Climate Activists Deface Vigeland Monolith

Director at the Vigeland Museum in Oslo, Jarle Strømodden, believes it is too early to say whether the sculptures have suffered permanent damage.

On Friday 18 November, two activists from the organisation Stopp Oljeletinga threw orange paint at statues in the Vigeland Park. Photo: Javad Parsa / NTB.

At 12:20 on Friday 18 November, the activists Joachim Skahjem and Anne Klenge were carried out of the Vigeland Sculpture Park by police after having thrown orange paint at one of the sculpture park’s main attractions, The Monolith (1943), as well as  a number of statues surrounding it, and subsequently refusing to leave the scene.

Jarle Strømodden, director of the Vigeland Museum, which also manages the sculpture park, told Kunstkritikk that he regards the action as an act of vandalism against a protected cultural monument. “On behalf of the museum, I must act accordingly, which means that the activists will be reported to the police,” he said.

 Skahjem and Klenge are members of the group Stopp Oljeletinga (Stop the Search for Oil), which was also behind last week’s action at the National Museum of Norway, where Kristiina Visakorpi and Lena Mair pasted a poster with the statement “fossil fuels are choking humanity,” a quote from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, across the glass covering Edvard Munch’s Scream (1893). The two afterwards tried, unsuccessfully, to glue themselves to the picture’s frame before guards intervened.

On its website, Stopp Oljeletinga states that the group has two demands: firstly, an immediate halt to all further prospecting for new oil and gas on the Norwegian continental shelf; secondly, that the Norwegian government must present a specific, actionable plan for a fair job transition process for those working in the oil industry today. In a statement explaining the reasons behind the action in the Vigeland Sculpture Park on Friday, the group highlights the number of new exploration licenses awarded by the Norwegian government so far this year (fifty-three) and refer to section 112 of the Norwegian constitution, the so-called environment section, which obliges the Norwegian state to ensure a healthy and good environment for its inhabitants and their descendants. The group also cites the Norwegian National Human Rights Institution (NIM) which earlier this year concluded, based on section 112, that oil exploration is unconstitutional.

The activists described The Monolith as a symbol of the consequences of climate collapse. In Skahjem’s words: “Me and my sisters at the bottom, gasping for air. Or, to be more blunt, starving to death.” When asked by Kunstkritikk if it is planning more actions targeted at artworks, Stopp Oljeletinga replied: “We cannot rule that out! Art upon art.”

Attacks on artworks in the name of the climate issue has been the subject of heated debate in Norwegian and international media during the last couple of weeks, concurrent with the Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Change Conference, which ended on Friday 18 November. The first of these attacks took place on 14 October this year when two representatives of the activist group Just Stop Oil threw a can of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s painting Sunflowers (1888) at the National Gallery in London and then glued their hands to the wall. Similar stunts have subsequently been attempted with varying degrees of success at museums around the world. Up until the attack in the Vigeland Sculpture Park, the works targeted have been protected by glass, and none are reported to have sustained damage.

Still, the actions have been strongly condemned by museum directors. An appeal from the International Council of Museums (ICOM), dated 9 November and signed by directors from museums around the world, states that the activists underestimate how vulnerable these works of art are, highlighting the need to protect them. In a press release dated 11 November, ICOM encourages climate activists to see museums as allies in order to best utilise their potential as contributors to sustainable development.

Several Norwegian museum directors, including the director of the National Museum of Norway, Karin Hindsbo, have signed the appeal from ICOM. “The National Museum opposes any attempt to harm art in our collection or cultural heritage in general, both physically and symbolically to create attention to a specific cause,” Hindsbo said in a press release after the action in the Munch room on 11 November.

In a Facebook post on the action in the Vigeland Sculpture Park, the Governing Mayor of Oslo, Raymond Johansen, stated that such conduct has no positive effect for the climate cause, but on the contrary “creates division and pushes people away.” “Throwing paint around one of Oslo’s most important cultural monuments in order to call attention to the climate issue is absolute nonsense,” wrote Johansen, who ended the post by urging the activists to “stop this silliness and instead look at how they can make a constructive contribution to what we are trying to achieve in Oslo.”

A press release from the Vigeland Museum shortly after the attack on Friday informs that most of the paint has been removed. However, Strømodden believes it is too early to say whether the sculptures have suffered permanent damage. “Fortunately, they used water-based paint, and we have been able to remove the superficial layer. However, granite is porous enough for paint to soak in. For the time being, no further in-depth restoration work has been initiated, but we will keep an eye on the affected parts of the monolith sculptures to see if further cleaning will be necessary,” he said.

Asked if he has any sympathy with the activists and what he thinks about their chosen mode of action, Strømodden said that they themselves must answer why they chose this particular approach, adding: “We humans are concerned with preserving nature, but also culture. This is an imperative.”

Washing the statues in the Vigeland Park, 18 November 2022. Photo: Javad Parsa / NTB.