourse in Norway. It is also worth mentioning, as an aside, that several of those included in the show are involved with another not for profit initiative which has made a solid mark in Oslo over the last five to ten years. Galleri MELK and its offspring Heavy Books has in this period perhaps taken over part of what was once Fotogalleriet’s provenance, and seeing this influence in such clear text is interesting to say the least, when considering that this is a show devoted to understanding the role Fotogalleriet has had and continues to have as a defining agent on the Norwegian photographic scene.
That aside, walking through the exhibition leaves me feeling like I am seeing a facsimile of what an exhibition of photography, or rather camera, or lens- based arts usually looks like in 2017. The works on display feel like dried up relics from other spaces and earlier projects, forced into an institutional framework in order to satisfy a museum that is itself perhaps hungry to get “the kids” in to look at what art-photography, for lack of a better term, is today.
Because I know many of these artists first-hand, and because I’ve seen a fair amount of these projects in other spaces at other times, I know that there is a sense of urgency at the heart of their respective practices, but this urgency is unfortunately suffocated as it stands here. Several of these works and projects are important and vibrant contributions to an ever evolving medium, but if this part of the exhibition was intended to exemplify the mode of operation that Fotogalleriet inherently has been a proponent for, an experimental and evolving approach constantly testing the limits of what this medium can bear witness to, then this part of the exhibition appears to be lacking in the most necessary and fundamental belief that photographic images have anything more to teach us than what we already know - a highly contented state of affairs, or: adulthood at its worst.
I refuse to believe that these “young” practitioners and curators have lost their belief in their respective projects, but at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, and because of the way this exhibition is designed, Part II in effect and retroactively, makes of Part I an empty shell. If this second part is to function as living testimony to Fotogalleriet’s continued relevance, then it fails in this task, and apropos of the abovementioned discussions, how could it not?
To my mind, its as simple as this: an initial proposal envisioned that in a museum setting such as this, an historic exhibition must or should have a contemporary counterpart in order to make visible and viable the fact that what is under examination, the history of a given initiative, is in fact still alive and vibrant.
I get it.
But somewhere along the line, or perhaps right there and then, someone should have questioned this, and seen what could be done to ensure that the urgency with which photography continues to be practiced shone through and spilled over into the exhibition space rather than becoming an orderly affair, twice removed from its original and once urgent context.
On my way out, walking past Sandberg’s enticingly black holes, through vitrine after vitrine of Norways largest collection of antiquated camera equipment, I find myself staring down at the back of Juvenilia, Ole John Aandal’s book from 2009. Aandal has played a key role in Fotogalleriet, acting as its second director from 1995 to 2000, and seeing this slender volume, I’m immediately put in mind of Fotogalleriet’s 30th anniversary where he showed the seeds of what was to become this project in the exhibition Something out of nothing curated by Susan Bright. Never try to trick me with a kiss and the ensuing Juvenilia, is one of the most important and timely contributions to the art of photography this side of the millennium, and a perfect example of how a work of art in its initial, still formative stages functioned as part of an exhibition commemorating a gallery and a spirit that worked in incomplete sentences rather than completed narratives. I wonder when we will see something from Aandal next, because last time around, almost ten years ago, his works reached far into the future, ruptured the present and probed deep into the past, and come to think of it, his works have always done exactly that.
We live in a moment where images and photographic representations dominate our lives so thoroughly that many of us have fallen prey to the illusion that it is we who have become their masters rather than the other way round, and I wonder if this is not to some extent a typical trait of the adult, at least right before the midlife crisis sets in?
We stand at a precipice.
Perhaps we’ve been here before.
Perhaps only ten years ago, or twenty, and perhaps we’ll stand right here again. Most likely we will. We could go on our way and be content that photography has reached a level of becoming yet another thing that comfortably numbs us, that it has reached its ultimate goal as Skylstad laconically hints at, and has become so thoroughly assimilated into the institutional safe harbour that it becomes invisible, finally; a place where the rebellious teenager has “come to their senses” and come to adopt the view of their parents and let go of their prior constant need to confront and be so difficult, all the fucking time.
We could. But we shouldn’t.
Never try to trick me with a kiss.