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A shared space in which to exhibit

Nada Ali, Still frame from filmed performance, 2021.

There is no avoiding the question in a text written at the present moment. What has more than a year of lockdowns and distancing done to us, and what has it done to art? If it there is one thing we carry with us from the time of the pandemic it is the experience of loss. The loss of shared space to create and talk about art. The loss of shared space in which to exhibit and physically encounter art. The loss of conversations that take place in person rather than through a screen.

What we have lost has a tendency to haunt our thoughts and demand our attention. This is why it is not surprising that the exhibition specifically has been at the center of conversation at the Royal Institute of Art over the last year. The physical exhibition is just one of the spaces that the pandemic has closed. It also lends focus to the question “Why do we make exhibitions?”, posed to this year’s graduates of the Royal Institute of Art master’s program. The answers point both to an exhibition’s function and to it acting as a space where the single vision of the studio is exchanged for the multitude of visions of an exhibition. A situation that creates opportunity for attention and sharing, but which also implies vulnerability and loss of control.

The exhibition has a strong and central position in the Royal Institute’s teaching. Various forms of exhibiting are used as pedagogical tools throughout the program. In this way the exhibition is organically intertwined with teaching at the school and a part of a reflective critical process. The exhibition provides an opportunity to experience works of art together with fellow students and teachers in a context outside of the studio.

The exhibition is also an experimental knowledge process in itself, in which different formats of exhibiting can be tried on. Most of our exhibitions – like the graduation show – also take place in a public space and are available to a wider audience. In this open space something crucial happens. The work no longer exists merely within the system and shared narrative of the school, but in a wider context that we cannot regulate in the way we can our teaching. A public space is heterogenous and populated by various bodies, gazes and ideas that interface with the work. In such a space, a work of art takes on new meanings and belongings and is no longer determined only by its creator. As a student one partakes in other interpretations and experiences of one’s work. It is in that space of encounters between diverse experiences that an exhibition acts.

At the Royal Institute of Art we have a number of established and recurring forums for exhibitions, Galleri Mejan, Mellanrummet, Rutiga Golvet, Rundgång and the Graduation Show. We also have many other exhibition projects, often in collaboration with other institutions. The experiences that stem from what happens in these open spaces is a crucial part of the education we offer. These are spaces in the school as well as in a broader context, a dual belonging that makes the spaces more heterogenous and complex to exhibit in. Here we create a space in which the exhibition addresses both the school and a larger conversation about art. A conversation that does not just provide us with impressions and thoughts from the outside, but in which the school is also part of formulating the field of art. The exhibitions we make have a different creation process than the exhibitions made at art venues, museums, and galleries in the sense that they are part of a learning process and an education. In this way they also constitute a unique part of the exhibition landscape.

An art school needs closed rooms where one can turn inward in learning in a smaller context. Here, the work is in studio and workshop, advising, and dialogue between students. But it is also crucial to our education that we open our doors to the surrounding world as we do in our exhibitions. We have managed to keep our studios and workshops open during the pandemic, but one aspect that has been almost completely shut down is the public program that is a fundamental part of our work. When that is not there it also becomes palpable how crucial this space is to us. It has the ability to transmit the multi-sensory experiences of art and can also harbor complex events.

Instead, for a year, we have been dependent on screen-bound conversations and digital spaces in which works are filtered through template technology that determines and dictates our experience of the works. An important question for art and for art schools is what role we want to assign the various types of spaces – physical and digital – that art now acts in. In this year’s graduation shows there is a persistence of materiality that cannot be translated digitally. But there is also a strong interest in working with digital techniques and digital spaces. That ease of movement between the physical and the immaterial is something I believe will be a pervasive trait both in the art of the future and in future art schools.

The graduation show has a particular, almost mythological energy that gives it a special position among students as well as art audiences. No matter how we view the graduation show it symbolizes a passage from one condition to another, from student to working artist, from the smaller context of the school to the larger sphere of the art world. An idea that is guarded as a tradition by the school mascots, the lion and the boar, whose maxim “In like a lion, out like a swine” denotes the fact that the program has a beginning and an end. I would like to disturb that notion somewhat. Today the road through the program has been redrawn. Our students often participate in contexts outside of the school during their time here, or take breaks from their studies for a period to do artistic work outside of the program. Nor is the road to becoming an artist linear. Our students come to the school from other creative programs or areas.

The road out of the school is not what it used to be either, when one graduated and then, once out of school, made one’s “debut” as an artist. Artistic research has created a new artistic realm in which possible future work for an artist can take place within the framework of the art school. Our continuing education programs together with the research create an artistic force field to return to during different parts of an artistic life. It also makes the school a place that harbors the idea of an artistic practice as a perpetual learning process. It is a school that is open to artists during an entire artistic lifespan and which offers a context in which artistic experimentation, innovation, and learning are central. 

This is a school that says thank you and good luck to its graduation students, but which also wishes to welcome them back!

The Royal Institute of Art’s Graduation Shows 2021 open 21 May at Konstakademien and Marabouparken.