For any self-proclaimed Bergen artist like myself, Bergen Kunsthall is so much more than an exhibition space. When I arrived from London about ten years ago, the Kunsthall was the place I was first shown in order to give me an idea of what the city could offer in terms of contemporary art. It was here a gore-tex-wearing, pose-less crowd showed me that the posh international art world could have delicious social alternatives. It was at the Kunsthall’s café and event’s space, Landmark, that I once ended up chatting with the legendary US artist Joan Jonas and some local guys as if we were in some corner pub after work. At Landmark I’ve also had the best parties of my life, only to find myself back the next morning, weathering my hangover while babies peacefully crawl on the city’s most beloved beer-smelling carpeted surface.
As an MFA student with the opportunity of showing my work at the Kunsthall at the 2006 graduation show, I found what has become the standard against which I measure every production and mounting process. When it became my turn to curate three consecutive MFA exhibitions, I had the chance to confirm the institution’s incredible ability to facilitate and execute unusual projects.
However, in spite of all of this, I’ve never really known what Bergen Kunsthall is about in terms of its curatorial directive or what its international profile is really all about. This has probably been due to me skipping some talks and not reading some articles, and I guess that I have been OK without that knowledge. But somehow, as the Kunsthall’s directorial responsibility was transferred from Solveig Øvstebø to Martin Clark in 2013, and as my own artistic and professional career developed, my curiosity has increased. I wonder how much of the institution’s success is due to its way of operating, or if the uniqueness of the city of Bergen has anything to do with it. I also wonder how the Kunsthall sees itself as a presence in the lives of the increasing number of artists who have made Bergen their base.
Clark trained as an artist in Sheffield, and then as a curator at the Royal College of Art, London. He was exhibitions curator at the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, and between 2007 and 2013 worked as artistic director of Tate St Ives on the west coast of Cornwall. He arrived at Bergen Kunsthall at a moment when the institution had gained a reputation for being one of Scandinavia’s most prestigious spaces for contemporary art.
Two years into his time as director, Clark staged one of his most memorable exhibitions as director of Bergen Kunsthall. The Noing Uv It included works by over 30 artists and was co-curated with the artist Steve Claydon. This was the first instalment of a two-part exhibition project inspired by the 1970s post-apocalyptic novel by Russell Hoban titled Riddley Walker.
The novel, written in a phonetic approximation to English, tells of a society that reconstructs a lost history through a juxtaposition of references, from the primitive to the modern. For Martin Clark this was an opportunity to make a show that didn’t rely heavily on overarching themes and didn’t play to the conventional institutional practice of carefully pre-conceived productions. Instead he used Hoban’s novel as creative fuel for an intuitive gathering of objects that make up an “object-based vocabulary or intelligence”. For audiences the experience of The Noing Uv It was that of a busy landscape with unexpected resonances between objects, and a series of dynamic spatial interruptions that managed to render the individual artworks as both ruins and totems.
Martin Clark has also come to be known for a different type of exhibition. Shows with delicate materials, lightly installed, exploring the blur between two-dimensional and sculptural pieces, and where the gallery spaces appear stripped down, almost bare.
Giorgio Griffa – Painting into the Fold was one of these shows: here painting was reduced to a minimum of gestures and materials hung in a way that exposed the material. The group show Image Support, which presented mostly wall-based work, showed how various means of image production affect what the images themselves come to be and mean. Most exemplary perhaps was James Richards’s solo show Crumb Mahogany, dominated by its phonographic component sounding through spaces divided by heavy grey drapes.
These exhibitions showcase Martin Clark’s interest in presenting artistic practices in ways that are not always spectacular or seductive, but which are all certainly full of confidence. This seems to be a kind of confidence that comes when artistic practices have overcome the phase of legitimation, when they have found their place in the art world.
I have taken the occasion of Martin Clark’s three-year contract renewal to talk to him and find out what he thinks about Bergen Kunsthall’s international profile, and what he thinks this adored institution represents to artists, students and art professionals in Bergen and beyond.
Kunstkritikk: Do you remember your first impressions of Bergen Kunsthall when you arrived three years ago?
Martin Clark: When I came to Bergen I felt that I was coming to an institution that had gone through an extraordinary period of growth in terms its resources, its budget and its staff, and also in terms of its national and international visibility. It had a really ambitious, strong programme. It worked with good artists at the right moment. Importantly, it was organized in recognition of the fact that Bergen isn’t the cultural centre of the world, and I think the previous director, Solveig Øvstebø, had thought about what it could offer artists instead. A lot of the institution’s reputation, certainly within the professional sector, was built around its very beautiful gallery spaces, its great technical team, and particularly around the commissioning of new works. I think that Bergen Kunsthall has developed a reputation as a place that an artist can come to and develop ambitious new work in a very supportive and very enabling environment.
And what did you set out to do with this?
Coming in, it felt like the job was not to rip things up and start again. It wasn’t like I was coming into an organisation that needed drastic repositioning or re-direction. Instead, it felt like I needed to look at what we could now do from this position, how we could build on these achievements whilst using our position of visibility and influence – certainly within Norway and Scandinavia – to lead and expand the curatorial conversation here. I felt it was important to open things up and maybe take some more chances. To be a little bit more experimental with some of the forms of the programmes. Bergen Kunsthall had been working with really good, strong artists, but I think that for a certain period it had been looking very directly to other international art centres and organisations as a model in order to professionalise and raise itself up to that level. I was interested in saying well, now we’re here, now we’ve got this, how can we start to think differently? How can we use our position and reputation to introduce more uncertainty and risk into the programme, to develop new models and ideas? I guess programmes like the Upstairs residency, where we invite other organisations to inhabit and use one of our spaces for a period of time, with absolute freedom in terms of what they do, or the NO.5 programme, where we re-present exhibitions already shown elsewhere, might be examples of this.
I find it interesting when you say that Bergen Kunsthall was aware of not being the cultural centre of the world. What advantages do you see in being in a place that operates from the periphery?
Well, I seem to specialise in moving to these places. I was in Cornwall before here, and then Bristol before that. I’ve really enjoyed working in the periphery, or whatever you want to call it. Bergen is not a centre, but what’s amazing is that this city has an incredibly strong sense of its own identity. It’s a city that does value and invest in culture. Whether it is the left or the right who are in charge in the city council, there’s a sense that culture is valued. It comes from the top and it trickles down. The other thing I would say is that working here, and also working in other kinds of regional gallery situations, can be a very enabling situation for an artist, because as soon as you are in one of the so-called centres, whether that’s London or New York, Paris, or even Berlin, there’s a lot of noise, a lot of politics, and a lot of distractions in a way.
What kind of noise is that?
For instance, when you invite an artist to show at your institution in these bigger cities, the first thing they might think is “well, if I show with this person in this city, that means that the other institutions there won’t show me for at least 3 or 4 or 5 years”. There’s immediately these politics around institutions within a city. There’s also a different kind of focus and spotlight on an artist in those kinds of situations, which can be great of course, but is also another kind of pressure. Now, when you invite an artist to come to a place like Bergen and work in what are undoubtedly world-class exhibition spaces, with a great team and a decent budget, this can be really enabling. It can be an opportunity for an artist to push their practice and make an exhibition without the same political, cultural, and peer pressure that they might feel if they were having a show of a similar scale in one of those other kinds of locations.
So you feel that Bergen’s peripheral nature leads to artists showing at Bergen Kunsthall to be more risk-taking and more experimental? Can you think of some examples?
One of the first shows I did here was with the Otolith Group. They really pushed themselves to make very new kinds of work, at least for them, including an extraordinary installation with stamps they had collected from newly independent African states, and an incredible animation film, which was something that they hadn’t done before. None of us really knew how this animation was going to turn out until we began installing the exhibition. And Fredrik Værslev, this year’s festival exhibition artist, is also a good example. I think it was a surprising show even for people who are very familiar with his practice. He really saw this as an opportunity to do something very specific and very ambitious. I thought it was wonderful how he understood and responded to both the building and the context. He also understood what it meant to make that show in Bergen rather than another place. Although the show toured – it’s currently on display at Le Consortium, Dijon – it is in a very different format there and I think he would probably never had made that body of work if it hadn’t been for the invitation from Bergen Kunsthall.
We were very open about the starting point for that show. We didn’t demand a particular kind of work, or set out with the expectation that we needed to represent a particular aspect of his practice, because for an artist this can happen a lot. Larger institutions often expect or encourage you to do something you did before, because that’s what they want for their audiences. What I think we do here is open up a space that is very broad and free, and we try to work very intensively with artists to support and realise their project. So, again, part of it has to do with the fact that we’re in a place where there isn’t lots of noise around us. So the artist gets a lot of attention and a lot of interaction with us as an institution. We have also set ourselves up in a way that we don’t have to devote endless amounts of our time, energy and attention to fundraising. We’re a small team, but I try to ensure that as much of our energy as possible goes directly into the programme, and into working with the artist.
Is this ability to free up time and space linked to your state funding?
Yes, that’s hugely important to us. The stability we get from our state funding enables us to work in that way. But it’s not something we take for granted, and we are constantly looking at how we can raise additional funds, diversify and build support and resources. But to have that backbone of funding from both the state and the municipal authorities is what makes this possible and gives us something to build our fundraising on.
I find that state funding is so central to artistic production in Norway. It also plays a role in Norway being peripheral because, while the international art world is so centred on commercial aspects of art like fairs, collecting, and speculating, Bergen has virtually no art market. What do you make of this as a context for the Kunsthall?
I think that it would be wonderful if there were a market in Bergen. You and I know there’s money here, and actually there are a lot of people who are interested in art and culture. But there certainly isn’t a serious market. I think an art market would contribute another kind of texture and another kind of energy to the art scene. When I talk to students in the UK I tell them that yes, you need to go to the institutions like the Serpentine and Whitechapel and Tate of course. But if you’re serious about finding out what’s going on now, who’s interesting, you should be going to the younger commercial galleries, to look at who they’re working with and who they’re showing.
Why is that?
Because I think that for a lot of artists, good commercial galleries represent the first moment of real support and real visibility for their work.
But what about artist-run spaces, and artists’ own initiatives?
Well, for me artist-run spaces and those kinds of initiatives are a brilliant parallel model. I think that in an ideal world you would have both. I believe it’s really important to have, to use a word from the late ‘90s, an “ecology of spaces”. When I came to Bergen three years ago, there was a small but really interesting cluster of artist-run spaces; some of these have gone now, some are still doing very important work. These spaces are vital; they sustain and develop the more grass-roots activity, supporting artists at a crucial moment. However, there’s still no real culture in Bergen of people supporting galleries, artists and the art scene by buying work.
So, even though Bergen Kunsthall doesn’t rely on the market, it would be better for the institution if there was one?
What’s interesting to me is that if you started having commercial galleries building a collector base in Bergen, however small, it would bring a different kind of energy. Good collectors are passionate about art, and about buying work. We at the Kunsthall have members and really loyal audiences, but I would love it if a handful of those, and maybe another 10 or 15 people in the city, started to collect seriously. So yes, Bergen Kunsthall would ideally sit within an ecology where everybody understands their responsibilities and plays their part, so that younger artists who are based in Bergen, or who are being brought to Bergen, are shown in the artist-run spaces or good commercial galleries. Then we, at the Kunsthall, because of our scale, our international networks and reputation, bring artists to the city at a different point in their career, as well as giving a platform to those Norwegian artists that is genuinely international.
What about the artistic scene of Bergen itself? Do you find good, relevant art here?
I think it would be great if there were more artists living and working in Bergen, and I think that comes back to that ecology of artist-run spaces and commercial galleries that I was talking about before. I think that a young artist needs one or the other, or preferably both, in order to begin. Because we work with artists at a different point in their career, and we are not going to be able to give artists who’ve just come out of art school exhibitions at the Kunsthall, that’s just not our mandate. We host the MA show each year, of course, but beyond that Bergen needs other galleries and institutions that will make it easier to keep more artists here.
How does Bergen Kunsthall support the art scene in Bergen then?
For us it isn’t just about giving people exhibitions, it is about bringing world-class international art to this city and showing it in a really strong and exciting way. It’s about artists from Bergen being able to live and work here and see exhibitions of the quality that they would if they were based in London or New York. But at the same time our talks, seminars, education and outreach programmes offer lots of opportunities to find ways to connect with our exhibitions and with the local art scene. We also have lots of people on the local art scene who might be working here in different capacities at different moments.
So you see your role as that of fostering and bringing practices from the international art centres to Bergen?
We have a responsibility to bring the best practice, internationally, to this country and this city. Part of that responsibility is to provide a context that is genuinely international and world-class. By doing this, and then also working with national and locally based artists in different ways, we are raising everybody’s game, and we’re providing genuine visibility and international context for artists showing here, whether from Norway or abroad. If we were too focused on local artists we would lose a lot of that international credibility and visibility, and this would mean losing a lot of what we can give to artists in Norway.
And how do you choose these artists who “raise the game”? What is characteristic of the “best practice”?
Well, it’s not about any specific kind of medium or practice or approach. What I’m normally looking for is work that feels timely, relevant or important now, but that makes me feel like I haven’t been spoken to, or addressed, in that way before. There’s a great Marshall McLuhan quote where he says something like “artists are always writing a history of the future because they’re the only ones aware of the present”. I find that artists who have been really significant and interesting for me are those that have often predicted or developed a whole new language before it becomes familiar. I’m looking for that awkward but irresistible hook of the unfamiliar, like when you hear a record for the first time and don’t like it at all, but then after five or six listens you feel utterly absorbed by it. Another thing is that most of the artists that I’ve worked with, who I’ve really felt strongly about, are artists somehow despite themselves. It’s almost as if even if they wanted to stop being an artist, they couldn’t. It’s not a career choice!
That’s so romantic!
What still makes the art world very exciting to me is that, for all its weird conventions and regulations, it is still very broad, and it is still the arena that accommodates that strange person who’s making that strange thing that nobody quite knows where to put. That’s still really exciting to me. I see it as part of our responsibility at the Kunsthall as well to make sure that we set up a programming and curating structure which is still curious and open and excited enough to keep expanding, to say “OK, I’ve never seen anything like that before, but this needs to be shown, to be thought about, to be looked at”.
And yet, I find that there is so much consensus in the art world. It is so difficult to find this kind of artist that you’re talking about, the one who has a novel way of exploring connections between cultural objects or images or ideas. Do you feel any pressure from this consensus?
I wouldn’t say that I feel a pressure. But it is difficult because you are still part of networks of peers, of other curators, of other institutions, of writers, of magazines, of teachers and art schools. And you’re absolutely right, there are certain practices that we can see all the time and there’s consensus around them. It’s also harder and harder to make time and space for research when you’re working in a very ambitious institution with a very small team. My absolute fantasy would be to have an extra 15 hours a week to just go and do studio visits and look at things. I think the danger for directors and curators is that when that research time gets squeezed from whatever other pressures you’re under – organisational, funding, managerial – then it necessarily narrows your time and ability to look outside of the already legitimised practices, who we’re being told is interesting at the moment and who’s showing where. I think that’s a very real danger and we have to keep fighting for that space and time to just look and think.
So this really affects the kind of artist you show at Bergen Kunsthall.
I only show artists whose work I believe in and think is important, but coupled with that I do believe we have a responsibility to show artists who are getting attention internationally. We should at least give people in Norway the opportunity to see this work and have their own response to it. Because if there’s a lot of noise around an artist’s work internationally, or if there’s a lot of writing around it, then this person is already having an impact in some way. We need to represent what’s going on globally.
As a teacher I find that a lot of the work we do at the academy is about interrupting a tendency to make art that looks like “contemporary art”. In that sense it would be great for our students to be exposed to a greater diversity of work.
I know, you can see certain kinds of aesthetic frames that run for two or three years, when a lot of people are making work that looks like a certain thing, or has a certain grammar, and then it moves on to the next trend. I think we could show really idiosyncratic, overlooked, and marginal practices here at Bergen Kunsthall, and that’s always part of our curatorial conversation. It’s interesting in one sense, and it is of course important. But I guess the reality is that we wouldn’t massively change the aesthetic sensibility of the art world by doing that kind of work here. If we were in London or Berlin and we were doing that kind of work, it would have a different kind of impact. You can build a professional reputation as a curator doing that work, but I think you must also be thinking about context and place, and I think we can do some of this kind of work at Bergen Kunsthall, but we need to also understand what it is we can and should bring to this city, what’s necessary. There’s currently nobody else in Norway, certainly not in Bergen, who is showing the kind of practices, artists and positions that we show at the Kunsthall. And nobody else with the same international visibility and network of collaborators and peers.
You have recently accepted another term as director of the Kunsthall; what are your ambitions for the next three years?
The next three years are about continuing to build our programmes and platforms, not just in the gallery spaces but also on-line, through our publications, and through our international networks. I also want to ensure that Bergen Kunsthall continues to take a position of leadership nationally, advocating the value of art and culture, and supporting and inspiring other organisations and institutions. We are a flagship for best practice in this country and we take that responsibility very seriously. Ultimately, though, whatever else you get right as an organisation, it is the quality and currency of your programme which you will be judged on and which matters most. So we must ensure we keep working with and showing the very best artists and practices from across Norway and the rest of the world, supporting and investing in new production, new ideas and new thinking. We need to keep taking risks and keep things unpredictable. That’s how new things get made and imagined.