A mass exhibition avant la lettre
Feature on the groundbreaking 1966 exhibition in Moderna Museet in Stockholm
ZOO Magazine #50, 2016
‘HON – en katedral’ (‘SHE – A Cathedral’) was inaugurated at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm on the 4th of June 1966. Situated in the main hall of the Swedish museum for modern and contemporary art, the four-story installation –connected by stairs and a giant slide — consisted of a 23.5 meters long female fi gure lying on her back with legs wide open. Visitors could only access the museum by entering her ‘vagina’ and passing through her pregnant body. ‘HON – en katedral’ would become a groundbreaking exhibition.
Like today, modern and contemporary art museums in the 1960s sought to increase their social relevance by appealing to a wider audience. Commissioned by curator Pontus Hultén, ‘HON – en katedral’ was devised to attract viewers beyond the typical artsy crowd by bridging the gap between high and low culture.
Designed by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, the giant installation made in her Nana signature style housed smaller installations by Swiss and Finish sculptors Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt. They included a compact movie theater, a planetarium, and a milk bar situated in one of the ‘breasts.’ It was an attempt to shake off the elitist image of modern and contemporary museums and make them cathedrals for the people. But how did they manage to become ‘popular’?
‘HON – en katedral’ spoke to the 1960s sexual revolution and the women’s liberation movement. Abandoning her career as a photo model in the US to live as a true bohemian in France, Saint Phalle wrote that “the World belonged to men.” She sought to beat male artists at their own game, she once claimed, and identifi ed sanctioned artistic potency with scale and strength. So Saint Phalle set out to build the largest sculptures of her generation that would be “bigger, higher and stronger than the ones of men.”
Saint Phalle’s pregnant woman was just that. A spinoff of the successful exhibition ‘Dylaby – A Dynamic Labyrinth’ curated by Hultén for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam a few years earlier, ‘HON – en katedral’ enabled the artist to push the boundaries of her own practice even further. The monumentality of her giant Nana in Stockholm represented the scale of her determination to rise through a predominantly male-oriented art world.
The Swinging Sixties, with its embrace of social emancipation and abandonment of sexual taboos, also saw the birth of new art forms that put viewers at the center. Allan Kaprow was staging collective ‘happenings’ in the US, and the ‘Viennese Actionists’ in Austria were staging rituals that involved animal gutters and selfmutilation to allegedly cure participating fellow citizens of the traumas of the Second World War. ‘HON – en katedral’ reflected the participatory spirit of the arts in this period, which emphasized experience over contemplation.
Tinguely and Ultvedt’s installations inside Saint Phalle’s giant were conceived to turn visitors into active participants rather than mere consumers. Inspired by the absurdist humor of the Dadaists before them, Saint Phalle, Tinguely and Ultvedt were part of the short-lived French pop art movement called Nouveau réalisme (New Realism) founded in 1960 by painter Yves Klein and art critic Pierre Restany. While Tinguely and Ultvedt were among the first to join the group, Saint Phalle was accepted a little later after devising an interactive artwork that took shape as members of the selection committee members aimed shots at paintballs hidden on its surface. Many of Tinguely’s inventive machines also required viewers to take action, including the Cyclograveur from 1960, which was activated by pedalling yet produced nothing more than sensation. The assemblages and kinetic sculptures created by Ultvedt often fostered interaction with and among visitors.
‘HON’ fused the ingenuity of all three artists into one integrated whole. Saint Phalle’s colossal Nana housed Tinguely’s Bottle Crusher, an intricate machine that destroyed bottles of Coca-Cola – the only beverage served at the ‘milk bar’ on the installation’s first floor. Elsewhere, Ultvedt staged a man being massaged by multiple hands while seated in front of a TV showing endless waves. Banc des amoureux (Lovers’ Bench), engineered by both Tinguely and Ultvedt, captured visitors’ conversations through microphones hidden behind the bench, which were then broadcast in the milk bar.
Consumption, voyeurism and entertainment were essential components of the environment created by the Nouveaux realistes. Both Tinguely and Ultvedt sought to playfully critique what they saw as the alienation of the worker in the ‘Society of the Spectacle,’ as Guy Debord described in his eponymous book published in 1967. Tinguely’s self-destructing assemblage seemed to ridicule mechanical production and both Tinguely and Ultvedt put senseless play at the center of their work as a way to mock the dominant capitalist pursuit of performance and productivity.
Over the summer of 1966, ‘HON – en katedral’ attracted more than 80,000 visitors from all over Europe. It seemed that Hultén and his cast of Nouveaux réalistes had singlehandedly raised the popularity of the Moderna Museet that year. Yet, what was really happening inside ‘HON – en katedral’ was subject to debate. Its popularity coincided with a proliferation of attractions that could be seen as variations on those found in ordinary theme parks. Did the inclusive and sensational experience simply overshadow the critical message the installations within ‘HON – en katedral’ tried to convey? Or worse, did it turn its implicit critique of capitalism into yet another capitalist consumption item? Regardless of the critical perspective taken on the giant exhibit, Hultén, together with Saint Phalle, Tinguely, and Ultvedt, did prove it was possible for a museum of modern and contemporary art to be fashionable and to play a role in the popular cultural landscape of its time. ‘HON – en katedral’ was an instant success and remains a legendary exhibition. By seeking to appeal to ever larger and more diverse audiences, it has become a paragon of the mass exhibition itself.