At exhibition

Attention is an opportunity that we need to seize, as long as the audience is interested in these stories.

Exhibitions often take on a logic of their own, like well-oiled machines. We have seen this with The Mindcraft Project , which managed the transition to a virtual format. One wonders if this may not be due to their history as recurring physical events. A history that has given the audience certain expectations of format and content and of seeing something surprising and new. Anni Nørskov Mørch puts her finger on a sore spot – the requirement that proposals for the Biennale can not be submitted if they have previously been presented to the public. That may seem like an artificial limitation for participants and curators alike; particularly if the public showing was on one of the digital platforms that are becoming a regular component of the Design Institution.

That touches on a discussion from the time when the really big exhibition machines were being set in motion. Both MoMA and the Milan Triennale, which Susanne Bruhn writes about, as well as the Copenhagen Cabinetmakers’ Guild and Landsforeningen Dansk Kunsthaandværk (National Association of Danish Crafts) held recurring exhibitions that attracted great attention – and generated high expectations of a steady flow of new designs. Since some processes, whether experiments or product development, take a long time, the requirement of coming up with something new every year may seem like artificially applied pressure. Novelty for the sake of novelty, at worst. This was a key topic in the debate in the article Brugskunst på afveje (Applied art gone astray) in Arkitekten (The Architect) in 1962, where Arne Karlsen and Børge Mogensen accused some of their fellow architects and designers of pandering to media attention and commercial interests. Manufacturers and exhibitions were driving attention and expectations ever higher – that was, after all, their purpose. Per H. Hansen even called it a ‘fashion system’ and pointed out that exhibitions and strategic marketing were responsible for building a domestic market and for bringing Danish design into the world.

Poul Henningsen aired his own view of this ‘machine’ in ‘Tanker om et skohorn’ (Thoughts on a Shoehorn) in the design magazine Mobilia in 1960. On the one hand, he refused to give in to pressures that ran counter to his core social purpose. ‘It hardly makes sense to compel most of us to deliver new exhibition pieces virtually every year.’ On the other hand, the high level of attention did provide a momentum that should be put to constructive use. ‘But now, we find ourselves in the grand situation that the theatre of applied art is full. There is a hopeful spectator in every seat.’ In this piece, he acknowledged the need to distinguish between experimental and classic applied art, where the experimental (or ‘revolutionary’, as he also calls it) category should challenge us and deliver surprising new items for exhibitions, while the classic category devotes itself to the long, hard slog of developing everyday items. ‘Good things for everyday use’ are not created for that type of attention and cannot keep ‘the machine’ running, even if many exhibitions of Danish design have revolved around just that.

Organizers and curators behind the recurring presentations thus need to consider the role of new pieces. There are expectations of both continuity and change, fixed formats and surprises. From an exhibition architect’s vantage point, Johan Carlsson addresses the permanent exhibitions and points out how they can develop and be experienced as spatial stories. Even if objects and categories may point in many different directions, the exhibition still forms an event and a narrative. A narrative about Denmark in between tradition and modernity, about immersive concentration and isolation during the pandemic, about the interaction of materials and digital technology. Attention is an opportunity that we need to seize, as long as the audience is interested in these stories.

Welcome to the second theme about design exhibitions. In the coming weeks we will publish the following articles:

Milan, New York, Toronto… When the exhibition machine was started by Susanne Bruhn

Mindcraft and the World have changed by Charlotte Jul

Exhibition architecture an experience and a process by Johan Carlsson

All we need is … Infrastructure by Anni Nørskov Mørch

Portrait of Anne Blond by Liv Collatz

Review of the Biennial of Crafts & Design 2021 by Heidi Laura

Photo: Study for “The story of Ice”, which opens June 2021 at Isfjordscentret in Ilulissat, Greenland. Thanks to JAC Studios