Birnbaum – 50, fit, a boyish flick to his hair, trendy in black sneakers but not OTT stylish – last year pulled a personal favourite out from the domestic closet and into the global limelight. The dusting off of works by Swedish artist Hilma af Klint was a success, reached the arts pages of the International Herald Tribune, among others, and has now travelled on to Berlin.
“She was an esoteric pioneer,” Birnbaum tells The Local.
“It’s the most written about show in the history of this museum.”
Birnbaum was born in Stockholm. Studies at Stockholm University were followed by studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, and Columbia University in New York. Before coming back – “Yes, I’m happy to have come home but nothing is eternal,” Birnbaum tells The Local – he was director of the Venice Biennale in 2009.
“I wasn’t really on my way back home to Stockholm,” he says.
“But we must remember that while there are huge museums like the Pompidou or the Tate, there are medium-sized museums across Europe, but few with the kind of collection we have at Moderna.”
There is a certain allure to the bird that flies the nest. Like many small countries, Sweden loves keeping an eye on its homegrown talent trying their wings out abroad – doesn’t matter if it’s Alexander Skarsgård playing a Viking vampire south of the Mason-Dixon line, or Zlatan seducing the dour Frenchmen with the spin of his ball.
Daniel Birnbaum left, but he also returned. Double whammy in the eyes of the Swedes, making him our pick for Swede of the Week.
“It had to be a place where you could test things on a higher level,” he says of his decision to take the job.
“Stockholm is not the centre of the world, but Moderna Museet is a model of what a modern museum can be today.”
The recently concluded exhibition with Swedish artist Hilma af Klint was, in Birnbaum’s own words, a “blockbuster” – not only in terms of global media coverage, but because museums are lining up to show her work.
“(At Moderna) we can do almost anything, but there are also a few things that only we can do,” he highlights.
“There are Swedish artists we can highlight, and it’s our role as a national museum – if we don’t do it, who would?”
The recently opened Pop Konst Design exhibit, which knits pop art into its social, historic and technological context, contains a painting by Swedish artist Ulla Wiggen, born in 1942.
“(She) could have been much more of a visible artist, and I don’t think it’s too late yet, she doesn’t have a very big production but it’s very special,” Birnbaum says.
Birnbaum completed a PhD in philosophy, and subsequently directed the Swedish “International Artists Studio Program” (IASPIS), before moving over to the Städelschule fine arts academy in Frankfurt am Main in Germany.
In 2008, he was a member of the Turner Prize jury, which awards contemporary artists with the highest accolade in the British art landscape. As co-curator, his work has spanned the globe from Yokohama to Moscow.
And he writes. A lot. About Olafur Eliasson, Pierre Huyghe, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Wolfgang Tillmans, Cerith Wyn Evans and Paul Chan, but also academic texts and translations on Novalis, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida and Thomas Bernhard.
“I think it’s important for an art institution to think about its relationships with other disciplines,” Birnbaum tells The Local.
“And that has always been the case of Moderna Museet – it’s always been a place where disciplines meet.”