The first time I met Jacob Fabricius, the Director of Malmö Konsthall, was during New York’s refined The Armory Show where he was curating the fair’s Focus Group, an invitation-only gallery section that highlighted Nordic art scene. This time, however, I am in Sweden trying to locate the entrance of Malmö Konsthall, which for a moment I misjudge to be a construction site. Soon I realise it being Mike Nelson’s new exhibition “408 tons of imperfect geometry” being assembled right before my eyes.
“The development of this project is very present. We are not trying to hide it,” Jacob Fabricius tells me as we are walking through the installation’s different stages of assembly towards the concrete web occupying Konsthall’s floorboards. This is also where we naïvely decide to sit down for our conversation.
How did you become the director of Malmö Konsthall?
I’m Danish and I live in Denmark but in 2008 I got the job here as the director. Before that I was a freelance curator working in Barcelona, at a space called Centre d'Art Santa Mònica, and curating several other shows at the same time. Lars Grambye, the former director of Malmö Konsthall invited me to curate Susan Philipsz show since I had just produced a show and a CD with her in Copenhagen. After a while he suggested collaborating on Simone Aaberg Kærn’s show (2006), who I had known for many years. Later followed exhibitions by Elmgreen & Dragset (2007) and David Shrigley (2008). The latter turned out to be very popular. In the process of arranging it, however, Lars was leaving the Konsthall and I was asked to apply for his position. I did so, went through three interviews (with many other people who applied) and was eventually invited to be the new director. I knew the staff, I knew the space but I had no prior knowledge about the institutional work. I didn’t even have the academic credentials for a job like this. I’d worked freelance since 1995 only having a BA in Art History.
I read that each year Malmö Konsthall attracts more than 200’000 visitors. What is the key to this interest?
We are open seven days a week and it’s free entrance. Those are the two things, which are very important. Also we have a beautiful space where people like to come not only once but twice to see the exhibitions. We have a restaurant and it’s become very popular. It’s a relaxed atmosphere. People come here to have business meetings but we also have quite a lot of baby trolleys and young mothers coming here to have conventions with their friends on maternity leave. Now we have a metro right outside, which links to Copenhagen and Denmark, and the rest of the region, so it’s become very much like a hub for culture.
Some Swedish gallery owners, who run art spaces both in Stockholm and Malmö, have expressed that in search for new purchases Nordic art collectors are more likely to go to New York or Basel than Malmö.
If you want to buy art, you go to Basel. Usually, however, people go there only once a year for the [Art Basel] fair. If you want to see many galleries at the same time, you go to London or New York. Maybe people from Stockholm fly directly to Berlin or other places and they don’t stop at Malmö.
How visible then is the presence of Malmö in the Nordic art scene?
I think it’s very visible, actually. It’s quite a small town when compared to all the activities and art spaces that are here. There is a young gallery scene, a young artist scene and a fantastic art school. Of course with an art school you educate young artists and you also attract artists from Sweden and abroad. That creates a community. Here are three institutions as well – Malmö Konsthall, Moderna Museet, which is the National Museum’s secondary space outside Stockholm, and Malmö Konstmuseum that has a great collection of contemporary and modernist works mostly by Nordic artists.
It also helps that there is a focus from the City Council to develop the art scene, to give opportunities to artists. A lot of energy and efforts are put into cultural activities. The reputation of the Konsthall and its audience numbers is not something that happened yesterday. It’s been building up for years. In the early 1990’s somebody in the Danish press mentioned that Malmö Konsthall was the best konsthall in Copenhagen. That of course is absurd, but actually there is not a contemporary space like this in Copenhagen. Copenhagen has National Museums, different buildings that are converted into art spaces, like the Nikolaj church or Charlottenborg, but this was actually built by the city to promote contemporary art and that hasn’t really happened in Copenhagen. The main focus for me, and for the previous directors as well, has been to produce exhibitions for the space. It’s unique to Malmö and this institution. We don’t take a lot of travelling shows. We could, of course, do that but it’s not the most interesting thing.
And what is your main focus regarding the exhibition programme?
Each year has been different in the sense of approaching the space, but I think the main focus is still to produce new works, new installations, like this Mike Nelson show. You couldn’t transfer this exhibition. It’s a work that reflects on modernism and the modern architecture, the building we are sitting in. It’s cast on site. You couldn’t move this. Not only it would be rather expensive to move it to a new venue, the architectural considerations in the sculpture reflects on this specific space. Mike has flipped the outside into the inside. Another example is Lisa Anne Auerbach’s project [knitting a personalised sweater for each member of the staff]. Although, she will exhibit the project out in the public space, it will be connected to the body of an employee.
Maybe it’s very simple but I’ve always liked the idea of moving information and artists’ ideas into the public space. We have done that several times. We did it with “Autostop”, a hitchhiking project back in 2008, where the staff members were travelling with different artists’ works. We also did it with a summer show, which was two years ago and lasted ten days, the same amount of time as the duration of a classic Swedish novel “POLIS, POLIS, POTATISMOS”. The novel was written by two crime writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who broke the tradition of writing crime about the bourgeois. They took it down to the whole range of social classes – from the poor to the very rich. One of their books took place in Malmö and that was “POLIS, POLIS, POTATISMOS”. We read the book as a small group here in the Konsthall, discussed the possible things we could pick up on, contacted the author and she liked the idea. Then we developed it – selected the spaces from the book and used them as exhibition venues in the city. This idea of trying to play with the structure of the exhibition, trying to play with the role of the institution is important to me.
Are you still playing with this role or have you reached its limits?
I am curious by nature. (laughs) They may be very small and invisible changes but I still like the idea of playing with it. Just like Lisa’s project – doing knitted sweaters for all the staff, is playing with it. Will the sweaters be unnoticed? Will people just pass by them and think “well, that’s not a guard”? How does a guard look? How does a director look? What is the format of the exhibition? What is an exhibition? Each time I want to twist the role of the exhibition just a little bit. I’m not saying that we’re succeeding, but we’re trying. (laughs) We are attempting to play with the roles of an institution.
And how does the community respond to these different approaches?
(Pauses to think) I would say that the visitor numbers have been steady so they are not neglecting it. They are not just experiments; we try to have a varied exhibition programme.
Jacob Fabricius answers our video question: Can art be described as a “product”?
Pontus Hultén, director of the Moderna Museet for 15 years, in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist shares that “a museum director’s first task is to create an audience that trusts the institution.” Would you agree with it?
I think it’s important to consider the audience when planning a year’s programme. For instance, last year we had a show by Chris Johanson and Misaki Kawai – very playful and colourful exhibition, especially Misaki Kawai. It became the kindergarten of Malmö. Kids loved it. It was unbelievable. Of course when you do a show like that, kids will expect that they will see the same thing next time they visit the Konsthall, but they won’t. That is a little bit sad, but our idea is to change the programme. We try to follow the rule – don’t show people what they will expect. Right after the Kawai exhibition, just before Christmas, we did a show with Gerhard Nordström, a Swedish painter, who is about 85 years old. In the 1960’s and 1970’s he did very political paintings about the Vietnam War. They were beautiful Swedish landscapes but with mutilated Vietnamese bodies within them. He took up the whole space but in the back we had a show of Goya’s etchings – “Disasters of the war”, another direct and political exhibition.
At this point I have started to visualise this scenario and can’t hold myself away from laughing.
It was not the best Christmas show (laughs) and it was not even the best transition from a very playful, colourful exhibition to a harsh, realistic exposition. A complete contrast! If during the first show we had a very young audience, the second one highlighted the classical aspects of a painting and attracted a lot of local Swedish spectators. It was very popular among the older public and many people treated it like “real art”. After these exhibitions came a show of Alexander Gutke and Tauba Auerbach, who does very conceptual and minimal paintings and films. So that in turn disappointed the audience that were +60 [years of age].
I think it’s very interesting to plan the programme in order to display the different approaches of making art. Each of these shows definitely changed the audience. I am sure a lot of people will be fascinated by this [Mike Nelson show] but part of the audience, who may prefer to see paintings, may rise questions, such as, why is it so big? or why is this structure on the floor? It’s always going to be pleasing different minds and different viewers. I try not to be too dogmatic when approaching the exhibitions or planning the programme of the year.
As I understand Malmö Konsthall is run by the city. Does it also challenge you or do you have your hands free?
I have my hands free. (He slowly stretches out the sentence) Of course we have a budget and we have goals, such as, the amount of exhibitions we should do a year or how we should approach the people, including kids and youth. There is a big focus on that in Malmö – to be generous towards the education of children. Every day we have free guided tours and we try to educate our public both by telling them about the exhibitions and about art in general.
Are you still surprised by the shows that are produced here?
Yes, I think so. Sometimes it’s crystal clear in an artist’s head – what the exhibition will look like, but it’s very hard for someone else to imagine it. The physical aspect of an installation is quite different from the paper, pen and e-mails. Some artist’s have very precise instructions and ideas of how things should be made, but others come here and do it in situ. Then you have no idea what’s it going to look like and what will happen. You always have to develop ideas together with the artist and that, of course, is where you need a helpful staff.
By now I have come to a belief that the “408 tons of imperfect geometry” is not an installation, which the audience will engage with by sitting on. The concrete edges are painfully piercing into my legs and I am trying to find other ways of balancing myself on them.
It’s not the most comfortable seating arrangement. I felt it a while ago. (He laughs and shifts our conversation towards Mike Nelson’s exhibition)
You can’t imagine this sort of thing happening at Tate Modern. The whole workload, the process of doing this, it’s just not imaginable in some spaces. But because the staff is flexible and is keen on doing things like this, it’s achievable. It very much depends upon the attitude of how do you perceive art. That’s the very positive spirit of Malmö Konsthall. I’m only here another year. When I signed the contract I could choose between three or four years. I chose three years because it was my first job and I wanted to try it out and see how it was compared to freelance life. The three years passed too quickly and they asked me, if I wanted to prolong it. I prolonged the contract with three more years but it will run out next year. I think it’s time for new blood to enter the Konsthall. Of course it’s very tempting to stay but the space should develop. New eyes and new visions should do that.
What are your plans for the future?
I don’t know. Maybe freelance again. I have no plans.
Have you ever wanted to be an artist?
No. (laughs) Actually, that’s not true. When I was about 18 or 19 years old I was painting and drawing, like any other kid that is interested in visual experiments. But I have never practised it on a larger scale. Somehow the more I read about art history and studied it, the more I realised the effort it takes to become an artist. You have to be very committed to your work, ideas and visions. I guess I didn’t have strong enough ideas or visions (laughs) but I definitely like the challenges of how artists think about the world we live in, their political and social ideas.