The Whole Animal

– I had to find a more sustainable way of working, says Anders Smebye. His exhibition Kraft is currently showing at 222T in Oslo.

Anders Smebye. Photo: Pernille Sandberg.

The centre piece in Anders Smebye’s current exhibition Kraft at the artist-run space 222T in Oslo is a dark brown cylinder made from a gunky gelatinous substance, gradually soaking into an untreated wooden plinth. As I browsed Smebye’s work in preparation for this interview, I had a vision of him exactly like that: a viscous liquid always in search of crevices to seep into, indiscriminately absorbing dirt and debris along the way. His will to blend and compromise was announced in the name of the space he launched with fellow artist Marius Engh back in 2005, in run-down shop premises in Oslo: Bastard. It held out for an impressive five years, and in retrospect appears to have been a cradle for the virtues that now characterise Smebye’s practice, including his penchant for unruly materials, alliances, and positions. Perhaps more importantly, it anticipated his interest in the pliability of the conditions of art’s encounter with its audience.

Smebye’s exhibition at 222T is in its final week and will conclude this Sunday with a finissage where, allegedly, Bruce Nauman will make an appearance. Always involved, but never properly at the centre of things, and performing the role of consignor of groomed objects only in passing, Smebye must be the Norwegian artist of his generation to most diligently mine the repertoire of relational aesthetics. The food performances he and Anders Dahl Monsen have carried out in recent years under the moniker Eremitten (The Hermit) – which include serving lamb kebabs from a portable grill in the shape of a wolf’s ear (Kunstnerfobundet, 2018), and an interactive crab-sandwich factory (Palmera, 2016) – are perhaps Smebye’s most explicit displays of culinary ambition to date. But the list of materials for Kraft makes no secret of this proclivity either: pork, lamb, beef, chicken, veal, carrot, parsnips, chili, juniper, etc.

His efforts in the kitchen, Smebye stresses, are not ploys to meet institutional demands for an art that compensates for its assumed redundancy by catering to primary needs. Rather, serving food is a means to encourage what he calls “collective ritual action.” If the audience is to invest more than their sense of sight, the alimentary tract must get its due. When I arrived at the café where we had agreed to meet, I found him fittingly seated next to a plastic tray containing twelve kilos of soup bones.

First, please tell me about your exhibition at 222T.

I show a sculpture made from a reduction of an animal and plant-based stock as part of 222T’s exhibition series Why Matters Matter. When you dry out reduced stock in an oven, you get a kind of thick viscous syrup that you can cool and shape. The surface of the syrup is so dark, multifaceted, and textured that it’s like looking out into the cosmos. The substance was set up on a cut log. Pictures taken during the working process formed the basis of a mural created in collaboration with Ole Jørgen Ness, who runs 222T alongside Marit Folstad. At the official opening, some of the stock was dissolved in hot water and served to the visitors with an added dash of vodka. On the final weekend, Ole Jørgen and I will talk about gut feelings, homeostasis, and the application of heat; there will also be a new stock tasting and a guest appearance by Bruce Nauman himself.

Anders Smebye, Kraft, 2019. Photo: 222T.

What does the sculpture look like?

It has no firm or absolute form. During the process, I tried to cast it as a kind of cylinder so that each successive reduction could settle like a new sedimentary layer on top of the previous one. The stock sculpture is a result of continuous stock making over the last six months; it carries imprints of whatever’s been available and of what I experienced during that time. The kitchen is more or less my studio, as it has been for four or five years. In kitchen terminology, you’ll find the Italian term cucina povera, which means ‘the poor kitchen’, used as an expression of decisiveness and pragmatism. You use whatever elements and materials are at hand. I feel it’s important to bring that process forward. It’s about using leftovers, about using every last bit of the animal. Reduction as a survival strategy. I think stock is fascinating and wanted to show it as purely and directly as possible.

The opening was ultimately less about stock tasting – even though we served up six litres! – and more about this strange matter and the space it had created, about the kind of emotions it evoked in the viewer, and not least in me. Instead of a representation, it became more of a performative object. The sculpture turned into a participant in an ongoing ecology, as an active explorer of our involvement with the natural world and its systems. Even though we have currently reached a kind of truce, a temporary consensus, it’s still in motion as we speak. It has a life of its own!

You emphasise the process and the origins of your ingredients, but your works often have a significant social component. The ingestion of intoxicating substances and foods is a recurring theme. Does this have something to do with you using the kitchen as studio?

The kitchen studio thing is mostly about making a virtue of necessity. I have worked extensively with sculpture and installation and structures for so many years, spending so much time and money and energy hauling these materials around. I simply had to find a more sustainable way of working, for my own sake and for the sake of my health. I needed to live within my means in a sense. As far as the theme of ingestion is concerned, it may be about passing a threshold, crossing a border. It can be useful to look at the so-called ‘relational’ aspects through a different lens, where the commitment inherent in a collective ritual action can give a sense of real transformation, of metamorphosis, new awareness or liberation through a sense of well-being and euphoria. Either way, I think it’s important to try to venture beyond one’s intellect occasionally, to seek out the physical, go directly for the gut, get under your skin.

Anders Smebye og Vikram Uchida-Khanna, Look (Further) Down, 2017.

Apart from food, you also work with other relational techniques. In Look (Further) Down, the project you created with Vikram Uchida-Khanna for the Norwegian Sculpture Biennial in 2017, you had to swim under a bridge to access the work.

For a while now, Vikram and I have worked together on creating a kind of shift in perspective, operating under the heading LOOK. At Sørenga [a redevelopment district in the Oslo fjord], the idea was to give plankton a voice, these tiny critters that are so important and useful in the food chain, but which we can barely see with the naked eye. In the Bronze Age, the sea level at Oslo reached right up to where Sjømannsskolenis today [on a hill overlooking the city]; you can still find marine petroglyphs hidden in the forest. We wanted to relate to this geological process of change by arranging an exhibition on the water, with luminous sculptures that derived their form from plankton and ancient petroglyphs, and where audiences had to swim out into the night and under the jetty in order to experience it. We handed out headlights and towels, a poem printed on waterproof paper, and served broth from a thermos and deep-fried squid.

The year before, we took part in the exhibition To Bee or Not to Bee at Gallery F15 in Moss, showing the installation and performance Look Down! where actors acted out monologues we had written from the perspective of a dog, three plants, and a stone. If the pooch had been granted a half hour before the UN General Assembly, what would it have said?

The interest in non-human voices is trending in philosophy and art. How do you handle the risks of affiliating with such hot topics?

Bone broth represents something genuine, authentic, but also carries with it some tricky ideological connections to the esoteric and to the alternative medicine industry. Maybe the risk is what makes it interesting. There’s certainly a complexity there which attracts me. In 2013, I made a bunch of runes in felt and metal taken from the oldest runic alphabet, the Elder Futhark, for an exhibition called Drop Shadow at Kunsthall Oslo. The project was inspired by how Beuys once said that the only thing you can’t work with is Viking runes because they have been completely ruined by the Nazis; it is impossible to pry them away from that context; they are forever embedded, symbolically and ideologically, with fascism. So I made an attempt at stripping those objects of their problematic associations by taking a very physical, material approach to the task, by bending and stretching and cutting and etching and hanging and tightening things until they were near breaking point, on the verge of collapse. That’s sort of my take on this as well: is it possible to use bone stock as a tool for talking about something bigger, while at the same time shedding certain connotations, both negative and positive, letting the object play out the problem on its own terms?

Anders Smebye, Drop Shadow, 2013.

Beuys’s blend of politics and the esoteric seems topical. Artists are increasingly preoccupied with practices of witchcraft and magic, combined with explicitly political agendas. How do you relate to the idea of the artist as an activist-shaman?

I’m not too eager about diagnosing contemporary art, but I suppose you could say that there’s quite a lot of mannerism out there. There’s this urge to recreate something based on what you have seen and heard rather than on what you have truly understood. I feel that Beuys is at the other end of the scale. His sincerity and seriousness were often combined with humour and satire. He played with the serious, with the gravitas of the political, without losing sight of what was important. Through the development of a corporal discursive practice, he gave himself a wide scope for action that allowed him to take on different roles in public. The playfulness, perceptiveness, and clarity of his work makes him timeless and unique, I think.

How does this atemporal quality of Beuys manifest itself?

It manifests itself in matter. For me, there’s a clear and significant charge to the wedge of fat that Beuys made, Fettecke [Fat Corner, 1969]. But if you set that up against a cup of coffee, for example, then I think the charge and significance contained in one object, in the coffee, will be very obvious to most, while the meaning of the fat is more inscrutable; you have to get involved with the matter to get something out of it, delve into it somehow, relinquish control and surrender. You could also dismiss it as worthless, as something the cleaning lady takes out when she tidies up the gallery for the night. I wrote quite a lot about such things in my collection of poems, Flikkflakk gjennom Flick [Flick-flack Through the Flick, Lord Jim Publishing, 2016], which was an attempt to describe the cracks and gaps that appear between artistic intention and audience expectations.

So in order to access this ‘charge’, you need to invest?

That’s how I feel, yes. Even an outright attack on an artwork can be a valuable interaction which can revitalise the object and its place in the world, make it step out from the shadows – a kind of revival. Smithson talked about this in Some Void Thoughts on Museums [Arts Magazine, 1967]. As the object enters the museum, it withers and dies and remains only useful as a symbol of the institution’s power and status. Can we revive our own relationship with the object through various forms of collective and personal involvement? Then the object can be resurrected as a kind of Frankenstein’s creature, an unstable construction, a living dead thing, but with newfound autonomy and relevance.

Eremitten (Anders Smebye og Anders Dahl Monsen), Kloa, 2016.

Food art represents a strange alliance between eventification and critique. It replaces the contemplative viewer with the collective, but at the same time risks brutalising its audience.

Yes, absolutely. There’s a tension there, an interesting paradox that says something about the discomfort of contemporary art in its interaction with event culture and institutional opening parties. Working with Anders Dahl Monsen under the name Eremitten, I try to stand right in the middle of this artistic-culinary soup by offering performative servings of conceptual food prepared on handmade kitchen sculptures. At the artist-run gallery Palmera in Bergen in 2018, we presented KLOA, a seafood cracker placed next to barrels full of cooked crab claws, home-brewed dill-flavoured beer, a mound of bread, jars of mayonnaise, and specially designed food wrappings. The audience had to contribute their joint muscle power to crush the shells and access the treats. The name Eremitten [The Hermit, as in hermit crab] is a punning reference to the nomadic state of artists, constantly changing their shells, and hopefully we inject some self-irony, confusion, and absurdity into this weird alliance.

Does the irony signal a sceptical attitude towards the institution?

Well, when you constantly try to problematise and criticise the very space you are helping to reinforce, in a reactive never-ending dance, a certain fatigue sets in after a while. It is like when children run away from home and end up camping at the bottom of the garden and coming in for dinner when they get hungry. In that sense, I guess my practice is in a kind of perpetual flux, alternating between distance and proximity, constantly seeking new forms of evasion. And when I see that my current evasions are no longer working, I just move my tent to another spot in the garden! [Laughs.]

Anders Smebye. Photo: Pernille Sandberg.