Let the Games Begin

Sun and Spring in January is so overtly instrumental in its approach to art that it’s almost cute. It’s certainly comical.

Installation view from Sun and Spring in January at the Astrup Fearnley Museum. Photo: Christian Øen.

The exhibition Sun and Spring in January at the Astrup Fearnley Museum is a comedy. If this sounds like an insult, it’s not aimed at the art. Much of the art featured is funny, but never unintentionally. This major showcasing of Norwegian contemporary art is obviously not meant to be comedic on the part of the museum either. Its stated ambition – to introduce us to a “new generation of Norwegian artists and critics” – even imbues it with a certain gravitas. Offering a break from the overcrowded, geographically-based exhibitions that have been the museum’s staple to date (the United States in 2005, China in 2007, Norway in 2008, India in 2009, Brazil in 2013, Europe in 2014), the museum has on this occasion elected to show only six artists: Mercedes Mühleisen, Henrik Olai Kaarstein, Anders Holen, Miriam Hansen, Johanne Hestvold, and Constance Tenvik.

Sun and Spring in January
Anders Holen, Constance Tenvik, Henrik Olai Kaarstein, Johanne Hestvold, Mercedes Mühleisen, Miriam Hansen
Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo

The exhibition marks the culmination of the project Platform for young Norwegian art and critique, an initiative hatched by the Astrup Fearnley Museum at the request of Talent Norway, a non-profit organisation launched by the Norwegian Ministry of Culture together with Sparebankstiftelsen DNB and Cultiva in 2015. Sparebankstiftelsen DNB is a private foundation that sponsors cultural activities, and Cultiva is a public foundation with a similar mandate, established by the municipalities of Kristiansand. Talent Norway’s purpose is to promote cooperation between private donors and the cultural scene with a view to nurturing talent. The Astrup Fearnley Museum suggested putting together six trios, each consisting of one artist, one writer/critic, and one collector. The idea appears to be inspired by the ‘ecological’ approach that has become increasingly widespread in cultural policymaking in recent years. The artist needs the writer and collector and vice versa; the scene must be considered as an interconnected totality. The trios that make up the production units in Sun and Spring in January become thumbnail images of the union between capital, dissemination, and creative work that currently are the requisite conditions for art.

Henrik Olai Kaarstein’s large expanses of polyester fabric, featuring photographs of bare legs integrated with a mishmash of textiles and other miscellaneous articles like napkins and bits of carpet (all 2018), are a fitting place to start. They hang vertically from white-painted iron frames placed high up on the wall on the museum’s first floor. The legs are crossed, shown running or engaged in other athletic pursuits. The repetition of the leg motif creates an iconic effect. The large format is a natural response to the dimensions of the architectural setting, adjusting the imagery to its surroundings, but also adds a certain vulgar, almost pornographic charge – like advertising banners splicing oversized naked bodies onto commercial buildings. The legs are pictured right up to the groin, indicating genitalia just beyond the reach of our gaze. The interplay between rapid motion and the coquettish, playful, and ‘sexual’ overtones reflects the overall situation of painting in a market characterised by high speed and a demand for exposure. Performance society transforms art into an arena for the extraction of stamina and attraction. Or talent, if you like.

Still in the same room, on the floor and along the walls, we find a number of plastic mouldings based on industrial products, all courtesy of Johanne Hestvold. The title of the series is Beholder (all 2018), playing on the vaguely animating meaning of the word if one reads it in both Norwegian and English (‘beholder’ means ‘container’ in Norwegian), suggesting that these plastic shells have both vision and content. Their original function is elusive: beige shapes reminiscent of reusable ice blocks arranged in groups of four, a gaudily blue and white tray with four egg-shaped cavities, a pair of black semi-domes with small recesses mounted on the wall. The reusable ice blocks have a rough finish: material residues from the casting process run like knotty ribbons along the joints, and in several places the textured fibreglass shows through the thin layer of acrylic. One of their corners has been brutally smashed. In addition to these replica plastic products, Hestvold’s group also includes an elegant structure in birch veneer. It is reminiscent of a table, but has no top, and its legs curve out along the sides. The arrangement has spatial impact, but remains thematically cautious – a sober dialogue with the contextual conditions of abstraction and shifts in our understanding of what is artificial.

Anders Holen, I, 2019. Photo: Christian Øen.

Anders Holen’s installation (I, 2019) on the museum’s second floor features bodies in classic poses, but deformed and spliced together ​​in ways that evoke digital tools. Two sculptures, both cast in polymer plaster, have been cut in half and their upper parts switched around. Everywhere, different textures, bodies, and styles collide or merge into each other; a single body may combine parts crudely modelled out of clay and others meticulously cast from a living model. All this perverted classicism is surrounded by a number of smaller bronze casts comprising wine bottles serving as candle holders, cigarette butts, crab claws, snuff boxes, lizards, coins, beer cans, shoes. His figures have a deadness to them, and Holen’s successive moulding technique, building up the compositions layer by layer, recalls the processes of fossilisation. Cooling elements mounted around the room and a rain of small, solidified silicone drops scattered across the walls reinforce the sensation of being inside a clinical laboratory or giant freezer.

The room across from Holen’s fossils is occupied by Miriam Hansen’s eco-sensitive installation Since you rarely spoke, you were rarely wrong (2018-19). Some trolleys upholstered in white have been arranged in groups that include pots with henbane and lamps emitting a purple light. Traditionally used in herbal medicine, henbane also had a reputation for being part of witches’ rituals and having aphrodisiac properties. If not exactly erotic here, these strange little herb gardens still invite sensual engagement. A video shows parts of the installation being gently grazed by a hand that extends into the frame. One sequence shows a piece of memory foam shrink and expand, as if squeezed by an invisible hand.

A pond of water mixed with white paint set in the middle of the floor serves as a canvas for a video projection by Mercedes Mühleisen. Crust (2018) brings to mind her earlier work, where animals or amorphous figures are given human facial features and used as channels for poetry describing alternating states of dissolution and creation. An underwater motor causes the surface of the water to ripple and pulsate, beginning in the area around the mouth and spreading out across the surface, causing the animation to tremble with nauseating undulations. The words are suggested to exert a material influence on the body that speaks them. Mühleisen’s works combine an interest in surfaces and tactile sensations with distinctly literary devices. Rather than covet the precarious state she calls forth, she makes it repulsive, comical, melancholy. Stepping down into this identity-dissolving mud would require considerable resolve.

Mercedes Mühleisen, Crust (2018). Photo: Christian Øen.

Constance Tenvik has installed herself in the innermost room on the top floor, which has a large window overlooking the sea. The former tenant, Fredrik Værslev, solved the challenge posed by this invasive view by modestly squeezing just one picture into a corner of the room, letting the spectacle remain undisturbed. Tenvik takes the opposite approach, incorporating and covering the window until only a small, rounded shape remains, covered in yellow transparent plastic. Other than this, the space has been carefully remodelled into an unmistakably Tenvik-esque residence, complete with fried-egg wallpaper, naïvist paintings and drawings, verbose mind maps, colourful ready-to-wear outfits, a bed integrated into a raised floor, and a stuffed toy frog. Here, everything we need for a life of creative exertion is surrounded by an impenetrable shrubbery of cheerfully infantile ornamentation.

Tenvik’s integration of this ‘artist nursery’ into institutional architecture is a useful model for pondering the implications of the idea of art as talent development: while they are mined, the artist’s creative activities must also be shielded, nurtured, and maintained. The idea of talent gives art value by referring to the artist’s innate resources. Speaking of artists over the age of 30 as ‘talents’ is actually rather patronising, which is fitting for this endeavour. An exhibition that lacks explicit ambitions beyond that of ‘nurturing talent’ can reasonably be criticised for being curatorially banal. Or comical.

The texts in the catalogue were created on the basis of a number of studio meetings between the artists and their respective writers/critics (all of whom, it should be noted for the sake of full disclosure, are or have been affiliated with Kunstkritikk), over the year in which the exhibition was prepared. It makes for stimulating reading, but the aggregate effect is ultimately exhausting. Not because the texts are bad; but the format itself has a caricatured, contrived feel. The artists’ workshops are opened to us, processes are described in painful detail, the themes uncovered with forensic patience. In the efforts to meet the mission statement and fill the void, ‘everything’ is made visible, spelled out. Stubbornly persisting beyond what would be a natural limit, the texts are symptoms of a fear that something of value might escape. This persistent verbal speculation in art can be said to reflect Talent Norway’s ambition to increase the artist’s financial fitness.

A more sympathetic reading would see the texts’ extensive and exhaustive format as a manifestation of sympathy with the anticipatory and transformative situation evoked by the works. Mühleisen’s primordial soup animation, the chaotic strata of Holen, Kaarstein’s porn-athletic assemblages, Hansen’s hybrid biotopes, Hestvold’s oversized and misplaced plastic products, and Tenvik’s childish rumpus room all testify to processes where categories slip and slide, and new, more or less viable, subjectivities and habitats emerge from the flickering mess. This pattern of becoming and delay serves as a reminder that potential does not necessarily equal the artist’s suitability as raw material for the talent industry; it can also denote the very qualities that pit art against economic instrumentalism.

Since you rarely spoke, you were rarely wrong (2018-19). Photo: Christian Øen.