A museum located inside of a kunsthall folded into a larger biennial, Laura Gustafsson and Terike Haapoja’s project for Momentum 9 is a multilayered institutional critique. Their Museum of Nonhumanity, on view at the Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art in Moss, Norway, attempts to undermine the Western, colonial, patriarchal thinking that leads to systems of oppression, as well as the cultural centers complicit in othering, or drawing distinctions between different groups. A tall order indeed.
The museum comprises scaffolding and screens instead of walls, underscoring its temporary, unfinished quality (“being dismantled, under construction,” as Haapoja describes it to me). Their exhibition medium is primarily language itself. Throughout a 70-minute performance, archival texts, images, and dictionary entries in Norwegian and English flash on the screens mounted around the deep, dark room on the second floor of the Momentum kunsthall. Meticulously arranged, the material all relates to 14 different themes, beginning with “person” and ending with “display.” Melancholy music, heavy on violin, emanates from the ceiling. During three of the themes (“resource,” “boundary,” and “anima”), visitors can also listen to audio material with headphones placed on benches around the staggered screens. Around the back, more typical history museum fare awaits, including stuffed animals and the Norwegian constitution. These all come from nearby institutions, grounding the peripatetic work in a specific local culture.
Gustafsson and Haapoja present their language without comment. Watching stark, bold text regarding the Dred Scott case (the law labeling American slaves as three-fifths of a person), rules about animal experimentation, and the definition of the word “tender” flit across the monochromatic screens, the audience begins to analyze juxtapositions, gaps, and relevance among the assorted ideas. Depending on time of entry and duration of stay, viewers will experience the language and trajectory differently. The underlying idea — that language shapes dehumanization and othering — becomes quickly apparent. The subtle pleasure of viewing comes from gradually grasping the nuances of this process in a reflective atmosphere.