Working Through the Past: Nordic Conceptual Art as a Tool for Re-thinking History
Author: Kjetil Røed
Publisher: Skira, Norway
What is the point of conceptual art? How do contemporary art and history relate to each other, two almost incompatible concepts? Art historian and critic Kjetil Røed’s new book is not a «best of conceptual art» book, even though it also functions as an introduction to recent Nordic conceptual art. Rather, it is a profound recognition of our contemporary experience and an equally serious concern about its development. Røed continues his targeted fight against the distant, the unrecognizable, and the superficial.
The book project of Kjetil Røed is based on Walter Benjamin’s clarification «to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it» in Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940).
The call to reconsider history is successful. Many can recognize the feeling of powerlessness over not finding the relevance of history in the here-and-now state we are left with; where history is an instrument, an insignificant factual line that does not seem to make sense, a kind of histoire-pour-l’histoire, where history points to its own self-justified existence, no longer as a story, but without connection to our real existence here and now. History is always managed by institutions, and with its overview, it seems to be able to terminate the view of ourselves or as its chosen objects.
Røed refers to the central British art theorist Claire Bishop’s definition of art as «something more than facts.» This poetic way of reading art history involves a reassessment of art – and of the art historian. Art history must not be used to classify rarity, nobility, beauty, or price-evaluate the object, this «something» can become stories that take one out of facts. Often, writes Røed, this «something» is history, that is, the past, which is brought into, or used by, the space of contemporary art. Conceptual art are meaningful stories. The art historian appears as a wandering storyteller about these stories, the moments in history where conceptual art seeks blind spots in the present.
Many can recognize the feeling of powerlessness over not finding the relevance of history in the here-and-now state we are left with
When Dovre Falls
We live in the quite strange and confusing reality in Norway, writes Røed. He refers to Scandinavian examples, especially in Norwegian art, with emphasis on the last 30 years and mostly in the last 15 years, that is, after 2005. For example, the story of Dovre (Andreas Bennin, A Nation Restored, 2013) is an example of how conceptual art captures, changes or adds «more-than-facts» perspectives on such «lost» stories: Dovre, the Acropolis of the Eidsvoll Men, became a training ground for Norwegian military and NATO forces from 1923; the most war-torn area in Norway. Eventually, this was seen as unfortunate, and with a budget of over 160 million kroner, the entire 135 square kilometer mountain area was restored. Bomb craters and trenches were filled in. In a massive operation, the area was staged back to its cosmetically natural state: a piece of idyllic and untouched – Norwegian – nature.
In the space of conceptual art, a new truth can emerge, beyond history itself, beyond time, not in art, but in the intersection between these, in the story, and in the way it is told.
Scandinavian conceptual art also acts as a merciful Samaritan, «taking care of history» when the overview falls short and loopholes arise. «The storyteller faced with the ruins of the past», as one of the chapters is titled. Kjetil Røed shows this with examples ranging from Victor Lind to Ahmad Gossein, from Marianne Heske to Kajsa Dahlberg, as well as the early concept of Ole John Aandal.
The perspectives in Nordic conceptual art over the past 15 years show how art scratches at the surface of history from a critical perspective on power. It is in the intertwining of historical perspectives in conceptual art that past and present are woven together into the future, not in a linear understanding of time, and since it is spatial, it will also touch on the mythical. Decolonization also takes place in art history. It is in battle arenas that leave behind national, personal, international traumas, or events that are «larger than life», especially those surrounded by silence or different forms of memory loss, that conceptual art has particular success with its treatment. But there are worse things in the world than shattered mountain crags on Dovre.
From Montaigne to Adorno
The title refers to the German term «Vergangenheitsbewältigung» («coming to terms with the past»), which arose at a post-1945 literary, social, and cultural stage. Røed moves here into darker areas than in previous collections. For the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, November 9, 1959, brought criticism of «Vergangenheitsbewältigung» after a new wave of attacks against Jewish synagogues in West Germany, where he rejected the phrase «working through the past» as misleading. Instead of critical self-reflection, it masked a denial. Had they not learned anything from the past?
Adorno’s criticism targeted the philosopher Heidegger and his affiliation with Nazism. Heidegger portrayed Germania as a distinctly German origin and destiny. Later, he formed the concept of «the West». Adorno’s «Auschwitz» is the extreme point on the axis from Germania. Heidegger’s «dasein», or «presence», the moment of presence, has become a here-and-now experience that is entirely devoid of moral responsibility, in a historical withdrawal from historical reality. Røed’s book is an attack on this lack of morality. If we do not learn from history, we should at least learn from Røed’s book:
“Since the 1994 reform, history has slowly but surely reduced its significance in Norwegian schools. It is an invitation to ‘dasein’ existence; a restriction of the human being and society as an economic condition, it is an invitation to collective memory loss, but also to the possibility of assessment. Such a here-and-now perception of society touches precisely on this issue.”
Therefore, Røed delves deeply into the toolbox of Norwegian society when, in one of the chapters, he raises questions about «memorials.» He looks to the memorials for World War II in Germany. What creates the complications of creating the memorial stones and memorials after July 22? Ethics is the new confrontation.