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Permanent Collection at MUNCH
Permanent Collection at MUNCH

Permanent Collection

Permanent Collection at the new MUNCH Museum in Oslo is an ongoing action by Manuel Pelmuş, installed in the Monumental hall of the museum.

Commissioned initially by MUNCH Live for the opening of the new building, Permanent Collection had two previous installments, which took place at the Kunsthalle Wien & Art Encounters Biennale Timisoara. Permanent Collection at MUNCH is performed by: Ingunn Rimestad, Jens Trinidad, Ornilia Ubisse, Beniamin Boar, Elizabeth Ward.

Artist talk. In addition to presenting the work at MUNCH, he will be in conversation together with dean Sarah Lookofsky. Artist talk, October 29th at 7pm in the Toppsal of the museum.

Permanent Collection is also Manuel Pelmuş' doctoral artistic research project, as a fellow at the Academy of Fine Art. Mid-term evaluation on October 26th at 2pm, with Ebba Moi (opponent) and Dora Garcia (main supervisor) in the hallway next to the main entrance at MUNCH.

Permanent Collection is an ongoing live action, constructed around the notion of a permanent collection. Romanian artist Manuel Pelmuş explores the possibility of a collection based on performative and collectively elaborated gestures and actions. The work is enacted by a group of performers who transform and re-mediate art-historical references, cultural artifacts, contexts, events, texts, and gestures using only the body as a medium.

Manuel Pelmuş uses this kind of enactment as a performative strategy which delves into the context of specific places and institutions, moving freely between strict classification categories and notions of ownership, suggesting the possibility of an embodied, commonly shared heritage. At Kunsthalle Wien, Permanent Collection is performed continuously for four hours each day, simultaneously – literally moving together – with a dancer in Timișoara, Romania, at the Museum of Public Transportation. Although there is no visible link between the two spaces, the knowledge of their shared movements connects audiences across the two cities thus opening a territory of participation. For this iteration Permanent Collection proposes many instances of the body as a site of resilience and agency. It embodies the political idea that when one acts alone, the act is always animated by the production of others, even if they do not share the same time or place.

In the purpose-built gallery dedicated to Edvard Munch’s monumental works, five dancers explore alternative ways of displaying artworks and building collections, and question whose stories get given a permanent place. The work examines the construction of the new museum and the invisible stories of the international workers who built it; bodies who are otherwise not represented or celebrated at the museum. Permanent Collection considers the history of workers’ rights by incorporating the international anthem ‘Bella Ciao’, originally sung by female Italian seasonal workers. The song invokes a legacy of resistance and defiance, and the ongoing action explores ways in which histories of solidarity can become a part of a new, movement-based permanent collection at MUNCH.

Manuel Pelmuş was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1974, and is currently a research fellow at the Academy of Fine Arts Oslo (KHiO) with the project Permanent Collection. In 2012, Pelmus was awarded the Berlin Art Prize for performing arts, and in 2013 he represented Romania at the 55th Venice Biennale with a collaboration with Alexandra Pirici. His work has been shown at Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, and the Van Abbe museum, among others.

Reflection by curator & art historian Magda Radu

Permanent Collection

For Manuel Pelmuș, the project of constructing a “permanent collection” entails an exercise of institutional imagination that is critical of existing structures. One of the aims is to underscore the impermanence of what is deemed permanent in the museum context, as this notion has been forged by Western museological conventions, partly based on the need to preserve plundered artefacts in order to establish canonical representations of world art and the history thereof. A wave of decolonisation has forced Western institutions to re-evaluate their claims as to what constitutes the immutable, “permanent” guidelines governing their holdings and the ways in which they are made public. Manuel Pelmuș’s gesture may be read as a radical provocation: it questions the powerful assumption of ownership, which is quite unlikely to suffer major disruptions when it comes to the behaviour of globally powerful collecting institutions. Granted, they may be pressured to deaccession certain pieces in order to make room for what has been ignored, overlooked, and neglected, but it seems an improbable outcome that they will actually share artworks across geographical and cultural divides and/or relinquish competitiveness with each other when one of the pillars of their identity—the collection, a signifier of cultural status and economic power—is called into question. This is why Pelmuș originally envisaged a protocol of collaboration by means of linking small entities and independent spaces as part of an effort to co-create and at the same time experience a constellation of memories, affects, and knowledges:

“I will collaborate with different independent spaces and institutions, creating an ongoing network of different temporalities that co-exist and insist on accumulation through transformation. I would like to produce a situation in which institutions and non-institutions of very different scales and contexts will co-operate and act together in order simultaneously to present their “permanent collection”. Museums and art institutions in general have widely dissimilar permanent collections. Historically speaking, many permanent collections have been constructed through acts of plunder and were instrumental in instituting symbolic acts of cultural domination, securing the status of the institution in question by displaying “the most valuable and unique art works”. In my proposal, all the participating institutional and non-institutional spaces will simultaneously exhibit the same permanent collection. I wish to put forward an operation that constructs alliances rather than competition.” (Manuel Pelmus)
One such simultaneous performance took place in Bucharest and Berlin in 2018. It was called An Abstraction that Dictates Reality (after Geta Brătescu) and was performed at the Ivan Gallery and L40 Kunstverein by two performers, one in each location, who reinterpreted, at a decelerated pace, the witch-dance created by Mary Wigman in the Weimer Republic in 1914. It was an early formulation of what would become an essential tenet of the Permanent Collection: the unification of collective experiences across time and space through the imaginative and corporeal medium of performance. For Pelmuș, however, this is not a task without its own complications and he refrains from vacuously conjuring up the “presence” of audience and performers without assuming that such scenarios rely on the surreptitious presence of an underlying conflict. In this specific situation, the revolutionary and pioneering work of women (in dance, art, and social justice) is brought to the fore, but in so doing it also puts forward a critique of the dominance of Western processes of historicisation, which have often overlooked the role of visionary women. What is also highlighted in this endeavour is the West’s paternalistic view of the East, which is viewed as underdeveloped, tardy in its adaptation of free market capitalism, and slow to catch up with the pace of modernisation imposed by the West, hence the slowing down of the dance movements. Another trait that needs to be emphasised is the careful calibration of the overall message, in tune with the specificity of each location. The institutions hosting these simultaneous actions are not simply “colonised” by a choreographic project; on the contrary, the project itself is enhanced by the objects and artworks presented in the two galleries, whether or not specifically for this purpose. In Berlin, in a room adjacent to the performance space, Pelmuș decided to exhibit the pressed plants made by Rosa Luxemburg when she was imprisoned and to introduce other references to her inner life during confinement, and in Bucharest a cycle of drawings that Geta Brătescu made in the Danube Delta in the 1950s, depicting local women and fishermen, their environment and activities, provided the visual accompaniment to the live “ongoing action”. A German revolutionary working in isolation, but nonetheless seeking to establish communication with her friends and peers, with plants and animals alike, a Romanian artist who with talent and empathy chose to place the spotlight on working women, a daring choreographer who broke the rules of classical dance and invented a new language of movement all are co-present in a time-space that is both imaginary and real. Although the Permanent Collection will further seek to contest the monolithic vision of culture espoused by the museum, with the hegemonic power it exerts over the representation of history and collective memory, this earlier example is indicative of how Pelmuș constructs his entangled methodologies, how he endows his actions with the agency to break the normative conjugation of space and time and to open up a territory of introspection and participation, of knowledge and affect, linking the performers and the public in a fluid, open-ended communion.
In further examining the notion of permanence with regard to the artistic system, such reflections might also apply to a different kind of institutional profile, one familiar to Manuel Pelmuș. The national museums of Eastern Europe are indicative of another type of negative permanence. Not only is the modus operandi of the Eastern-European museum stuck in ossified nineteenth-century divisions and overwhelmingly bureaucratic procedures, but also it is chronically underfunded. In Romania, at least, public museums, be they national or regional, are only seldom allotted acquisition budgets under the market economy; what is more, their collections are vulnerable to restitution claims from private parties seeking to assert, rightfully or not, the property rights of former owners. In the neoliberal age, the state has gradually withdrawn its support for public institutions, while nonetheless seeking to maintain its political clout when certain interests need to be served. It is a curious combination of disinterestedness and instrumentalisation. Caught in the toils of the increasingly dangerous nationalism engulfing the region, the public museum is dangerously close to being co-opted by a toxic official culture that propagates the provincial tenets of the old nation-building stories. Its permanence is thus characterised by an imperviousness to change, by an inability to engage critically with important issues of the present moment or to reconfigure the stale narratives of the art history presented to the public. This pressure, as well as self-induced inertia, creates the conditions for such institutions to fall perfectly into line with the neoliberal conservative populism du jour.

In Romania, the instrumentalisation of culture in the service of nationalism finds one of its most poignant illustrations in the public discourse surrounding Constantine Brancusi, the seminal modern artist who left Romania in his youth and established himself in Paris, forging a new vocabulary for sculpture. The Wisdom of the Earth, an early masterpiece by Brancusi, which was for decades part of the permanent display of the Gallery of Romanian Modern Art, part of Bucharest’s National Museum of Art, was reclaimed by the descendants of its former owners, as the records of its acquisition by the state in 1957 were not fully traceable. A public subscription campaign was launched by the government in 2016 with the aim of rebuying the sculpture (at a lower price than it supposed value on the international market), a campaign which failed for many reasons, one of them being the fact that the authorities were unable to convince potential donors of the aesthetic qualities and cultural significance of a modern artwork, given that for many years in the local context Brancusi has essentially been framed as a Romanian peasant who conquered the world as an embodiment of rural masculinity, a distiller of his native land’s folk art. In the end, even this campaign was politically instrumentalised, albeit rather clumsily, by the then liberal-minded government.

Manuel Pelmuș was invited, together with other artists, to take part in an exhibition held by the National Museum of Art, curated by Valentina Iancu, (during the brief interval when the museum showed an openness toward contemporary art), showcasing various positions that tackled the figure and the cult of Brancusi.* It was an initiative which overlapped with the subscription campaign and was partly orchestrated as an effort to raise awareness about the importance of keeping The Wisdom of the Earth in the public domain. Pelmuș produced a performance conceived around the sculpture itself, a move that could be regarded as antithetical to viewing the artwork as an emanation of its maker, whose stature and personality was overburdened with ideological connotations. It was a subtle way of turning the gaze away from the male artist of genius to the humble piece of stone for which, as we will see, gender (self)-determination would prove to be a rather slippery affair. The small, enigmatic limestone sculpture is carved as a schematically rendered female figure sitting on the ground and hugging her torso. The modesty of her appearance places her in stark contrast with the grandiose projections that feed the political consensus about what an appropriate representation of official culture and nationhood should look like.

In his piece Pelmuș chose to personify (or rather to bring to life) the sculpture by giving it a voice, performed live by an actress, which visitors heard when they entered an auxiliary space of the museum, which was submerged in darkness. She recites a litany of self-definitions and self-identifications that are endlessly expansive and at the same time contradictory. This monologue may be perceived as a poem that undoes the fixity and the boundaries of her identity. The pulverisation of the stable co-ordinates of identity is matched by the disorienting effect experienced by the visitor as she wanders through the unfamiliar space of an otherwise utterly predictable museum. The ritualistic intonations voiced by the living sculpture reproduce up to a point the noise of the public discourse surrounding her, only to turn it on its head and expose its inconsistency and provinciality. As much as it absorbs the derogatory meanings bestowed upon a piece of art exposed to public scrutiny, The Wisdom of the Earth’s monologue merges with an abundant flow of speech acts—i.e., a framing (or rather un-framing) of the sculpture’s persona and thingness—a series of marginalised identities that are to be read as instances of affirmation and empowerment, as part of an attempt to undermine the dominating patriarchal culture:

I’m just a stone. I am limestone. I am a deity. I am a nude. I am a Mongoloid. I’m Eve. I’m the Sphinx. I am woman. I am man. I am the Thinker. I am an Egyptian. I am a Parisian. I am primitive. I am very sophisticated. I am simple. I am animal. I’m human. I am non-human. I am oceanic, pre-Columbian, Egyptian, African, Balkan, Neolithic.

I am androgynous. I’m good. I’m almost beautiful. I am a wild animal. I am culture. I am entertainment. I am disturbing. I am admired. I am a luxury that we cannot afford. I am a lamentable frivolity. I am exotic. I am a future legend. I am a pop legend. I am a mystery.

I am a wound. I am a pathetic joke. I am valuable. I am an idea. I am a boulder. I am an intellectual symbol. I am a caricature. I am shapeless. I am an image. I am an archive. I am a Roma feminist. I am hidden.

I am essence. I’m a monster. I am a voluntary negation of art. I am important. I am unique. I am many. I am transgender. I am post-gender. I’m plain water. I’m clear water.

In contrast to the encyclopaedic Western museum founded on the ravages wreaked by the imperial colonial past, which is now pressured to rethink its ontological model, the predicament of many museums in Eastern Europe lies in their apparent incapacity to hold any public and social relevance today. They are the tombs of an ossified vision of culture, unable (and unassisted) to reform. That is why queering a “national treasure” such as The Wisdom of the Earth in a national museum was an exceptional and rare endeavour. As has been pointed out, the permanent collections belonging to state institutions of this kind can be challenged by restitution claims that are linked to the circumstances of their very foundation, to the wave of “nationalisation” of privately-owned artworks and buildings undertaken by the post-war Communist regimes. In such cases, however, the returned works do not end up in other museums, as is often the case with colonially-looted artefacts that are exhibited in their territories of origin, but are put up for sale on the market or remain locked away indefinitely in private residences and storage; indeed, due to further legal complications, their owners often have difficulty selling them. This situation is a symptom of a greater peril faced by museums and other public institutions in post-communist contexts, where the government and local authorities care less and less about culture and education (as proven by so many decaying buildings, depleted collections). The feared long-term outcome of such policies is the privatisation of the cultural sphere and a gradual narrowing of access and participation to exhibitions and other artistic events, precipitated by an increasingly weakened state and by the aggressiveness of peripheral neo-liberalism in Eastern Europe.

The newly created Munch museum in Oslo provides another framework whereby to approach the subject of the permanent collection and, for Pelmuș, as is often the case, the contingency of the encounter with the site and its context was to prove crucial for how the project was set in motion. In a sense, the Munch museum offers the perfect opportunity to start anew, to imagine alternative collecting methodologies within an accommodating environment. And yet, the inherent vanity of such a premise, that of starting from scratch, is not what motivates Pelmuș to ignite a process of thinking about how a collection grounded in collective participation can be conceived. Upon visiting the grounds of the future museum, Pelmuș noticed an easily ignored detail: scratches made by workers on the black-painted walls of the elevators, among which he deciphered a swear word written in Romanian, a record of the presence of the migrant workforce from his native country that took part in the construction of the museum building. These inscriptions caused embarrassment to the museum’s staff as they were a minor disruption of the proper conditions required when welcoming the new flux of people: visitors entering the premises of an art institution named after Norway’s foremost modern painter. Hence, a first layer in the creation of an “embodied history and memory” linked to this particular instantiation proceeds from reflection about the invisibility of the bodies that are involved in most of the activities that construct and maintain infrastructures:

“I thought that those were actually the first artworks exhibited in the new museum building by the people who built it. And already they were subjected to an act of censorship. This living memory and history of the workers will not be remembered or represented, let alone celebrated.” (Manuel Pelmus)

This reflection prompts wider consideration of the issue of workers’ rights in the present moment, characterised by the outrageous interplay between the vectors of precarity and accumulation, which are increasingly disproportionate and polarised, and which occur on a global scale. In Europe the phenomenon of economic migration from East to West is unprecedented and it entails a massive displacement of people who are often exploited and abused. Last year, at one of the most critical moments of the pandemic, the Romanian government authorised the employment and transport of seasonal workers urgently needed to harvest asparagus on German farms. In the spring of 2020, during a strict period of lockdown, hundreds of Romanians were crammed into Cluj’s tiny airport before embarking on several planes that took them to the asparagus farms. It was a situation that underscored how the brutal reality of the pandemic was most intensely and negatively felt by the poor and vulnerable, how rules could be suddenly suspended when economic interests demanded it. And it also made one think of the issue of “care” and the “caring occupations” which are largely the responsibility of women, often immigrant women, moving from poor to rich countries in order to perform one of the most taxing and under-appreciated physical and affective forms of labour. In Romania the exodus of working-class women taking such jobs in Western Europe has become a massive phenomenon, with dramatic personal and societal consequences, but only recently has the largely ignored matter of their legal protection and rights begun to be pushed onto the public agenda.

Such realities are tied to a condition that deeply preoccupies Manuel Pelmuș, namely the broad contemporary mobilisation triggered by the necessity of survival and the concomitant impossibility of improving one’s status and overall sense of security. This predicament corresponds to the erosion of the notion of the public, “associated with the commons, consensus, and co-operation” which “has been eclipsed by private self-interest, fragmentation and competition”. It is an attitude at odds with this globally spread dynamic and the need to imagine transnational manifestations of solidarity that impels Pelmuș to focus on yet another contextual layer, which informs his thinking around the Permanent Collection at the Munch Museum in Oslo. This time he looks into the history of workers’ rights movements in Oslo and Norway, discovering that at the Oslo National Academy of Fine Arts, where he currently teaches, a group of students and a professor formed a collective artistic persona named Rose Hammer and produced a theatre play in which at one point they sang the popular song Bella Ciao. Further investigating the genealogy of the song, Pelmuș found out that this international anti-fascist anthem was originally sung by seasonal workers, mostly women, who were called mondinas, and that it had a different title and lyrics. The presence of the mondinas, their legacy of resistance and defiance, is invoked by collectively performing the song in one of the segments of the Permanent Collection. Circling between subjective and objectively determined levels of engagement, between private and public modes of rejecting subjugation, between singularity and multitude, such a collection traces the possibilities for the institutions to come.

“It is urgent that we imagine and produce a new kind of legacy that does not have legitimate heirs, widows and sons. We have to dispense with the idea that we are the legitimate heirs of this. Obviously, if we are not the legitimate heirs of a collection, we should invent new sorts of narratives. We should imagine a narrative that is not related to property (in Spanish patrimonio, meaning belonging to the father) or exclusive genetics. We should claim the legacy of the bastards. The legacy of anybody, regardless of national frontiers or the flux of global capital.” (Jesus Carillo)

Magda Radu is a curator and art historian based in Bucharest. She is one of the founders and co-curator of the program Salonul de proiecte, which functioned between 2011 and 2015 at MNAC Anexa and is now an independent initiative located in the Universul Palace in Bucharest. She curated Geta Bratescu's participation at the Venice Biennale in 2017 for the Romanian Pavilion.
She edited (or co-edited) several exhibitions’ catalogues and books, among which: Art in Romania Between 1945-2000. An Analysis from Today’s Perspective (2016), subREAL (2015), Dear Money (2014) and André Cadere / Andrei Cădere (2011). In the last few years she also curated exhibitions at institutions including MUSAC, Leon; Spinnerei, Leipzig; and Photo España, Madrid. At the National University of Arts in Bucharest, she taught a course about the history and theory of conceptual art in Eastern Europe, as well as a Curatorial Studies course.

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